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Martin Luther King, Jr. on Shattered Dreams and Unfulfilled Hopes

As has become my tradition on our national day to remember Martin Luther King, Junior, I went through The King Center Archive for some bit of text that I was previously unfamiliar with. I came across some notes for a sermon on Shattered Dreams and Unfulfilled Hopes.

Dr. King writes about the apostle Paul, writes quite movingly about Paul’s desire to go to Spain, “the edge of the then known world” and to visit, on his way, the Christian community in Rome, “the capital city of the world”. Paul will be martyred in Rome. He will not live to see belief in the Divinity and Grace of Jesus spread throughout Europe and the whole world. “He spent his days in that ancient city in a little prison cell, held captive because of his daring faith in Jesus Christ. And Paul was never able to walk the dusty roads of Spain…”

These are notes that were eventually written into a full sermon that Dr. King delivered in 1959, in the strong youth of his movement. It’s an excellent sermon, as you might expect. Here, a quote from that finished sermon:

We come to the point of seeing that no matter how long we pray for them sometimes, and no matter how long we cry out for a solution to our problems, no matter how much we desire it, we don’t get the answer. The only answer that we get is a fading echo of our desperate cry, of our lonely cry. So we find Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane praying that the cup would be removed from him. But he has to drink it with all of its bitterness and all of its pain. We find Paul praying that the thorn would be removed from his flesh, but it is never removed, and he is forced to go all the way to the grave with it. And so in this text, we find Paul wanting to go to Spain with a, for a noble purpose, to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ to Spain. Paul never gets to Spain. He ends up in Rome, not as a free man but as a man in prison. This is the story of life. In so many instances, it becomes the arena of unrealized dreams and unfulfilled hopes, frustration with no immediate solution in the environment.

I’m just saying, the man could preach.

He returned to the theme near the end of his life, in another powerful sermon in 1968, starting from the text 1 Kings 8:18, “And the LORD said unto David my father, Whereas it was in thine heart to build an house unto my name, thou didst well that it was in thine heart.” That sermon is very different in tone; Dr. King sounds surprisingly old for a man who is not yet forty. At that time, he is telling people that the important thing is to be on the right road, even if they will not arrive at their destination. But in this earlier sermon he is asking: what do you do when the road is closed?

He lays out three paths. The first is to become bitter and mean, to blame the world and the circumstances that kept you from going to Spain, that kept you locked in a cell in Rome. To respond to the shattering of a dream by hating the thing that shattered it, and by hating everything else, too—to carry the grudge to the whole world. The second path is to withdraw from the world, to seal yourself off by indifference from the pain of a shattered dream. Not to hate the world but to deny it.

In the notes where I first came across this sermon, Dr. King has got almost to the end of the page. He had lettered the first two alternatives a and b and then almost at the bottom of the page, he writes:

c. The final alternative is creative. It involves the exercise of a great and creative will.

c. The final alternative is creative. It involves the exercise of a great and creative will.

The last eight words are squeezed in at the bottom of the paper, their ascending ts touching the line above. There is no more room on the paper.

In still another version of this sermon, this one written for the collection Strength to Love, he writes of the ability to transform life’s thorns into a crown. “How familiar is the experience of longing for Spain and settling for a Roman prison, and how less familiar the transforming of the broken remains of a disappointed expectation into opportunities to serve Gd’s purpose!” He writes that we think of peace as what happens when we reach the Spain of our dreams, but that the true peace, the peace that passeth all understanding, is the peace that we feel even when our dreams are shattered, the inner calm in the middle of a reality of destruction and disappointment. But while that sermon is a wonderful sermon, a finished and powerful inspiration, I happen to like the one I first saw, with those last few words squeezed in to the bottom edge of the paper. In the published and recorded sermons, he tries to show us the way, but in this one he only can say, before he runs out of space and time, that the way exists.

Today, January Sixteenth, 2017, today there are a lot of us who felt, perhaps, that we were going to get to Spain; that we were going to reach some great national or international or total human goal. There are a lot of us who have spent two months wanting to know what to do with our shattered dreams and unfulfilled hopes. It is an altogether good thing to turn to Martin Luther King, Jr to ask: what does one do under such circumstances? And to be told: the way of hatred and bitterness is not the way. The way of indifference and denial is not the way. But the way of love, his way, that way requires a great and creative will. And it is the nature of a creative alternative that he cannot tell us what it is. He cannot give it to us. It was not there yet for him to describe in 1959 or 1968; it is not there yet for me to describe it to you, if I had that gift. It must be created. It must always be created. The answer is in the act of creating a new path, new dreams to be newly shattered and ourselves to be forced, again, to choose to create a new path, a path of love and acceptance and hope.

Let that unfinished draft be our inspiration this year. Let his unfinished life, the unfinished movement that he has come to personify, and the entire unfinished business of America be in our own unfinished hearts. Affirm, with me, that there can be alternatives, and let us dedicate ourselves to creating them.

…and cramming them into that last bit of paper we have left.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

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