A Dream in the Heart

Rev. Josh Pawelek

winter scenePeople “cannot continue long to live if the dream in the heart has perished. It is then that they stop hoping, stop looking, and the last embers of their anticipations fade away”[1]—a potent message—perhaps a warning—from the twentieth-century, Christian mystic, Howard Thurman. People “cannot continue long to live if the dream in the heart has perished.  It is then that they stop hoping.”

Hope is our December ministry theme.  Hope and December go hand-in-hand. There’s nothing like this dark mid-winter season to engender in us quiet reflection on hope. There’s nothing like this dark mid-winter season to call forth from us expressions—poems, songs, carols, prayers, stories—of hope.

I’ve talked about hope in past sermons very simply as a positive orientation toward the future, which it certainly is. But that definition doesn’t feel sufficient to me this morning. There are potentially many reasons, both personal and global—I’ll name some through the course of this sermon—reasons that could lead us to conclude a positive orientation toward the future is not justified, or at least unrealistic. I want to push back against that conclusion, and start with a different kind of claim: hope is a capacity inherent in us, inherent in human beings. We might call this the “Emily Dickinson” version of hope, recalling her famous words: “Hope” is the thing with feathers— / That perches in the soul— / And sings the tune without the words— / And never stops—at all.[2]  This idea appeals to me because, if it’s true, if hope is inherent in us like a bird perched in the soul, then in those moments when we experience a loss of hope, we have reason to trust that the loss is not permanent. Even when we feel we have nowhere else to turn, we can turn to ourselves, we turn to what Thurman calls “the inward parts,” and begin to dream again.

When I say hope is inherent in us, I’m not suggesting it is a biological phenomenon. If nothing else, I suspect it lives deep in our cultural DNA. As I said in my December newsletter column, I suspect our ancient ancestors—especially those in the northern latitudes—experienced winter as a challenging, frightening and difficult time, a dark time, a cold time, a hunger time, a worry time, an anxiety time: will we survive? The return of the sun at the winter solstice—that moment of the planet tilting back on its axis, of the great wheel of the earth turning—that moment, every year, must have been inspiring, must have generated profound hope—the days are getting longer now; we’re going to make it! Hundreds of generations later, we inherit that ancient hopefulness.

No wonder the December holiday stories are so enduring and endearing. No wonder their hopefulness still speaks to so many of us thousands of years after they were first written. I’m referring to the story of Hanukah, the festival of lights, which begins this coming Tuesday evening: the cleansing of the sacred spaces, one day’s supply of oil providing lamp-light for eight, the re-dedication of the temple. And I’m referring to the story of Christmas, which Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner described last Sunday as the “tale of a world waiting for hope, for joy, for the coming of the babe who would bring peace, hold the powerful to account and ‘lift up the lowly.’”[3] As these stories return to us each December, as they reverberate through our lives during these days of waning sunlight, those of us who learned them first as children—and even those of us who didn’t—we feel the hopefulness in them. These stories, along with our various holiday rituals—decorating Christmas trees,  decorating our homes, hanging evergreens, preparing special foods, sending greeting cards, lighting lights, lighting the menorah, tickets to “The Nutcracker,” “A Christmas Carol,”—all of it has the power to move us from sad to joyful, exhausted to energized, fearful to courageous, angry to peaceful and despairing to hopeful. These stories and rituals awaken and give voice to that ancient inheritance, that hopefulness inherent in us.

winter sceneAnd it surely needs awakening. We may have an inherent capacity for hope, but it is also part of the human condition to lose hope at times. We know there is much in our lives that has the power to obscure our capacity for hope—to blunt it, weaken it, bury it deep: a difficult diagnosis, a debilitating medical treatment, a mental illness, a lost job, a loss of memory, grief at the death of a loved-one, grief at estrangement from a loved-one, a troubling addiction, a struggling child. Any time we encounter situations like these, it is possible we will slip into depression or despair, possible our motivation will fail, possible we’ll lose hope.

We know also there is much in the wider world that has this same power to separate us from hope: a raging virus, an endless war, an emerging terrorist state, growing poverty, and sign after sign of coming, catastrophic climate change. I think it’s fair to say nobody escapes this life without encountering reasons to lose hope. For some these reasons come in more or less manageable doses; for others they are pervasive and debilitating. Either way, each of us has reasons from time to time not to greet the day with hope in our hearts. Or, in Howard Thurman’s words, to “lose the significance of living.”[4]

Two assaults on hope are weighing on me in this moment. This morning marks the painful two-year anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. If there was ever a day in recent memory to lose hope, it was that day, Friday, December 14, 2012. The recognition that one human being could wreak so much havoc on innocents, could cause such enormous suffering—for no discernable reason—was utterly heart-breaking, chilling, numbing, overwhelming. Sixty miles away from the atrocity, I remember feeling physically ill. I couldn’t eat. I dreaded having to tell my children what had happened, but felt I had to before they heard about it from someone else. I remember feeling disgust, anger, helplessness. All of this added up to hopelessness, an inability to access that inherent capacity for hope. For a moment, I think, the nation lost hope, lost the significance of living. What could any of us possibly do to alleviate that pain? What change in the law, what change in our communities, what change in our hearts could possibly heal the wounds of that day? Newtown is no longer front-page news, but as a nation we are still grappling with its meaning, still wondering what dream we ought to be dreaming.

This morning I am also mindful of the anger and rage surging in the nation in response to grand juries in Staten Island, NY and Ferguson, MO who found insufficient evidence to indict police officers who killed unarmed black men in July and August. When we take the time to understand these grand jury decisions in the context of longstanding patterns of police violence in many communities of color across the nation, and when we understand these patterns in the context of ongoing institutional racism in the United States that results in a well-documented race-based wealth gap, a health-gap, an employment gap, a housing gap, an incarceration gap, an education gap—when we take the time to understand, to bear witness, to grasp just how enormous these problems are—it begins to make sense that many people—people of all racial identities—would lose hope, would lose the significance of living, would feel despair, would become angry and full of rage. As a nation we are once again grappling openly with race and racism, and many are wondering what dream we ought to be dreaming.

Again, there are potentially many reasons, both personal and global, for us to conclude that a positive orientation toward the future is not justified, or at least not realistic. We may have an innate capacity for hope, but we also lose hope. Given this, how do we get it back? How do we get back to that part of ourselves that is innately hopeful? In trying to answer this question, I stumbled across the work of the popular researcher/social worker/storyteller, Brené Brown. In her 2010 book, The Gifts of Imperfection, she says “I was shocked to discover that hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process. Emotions play a supporting role, but hope is really a thought process made up of [a] trilogy of goals, pathways, and agency.” She says hope happens when “1) we have the ability to set realistic goals (I know where I want to go); 2) we are able to figure out how to achieve those goals, including the ability to stay flexible and develop alternative routes (I know how to get there, I’m persistent, and I can tolerate disappointment and try again); and 3) we believe in ourselves (I can do this!).”[5] Her research shows that people who work hard, who are persistent, who are able to tolerate failure, who are willing and able to struggle for what they believe in, are more hopeful than people who don’t work hard and who give up easily. Tenacious people are hopeful people.

She is particularly concerned that our society is no longer teaching the values of hard work, persistence and tolerance for failure to our children, which is precisely what they need to become not only successful but hopeful adults. Interestingly, given her findings, Brown doesn’t think hope is inherent in us. She loves that Emily Dickinson poem, but she calls it “romantic,” says it doesn’t tell us anything useful about what hope actually is. For Brown, hope is a thought process that we can learn and teach to others. 

Here’s one of Brenae Brown’s lectures on hope:

 

Winter SceneThis is important. I love the idea that hope is learnable and teachable, and it strikes me that church ought to be all about the learning and teaching of hope! But my sense is that Brown’s research looks more at people who are successful in school and work settings, and isn’t quite as focused on people in the midst of existential crises, crises where life and death are at stake, crises that call into question the meaning of our existence—patients hearing the news they have a fatal disease; spouses living with grief after their beloved has died unexpectedly; teenagers contemplating suicide after relentless bullying;  soldiers serving in war zones; refugees fleeing across borders, freezing, starving in unfamiliar wilderness; prisoners incarcerated for non-violent crimes; people living in poverty; pro-democracy activists confronting the tyranny of violent, authoritarian regimes; communities responding to police shootings of citizens; communities torn apart by gun violence—whether mass shootings or gang shootings; anyone contemplating the fragility of the earth, the burgeoning climate crisis, the great disruption; anyone wondering how on earth they can make a difference when the problems we face seem so insurmountable. In response to existential crises, Brown’s trilogy of goals, approaches and agency, in my humble opinion, isn’t enough. When people are in the midst of such crises—wrestling with life and death, wrestling with meaning, wrestling with suffering—often the suggestion that they ought to “set an achievable goal” won’t make any sense, won’t be helpful. In such situations people need a different kind of presence, a different kind of guidance. Sometimes the stakes are such that people don’t have the luxury of failure.

I’m crossing a line here from the sociological to the spiritual. Before we set goals to move forward from whatever crisis we find ourselves in, before we can act, fail, adjust, try again, even before we can believe in ourselves, there’s a prior moment of recognition, which for me is the spiritual moment at the heart of our response to any existential crisis—the moment when we imagine a different outcome, the moment when we imagine a different life—a meaningful life—the moment when we imagine a different world—a peaceful world, a just world, a fair world, a loving world, a sustainable world—the moment when we turn our hearts and our bodies toward that different, meaningful life, toward that different, better world. I’m not sure we can emerge from any existential crisis without that moment of imagining. It’s the moment when we return to our capacity for hope. Howard Thurman calls it “the dream in the heart.” He says, “the dream is the quiet persistence in the heart that enables [people] to ride out the storms of their churning experiences…. It is the ever-recurring melody in the midst of the broken harmony and harsh discords of human conflict.”[6] And it doesn’t live somewhere beyond us. It lives within us. Thurman writes: “The dream is no outward thing. It does not take its rise from the environment in which one moves or functions. It lives in the inward parts, it is deep within, where the issues of life and death are ultimately determined.”[7]

winter sceneThis dream in the heart, this ability to imagine—this is the source of hope. It may recede in response to crisis—we may feel hopeless—but this capacity for hope never leaves us. The sun returns at the darkest time of year. And we can always return to our dreaming. It may not be realistic. There may be no rational way to justify it, but as long as we have a dream in our heart, we will be hopeful people. In this holiday season, and in all seasons, in response to all the crises we face, both personal and global, may we keep alive the dream in hearts. May we imagine a different, meaningful life. May we imagine a different, better world. May we hope. And then, may we get to work.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thurman, Howard, “Keep Alive the Dream in the Heart,” in Fluker, Walter E., and Tumber, Catherine, eds., A Strange Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) p. 304.

[2] Dickinson, Emily, “Hope” is the thing with feathers – (314). See: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171619.

[3] Joiner, Rev. Megan Lloyd, “In the Waiting Time,” a sermon preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, December 7, 2014. See: http://uuse.org/in-the-waiting-time/#.VIii2SvF-Sp.

[4] Thurman, Howard, “Keep Alive the Dream in the Heart,” in Fluker, Walter E., and Tumber, Catherine, eds., A Strange Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) p. 304. 

[5] Brown, Brené, The Blessings of Imperfection (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010). This particular quote can be found on Hazelden Publishing’s “Behavioral Health Evolution” website at http://www.bhevolution.org/public/cultivating_hope.page.  An excellent, short video of Brené Brown lecturing on her understanding of hope is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJo4qXbz4G4.

[6] Thurman, Howard, “Keep Alive the Dream in the Heart,” in Fluker, Walter E., and Tumber, Catherine, eds., A Strange Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) p. 305.

[7] Thurman, Howard, “Keep Alive the Dream in the Heart,” in Fluker, Walter E., and Tumber, Catherine, eds., A Strange Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) p. 305.