Are you a dreamer, or are you a complainer?
Today our nation celebrates a dreamer named Martin Luther King, Jr. His speech given at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, is commonly known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. But that wasn’t his original title. His original title was “Normalcy, Never Again.” In fact, the words “I have a dream” weren’t part of his original manuscript that day. He’d spoken that refrain at two other speeches earlier that year in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and Detroit, Michigan. But when he stood at the podium in Washington, D.C., those weren’t the words he planned to say.
Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson was sitting behind Dr. King that day as he struggled to find words to connect with his audience. “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” she called to him. He heard her, and so he did. He told them about the dream, and the dream captured hearts and history.
Reflecting on Dr. King’s words fifty years later, in 2013 Jim Wallis, founder and editor of Sojourners magazine, observed there was another phrase missing from Dr. King’s speech. It was the phrase, “I have a complaint.” Wallis continued, “There was much to complain about for black Americans, and there is much to complain about today for many in this nation. But King taught us that our complaints or critiques, even our dissent, will never be the foundation of social movements that change the world – but dreams always will. Just saying what is wrong will never be enough to change the world. You have to lift up a vision of what is right.”
Do you have a dream, or do you have a complaint?
There’s a culture of complaint that threatens to draw us into its bitter current. Think about the last informal social gathering of which you were a part – standing around the coffee pot at work or the lunch line at school, sitting in the stands watching your kid’s basketball game, waiting in a grocery store line, or engaging in a social media thread. Odds are the conversation around you involved some kind of complaint. The demands of your boss or teacher. The length of the line. Even during celebratory events like National Championships or play-off games, which tends to generate more dialogue – an amazing pass by the quarterback or one lousy call by the referee?
Even in the church….In early November 2001, I was serving as the youth director of a church in Virginia, when the pastor received a letter of complaint against him and the Session that was signed by about 100 members out of a 1,000+-member congregation. When we traced back the letter to when it started, based on how long it would take to write it and generate that many signatures, it would have been roughly mid-September 2001. 9/11, when everything around us seemed unsafe and out of control.
In my experience, when everything around us seems unsafe and out of control, we tend to turn against the one place that should be safe and within our control, and we tend to point fingers at and try to figure out who’s to blame for all of our problems.
Why is our natural inclination to gravitate toward complaint?
Once at a national meeting of college student-service professionals, a dean of students was leading a workshop, talking about things he’d learned on the job. He was remarking on the fact that, wherever you go in American higher education, there’s one gripe you’re certain to hear from the student body. It’s about the food in the dining hall.
Since part of his job was to make the lives of students more comfortable, the dean shared how over the years he’d convened many university committees to improve their campus’ food quality. They polled the student body to find out what students wanted, and they made improvements accordingly. The food got better and better every semester. Yet, over all those years, the dean observed a strange phenomenon: the students never stopped complaining about the food.
“I have a theory of why that is,” he explained to his colleagues. “When a group of students comes together from all over the country, from many different income levels and ethnic backgrounds and religious creeds, who are majoring in everything from poetry to organic chemistry, there’s one topic of common interest any student can raise with any other, and it’s sure to get a sympathetic hearing. It’s the subject of how bad the food is. The food doesn’t even have to be bad for students to complain about it. Because it’s not about the food. It’s about the deeply felt human need for community.”
A culture of complaint is a quick and dirty way to build community. But it’s a false unity. It has no staying power. Once the novelty and emotion around that particular complaint dwindles, people will move on to another complaint. Because there’s never a shortage of complainers.
It doesn’t take a lot of courage to complain. That’s the popular and easy way out. It does take a lot of courage to dream. It takes a lot of courage to dream, even if it might be lonely or cost you something – even if it might cost you everything for the sake of others.
Joseph was a dreamer (Genesis 37:5-20.) I’m an only child, so I can only partially understand this scenario. But for those of you who have younger siblings, how would you respond if your baby brother or sister were to say, “Hey! I dreamt we’re all sheaves of wheat, and suddenly my sheaf is going to rise up, and all of you little sheaves are going to bow down to my sheaf”? Or, “Hey, I dreamt the sun, moon, and all you eleven stars bowed down to me”? I’d imagine his brothers would want to slap Joseph upside the head and make him see stars.
His brothers’ vision was myopic: “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?”
Joseph’s vision, on the other hand, wasn’t myopic, but cosmic. He had the courage to dream of a different world, even if it meant temporarily his world was the pits.
If we keep on reading in Genesis, we find that Joseph endured the pit. He endured Egypt, from finding favor in his master’s eyes to finding himself in prison…to later finding that his willingness to hear and respond to a dream was what got him out of prison.
And later still, in a time of terrible famine, his brothers came to this Egyptian bureaucrat, begging for food (thus fulfilling the dream they’d once found so offensive), and Joseph responded, not with judgment, but with compassion: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50:20).
How do you know if your dreams are of God? Joseph’s words pretty much sum it up.
There have been some political words said this week that have caused me to consider my own words – how I speak of other peoples, other nations. Over the past few years and especially this week, I’ve thought a lot about my words – how flippantly I speak of first-world problems or third-world countries, as if there were one, two, three, or more worlds. Or how important pronouns are: which do I use more – “me and I” or “us and we”?
The book which defines my life, the Bible, says there isn’t one, two, three, or more worlds – there is one world. There isn’t us vs. them – there is just us, all of us, God’s children, together. And if my dreams only benefit me and my world, not the common good and the world, then chances are they are not of God.
I’ve certainly been among the complainers and the scoffers. I can be as snarky as the snarkiest of us. Even with this Dopey Challenge in which I participated last week and which I attribute to a long run a while back. We’re told to do our long runs at a conversational pace. I say I did that long run at too conversational of a pace because, somehow at the end of the run/conversation, I’d basically agreed to sign up for the Chicago Marathon and the Dopey Challenge.
In all seriousness, I’m grateful for that conversation. My reaction to the Dopey Challenge before had always been, “A 5K on Thursday, a 10K on Friday, a half marathon on Saturday, a full marathon on Sunday? And then what – knee surgery on Monday?”
In response, one of my running partners said, “Yeah…but what if? What if we could do it?”
“But what if?” Those are the words of dreamers, not complainers. Those who see the world, not as it is, but as it could be.
I heard someone say once, “If your preaching doesn’t make you want to have a getaway car waiting for you at the exit doors, you’re not trying hard enough.” The same could be said of us and our dreams. If our dreams don’t leave us shaking in our boots, then we’re not dreaming hard enough.
Our playing safe will not change the world. Our complaining won’t change the world. At a more basic level than that, our complaining betrays the joy we have in the Lord. Our complaining begs the question of whether we believe the good news is really good and whether we trust that nothing is impossible with God.
Our willingness to dream, on the other hand, shows that, no matter how wild our dreams, there’s no need for us to shake in our boots, for even in our wildest, craziest, most infinite dreams, God’s dreams are wilder, crazier, and more infinite still. From Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, “Now to him who by the power at work within you is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” – or dream, as some translations say.
The good news that is truly good is: God is bigger than we ever dreamed, and we can’t out-dream God.
“Tell them about the dream.” That is still our call today. Among the words Dr. King spoke almost 55 years ago, he quoted from the prophet Isaiah, saying, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
Tell the world about that dream, and trust God to do abundantly far more. And to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.