A Dream Denied

A Dream Denied

There is a particular pain in chances never given – a grief for the untried. For some of us, it can be harder than the pain of failure or the grief of loss.

“I never even got to try.”

It’s particularly galling when you deserved the the opportunity, but it was others less deserving who got the chance. Life, it turns out, rarely metes out opportunities based on the wherewithal to do something with them. It just doesn’t work that way.

And so the chance you long for is denied, and you never even get to try, to see if what you’re capable of doing can live up to all you know you can do deep in your heart.

The thing you’re made for passes by without stopping for you.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Perhaps different sorts of dreams may do all of these things. Maybe some more than one.

A chance never given, this is what’s hardest for me. It clings to me. It will not let me go.

My question is different from Langston Hughes’: what do you do with a dream deferred? With the chance never given? The one that clings like a pleading child to my legs, hungry with persistent passion for this thing that every fiber of my being recognizes. And I have no power to give it to her.

What do you do with a dream denied? The one that will not stop speaking, singing to me from behind that door which is closed and barred to me? (Such a beautiful song. Such a painful song.)

What do you do with a dream denied?

Unmake it? Unmask?
Dissect
and from component parts
piece together another creature?
Will it live again?
Breathe? Move?
What about the beating heart?
Can it be another thing?
Itself take another shape?

Or will it die
and part of me with it?

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Advent and the World Turned Upside Down

Advent and the World Turned Upside Down

Mary was a girl, a young woman, from a working class family in a small Jewish town in the backwater of the Roman Empire.  As an unmarried girl in a country under military occupation, she was the most vulnerable of people, but she was no shrinking violet.

When the Angel Gabriel tells her she will have a child – the Messiah and promised leader of his people, she asks questions first: “How exactly is that going to work?” When she says yes, her assent is not merely submissive obedience. She is a full participant, agreeing to put her body and life on the line for the freedom of her people.

Mary has never known a world at peace. Revolution has been brewing longer than she can remember as the Jews grow increasingly discontent under the power of Rome and her representatives. And Mary knows she has been asked to be the mother of their deliverer.

Like many a young unwed mother, Mary travels to spend time with relatives out of town. Maybe she was trying to get away from gossiping neighbors, or her family’s disappointment and struggles to believe her story – “So an angel told you God was going to make you pregnant????” Whatever she faced at home, it couldn’t have been easy.

But when she arrives at her cousin Elizabeth’s, she doesn’t even have to tell them her story. The miracle baby Elizabeth herself is carrying after decades of barrenness leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth knows: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”

And Mary responded with a song of relief and rejoicing. Her song of praise – her “Magnificat” – expresses far more than her sense of honor at being chosen by God:

“God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,” she sings,

“and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.”

Mary is singing a song of revolution, a song of reversals, of God turning the way things are on their head!

The powerful will be cast down, and those without power raised up. The hungry will be satisfied, and the wealthy will go hungry. As John, “the voice crying out in the wilderness,” will proclaim, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain made low.” The prophet Isaiah provided those words, and these:

God will “provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”

In Mary’s song and John’s prophetic work, God’s kingdom is proclaimed as a kingdom that turns the way things are upside down!

Mary knew, and we know, that doesn’t happen peacefully. The powerful are rather attached to their thrones and not inclined to give them up without a fight. And the rich protect their wealth and security. We don’t want to give up the power, influence, and resources we have. We fight to protect them. But…

The valleys will be lifted up and the mountains laid low.

The powerful will be cast down and the powerless raised up.

The poor will be filled and the rich will go hungry.

When you hear those things, does your heart flinch a little in fear? Mine does. As much as I want to think I’m on Jesus and Mary’s side in this, I’m afraid of all I have to lose when the world turns upside down.

The Holy Spirit’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I heard that a lot growing up in church. The thing is, I don’t think anybody neatly fits into either category most of the time.

I was talking to a friend recently who, after being well-off most of his life, really struggles to make ends meet these days. He works at Trader Joe’s, and told me recently about a young couple who came through his check-out line. They were clearly wealthy – he recognized designer clothes and tastefully expensive jewelry. But they were quietly arguing and she was trying to hide tears. “Sure, they have money,” he said, “but they’re suffering in ways I know nothing about, and I’ve never known anyone who isn’t.”

I think he’s right. Most of the time, each of us are comfortable in ways and truly afflicted in other ways. We have a good job, but our marriage is struggling. Our kids are doing great, but our parents are suffering. And if we have a season when everything is going well, an illness comes, or an unexpected death, and suddenly our lives are turned upside down.

We’re all going to need comforting – and Jesus came for that. He brings good news to the oppressed, binds up the brokenhearted, gives the oil of gladness instead of mourning.

But that flinch of fear in my heart, that clinch in my stomach, when I hear that God is in the business of turning the way things are on their head. That feeling? That tells us where we’re comfortable. Where we feel threatened by God’s work in the world.

Don’t shuffle that feeling off to the side. Don’t try to silence it with justifications. Sit with it this Advent and Christmas. Listen to it. Let it make us uncomfortable. Let it show us how we can best join in God’s business of turning the way the world works on its head.

Recognize the power you have and use it on behalf of those who don’t have; or better yet, share it with them. Share the wealth and resources you have with those who don’t have much. Choose to let the heart of God turn your world upside down.

In agreeing to be the mother of Jesus, Mary put her heart and body on the front lines of her people’s fight to overthrow the power of the Roman Empire and turn their world upside down, and God had even more in mind for her son than she knew. Mary had a choice – she could’ve turned away. She could have protected her reputation and the possibility of a normal, uneventful life.

But Mary said yes to God and his plan to turn the way the world is on its head, whatever it cost her. What will we say?

Advent in the Dark

Advent in the Dark

It’s dark.

The days keep getting shorter, and what daylight we have in Chicago is often cloudy and gray.

Advent – the four weeks leading up to Christmas – is always that way (at least in the northern hemisphere). The nights creep ever earlier, dawn ever later, and we live more and more in the dark.

“In the dark” – it means we don’t know what’s happening or what happens next. It’s a lot like the centuries before Jesus came in Israel, and even after he came. They were in the dark. A people struggling to live under empires that could’ve cared less about them. Promised something more, they had no idea where it would come from, what it would look like. Their heroes kept failing them, and for the most part, their hopes got it wrong.

The world seems pretty dark to a lot of people these days, too. Full of fear and uncertainty and instability and failed heroes.

We celebrate Advent with the beautiful words: hope, peace, love, joy. We celebrate Advent like we know what comes next. But the kicker is, they didn’t. And beyond the words of the Christmas story, neither do we.

Advent is about confusion. Living in the dark. Finding enough light to keep living, nonetheless.

The pregnant teenager with no good explanation. The kid hiding their reality in a closet, terrified of how their family and community would respond if they knew. The un- and under-employed, stuck in a system that seems determined to keep them there. The persistently single, longing for a chance to get excited about someone. The refugee longing for a peaceful life when the world has crumbled out from under them.

We live most of our lives in the dark, and it rarely feels safe. So much haunts us there – fears of the past, fears of the future, fears for tonight.

So we light candles of longing, candles of coping, sometimes candles of change. Candles that defy the dark with kindness, generosity, solidarity, risk.

We tell ourselves and each other stories – stories we can’t be sure will be true, but we offer them in hope anyway. We create paths of flickering light with our words, like luminaries in the night that may lead to a bonfire on the beach with something warm to drink, a sweet bread to savor, and others with stories to share.

We look for those flickering lights to lead us to each other, and maybe that’s the only hope we really have in the dark.