Sunday Sermon – 6 May 2018

Wishes, Dreams and Visions

It was Goethe, the German poet, writer, playwright, philosopher who said, “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Judy Garland, less profoundly, and in less portentous language sang, “It doesn’t matter who you are, when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.”

Someone, I can’t recall who, opined, “A man has more fun wishing for the things he hasn’t got than enjoying the things he has got”.

Goethe got it absolutely right, Judy Garland was partly right, and my unknown cynic, in my opinion, merited the McEnroe rebuke, “You cannot be serious.”

We all do it. Whether it is dreaming of a white Christmas, idly imagining that the long forgotten relative has died leaving us a fortune in his will, or waking up to discover we haven’t scored the winning goal in the cup final, neither have we been feted by the cheering crowds for our brave, selfless deeds which saved the nation. It was all but a dream. I suppose there is a short-term pleasant feeling when one is in the “if only” mood, but that is an ephemeral delight. The awakening to reality bursts the bubble.

Housman writes of the drunkard rolling home from Ludlow fair.

And down in lovely muck I’ve lain,
Happy ‘til I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet’
Nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.

Yes, wishes, castles on cloud-cuckoo-mountain, all come with a health warning reading, Beware of the rude awakening. “If only” implies a further conclusion, “not a chance”. It is a fiction in a non-fiction world.

As with many of the everyday words we use, wishing can have a number of definitions, and within those definitions, subtleties of meaning. Wishing might be a forlorn desire for the impossible or unattainable, a sort of escapism from reality, or it may be a desire firmly grounded on determination. It was once pointed out to me by a wise man, in fact a bishop, that there are short-term wishes, which are often about the trivial, and also longer-term wishes linked to serious aims. The latter may be more properly described as dreams and visions. I will return to that thought in a minute.

A further peril connected with wishes is the paradox; the wish might come true and prove to be not what we wanted at all. Unforeseen, unpleasant consequences may follow from the realisation of our flight of fancy. A fair slice of literature uses this theme, in fairy tale, legend, novel or play. King Midas is just one example among a host of tales showing that the wish come true can turn from dream to nightmare. All he touched might turn to riches, but at the cost of destroying those things whose value is beyond gold. In real life, examples abound of a desire achieved turning into a disaster in the making. The lottery winner whose overnight fortune led to grief rather than contentment, the promotion at work that was a step too far, leading to despair, the new life in a new town or land that became a desert of loneliness and gave birth to a longing to turn back the clock.

Just as the words could, would, should, can, may, might are frequently used carelessly, as if they all more or less meant the same thing, so what I see as a clear distinction between wish, dream and a vision transmutes, blurs into a distorted image. At its most precise a dream, and particularly a vision, is an aim, an aspiration, and a goal to be achieved.

Wishing is a passive exercise, waiting for something to happen, a Mr. Micawber philosophy that something will turn up. Though Judy Garland was right to set her sights high, up in the stars, her song was mistaken in implying that simply wishing is sufficient. Apart from the risk of unexpected and unwanted results if wishes are granted, there are further difficulties about idle desires. It is a state of mind that ignores, even refutes, the need for effort on our own part. Fate, chance or someone else will bring about the change whilst we relax and hope for the best.

Wish fulfilment is the most likely when some action has been taken, when we, or someone else, has brought about a change. “God helps those who help themselves”, runs the well-worn cliché. In whatever area of life, results are dependent upon our contribution. To modify an old saw, wishes butter no parsnips. God may create the plants with the power of life within them, but we must till and weed, select and plant, if there is to be a garden.

To come back to dreams, or more grandly, visions, “I have a dream”, exclaimed Martin Luther King. “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” warned the prophet. But again, if visions degenerate into mere indolent wishes they become empty hopes rather than targets to be worked at, objectives to be attained, promised lands to be reached. Martin Luther King’s life was not solely one of introspective musing, but of action towards attaining his vision.

Among those who speak of the failure of religion, are individuals who think that praying is about mere wishing, worshipping solely devoted to the contemplation of pleasant dreams. The need for personal effort is over-looked; the prospect of active labour abhorrent; the need for personal contribution rejected.

Prayers are not an opportunity to set down a series of demands, like a letter to Father Christmas, with the obligatory postscript promising to be good. Nor is contemplation a rosy, comfortable daydream of how things might be if only someone would grant our entirely reasonable wishes. There is much more to it than that.

The cry goes up, “The churches have failed us”. There is lawlessness on our streets, intolerance in our communities, greed and selfishness throughout our society. But perhaps not to the extent that one might think from reading the popular press, or listening the daily news bulletins. However, none of these are qualities advocated by the churches, quite the opposite. The failures within societies and institutions are those of people. Simply wishing, even if it is on a star, will bring about no change. It is a sleeves rolled up, hands to the plough, noses to the grind-stone, shoulders to the wheel (choose your own metaphor) – it is that sort of a job to put things right.

It might be argued that this is not a particular religious philosophy, though I would disagree. The cloth of my dreams is woven within an ethical framework of a religious faith. The vision of a world at peace, of good neighbours, of tolerance, respect and of a land where human dignity is fostered, evolves from a belief in a creative God, of whom we are the children. The world in which I want to live is one in which, what one can loosely describe as Christian standards, though in truth they are the standards of most people of many differing faiths, speaking a variety of languages and living throughout the world, are upheld, and ethical values cherished.

Samaritans, who do more than rub their talismans and merely hope things will change for the better, help the casualty recover. The passer-by who just hopes somebody else will call an ambulance leaves the stricken one to perish. Faith might move mountains, but a pick and shovel doesn’t come amiss. If churches, or more to the point, church people, regard their devotions as merely a form of escapism, then little will change. Pleasant as it is to lie gently relaxing, contemplating life as it might be, there is a time to get out of bed and start work.

The message of personal responsibility for one’s share of the labour perhaps has not been given enough emphasis. Or if it has, it has not been effectively put over. Rightly or wrongly, many regard the church as simply a place of retreat where cares can be forgotten, and the everyday world shut out.

Use of the stars as a metaphor for higher things, for great aspiration has been long established. Of course sights need to be set high, visions held, dreams dreamt, and even wishes expressed. Set our sights on the stars by all means, but wishing on stars in a vain hope that things might change without effort – well those dreams just don’t come true.

So if this year, this century, this millennium, is to lead to a on to a better life for all; to a society where all are honoured, none despised; all are clothed with love, no-one goes naked and exploited: where the hungry are fed, and the fearful protected and comforted; then it will be not simply because we dream dreams, but because we perform deeds.

Let me come full circle and return to Goethe. “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

A verse from an old revivalist hymn that I have quoted previously, is appropriate to repeat, for it speaks of boldness and daring.

“Dare to be a Daniel
Dare to stand alone;
Dare to have a purpose
Dare to make it known.”

We must never cease to dream dreams, to have our vision of what might be. I am always a little sceptical when I come across yet another Chinese proverb. Not of their content but of whether the words truly are translated from the one of the many Chinese dialects or languages. I wonder if Westerners, who think that by adding the word Chinese it will make the words sound wiser, actually compose many of these sayings. However, I will quote one allegedly genuine saying, “Who is narrow of vision cannot be big of heart”.

So may our vision be wide, our resolution formidable, but our labour untiring, and service to others replace wishful thinking. As James centuries ago pointed out to his listeners, “…the man who looks closely into the perfect law, the law that makes us free, and who lives in its company, does not forget what he hears, but acts upon it; and that is the man who by acting will find happiness.”

C.J. Rosling 30 June 2007


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