M.L King's Sermon "Unfulfilled Dreams"

Of all Martin Luther King’s sermons, the one I’ve found the most instructive is “Unfulfilled Dreams.” It offers solid perspective on the disappointments we all face in life.

Unfulfilled Dreams is the title given to the sermon in the excellent audio collection of King’s speeches called “A Knock At Midnight.” I’d suggest purchase of this collection to anybody. Play these sermons in your car as you commute and go about your affairs, and they might change your life.

In a print collection of King’s sermons titled ” Strength To Love“, this sermon is called “Shattered Dreams.” While the text between the audio and print versions has some differences, the message is the same. ( Here is a link to the full “A Knock At Midnight” text of Unfulfilled Dreams.)

Strength To Love is the best book compilation of King’s sermons.

Here are excerpts and observations from Unfulfilled Dreams—

King begins by discussing how King David wanted to build a temple to honor God. He talks about how important it was for David to finish this temple and how David would not be successful in this undertaking.

King quotes the eight chapter of First Kings—“ And it was in the heart of David …to build a house in the name of the Lord God…And the Lord said unto David…”whereas it was in thine heart to build a house unto my name, thou didst well that it was in thine heart.”

This is the point of the sermon—“It was within thine heart.” David’s heart was right.

King says—“So many of us in life start out by building temples: temples of character, temples of justice, temples of peace. And so often we don’t finish them…and so we, like David find ourselves…having to face the fact that our dreams are unfulfilled”

What I like here is how King talks about our goals in life as missions larger than our personal lives. Character, of course, but also justice and peace. Our lives are not fully our own.

King points out that even great figures in history fail—

“Now first let us notice that life is a continual story of shattered dreams. Mahatma Gandhi labored for years…for the independence of his people. And through a great and nonviolent revolution he was able to win that independence…he struggled to unite his people and…to have India as one great united country…

But Gandhi had to face the fact that he was assassinated and died with a broken heart, because that nation…ended up being divided between India and Pakistan as a result of the conflict between the Hindus and the Muslims. Life is a long, continual story of setting out to build a great temple and not being able to finish it.

King talks about American slaves who never knew freedom—

So many of our forebearers used to sing about freedom..they would say “I’m so glad that trouble don’t last always“…but so many died without having the dream fulfilled.

Those were people who lived at the wrong time in history. That’s something that can happen at any time no matter how safe you may feel in your situation in life.

King says we are all moving towards a dream or goal—

And each of you …in some way way is working towards some kind of temple. The struggle is always there. Its gets discouraging some times…well, that is the story of life. And the thing that makes me happy is that I can hear a voice crying through the vista of time , saying: It may not come today or it may not come tomorrow, but it is well that it is within thine heart…Thank God that we have hearts to put something meaningful into.”

I think of that last line all the time. “Thank God that we have hearts…” I’m glad we can care about others. I’m glad that no matter how rough things appear, we always have this ability.

King moves on now to reasons our dreams sometimes fail. He talks about the contrasting forces integral to the structure of existence. This makes sense. How could we as individuals not be subject to the basic elements of existence?

“Whenever you set out to build a creative temple, you must face the fact that there is a tension in the universe between good and evil. (Notice the word “creative.” This word can correctly be applied to so much in life. Imagination is even part of goals we might in normal course view as practical. At the very least, we must envision objectives before they can be accomplished.)….Hinduism refers to it as a struggle between illusion and reality. Platonic philosophy used to refer to it as a tension between body and soul.”

“But you know, some of us feel that it’s a tension between God and man.”

I’m not religious. But people who admire King should not forget that he viewed himself first as a preacher. We’ve made him a great secular figure of history. And he is that in many ways. Yet to see him only in that light is to miss the real person behind the image.

” …in every one of us..there’s a civil war going on….every time you set out to be good, there’s something pulling on you…every time you set out to love, something keeps pulling on you trying to get you to hate. Every time you set out to be kind and say nice things…something is pulling on you to be jealous and envious and spread evil gossip…..we end up crying out with St. Augustine “Lord make me pure but not yet.”

Again, this dilemma is universal. Though it happened to Ghandi, it is also a matter a daily concern in our normal lives. We want to be a certain type of person, but it’s an ongoing struggle. Who does not feel that way upon honest reflection?

And this brings me to the basic point of the text. In the final analysis God does not judge us by the separate incidents or the separate mistakes that we make, but by the total bent of our lives. In the final analysis, God knows that his children are weak and they are frail. In the final analysis, what God requires is that your heart is right. Salvation isn’t reaching the destination of absolute morality, but it’s about being on the process and on the right road.

I think this is right on. Recognizing the fragility of the individual is at the core of political liberalism and at the core of treating others decently. Life is hard as hell and we are all going to make many mistakes. The question to ask when a mistake is made is what was in the heart of the person who made the error. Isn’t that the way you and I would want to be judged?

King’s talking about the bent of ones life is kindred to the observation he often made that the moral arc of the universe is long, but that it bends towards justice.

We can’t say that all of existence is bad because terrible things happened in history We have to retain a final belief that life has meaningful purpose and that justice and concern for others is part of that purpose.

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Errington C. Thompson, MD

Dr. Thompson is a surgeon, scholar, full-time sports fan and part-time political activist. He is active in a number of community projects and initiatives. Through medicine, he strives to improve the physical health of all he treats.


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