Hard times call for faithful dreamers

By Michael Gehring, Special Contributor…

I was the last one born in my immediate family. My father was born in 1918, and mom in 1927. I grew up with stories, stories about the Great Depression, stories about life.

Michael Gehring

Some Sundays after church we’d gather at my uncle’s house. Most of my uncle and aunt’s children were already raised so my brother and I absorbed their words of instruction. One of them would say, “You kids don’t know how lucky you are. I had to walk five miles to school in the snow in worn-out shoes.” Another would add, “You had shoes?” On and on it would go. “When I was eight years old I had to carry 100 pounds of cotton on my back.” That was from Uncle Woody. Grandmother said Woody had a problem remembering right.

Sometimes the conversations turned to defining moments. They all remembered where they were on Dec. 7, 1941 when they heard the news. Some, like my dad, were already in the military when the “date which would live in infamy” occurred. And they knew where they were on Nov. 22, 1963, as the nation mourned a fallen president.

As a child and teenager, I naively assumed life would get better. I really had no justification for that belief. I was just born with innate optimism. I thought we wouldn’t have any more of those kinds of days. That’s the past. These old folks around me are like dinosaurs roaming the land. We’re the future. We’ve got technology.

I never will forget when that confidence was shaken. It was late April 1980. I was a freshman at Arkansas Tech University, and the radio alarm awakened me. I had an early class. The radio announcer reported Operation Eagle Claw had failed. Helicopters crashed in the desert; lives were lost. The American hostages in Iran were still in prison.

Little did I realize then, other days would follow where time and place were etched in my mind like stone. On the 28th of January 1986, I was in PJ’s Pancake House in Princeton, N.J., hanging out with friends, having a good time, when the waitress came over with a pale look telling us the spaceship Challenger had blown up.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in a church basement getting ready to teach a class on Thomas Merton’s position on the Vietnam War. The secretary came running from the other end of the building, saying, “Your mom called and told you to turn on the TV.” I looked at the images. My mind couldn’t compute. Was this a plane that got lost and accidentally flew into the Tower? It took a few moments to process that this was intentional, that this was terrorism, that this was a declaration of war. All I wanted to do was go get my spouse, and drive to the school and get our kids. My brother-in-law was then a Navy pilot. He talked about how surreal it was to fly across the country in empty skies.

It’s frightful to think how dangerous our world is. And it is scary to raise kids in this day and age, wondering just what kind of a world they are inheriting from us, a world full of economic challenges, environmental dangers, brokenness and wars. At times when I ruminate on this, I can almost be overwhelmed. It is then I start remembering the stories from my family; remembering their worries during the Great Depression, if they would have food to eat and a roof over their heads. Worries about whether the war would be lost, and whether their children would one day be speaking Japanese or German.

And then I’d start remembering my other family stories, the ones from my relatives in the faith, the sacred stories of Scripture, and remembering the travails our ancestors faced. We’ve been grafted into this ancient tree. Scripture didn’t say God planted a new tree.

It is amazing, in the midst of all our faith ancestors experienced, with kingdoms rising and kingdoms falling, with foreign armies invading their lands, with the hardships they endured, that they were able to hold onto their faith. Perhaps when one has lost almost everything there is to lose, all one has left to hold onto is one’s faith.

In the midst of such times, they were able to sing psalms full of hope for a new day. Psalms such as Psalm 126, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy. . . . Restore our fortunes, O Lord. . . . May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.” (NRSV)

I love that line, “we were like those who dream.” We are in a season of dreams. Dreams of how we can make a better world. We have just lived through two political conventions. Sometimes after the speeches are over, we can become skeptical, saying we’ve heard it all before. And we have. Sometimes we can become despondent, saying the geo-political and economic challenges facing our country are too complicated and monumental to comprehend, let alone solve. It is at these moments I start to pray for the politicians, those of the party I adhere to, and those on the other side. Praying God will give them wisdom and that God will not leave us to our own devices.

As people who inhabit the story of God’s love, we are dreamers. It’s in our spiritual lineage. Now is a wonderful time for our faith communities to dream new dreams, and commit in deeper and more profound ways to make a difference for those who go to bed worried about food and shelter. The sacred story teaches us this world has always been a dangerous place; it was for Abel, for the innocents of Bethlehem, for Jesus and for countless others. But we should not let our fear render us impotent. We should not let our fear keep us from reaching out.

Years ago, I was visiting Fred Herzog, who was a professor of theology at Duke University. I was at his house. He was telling me how a neighborhood lady had been beaten to death. I said, “You’ve got to move out of here. Durham has changed. You need to get to a gated community.” He smiled, cupped his hands and said, “We all live in the palms of God’s hands.”

Fred had a deep and abiding confidence in God, that God would see him through the storms of life, and finally to that place not built with human hands. Also hard-wired into Fred’s theology was that we should make a difference in the lives of others. Fred wrote about it, and said it over and over again, “It’s not about God-talk. It’s about God-walk.”

The Rev. Gehring is senior pastor of Broad Street UMC in Statesville, N.C.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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