Monday, January 19, 2009

Dreams into Deeds

A sermon by Rev. Gregory H. Ledbetter | January 18, 2009 | Second Sunday after Epiphany

Text: Hebrews 11:1-3, 12:1-2

"Faith is the turning of Dreams into Deeds"
-Hebrews 11:1
Clarence Jordan, Cotton Patch Parables translation

It all began with a time of abject failure … a broken dream … a missed goal … an unreached objective. Lives were at risk including the life of the dreamer … the journeyer … the climber of mountains.

It was 1993 and so already you know that I'm not speaking, at this moment, of Martin Luther King, Jr. Instead I speak of a man, my age, a mountaineer who had traveled to the most remote reaches of Northeastern Pakistan to climb what is arguably the most difficult to ascend mountain on earth … the vaunted K2.

Years of dreaming gave way to months of planning that culminated in many weeks of journeying and climbing to the high place from which K2's lethal heights could be challenged. But just as the assault on the summit was being mounted, the extreme altitudes took their toll, the life of a fellow climber was nearly lost and our mountain climber now found himself trekking alone … dangerously alone and severely depleted … back toward the starting point of his journey. But a missed turn and an overlooked river crossing took him to a tiny, remote village of Pakistani mountain dwellers who graciously took him in and nursed him to health.

While regaining his strength, the failed climber walked about and noticed that the children of the village had no school … the promised aid from the Pakistani government had dried up long before it reached the remote village. The few children who could studied alone in a field, without a teacher, without supplies, without a sheltering roof. And in the failed climber's mind there mounted up a new vision … a new dream. This new dream also involved scaling a difficult mountain, but it was not a physical mountain so much as it was a mountain of ignorance and extraordinary logistical difficulties.

Before he left to return to his home in the United States, Greg Mortenson told the village chief that he would come back someday and build a school for the children of Korphe.

Back home in Berkeley and living out of his car, Mortenson began to work to turn his dream into a reality … a sacred deed. Before leaving Pakistan, he had come up with a rough design for a school and calculated that the raw supplies for such a school would cost $12,000. Now, back home, Mortenson set about raising money for the promised school of his dream. He sent out 580 letters to, as he put it, "everyone who seemed powerful or popular or important." And by the way, some of you have suggested we raise money for our ministry center in a like fashion and while I don't want to rain on your parade, you may want to know that Mortenson got a grand total of one response back from his nearly 600 letters—it was a note from Tom Brokaw, a fellow University of South Dakota alumnus, and with the note, a check for a hundred dollars. Woo-hoo!

Like a hot-air balloon that's run out of fuel, Mortenson's dream was dragging along the ground, barely aloft. He shared with a friend both his dream and his discouragement and to help him out, the friend wrote a short article in a climbing newsletter about the dream of building a school in mountainous, remote Pakistan. A mountain climber living in Seattle who also happened to be a wealthy retired Silicon Valley research scientist had read the article and gave Mortenson a check for $12,000 with a note of encouragement attached: "Don't screw up."

And if you haven't read the book, Three Cups of Tea, I'll simply say that by the time Mortenson arrived back in the village, supplies purchased and ready to build the dreamed of school for the village children, the village elders had decided that what they REALLY needed was a bridge across the river that raged nearby and separated them from much of the rest of the world. They still needed and wanted a school, but the needs of the village dictated that the bridge needed to be built first.

Back home again, Mortenson's dream foundered again. He'd sold everything he owned to pay for his trip to Pakistan and the trip had ended in apparent failure. "Broke. Broke down. Broken." is how he described himself. Somewhere in Pakistan all the raw supplies for a village school sat gathering dust … or being carted off. And now back in Berkeley, living on the edge of depression, the dream nearly died … except for two things. One was the village elder, Haji Ali, who had believed Mortenson's first promise to build a school, though it had not yet been fulfilled, and who now just as surely believed Mortenson would come through with the means to build the village its bridge. The other thing was Mortenson's "don't screw up" benefactor who believed enough in the mountain climbing failure Mortenson and his yet-to-fulfilled dream to put up the money for the bridge.

Mortenson returned a second time to the tiny village of Korphe, this time with the supplies for a bridge. By summer's end, two years after his stumbling in a falling-down stupor into the village, a new bridge stood … a narrow, swaying span nearly as long as a football field and some two hundred feet over the river's angry flow.

By the end of the next summer, three years after these isolated Muslim villagers had taken Greg Mortenson into their homes and their lives, the first school the villagers had ever seen was completed, a teacher hired and classes ready to begin.

Over the next dozen years, the man who failed in his quest to climb K2 succeeded in building school after school after school in some of the remotest corners on this planet among people who had every reason to distrust him. And what Mortenson found in these remote Muslim villages were people who simply needed a chance … people whose faith was simple and non-extremist, people whose embrace of Mortenson transcended their faith and national differences, and people who leaped at the opportunity to bring education into the lives of not only their sons, but also their daughters … especially their daughters. Mortenson says: If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls.

Mortenson's initial motivation for his work was simply to return the kindness to the village that nursed him back to health. He had no real sense of a larger project and no sense, at the time, of the wider implications of what he was doing. But in time those implications became very clear and they became clear to many others who are looking on … Mortenson and his observers understand that the extremism that Pakistan and Afghanistan are so capable of spawning is largely a result of extreme poverty and a lack of non-extremist education.

In a Parade Magazine cover story written in 2003, the writer of the story says: As the US confronts Saddam Hussein's regine in Iraq, Greg Mortenson is quietly waging his own campaign against Islamic fundamentalists, who often recruit members through religious schools called madrassas. Mortenson's approach hinges on a simple idea: that by building secular schools and helping to promote education-particularly for girls- in the world's most volatile war zone, support for the Taliban and other extremist sects will eventually dry up.

Later at a presentation attended by members of congress, Mortenson was addressed by Republican Congressman from California who said: "Building schools for kids is just fine and dandy, but our primary need as a nation now is security. Without security, what does all this matter?"

Mortenson said: "'I don't do what I'm doing to fight terror. I do it because I care about kids. Fighting terror is maybe seventh or eighth on my list of priorities. But working over there [in Pakistan/Afghanistan], I've learned a few things. I've learned that terror doesn't happen because some group of people somewhere like Pakistan or Afghanistan simply decide to hate us. It happens because children aren't being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death'..."

After saying that he had supported initial efforts by the U.S. in Afghanistan, Mortenson said that he felt that we had made the fatal error, in our war on terro, of failing to rebuild Afghanistan as we had promised. He went to say: I'm no military expert, and these figures may not be exactly right. But as best as I can tell, we've launched 114 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan so far. Now take the cost of one of those missiles tipped with a Raytheon guidance system, which I think is about $840, 000. For that much money, you could build dozens of schools that could provide tens of thousands of students with a balanced, non-extremist education over the course of a generation. Which do you think will make us more secure?"

Last Tuesday, while scrabbling around Bozeman, Montana helping younger son Alex find a room to live in, I wandered over from our hotel to the offices of the Central Asia Institute. The Central Asia Institute is the organization that has grown up around Greg Mortenson's school-building, terror-fighting efforts. There were two administrators at work in the office surrounded by maps and photos and mementoes of Pakistan and Afghanistan. I didn't see Mortenson … apparently he was speaking in Traverse City, Michigan at an elementary school and high school. But I did speak with his assistants and I asked how things were going with the work so amazingly described in Three Cups of Tea. They told me that Mortenson's work continues to go well … a dozen years after the completion of the first school. This past summer, they funded the building of ten more schools bringing the total number of schools built in Pakistan and Afghanistan to 78. And in addition to the schools, they fund teachers in other schools and in refugee camps where people have fled the many conflicts that continue to disrupt and destroy the lives of so many Afghans and Pakistani's.

As you might guess, Mortenson has begun to rack up some pretty serious awards and honors for his work. But on March 23 of this year, Greg Mortenson will receive an award that will probably mean more than any other. In Islamabad, Pakistan, at the Pakistan National Day Award Ceremony, the president of Pakistan will award Mortenson with the "Star of Pakistan", Pakistan's highest civilian award. Not bad for a homeless mountain climber whose failure of one dream led to the birth of another.

Henry David Thoreau knew something about dreams and failure. Thoreau said of his mixed blessing of a time at Walden Pond: I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Building foundations under our dreams. I'd say that's a pretty good description of what it means to be a church and the people of God. Week after week we hear the sacred and holy dreams of God's prophets of all kinds … and we who have ears to hear and hearts to courageously follow know that our work is to build foundations under these sacred and holy dreams.

Many have been drawn to that phrase: "castles in the air" … it stands for a kind of fanciful dream … and it's not a bad description of the vision that a San Diego couple, Scott and Gayla Congdon harbored in their hearts in 1980 … some 29 years ago. In particular, they had a burden for the people of Mexico, especially the desperately poor of Tijuana. Their burden became a sacred and holy dream and they built a foundation under their "castle in the air". They started a mission work that they called "Aiding Mexican Orphans and Widows" … or, perhaps you've guessed it, A.M.O.R. for short … Spanish for "love". In nearly 30 years AMOR has built some 20,000 simple, but sturdy homes in which a hundred thousand or more poor Mexican people have been able to escape the ravages of poverty. It has been our humble privilege as a congregation to have built nine of those homes and this summer we will build our tenth.

Greg Mortenson and Scott and Gayla Congdon might very understandably been intimidated by the challenges that faced them, frightened away from building a foundation under their castles in the air. But perhaps they had heard the heartbeat of a different drummer … a drum major for justice by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In a sermon preached some years ago on the birthday of Martin Luther King, William Sloane Coffin said: "Martin Luther King preached that we should be governed by our dreams, not our fears." And to that we could add: "and not our failures."

There are so many before us who have fought the good fight, run the race to the end, and given their lives to overcome violence and injustice and the ravages of poverty. Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Dr. King, Cesar Chavez and Dorothy Day, Archbishops Oscar Romero and Desmond Tutu and millions of other nonviolent drum majors for justice … all of thse form a sacred "cloud of witnesses" who hover over us. They learned the courage it takes to stand up against the forces of domination and oppression, of violence and injustice. And their spirits inspire us in our own time and place to face our fears, lend our hands and voices, and work to keep their dreams alive and, even more importantly, bring their dreams to fulfillment.

But like Mortenson and the Congdons and so many others, they had to face their own fears and become the courageous voices for justice that we know them as. It wasn't any easier for them than it is for us. We do well to listen again to Dr. King acknowledging his own fears just weeks after agreeing to be the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott at ripe old age of … 26—26!!!. Sitting at his kitchen table in January 1956, Martin King picked up the phone and heard --

"'Listen, nigger, we've taken all we want from you. Before next week you'll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.' I hung up," King said, "but I could not sleep... I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud:

''I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left... I can't face it alone.'

"At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced God. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: 'Stand up for righteousness; stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.' Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm. Three nights later, our home was bombed."

These words are written on the wall of the display of Dr. King's kitchen, in the Civil Rights Museum in Atlanta, Georgia.

For the next 12 years, the same length of time that Greg Mortenson has battled his own fear in seeking to be governed by his dream, for the next 12 years Dr. King struggled against racism, war, and poverty, and offered our nation and the world a "dream." Near the end of his short life at the age of 39, he returned to this dream and offered us a word of hope and challenge. And it helps when hearing these words to try and enter into the very real and chilling fear that King sometimes felt, but a fear that never governed him or his dream:

In a sermon preached Christmas Eve of 1967 from his own pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church, King said: "I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had. But I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare. Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes. But in spite of that, I close today by saying that I still have a dream. Because you know that you can't give up in life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving. You lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of your fears and your failures. So this is our faith as we continue to hope -- that if there is to be peace on earth and goodwill toward all, let us know that in the process we have cosmic companionship.

"So today I still have a dream -- that we will rise up and come to see that we are made to live together as brothers and sisters. I still have a dream this morning -- that one day every person of color in the world will be judged on the basis of the content of their character rather than the color of their skin; that everyone will respect the dignity and worth of human personality; and that brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of a prayer, but the first order of business on every legislative agenda. I still have a dream today -- that justice will roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. I still have a dream -- that war will come to an end, that individuals will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and nations will no longer rise up against nations. Neither will they study war any more. I still have a dream."

I dare say that in the 41 years since the uttering of those words, King's dream have come to partial fulfillment. Tuesday's inauguration is simple evidence that King's dream of a world no longer controlled by skin color is one giant step closer to fulfillment. And with this new president, we will join in praying anew that Isaiah's great vision of Shalom spoken again by King will be the guiding and the governing vision of this new administration. A dynamic peace with justice for all people.

Governed by our dreams and not our fears. Keeping the dream alive. Bringing the dream to fulfillment or turning our dreams into deeds. This is our work for as long as we have breath. A wise soul once said: Never tell a person that something cannot be done. God may have been waiting for generations for somebody ignorant enough of the impossible to do that very thing.

Let us be that kind of somebody … somebodies who are ignorant of the impossible to do that very thing. Peace in our time? Shalom for all earth?
Let us give the final word to Paul, the Apostle, who was that kind of somebody: Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20-21


Image courtesy Greg Mortenson, Central Asia Institute.

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