Van Ens: Pursue unfulfilled dreams in your life (column)

Jack Van Ens
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Jack Van Ens

Hard-luck stories of people who fulfill their dreams encourage us. TV anchors sometimes end newscasts with stories about strangers who rally around terminally ill patients. In early November, well-wishers mailed more than 30,000 Christmas cards to a 9-year-old cancer patient. He didn’t make it to Thanksgiving Day. He might not be around this Christmas Day. Such feel-good stories make our hearts merry.

One of the toughest challenges each of us faces is to invest in causes that lack results during our lifetime. Faith’s trek at establishing what’s just and fair is a slog. We forge on without progress signs posted on the way.

In the biblical book of Hebrews, readers meet a great parade of people whose faith drove them forward into uncertainty ahead. Faith is not the same as saying “yes” to religious beliefs; rather, it is the practice of such beliefs.

The Hebrews author pictures faithful people dreaming of “a city that has foundations whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Those on faith’s journey pursue but rarely enter the city of fulfilled dreams. The city is seen but not occupied in our lifetime.

J. B. Priestley (1733-1804) served as Thomas Jefferson’s scientific and theological mentor. They embraced big dreams. Both practiced free inquiry in every aspect of life, including politics. A person “liberated from monarchical or hereditary limitations stood a greater chance of possessing a mind free to roam and to grow and to create and to innovate in a climate in which citizens lived together in essential harmony and affection,” writes Jefferson’s biographer John Meacham (“Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” Random House 2012, p. 356).

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The dreams of these intellectual twins produced optimistic energy that shaped the future. “I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning,” Priestley said.

Americans blessed with a can-do attitude thrive on stories about people who accomplish their dreams. The Bible, however, often teaches the opposite: God saves us from easily achieved dreams. Reinhold Niebuhr, who taught at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary during the mid-20th century, reveals why some cherished dreams go unfulfilled: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime.”

Faithful Christians invest their lives in values articulated by United Methodists’ Social Principles: “As a church, we are called to support the poor and challenge the rich. To begin to alleviate poverty, we support such policies as adequate income maintenance, quality education, decent housing, job training, meaningful employment opportunities, adequate medical and hospital care, humanization and radical revisions of welfare programs, work for peace and efforts to protect creation’s integrity” (“Social Principles of the United Methodist Church 2017-2020,” Cokesbury 2017, p.48, Social Principle #163.E).

How many of these dreams have been achieved in my 45-year ministry? Zero. Striving to reach the City of God exceeds our grasp.

Historian Howard Zinn encourages us to invest our lives in unfulfilled dreams. “Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments) but an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society,” he teaches.

“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don’t ‘win,’ there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope” (The Sun Magazine, “The optimism of uncertainty,” October 2016, p. 25).

Be grateful for some unfulfilled dreams. Keep chasing your dreams, even when results prove elusive.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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