Shattered dreams and bright hope

Dan Miller grew up in Pateros, a small town on the banks of the great Columbia River, at the foot of the North Cascades mountains, in the state of Washington. As he viewed the grandeur of the mountains and the beauty of the river and as he played with his friends, he was obsessed with a dream: to become a professional basketball player. As a boy, he spent countless hours on the basketball courts, dribbling a ball almost as big as himself, shooting up at a basket far above his head. As he grew, so did his skills. He played basketball with his friends, classmates, and teachers, and when no one was available to play with, he played by himself. He made the junior high varsity team easily. He made the high school varsity when he was only 15 and a freshman. He was good. He was on his way up. He was going to be a pro.

Then one day tragedy struck, catching him totally unprepared. Dan woke up one morning with a strange sensation in one arm. Before sundown, he was prone in bed, stricken with polio. For awhile he fought for his life. And then, when he finally knew he would survive, he almost wished he hadn’t. He had lost the use of one arm. One leg dragged and could serve only to balance himself with. The other arm retained 20 percent of its function. Once the perfect candidate for supreme athlete, now.…His dream was dead. He would never become a professional basketball player.

As he contemplated his future, he must have felt utter despair. He had lived for basketball. What would he live for now? He could think of nothing else he wanted to do. He stood on the court. He bent to the ball, and found he could not even lift it. He dragged around a bit, and then asked his parents to buy him a little ball, and tried to fling it with his partially functioning arm. After long hours of trying, he could get it in the basket. He smiled, and moved back a little, and began the process over. Eventually, he could get that little ball into the basket from the free-throw line with the same deadly accuracy he had once shown with the basketball.

He went back to his parents and asked for a slightly bigger ball, got it, and started the whole long process all over again. He could not be a pro basketball player ever. He knew that. But he was playing his game, the game that he loved. He worked out as he had always worked out, blocking out his black despair by playing on the court he had inhabited for most of his life, and he kept working his way through high school. Dan never recovered the use of his arms or his leg, but he got to where he could pick up a basketball again and throw it from the free throw line into the basket. In fact, his percentage became and has remained 96 out of 100 attempts—an average even some of the members of the national teams can’t achieve.

A change in dreams

Dan knew he could not play professional basketball, but he did not want to let go of his dream. If he himself could not play, maybe he could train players, so he marched off to college determined to become a basketball coach. He registered as a physical education major. The teachers looked at him, read the doctor’s physical examination exempting Dan from PE, and tried to talk him into another profession. But Dan knew what he wanted to do and he persisted, so they gave in. He took every class that other PE majors took, and though he could not perform what they could perform, he could understand what was required. Four years later he graduated with the coveted physical education degree. He was hired in the Seattle area as a coach. He would train young people to become the basketball players that he once had dreamed of being.

It’s a marvelous story. It says something very important to me. All of us are like Dan Miller, crippled in ways that sabotage our dreams, whether we know it or not. For many years in my youth, I was required by my Pathfinder leaders to read the Bible Year, and I plodded through Leviticus and Numbers with great boredom, then launched into Joshua and Judges in horrified fascination. There were so many stories in there that Uncle Arthur had never mentioned, and I couldn’t help but wonder why they were in the Bible.

As I have grown older and read the same stories from the perspective of an adult, I have been struck by the fact that God is willing to be identified as the God of imperfect people. He is the God of Abraham, not only when he went out in faith from Ur of the Chaldees to a place he knew not of, but also when the frightened liar stood before Pharaoh in shame. He is the God of Isaac, not only when he willingly lay down on the altar to be a sacrifice, but also when he was an indulgent parent playing favorites with his children. He is the God of Jacob the deceiver, God of Rahab the prostitute, God of David the adulterer, God of Peter the disloyal.

In spite of our imperfections, God cares

Too often we are tempted to think that if we do not reach the ideal, we will be second-rate citizens in the eyes of God, as so often we are in the eyes of each other. We assume that because things are not as we wish they were, God cannot perfectly love us. But the whole Bible stands as a record to tell us otherwise. Even when Abraham, in his lack of courage and faith, lied to Pharaoh about his wife, God spoke to Pharaoh in a dream saying, “This is my Abraham, my person, don’t hurt him or his wife.”

We are not perfect, as individuals, as institutions, or as a church. We must recognize in all humility that we are warped and damaged. We have defects of character that even we are blind to. We have broken or strained relationships that we cannot seem to fix. We have physical imperfections. We are mentally limited. We are spiritually dwarfed. But God is still our God. We are still the apple of His eye, His beloved sons and daughters, and He works with us and through us and lives our lives with us.

His words addressed to Joshua at a critical moment are also meant for us: “‘Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.’” (Joshua 1:9, NIV) Our greatest need is to recognize our imperfections and still feel His great love and power, to see through all the un-ideal circumstances of our lives, the richness He can give us, and the meaning our lives can have to those we share them with.

Dan Miller has no trophies lining the walls of his home. But he has trophies, oh, yes. His trophies are young people who thank him for the way he has changed their lives, has given meaning to their dreams. Even though he will never have that perfect athletic body that was the focus of his life, he is richly fulfilled without it. And whatever our imperfections are, whatever shattered dreams our lives hold, we can still live and love, be accepted and richly fulfilled.

Donna J. Evans (Ph.D., Claremont University) is an educator who has taught at all academic levels. Her address: P.O. Box 181; Brewster, WA 98812; U.S.A. E-mail: djevans@nwi.com