By Rev. Solveig Nilsen-Goodin (right), Salt and Light Lutheran Church (Portland, OR), Sunday, November 29, 2020, Mark 13:24 – 31
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the service this week. For the season of Advent, the plan was to have a storyteller for each Sunday of the season…one story each Sunday to go along with the theme for the week: Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. Well, when I reached out to folks this week I found stories of Peace, Joy and Love, but hope…? Hope was a little harder to come by. Now, maybe not. Maybe I just didn’t happen to reach out to the people with hope stories! Or maybe, as I ultimately discerned, the Spirit was inviting ME to tell a hope story because hope has been a little hard to come by FOR ME. And I admit it! I have struggled with the whole notion of hope for a long time now, and I actually think I am not alone in this struggle.
What does hope mean when it seems fairly obvious that we’re in a season of deconstruction and unraveling? What does hope look like when the trajectories of climate change, for example, are anything BUT hopeful? What does hope feel like in the presence of collective trauma? What even is hope anyway? The whole notion of hope actually became so problematic for me that I stopped using the word hope altogether about 7 years ago, intentionally, because I couldn’t separate the idea of hope from the notion that hope means either wishful thinking (aka denial) or the optimistic possibility that things ____________(fill in the blank) __________ will get better in some tangible way that I can see in my lifetime. And particularly around climate change, I just couldn’t with integrity say I was hopeful in either of those ways! So I gave up the word. There’s more to it than that, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.
A week ago Friday, my sister and brother-in-law and I got the sublime opportunity to hike Tillamook Head. Tillamook Head, for those who may not remember or know, is the huge bluff jutting out into the Pacific between Seaside and Cannon Beach. I had never hiked the whole trail from Seaside to Indian Beach, just north of Cannon Beach, until two years ago when I joined Ben Lindwall on Heartbeat Journey’s Northwest Coastal Pilgrimage. Fun fact, that’s when I first met Spencer and Ilana who also participated in the pilgrimage on their honeymoon! I had never been on someone else’s honeymoon before, but they generously welcomed us all along!
It was a very significant journey for me two years ago…I was 51 years old, and in the depths of despair around the unraveling of Wilderness Way, my ministry of the 12 prior years. I knew then that even if Wilderness Way suddenly were resurrected, or even if it continued, as it has, in a different, smaller form, it would never again be what it was. The potential, the possibility that I could see so clearly was for all intents and purposes impossible. There was, truly, no hope, for it. And I had lost confidence in myself as well.
The pilgrimage was five days total, three days of walking in a row. Day one of walking was Fort Stevens to Seaside. Day two was Seaside to Cannon Beach. And Day three was Cannon Beach to Arch Cape. Perhaps because I had lost so much self-confidence in losing Wilderness Way as it had been, I was oddly-for-me incredibly anxious about the whole venture, and for whatever reason, hiking Tillamook Head was terrifying me the most. And as it turns out, many of the things I was afraid of actually happened. It was pouring that day and the entire trail was a ginormous mud pit. My great hiking shoes I got for the pilgrimage were NOT waterproof…at all. The rain cover I borrowed for my backpack was the wrong size. And I got my period that morning. Now, as I said, I’m not typically an anxious person, but I was a wreck about the pilgrimage and particularly about that day.
But what were my options? Not do it? Bail on the group and call Peter to come pick me up? No. I packed up with everyone else, put on all my rain gear and set out. And it was pretty grueling, I have to admit. We had to keep our eyes on the trail every second to negotiate every step we took to avoid sinking six inches deep in mud.
It was a long day. A really long day. A hard day. But we shared hiking poles, helped each other over fallen trees, rested when we needed to. I commiserated with the other women about my menstrual situation. One of the other pilgrims had also brought the wrong size rain cover for her backpack so we swapped and they fit! And…at the end of the day…we did it.
And with the help of everyone there, I did it. The hike I was most afraid of. I did it. And then I did the next day. And then when we got back to Portland I walked the four miles from our drop off point at Leaven to my home. For some reason it felt important to me to complete the circuit — to walk out my front door and all the way to Leaven when I left five days earlier, and to walk all the way back from Leaven to my front door.
And as I walked back the Indigo Girls song “Watershed” was going through my head: “You’ll never fly as the crow flies, get used to a country mile.”
And just then, I mean right then, there was a crow feather on the sidewalk. I picked it up. I don’t know how long it had been there, but I knew it was for me. And as I neared my house in my head I started counting the miles I had walked in the past five days. All in all, including those four miles each way to and from Leaven, I counted 51 miles. One for each year of my life. Picking up all the shattered pieces. I don’t know all the reasons why I went on that pilgrimage, but I do know that I went in hopeless about Wilderness Way and honestly, about me. And when I came out nothing had changed about Wilderness Way, but I started trusting me again. And that felt like hope.
Earlier I said I had stopped using the word hope about 7 years ago. Ironically I didn’t stop using the word hope because I was in despair about the climate crisis. The despair was before that. I gave up the word when I was coming out of despair, actually. You see, after looking at the complexity of the reality of the climate crisis I simply could no longer say I had any hope that we would be able to make the necessary changes to mitigate climate catastrophe. So I gave up hope. Or, I should say I gave up the idea of hope being connected to a more desirable future that I will be able to recognize within my own lifetime.
And when I gave up that idea of hope, a deeper hope started finding me. A deeper hope started revealing itself, or maybe I just started having eyes to see it. But the funny thing is, it didn’t look like hope. It didn’t look like victories stopping pipelines or liquified natural gas terminals, though of course those victories are important and worth celebrating! And though I continue to do climate justice organizing and celebrate every victory there is to celebrate, connecting any of that with my reason for hope is actually what I had given up.
The deeper hope — the deeper hope that began revealing itself to me didn’t look like victories or likely positive outcomes. Instead it looked more like beauty, tenderness, companionship, generosity, love, and life even in the midst of suffering. And when I had eyes to see it, when I was deeply present to this beauty, tenderness, companionship, generosity, love and life revealing itself to me in every moment, and when I took it all into my heart, something began happening within me. I began to trust the unfolding of Divine life both around and within me in a deeper way. And that trust felt like hope. That trust became hope. Hope not dependent on the circumstances or the odds or the outcome or the likely possibility of a better future for me or my children or my grandchildren. Hope, rather, that arises mysteriously in the process of waking up to and trusting the irrepressible unfolding of Divine life within and all around us!
So a week ago Friday I got to hike Tillamook head again. This time, thank God, no rain! The path was still muddy from earlier storms, but my shoes kept my feet dry. And because I wasn’t looking down at every single step, I could see the magnificence of this paradisal rain-forest. And as we neared the top we saw something that took our breath away. It was a giant sitka spruce laying on its side, its entire enormous root system 15-feet in diameter, hidden for centuries, now splayed out for the whole forest to see, leaving a crater of equal size where once this grandmother tree had stood tall. Giant patches of earth still clung to the tangled roots, telling us that she was one of the casualties of the windstorms that had swept through just days earlier. It was heartbreaking and humbling and beautiful and terrible all at once.
Knowing that trees have familial relationships not unlike humans, I knew the surrounding trees were mourning this loss, along with the thousand thousand creatures who made their home in her bark and branches. But knowing that fallen trees become nurse logs, the placenta, for future trees and a thousand more living beings, I also stood in awe at the beauty, the tenderness, the generosity, the love of it all in this mysterious, miraculous irrepressible unfolding of life that adapts to human ignorance but will never be stopped by it.
And I took it all into my heart. And I trusted it. And it felt like hope.
In a time that by all human measures was completely and utterly hopeless, Jesus said, “Learn a lesson from the fig tree.” Learn a lesson from the fig tree. Learn a lesson from the sitka spruce, or the crow dropping feathers just for you. Pay attention to the irrepressibility of life unfolding, to the beauty and the tenderness, the companionship and the generosity, the love revealing itself to you, reaching out to you from the human and the other than human world alike, imploring you to wake up, to open your eyes, to open your hearts, to take it all in, to come to trust this irrepressibility of Divine life both around and within you. Because it just might feel like hope. Amen.
Solveig Nilsen-Goodin offers spiritual direction and coaching, as well as support and accompaniment for leaders, activists, organizers, healers, and anyone longing to “heal-the-whole” on any level. She is currently interim pastor/spiritual director for Salt and Light Lutheran Church/Leaven Community and is working toward her Professional Coaching Certification (PCC) focusing on accompanying people through the many ways we experience death and grief throughout our lives.