The Rung of Hope

Dec 4, 2020 8:24:00 AM / by Steven Charleston


Excerpt from Ladder to the Light, chapter 3

THE FIRST BREEZE. Don’t let the dark clouds fool you. They may pretend to own the heavens, stretching from horizon to horizon, ominous and commanding, a permanent shadow over our lives. But I know their secret: there is a world of sunlight behind them. One day, when the wind of change pushes them apart, that light will return to bathe the earth, to restore the vision of every person, to set right that which has been broken. Stand firm in what you know and believe. Look up and do not be afraid, for when you feel the first breeze of hope, the clouds will soon be chased from the sky.

In 1831, the world came to an end for my family—and for all the families that were part of the Choctaw Nation. That year, we were forced off our ancestral homeland and made to walk on a death march we called the Trail of Tears. Thousands of our people died. We lost our homes, our way of life, even our graveyards. We lost everything.

Everything, that is, except the one thing they could not take from us: hope. Hope kept us going, kept us climbing toward the light, even though the world seemed to be filled with nothing but darkness.

Third on the ladder is the rung of hope, because hope is what emerges when you mix faith with blessing. I am not talking about wishful thinking. I am not talking about miracles. I am talking about hope as a tool to create light, a spark that can suddenly illuminate the gloom that creeps into our lives. The reason we have faith as the tinder and blessing as the spark is so we can have hope—the first flame of light in darkness.

SANCTUARY. In these troubled times, I know a place where fear and uncertainty cannot come, where confidence and hope still shine brightly, where there is room for every person of every condition to gather in safety and strength. That place is in my heart. The princes of power who strut their moment upon the stage may rail against the others—the many others—they seek to shun from the embrace of freedom. But in my heart is sanctuary for each forgotten soul. No truth will be swept away, no justice lost, no mercy gone ungiven, for I keep them all here in my heart. There they are secure until once more they are released to join what I know is in your heart as well: an outpouring of love, a fulfillment of the prophecy you already read in these few simple words.

The Spirit does not seek to establish a spiritually intimate relationship with us without a reason. Some people find this relationship with the Spirit and then mistakenly stop there. They come to the second rung of the ladder and want to stay put. Once they feel the Spirit’s presence in their lives, they are content. They stop climbing. Instead, they build a comfortable spiritual cocoon where they feel safe. They are sure this kind of unconditional love means they are among the chosen. Through their personal relationship with the Spirit, they are saved. But this emphasis—on a private salvation rather than a shared hope—is a mistake, because it cuts short the next steps in our partnership with the Spirit.

NO PECKING ORDER. Spirituality is not a competitive sport. We are never in a contest to see who has the most ethereal experiences or the deepest wisdom. Each one of us has had a lifetime of learning in the way of the Spirit. Every one of us has seen things, understood things, and discovered things that are both unique and profound. It is the collective voice that speaks the word, the community that embodies the sacred. We each take our turn being the source of what nourishes others. God does not have favorite children, and heaven has no pecking order. We are all worthy of respect and we each still have a lot to learn.

Hope is never exclusive. The love we feel in our hearts is not just for us alone, but for every other person who shares this world. We are all loved unconditionally. We are all in touch with the Spirit, even if we resist that pull on our emotions or deny the intellectual possibility of a higher power. We may pray differently, but we hope the same.

As members of the tribe of human beings, we hope for good health, for a better life, and for a bright future for our children. Hope is generic. It is unifying. It is the unseen bond that subverts our exclusivity and our need to build religious walls around ourselves. If we open our eyes spiritually, we can see evidence of hope in every person and place.

SIGNS OF HOPE. The signs are all around us. We can see them springing up like wildflowers after the prairie rain. People who had fallen asleep are waking up. People who had been content to watch are wanting to join. People who never said a word are speaking out. The tipping point of faith is the threshold of spiritual energy, where what we believe becomes what we do. When that power is released, there is no stopping it, for love is a force that cannot be contained. Look and see the thousands of new faces gathering from every direction. There is the sign of hope for which you have been waiting.

One of the hallmarks of my Native American tradition is the understanding that personal spirituality is never lived in isolation. We may receive a personal message from the Spirit—one unique to us—but we never imagine this connection to the sacred is intended for us alone. When I say that after my prayers I listen for the Spirit’s voice within me, I am claiming my personal space with the sacred, but I am never saying this experience is for me alone. Any person who prays and listens will receive a response. Their experience will be as unique as mine, but the purpose behind it will always be to strengthen and to support the life we share, not only with one another, but with all of creation.

The Spirit’s vision always takes us down from the mountaintop and out into the world. Our personal relationship with the Spirit opens us up to engage with others. In doing that, we begin with the one thing we all share in common: hope. Hope is the catalyst, the tipping point where what we believe becomes what we do.

WORD OF PRAYER. All we need is within us: wisdom, courage, love. They were all placed there from the very beginning of our lives, stored away for such a day as this. Strength and insight, faith and vision, kindness and compassion—everything we need to survive, to overcome, to grow—these traits have been prepared for us, entrusted to us. We have the spiritual resources we need—the gifts and the skill. We even have the key. A simple word of prayer: Open my heart, O Spirit. Open my mind and my spirit. Let me use what you have given me. Let me trust what you have shown me. Let me be what you have made me.

My ancestors did not survive the Trail of Tears because they were set apart from the rest of humanity. Their exodus was not a sign of their exclusivity, but rather their inclusivity. In their suffering, they embodied the finite and vulnerable condition of all humanity. They experienced what the whole tribe of human beings has experienced at one time or another throughout history: the struggle of life, the pain of oppression, and the fear of the unknown. Their long walk was the walk of every person who has known what it means to be alone and afraid. But they walked with courage and dignity because they had the hope of the Spirit within them.

Even in their darkest moments, they kept going, kept climbing. Why? Because they believed. And what they believed, they saw. In the harsh winter of their great struggle, they looked around and saw others walking beside them. They knew they were not alone. They knew the Spirit was in their hearts every step of the way. With that faith and with that blessing, they embodied the one force no oppression can ever overcome or contain: the hope they saw before them as their future.

To step over the threshold of our own fears, we must be willing to do what the survivors of the Trail of Tears did: embody hope. We do that by holding on to the third rung of the ladder with all our might, breathing in the confidence the Spirit has given us, then using that confidence to look into the future. What we see depends on what we believe.

NOT AN OPTION. Surrender is not an option. I cannot imagine giving up my faith in the real presence of a loving Spirit who is with us on this long walk we call life. I know goodness is there, kindness is there, compassion is there, no matter how final the triumph of fear may seem or how great the power that holds the human heart down. I will not abandon my belief in the coming dawn just because I dwell in the midnight hour. All the more reason to proclaim hope when hope is scarce among the waiting crowd. All the more reason to keep singing, to keep working, and to keep helping the wounded to walk. Surrender is not an option—not for those of us who have seen the light to come.

Hope changes history. One of the greatest dangers we face is getting used to the darkness. It can resign us. In our personal lives, we can feel we don’t deserve anything better than what we have, even if what we have is painful and wrong. We just accept that as our lot in life. In our corporate lives, we can feel we are among the outcasts or the marginalized people. As a group, we can feel weak and helpless. These feelings are real, and they deeply, directly impact us because they break the connection between what we believe and what we see.

HOPE IS OUR HOME. One of the greatest dangers to the free spirit is discouragement. The lighthearted soul can slowly be pulled down by the gravity of despair, the feeling that goodness will never overcome evil, that justice will be subverted by power, that common sense has been lost in the madness of the crowd. In times such as these, looking up toward the open sky of the human spirit becomes liberating. There is no earthly force that can pull us down as long as we fly toward the vision that first set us free. When we refuse to give in, others will see us. They will take wing and join us. Hope is not only our horizon, but our home.

BL ladder to the light

For more peace-filled meditations and reflections, learn more about Ladder to the Light by Steven Charleston. 

Topics: Excerpt

Steven Charleston

Written by Steven Charleston

Steven Charleston is a leading voice of justice for Indigenous peoples, the environment, and spiritual renewal. A member of the Choctaw Nation, Charleston has appeared on ABC World News Tonight, BBC World News, and other outlets. The author of more than a dozen books on theology and spirituality, including Ladder to the Light, Charleston has served as the Episcopal bishop of Alaska, president and dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, and professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary. He servesd as the theologian in residence at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University. Charleston lives with his wife, Susan, in Oklahoma.

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