For the days when you're feeling a bit hopeless
May you bring forth life you never imagined, a life that repairs the world at your feet.
I’ve been spending a lot more time in the book of Isaiah lately. Something feels irreparably broken around us and so the words of this ancient prophet are reading as urgent, current, and necessary for us in these days. Right now, I need his sort of lament and hope, the truth-telling that names both what is and also holds out for what could be. I need someone to acknowledge the terrible magnificence - often in the same moment - of reality and possibility….which is probably why I’ve been spending more time with Isaiah:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord…
Even though my imagination is typically caught by the new life and new fruit prophesying towards Jesus’ coming, I have found myself thinking about that stump, the cutdown tree. Not as a direct connection you understand but more in the metaphorical sense: there is something that seems rather final about what is left behind after a tree is cut down.
I’ve often said that this moment in time has been apocalyptic in the truest sense of the word. Meaning, these years have been an unveiling, a revealing or revelation, an uncovering. Everything that was hidden has been dragged - sometimes kicking and screaming - into the open. We are exposed. The lights are on and we’re blinking helplessly into the honest mirror of our culture, our selfishness, our racism, our rampant individualism, our lack of neighbourliness, injustice, all of it.
Many of us have been sick over these years. All of us have endured isolation and loneliness in some measure. Some of us have lost people we love, parents, friends, children, grandparents, aunties, mentors. Marriages have ended, hearts have been broken. Many of us have lost jobs or income. Families are torn apart over conspiracy theories. Those who hold our society together in education and healthcare and ministry are overworked and underpaid and unappreciated. A generation of the evangelical Church gleefully embraced political power and white nationalism and pride. Abuse scandals have rocked our institutions; the people we trusted have betrayed us. Progress we took for granted has been clawed back. Everyone is overworked and worn thin and tired, tired down to their fingernails, with an exhaustion that no sleep-in or self-care regimen can relieve. We’ve been levelled.
And under it all: hopelessness.
We are carrying the heartsickness of our deferred hopes.
Our hope is like a tree cut down, a forest razed, a field of stumps left barren.
It looks like the life is gone, where could there be hope?
Who dares to speak of hope when the land is rocky, the nights are cold, the trees have been cut down, and you are lonely?
This season has clear-cut so much and so many.
A couple of years ago, I happened to come across an article in The Smithsonian about a small tree farm in Massachusetts. Not my usual reading fare, I admit, but something about the story caught my eye and it has stayed with me ever since. Because instead of the neat rows of fat snug trees, let alone the use of fertilizers or insecticides, and the typical rhythm of cutting down trees to then digging up the stump’s roots and then planting a brand new tree in that spot just do it all over agin, this family farm does something different.
They cultivate the stumps of older trees in order to grow new trees.
A tree hardly ever dies in this forest. Rather, they grow their trees, harvest them carefully and then in a feat of cooperation between gardener and land, nature and science, the original stump is cultivated for a new tree to sprout from the stump. These trees grow new trees out of the cut wound of the old tree for generations.
Picture a whole forest of old tree stumps, all giving birth to new thriving trees, over and over again
The ‘new’ natural trees are equal parts wild and cultivated, untamed and traditional.
It is an ancient method called “coppicing.” When the farmer harvests the original tree, he makes the cut a bit higher up the trunk so the stump and the roots remain alive, which then becomes the foundation for all the trees which will be grown in the future.
And - oh, I like this part! - because the tree stump has to be cut higher up the tree, this allows sunlight to reach the forest floor, bringing greater ecological diversity and health to the whole forest, old and new co-mingled together.
The farm featured in the story had land that was rocky and steep, so even if they wanted to farm it in the conventional way, the land wouldn’t allow it and so they cooperate with the land. As the article explains,
‘A single stump can support an older tree and a younger tree at the same time... Different plant and tree species commingle with the evergreens, and insects and other animals are more than welcome. “It’s a very rich ecosystem—that’s a big part of its value,” Van Driesche says.’
I’ve thought of that tree farm out in Massachusetts often during our apocalypse and was reminded of it again when I found myself back in Isaiah. We all know I’ve never met a metaphor I wouldn’t wring out for years but this ancient practice of coppicing has kept me quietly hopeful. If we were the ones planted, these years - this apocalypse - have cut us to the quick. If we once flowered with certainties and answers, with settled convictions and paths to follow, we have been dismantled. The things that have levelled us are as a varied as our stories. Our hope was laid bare.
And it is right there, in the midst of what we thought was the end, we are surprised to find a branch of possibility and hope emerging up from the wound.
God bless the hopeless ones who dare to practice and cultivate hope, right in the cut-off stump of their used-to-be certainties.
Hope like this isn’t a fluttering optimism that simply chirps that “it’ll all be fine!” Hope is not something that some of us are given and others are denied, I believe.
The hope we have now is more of a practice and a discipline and rooted stubbornness about the faithfulness of God right in the midst; it’s the hope of the stubborn and undeterred and unembarrassable and unbotherable. And as always with our good and not-safe Jesus, it seems we are invited to participate fully, invited to co-create with them, too.
Our hopeless eye sees a barren forest of tree stumps: a gardener who remembers the ancient paths sees the possibilities of new life.
And not new life as it was before, no, that’s over and pretending otherwise does no one a favour.
There is a weight to that truth, acknowledging and naming this reality at this particular moment, I know. I do so yearn for us to know, truly know, how beloved we are by God right now. Right in the midst of our hopelessness and exhaustion, disorientation and grief, anger and sense of betrayal of our days: beloved, beloved, beloved.
This is a defiant new life born out of the roots from what was cut away, from what most folks would dismiss as over and done. This is a tender beginning that grows with room to breathe, a wild tang in the air, the song of the sunlight reaching all the way to the mosses under your feet, with irregular beauty and space to stretch out your boughs at last.
Hope, like truth, clasps hands with the past and the future. This doesn’t undo what stole your hope from you, beloved: this is hope that kisses your wound, gently binds up your broken heart, and breathes new life into the parts of you that you think are dead and then attends to you until the deep knowing of the Love that holds all of us takes root again. This Gardener of hope sees the root of life still in you and cultivates everything that is wild and unexpected, hopeful and redemptive in you bringing forth life you never imagined, a life that repairs the world at your feet.
And it is in that hopeful and yet hopeless space, the space between that cries out “how long, O Lord?” and “I think I see something on the horizon coming…” - that’s the place where we practice Hope as if we are coppicing. We are developing, setting in, rising up in hope. The old hopes are there even as the new hope is developed and then flourishes, we could not have one without the other.
The hope we have is built on nothing less.
May you embrace both your hope and your lament, your realities and just the possibility of redemption. May the apocalypse of our times be a revealing bringing clarity, repentance, and resolve to you. May you be gentle with your heartsickness and offer it to the fiercely tender Holy Spirit who comforts and guides by day and by night.
In the places of your life where you feel like a clear-cut tree, right down to the ground, may you sense the life of God stirring in your roots. May you practice your hope, develop it, set it into your life, cultivated and wild at the same time as you wait across the narratives of then and now and future. May you be given a glimpse of the Gardener who sees the root of life still in you and cultivates everything that is wild and unexpected, hopeful and redemptive in your soul and body. May you bring forth life you never imagined, a life that repairs the world at your feet.
Alongside of you,
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This is an edited and updated version of a devotional from 2020.
Isaiah 11:1-3 NIV
This, Sarah Bessey, was exquisite.
right when i need it! i'll read it better later, i'm crying and fighting a meltdown... i do feel broken and very sad to see that my political party in france, who was so nice and hopeful is turning like the ones i fight. and worse, they are using the far right because they do not want the far left. someone named rachel keke is being harrassed since more thant 24 hours because some people, including "friends", are believing screenshots shared by a far right french site to be true! there's no proof at all, i searched about it myself, but for them i'm the bad one... you could not that the ones i fight nearly broke me (close to an autistic burn out), but i did not gave up. i'm giving up now... in a few minutes i'll turn my old comp off, and i'll come back only for a short time per day, and only for the ones i love. i feel betrayed by people who, for some of them, know me since 2 or 3 years! maybe even more... it's heartbreaking, but your post is heartwarming! thank you from the bottom of my heart...