Last Things First
August 27, 2017
Matthew 19:16, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The last time I hiked the Overlook Trail in the Porcupine Mountains was the first time I hiked it; before I hiked it again. That’s a confusing way of saying I hiked the Overlook Trail twice this summer, but at the time I wrote that in my journal it felt like a poetic, albeit roundabout way of incorporating a little scriptural element into my hike.
The first time I hiked it, I was soul-weary. The burden of responsibility of running a camp full of kids and staff drove in me a need to get out into the wild woods and just walk for a bit; even if only for a few precious hours of time off the grid. And wouldn’t you know it, the weather forecast called for a cold rain all day long. My program director gave me the chance to back out at breakfast. We needed someone to drive up a group of hikers to drop them off for their three day trip, and I had told him that I wanted to be that guy; so I stuck with it. It was worth it. Even though the trail was shrouded in drizzle and mist; Even though the mud was thick and slick; and the trail required occasional dexterous navigations, even though the raincoat I wore was 100% saturated within the first fifteen minutes, It was worth it. The woods were dark and brooding. And at two different spots, after steep climbing elevations that forced a little huff and puff from yours truly, I was met with a bank of clouds, masking what I assumed to be a gorgeous view of Lake Superior stretching out before me. I will admit, it’s kind of a bummer to hike Overlook Trail and not be met by a majestic overlook at the top of the mountain; but I didn’t care.
The second time I hiked it, I had arranged the same deal with our program director. But this time it was an idyllic day. The sun was shining, a slight breeze was blowing, and it was warm enough that I didn’t require what we Floridians would refer to as a winter parka. So this time, in my anticipation and joy, I hiked the trail in reverse, knowing that it would be worth it to get the challenging elevations out of the way first; the quicker to get to those vistas and views that had been felt but not seen on my first hike. Those illusive overlooks were MINE this time, and I was excited to get to them. By all accounts, the last time I hiked that trail was the ideal day, the more beautiful day to hike. But something strange happened on the way to the top of the mountain…
If I presented to you two options of trail hikes, one rainy and cold and slick, the other sunny and bright and breezy, chances are good that the first option would be the last one you would choose, and the last one would be the first choice.
But not me. If I had it to do over again; if I could replay and redo one of those hikes, it is the rainy, muddy one I would choose again. It was the first time that had the more profound impact on me. Both hikes were beautiful—any hike in the Porkies is a good hike—but it was that first, cold and rainy and cloudy one that revealed and inspired hope in me; when I didn’t even realize it was hope I’d been looking for.
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about hope lately. Where it comes from, what hope requires of us, whether or not there is any out there to be found…and, fear not, there is plenty of hope out there to be found. Sometimes it just requires a little digging.
Hope is not the same as optimism. Optimism is being able to see the best in things. I can do optimism; I’m a bright-sided scenario kind of guy. But optimism can sway towards wishful thinking. And too much wishful thinking can fall prey to a sunny-sided falsity that is afraid to confront the deeper recesses of our shared human condition. Here’s a quick example: Richard Spencer. You know who I’m talking about? Richard Spencer is the white nationalist who popularized the term “alt-right” to describe his incendiary beliefs and rhetoric, promoting what he calls a “peaceful genocide” of all ethnicities in the United States but whites. He’s the fellow whom the UF thankfully declined in their request to hold a public forum here. Here’s the optimists take on the alt-right and neo-Nazi movement in our country. Last year the Alt-right held a convention in Washington DC; and just over 200 people came. In comparison, in 2016 there were 7603 attendees at the Bro-ny convention. That is a convention for primarily men who like to dress up as the cartoon characters from My Little Pony. There were 38 times more people who attended a convention for people who like to dress up as cartoon pony’s than there were who attended a Richard Spencer convention in Washington DC. The optimist in me says,…well what is there to say, I mean, 38 times more people? That’s refreshingly ridiculous, wouldn’t you say?
If I were being truthful I would say that it hurts my heart that hateful rhetoric and beliefs are not only being repeated, but are being amplified and acted upon; that such vitriol and intolerance is able to become lead headlines and new stories. Language and ideas that I thought were on their way to becoming obsolete are still festering in the hearts and souls of desperate people that I’ve had the obtuse privilege to ignore for far too long. I’ve taken my skin tone and my tolerance for granted for too long, and now when I examine the underbelly of this great country of ours, It forces in me a dark turn of mind, and I struggle with how to respond to such anger and hate.
That is where hope comes in.
Hope is born from the deeper recesses. Hope is formed from the struggle itself. Hope invests in a future that is not promised, not seen and not known. Hope necessitates risk and responsibility. Hope, as Peter Marty has described it, “has everything to do with what God wants in me; while wishing (or false optimism) has everything to do with what I want from other people and from God. Hope,” he says, “grows in the soil of the possibilities of God, not in the dirt of life’s present circumstances. Hope is what keeps a cancer patient going when the oncologist has thrown every drug in the pharmacy at the disease, or believing in your teenagers with every fiber of your love, even when their absence of good judgement thins your patience to the tiniest thread.” “Hope,” said Nelson Mandela, “is what sustains us when we’re not ready to give up on God beaming light into our darkness…or placing life into our weary hands.”
“Hope is what sustains us when we’re not ready to give up on God…placing life into our weary hands.”
But hope is not something that is freely given. Hope is something that is cultivated like a fruitful garden, built like sturdy shelter. Hope goes deeper, requiring risk and assuming responsibility, one writer said.
The first time Jesus said, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” he was responding to, the Rich Young Ruler, who asked him what is required for salvation. Jesus responds by listing the 10 commandments; to which the Rich Young Ruler, thinking he’s got it made, says he does all these things. Then Jesus says, “Great. Now go sell everything you’ve got and join us.” But the young man can’t do it. He turns away in despair.
Thomas Aquinas believed that despair is the greatest sin. Not envy, not hate, not even faithlessness. Despair. Because, he said, despair consists in a person ceasing to hope for a share of God’s goodness.
Even at the cost of salvation, the young man in the story cannot give up his station in life that he somehow believes he has earned. He is incapable of envisioning a reality that doesn’t fit into his comfortable life. He’d rather replace the blinders of his prior existence than risk the opportunity of God putting life into his weary hands. The first shall be last, Jesus says, and the last shall be first. Those of us who believe we have too much to risk will be the last to realize that the risk is what makes it all worthwhile. This is, as one biblical scholar puts it, the great reversal.
That was a little of what I experienced in my dueling hikes in the Porkies. Great reversals. When the sun was shining so brightly and breeze blowing so freely, it was as if the woods around me had been cast through a greenish yellow hue of banality; the forests would sway and sing as the breeze passed through their branches in a common chorus of content– but what was missing was how the majestic trees and thorny raspberry bushes stood out in singularity in their forest setting when the world was drenched in fog. In the rain it was as if the trees emerged from the mist, unique; individually; inspiring a second look, and deeper consideration. The deep forest felt deeper in the rain. Everything looks bright and cheery in the sunshine; but it robed the trees of their unique majesty. The overlook of Lake Superior I assumed I was missing on my first hike turned out to not be overlooking Lake Superior at all- it was a look at the interior of the park. And the thousands of treetops, though still beautiful betrayed my disappointed expectation of a majestic view of the most majestic lake. It was still beautiful! Of course it was beautiful; but it wasn’t what I had thought it would be. The perfect hike was too perfect. It was too easy to take for granted; because I had seen this forest in its individualized state; and in the solitary visions and dreams of one tree in one forest nestled next to one great lake mirrored back to me the individuality of my own soul. “The deciduous trees stood sentinel in the fog and the mist, I was alone, but not lonely.”
I wasn’t wrestling with what to do about the alt-right, or who needs to sacrifice what to make the world right; I was wrestling my own inner well-being. I was wrestling with sadness and grief, responsibility and accountability; doubt, fear. And I found hope in those sentinel trees, and the cloudy mist. I found hope surrounded by these ancient beings who lift their arms to God every day and thrive on and believe in life being place into their outstretched hands.
Hope had been revealed in the unrevealing nature of a rain hike. Adversity brought introspection. Struggle unearthed hope; and the quiet confidence of a singular understanding that if I will take on this challenge (even a challenge as simple as climbing a hilltop in a muddy rain)I can overcome it, and I will survive; and more, I will thrive through the experience of doing so. And in so doing, I will have hope for tomorrow.
To get to hope requires confronting and examining what it is we are seeking to do and to be in this short dance across the stage of life that we have been gifted. Hope makes no demands on us, other than to believe in a future we may not see and to hold strong to a dream that our lives are capable of great and powerful things.
Perhaps hope arrives when we can see our world in its opposite, and embrace it at its most vulnerable. Hope becomes readily available when we can open our weary hands and know that there is strength beyond strength to empower and sustain.