In the Christian tradition, the book of Hebrews defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). But what does “hoped for” really mean?
What do I hope for? Well, like everyone else, world peace. And food, shelter, safety, education, and well-being for all those with whom I share this fragile planet. I hope for an end to violence and discrimination against “the other.” I hope for politicians to value the common good more than staying in office. I hope for an equal and fair distribution of wealth among all peoples. I hope for climate change to be at least stopped, if not reversed. And, while I’m at it, I hope the lowest-seeded team in the NCAA basketball tournament will be crowned champion.
Unfortunately, the odds of any of those things becoming a reality are right at zero. The vitriol in all sectors of society—both in this country and in the world—appears to be rising much more rapidly than the courage, compassion, and conviction needed to turn the tide toward shalom.
Bottom line: the world is a mess. But you don’t need me to tell you that. And yet, I don’t think we are doomed. Perhaps the place to find hope is in returning to ancient traditions.
The Potawatomi people know about shkitagen, a black, softball-sized fungus that erupts through the bark of birch trees. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Potawatomi people, also known as “the People of the Fire,” writes about shkitagen in her New York Times bestseller, Braiding Sawgrass (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions (2013).
Kimmerer writes, “It takes some effort to find a black knob of shkitagen and then dislodge it from the tree. But cut open, the body of the conk is banded in glowing shades of gold and bronze, with the texture of spongy wood, all constructed of tiny threads and air-filled pores. Our ancestors discovered a remarkable property of this being, although some say it spoke its own use to us through its burnt exterior and golden heart. Shkitagen is a tinder fungus, a firekeeper, and a good friend to the People of the Fire. Once an ember meets shkitagen it will not go out but smolders slowly in the fungal matrix, holding its heat. Even the smallest spark, so fleeting and easily lost, will be held and nurtured if it lands on a cube of shkitagen” (364).
And in the right hands, that one spark is enough tinder to start a fire.
I think our job is to be shkitagen—firekeepers of the spark of hope. Oftentimes, we hold and nurture that hope for one another and, thereby, hold it for the world.
To take in the messiness of the world all at once is, honestly, overwhelming. The problems are massive and formidable. But look more closely, and you’ll see firekeepers hard at work, holding onto and nurturing hope amid the mess. Unlike actual shkitagen, which is an increasingly rare find, the firekeepers of the spark of hope are plentiful. Hope may be fleeting and fragile at times, but it will not be extinguished.
And where is hope found? It rises with the morning sun and shines forth in the daily wonders of nature. It is held in the promise of a child. It is on display in a puppy’s tsunami of joy. It floats along on the melody of a hymn. It wafts in the air with the aroma of freshly baked bread.
The spark of hope burns brightly with each good deed that often goes unnoticed—each “please” and “thank you,” each meal that fills a hungry belly, each act of forgiveness, each welcoming of a stranger.
So much in life threatens to douse the flames and dampen hope. That makes our work as firekeepers ever more important: holding hope alive, safeguarding the spark of all that is good and holy and possible.
Sharon K. Youngs has served the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in several capacities, from the national to the local level. She has also worked as a family therapist. Currently, she is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, Tenn., which is a short drive from where she grew up. Sharon loves music, dogs, a good laugh, and all aspects of the outdoors. Photography is a growing avocation for Sharon, who finds her camera to be a great entree into the infinite wonders of nature and the holy hands that fashioned it all.