This past Monday, I attempted to get to Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota to stand with the water protectors there, to learn about the Dakota Access Pipeline, to just be with people. I was traveling with a colleague, Jayne, and our plane was diverted from Bismarck to Minot because there were blizzard conditions in Bismarck. Finally, after three or four hours, we got back on the plane, and the pilot told us we would fly low and slowly. “We’re going to try to get to Bismarck,” he said. That’s what you want to hear from the pilot of the plane you’re on. We got there safely, but even the next day, the blizzard continued. Despite being stuck in Bismarck, we met many people with whom we spoke about the situation at Standing Rock. One Mohawk woman by the name of Paulette Moore who is a journalist and documentarian spent a couple months at the camp and told us stories of what she had seen and participated in. Among other stories, she told us about a man named Angry Bird. Led by Angry Bird, a small group of people decided to build a bridge to cross over a small marshy tributary of the river to Turtle Island. The crossing would allow the water protectors to pray by the disturbed gravesite and sacred lands of the Sioux, a site within a short distance of the pipeline construction. All night, this small group of people led by Angry Bird worked on the bridge. As the sun rose, people gathered to pray. But the police also gathered, demanding that the work on the bridge stop. The water protectors would not stop and would not stop praying, drumming, burning sage, standing together along with clergy. The police destroyed the bridge. But in the middle of this confrontation with armed police, Paulette told us that Angry Bird thought of an alternative bridge. She held us in rapt attention as she vividly described Angry Bird’s face and stance as he led people to tear out the grass and create a grass bridge to Turtle Island. As you may imagine, a grass bridge is neither a sturdy nor reliable bridge, yet the people with whom Paulette stood listened and began to tear grass out and lay down a path in the marshy tributary. There is no way that a bridge of grass would allow the people to cross to Turtle Island, but they did it anyway. They embraced what Paulette, Jayne, and I in the midst of our conversation came to call “hopeful futility.”
I share this story this morning because Isaiah declares that, for the Israelites who had endured much suffering, there would be streams in the desert, that the eyes of the blind would open, that the ears of the deaf would be unstopped, that the tongue of the speechless would sing for joy. But as people who live in the desert, we know, don’t we, that the desert will never be a verdant, succulent place. As people who live in a time of unprecedented medical technology, we know, don’t we, that it is difficult, nearly impossible, to open the eyes of the blind and to unstop the ears of the deaf. Still, we read Isaiah, and we know its truth. We know the truth that what looks uninhabitable can be a place of life. We know the truth that what seems impossible can become a reality. We embrace hopeful futility, not because we are fools, not because we are dooped, but because we are people of faith who walk by faith.
A month ago, Jayne called me and said: “I want to go to Standing Rock just to be there with people, not as a political statement but to be with people at a time of crisis, but I don’t want to go alone. You’re the only person I know who might go with me.” While I of course had been following the news about the Dakota Access Pipeline since last spring and while I had empathy for the struggle and was glad to hear just last Sunday that construction had stopped, I wasn’t sure what our presence would accomplish. Even if we had made it to Standing Rock, especially on the day after the construction was halted, there is nothing we could have done to make the situation any different or any better. We would have just been there with our hopeful futility. In the last few days as I’ve described my experience to people who ask, I’ve said: It’s a bummer we didn’t get there because of the blizzard. But the trip wasn’t wasted for we were encouraged. The trip wasn’t wasted because we got to listen to and learn from people who had been at the camp. The trip wasn’t wasted because, while eating breakfast in the hotel dining room, we joined in a spirit of comradery with veterans who were just leaving Standing Rock, with water protectors who were on their way home, all around us conversation about what had taken place. The trip wasn’t wasted because we met a woman of the Standing Rock tribe who assured us she would get the warm clothes and tobacco ties I had received from Pastor Mary Louise to the people at Standing Rock once the weather cleared. The trip wasn’t wasted because we also learned from non-Natives who live near Standing Rock about their perspective of this situation, a perspective that is very different and, we found out, largely shaped by not actually having gone to the camp. You could say we came without purpose. And you could say it didn’t make sense. But it makes as much sense as a grass bridge or streams in the desert.
During the season of Advent, God leads us in a way of what appears to be hopeful futility. What do our small efforts really accomplish? If we make food for a family who just had a baby or if we say “Good morning” to someone we don’t know at church, what does that really do? If we purchase pigs or goats or chicks for families in need from the ELCA Good Gifts catalogue instead of buying unnecessary material Christmas gifts for our family and friends, how does that really make a difference in the vast sea of global poverty? If we so prioritize in our lives that we come to GLOW or choir rehearsal or praise band rehearsal or WELCA Bible Study or Christmas caroling today after church or to mow the church lawn or to scrub the church stove, what does this use of our time really achieve? If we do what seems like the right thing to do even if it means an extraordinary effort on our part and changing and disrupting our lives, is it worth it? Is any of this worth it?
Isaiah declares that in the verdant desert where extraordinary and seemingly impossible things happen, there is a highway, and it shall be called the Holy Way. It is not a narrow way, not a dangerous way, not a difficult-to-navigate way for even fools do not go astray, Isaiah says. When we walk with faith into acts of hopeful futility we are walking this Holy Way. We may not know now—or ever—what difference our walk made. We may not understand this Holy Way of God. Indeed, it is confusing! We thought God would come and judge the world, come and triumph over all evil with great might, but instead, we wait for the birth of a baby. Talk about hopeful futility! What will a baby do?
What will a baby do?
I guess our hope isn’t futile after all. Thanks be to God! Amen.
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