This testimony about hope, for the First Sunday in Advent, is by Heidi Peterson McFarley:

It was a hot summer day, on an obscure Forest Service road, on the flanks of Mt. Hood, when we stopped to stretch our legs. The forest was ripe with chirping insects, birdsong, and the honey scented perfume of the ponderosas. We felt a presence, and looked up to see a spotted owl watching us intently. Moving closer, it perched on the nearest branch and the owl looked deep into our eyes. We all craned our heads towards each other, wanting to be closer. Our visit with the owl was a meaningful and mysterious exchange, it was a loud silence that reverberated deeply in our souls.

How could I have known what was to come?

I would not have believed the truth, had I known it.

Who could have known that I would begin my journey at the far edge of life where death arrives and that I would end up at the other edge where life begins?

Six months later I would be alone, in the dark forest, draped with the weight of a heavy cloak. How could I have known that the owl was bringing its message of imminent change?

Of transformation – from destruction to renewal?
Of death leading to rebirth leading to new birth?
Of love lost, of love found and of love created?

I would understand in time that the owl’s arrival signaled the presence of a bridge that had emerged between one world and another. One world that I knew and the other that was yet unknown. The owl dwells where the veil is thin. And it’s at this place where worlds intermesh, where we are closest to the eternal unknown. It is a place where the light lives.

On a bitterly cold January night, amidst heavy frosty darkness, my late husband Dave slipped from this life into death. His death was sudden and unexpected. Immediately I was thrown into a new place of being, where hopes and dreams were instantly extinguished. Dave had no more future and mine was looming large, void of meaning. It was in this moment that I donned the widow’s cloak.

A heavy curtain of fog enveloped us – I was holding Dave, but he was already gone into another world, across the bridge. When I stood up, I found myself deep in the forest. It was pitch black and cold. I had to feel my way – and not with my eyes, but with my heart, with my soul. I had to listen, to really hear. Everything was heightened, I felt very alive, yet also dead inside. The forest, at least on this first night of darkness, provided no clues, no direction. I collapsed on the cold ground, numb, shaking, in shock. I fell into a sleep state that was unlike any I had ever experienced. When I awoke, I felt the weight and warmth of the cloak.

The widow’s cloak was heavy; sometimes it burdened, though mostly it comforted. It protected and sheltered me, and the heavy hood restricted my vision, forcing me to turn inward, to pay attention to my inner world. One voice that rang out loud and true was the maternal drum beat of my heart, keeping tempo with yearning, and pulsing in time with creation, a persistent, age old rhythm.

Though I was hurting, my spirit was intact. I was, in fact, thriving with the power and promise of hope. I was a pilgrim learning to experience existence in new and wondrous ways. The drive and desire to grow and thrive was as powerful and as present within me as the desire to let go. To honor and cherish the lessons of my past, while also forging ahead with a new future. Not the one I had imagined, but dare I say, a more deeply fulfilling one?

While in the forest I trusted in the darkness, feeling my way through the undergrowth towards the next shaft of light, thoughtfully, carefully, slowly. I kept moving forward, motivated by my fear of stagnation and mostly by my desire to manifest a new beginning, a new future. The rays of light in the dark forest, and the encounters with spirit were the signposts that presented along my path, reassuring me that I wasn’t alone.

Eventually, I came to a clearing. In that openness that was flanked by thick forest, and all the while wearing the cloak, I built a restaurant. It ignited my spirit and my creativity in the manifestation phase. It all came together so easily, and the dream of a restaurant swiftly moved from incubated dream to reality. But the fire of responsibility burned out of control. I felt that it was too hot, too intense; the fire was always just on the edge of getting away from me. I tried to contain the flames, tried to keep it manageable, but it was taking all of my energy to do so, and I ultimately was consumed. I had created something outside of myself that demanded my constant attention, that had to come before any of my own whims or desires. It was, I see now, a primer for parenthood.

But it was not the child that I wanted. I did not want another metaphor of motherhood. I wanted motherhood, the full legitimate, true experience of motherhood. This ultimate acknowledgement of my deepest heart’s desire was what I had been incubating all along this wooded journey. It had been growing quietly into its great strength. In order to bring it into reality in this world, I knew that I had to take a leap into the unknown and boldly and unapologetically work to manifest it.

So I shuttered the restaurant.

The following week I met Kyle. In him, I saw a light that was burning bright, despite the fact that it had very nearly been extinguished. It could have, perhaps should have been extinguished by circumstances, yet I saw and felt its strength clearly and wholly. I saw a reflection of my own struggle. Though on different paths, we shared similar hope. We both had traversed forests, walking alone, with hope, towards the light. And when our paths converged, it seemed to be on some divine timetable.

It was not long after meeting Kyle that I heard a voice within me exclaim “I have shed the widow’s cloak.” I sat up tall and straight, with a hard-earned new confidence, and felt warmth from the light of a thousand fires. I was bathed in light – that golden glow, which I had seen from the forest but could not yet access. The rays of dappled light through the trees had kept my inner fires burning. I was no longer looking back, into the darkness, but now I was looking forward, into the light. I felt a groundswell of hopefulness that was true and solid.

It is January once again. The Victorian home’s fireplaces are lit in festivity. The warmth and cheer of our wedding celebration cuts through the cold night. In Kyle’s eyes I see hope, I see sweetness, peace. I see the jewel at the center of the wound.

Two days later we learned that I was with child.

Now that child is two and his body cannot begin to contain the vast magnitude and depth of his heart. His spirit is alive – on fire – electric. Seeing the world through my son’s eyes is a joy that parents everywhere, since time began, have delighted in. And I am no different.

The purity of a child is a form of grace for parents. We cannot do over that which we have done – either well or poorly – but we can illuminate different paths, new walkways, in the minds, hearts and spirits of our children. The deep fountain of hope that I felt bubbling up within me now walks around outside me – that small and mighty child, full of hope – my ambassador of joy.

(Delivered December 3, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Heidi Peterson McFarley)