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Hope Is the Thing With Feathers

by Brother Thomas SSF

Hope is the thing with feathers- That perches in the Soul- And sings the tune without the words- And never stops at all- And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard- And sore must be the storm- That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm - I’ve heard it in the chilliest land – And on the strangest Sea – Yet – never – in Extremity, It asked a crumb – of me.

--Emily Dickinson

The seed is in the ground. Now may we rest in hope While the darkness does its work.

--Wendell Berry

Last week during morning prayer, one of the Psalms we were reading was Psalm 31. The mood was meditative as Damien and I sat in our usual spots for prayer, trading verses back and forth. Suddenly a verse was read and that seemed to resound in my mind like someone had just clanged a cymbal between my ears. “Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as a city under siege.”

Immediately my mind filled with all of the various things that were happening around us: the growing number of infected persons, those who care for them, the lack of supplies, the ones who are afraid, those who panic shop, those losing their jobs, responses from the CDC,WHO, the White House, from Cuomo and De Blasio. I was flooded with what seemed to me images of a city under siege. Has God shown us his steadfast love in this, I thought, let alone done it wondrously?

After prayer, I sat down at my desk and the words of Emily Dickinson’s poem gently floated into mind: Hope is the thing with feathers. It’s a poem that I am familiar with. I have used it for many things since reading it for the first time in high school. I sat still for a moment and sighed at the familiar words. Dickinson speaks of hope as if it were a small bird, like a sparrow. She talks of how it warms so many and can withstand even the worst of storms. And how it never asks for anything.

I don’t have a fantastic track record with hope. I am often the realistic and practical one, the one who will bring to the surface why things won’t work or how a plan is flawed even before it is finalized. And so there I sat at my desk feeling overwhelmed by the state of things around me thinking about hope in the shape of birds and I decided to make a choice. I could either continue to be overwhelmed, lock myself in my studio space vowing to never come out and let my anxiety eat me alive. Or I could choose hope. I chose hope and continue to. Which feels weird if I’m truthful, and it is taking some time to get used to. But over the last couple weeks I have had a lot of time to think about this and I have learned a few things.

First, when I say I choose hope, it is not be painting this whole grim scene over with rainbows. Hope for me isn’t disregarding the challenges around us. Hope is the willingness to look at the reality of where we are and believe that God is guiding us to someplace new. To me hope is holding the tension between the two. Yes this is hard, and yes God has a plan. I don’t know what that plan is, and it is hard for me to grapple with the fact that God’s plan involves so much sickness and heartache and death. But as Christians we are asked to have faith in a mysterious, loving and challenging God. As my mentor says, “God is the One Who Disturbs, the one who wakes us up”. Yes this is hard, and yes I believe God has a plan.

Secondly, choosing hope for me has become a slow changing of focus. Most of the structures in our life have taught us that there is never enough. There is never enough time, enough space, enough energy, enough patience, enough resources. We have been taught to see the world through the lens of scarcity. And in times like this, that lens is even sharper. We don’t have enough supplies for doctors. We don’t have enough space for the sick. We don’t get to go to brunch. We don’t get to leave our homes. But hope for me has become that question of “What do we have?” 1 John 3.1 says “See what love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God…” God is not a God of scarcity, but a God of abundance lavishing love upon us. It is true, finances are growing tighter, we are scared to go outside, and thousands of people are sick. But hope asks us to look at what we do have.

I have found that I am a part of a church that is willing to try new and different things to connect with each other. I have found that I have fantastic friends who are working to stay connected, to care for one another, to be present with one another any way they can. I have learned that I’m not alone in trying to figure out how all of this works and what life looks like now for the time being. I have found out that with so much happening online, new opportunities are actually opening. I have found out what I am truly grateful for.

The seed has been planted and as Wendell Berry writes, the darkness is now doing its work. And what I have discovered is that what I am being asked to do is to sit in hope; to believe that God has a plan, to stay present to what is going on around me, and to focus on what I do have and what I can do. I can’t change much about what is happening to our world right now, but I can choose how I respond. Then, when this is behind us, we will all be able to get together and see what that seed became as it grew and unfolded in the dark. And that will be a day I will be grateful for.


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