Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Emily Dickinson was a recluse. She spent most of her adult life in seclusion, at her Amherst family home. Publishing only a few poems during her lifetime, she made her sister, Lavinia, promise to burn her papers after she passed away.  Had her sister kept her promise, the world would never know her short lines and slant rhymes. 

 Eschewing Second Great Awakening revivalism and the rigidity of New England Presbyterianism, the Transcendent yet haunts her poetry. I hear it in poems like ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers:

‘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 chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me. 

Dickinson describes hope as a bird, that never quits singing despite storms and cold and roiling waters. This is a poignant metaphor. Hope, for her, was resilient, irrepressible. The bird perches in the soul and “sings the tune without the words—/And never stops—at all—.” Hope is the stubborn songbird whose song is carried by the breeze, all the sweeter in strong winds. A melody that warms us through the storm.

Hope, this buoyant birdsong, doesn’t quit. It persists. Despite the weather, sometimes despite the evidence, “in chillest lands—/and on the strangest sea.” Can hopes be dashed and destroyed? Dickinson allows for the possibility, “and sore must be the storm . . .’ but the emphasis here is on the constancy of this birdsong in our souls. 

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Advent is the season where we turn our ears toward the bird singing in our soul. In terms of the Christian story, the song she has been singing, does have words. For two thousand years, she sings, “the kingdom of God is at hand. (Mark 1:15).” This song is resilient and the songbird keeps singing despite wars, and rumors of war, families being torn apart and placed in detention centers, environmental degradation, disease, the fear economic collapse and personal bankruptcy, poverty, trumped-up legal charges and the wrongfully convicted, death and the raw experience of grief. Through wind and storm, in tundra and tempest, the song rings out, “the kingdom of God is at hand.Dare we hope that God’s redemption and righteous reign would break into our broken worlds? 

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Dickinson’s final two lines: 


Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me. 

indicate that the song of hope is not coercive.  A young Emily Dickinson rebuffed revivalism when she attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. She didn’t reject the gospel story per se, she did reject manipulative attempts to get her to respond in a particular fashion to the call of Christ. When Dickinson attended church services with her family, she appeared disinterested. She has cemented her place in history as the patron saint of the spiritual-but-not-religious. 

It is worth asking here if Dickinson is right. Does hope really ask nothing of us? Not even a crumb? I think she is right to say that hope does not demand, coerce, manipulate us. Definitely not. But does not the songbird, invite us, inspire us, and move us to sing along?

The Kingdom of God is at hand.How may we join in the song? 

Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Advent is always a three-storied affair. We rehearse the ancient story of Christ’s coming—the angelic visitations, visions and John’s voice crying in the wilderness. We look ahead to Christ’s return when all our brokenness and pain will cease, and when He will wipe every tear from our eyes. But Advent is also now. To celebrate Advent is to inhabit the in-between, to remember and to hope, we wait, but our waiting isn’t passive. There is work to be done.

Too much is made about the not-yet-ness of the Kingdom of God. We may look around at all the violence, victimization, suffering, disease, racial hatred, and distrust and say “God’s Kingdom has not come in fullness.  When Jesus comes again, life will be different.” True enough, but to speak like this is to forget. We become passive fatalists and fail to re-member the One who declared to His beleaguered and downtrodden people that the Kingdom of God was at hand.  The Christian hope is that although the Kingdom of God is not yet, it is now.

The first Advent inaugurated the reign of Christ. To live in light of Christ’s coming means to be his agents of shalom, participating in all the ways Jesus’ flips the script of empire and challenges systemic injustice. But if we don’t also have a vision of the consummation of the Kingdom, when injustice and violence cease, we will succumb to despair.

Christmas is coming and if you believe in Jesus, you know his first coming matters. Jesus is coming again, one day. To believe this is to hope in the faithfulness of God to fulfill his promises. In 1923, Thomas Chisholm wrote the words to Great is Thy Faithfulness (reflecting on Lamentations 3:22-23). His fourth stanza reads:

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.

Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow captures Advent hope. We have the strength to face the brokenness, pain, and injustice in our world, to become change agents and subversives because we trust what God has done in Christ, and what he will do again. We also have not been left as orphans (John 14:18). The Spirit of Christ indwells us, we have his presence to cheer and to guide as we strive to welcome Christ’s kingdom more and more.

Jesus is the Spirit of Advent Past, the Spirit of Advent Present, and the Spirit of the Advent Yet to Come.