The poet Emily Dickinson, who was not a stranger to loss, wrote about hope:
“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.
How do you vision hope?
The prophet Habakkuk and those of his time know of troubles and darkness. They’re living in times between times. But Babylon was this feast this monster that could not be stopped that was tearing through the ancient world conquering everything its past and it had its eye set on Jerusalem. And this time Jerusalem would be overcome by the might that was Babylon.
And well clearly news does not travel as fast then as it does now surely bad news traveled faster than good in the ancient world. I’m sure the stories of Babylon’s conquest atrocities We’re spreading far and wide both as a way to prop up Babylon’s reputation and as a way to inflict fear on everyone else. The ancient world lived in a time of violence that even the 20th century could not compare to. The same city would be destroyed every time a new empire would rise, and they would rise and fall in just a few generations.
Habukkuk could have grown on the stories of the God who set their people free who gave them land and abundance and promise. And Habukkuk would have heard the stories of their history of being conquered and of survival. As he cried out the world seemed more dangerous and the future seemed less secure. They were in the middle of bad times, and bad times seemed to be coming.
Habukkuk does the only thing he can figure out to do and cries out to God. How long are we going to suffer like this? Where have you gone? How long do we have to wait? What are we supposed to do in the midst of all of this violence?
What Habukkuk gets is a reminder of God’s might and power and the instructions to cast a vision to make it plain. And we don’t know what that vision is but we can presume it was one that would give those who were moving through the world quickly with urgency out of necessity something to hold on to when the days are hard and dark and challenging. Vision of hope rooted in who they are and in their God. I wonder if he would have agreed with Dickenson…
But we don’t get to hear what that vision is. We don’t get to know what to have a cut down on a tablet, in plain text, clear even those who are rushing by could see it.
I hadn’t listened to the news before church last Sunday, it sometimes happens. And honestly, I might not have made it through the service if I had known. I trust my phone to notify me of anything I ought to know and it didn’t give me notifications of the 600th mass shooting in this country. It did a few days later when we hit 607. It did when prominent Christians Said some incredibly awful things about the LGBT community and in particular those who had been killed on Saturday night. And there were Christian leaders who were standing up and talking and speaking about and countering the words, the abuses condemning the violence both by gun and by word. And I do not feel like the prophet who could stand before the powerful to proclaim anything. this week I identified with Habukkuk, seeing the darkness approaching, fearful of what was to come, crying out how long?
How long do we have to wait for the world to be set right? How long do we have to wait until every person is treated as if they are made in the image of God with dignity and belovedness, regardless Of age or race or nationality gender identity gender expression regardless of who or how they love?
How long will we live in this world as if we are in competition with each, in the lie that we might win individually by pitting each other against one, instead of the truth as if we all rise and fall together?
How long will it look beyond ourselves outside, beyond our relationship with the divine to find our affirmation, our value, our justification, or reason for our problems, be it on a personal or global scale? As if I could just have or take what they have, or get rid of them, I’ll be ok.
How long will we use the Earth as if we are the only and the last people who will ever matter?
How long will we push our problems down to the next generations expecting them to pick up the pieces, to solve the problems, plaster the cracks, and build new foundations for the structures, institutions, and organizations that we have left crumble around us?
And in the midst of all of that, in the midst of the violence Habakkuk was living in, I do wonder: is hope a bird with feathers that never stops singing and asks for nothing and perches on our finger like we’re a Disney Princess?
Recently, sometime in the last 20 years, Poet Caitlin Seida wrote a response to the Dickenson poem on hope.
Hope Is Not a Bird, Emily, It’s a Sewer Rat by Caitlin Seida
Hope is not the thing with feathers
That comes home to roost
When you need it most.
Hope is an ugly thing
With teeth and claws and
Patchy fur that’s seen some [stuff][shit.]
It’s what thrives in the discards
And survives in the ugliest parts of our world,
Able to find a way to go on
When nothing else can even find a way in.
It’s the gritty, nasty little carrier of such
Perseverance and joy,
Transmissible as it drags its tail across
bites you in the ass.
Hope is not some delicate, beautiful bird,
It’s a lowly little sewer rat
That snorts pesticides like they were
Lines of coke and still
Shows up on time to work the next day
Looking no worse for wear.
In this season of advent, we wait. We remember a time when the world was not as they had hoped it to be and God came, incarnate. Into the muck, on the wrong side of the tracks, and in a backwater village, among the dirt and the mud, in the blood and the struggle. We prepare ourselves to remember that hope was born and birth is messy. And we live in a world that is not as we hope it will be and not as it will yet be and we wait for the day of Christ’s return. We also remember that incarnation was not one moment thousands of years ago and is not in some time to come but as a way in which we live in the midst of our messiness and our grief and our pain, our struggles and our violence. Into all of that Christ is born hope is born in us anew, Christ is incarnate in us every day. This is a scrappy hope, this is a messy hope, this is a hope that survives. This is a hope that they have tried to whisper to us doesn’t exist, and they have tried to talk us out of, and they have beaten down and they tried to kill it
Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom,
and there’s no produce on the vine;
though the olive crop withers,
and the fields don’t provide food;
though the sheep are cut off from the pen,
and there are no cattle in the stalls;
I will rejoice in the Lord.
Though there is violence and cruel words though they do not know me and still they hate me, I will praise the God of the scrappy hope who came into the messiness of the world, incarnate in the midst of poverty and struggle, it rises up when it seems like all is lost, and comes into the messiness of our own hearts and lives. That hope, unlike Emily’s hope, does ask things of us. It asks us to be fully embodied in our messy world to bring that bit of scrappy hope that we have found, that we can hold on to, that perseveres.
It is the hope of a little church that knows it can’t do it all but is committed to being a place of welcome and grace. A church that is committed to the dignity of all people, and that dignity might come through housing, food, gifts, health care. But even though we can’t do it all, it doesn’t mean we can’t do big things. Invest energy in mental health, fundraise to forgive medical debt in our county, and expand our reach with hope and love to places that seem broken, for those who fear there is no hope to be found. What is the need, what brings hope?
Write the vision; make it plain, so that even those rushing by can see it. Write a vision for your family, our church family, for our local community, and our neighbors around the world. So that they know hope is scrappy, it survives.