“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
~ Emily Dickinson ~
My favorite teacher, on the eve of his 100th birthday, was asked by his pastor during worship what it is like to reach triple digits.
He replied, “I don’t know how to answer that except to say, the major question is, ‘What’s next?’” And when the pastor asked what was next, he replied, “Who knows? Sorry, I can’t help you!”
He said this with uncertainty, and also with a winking, confident joy, and peace with uncertainty. Heck, when you’re 100, what could possibly be certain?
Perhaps my teacher taught me something new: that to live on and on is to become more and more at peace with uncertainty.
As denizens of “The Year of Living Dangerously in a COVID-19 World,” we know the feel of uncertainty. The sort of uncertainty I have carried this year is heaviness, apprehension, trepidation, frustration, grief and discouragement.
But what my teacher seems to carry, after living 100 years, is lightness, freedom, trust, joy, release and confidence. He seems to have loosed the bonds and the weight of these last 100 years.
The century since his birth in 1921 has encompassed his whole life and his wonderful family’s upbringing.
Yet, it has also held world war, brutal global tyranny, economic oligarchy, depression and collapse, societal upheaval and fragmentation, nuclear and Nazi holocaust, civil rights cataclysm, sexual revolution, dismal technological warfare alongside fantastic technological communication and infrastructural transformation, global climactic devastation and seminal astronomical discovery.
In our lifetimes, as in my teacher’s, there have already been causes for utter despair, but also glorious, glistening hope. Yet, what I hear in his witness at age 100 is, strangely, the ability he has gained as a Jesus-follower to keep sight of that glistening hope.
He is able, as I want to be, to have a wink in his eye as he confesses with his trademark grin about his expectations of Year 101, “Who knows?”
We don’t know what will happen to us. We live, and move, and have our being in a God of mercy, love and redemption who keeps moving people forward with the idea that their future will be better.
My teacher at age 100 still believes this and is being moved by it, uncertainty notwithstanding. Hope is, after all, the essence of faith, the assurance of things not seen, and the thing with feathers.
In this week’s lectionary text from Jeremiah 33:14-16, we hear the prophet’s words and, oh, how we long to feel some hope for his vision to come to fruition.
How we long for justice, for resolution of contention, for the selfish and mean-spirited powermongers to stop profiting and to be sent home to sit down, be quiet, leave us alone and stay off social media.
How we long for those we see as deserving and long-suffering to win, at last, and to be free, at last. Thank God almighty.
How we long to let go of our current culture of polarization, to clasp hands in the middle and see something good in the eyes of the confounded, opposite, other one.
How we long just to touch another person’s hand outright without one blessed thought of hand sanitizer.
How we hope to be at one, and not automatically to be rejected by someone, or to reduce another person to their answer of only one question in this whole, wide world of life: Gay, straight? Vaccine, anti-vax? Decaf, espresso? Pro-life, pro-choice? Carbs, paleo? Pro-wall, pro-immigrant? Elephant, donkey? Black, white?
God save the one who stands between, among, alongside, within, undecided, un-pre-determined.
How did our daily life together get so reduced? As Grandma used to say to our sorry little selves, “Umh, Umh. It’s our own fault. We stopped hoping.”
“Surely the time is coming” when we’ll realize we are not at the mercy of this.
We are made for the fulfillment of God’s promise; we are made for a better future. We’re made for justice, for righteousness, for sweet communion.
My 100-year-old teacher was asked what he hoped would happen in our churches. “The hope, I think, would be to expand our direct communication with congregations in other countries … and of other faiths … which will enrich our lives tremendously.”
He knows: the time is surely coming, when human differences and contentions could fall away, and we can discover that loving the other one is our future hope, joy, peace and redemption.
A beautiful Advent hymn, “People, Look East,” begins with a stanza that bids for hospitality to welcome Love, the Guest, and includes these words:
Birds, though you long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
God for fledging time has chosen.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the bird, is on the way.
Let yourself love the other, and feel that thing with feathers, Hope.
Listen: even now, the God of hope is on the way.
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles for Advent 2021. One article will be published each week, reflecting on one or more of the Lectionary texts for the coming Sunday of Advent, with a final article published during the week of Christmas.