THE BLOG
06/29/2011 09:22 am ET Updated Aug 29, 2011

The Sacred Power Of Hope

Emily Dickinson wrote the famous line, "Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without words, and never stops at all."

I first encountered this poem while in junior high. I recall the teacher comparing hope to the feathers of a dove. She perceived the feathers of hope to be lightweight and fragile. I disagreed. In the assigned response, I suggested that the feathers of hope were more likely eagle than dove. I compared Dickinson to the Prophet Isaiah, proposing that both authors referred to the strength and courage of hope: "They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."

If Dickinson referred to some weaker bird than an eagle, she could not have been talking about a bird that survives the wicked gale mentioned later in the poem. That gale would annihilate and smash dainty song birds. Dickinson presents a hope stronger than whatever it must endure. Dickinson understood that hope is not fluttery and whimsical.

Hope is often misunderstood. Many people consider hope a synonym for wishing, or optimism, or positive thinking. It's not. Hope is tougher than that. So are the people who make hoping a way of life.

Whatever life throws at you, hope delivers the strength of an eagle's wings and the sound of a song that will not be silenced. Inherent in anguish is the promise and presence of hope. It is a stubborn thing resisting the call to self-annihilation, deadening pain, and compromising with what is simply wrong.

I do not recall the object of my first hope; but I remember hope. Always, at the edges of every ragged and elusive memory, lingers hope. I learned hope as a child, although I am not sure how. I recall it in my mother's voice as she sang and in her strong hands brushing my hair. If childhood had a theme song, it would have been hope. I recall it in my grandmother's fierce Irish voice when she told of coming to America at 18, with hope as her only companion. Hope is fixed in place at the beginning, long before a complete, clear memory takes shape. We do not learn to hope, instead we are born hoping.

In the early 1970's, I worked in a Christian coffee house, typical of the era. Guitars, folk music, brightly colored posters, huge cups of black coffee and a bunch of very young people thinking deep thoughts about spirituality -- together. It was there I met a woman who claimed she had "found the key" to answered prayer. She spent two hours each day silently and intentionally in what she called a "state of hopefulness." She claimed to have corralled the energy of hope for "something useful." After two weeks, she declared her hope formula a flop and decided that hoping was not the key to answered prayer after all. She gave up on hope, saying it amounted to "nothing more than wishful thinking with a bible in your hand."

Do we dare hope that our prayers will be answered? Is hope a lesser form of faith? Are our hopes for a better future pointless? Are we better off, ultimately, if we replace hope with something more practical? I've struggled with all these questions. I know that most people of faith have as well.

There are different kinds of hope, when a person of faith hopes, it is sacred hope. It is still positive outcomes we're after, but with sacred hope we trust God for the outcome. We are in danger of seeming irrelevant and talking trite trash when we speak of God working out all things for our good. Not because it isn't true, but because, in the human experience, it sometimes appears to be a fragile dream rather than a reality. Before we abandon hope, we send God packing. Sustaining a lively, durable hope means holding to God, even when it feels and seems, pointless. Hopeful people eventually figure out that God is not an insurance policy.

I have tried to abandon hope, and I have failed. It was a futile and unhappy chapter of my life. Nothing made sense without hope. Nothing mattered. Despite my intellectual determination that hope was meaningless, I found myself hoping. Hope, it turns out, is actually rather sneaky, it waits in the shadows to ambush when you least expect. Hope does not take flight from your soul just because you will it to be gone. In the same way that you cannot will away your senses, your intelligence, or your character, you cannot, by an act of will abandon hope.

I was appalled that hope did not require my permission to disrupt and kick around educated, well-nurtured and intentional apathy. Hope, once acquired, takes full possession. It will be your strong comfort and bearer of courage, or the torturing voice that wallops the stuffing out of empirically sponsored indifference. My advice is that you go quietly into the bonds of hope. Resistance is futile.