The thing with feathers …*

photograph (c) Katherine Brown

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

Luke 13:10-13, excerpt from Luke 13:10-17, NRSVUE, lectionary gospel for Aug. 21, 2022

‘Bound for eighteen long years,’ he said (Luke 13:16). She heard, and she paused in her praise. Had really been so long. From when would she count it? From when her body’s bearing had become fixed contortion? Or had the binding begun farther back, when the first spider-thread of unease ensnared her? She had dismissed the twinge, whenever it was. Told herself the day’s load had been too heavy, she’d twisted something trying to keep up. But she kept twisting herself trying to accommodate each next sure-to-pass-soon circumstance. Not denying the ache, exactly, but ignoring it. And each day she kept going, that day’s thread twisted together with its fellow until she’d found herself bound by a sticky, wrist-thick rope that kept her hunched in the world, bent over by the spirit’s weight.

When had she last stood straight before this day? The crowd rejoiced at the wonder they had seen. And she in the midst of their sounding joy, was suddenly cast back in her memory.

A goldfinch had caught her eye, and she’d turned her head to follow its flight into the thicket. She’d lost sight of it then. Stood herself still and peered closely until she glimpsed its lemon yellow deep within the tangled branches. A smile had spread wide across her face. She’d had to share the wonder. ‘See!’ she pointed out to passersby. ‘See! A finch, right there!’ Two had paused their own progress and followed her pointing finger with their own eyes. They did not see. She watched their expressions turn from expectancy to puzzlement, then a slight withdrawal towards doubt. ‘See! There!’ she repeated, as if words alone could make it visible. Her insistence kept them there a beat longer, but neither her words nor her pointing finger made them see. The bird was too well hidden to be noticed if you hadn’t already known where it was. Then the goldfinch moved, and its motion made it visible. ‘Oh!’ they all exclaimed together as it flew up from the bush. Another finch flew too, two small brightnesses flitting around each other, darting through the air. ‘Look!’ they exclaimed, “See!’ The sound of their delight drew another from the doorway to see its reason, and so it spread.

How long since she had seen a flying brightness that made her smile? She had walked hunched in the world, bent over by the spirit’s weight, her gaze on her own feet moving along the dusty road. She hadn’t thought of birds. But maybe a tiny thing with feathers had been set within her own soul, too hidden to be noticed unless you knew it there, yet in its own subtle way resisting the rope that had bound her so firmly, working to unwind even one cobweb thread. For she had come here this Sabbath, as she had before, treading the path worn by others’ feet before ever her own had started their journey of persistence.

She had not come asking or expecting birds. She had come in fidelity to the unsuspected feathered thing hidden in the thicket of her own self. The insistence of habit had drawn her there without her knowing why. Then hope had flown and shown itself. Had seen and called her over, pronounced her free and laid hands on her. It had felt as if one hand pulled on her shoulder and one hand pressed the small of her back and together the hands reshaped and stood her straight who had not stood straight for eighteen long years.

She stood now in the midst of the crowd’s sounding joy. Wonder was among them — a bird darting up from the constriction of cares quotidian and extraordinary, delighting with its brightness and its airy flight, delighting even she herself who was its sign, re-awakening her to its presence and its power. A smile spread wide across her face. She had been waked again to demand. ‘See!’ she said, ‘See!’ She had been waked again to the promise that there is something to demand.

Demand the vision. Demand the movement that makes visible hope and joy and life — on the Lord’s day and every day.

* First line from Emily Dickinson

Demanding Hope

And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver.  I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. [And] In their presence I charged Baruch, saying,  Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. 

Jer 32:9-10, 13-15, excerpt from Jer 32:1-2, 6-15, lectionary text for Sept 29, 2019

I felt hopeful the other day.  Literally filled with hope.  An unexpected opportunity was offered; brief consideration revealed no apparent obstacles; I emailed my acceptance.  Hope then rose in me so swiftly and strongly that I had to push back from my desk, go for a walk outside.  The hope I felt was not primarily a mental attitude but a palpable force, a purposeful energy that had a physical effect.  Hope not as some vague possibility but as a power flowing through me, filling my body from spine to fingertips.  I could not contain its force.  I had to stand up and stride out, as if to dissipate some of the energy, so I could channel the rest to the challenge of the work.

And part of the effect of this experience was its revelation of how low my spirit and energy have been.  That I have been sitting slumped and did not even realize.  That I have lacked hope and did not know it missing.

Walk across the academic quad to the chapel.  Kneel in a pew and try to arrange my hope-jumbled thoughts into some sort of ordered line.  Look up at the blue of the rose window and try to pray and what comes to my lips is none of the set forms, psalmic or otherwise, but the line, ‘Hope is the thing with feathers — ’   Emily Dickinson’s poem is as good a prayer as any, I decide, so I look at the blue and move my lips and murmur the rest of Emily’s words as offering.  

I wonder, though, when I get to the poem’s end.  The poem ends as if with a breathed recognition that ‘never — in extremity — [hope] asked a crumb — of me.’  Jeremiah’s text — and my own experience — suggest another view.  Maybe hope does ask; maybe hope demands; maybe hope tugs you out to meet it coming. 

Jeremiah is imprisoned, after all, at a time when the city is under siege (Jer 32:1-2).  But the hope — the promise, the expectation — that there will be a time after this, a time when ‘houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land’ — demands of Jeremiah a literal investment:  he buys his cousin’s field notwithstanding the imminent destruction he has already proclaimed in the name of the LORD.  Because neither ‘now’ nor ‘next’ is the end.  There will come a time after this.  And that time to come cannot be just waited for, it must be prepared for.  Money must be paid.  A deed must be signed and sealed, it and its copy placed in a jar for safekeeping.  The writing does not anticipate the future; it secures the anticipation.  It will come.  It has been written — the energy of that promise has been fixed in recoverable form.  Jeremiah’s expectation will be realized; the promised, hoped-for, future will arrive.

Let my hope be that hope, I pray.  I ask of the LORD a hope that asks of me.  An expectation that expects of me, that engages me and energizes me and equips me to meet it coming.  That by setting out to meet hope, I may secure its realization, may recognize it when it comes even if it does not look as I expected.

I stand to go.  Stare boldly at the blue.  Make a last demand before I go back out into the day.

Let me write hope — putting all the vague, inchoate, desires and expectations into explicit words, physical form. Let me write hope that demands so that demanding hope may demand of me. Let me write hope that I may live hope.