Hope is the thing with feathers

February 2017 – A reflection by Jim Hayes, Executive Director, Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center


Hope is the thing with feathers by Emily DickinsonHope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul…

So begins the poem of Emily Dickinson on hope. The poor bird is abashed by chill and storm and somehow perseveres.

Hope has often been on my mind of late. We have had many discussions as a staff about how to live our mission of hope and healing in an age of turmoil. For many, the current social and political context, along with the accompanying shouting, has ratcheted up the anxiety levels of many of our clients who already struggle with heightened emotions. They are not alone. Others experience emotional intensity by holding feelings back—not wanting to risk exhibition of feelings or thoughts for fear that they will be judged. If the mission of the Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center is to bring hope and healing through counseling and education, what is our role in this age of turmoil? Such storms threaten to blow the feathers right off us!

My response is rooted in the theological understanding of hope. If you’ve ever run across the word “eschatology,” count your blessings. It’s rooted in the Greek notion of the end times, when all will be brought to fulfillment. You find good examples of the notion in many spiritual traditions, particularly the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Think “apocalypse” and you’re in the ballpark. Eschatological hope is rooted in the notion of that which is fulfilled already and that which is yet to be fulfilled. We experience the “already” in moments of flow, love, and right relationship when the world seems to be a good place. The “not yet” is when we bump up against the limits of this life. These are the scary times of fear, loss, and injustice. Such moments raise questions such as why? Why now? Why this? Wait, what????

As one of our staff mentioned when we were discussing how such moments impact our therapies, spiritual direction and everyday conversation, we stand in the gaps between the already and the not yet. A reference was made to Parker Palmer’s fine book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, which names such gaps and potential responses to such moments. The gaps are not places of comfort, but certainly offer opportunity and hope. For the “already” members of our tribes, it means getting busy making the world a better place in the face of fear, loss, and injustice. Hope doesn’t allow for passivity in such moments, but inspires engagement and getting our hands dirty in doing the good work that needs to be done. The “not yet” folks offer us a message of hope that reminds us that we are a part of a creation that existed before us and will continue after us. As one of my heroes, Oscar Romero, put it: “we are prophets of a future not our own.” Such prophets remind us that we have work to do, but that we also need to acknowledge our inability to bring the fullness of good to fruition.

Let me move from the philosophical and provide an example. I volunteer every Friday at a place called “Hope Ministries,” which works with the homeless. I spend every Friday with men who have messed up their own lives and those they love in ways beyond the imagining of most of us. And yet, we have the audacity to meet every week and talk about hope—a future of possibility. Some of them get there—sober, reconciled with families, re-engaged as employed and contributing citizens. Others return to the streets. Already and not yet.

As each of us contemplates our calling and role in our current social and political context, remember that we are rooted in hope. We take hope and healing very seriously in our daily mission here at the Center. In the moments it’s evident, we celebrate. And we give thanks for all of you who make it possible. In the moments the turmoil tempts us with despair and fear, I encourage us all to remember the following gem from a survivor of one of history’s greatest evils:

“Everything can be taken from a man (person) but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

Let us choose hope and healing.

James E. Hayes, D. Min., M. Div.

James E. Hayes, D. Min., M. Div.

For more of Jim’s Blog: dmpcc.org/Jim