Emily Dickinson, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” [Poetry for Easter]

Each week during Eastertide I am posting a poem that helps me engage more meaningfully with Jesus’ resurrection. Here is Emily Dickinson’s poem “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” While Emily Dickinson was anything but an orthodox Christian, many of her poems, such as this one, capture the power of religious themes and the deeper life. Living in the United States in the 18th-century, Dickinson spent the majority of her adult life as a recluse. Her first volume of poetry was published posthumously in 1890, enjoying immediate success and laying the groundwork for Dickinson to become one of the most important American poets.


“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.


Previous poems in this series:

George Herbert, “Easter Wings”

Denise Levertov, “On Belief in the Physical Resurrection of Jesus

Christian Wiman, “Every Riven Thing

T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,” Stanza IV

The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying: Ecclesiastes [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson, part 5]

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2)

With such strong words as an opening salvo, how could Ecclesiastes equip pastors for ministry? According to Eugene Peterson in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Ecclesiastes, the fourth of the Meggiloth scrolls, teaches pastors to say “no” to what people often think they want when they approach the pastor for help.

At this point pastoral work encounters a complex difficulty, for the vocation of pastor does not permit trafficking in either miracles or answers. Pastors are in the awkward position of refusing to give what a great many people assume it is our assigned job to give. (152)

Qoholeth, the teacher, of Ecclesiastes names the vacuity—the vanity and meaninglessness—of much religious talk and activity, aiming for repentance and purging for all involved.

The pastor reads Ecclesiastes to get scrubbed clean from illusion and sentiment, from ideas that are idolatrous and feelings that cloy. (155)

As an unnamed teacher, Qoholeth stands alongside pastors “with concerns that a religious leader in the community has for the health of the people who assemble” (157). The clear, pure faith of early Israel has been tainted in Qoholeth’s time, leaving a polluted stream of stagnant religion. Qoholeth, and the pastor, calls people back to face the reality of God’s greatness and human encounter with the divine.

But this is no abstract religious fancy. Rather, it is an earthy holiness rooted in God’s yes to humanity and inviting humanity to respond with their own yes and amen.

Pastoral work consists in repeating the gospel yes in every conceivable life-situation and encouraging the yes answer of faith. (159)

The pastor helps their congregation answer “amen!” to God with a faith that is not false or full of pretense, that is more than propaganda and richer than cheer-leading. The Feast of Tabernacles, which Ecclesiastes is connected to, was one of the greatest festivals of thanksgiving, combining “the seasonal festivities of a harvest festival (bounty) with the historical memories of miraculous preservation in the wilderness (blessing)” (162). Tabernacles was a celebration of God’s yes to His people.  How strange, it would seem, that Ecclesiastes, which sounds more like a “no,” is the text of choice. Peterson suggests:

The most negative of the scrolls was required reading at the most positive of the festivals…[because] if at any point there is a separation between the God of blessing and the blessings of God…grave dangers threaten the life of the people of God. (162)

For the pastor this is instructive. We all know from experience how easy it is to lose perspective, to let go of wisdom with apparently-wise foolishness, to blur the differentiation between what is true and what only seems true but is false.

For the pastor has the responsibility to nurture the affirmative without encouraging the gullible; to keep alert and prepared to say yes to every yes of God in every part of existence without at the same time being a patsy for every confidence game in town; to train people in robust acceptance of what God brings to us and not to passively submit to the trashy merchandising of religious salespeople. (164)

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes, as well as the entire wisdom tradition, aims to ground God’s people in God’s truth for living. But this only functions in relationship to God, not in isolation. Ecclesiastes’ strong wisdom-words cut against the human tendency toward spiritualized inspirations and bumper-sticky theologies. It does the same for pastors, even as we’re tempted to cater to people’s demands for miracles and answers. The “nay-saying” of Ecclesiastes helps pastors, as well as their congregations, learn to say yes to living relationship with God and walking in His ways.

It is preaching the Scripture and prayer-infused worship that keeps us with God and in God’s wisdom. It is living as God’s community together with the Lord as our Shepherd that keeps us grounded instead of flying off in spiritual fancies and clouded individual self-actualization.

Everything we know about God comes out of the preaching and praying communities of Israel and church. Truths about God are not found, like arrowheads in old fields, by people off by themselves hunting souvenirs. (173)

Contrasting the cult of Baal with Yahwism, Peterson depicts the importance of covenant and the proclamation of the Word within the worship of God’s people. While drawn to the flashy and the miraculous, Ecclesiastes, echoing some of the prophets, calls us back to the heart of the matter. Yes, we have personal experiences and, yes, we may have feelings while we pray, but the heart of worship is not about us but about the God who has spoken His “yes” to us first. Our worship is all response and service to God.

People bring so many mistaken expectations to the gospel, so much silly sentiment, and so many petulant demands, that they hardly hear its real message or confront its actual message….[The pastor’s] work is simply to clear away what is mistaken for religion so that we are free to hear the word of God. (188-189)

Or, in the word of Qoholeth:

Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

[This is the fifth in a series of posts on Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. You can read all the posts here.]

Dallas Willard on “What a Disciple Is”

Dallas Willard is without a doubt one of the most important thinkers and writers of recent time on the Sermon on the Mount and the nature of discipleship. When working on my most recent message, “Real Response: receiving the invitation of Jesus,” as well as the entire series, “Becoming Real: The Sermon on the Mount,” Willard’s writing was incredibly helpful.

His book The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God is in my top ten books of all time on the Christian life. The following excerpt from that book is taken from chapter 8, “On Being a Disciple, or Student, of Jesus.”

Here, Willard summarizes what a disciple is.

Following up on what has already been said, then, a disciple, or apprentice, is simply someone who has decided to be with another person, under appropriate conditions, in order to become capable of doing what that person does or to become what that person is.

How does this apply to discipleship to Jesus? What is it, exactly, that he, the incarnate Lord, does? What, if you wish, is he “good at”? The answer is found in the Gospels: he lives in the kingdom of God, and he applies that kingdom for the good of others and even makes it possible for them to enter it for themselves. The deeper theological truths about his person and his work do not detract from this simple point. It is what he calls us to be saying, “Follow me.”

The description Peter gives in the first “official” presentation of the Gospel to the gentiles provides a sharp picture of the Master under whom we serve as apprentices. “You know,” he says to Cornelius, “of Jesus, the one from Nazareth. And you know how God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and power. He went about doing good and curing all those under oppression by the devil, because God was with him” (Acts 10:38).

And as a disciple of Jesus I am with him, by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God. This is the crucial idea. That means, we recall, how I live within the range of God’s effective will, his life flowing through mine. Another important way of putting this is to say that I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live my life if he were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner that he did all that he did.

My main role in life, for example, is that of a professor in what is called a “research” university. As Jesus’ apprentice, then, I constantly have before me the question of how he would deal with students and colleagues in the specific connections involved in such a role. How would he design a course, and why? How would he compose a test, administer it, and grade it? What would his research projects be, and why? How would he teach this course or that?

Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1998), 282-283.

Bibliography for Becoming Real: The Sermon on the Mount

When I conclude a sermon series, I usually share resources I utilized in my study and preparation for sermons. Here is the bibliography for our recent series, “Becoming Real,” which is the third part of an extended walk through the Gospel of Matthew, focusing on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7.

Bibliography for “Becoming Real: The Sermon on the Mount” [Gospel of Matthew, part 3]

Dale C. J. Allison. The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. New York: Herder, 1999.

Augustine of Hippo. Augustine: Sermon on the Mount. NPNF, series 1, vol. 6. Ed. by Philip Schaff. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994.

Kenneth E. Bailey. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

Jeannine K. Brown and Kyle Roberts. Matthew. The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018.

Michael Joseph Brown. “The Gospel of Matthew.” In True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, edited by Brian K. Blount, 85-120. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007.

John Calvin. A Harmony of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Volume 1. Trans. By A. W. Morrison. Calvin’s Commentaries. Ed. by David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972.

John Chrysostom. Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew. NPNF, series 1, vol. 10. Ed. by Philip Schaff. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994.

R. T. France. The Gospel of Matthew. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007.

Jeffrey P. Greenman, Timothy Larsen, and Stephen R. Spencer, eds. The Sermon on the Mount through the Centuries: From the Early Church to John Paul II. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007.

Romano Guardini. The Lord. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1954.

Robert A. Guelich. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Waco, TX: Word, 1982.

Craig S. Keener. Matthew. IVPNTC. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

Amy-Jill Levine. The Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven. Nashville: Abingdon, 2019.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1960.

Martin Luther. The Place of Trust: Martin Luther on the Sermon on the Mount. Ed. by Martin E. Marty. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1983.

Scot McKnight. “Matthew, Gospel of.” In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, 526-541. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

________. Sermon on the Mount. The Story of God Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.

F. B. Meyer. Blessed Are Ye: Talks on the Beatitudes. New York: Thomas Whittaker, 1898.

Jonathan T. Pennington. The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018.

Manlio Simonetti, editor. Matthew 1-13. ACCS. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001.

G. N. Stanton. ”Sermon on the Mount/Plain.” In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, 735-744. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992.

John R. W. Stott. The Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978.

Charles H. Talbert. Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Decision Making in Matthew 5-7. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

Helmut Thielicke. Life Can Begin Again: Sermons on the Sermon on the Mount. Trans. By John W. Doberstein. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963.

Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr. Gospel Parallels: A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels, 5th edition. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992.

Miroslav Volf. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996.

Dallas Willard. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1998.

Real Response: receiving the invitation of Jesus

This past weekend at Eastbrook, we concluded our series on the Sermon on the Mount, “Becoming Real,” as I explored the final section in Matthew 7:13-29.

Most Bible scholars agree that the bulk of the teaching by Jesus ends with the golden rule in Matthew 7:12. What remains is Jesus’ call for response to His teaching framed by four images of the stark difference between those who are His and those who are not. This section is so memorable that many of Jesus’ references have become stock phrases in our vocabulary, such as “walking the straight and narrow” or “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But more than simply offering powerful teaching or insights, Jesus really aims at inviting those “with ears to hear” into disciple-life with Him.

You can find the message video and outline below. You can also view the entire “Becoming Real” series here, as well as the devotional that accompanies the series here. Join us for weekend worship in-person or remotely via Eastbrook at Home.


“When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching.”
(Matthew 7:28)

Two Ways: The narrow and wide gates (Matthew 7:13-14)

  • The gate and the road to two different ways of life
  • Beware!: the eternal outcome is the result of the way we choose
  • Hear and respond to Jesus’ invitation to His way

Two Trees: True and false messengers (Matthew 7:15-20)

  • Messengers can be true or false prophets
  • Beware!: appearance versus reality in those outside the disciple community; watch for wolves
  • Pay attention to the fruit of messenger’s lives

Two Verdicts: The final judgment on true and false disciples (Matthew 7:21-23)

  • Two types of disciples: the known and the not-known; the obedient and the not obedient
  • Beware!: appearance versus reality in those inside the disciple community

Pay attention to what’s beneath the surface

Two Foundations: Those who do and don’t put Jesus’ words into practice (Matthew 7:24-27)

  • Two approaches to building our lives: hearing Jesus’ teaching or living Jesus’ teaching
  • Beware: the outcome of building our lives will reveal our foundation
  • Respond to Jesus’ teaching by building upon it

Invitation to the Disciple Life

  • Hearing Jesus’ call
  • Considering what Jesus’ call means for our life
  • Responding to Jesus’ call personally and decisively
  • Pursuing the disciple-life with Jesus in every area of life

Dig Deeper

This week dig deeper into Jesus’ teaching on our response to Him in one or more of the following ways:

  • Memorize Matthew 7:13-14 or 7:21 or 7:24 this week.
  • Set aside some time this week to read Matthew 7:13-29 again. Then write, draw, paint, or pray aloud your own response to Jesus’ teaching. You may even want to portray visually the four contrasts in this passage.
  • Read back through the Sermon on the Mount in one sitting, either by yourself or with others. Prayerfully consider your response to Jesus’ teaching on discipleship and the good life in God’s kingdom. Write a letter to Jesus expressing your response to Him.
  • Consider reading Jonathan Pennington’s article, “3 Things You Didn’t Know About the Sermon on the Mount”