The Thing with Feathers

Allow me to introduce you to Violet, Bobby and Pip. They are a family of three who live in a cozy home in Manhattan, located twelve stories above Washington Square Park near New York University. Violet and her partner Bobby have been together for a number of years. Pip is their first baby and was born this past May.

Like many new parents, Violet and Bobby exhaustively tended to their baby’s every need. Pip was fed multiple times throughout the day. And, Violet stayed close to her newborn to provide warmth and security. Pip’s birth is something of a miracle for Violet and Bobby. As the couple waited for Pip’s arrival – even after Violet’s due date and had come and gone – experts said that the baby would likely never hatch. That’s right . . . hatch. You see, Violet and Bobby are a couple of red-tailed hawks. Their cozy Manhattan apartment is actually a nest high above the streets of New York City. Violet, Bobby and Pip and their unfolding family life has been under close watch, thanks to a video camera installed in the office window of the president of New York University, where it directly overlooks the nest.

Pip the eyas – which is the technical name for a baby hawk – was born big-headed and fuzzy more than several days after the egg’s incubation period had expired. Since then, thousands of viewers have logged on to Hawk Cam each day to get a glimpse of the wobbly newborn and watch Violet and Bobby perform their parental duties . . . not the least of which includes bringing freshly-killed rats back to the nest to feed their hungry youngster. To help Violet and Pip along, The New York Times reported that the local community was making special accommodations. Washington Square Park, for instance, discontinued poisoning their rat population. And, NYU lowered the noise level of their annual outdoor Strawberry Festival by several decibels to keep from upsetting the parents and harming the chick.

I am one of those thousands of Hawk Cam viewers who couldn’t get enough of this feathered family. Over these past several months, I’ve watched Violet nuzzle her baby, feed it and cover it with her thickly-feathered wing for warmth. Pip moved clumsily about the nest, uncoordinated, vulnerable, and completely dependent upon her parents for survival. For me, this version of Reality TV has been an invitation to consider what it means to have hope: hope in the unexpected and the unusual, hope against all odds and hope in the persistent and creative force of life. With so many personal and public tragedies in our lives, a fuzzy gray Tweety bird-headed newborn hawklet living at NYU was indeed something to cheer about.

19th Century American Poet Emily Dickinson wrote “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words/And never stops at all.” The opening lines of Dickinson’s poem paint a brave picture of hope, suggesting that it is ever-present. Dickinson further contends that hope is a hard thing to annihilate when her poem continues, “And the sweetest in the gale is heard/And sore must be the storm/That could abash the little bird/That kept so many warm.”

What is our experience of hope? As Dickinson’s poem suggests, do we find that it exists always and within us like a rugged little bird? What does our Unitarian Universalist tradition have to say about hope? And, how can we hold onto it as we encounter personal losses and a world that is hurting with crises of all kinds?

We might begin our reflection on hope by considering those influences that challenge our ability to reconnect to it. In our culture, there are a number of distractions that threaten to deafen us to hope’s insistent chirping. One such distraction may well be our society’s demand for instantaneous information on all things monumental and trivial. Thanks to CNN, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, persons of all ages and from many places can connect to people, cultures, and events that are close by, far flung and enormously diverse. Just as I was able to witness the miracle of Pip’s arrival in Manhattan and could keep my eye on the little hawklet as often as I’d like, I can also tune into the drama of the Middle East uprisings, the approach of a tornado in the Midwest . . . or something just plain silly such as recent photos of Justin Bieber’s newest haircut.

Our ability to get news on nearly anything we want when we want it certainly can expand our understanding of our world and the life that exists within it. However, it’s possible that so much information may also be interfering with our ability to connect to hope. Having hope in what is possible and finding the courage to believe in those possibilities may be difficult to do when the thing with feathers perched in our soul is being buffeted about by a sore storm of unending news and chatter.

As we use technological tools more frequently to access more information about more things, we might also take the time to ask ourselves, “How is my hope holding up?” Perhaps it’s time that we start looking not simply for more information, but for more good news . . . simple, good news that opens our hearts to hope and to possibility. Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers us a way to think about the news we need to enliven our spirits and re-energize our hope. He writes:

The good news they do not print.

The good news we do not print.

We have a special edition every moment,

and we need you to read it.

The good news is that you are alive,

that the linden tree is still there,

standing firm in the harsh Winter.

The good news is that you have wonderful eyes to touch the

blue sky.

The good news is that your child is there before you,

and your arms are available: hugging is possible.

Thich Nhat Hahn continues:

They only print what is wrong.

Look at each of our special editions.

We always offer the things that are not wrong.

We want you to benefit from them and help protect them.

The dandelion is there by the sidewalk,

smiling its wondrous smile, singing the song of eternity.

“Listen!” Thich Nhat Hahn says.

You have ears that can hear it.

Bow your head. Listen to it.

Leave behind the world of sorrow and preoccupation and get free.

The latest good news is that you can do it.[1]

How can we live in a way that doesn’t avoid the outer world, but also finds the time and space to nurture that place within where hope is said to spring eternal?[2] Perhaps we can take some lessons from the story of Pip. Not Pip our fuzzy New York baby hawk, but Pip, the protagonist of Charles Dickens’ 19th century novel Great Expectations (and for whom our little bird was named).

You may recall that Charles Dickens’ Pip was the orphaned and often mistreated boy whose impoverished life changes when he inherits a large sum of money from an anonymous benefactor. Pip’s newfound wealth not only transforms his material circumstances, but he also undergoes a change in values as well. As the story goes, Pip decides that his friendships with common folk are no longer good enough for him. In his attempt to distance himself from his humble roots and perhaps his own self loathing, Pip forsakes the poor, uneducated and disenfranchised persons who are kindest to him. Instead, he seeks the attention and affections of those who turn out to be status-seeking, cold hearted and materialistic. Pip’s “great expectations” are that he will one day inherit the entire fortune of his anonymous benefactor. However, this is not to be the case. Instead of fulfilled great expectations, Pip has a great awakening. He discovers his mistaken assumptions about his benefactor, he confronts his own shallow behavior and, in the end, he finds humility and self acceptance.

This tale of redemption – the redemption of Pip’s moral character – is, in fact, our story. Pip is you and me. He is kind, he is cruel . . . he is ambitious and remorseful. Pip has great dreams and he has great shame about his past and his secrets. Dickens’ tale is also a story of hope. Pip is a complicated person who, despite going astray with the wrong crowd and the wrong values, nevertheless finds his way back to his soul and to hope. His own journey restores our faith in human goodness and gives us hope that our lives and our world can be transformed.

Published over 150 years ago in 1860, Great Expectations is perhaps just the sort of simple good news we need to revisit and reflect upon. Charles Dickens penned Great Expectations during a time in Great Britain’s history that was no less challenging than –and, in many ways, similar to – the times we live in today. The British Victorian era, which is typically defined as the years from 1837 to 1901 when Queen Victoria reigned, was a period of great industrial, cultural, scientific, political, military and demographic changes within the United Kingdom.[3] These changes produced enormous wealth and opportunities, as well as intense hardships and oppression within Britain’s highly-stratified society. Thousands of immigrants, as well as young children, were employed in jobs that had long hours, paid extremely low wages and were highly dangerous.[4] A population explosion in the city of London created a lack of affordable housing options, extreme overcrowding, the proliferation of slums and poor sanitary conditions. Homelessness, crime and destitution were rampant during this period, even as Great Britain achieved global prominence and considerable wealth. Sound familiar?

Charles Dickens’ novels of the 19th century were both commentaries on the dark side of Victorian-era Great Britain, as well as reminders that human goodness was capable of triumphing over these evils. Stories like Great Expectations and characters like Pip remind us that a world then as today – one that contains so much poverty, greed, violence and other oppressions – is still a world where hope can exist, where justice and kindness can indeed have the last word. We need the good news of Pip – the news that it is possible to reform and to redeem, to turn the tide of destruction and self annihilation, and move towards the light of hope, of wholeness and of love.

Tales that inspire hope are the stories and good news we long to return to as a people of faith. As Unitarian Universalists, our own faith tradition is one marked by stories of real persons who dared to relentlessly pursue ideals based on hope. Going back to our European roots, for example, we find that Unitarian Francis David had the courage to hope that 16th century Transylvania could be a country that guaranteed religious freedom to all people. At great personal risk, David persistently urged Transylvanian King John Sigismund to make a bold and universal proclamation of tolerance, which the King did in 1568. Known as the Edict of Torda, it was first broad decree of religious freedom in European history and paved the way for the establishment of the Unitarian Church of Transylvania.

Tales of hope can also be found in our American religious history. 19th Century Universalist Minister Hosea Ballou hoped that his message of universal salvation – a message that offered the love of God to all people, not just a chosen few –would lift up Christians who sought a more inclusive faith. And, 20th century Unitarian Minister and Humanist Curtis Reese hoped that science, reason and human experience could serve as the foundation for a more ethical society where people continued to grow in compassion, wisdom and understanding.

These ancestors to our Unitarian Universalist liberal religious tradition were people of faith and people of hope. They and many others in our movement’s history acted often without knowing the words to the tune, as Emily Dickinson might say. They had no idea whether their efforts would make any lasting difference in advancing the ideals of liberal religion. Yet, here we are, a 21st century Unitarian Universalist congregation of people, still motivated by their progressive words and deeds . . . and still hoping that our own convictions and actions will one day transform our world into heaven on earth. We are a people that live in search of hopeful things  . . . experiences that will restore our ability to hear the courageous song within, to live with faith and celebrate the miracle of life wherever we find it.

All of which, in closing, leads me back to Pip. Not our Charles Dickens’ Pip, but our New York City Pip . . . the baby hawk who no longer looks like a marshmallow peep, but has now grown to become an elegant bird of prey. As I tune into Hawk Cam for another glimpse of my feathered friend who has lost her peach fuzz and gained in strength and maturity, I am grateful for this bit of good news. I am grateful for the thing with feathers that has given me a glimpse into beauty and into mystery . . . and grateful for the reminder that as long as there is life, my hope – our hope – will never stop singing.


[1] Thich Nhat Hahn, “The Good News,” Bless the Day: Prayers and Poems to Nurture Your Soul, June Cotner, ed. (New York, NY: Kodansha America, 1998), 48.

[2] Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Man.”

[3] “Queen Victoria,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_Victoria, accessed May 31, 2011.

[4] Barbara Daniels, “Poverty and Families in the Victorian Era,” http://www.hiddenlives.org.uk/articles/poverty.html, accessed May 31, 2011.

Sermon Resources:

The New York Times “City Room” has chronicled the adventures of Bobby, Violet and Pip since Pip’s early days with articles, photos and YouTube footage.  Go to http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/01/out-of-the-spotlight-pip-isnt-above-a-cameo/#more-325093 for updates.  The writings of 19th Century American poet Emily Dickinson, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn, and others can be found in Bless the Day: Prayers and Poems to Nurture Your Soul, by June Cotner.