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from Homegrown (Album) by The McMakens

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This song uses the text of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope (the Thing with Feathers),” The tune is one that—I hope—evokes an American folk hymn with a simple, singable melody. I wrote the song about a year ago during a difficult period when I desperately needed a little songbird of hope in my life.

These words have always clicked with me. According to literary analysis, it’s one of Dickinson’s earliest and least impressive poems, lacking the flourish of her later works. To me, though, it is a treasure. The humble metaphor of a bird is not only quaint; it’s visually captivating and conjures deep emotions of pain, loss, and provision. (Apparently Emily understood why birds are cool way before it became trendy to put them on things.)

Maybe it’s the poem’s unadorned nature that strikes me. Birds are simple creatures; they have few earthly needs, which makes them an example for humanity, especially in the age of supreme distraction. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” (Matthew 6:26)

Like the bird, hope is simple too; it requires little from us (“yet never, in extremity, it asked a crumb of me”). Even in its simplicity, however, hope baffles us with its fortitude. It grips us and does not let us go, no matter how much we tremble or try to wriggle from its grasp. We can find it everywhere we go—especially the cold, dark, stormy places we face in our own hearts, our lives, and our world.

When I had a miscarriage several years ago, my grief was a cold and foreign place to which I had never traveled. But somehow, without explanation, the little bird of hope kept me warm. Looking back, it was not just some poetic and abstract concept of hope that was my companion, but the very presence of God himself. The dove of the Holy Spirit comforted me during that time, sustaining me with his life and through his body, the Church. When I didn’t even have meager crumbs to give, the Lord provided a feast for me. When I couldn’t walk on my own, the wings of my community carried me.

Romans 5:1-5 perfectly describes this profound reality:

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that

suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Hope will not put us to shame. It will not disappoint us, nor will it embarrass us in our desperate need for it. Cling to hope. Live in hope. Let it take up residence in you, perching in your soul and singing over you when you don’t have the words.


Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,
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.
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.
It asked a crumb of me.


from Homegrown (Album), released December 14, 2012
Words by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886).
Music by Bonnie McMaken, 2011.

Bonnie McMaken (Vocals, Piano)
Robb (Cello)


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The McMakens Aurora, Illinois

The McMakens is husband and wife duo Bonnie and Trevor McMaken. Their unique style of timeless American songwriting, lush instrumentation, and evocative vocals can be heard on their full-length albums "Homegrown" and "Sleep Easy," as well as their worship EP "In Wilderness and Glory." ... more

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