Welcome and Introductory Remarks to the
COVENANT NETWORK CONFERENCE
November 1, 2001
Deborah A. Block
July 11 was a beautiful, warm, clear-blue sky, picture-perfect day in New York– the kind of day when everyone loves New York. I had that day in New York to savor. An unapologetic and conspicuous tourist: sensible shoes, camera, Land’s End tote bag.
All day to enjoy Manhattan on foot; tomorrow I would sit all day in an executive committee strategy meeting. So I strolled, without a plan, while the natives bustled with purpose.
When I got to Rockefeller Plaza, it wasn’t people or buildings or that beautiful blue sky that captured my attention. I came upon three spiders, there in the summer sun, in the middle of that city concrete. Spiders unexpected enough, in that urban habitat. Big enough to stop you in your tracks. You just had to admire them, this tourist trio, definitely (even defiantly!) holding their own on a combined twenty-four legs. Everything is taller in New York City; but no kidding, 30 Rockefeller Plaza was size as well as address. Thirty feet tall, the big one.
The spiders were literally a work of art, the work of 91-year-old artist Louise Bourgeois. The big spider with its graceful legs and hovering body spanned the plaza, creating a canopy that was in fact more inviting than menacing. From underneath you could look up into her pouch of eggs. This big mama was flanked by two whatever young spiders are called, something between thirty feet and an egg. Little hopeful spiders, big enough to lean on for a picture or a rest. In the Public Art Fund brochure I’ve read many times since then, mostly lately, it says that the three spiders “together act as protective presences in the heart of New York City.”
I learned that the parent-child relationship is a thread that runs through the artwork of this sculptor. In recent years she wrote an ode to her mother (1995) and celebrated the spiderlike nature of her maternal presence: deliberate, patient, soothing, subtle, indispensable, neat and useful.
I remembered, in all of that, something of my long-ago efforts with Biblical Hebrew. That in probing the sometimes mysterious and profound meanings of words, the origin of one of the words often translated as hope is in the spinning work of a spider as it creates a web. To hope is to take up that deliberate, patient, indispensable work of spinning a place to which we can cling. Hope itself is a web, fragile and tenacious. A connection. A network. Intricate and sometimes barely visible. Like grace – even the unsuspecting and the disbelieving are snared in it. A protective presence in the heart of anyone, anywhere.
These days I watch the real spiders come in from the cold. And I watch my cat Susan watch the spiders. (She is Susan B. Anthony, named for that great American whose final public words were “Failure is impossible.”) We watch, as those spiders make their way across the ceiling, hopeful of a new place. Webs appear, attached in places we cannot reach. Hope is like that. Sometimes beyond our reach — in places we would never get and can therefore never destroy. The cat is watchful when there is nothing to watch. Hope is like that, too. It is the instinct of the human heart to watch and wait. God will come this way again.
The prophets knew about hope. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope.” We have listened to the prophet Jeremiah in these past weeks. The late, great Old Testament scholar, John Bright, said that “Jeremiah could never believe that the national ruin was the end. True, he could see no cause for hope; but he never lost hope, because he never lost God.” The psalmist knew about hope. “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God (who) alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken” (Ps. 62).
The Apostle Paul knew about hope. His own experience of persecution and adversity rang through his conviction that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” And just when we might be tempted to say, “Oh, no?” he pushes on with a clear and passionate reason why not. “Hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.” And Paul knew that we can believe that because we feel it, we see it in others. Love pouring out and reaching out, connecting heart to heart and hearts to God. Hope has not disappointed us.
There is a web of hope God spins for us. In the big public places and the small corners of the soul, movements of the Spirit and moments of grace. It is woven of promises God will keep. Promises like wholeness, wellbeing, goodness, hospitality, justice, peace, unity … Promises that God hopes will welcome and entangle us.
We’re calling this “time after” the New Reality. Our sense of proportion is different. Which is perhaps why a thirty-foot spider looms as a symbol of comfort and not fear. Our perspective is different. Which is why we look for God in places we haven’t seen God before. In networks of support and advocacy and strength. Webs of community. The covenantal interconnectedness of our lives.
“And hope does not disappoint us”. Here we are, gathered and caught, connected to what we believe to be this deliberate and indispensable work of God. Hope is God’s promise for tomorrow, and God’s gift for today. For all the saints– in Pasadena and throughout the Presbyterian Church.
We are the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. We are a witness to hope in the Presbyterian Church, in the name of Jesus Christ.