The Semicolon of Lament and Hope
No time to read? Listen here.
Sorrow drips into your heart through a pinhole.
–Marching Bands of Manhattan,
Death Cab for Cutie
Heading out on a journey to learn grace carries with it an admission of a lack of grace. Our need to learn grace is not because we are experts in grace or drowning in it. We actually need to learn grace.
Jesus was well aware of the heaviness which comes from doubling down on a dogmatic view of truth. Being right becomes more of an identity than being with God or the people of God. So our journey toward learning grace continues with a confession of our current overactive truth system.
We’re hyper-truth and hypo-grace. We can’t find our way to the hopeful shores of grace without lamenting the walls that truth has built around our hearts.
Looking for the path in learning grace, for me, carries with it a pointed sadness around my previous religious and spiritual experiences that almost always bent toward truth, not just for the sake of truth, but at the expense of grace.
Sunday school and Sunday sermons and Bible college and seminary all major on truth, with grace showing up in a few sparse asides. We can get a degree if we know enough truth; however, we can become the teachers of truth and still be kindergartners in grace.
I want to learn grace for myself, grace for my neighbors and grace for the seemingly ungraceable.
But starting on this road requires dealing with the road that led us here.
For most of my life, hope was natural and even super-natural for me. Hope had handles and holding on was always an adventure. I loved holding on to hope and helping others find their grip as well. The highs and the lows didn’t bother me. I actually enjoyed the rollercoaster of life, never really doubting the safety of the journey I was on.
But somewhere along the way, the momentum of a few turbulent turns somehow tossed me off. It’s not like my hope-abilites were destroyed all at once. It was fairly gradual for me. Looking back, I’ve realized that I was in grief from those few turbulent turns, but I was in denial for most of it. The denial stage of grief let me fall for years on end, holding onto handlebars no longer tethered to hope, not knowing I was in a free fall.
During the first part of the pandemic I found myself walking the streets around my house–different paths on different days, but always circling back to the same place. Eventually I covered all of the routes, but I would always end up back in the same place.
On these walks, I would inevitably have these conversations in my head with all of these people–characters from another time, another place. While I was trying to move forward, these snapshots of unprocessed grief would argue and lie and deceive and hold court in my heart.
Lament was too terrifying to engage–like a world’s edge waterfall, I wasn’t going near that edge. Even glancing at the memory of feeling the weight was a heaviness I wasn’t sure I could survive.
What if nothing caught me?
What if I went back in to feel what I had denied myself for so long and there was no way back?
My numbed out heart kept circling back to the same spot like a lifeless loop.
Lament ; hope.
a silence heavier than words,
an acknowledgement of what wasn’t and what was,
an empty space where there should be so much good,
a bridge to back then, somehow still not burned,
a heart too tenderized,
a life from a lifetime ago
a sliver of light,
a promise, still not broken,
a courage to see what may come,
a life that might live again
Lament without hope is an abyss–a slow-spinning, white-knuckled grasp on the story with all of the angles and all of the despair intact.
Lament is real. It’s so, unbelievably real.
But lament without hope is a never land.
Hope without lament is pie in the sky–an ignorant, glossy vision of a fanciful future too scared to embrace or even encounter all of the things that got us here.
Hope is real. It’s so, unbelievably real.
But hope without lament is a plastic paradise.
We need both lament and hope, and we need them in the same sentence.
This is what the prophets always did. Lament ; hope.
Everything is broken ; mending is real.
Everything hurts ; healing is coming.
Everything is over ; resurrection isn’t a myth.
The semicolon carries lament with it into hope, giving hope the weight it needs to become more than impractical fluff.
The semicolon pulls hope back into lament, giving lament the escape velocity it needs to go beyond spin-cycle heartache.
I knew in my head that you can either work through the grief and let it affect you, or you can try to compartmentalize it and it will still affect you. You can’t outrun grief.
Working through grief allows you to live and feel and hope again. Compartmentalizing grief makes you numb and narrow. You can try all you want to not let it affect you, but it’s affecting you one way or the other.
My heart fears to do what my head knows to be real.
Eventually, I got to the part of the lifeless loop that I couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t know how to get out, but through a lot of therapy and conversations with my wife and help from the HS, I ventured back in.
I rode my bike out to a magical little coffee shop built into the side of a mountain a few miles from my house. The whole bike ride was a bit reminiscent of the first few chapters of The Shack. William Paul Young named Mack’s lament as The Great Sadness. Mack finally chooses to venture back into The Great Sadness, but as he goes, the narrator wonders “why the shack–the icon of his deepest pain?”
So there I was, sitting at the tables in the trees, sipping a cortado, pen in hand and notebook at the ready. There was no shack to venture back to for me. But I knew that simply skimming the surface of my memories would lead me round the same loop and end up nowhere new.
I braved scrolling back through an Instagram account of someone else who was also entangled in the whole initiation of my own lament. I didn’t realize till I was searching for the date range that would have preceded my years of denying my own grief how much I had avoided these exact photos for fear of how real it might make everything break, again.
I remembered a conversation I had with my wife just a few days before and I wrote in my notebook:
“we. lost. every. thing.”
little by little,
then all at once.
I don’t need it all back,
I just want to feel again.
The next page is just three words:
be with me.
I remember writing them and knowing, somehow, that the HS was already there, waiting for me.
I scrolled through photos, tapped and read captions, zoomed in and wept. The words began to get scribbled down like untethered memories drifting back toward the shore.
My therapist had been encouraging me to address the old characters. When we’ve got these moments, frozen in time, and these voices from back then that keep whispering and yelling at us, it’s not fair to us or them because our lives are dynamic, but they are stuck in time, buried in the recesses of our memories. There is something incredibly powerful about having it out, knowing that they will never read it or hear it or answer the questions. They can’t. It’s not actually them. The actual person is somewhere else entirely, not trapped in our minds. They are actually new and dynamic in all sorts of ways, but there are these lingering personas that haunt our unclosed doors.
Deep honesty is an exercise that allows us to enter lament without worrying about how that lament might affect anyone else. Real lament requires this deep honesty and is an escape hatch when moving through the stages of grief.
My lament was just five little pages of honest heartache, and when riding back to my house, I wasn’t sure that anything had changed. But I didn’t know how much it would impact that second half of the sentence: lament ; hope.
Over the next few weeks I would reread some books, talk to some of my new friends about life and Jesus and church and hope and hurt and in the midst of all of these conversations, my apprehension toward hope started to subside.
I know I’ve not wholly worked through my lament. There are many more pages to fill with honesty I’ve been too timid to own. But just remembering that it’s all true has allowed me to think of hope as a maybe, a possibility again.
Real hope doesn’t fear the heaviness.
Real lament doesn’t obscure the possibilities.
May your lament be wholly honest
and your hope be heart-courage
for everything not yet fully alive.