I’ll be honest, I woke up today hoping to write about joy. Or rather I was hoping to edit a children’s short story I wrote last year that’s chock full of whimsy and magical realism, and in which the protagonist is a young girl named Joy.
But then I thought about the rising sense of panic and paralysis I felt last Sunday at the off-chance I could run into my ex-wife at a socially-distanced goodbye party in a park. I thought about her chipper text informing me she wouldn’t be there, and how I wondered where she was and felt sad because that’s not for me to know anymore. I felt sad, because with how things ended between us I can see no way for us to ever be friends again—it would be too painful for me.
Over breakfast I read several chapters of Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” the part where he recalls the death of his sister in a trailer fire, and how at the wake everyone in his extended family got drunk in an ugly way. He ran into the forest only to find his best friend weeping—and subsequently blaming him for his sister’s death because if he hadn’t left the rez to go to a better school then she probably wouldn’t have eloped with a man in Montana either. I thought about the long shadow of loss that Native Americans have suffered, and how the grief turns so many to alcohol. Who can blame them?
I thought about the murders of Ahmaud Arbury and George Floyd and the countless killings that preceded them and felt sad, powerless, angry, and guilty. I prayed for justice and wept as I cried out “How long Lord?” But I worried that even my tearful prayer was little more than a copout for my white fragility.
Then I stepped outside to go for a walk and I thought about COVID-19. I looked at how the handful of people in my neighborhood spaced themselves out in a wordless contract of disconnection and distance. I felt the cautious, worried gaze of the old woman walking down her driveway toward the same point on the sidewalk that I was walking toward. I felt my gaze turn away and my steps shift to cross the street so she could walk outside her home in peace.
I thought about my mom, whom I had wept with on the phone several weeks earlier right before her mother—my grandmother—passed away. Walking out of my grandmother’s room for the last time, knowing she would never see her again in this life, was the hardest thing she had ever done, my mom said.
I thought about one of my best friends who just had his heart broken via text message—a goddamn text message—by a girl he’s been in love with the past two years. Even after he put his heart on the line a second time she didn’t even offer him the dignity of one last phone call.
I thought about my friend who recently lost her older sister to cancer. I remembered how when I saw her two weeks ago and we stood on the dock at Green Lake and began to cry together I felt conflicted about hugging, because social distancing, and how I hated that ambiguity. I hated how the cause of public health could somehow come in between two friends grieving together and kill my embodied impulse to move toward empathy.
I still hope to get around to editing the story about Joy, but today the movement, the deeper flow of life, if you will, is ushering me back into grief and loss. After more than a year of the greatest sorrow I have ever known—divorce and then a global pandemic—I am beginning to understand why grief hurts, but in a hurts-so-good sort of way. I am beginning to understand why, when I really start to open my heart to the world and the streams of life flowing all around me, I inevitably feel drawn back into grief. It’s because every lament is a love song.
Every lament is a love song. I stole this line from the bridge of a song that I’ve known since high school, but only in the past several years have begun to understand—like truly understand in the deep recesses of my body.
Take a moment to sink down into this reality with me. We lament because we love. We grieve because we care, because we give a damn.
“I don’t see a way to live other than in a state of mourning, lament, and grief—at least to some degree—for as long as this pandemic lasts,” I told a friend last week. As of this week more than 100,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. More than 40 million of them have filed for unemployment. I’ve been letting this reality settle over me, like a heavy blanket that I can barely breathe through. I’m going to feel sad. A lot of time. Probably for at least another year or two.
For those of you who are also grieving, who find yourself feeling sad, exhausted, frustrated, angry, and even unmotivated, I think this is actually a sign of health—if we are able to hold it and acknowledge it as such. It means that we loved something about the life we are no longer able to live. So let us grieve the suspension of these good things. Let us name them, one by one, and mourn them.
For me this goes something like this: It sucked to not be able to fly down to California to celebrate Lyle’s wedding. I’m sad that I won’t be able to sing my heart out to Colony House’s song Why Even Try at a concert this summer. I miss hearing the roar of the crowd at T-Mobile Park when a Mariner hits a home run at a baseball game. I wish I could have hugged my friend Max as he successfully defended his doctoral dissertation. I miss playing pickup ultimate Frisbee on Sunday mornings and needling Chris in response to his sarcastic banter. I miss hearing the words “body of Christ broken for you” as a smiling priest puts a wafer in my hand. I long to share a meal with a group of friends instead of eating alone every single day. My heart hurts when I wake up in the morning and no longer see her familiar, tattooed shoulder lying peacefully next to me.
That’s a lot of loss—and that’s just the beginning of it. I refuse to diminish it by comparing it to someone else’s.
A few days ago I got out my guitar and sang a worship song called “Not in a Hurry” by United Pursuit. The song patiently longs for communion with God. It waits to know his presence, to heart his voice, to feel the Spirit moving. The second chorus sings out one of the boldest prayers I’ve ever heard:
Lord I want to love like you. I want to feel what you feel. I want to see what you see.
I stopped when I came to that line. I stopped to feel the gravity of what I was singing. I had to. I had to stop and search my heart to know if I that’s what I really wanted, because I know that the heart of God endures so. much. pain.
I know this because one day last fall while I was at working at the lumber yard I heard a man walk by on the street. He stumbled around on the curb, cursing the betrayal of his friends and damning the abandonment of his family. I was alone in the south yard, just off a main thoroughfare where it is not uncommon to see prostitutes and addicts on the streets. The man continued cursing, boldly and obnoxiously and beautifully lifting up his complaint. I paused to listen and to feel his hurt. I did not know his story, but even in his substance-altered state I could sense that he had been wounded.
There, on a cloudy afternoon between racks of pressure treated wood, I looked into the sky and sensed God’s heart for this man. I saw God seeing him, grieving with him and mourning the harm that had befallen him. I began to weep myself, because suddenly I saw that this is the heart of God for all people, constantly, at every moment and in every place. I saw God’s compassion spread out over the world in a great, endless tapestry of tears, the outpouring of a vast, aching heart forever weeping with those who weep.
And here I was praying that I would see what God sees and feel what he feels. Did I really have any idea what I was asking for? Do I really want to move through life with that kind of heart? With that kind of heartache?
One of the most profound and mysterious moments in the Old Testament occurs in the book of Exodus, when Moses seeks the Lord in the tent of meeting and asks, “Please show me your glory.”
What a ballsy request. Here’s how God responds:
I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live… Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.
Growing up I understood this passage to be demonstrative of God’s great holiness and purity, in the light of which our sinfulness and mortal unworthiness is so great that we would be utterly incinerated by his presence. But now I wonder if there’s more to it. Could it be that God refused to show Moses his face because of the great weight of his mercy? The text actually suggests that. God declares his goodness, graciousness, and mercy before refusing to show Moses the full view of his glory.
I have to imagine that God’s heart for the world, which he loves so much, is so heavy with grief and longing and passion for those made in his image that the weight of it, if truly beheld and felt, would have literally broken Moses’ heart. I have to imagine that Moses would have been so overwhelmed by God’s compassion and grace that he would have physically died of sorrow and love and longing and joy all at the same time.
I have decided to follow through with the United Pursuit song and sing to God: “I want to love like you. I want to feel what you feel. I want to see what you see.” But I do so knowing that entering into God’s heart for the world will usher me into a world of heartache. I do so knowing that it means aching with hurt to the point of shedding tears nearly every single day.
But I also do so with the growing knowledge that if every lament is a love song, then it must be closer to joy and gratitude than I ever thought possible. They must be within a razor’s edge of each other because both flow out of love.
Indeed, within the lingering agony of divorce, the stifling unwellness of the coronavirus pandemic, and the losses of my friends and family members, I somehow still find myself finding joy and wonder at hand. They show up at the most expected and unexpected of times, flickering through like an old porch light in the middle of the night.
These feelings can turn on a dime, so quickly that when I first started noticing them last year I described it as a sort of spiritual bipolarity. I could be screaming at God one moment, asking what the hell is going on, and fifteen minutes later suddenly feel like I could sing of his love forever.
I don’t think of this as a disorder, though. I just think it means I’m moving through life a little bit more like Jesus did.
I look for poetry to capture the experience, this sense of what it’s like to linger in suffering, then suddenly feel love surge up around me like a warm, joyfully fomenting sea, and I find Psalm 126. It’s a psalm of ascents that recklessly puts forward weeping and dancing together like two sides of the same coin. I think the psalmist knows something of this flickering, this propensity of agonizing loss to come blazing to life before it’s all said and done:
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the Negeb!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.