One of the most remarkable lessons I re-learned while teaching for seven years was the necessity of continuously teaching and reteaching the same material over and over. Many fundamental concepts, such as how to hold a pencil, how to visualize numbers, or the mechanics of sounding out and decoding words, required tremendous amounts of time and energy to become automatic for students. These practices did not become automatic until they were relentlessly practiced and ritualized. For some reason, as an adult, I simply forgot that virtually all changes in thinking and behavior take this kind of effort and intentional practice. Nowadays, even as I am two years removed from teaching, I feel like I am once again re-learning a similar lesson on a personal level. I am learning that grief and lament are an unavoidable, necessary part of a life rightly lived before God, yet take tremendous time and energy to learn. I am learning how many of my daily behaviors work against the practice of grief and lament. I am like a young child learning to hold a pencil, gripping the practice of lament with a clumsy baby-grip, complaining when it doesn’t seem to work, and giving up all too easily when it doesn’t feel right.
There is a lot to grieve right now. Amidst the dramatic shifts that have taken place in our world due to COVID-19, Johanna and I have done a lot of extra waiting. We have been eager to try some experimental therapies to treat her illness, especially since her near death in October, but cannot safely visit the clinic when the risk of infection is so high. Johanna’s mast cell disease and underlying respiratory symptoms make the threat of COVID-19 great. So in lieu of appointments and therapies, we have waited at home. Johanna continues to suffer from her symptoms greatly, and each day feels like a trudge through the painful sameness of chronic illness. Dreaming of the future feels far off and distant, like the perusing of an old photo album and remembering time forgotten. These are the perfect times for lament and grief, yet I have done so little of them. Instead, I have let my immature heart cling to its old habits, letting relentless distractions ossify the vital practices of grief and lament. I know this is happening because in my quiet times – in my times upstairs after caregiving for Johanna, or in the morning before I help her wake and get ready – my thoughts run to the trivial. I think of the phone game I like to play, I think of the news I am reading, I think about the next time I’ll get to do something I want.
I am so much like the young child who insists that holding a pencil correctly is, ‘too hard’. Meditating on the losses and troubles of my everyday is painful. It takes continual, intentional energy to quiet my heart before the Lord and pour out my sorrows to Him in song and prayer. In a very real sense it is work. It feels like work to admit that I am deeply discouraged by today, not looking forward to tomorrow, and powerless to fix my circumstances. Yes, this is the painful, continual work of lament and grief, which forces me to my knees in powerlessness, having my controlling hands forced open in weakness. In the same way learning to hold a pencil opens up the world of fluent writing, so learning to grieve and lament opens up a more humble and intimate relationship with God. Lament and grief are not stops along the journey of faith, they are one of the ways I will get to its end.
Who am I to think that I can get beyond what Jesus himself experienced so often in his life? Whether grieving over the city of Jerusalem and its coming destruction, or his listeners’ hardness of heart, or most poignantly in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion, Jesus himself modeled a pattern of grief and lament by pouring his heart to God. I must remember that grief and lament are not one-time moments of connection with God, but the very way I let go of the imaginary control I feel I have. I must also remember my grief and lament are not dead ends. When I recognize that God is control, and I am not, I am putting my trust in His power and plans. I can grieve and lament in hope, knowing they will not have the final word in my life – I can instead remember the empty tomb and Christ’s triumph over the grave.