Ugly Hope

Moving through loss is messy and unattractive. A few years ago, there was a song made popular by a country singer who lamented her mama’s advice: “Run and hide your crazy and start actin’ like a lady.”* Or, as others have said, “fake it till you make it.” There is a certain value in this advice. Yet, acknowledging our anguish is the key to our healing.

The Psalms offer an alternative to “hide your crazy and start actin’ like a lady.” Lament. Specifically, the Psalms of Lament, where writers rage and cry out to a God who is supposed to protect them and is seemingly absent in it all.

Psalm 102 is a psalm written by an “afflicted [psalmist]” who pours out despair in lament before the Lord. I read this psalm recently and was stopped short by the psalmist’s words:

My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
I forget to eat my food.
Because of my loud groaning
I am reduced to skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake; I have become
Like a bird alone on a roof. (vv. 3-7)

Oof. I find myself pictured in these words. Do you? Days when food is an afterthought and sleep is elusive. Nights when I lie awake feeling “like a bird alone on a roof.”

Years ago, during a blighted period that threatened to wither me like grass, lament emerged through what I now call The Ugly Journals. Not intentionally, but in hindsight, they provided needed space for me to “hide my crazy.” The journals hold record of pity parties, rages, and full-on anguish during the lowest of those days. “Ugly” may be the kindest word I can use to describe these vents at God, as these journals gave voice to screams at my oppressors that didn’t require follow-up damage control. Nice and neat on the outside. Carefully tucked-away-crazy on the inside (or at least, I could imagine so).

When I re-read The Ugly Journals now, I hear an embarrassing amount of lament—anger, bitterness, and despair—the depths of which make me cringe. I wonder if the psalmists felt that way when they re-read their words?

Even so, I cannot bring myself to get rid of them—of their depiction of the most real part of “me” during those months. A “me” who was neither nice nor neat. I am not ready to sweep her under the rug just yet. She is someone I want to learn to become less horrified by. I want to explore her crazy parts–the parts that can be reduced to skin and bones (or expanded to the next size) by the events of life.

I want to save her words for when I need to learn to hope again.

There may be need for this in the months to come. The past days have brought conversations with friends about the long winter that stretches ahead of us. Loved one’s voices catch as emotion interrupts their words when they consider how COVID will hinder our togetherness. My own voice trembles, as missing my people overtakes the silver lining. And while it is tempting to gloss over the temporary nature of our reality and focus on ‘after the vaccine,’ each of us is one vulnerable conversation away from lurking, “ugly journal” feelings of anger, bitterness, or despair.

When they come, notice them. Feel them, and maybe, greet them with lament.

Lament the injustices.

Lament the fatigue and weariness.

Lament the barriers and anxiety.

Lament the losses.

Lament it all. Get ugly with God. Lament with purpose.

Lament as an act of release. Lament as an exercise in solidarity. Lament as a force of resistance so that when we attempt to “hide our crazy” behind cloth masks, we can at least know what it is that causes us to forget to eat and lie awake. Lament because it takes time, and that is one thing the luckiest of us have right now.

It seems to be fitting that it takes eleven more verses for Psalm 102 finally to get around to the purpose for writing the ugly words:

Let this be written for a future generation,
That a people not yet created may praise the Lord. (v.18)

Lament is for us and for those yet to come. In the future, the words of our ugly journals will tell of dark days and a disparaged future. And of hope in the God who sustains.

As I read yesterday’s laments over the future I am now living, I am tenderized by the beauty that has emerged from that dark time. Powerlessness transformed into perseverance, and loss into life. I would like to believe that because of the darkness God brought me through, a people not yet created will praise the Lord.

So back to ugly journaling. Like the psalmists, may we lament. May we be honest and angry in our laments. May we spill it all, not failing to notice where God steps in. It is cringe-worthy at first, yet perseverance will turn toward provision for generations who will bless the Lord. Write those ugly words and believe.

*Not My Mama’s Broken Heart, Sung by Miranda Lambert; Written by Brandy Clark/Shane McAnally/Kacey Musgraves; Produced by Frank Liddell, Glenn Worf, Chuck Ainlay; RCA Nashville; 2013.

Jill English is an avid encourager of humans and lover of words. She is most at home out-of-doors, and in particular, while walking any beach. Her most magical moments involve being Grammy to two remarkable grandchildren, and Mom to their lucky parents. As a discerner of call in higher theological education, her favorite conversations involve connecting the sacred dots of everyday life and faith. Jill lives in Grand Rapids, MI with two small, elderly pups.