But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.
To fully appreciate the drama and power of this statement, we need to know something about what comes before it and what comes after it. You see, the speaker is not in a very hopeful situation. In fact, both the present and the future look bleak as bleak can be.
The Babylonians have invaded and conquered ancient Jerusalem—destroying the temple, killing countless Israelites, capturing thousands of leaders and deporting them into exile, scattering the community, and dealing a serious and potentially fatal blow to their identity as God’s chosen people and their survival as a nation.
The book of Lamentations is exactly what it sounds like: a collection of laments, a series of expressions of deep and possibly inconsolable grief, the product of deep soul-searching and questioning of where the nation had gone wrong, a reflection on all manner of extreme suffering, an examination and bewailing of what they understood to be clear and, perhaps, permanent punishment.
And then, out of the blue, from the depths of despair, the speaker of the third lament says one powerful word: But.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
That the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, that God’s mercies never come to an end; that they are new every morning.
And then, the mourner speaks directly to God, saying, “Great is your faithfulness.”
Now you might think this statement of hope and faith would represent a major turning point in the life of the speaker and the people of Israel. You might think they had begun to turn the corner on their grief.
But life rarely works like that. Grief certainly doesn’t work like that. Hope doesn’t work like that. Neither loss nor love nor triumph nor despair nor faith nor doubt works like that.
It’s all of a piece. And God, the Great Mystery, is in it all.
And so it is that after these four beautiful verses about hope and love, mercy and faithfulness, the laments of Lamentations resume. Because the loss still stings, the suffering goes on, the pain is deep and unrelenting, and the future is uncertain, at best.
It is as if the speaker was about to drown, and then surfaced ever-so-briefly, taking in a big gulp of air and exhaling a bit of hope—and then went under again.
Many of us know what that is like. Many of us know what it is to wonder if we’ll ever surface again, if life after loss will ever get back to normal, if we’ll ever love again or laugh again or hope again. These days, many of us look around at the realities of climate change, the bitterness of civil discourse, the random gun violence that has become routine, cruel policies that treat strangers like animals, and our own struggles, and we wonder where hope lies.
We may even begin to wonder what hope is. Like the disciples of Jesus, we may think of faith as something solid and measurable and constant, which makes us worry that we don’t have enough of it.
But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope.
What is your this? What can take you out of despair and into hope? What is the process for building a bridge from loss and sorrow and suffering to the possibility of restoration and new life?
What is hope, anyway?
Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk known the world over for his work on gratefulness, social change, and interfaith cooperation, describes hope as “openness to surprise,” a willingness to be amazed by newness and change and the capacity for rebirth.
If that is true, how do we achieve and maintain that openness when the evidence is not encouraging? How do we manage, as Wendell Berry says, to be joyful even though we have considered all the facts? How do we tell the truth about the mess we’re in without hunkering down, circling the wagons, and hardening our hearts? How do we summon the faith to keep praying and marching and working for a different world when the odds are long? In whom, or what, do we hope?
I won’t pretend to have the answers, but I want to share with you some observations and learnings. Drawing on the lessons of Lamentations and the teachings of Steindl-Rast and others, I want to suggest some spiritual practices and faith steps that might renew and restore our hope.
Among the first, I think, is spiritual grounding: basing our lives in the Spirit of Love and Life, in the wonder of creation, the promise of redemption, and the power of transformation. We can trust in the promises of God when we are grounded in the truth and wonder of all we have been given. We can nurture our faith and sustain our hope when we practice life-giving rituals and commit ourselves to the work of creating community across divides and in spite of differences.
Call it mindfulness. Call it gratefulness. Call it awareness. Call it worship. Call it reflection and repentance.
The grandfather of the Rev. Dr. Gregory Ellison the Second was an African American who left school after the third grade to spend a lifetime working in the cotton fields. He put it this way:
“We sit under shade trees we did not plant and drink from wells we did not dig.”
That awareness encouraged him to hope. And that hope moved him to pray that his grandchildren might never have to pick cotton, that one day they would go to college.
His grandson not only went to college but now teaches at Emory University and writes and prays and worships and works for reconciliation and justice through something called Fearless Dialogues.
Call it the discipline of remembering how far Love has brought you. Call it a decision to open your heart to the tender mercies God will shower upon you today. Call it intentionality. Call it being alive to the present moment.
Call it trust, which is the real meaning of the word “faith.” Consider that even small and ordinary things done in faith and hope and love can move mountains and trees and, hardest of all, hearts and minds.
Consider that there are no shortcuts. That this is the blessed work of a lifetime, that this is a calling to wholeness and unity and oneness with God.
It took some 70 years, but the exiled children of Israel did come home, and the trees of the field clapped their hands. It has taken 400 years, but we are beginning to understand that Black Lives Matter. We have but 11 or 12 years to prevent much worse climate catastrophe, but we have done great things before. The arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.
Brother David, the Benedictine monk I mentioned earlier, was in town the other day for a seminar at UMass. He was joined by Ellison and a few other panelists to talk about spirituality and social change, hope and belonging. As the event began to wind down, each panelist was invited to ask Brother David one question. He is, after all, at 93 years old, something of a guru i spirituality circles.
Greg Ellison, the professor-author-preacher grandson of a cotton picker, did not waste his opportunity. Explaining that his 12-year-old son would want to hear something new at bedtime, he asked Brother David to share his three most important life lessons.
Brother David did not disappoint. His response went something like this:
The first lesson, which he said he learned very late in his life, is that “the only thing that really matters is to be kind, no matter what.
Second, he said, is that “there is always a way out.” He granted that anxiety is a normal and constant fact of life, that suffering is real, and that it makes our lives feel squeezed and the world seem narrow. There are two possible responses to this, he said: Fear, which “puts out bristles and gets stuck” in the narrowness, or trust.
“When you look back on your own life,” he said, “you see the tight spots that you thought were the end, but somehow you got through and had a new birth. And your life, and the world, gets wider.”
And his third lesson was this: “Life is good to us.”
“You have to trust in that,” he said. “If you don’t trust in that, the worst has already happened. When you trust in life, you find that life proves trustworthy.” The word “Amen,” he said, is the spiritual acknowledgement of the trustworthiness of God.
Brother David had much more to say about unconditional love and belonging and the “one self,” but he boiled it all down to hope built on kindness and trust and the trustworthiness of God.
He might well have said, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I will hope.” He might have said, “Because God’s steadfast love never ceases, because God’s mercies are new every morning, because God’s faithfulness is great, I can choose trust over fear. Because God is alive in you and in me and in everyone, I can trust that there is a way out of this grief, this depression, this despair, this scary situation that looks like an ending.”
Therefore, I will hope in God.