Hope is a tricky concept, maybe especially for those of us who have grown up with teachings about it in the church. I have been reaching for hope and sometimes despairing of finding it. Different seasons make that quest more urgent for me. The whole year of 2016 was one when hope felt elusive. 2017 was an improvement but still hard. 2018 has largely felt more hopeful, which is to say, the quest to identify hope wasn’t so front and center.
Depression is largely the experience of losing hope. It doesn’t mean we don’t think hope is real or that hope isn’t worth having. But it’s like I set it down and then accidentally bumped it off. It fell on the ground and rolled out of sight, and I don’t know where to look for it. Sometimes, I have the time to search methodically. Other times I need it urgently and not having it is painful.
Recently I’ve been part of a group of us who have been supporting friends through a crisis. After a night of talking through the pain and the uncertainty of what the future holds, I came home heavy with sadness, and I looked for my hope but didn’t know where I had left it. I woke up the next day to discover depression had come to visit.
It was the darkest depression I had experienced in over a year. Part of me was scared, knowing how much that unwelcome visitor had damaged in my relationships and personal wellbeing the last time it had claimed so much space in my spirit. The other part was resigned, the depression itself whispering that its influence was inevitable and that resistance was futile, or at least not worth the effort.
But, I remember. I remember who I have been in past depressions. I remember being the grumpy dad. I remember being the distant husband. I remember losing connection in my friendships. I remember losing myself, and I remember how worth keeping I have discovered my self actually is. I remember how long it took to develop meditation and prayer from the ground up that could pierce the darkness. I remember how much suffered when depression settled in for the long haul.
I remember, and I knew I had what it takes to rise through the darkness because I’ve done it before, and I knew it was important not to wait, to start swimming before I sank any deeper.
I revived my daily meditation and prayer practice. It had saved me, and the Spirit had saved me through it, when I started it in the Fall of 2016 and continued for about a year. I had consistently practiced MBSR and then transitioned to Centering Prayer for 30 minutes on five or six days a week for most of that year. So I took it up again.
I have now done Centering Prayer for each of the last seven days. The main effect of Centering Prayer is letting go. Of everything. For that 30 minutes, I attempt to let go of responsibilities, worries, possible futures, regrettable pasts, the prerogative to think about whatever comes to mind—all of it.
After I have spent a half-hour letting go (over and over and over and over and over), I take up my prayer beads, and I begin my intercession. The purpose is to give myself over to the Spirit and immerse myself in the heart of Christ.
When I am there, I lift up my cares. That’s the best way I can think to describe it. I’m not exactly grabbing onto them; I’m giving them to God. But I’m also not releasing them entirely; I’m choosing to stay fully and present with them and immersing my whole self in them. So, I think of it as taking my cares in my spiritual hands and lifting them up to heaven, offering them to Christ.
Each day this week, I’ve practiced these prayers. My depression has lifted, and it did after just a couple days. Letting go of the weight does not mean letting of sadness or caring. I am still sad, but now I have the freedom when to engage with it rather than being crushed by it all the time. I still want to pursue a particular type of future, and visualizing it and inviting conversation between my spirit and the Spirit of Christ helps to shape and guide exactly what that vision of the future might be. It also forms how I respond outside my prayer time in practical ways when I see the opportunity.
I have experienced powerful visions of need and hope and love and the nature of the spiritual circumstances flowing in and through all of us involved in this crisis. The general practice of repeatedly and thoroughly letting go during my Centering Prayer is transformative. The intercession meditation/prayer has been incredible though. An experience like few others. It’s hard to translate from the experience itself into language that can be shared. Simply describing moment-by-moment what it was like would not be worth reading and it would likely take away from my sense of what happened that I carry with me, but I think I can share a birds-eye view of it.
I felt the wrenching sharpness of pain, the pain of bereavement and fear the pain of utter loneliness and isolation for the people I prayed for. I felt the weight of fatigue and the experience of being lost with no signposts and no hint of when the weight might be lifted for those supporting them and what the cost might be. I saw a darkness, thick and heavy like a blanket covering the sky smothering the life out everyone involved, and I saw the only way to part the darkness was with the consuming fire of God’s love to burn it away. I saw the work of the Spirit in turning people inside out in the painful process of opening them in surgery to remove the cancerous pain and fear in order to put them back together whole once more. I felt the release of tension and worry and striving. The necessity of resting and relaxing our spirits, trusting in the hope of things being OK, in the promises for reconciliation of all things, of the unity of loving one another.
I’m realizing I feel connected with portions of Scripture since I started prayer and meditation on a regular basis two years ago in ways I’ve never experienced. Shortly after beginning my spiritual practices, I felt a new and deeper understanding of wisdom literature. This week has helped me feel connected the apocalyptic genre portions of the prophets, seeing what was there to see with my spirit rather than my eyes. Yet it wasn’t magic or hallucination, not like seeing in that sense. Just a sense of understanding with imagery in my mind. But it was powerful to experience it.
And so, I return to hope. My vision of the future is one based in my faith that new creation has come, that we are called to the ministry of reconciliation and that our hope in its reality is based in that promise of new creation. It has both come and we wait for it to be made really in its entirety. We are part of that process. Part of the work Christ is doing through us and around us as we live faithfully as people of new creation. The more we are faithful to do so, the more we transform our world into the world to come.
It’s painful to know how slow that process is. But it’s hopeful to know it’s happening both in a way I can participate in and also without me if need be. I have a call to take up the work. I also am free from the responsibility to manage all the outcomes. The effort is mine to give. The outcomes belong only to Christ. There is freedom and a gift in that.
There is hope in that.
3 thoughts on “Reaching for Hope”
This are comforting verses to me when struggling with hope and depression: “14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)
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Melancholy, or depression if you prefer clinical terminology, is something that probably everyone in this family has experienced. Both of my parents, your grandparents on my side, had life-long stuggles with it. The way I view it now is that they struggle with it because they are both sensitive people. They care. As for me, I remember profound, deeply painful experiences with despondency starting even before I began kindergarten. And because I am a sensitive person who cares, I fell in love with another sensitive person who cares, who also struggles with such emotions, and she is your mother. And she comes from a line of sensitive people who care. So this goes back for generations, on both sides of your family. As for hope: I think hope is a choice. I have come to this opinion through experience. When I choose hope, I make better decisions and life improves for everyone connected to me, including myself. When I have chosen otherwise, it led me to make decisions that had a negative effect on everyone connected to me, including myself. So in my own experience, hope is a choice, and the logical next step in that, hope is a responsibility. Hope is a choice we make because we have already chosen to love. Hope and love lead to happiness, though not always instantly. When I hear someone telling me they have run out of hope, I do not judge that person. I sympathize. I keep hope alive for that person. But I also encourage that person to look for ways to make a different choice, to draw a fresh conclusion. When you are in a dark place, sometimes that is very hard to do. Sometimes it feels like the person who is encouraging you to choose hope “just doesn’t understand how hard I try, hope long I have tried….” But it is not about will power, or trying. It is about a fresh perspective. And if you always choose hope, even in your darkest of despair, you have the opportunity to see a source of light, of hope, of new options you had not considered before. If you choose to give in to despair, you forfeit your ability to get that fresh idea.
Those are my thoughts.
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I love your thoughts here. They are beautiful and true. I have often thought that part of the cost of being a loving person is the emotional hardship of caring about other people’s pain. It’s a high cost, but worth it. The cost of not loving is worse.
“So in my own experience, hope is a choice, and the logical next step in that, hope is a responsibility. Hope is a choice we make because we have already chosen to love. Hope and love lead to happiness, though not always instantly. When I hear someone telling me they have run out of hope, I do not judge that person. I sympathize. I keep hope alive for that person. But I also encourage that person to look for ways to make a different choice, to draw a fresh conclusion.” This part of what you wrote is especially powerful.
My contemplative prayer practices were the means by which I chose hope. People need a way forward, so just as “stop being depressed” is unhelpful advice, “choose hope” may not provide any real guidance without practical steps to take to get there. So I have learned how to done my path to hope, and I have to choose to use it.
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