The days are long and gray. A bland color palette greets us each morning. That is springtime in New York. A heavy fog that settles over our fields, our homes, and further enhances the ashy hue of our hearts. When it’s April and snow is still in the forecast, you understand why people move south. Why their skin begs for sun. It’s easy to forget in the long winter that it won’t last forever. My daffodils have bloomed but they’re small. Much smaller than they should be. They persisted through the autumn leaves that piled and came out to say a weak, but definitive “Good morning.”
My twitter-friend John Blase recently posted “When I was a boy, I was told to steer clear of booze, and sex, and drugs, and rock'n'roll, and...I still keep my distance from some of that, but now that I am a man, I know the great enemy is despair.”
Despair — the heavy darkness that seems to lure its prey with the idea of solidarity but only to suffocate it with its weight. We are at first tempted to think that despair is a friend to the battered, tired heart. A ringing bell of reality to which we must pay allegiance. Springtime in New York reminds me that despair is more like the mud that I slog through in my boots. Dark and cement-like. Deep and deceptive. Just on the edges of everywhere we step.
It isolates, chilling us inside invisible walls. Everyone else is happy. Everyone else is fine. Everyone else is living their dream. Out of nowhere, it grips us on the back of our necks, a feline-like grip of control, rendering us helpless, limp, rag dolls until we’re dropped where it leaves us.
It seems to come when we least expect it to. The uninvited guest in the middle of the day when I haven’t yet put on makeup. The middle of the night phone call that requires clarity of mind before you’ve left dreamland. The doctor’s report that is just obscure and vague enough and makes you wonder if the horizon of your life is closer than you thought it was.
Despair is what brings many women through the doors of my home, our church offices, my inbox, my phone messages. Despair is the burden on their shoulders they point to when we sit eye to eye. How do we keep our eyes on heaven when the world feels too heavy?
There is no easy, fast answer. Despair feeds us a meager serving of slop. The pilgrimage to home may feel long and weary, and we could easily think that slop is our portion. But it’s not. The Gospel was never meant to be a diversion. It’s not a placebo.
Don’t get me wrong — it is indeed the source of all joy. The bottomless well of peace. The fountain of unmovable strength. But it is not a cream we apply. It is the bed we lay down in.
We are living in a dark world. Full of the dust of feet, the stain of sin, the continuous ramifications of a world leading one another around in the pitch black night. We swing lanterns for each other along the path. We say “Let’s talk about the way home.”
We keep going back to this: read the letters from Zion. The scripture is full of reminders of people who had burdens too heavy to bear, fears that seemed insurmountable, and yet, they made it home, faithfully plodding along, one step at a time. Somehow (by grace we know) their steps lifted. The pilgrim hearts knew that despair wasn’t a verdict. Those with hearts set on home, as the writer sang in Psalm 84, had Zion written in their hearts.
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion”
They knew the road, like a well-worn path in front of them. The Psalm sings “No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.” We can repeat those words in the shadowed doorframe of our heart. No good thing has he withheld. Even despair, which longs to tell us that our happiness can be traded on the black market for whatever it is our soul thinks it needs, even despair can take a backseat to this reminder. He reminds us he has not withheld. And we can tell our weary hearts that in the day we need him to sustain and provide, he will not keep one hand behind his back. God is not in a cat and mouse game with us.
Scripture reminds me that he catches my tears in a bottle.
He knows our frame; he remembers we are dust.
He is near to the brokenhearted. He binds up their wounds.
A bruised reed he will not crush.
He doesn’t snuff out the smoldering wick.
He sees the outsiders.
He loves those on the fringe.
He didn’t come for the healthy.
The poor in spirit are blessed.
That He’ll sustain us to the end.
Despair may linger but grace lingers longer.
Dear pilgrim, throw aside the burden that strangles, the fear that entangles. I have slogged through enough spring mud to tell you this — it doesn’t keep the plants from growing. It doesn’t stop the summer from coming. Maybe you come through it with not as much bravado as we hoped. Maybe you’re more aware of your stature, like my daffodils, smaller and a little more aware of fragility. We may lose some life along the way, some early spring vigor, but that which can persist, does. And the Spirit of God will not be smothered underneath an ashy, disheartened fog. The French philosopher Albert Camus said “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” This is the fight against despair. To believe that God sees and knows and sustains within you a heart that is set on Zion. He brings life where you see only dirt. He turns valleys of tears into doors of hope. He is the invincible summer.