Jesus wept. Much, much later, so did he . . .
The “he” in question arrived at my cramped office adjacent to the sanctuary. He had made the appointment. Just the two of us, each representing the stereotypically taboo subjects to avoid if you want to keep the conversation polite: religion and politics. In the small town where we lived, I was the pastor of a church. He was one of that zip code’s movers and shakers, a guy whose “yes” or “no” meant a project would succeed or be stuck in committee hell.
We both likely knew we were the proverbial “big frogs” in the tiny “pond” of a somewhat isolated community.
I had no idea why he wanted to see me for a lunchtime meeting. Wasn’t he supposed to be at work?
Though I would never break confidentiality, it doesn’t matter. I can’t recall what he shared with me. This was years in the past. Hundreds of folks in various churches preceded or followed him into my office. And yet I can still hear his sobs. Within moments of settling into the folding chair across from me, he was a wreck. Tears swept in from a storm deep within his soul. I can see his body shaking and hear his sentences fade as if tumbling from a ledge. None of us like to be out-of-control. But there he was—
Needing to confess.
Or seek solace.
Or be honest.
+ + +
You know tears. I know tears. Jesus knew tears. In the fancy theological debates about Jesus’ divinity and humanity, his tears always put points on the human side of the scorecard. How irresistible and telling is John 11:35’s absurdly simple passage. In the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the verse was stretched to four words: Jesus began to weep. I grew up in Sunday school with the old Revised Standard Version’s sparse translation: Jesus wept.
Truth in brevity.
Lazarus, Jesus’ pal, the beloved brother of two doting sisters, and probably an all-around nice guy, had died.
Sure, we could hurry to the good stuff, the whiz-bang miracle of bringing old (or young) Lazarus back among the living, breathing, and complaining humans. But I prefer to pause at the shortest speed bump of a verse in the Bible.
Life overwhelms us.
Death overwhelms us.
Tears are the liquid equalizers. The rich can’t hire anyone to stop them. The poor see a pink lemonade sunset or are handed a few bucks by a stranger and weep. The wise bawl their eyes out over a kind gesture. Fools, too. We laugh and weep. We want to share the best or worst news that has just happened with the perfect explanation and all we can do is blubber. Once, when I made the hardest professional decision of my life—leaving work as a hospice chaplain to become the pastor of a troubled church—I went over to my best friend’s home to tell him of my decision. I could hardly get any words out. I cried. Was I happy with my decision? Or was I not happy?
The tears were the truth of the confusion, of the hopes, of the fears.
Thank God the writer of John, whomever he was, had the chutzpah to show that the Prince of Peace, the miracle worker of Nazareth, the Son of Humanity, the child of Mary and Joseph, the soon-to-be Christ, was staggered by a friend’s death. Imagine your belief in Jesus, your willingness to (try to) follow his impossible way without John 11:35. My faith would be less.
Life staggers us. Our face floods. Tears make us beggars all, dismal and in need of comfort.
+ + +
When remembering the formal baptisms I celebrated during my ministry, of engaging in a sacrament proclaiming God’s gift of life over death, of an act of faith that unabashedly confirms that the Holy hope is forever love, I include some of the informal tears shed in my presence.
Doesn’t weeping include all of baptism’s essential elements?
What an honor it was—as a hospice chaplain, church pastor, or campus minister—to hold another’s hand when their tears flowed. Or as my tears sometimes flowed. Every tear is a liquid mirror to our most essential feelings: joy, dread, loss, transformation, futility; the shedding of the old, the embracing of the new. How right Frederick Buechner* was: “Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.”
That mover and shaker in the small pond we shared left my office that day. Probably back to work. Back to pressures. Back to failures. Back to successes.
I had grasped his hand as he trembled and wept.
Did I help him? Comfort him? Challenge him?
All I know for sure is that I was there for and with him.
Some of my best ministry had little to do with words.
Note: I am, with some final essays over the next weeks, bringing these weekly faith musings to a close. For an explanation, see #1: And Yet.
Four more musings to go (since I decided not to include my thumbs in the count):
- August 13: #5: Wilderness
- August 20: #6: Atonement
- August 27: #7: As Is
- September 3: #8: The Call
*Frederick Buechner on tears . . .
You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it. Almost any movie made before the great sadness that came over the world after the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.
They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.