Recently, I stood among a gathered group of people, most of whom I did not know. I was there for a memorial service. A few short months ago, a fellow colleague received the kind of news that no one wants to hear. In a matter of weeks, she was gone. Not every funeral I attend (or even officiate) is beautiful. This one was. And I’ll state from the outset why I believe it was: the collective experience of both joy and sorrow.
I walked away from my friend’s remembrance with a clear conviction – one that had been percolating and forming within me for quite some time. This conviction might seem exaggerated, yet it by no means is meant to be. It’s just what I have come to believe about the universal human experience. It comes from the confidence and experience of a lifetime of observation and ministry. It is neither merely a heartfelt sentiment nor a passing feeling. No, it really is a conviction, a firm principle or persuasion. It is this:
Crying with strangers in person has the power to change the world.
I think I’ve always known this. It just crystallized for me through this experience. After all, I have watched with awe the privilege I have to walk into a dying patient’s room, full of tearful family, and enter with them into their pain. The sharing of stories is powerful, eliciting both great joy, reminiscent laughter, and profound gratitude; as well as tremendous sorrow, grinding grief, and sad lament. Tears and celebration mix in a sacred alchemy producing a kind of care which transcends description.
It’s one thing to observe other’s joy and sorrow on the news, or even from afar. It is altogether a different reality to participate up close and personal. It’s something akin to watching a travel documentary on Yellowstone Park versus visiting the place in person; there’s just no comparison. Shared human experiences of grief will nearly always translate into new and emerging capacities for empathy. And where empathy exists, there is hope for all humanity. Being with another person or group of people in their suffering creates a Grinch-like transformation in which our hearts suddenly enlarge. A single tear from a singular small little Who in Whoville had the power to penetrate years of hardness of heart and change what everyone thought was a shriveled soul full of garlic and gunk.
If I need to say this a different way, I’ll do it: The spiritual and emotional heart of a human being is able to shrink or expand. It shrinks from spending far too much time alone and/or holding others at bay, at arms-length, while playing the armchair critic to those whom are out rubbing shoulders with real flesh and blood people. Conversely, the heart can grow and expand. The Grinch never went back to his isolation. Instead, he did what Whoville thought was the unbelievable: The Grinch fully participated in the joy of the community, up close and personal. It was full-bore holding of hands, singing, and eating – which illustrates a conviction I’ve held for a long time:
Hospitality, that is, showing love to outright strangers through celebration and participation with food and drink has the power to change the world.
And if I need to be demonstrative, I will: Hospitality cannot happen from afar; sitting around the table with strangers and interacting with them is needed; it alters our perspectives so that we live our shared humanity. It is rather difficult to hate someone when you get to know them and discover their loves and joys, hurts and wounds.
This all leads toward asking one of the most fundamental and basic biblical questions that must be asked by every generation and considered by everyone who respects God and/or the Christian Scriptures:
Am I able to see the image of God in someone very different from myself?
The Christian doesn’t have to go very far to answer this one, at least from an objective cerebral perspective. Jesus saw the humanity in everyone he encountered, from Jew to Gentile, from sinner to saint. In fact, Jesus saw this image so deeply within another that he sat around the table and ate with people whom others saw as not worthy to eat with. Jesus’ willingness to participate in the hospitality of strangers was downright scandalous. It isn’t a stretch to say that it got him killed.
What’s more, Jesus wept. He cried in public with strangers. For followers of Christ who seek to emulate him in his practical ministry, that point ought to be noticed. After all, we choose to remember and participate in the life of Christ through the elements of bread and wine at the Table. God’s radical hospitality toward us is truly meant to translate to an open heart toward those who look and act differently than me.
Public policy and even public theology are necessary and important. Yet, unless policies and theologies and philosophies are buttressed with a foundation of basic human respect and dignity that has been borne of lived experience with strangers, those policies, philosophies, and even theologies have the power to denigrate and destroy rather than build-up and support.
The great fourteenth century mystic, Julian of Norwich, a female devotee of Christ and an influential theologian in her own right among a world of men who tended to see the image of God in women as flawed, understood what it would take to reawaken image-bearing humanity. She stated, “All that is contrary to peace and love — is in us and not in God. God’s saving work in Jesus of Nazareth and in the gift of God’s spirit, is to slake [lessen] our wrath in the power of his merciful and compassionate love.”
The Apostle John put it this way: “We love because he [Christ] first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
Don’t think for a minute that crying with strangers is an easy thing for me. Truth is, crying is not something I typically do, or even like to do. Yet, constrained by the love of God in Christ, and putting myself in a position to feel with the emotions of others in front of me, I have come to allow and embrace those tears.
We now know that the act of crying produces endorphins which is the body’s way of bringing emotional comfort. When we apply that understanding to a collective group of people sharing tears together, we end up with a communal sense of solidarity and succor.
Yes, collective experiences of emotion have the power to change the world. Yet, this occurs only if we show up. Perhaps this is the reason for the Christian doctrine of the incarnation: Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us, the One who is present. He showed up, and salvation happened.