Acts 20:17-38 – A Ministry of Tears

Paul sent a message for the church leaders at Ephesus to come and meet with him. When they got there, he said:

You know everything I did during the time I was with you when I first came to Asia. Some of the Jews plotted against me and caused me a lot of sorrow and trouble. But I served the Lord and was humble. When I preached in public or taught in your homes, I didn’t hold back from telling anything that would help you. I told Jews and Gentiles to turn to God and have faith in our Lord Jesus.

I don’t know what will happen to me in Jerusalem, but I must obey God’s Spirit and go there.In every city I visit, I am told by the Holy Spirit that I will be put in jail and will be in trouble in Jerusalem. But I don’t care what happens to me, as long as I finish the work that the Lord Jesus gave me to do. And that work is to tell the good news about God’s great kindness.

I have gone from place to place, preaching to you about God’s kingdom, but now I know that none of you will ever see me again. I tell you today that I am no longer responsible for any of you! I have told you everything God wants you to know. Look after yourselves and everyone the Holy Spirit has placed in your care. Be like shepherds to God’s church. It is the flock that he bought with the blood of his own Son.

I know that after I am gone, others will come like fierce wolves to attack you. Some of your own people will tell lies to win over the Lord’s followers. Be on your guard! Remember how day and night for three years I kept warning you with tears in my eyes.

I now place you in God’s care. Remember the message about his great kindness! This message can help you and give you what belongs to you as God’s people. I have never wanted anyone’s money or clothes. You know how I have worked with my own hands to make a living for myself and my friends. By everything I did, I showed how you should work to help everyone who is weak. Remember that our Lord Jesus said, “More blessings come from giving than from receiving.”

After Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. Everyone cried and hugged and kissed him. They were especially sad because Paul had told them, “You will never see me again.” (Contemporary English Version)

“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”

Washington Irving

Apparently, real men do cry. 

When the manly Apostle Paul was headed for Jerusalem, he stopped in Ephesus on his way. Paul preached for hours to the church he had established there, and everyone understood this just might the last time they all saw each other. Paul remembered he had served the Lord among them and admonished each person with tears in his eyes. 

And when Paul departed from Ephesus for the last time, there were a great many tears both with him and the congregation.

Paul was faithful to declare all the will of God to the church. Whatever the people needed, he worked diligently to spiritually support them. The Ephesian church needed a good cry, a sort of emotional baptism to help cleanse and prepare them for life apart from their beloved founder.

So, Paul, never one to be afraid of his emotions, allowed his own tears to flow freely. Those tears were not ancillary to his ministry; they were an integral part of it.

One of the unfortunate philosophical hangovers of the Enlightenment project, with its sheer intellectual rationalism, is that over the past several centuries, we in the West have tended to view ourselves as brains on a stick. 

The thinking goes that if we clearly and objectively educate people, provide them the correct information, teach them sound doctrine and right behavior, that they will have everything they need and do the right thing. 

When you get to heaven, try telling that to Paul, and see where it gets you.

Any Christian tradition which excludes the vital element of emotions is a truncated spirituality. Even more, I would argue it is downright heretical. If we are devoted to emulating and following our Lord, then just as he wept, we will weep, too.

People everywhere desperately need some tears in order to connect with Jesus Christ. 

Perhaps we all need a good old fashioned cry today.

Weep over lost persons locked in a prison of guilt and shame who need deliverance and new life.  

Shed some tears over believers floundering in their faith, mistakenly believing they must keep a stiff upper lip and eschew their grief and sadness.

Bawl and let your eyes be red in missing those friends and mentors who have died in faith, leaving a massive spiritual hole in our hearts.

And cry over a broken world that has not experienced the grace of God. Indeed, slow down enough to feel the pain, sit with your emotions, and find the mercy of God.

Gracious God, you have created us all in your image and likeness. Help us so to connect with your own emotional constellation that none of us will be stifled in faith but will go on to maturity in Christ with your whole church. Amen.

Matthew 5:4 – Blessed are Those Who Mourn

“Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.” (NIV)

Throughout most of human history, there have been groups of people, typically women, who occupy a special role within their respective societies. Sometimes paid professionally, and many times not, these folks had an important function – so important was this vocation that a unique skill set was needed to support an entire community of people.

What is that role, that function? To be a mourner.

In Scotland and Ireland, they were referred to as “keeners.” Keening is mourning, and keeners were employed to help others grieve and lament the death of a loved one. Through their emotional wailing, family members could feel as though someone was putting a voice to their grief. It was also considered a way to honor the dead and share their accomplishments. 

The keen is a bygone practice, along with many of the funeral practices of other cultures. With the advent of modern institutional funeral homes, beginning in the nineteenth century, there has been more and more distance to the raw feeling and emotion of death. Keening was a tradition which included songs of lament, at least one of them being composed specifically for the occasion.

For millennia, cultures have recognized and affirmed the need for and importance of wailing and crying and deep grief to have its say.

Jesus believed mourning to be significant enough to include it, right off the bat, in his Sermon on the Mount. Authentic disciples of Jesus Christ mourn.

Mourning, in the Beatitudes, is the emotional response to spiritual bankruptcy. To be a spiritual mourner is to weep and wail over sin… loudly! It is to see that sin in all its foulness and degradation is terrible and destroys relationships. Because of this, we experience personal grief over both the world’s sin and ours.

The Christian disciple, the true follower of Jesus, knows death is coming, and must be faced. God is coming and will be known by all as either Savior or Judge. Sin is present all around us, even in us, and it is unspeakably ugly and black in the light of God’s holiness. Eternity is real, and every living human being is rushing toward it.

The alternatives of eternity are inexorably coming – life or death, forgiveness or condemnation, heaven or hell. These are all realities which will not go away. The person who lives in the light of them, and rightly assesses self and the world, cannot help but mourn.

They mourn for the sins of their nation and neighborhood. They mourn over the erosion of the very concept of truth. The keener mourns over the greed, the cynicism, and the lack of integrity all around. Indeed, the Christian mourner mourns that there are so few keeners expressing the biblical mandate to mourn.

I wonder if sin causes us to weep, even to wail. I am curious if the presence of sin in the world and within ourselves keeps us awake at night, or not.

If individuals can only locate sin out there somewhere and are never close enough to see lost souls entrenched in sin, needing a Savior, then they must come back to the first Beatitude of knowing their spiritual poverty and wrestle with putting pride in its place and fully embracing a humble spirit.

Those who do not mourn have a hard heart because mourners are sensitive to sin.

“But I’m not really a person who cries.” Perhaps you ought to explore why that is so. It could be that a thick callous has developed over the heart. The telltale signs of this are being comfortable with watching violence and having no problem with uttering violent speech.

Many Christians pray for revival; it will not occur apart from the way of the spiritual beggar who mourns over the violence, oppression, bigotry, arrogance, and injustice of the world. 

If there is to be any transformation of heart, it will come through seeing myself for who I am and seeing the sins of this world for what they are.  Without this, there is no hungering and thirsting for righteousness, no mercy, no purity, and no peace in the world or the church. 

Jesus told a parable to illustrate true righteousness versus self-righteousness, saying:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14, NIV)

Jesus says the mourner, the keener, will be comforted; she will find the remedy to alleviate guilt and shame in her own life through Jesus, as well as the answer to the ills of the world, in Christ.

We do not need lots of money, a high position, a particular gender, or even be a faithful practicing religious person to be a mourner. Anyone can be one. And this is the door by which we enter the kingdom of God.

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have sinned and strayed from your ways like lost sheep…. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done…. We acknowledge with great sorrow our great and many sins which we, from time to time, have committed by thought, word and deed, against your divine majesty…. O Lord, have mercy upon us.

Spare all who confess their faults and truly repent; according to your promises declared in Christ Jesus our Lord. We are cut to the heart and are sorry for our wrongs; remembering them now grieves us…. Forgive all our past wrongdoing; be merciful to us now in the present; and extend your kindness to us in the future, through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.

*Above painting by Hyatt Moore

Revelation 7:13-17 – Your Tears Will Not Last Forever

One of the elders asked me, “Do you know who these people are that are dressed in white robes? Do you know where they come from?”

“Sir,” I answered, “you must know.”

Then he told me:

“These are the ones
who have gone through
    the great suffering.
They have washed their robes
in the blood of the Lamb
    and have made them white.
And so they stand
    before the throne of God
and worship him in his temple
    day and night.
The one who sits on the throne
will spread his tent
    over them.
They will never hunger
    or thirst again,
and they won’t be troubled
by the sun
    or any scorching heat.

The Lamb in the center
of the throne
    will be their shepherd.
He will lead them to streams
    of life-giving water,
and God will wipe all tears
    from their eyes.” (Contemporary English Version)

Suffering Before Glory

There is a day coming when followers of Jesus will come before the throne of God, serving the Lord day and night. And he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. It will be a glorious time of unending peace, harmony, and rest.

But first, before this permanent Sabbath rest, there will be trouble, hardship, trial, and even martyrdom.  There will be suffering before glory.  Sometimes the difficult circumstances of life seem to have no end.  Yet, they will eventually pass, and we must continually keep this in mind.  There is a day coming when God’s pastoral presence will forever guard and keep our lives if we endure to the end.

Running Before Finishing

Perseverance, endurance, and pushing through hard situations are necessary to realizing the finish line.  We cannot just sit here on earth in some sort of holding pattern waiting for the end.  Just as an athlete must go into strict training to run the race well, finish strong, and cross the line, so we as Christians are to be in training. Believers possess at their disposal an array of spiritual practices that will fortify their souls to keep going and finish the race. 

The book of Revelation was a vision of the Apostle John given to suffering Christians in grinding hardship. Those ancient followers of Jesus had a great need of patience and perseverance. God graciously gave the believers a glimpse of the glorious ending to come. It was one way of helping them endure their present adversity and live for Jesus Christ.

Indeed, it is future hope which gives shape to the Christian’s life in the immediate here and now. Hope is what sustains us and helps us move through the difficulties of our current existence. Knowing there is a time coming when our tears will be personally wiped away by a loving God enables us to endure our griefs and sorrows.

Partial Before Total

God is with us. What we must continually keep in mind is that our salvation is assured – yet will not come in its fullness until the end of the age. So, we read Scripture portions like Psalm 91 with the understanding that ultimate safety and security is not found in this life but in the life to come…

Those who live in the shelter of the Most High
    will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
This I declare about the Lord:
He alone is my refuge, my place of safety;
    he is my God, and I trust him.
For he will rescue you from every trap
    and protect you from deadly disease.
He will cover you with his feathers.
    He will shelter you with his wings.
    His faithful promises are your armor and protection.
Do not be afraid of the terrors of the night,
    nor the arrow that flies in the day.
Do not dread the disease that stalks in darkness,
    nor the disaster that strikes at midday.
Though a thousand fall at your side,
    though ten thousand are dying around you,
    these evils will not touch you.
Just open your eyes,
    and see how the wicked are punished.

If you make the Lord your refuge,
    if you make the Most High your shelter,
no evil will conquer you;
    no plague will come near your home.
For he will order his angels
    to protect you wherever you go.
They will hold you up with their hands
    so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.
You will trample upon lions and cobras;
    you will crush fierce lions and serpents under your feet!

The Lord says, “I will rescue those who love me.
    I will protect those who trust in my name.
When they call on me, I will answer;
    I will be with them in trouble.
    I will rescue and honor them.
I will reward them with a long life
    and give them my salvation.” (New Living Translation)

May God’s peace and hope fill you with inexpressible joy at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Patient God, you tediously work until your plans and purposes are accomplished.  As you are slowly bringing your kingdom to the world, strengthen me so that I do not give up.  Help me to persevere, living and loving like Jesus, to his glory.  Amen.

Jeremiah 20:14-18 – Overwhelmed with Grief

By Unknown artist

Cursed be the day I was born!
    May the day my mother bore me not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought my father the news,
    who made him very glad, saying,
    “A child is born to you—a son!”
May that man be like the towns
    the Lord overthrew without pity.
May he hear wailing in the morning,
    a battle cry at noon.
For he did not kill me in the womb,
    with my mother as my grave,
    her womb enlarged forever.
Why did I ever come out of the womb
    to see trouble and sorrow
    and to end my days in shame? (NIV)

Perhaps you feel as though you must put on a good face, a decent front for others to see. You don’t like other people seeing you upset or cry because it can be embarrassing. Maybe you believe others don’t need to be burdened with your sadness. The last thing you want is to be a killjoy.

Sometimes you might even put up a front with God.  Maybe you think God wants everyone to be perpetually happy and always sing with the birds in blissful joy and gladness, or whistle while you work. However, that would not be an accurate view of God.

One of the most faithful people in Holy Scripture, Jeremiah, freely and unabashedly lamented before God – to the point of wishing he were dead. Jeremiah, the incredible prophet of God, closer to the Lord than anyone of his generation, was so despondent and ashamed that he wished he were never even born. The suffering and the shame were just too overwhelming.

To say that Jeremiah had a difficult ministry is a gross understatement. He literally had the ministry from hell, prophesying to people who neither liked him, nor his message to them. In the middle of it all, Jeremiah threw up his hands and let out his complaint to God. Jeremiah was in such ministerial misery that he wished he had been a stillborn baby.

Lest you think Jeremiah was sinfully depressed or just cuckoo, he is far from alone in the Bible. King David had no scruples about letting God know how he felt about his dire circumstances. Job, likely the most famous sufferer of all, spent time doing nothing but lamenting his terrible losses for months. What all three of them have in common is that they openly grieved with great tears, yet neither cursed God nor forsook the Lord.

Lamentation is the sacred space between intense grieving to God without blaming the Lord for our significant changes and losses in life. I would even argue that lamenting and grieving before God is a necessary spiritual practice which needs full recognition in the Body of Christ. Please sit with that last statement for a bit and consider how it might become a reality in your own life and context.

Grief can and does attach itself to any change or loss. It is the normal emotional, spiritual, physical, and relational reaction to that injury of the heart. There is only one way through grief. We must tell our story to another. It is both biblical and quite necessary.

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.”

galatians 6:2, NLT

We need our spirituality to support us in such times – not drive us away through a misguided theology of believing you must keep a stiff upper lip. It is critical to have safe and supportive people in our lives when going through overwhelming circumstances.

“Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion.”

Brené Brown

Our tears are holy. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. The prophet Jeremiah was doing a very godly thing in expressing his grief. And Jeremiah’s lament is what helped steel him for the several attempts on his life that he faced.

Let the tears do their intended work in your life.

God of all, you feel deeply about a great many things.  As your people, we also feel a great depth of emotion when our lives go horribly awry from our dreams and expectations.  Hear our lament as we pour out our grief before you, through Jesus, our Savior, with the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.