Luke 19:41-44 – The Place of Tears

Man of Sorrows by James B. Janknegt, 1990

“As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it.  He said, ‘If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes.  The time will come when your enemies will build fortifications around you, encircle you, and attack you from all sides.  They will crush you completely, you and the people within you. They won’t leave one stone on top of another within you, because you didn’t recognize the time of your gracious visit from God.’” (CEB)

There are Christians who believe in as much withdrawal from the world – its earthly political and cultural realm – as is humanly possible this side of heaven. There are yet others who believe in as much accommodation as possible to the world, its structures and society. And there are others who believe that the world and the church are simply two distinct realms which Christians simply move back and forth within, like taking one hat off and doffing another.

Let us leave that all aside for a moment and just observe the pathos of Jesus. He came to the city of Jerusalem, a city which was both deeply religious and very worldly. Jesus stood and looked affectionately and longingly at the city… and he wept. This was not a quiet shedding of a tear. No, the word “wept” means that Jesus openly cried aloud over the city. Think of the kind of crying which takes place when a person is in the throes of grief.  These were great heaves of loud weeping.

The reason Jesus was lamenting with so much feeling was that the city did not recognize they had a gracious visit from God. The Lord looked at the city and saw all the future disaster which was coming. He knew it could be different, and he was emotionally undone by the city’s inability to see God, right in front of their own face.

Now let us return to our view of the world and our involvement in it. Taking some cues from our Lord Jesus, the first and foremost posture we are to take toward the worldly city is not separation, accommodation, or dual citizenship – it is, rather, to grieve and lament.

The longing Jesus had in his heart was to see the city of Jerusalem annexed and incorporated into the kingdom of God. The way of peace, of shalom on this earth, is to bring all things and all the world under the benevolent reign of God. It is as if there are Twin Cities, like Minneapolis and St. Paul, which exist side-by-side but have different municipal structures. 

The kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God exist next to each other. Jesus wanted to bring the earthly kingdom into the peaceful and gracious realm of God’s kingdom. But the people would have nothing to do with it. Both the religious establishment and the secular authorities of the city wanted their own municipal conceptions of how things should go – and they both rejected the Christ who could bring them all true harmony.

We are about to enter the season of Lent. It is a time set aside in the Christian Year for repentance and preparation to receive King Jesus as our rightful benevolent ruler. Let us lament the world full of both religious and secular people who do not recognize the time of God’s visitation. Let it be a time to journey with Jesus and follow him in his Passion for this world and all its inhabitants.

Blessed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the holy Trinity whom I serve – the world and even sometimes the church is estranged from grace – they have not recognized your gracious coming and presence. I lament such a state of things, and ask you, blessed Spirit may draw all people to the Savior, Jesus Christ, in whose name I pray.  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.

Psalm 126 – Spiritual Farming

farming

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them. (NIV)

A biblical phrase many people are familiar with is, “You reap what you sow.” Although the saying is typically referred to in the context of avoiding poor decisions (Galatians 6:7) the principle is woven throughout Holy Scripture in other scenarios, as well, as it is here in today’s psalm.

Sowing and reaping are, of course, agricultural terms. Farmers and gardeners tend to the soil through tilling, planting, cultivating, weeding, and eventually harvesting. The images of farming and the growth of plants serve as fitting metaphors for the spiritual life. Growth does not occur quickly. Instead, constant and vigilant attention to spirituality eventually brings a harvest of good works and godly attitudes.

Jesus said, “My food is to do what the one who sent me wants me to do. My food is to finish the work that he gave me to do.” (John 4:34, ERV)

In our Western society of wanting everything immediately, this is a difficult principle to grasp. We may think that when we sin, and lightning does not strike us right away, that what we did must not have been so bad. However, eventually our implanted seeds will sprout and become visible to all.  Conversely, we might believe that when we dedicate ourselves to service and see no immediate results that we must be doing something wrong. So, we easily become discouraged and give up.

Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love. Break up your fallow ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you. (Hosea 10:12, NRSV)

Yet, the psalmist reminds us of the necessity of patience.  Just as it takes continual watering to reap a harvest in the field, so the Christian’s life of weeping and tears, of tilling deeply into the things of God, is necessary to spot a sprout, see growth, and finally bear fruit.  Thus, the tedious cultivating and weeding of our souls is the task before us. If we are patient and consistent, we will realize a harvest of righteousness.

Jesus taught his Beatitudes to help us understand that righteousness, peace, and joy come through being in touch with our poverty of spirit; mourning over personal and corporate sin; becoming humble and meek; hungering and thirsting after righteousness. Only through the blood, sweat, and tears of spiritual agony will we come through to the deep happiness of seeing the Lord accomplish great things in our lives.  In other words, joy is neither cheap nor easy.  It is the fruit of many tears.

Spiritual farming involves sound practices of sowing and reaping. There is suffering before glory, tears before joy, lament before healing. Just as a farmer cannot take short-cuts in the planting and cultivating process if he wants to have a bounteous and delicious harvest, so there is no getting around the painful work of grieving our changes and losses. Avoiding the hard work of spiritual farming leads to a bogus harvest where we bite into a fresh ear of sweet corn only to discover a mouthful of worms.

Remember this: The person who plants a little will have a small harvest, but the person who plants a lot will have a big harvest. (2 Corinthians 9:6, NCV)

The bulk of our lives are played out in the space between sowing and reaping. Just as the farmer plants and waits, attentive to the land and the weather until the time of harvest, so we exist mostly in a time of patience. So, we pray, recalling past harvests and anticipating that with God’s good help we will enjoy abundance. This in-between time is often characterized by tears.

As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. (Luke 7:38, NIV)

I grew up on an Iowa farm. I only saw my father cry twice in my life. The first time, I was just a boy, two days after my eighth birthday – a devastating hailstorm destroyed the crops that had been planted just six weeks before. Despite farm equipment and technological savvy, the farmer is still at the mercy of the weather.

And we will always be at the mercy of God. Because he is good, just, and fair, the Lord does great and benevolent things. To be blessed, we need to embrace the dog days of summer in all its banality and its tears until we reach the time of reaping. There is joy, and it is coming, if we do the work of spiritual farming and wait patiently.

Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the universe. Your word brings on the dusk of evening. Your wisdom creates both night and day. You determine the cycles of time. You arrange the succession of seasons and establish the stars in their heavenly courses. Living and eternal God, rule over us always by your mercy and grace. As the source of all goodness and growth, pour your blessing upon all things created, and upon you his children, that we may use all you have given us for the welfare of all people. God of the harvest, plant yourself so firmly in my soul that life and joy will result. Let my mouth be filled with laughter. I shout aloud the deep satisfaction that comes from having great things in my life, through Jesus my Lord. Amen.

What Will It Take to Change the World?

Image result for grieving together

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.

Image result for public grief

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.

Image result for well in whoville they say the grinch's heart grew three sizes that day

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.

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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.”

Image result for julian of norwich stained glass and quote

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.