A sob story

When Martin Luther said that “the fewer the words the better the prayer”, I wonder if that could also be applied to reading the bible. In Luther’s summary of prayer, he implies that a deeper, more meaningful, connection with God is made when we get more of ourselves out of the way; namely, our words.

Considering the lengthy Gospel texts from John assigned for these Sundays in Lent, I am immediately drawn to what is conventionally known as the shortest verse in the bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35 ESV/KJV). Coming to this point in the reading (John 11:1-45) is like stumbling on a diamond in the rough, landing at an oasis in the midst of the Gospel’s drawn-out narrative. At verse 35, I am permitted to pause, even for a breath.

The phrase is abrupt, unpolished and unrefined. In its simplicity nevertheless is revealed a precious nugget of understanding Jesus – his person and purpose.

Last summer, photos of the “crying cop” went viral following a tense stand-off between protestors and police. During the protest, which became violent, police clashed with crowds who objected to human rights abuses by the government of President Aquino in the Philippines.

The police officer, Joselito Sevilla, was among hundreds of armed military police facing the protestors. As the photo shows, he’s a big, intimidating man. And yet, for most of the protest, he made the peace sign, and wept. Many commentators have reflected on what brought about those tears – and the message sent by his unexpected behavior.

A king is not saved by his great army;

A warrior is not delivered by his great strength.

The war horse is a vain hope for victory,

And by its great might it cannot be saved. (Psalm 33:16-17)

If not by physical might, strength and intimidating power, then by what?

Jesus’ dear friend, Lazarus, teaches Jesus to cry. The Gospel writer makes clear that some of Jesus’ closest friends were Mary, Martha and Lazarus (John 11:3,5). Friendships of love (translated in this text from the Greek, philio) literally bring Jesus down to earth, and make him human, as well.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is portrayed as a divine being sent by God. Repeatedly John emphasizes Jesus’ direct relationship with God the Father. For example, in this story, Jesus looks heavenward and prays, “Father, I thank you for having heard me …” (v.41-42). But it is an act of humanity that starts the rock rolling, again literally, to the cross.

There is so much in this story that links the death and rising of Lazarus to the anticipated death and resurrection of Jesus – symbols like the stone sealing the burial tomb, and then rolling away. It was the raising of Lazarus that initiated the plot to kill Jesus (v.46-53: “From that day on they planned to put him to death”).

The shortest verse in the bible precipitates the greatest divine act in all of history. Jesus’ humanity – his compassion and his ability to feel loss and grief as we all do – is the anchor in the unfolding divine drama.

What does it mean to cry? There is power in tears.

Emotional tears often result in peace. Crying erases the competitive edge between people. Divisions are dissolved. Hearts of cold stone melt and crumble. Biologist Oren Hasson suggests that humans evolved emotional tears as a way to show others that we were vulnerable, that we would prefer to make peace (http://chealth.canoe.ca/channel_section_details.asp?text_id=5742&channel_id=11&relation_id=27878).

When most people see a crying face, don’t we feel an urge to ask what is wrong, to offer help or empathy? Hasson claims that “emotional tears signaled our willingness to trust and become bonded into supportive, protective communities. And crying when we felt fearful or vulnerable or when we felt a sense of unity could then have developed into the kind of emotional crying we all do now and then.”

He goes on to distinguish between good and bad crying. A good cry happens when criers receive support from those around them. Moreover, criers get a boost if they come to a realization, a new understanding, or resolution regarding the thing that made them cry.

Crying cleanses. It releases what’s pent up. It lets go. And therefore, spiritual guides over the millennia have identified what they have called, “the gift of tears”. Shedding tears has become a valuable spiritual gift not only in the contemporary world of pastoral care and counselling, but as an experience of God’s deep love for all people in the midst of human misery and suffering (http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/20717226?uid=3739448&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=3737720&uid=4&sid=21103926560643). Pope Francis recently extolled the ‘gift of tears’ as an appropriate expression of prayer for approaching great mysteries of life (National Catholic Report, September 16, 2013).

Authentic tears welling from the heart promote peace where humans are bound by division and hatred. Lazarus was raised because Jesus’ tears evoked a faithful response by those gathered around the tomb with him. People responded to Jesus’ request for help to “take away the stone” (v.39) and “unbind him and let him go” (v.44). Jesus’ own vulnerability leads to the building of a community, where each one of us is called upon to unbind and set free wherever people – including ourselves – are shackled by chains of hatred, fear, rage or shame.

It was Jesus’ actions, in the end, that got this ball rolling. It’s his action of raising Lazarus that results in the Passion. It’s his crying that evokes the response of the crowd to help move the stone and unbind Lazarus.

Martha, too, says all the right things. Before Jesus does anything in this story, she is confessing Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God (v.27). But it’s not enough. She also has to experience, personally, the power of Christ’s humanity and divinity. The experience of Jesus’ presence counts here, not just all the right words, doctrines and confessions of faith that one says.

It’s not enough to say we believe. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus admonished his followers (Matthew 7:21). We have to ACT in ways that reflect the truth and presence of Jesus. Even if it means being vulnerable, and crying in the presence of others.

And in that perceived weakness, we will witness the loving power of God. It is the power of God shown in human weakness (1 Corinthians). It is the cross of Jesus where death will be overcome. It is an act of supreme love that conquers the powers of the world.

Cry baby? or Cry faithful!

To cry is to admit vulnerability. And somehow — unfortunately — has the act of weeping in our competitive, dog-eat-dog world become for many a sign of a weak, inadequate disposition to life and faith? Young boys, especially, have been taught, “Don’t cry!”, right?

In pastoral ministry, we need to be careful when people are grieving and crying for a loss not to rush to excuse their behavior — which really only betrays our discomfort. We need to be careful not to hurry the grieving to accept some ‘silver lining’ of any devastating situation. When resurrection is proclaimed prematurely, harm can be done.

Preaching on the Gospel texts during these first Sundays after Pentecost, I notice a common behavior on the part of those who receive the gifts of healing and forgiveness:

When her only son died the widow from Nain must have wept for Jesus to say, “Do not weep”; and the woman wept as she washed Jesus’ feet with her tears in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7). The ‘sinful’ woman here, you will notice, does not ask for forgiveness. But her confessing heart says it all. No words are necessary.

Not only in these texts but throughout the Scriptures the faithful people of God cry. Crying is the body’s way of confessing the truth about ourselves and our situation. The biblical form is called, the Lament. In our lament, we openly raise our cries to God when we are sad, angry, defeated, suffering, lost. A primary example of a lamenting context was the Babylonian Exile — when in the Hebrew Scriptures we read about the people of God being ousted from their land and their temple, and taken to work and live on the banks of the Euphrates far away from home.

Jesus himself wept over Jerusalem in the days leading to his arrest and crucifixion (Luke 19:41). Jesus wept over the death of his dear friend Lazarus, to the point forming one of the shortest verses in the Bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). Jesus cries. Would we dare rush to Jesus when he weeps and say, “Don’t cry. It’ll be alright.” It seems to me we need to let Jesus weep.

Early Christians called it the gift of tears. The wisdom of the ages points to the healing power of tears, a cleansing of the inner life. The desert monk, Abbot Pimen, said: “Weep, there is no other way to perfection” (p.59, Paul Harris, “Frequently Asked Questions about Meditation, the Path of Contemplative Prayer”).

Our faith and our traditions of prayer that validate the act of crying, weeping and lamenting offer us a path to healing, hope and wholeness. I pray for a vision of community where Christians are honest with themselves in their faith and in their pain, who seek authenticity in their relationship with God and others, who are not afraid to be themselves before God, even to be vulnerable to others in confession.