I was in the Grand Rapids airport, getting ready to fly to Nashville for a meeting of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. As I waited as the gate, I sat across from a young man, his wife, and 2 elementary age boys. His uniform gave him away. This young man was about to leave his family to serve a tour of duty in Germany.
The family was clearly struggling. The mother could not contain her tears and clung to her husband, whose face mirrored both pain and pride in his calling to the military. The boys were attempting unsuccessfully to keep a stiff upper lip, and the young man tried his best to comfort them. As we prepared to board the plane, the husband and wife could not let go of each other, and the boys turned away, not wanting their father to see them crying of unspeakable love. Such a tender moment. I could hardly bear it myself.
As we walked down the runway, he heard me talking on the phone and asked what kind of ministry I was involved in. He was reading the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis and was clearly a young man of integrity. I engaged him in conversation, thanking him for his service to our country and acknowledging how difficult it must be to be separated for so long. He responded by saying that he was a Christian and that the only way he felt comfortable leaving was the knowledge that his church was taking care of his family.
It’s the shortest verse in the Bible. “Jesus wept.” It is contained in yesterday’s gospel lectionary lesson, the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11. The importance of this verse derives not from its brevity but from what it says about Jesus. Jesus was a human being who loved Lazarus deeply. The siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were likely Jesus’ best friends. Whenever he was in Jerusalem, Jesus stayed at their home in Bethany, a safe haven where he could be himself.
Although Jesus may have wept because of the refusal of the Jews to believe that Jesus was the resurrection and the life, my spirit also perceives Jesus’ tears to be those of mercy and sorrow at Lazarus’ death. The tears were not only for Mary and Martha but also for himself. Jesus experienced every emotion that we do, including grief and loss over the death of a loved one.
The only other time when the gospels specifically mention that Jesus cried is Luke 19:41, where Jesus is making his final entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes.’”
My favorite church in Jerusalem is Dominus Flevit, a relatively contemporary Franciscan church that is built on the traditional Palm Sunday parade route site where Jesus cried over the refusal of his beloved city to know what makes for peace. Jesus knew what was ahead for him, and inscribed on the altar in this church are Jesus’ words in Matthew’s 23:37, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”
Interestingly, Dominus Flevit, translated as “The Cry of the Lord,” is fashioned in the shape of a teardrop. In biblical times tears were highly valued, so Jews used tear cups or tear vases to store their tears as a way of honoring grief over a loss. The tear-shaped cups, which you can buy today as souvenirs, had a rim which was placed under the eye to catch the tears as they were shed. The cup was then corked and stored.
At funerals the shedding of tears was so important that professional mourners were often hired (Jeremiah 9:17-19, Amos 5:16). In Psalm 56:8 the psalmist, who has been greatly persecuted, even asks God to collect the tears of his mourning in a bottle, “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?” When was the last time you had a good cry? Could any tear cup contain the tears you have wept over the years? Where and when is it appropriate to cry, anyway?
Tears in the workplace are usually frowned upon. Professional behavior includes controlling our emotions and reactions to situations and people. Women especially are careful not to be labeled as crybabies or weak. On the other hand, in today’s world we seem to admire men who are sensitive enough to let the tears flow.
What most of us don’t appreciate, however, is crocodile tears. The term “crocodile tears” comes from an ancient story that crocodiles weep in order to lure their prey. Have you ever experienced people who weep in order elicit sympathy? Children learn that when they cry, they quickly get the attention of their parents. Even adults are known to shed fake tears in order to get what they want.
Eventually we tire of people who are histrionic or habitually show excessive emotion. I’ve observed people in local churches who are so overly dramatic and emotionally turbulent in their communication that they create a toxic environment which causes dis-ease.
I do admire people who can simulate crying because I can’t do it myself. My fake crying hero is the disgraced televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, who was a master at manipulating his audience by turning the tears on and off. I also knew a preacher who had a knack for crying at just the right place in the sermon to drive his point home. When it happened almost every week, the show suddenly became artificial, and I became jaded.
On the other hand, the church should be a place where people feel free to express the full range of emotions, including crying. At its best, the church is a safe haven where we soften our hard hearts, allow ourselves to be vulnerable, feel deeply, and are open to the movement of the Spirit. We weep in church because of gratitude for a Savior. We weep with joy because of God’s presence in our lives. We weep with grief at the losses we’ve experienced. We also weep with sorrow at the recognition of the depth of our sin and alienation from the one who created, loved, and saves us.
Tears are a spiritual gift and a sign of cleansing and inner transformation. Tears flow from wonderment at the goodness of God and are the outward manifestation of the inner breaking open of our hearts and our longing for God. John Climacus, a 7th century Christian monk who lived in the monastery at Mt. Sinai, wrote in his book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, “Baptism washes off those evils that were previously within us; whereas the sins committed after baptism are washed away by tears. The baptism received by us as children we have all defiled, but we cleanse it anew with our tears. If God in His love for the human race had not given us tears, those being saved would be few indeed and hard to find.”
I have no doubt that the tears flowed freely at Calvary for those who dared to be present at Jesus’ death. Those tears not only represented God’s broken and grieving heart, they were a reminder that suffering love was transfigured through death and that even in victory the nail marks remained. At the cross we become one with Jesus in our sorrows. The tears poured into our open wounds not only purify and heal, but they transform pain into hope, open the door to new life in Christ, and bring healing to our world. “O give him all your tears and sadness; give him all your years of pain, and you’ll enter into life in Jesus’ name.” (Spirit Song)
When the soul grows tearful, and is filled with tenderness, and all this without having striven for it, then let us run, for the Lord has arrived uninvited and is holding out to us the sponge of loving sorrow, the cool waters of blessed sadness with which to wipe away the record of our sins. Guard those tears like the apple of your eye until they go away, for they have a power greater than anything that comes from our own efforts and our own meditation.
John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascents
Guard your tears, for they are a precious gift from God.