In the Valley of Tears: an Advent reflection, part 1

Jesus wept.

“I am so sorry. I told myself that I wouldn’t cry today,” the elderly woman said to me as we stood at the bedside of her dying daughter. Martha was a faithful, church-going Christian. I doubted if she ever missed a Sunday in her small-town parish. Now, here she was in an urban, long-term care facility watching her only child succumb to a dreadful neurological disease. “I know that my daughter is going to a better place, so I have no right to cry; it’s selfish of me, right, chaplain?” Martha asked, choking back her tears.

It happened again not long after that, this time as a young child lay dying in the next room. Trying to make sense of why such a precious young life was being snuffed out in the blink of an eye, the distraught friend of the family proclaimed, “I guess that God needs her in heaven. I need to be happy about that. But I don’t feel happy…”

Where did so many of us get the idea that God expects us to streak through life as one, unending Hallmark card of giddiness and good cheer? How did we learn that we are supposed to suppress our grief and stuff our sadness because, after all, “God is in control?” Why do we feel compelled to pretend that everything is “okay,” even when it seems that our inner and outer worlds are hurtling toward collapse?

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By and large, chaplains are trained to offer “non-anxious presence” in the face of tragedy. Our place is neither to judge, nor to preach. Most of the time, I see myself as a “soul friend,” giving answers far less than asking questions. My faith is radically Incarnational, expressed most eloquently by the “Breastplate of St. Patrick” from the Celtic tradition.

Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

In other words, through Christ, God is already and always present and working in the world. God doesn’t need me to “make” anything “happen.” My calling is to help others recognize places in which they might recognize traces of the Divine Presence, even as they traverse the dark caverns of suffering, grief, and insecurity.
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This is far from easy. “Religious types” like myself are often terrified to admit the limits of our abilities and understanding. In the presence of agony, we feel compelled to provide explanations, to offer words of solace, to quote Scripture or utter soft-sounding pieties. Keeping silence is a skill no one learns in seminary (nor can I imagine any of my divinity school professors, save one or two Jesuits and a Franciscan sister, actually being quiet!).

The reality is that most people in intense distress neither want, nor need our words, no matter how well-intended. They are looking, rather, for shoulders to cry on, arms to grip, chests to pound, hands to squeeze. They seek eyes to witness their anguish and ears to hear their “mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.”

I learned this the hard way once upon a time when I came to announce to a father that his young son had died in a freak accident. No sooner had I opened my mouth with a basic expression of sympathy than did he forcefully ask me not to speak. I realized later that my attempt at words was more of a strategy to distance myself from the horror unfolding than to comfort this man.

More times than not, what is being asked of us as spiritual caregivers is, like Mary, to keep silent vigil at the foot of the cross. My job is not to be an “answer man.” I am there to be a fellow pilgrim along the Jesus Way, even when that Way takes me down paths I would rather not trod.

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In the two situations in which the bereaved apologized to me for crying, I felt led to make an exception to my general practice of pastoral silence. On both occasions, without thinking, really, the words, “Jesus wept,” leapt from my tongue.

One of the gifts of growing up on the “saw dust trail” of Appalachian, revivalist Christianity is that I learned my Bible well. From Sunday School “sword drills” to summer Bible camps, I was relentlessly taught the “old, old story of Jesus and his love.” Without doubt, the favorite verse in the Bible (next to the ubiquitous John 3:16) for every young denizen of evangelical Protestantism comes from John 11:35: “Jesus wept.” It is popular because it is the shortest verse in all of Scripture.

When I memorized it many moons ago, I was probably more focused on impressing the girls in youth group than I was on grappling with its theological implications. But the shortest verse in the Bible might also be one of the most profound in what it reveals to us about the nature and character of God. It is definitely one with which American Christianity needs badly to reacquaint itself.
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The scene from John 11 is a gripping one. Jesus is summoned to the grave of his dear friend, Lazarus, who has just died. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, are outside the tomb, the stench of death wafting about in the mid-day heat of the Palestinian hills. In accordance with Semitic custom, the mood was electric with grief: not the stoic, tear-swallowing, Minnesota kind – but the weeping, wailing, thumping-of-chests, Middle Eastern variety (I remember attending my first Palestinian funeral; it was for a teenager killed by Israeli security forces, and I could hear the wailing nearly three city blocks away).

Here comes Jesus – the Anointed One, Israel’s Messiah, the Word Made Flesh Dwelling Among Us. Yes, he comes as all of these but also as the friend of Lazarus. And what does Jesus do? Jesus, who in a short while will raise Lazarus from the dead, WEEPS. Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, CRIES. Jesus, who the Nicene Creed proclaims to be “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father” breaks down and WAILS tears of grief.

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I do not pretend how to understand this passage intellectually. The older I get, the more I harken back to something said to me in college by of my most beloved spiritual mentors, Bishop C. Joseph Sprague. In those years, I was overwhelmed by many questions about how to reconcile the intense Christian piety of my childhood with the historical-critical methods of analyzing religion I was learning in college. I spent many hours hashing through my doubts and fears in Joe’s book-lined study, first at Epworth United Methodist Church in downtown Marion, Ohio and then at North Broadway United Methodist in Columbus.

Without trying to explain away my confusion or relieve me of my doubt, Joe, in his soft but passionate voice, said to me, “David, this Jesus faith we hold dear is never irrational but it is always transrational.” In other words, the Jesus Way cannot be reduced to our arguments, intellect, theories, ideas, creeds and dogmas. It may include those things but is always beyond them.

Moreover, the Love that tumbles empires and transforms frail and finite humans into courageous warriors of compassion and justice like Teresa of Calcutta, Jean Donovan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Charles de Foucauld,and Dorothy Day is the Love most often encountered most profoundly in and through the times we feel most broken, abandoned, and grieved.

Nearing his death, Dr. Clyde Holbrook, the great lion of the Oberlin College Religion department, boomed at us:

“Ladies and gentlemen, you does NOT find God at the end of your argument. You find God at the end of your rope!

With Jesus as our guide, might we also say that we find God in a puddle of tears? Our tears, most certainly. But also in the tears cried by Jesus. If Jesus wept for his friend Lazarus, then surely he weeps for us as we experience death’s unbearable sting.

Following the tragic death of his son in a flash flood, the maverick American preacher, William Sloan Coffin, Jr., was asked how he made meaning of what had happened. “This, I know,” said Coffin, “God did not send the water to sweep my son off that bridge. But God was there, and God was the first one to shed a tear when my son hit the water.”

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The idea of a God who weeps may be uncomfortable to many of us because it implies that God is vulnerable. When I am honest with myself, I must admit that I would often prefer a Zeus-like Superman god or a happy-clappy Santa Claus god over and against the self-emptying, bleeding God of Golgotha or the homeless, hunted God of Bethlehem. What good is a God who hungers, thirsts, mourns, and cries? How is the God revealed in Jesus supposed to help me conquer my enemies, triumph over adversity, and eliminate pain?

Hence we get to the scandal at the heart of the Jesus Way. The babe of Bethlehem and the corpse of Golgotha indicate that the Way of Love involves not eliminating suffering but transforming it. The Holy One uses the inevitable presence of brokenness and anguish in our lives to create in us compassionate hearts and courageous spirits. Jean Vanier, describes God’s way of being

which is not to be strong, wonderful, and all powerful but rather to be humble, to become human and to go down to the bottom, to become not only the servant but the rejected servant. At the bottom of the social ladder, he joins all those who have been rejected and with them he creates a new order, a new community. They are the starting point of this new creation, this new body of humanity which has been torn apart – and continues to be torn apart by the desire for power and prestige” (Jean Vanier, Befriending the Stranger).

The Jesus Way goes against many of the things I have been taught to value as an American: strength, speed, efficiency, independence, wealth, status, fashion, physical appearance, intellectual dominance. The God made known in Jesus calls me to admit my brokenness, accept my limitations, acknowledge my wounds, and make peace with the fact that the road to Emmaus always passes over the hill called Calvary.

This does NOT mean that we seek suffering or try to make ourselves miserable through acts of self-punishment; self-inflicted pain (whether emotional or physical) flows from an egotistical obsession with self. What the Jesus Way teaches is that WHEN suffering comes (and it will come to all of us, albeit in different forms), God can use it to enter us, empty us, and transfigure us.

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The tears that we shed for the brokenness of our world then become instruments of grace. Rather than being a shameful thing that “good” Christians should not do, crying can be an act of worship. Crying is a means of lifting up our grief for the agony of creation unto God’s tender Heart, where all things are held in Love and caressed by mercy.

St. Paul reminds us that the Spirit dwells within our deepest longings and most intense heartache:

The moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. God does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of wordless sighs, our aching moans” (Romans 8.26, The Message translation).

I think of this passage as I sit by the bedside of dying patients. In those last days and hours of life, verbal, “wordy” communication may have ceased. And yet I have often sensed at the deathbed a far more powerful form of spiritual communion taking place in and through the “wordless sighs” and the “aching moans” of those who are making their pilgrimage unto the Beloved who “will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 21.4). This is the Beloved in whom all things are made new and in whom all of our longings are fulfilled.

Anglican contemplative and professed solitary, Maggie Ross, explores this movement beautifully when she writes,

It is only when we are willing to live in our wounds without hope of healing that we begin to live in faith – and thus in real hope – for it is only then that we give up the last vestige of the comforting illusion of control and exploitation and the denial of our creatureliness. Only when we wait, wounded, in the dark I AM, can we receive the sign of Jonah, God’s merciful love for us as we are. Only then can Christ fully dwell in us; only then can our wounds become his glorified wounds…only then by the radiance of Christ’s wounds in ours can the creation enter transfiguration” (Maggie Ross, Pillar of Flame: Power, Priesthood, and Spiritual Maturity).

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A confession: I am not very good at practicing what I preach. Tears do not come easily for me, and facing my own grief scares me. I will be reflecting more on that in the next post.

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For now, I am trying to make this prayer by Celtic spiritual writer, J. Philip Newell, my own Advent prayer:

In the darkness of the evening the eyes of my heart are awake to you. In the quiet of the night I long to hear again intimations of your love. In the sufferings of the world and the struggles of my life I seek your graces of healing. At the heart of the brokenness around me and in the hidden depths of my own soul I seek your touch of healing. O God, for there you reside. In the hidden depths of life, O God, there you reside” (Philip Newell, Celtic Benediction: Morning and Night Prayer).

Advent blessings to you all.

1 thought on “In the Valley of Tears: an Advent reflection, part 1

  1. I often forget that His Spirit is inside when I “crash and burn,” and perhaps, in spite of the pain and shame, He is crying alongside me (?) as I pray for release, healing, and enhanced wisdom.

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