Monday, November 06, 2006

Collecting Tears in a Bottle

This is the first mirror post with my newer blog called Locution.

I spent the weekend at Lake Junaluska at a Cantamos Choir retreat. Cantamos Choir is an outreach ministry of the Western North Carolina Via De Cristo. Sunday morning we had a worship service. I accompanied the singing since our accompanist had to leave early to play at the church where she ministers. Jane Caldwell gave a devotional message. Jane calls herself our "token Methodist". I'm one of two Southern Baptists (both conservative at that). The rest of the members are Lutherans of either the ELCA or LCMS flavors. Jane is an exceptional devotional speaker and made a good lesson on sorrow from Psalm 56, centering on verse 8. The following is her transcript:

I doubt that there are many places on the face of the earth that are as beautiful as the North Carolina mountains in autumn. What a joy and a blessing it is to be here at this time of year. As a member of Cantamos, I am delighted that we’ve held our retreat in such a lovely place. And as the group’s token Methodist, I am so glad that you’ve spent this weekend here at OUR wonderful retreat center. Please do come back again soon.

During one of our previous retreats here, our Sunday morning worship service focused on the horrible events of September 11, 2001 and how those events changed all of us. We emphasized the joy that believers can experience even in the midst of such horror, and we concluded that the joy of the Lord never ends.

Now, before I go any further, let me assure you that I still believe in that joy – more than that, I cling to that joy, and I am convinced that I could not survive without it. But during the past year or so, I’ve been looking at this issue of tragedy and joy a little differently, and I’d like to share with you some of what the Lord has shown me.

Let us begin where everything should begin: in the Word of God. Some of you have been given a card with a verse of Scripture printed on it. Beginning here on the front row, I’d like to ask each of you to read aloud the verse you have, including the citation. All readings are from The New Living Translation, unless noted.

{Group members will read} [several passages pertaining to sorrow were read]

Does it suddenly seem a little darker in here? The phrase “gloom and doom” comes to mind, doesn’t it? According to Strong’s Concordance, there are nearly 600 references in the Bible to words like sorrow, sadness, suffering, tribulation, mourning, grief, anguish, and their variations. Obviously, those emotions are common to all people, in all places, and in all times. And just as obviously, our Lord not only acknowledges those emotions but has quite a lot to say about them.

There is much sorrow in the world today. Some days, it seems to overwhelm us. During the past few years, sorrow has come calling in all of our homes. Sometimes the visit was a short one, while other visits seem to drag on and on. For some of us, it may seem as though sorrow has moved in as a permanent resident.

As citizens of the world, we are deeply saddened by the genocide taking place in Darfur, and by the deaths of our military men and women on the other side of the world. As citizens of this nation, we are troubled by the scandals and illegal activities involving so many of our political, social, and even religious leaders. As members of the body of Christ, we feel great sorrow because of the many arguments and divisions between denominations and even within denominations. We suffer through the disagreements that tear our local churches and congregations apart, sometimes even dividing families in the process. As parents and grandparents, we are horrified and anguished by the abductions, molestations, rapes, and murders of our children on an almost daily basis.

Within our own group here, we have suffered loss and bereavement as we watched dear family members and friends become sick or injured, and we’ve buried too many of our loved ones. And we have mourned the loss of our sweet Richard, saddened not only by his too-early death, but by the way his illness took him away from us before his death did. Just as a room grows dark when a light in it is extinguished, so our lives have new shadows and dark corners now that Richard has traveled on to heaven while leaving us here on earth.

In the midst of all of this, there is, of course, that miraculous joy that we’ve so often talked about, and I do not intend to belittle that joy at all. But lately, I’ve found myself considering that maybe we’re not paying enough attention to the sorrow, to the grief, to the anguish in our mad rush to get to the joy.

I want to make sure that you understand what I mean by this. I’m not proposing that we become permanently immersed in sadness. I’m not suggesting that we turn away from the joy of the Lord in order to conduct ourselves in dreary, somber ways, nor that we wallow in self-pity and grief. But I am suggesting that it is possible that we aren’t getting everything out of our sorrow that God intended for us to have.

It’s been my experience in life that we learn our most difficult and necessary lessons in the hard times, not in the good times. Noted Christian writer David Roper puts it this way: “Jesus teaches us to measure our lives by losses rather than by gains, by sacrifices rather than by self-preservation.” And my favorite Christian writer, Oswald Chambers, had a lot to say on this subject: “When God gets us alone through suffering, heartbreak, temptation, disappointment, sickness, or by thwarted desires or a broken friendship – when He gets us absolutely alone, and we are totally speechless, unable to ask even one question, then He begins to teach us.”

Well, surely the Creator of the universe could teach us during happy times only, couldn’t He? If He truly meant for us to cast all our cares upon Him and feel great joy, then why should we have to deal with all of this tribulation in the first place? Dr. Chambers addresses that idea as well: “We say that there ought to be no sorrow, but there is sorrow, and we have to accept and receive ourselves in its fire. If we try to evade sorrow, refusing to deal with it, we are foolish. Sorrow is one of the biggest facts in life, and there is no use in saying that it should not be. Sin, sorrow, and suffering are, and it is not for us to say that God has made a mistake in allowing them.”

Strong words indeed – but true ones. And it seems to me that we’re shortchanging ourselves – and the world – by denying sorrow its proper place in our lives. Again, I’m not arguing that we should go through life refusing to smile, playing only sad music, and acting deeply depressed – although I must admit to having pointed out on occasion that when Cantamos members descend on restaurants in a black-draped herd, we do look for all the world like a troupe of professional mourners searching for a funeral to attend. It is true that we can create an atmosphere of gloom and doom that will discourage unbelievers from getting any closer to God, but I believe that it is also possible that we create an artificial atmosphere of happiness and glee that will also act as a deterrent to unbelievers. When we refuse to actually feel and show our sorrow, when we slap a fake smile across our faces, when we admonish others to be brave and dry-eyed in the face of tragedy because “That’s the Christian way to act”, I think we’re doing a disservice to those who mourn. And to our Lord. And to ourselves. And we are certainly not demonstrating sympathy that might make an unbeliever want to know more.

You see, I’ve come to believe with all my heart and soul that every time I cry, my Lord is weeping with me. Yes, He comes to wipe away my tears, but I believe that He wipes away His own tears as well. That nail-scarred hand is also tear-stained, and many of those tears are my tears. I am convinced that they are mingled with His tears – mingled so completely that they can never be separated. And while I want – and need – a God Who is a mighty warrior and an eternal Savior, I would not want a god who could not and would not cry, who could not and would not feel and understand sorrow, who could not and would not mourn and grieve. Such a god as that would be too far-removed from his creation to truly be our Savior, too far-removed from me to truly be my friend. I need a Savior Who weeps.

How important are tears to our Lord? Think back to our Scripture reading this morning, Psalm 56, specifically verse 8: “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in Your bottle. You have recorded each one in Your book.” Did you know that “tear bottles” actually existed? They were tiny bottles with flared rims that were placed under the eye to catch tears as they were shed. The bottle, when filled, was corked and either stored away or tied with a leather thong and worn around the neck of the mourner, a sign that the person for whom those tears were shed would never be forgotten.

Some Bible scholars believe that the woman who washed Jesus’ feet at the house of Simon used the tears stored in her bottle, perhaps to show that the Lord’s teaching had so changed her life that she no longer needed to save the tears and pain of the past. Some say that the tears Jesus observed when He spoke to Mary and Martha after the death of Lazarus may have been those that filled their tear bottles, and that the “cup” that our Lord prayed about in the Garden of Gethsemane may have been a cup of tears, symbolizing His profound sorrow and anguish. Whether or not these theories are correct, God’s Word does show that He acknowledges and cherishes our tears. If God cares enough about us to keep a record of our human suffering, how dare we turn away from it as if it were nothing but an embarrassment and a sign of weakness?

Instead of allowing ourselves only a pre-determined and very short period of mourning, I suggest that we allow ourselves to truly feel our grief, for as long as our Lord allows us to, and that we trust that He will let us know when that time has ended. For some of us, this may be a new experience. God has allowed sorrow, grief, tribulation, and anguish to be a part of our lives, so He must think them to be important and worthy of consideration. He was the original creator of all emotions, so He must intend for us to use them wisely and well.

So how does one use sorrow wisely and well? And how do we help others to do the same? There is a wonderful Jewish tradition called “sitting Shiva.” There are many customs attached to “Shiva”, and not every Jewish family follows the same practice, but basically, the tradition is to “sit Shiva” for seven days following the death of a close relative, during which time a candle is left shining day and night, and round foods are eaten, which symbolize the cycle of life. Visitors come to call and here is where one of the most important traditions comes into play: visitors must refrain from speaking until the bereaved initiates conversation. Sound familiar? It should – in the book of Job, following the calamities that befell him; his three best friends come to console him. And they did that by sitting on the ground next to him, not uttering a word for a full seven days and nights. They simply sat and probably wept with Job. We could learn a few lessons on mourning from the Jewish people. Sometimes all we need to do is weep with those who are crying. Words may not be needed.

In closing, I’d like to tell you a story about Joni Eareckson Tada, who broke her neck as a teenager and is still confined to a wheelchair nearly 40 years later. Already a Christian when she became paralyzed, she never lost her faith but she was very sad and angry with God and felt frustrated about expressing those feelings. Two years after her accident, she met Steve Estes, a 16-year-old Christian and she startled him by asking, “Do you think God had anything to do with my breaking my neck?” After a few minutes that included a quick prayer, this is the answer he gave her: “God put you in that chair, Joni. I don’t know why, but if you’ll trust Him instead of fighting Him, you’ll find out why – if not in this life, then in the next. He let you break your neck because He loves you.”

“He let you break your neck because He loves you.” A love like that is impossible to completely comprehend, but understanding might be a little easier if we can learn to let go of that stiff upper lip and fully embrace our pain, our anger, our anguish and grief. If we can allow ourselves to get to that sacred place where we share our sorrow with the Creator of the universe, where we can literally feel His arms encircling us, we will hear Him whispering in our ear: “Oh, My child, My little one, climb up on My lap. Lay your head on My chest and listen to the heart that beats just for you. Let your tears flow and know that Mine are flowing too. Whatever your pain, I know it. Whatever your suffering, I feel it. I won’t scold you for feeling whatever anguish may be battering your soul at this moment. You are Mine and I have collected every one of your tears since the first one rolled down your baby cheeks. I carry them with Me always, close to My heart – just as you are close to My heart. Let Me carry you, child, and know that you can always, always trust Me to do just that.” Amen.


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