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On Weeping . . .and Not Weeping

 

Revelation 5:5         

 Rev. 21:4    Job 16:16    Psalm 30:5    Luke 19:41

 

 What moves you?  What really moves you?  I’m always amazed at how moved people can be over something that strikes me as fluff, like the latest episode in the never-ending soap opera.  Then again, I married into the Irish.  I’ve never been able to understand why one stanza of “O, take me home again, Kathleen” reduces Irish folk to tears.

   Blubbering, we know, is contagious.  So is laughter.  Comedians know how difficult it is to make people laugh the first time.  It’s less difficult the second, easier still the third.  The comedian trots out his best joke to start the programme.  Once he has people laughing they will laugh at anything. It’s the same with weeping.  Hard-shell people don’t weep easily.  But once they get started….  Before long everyone is weeping. When the TV stations broadcast pictures of people starving in Darfur (especially wasted children) I’ve heard viewers say, “It’s not right; it’s crass sensationalism.  It’s emotional manipulation. Besides, it exploits hungry people.”  But the same critics will weep when the winner of the beauty contest is announced or the athlete’s blunder costs his team the championship.  Apparently it’s all right to weep at something trivial but not all right to weep at something tragic. Then what moves you and me to tears?  Is it something of minimal human significance?  Or is it something profound?  Today we are going to speak only of the latter.  We shall speak only of the tears that matter.   I: —  First of all, there’s a weeping we cannot help.  Again and again in the gospels Jesus comes upon broken-hearted people.  They have lost someone dear to them, most commonly a child.  They pour out their anguish, unchecked, before everyone present.  No one faults them for it.  They aren’t told to “buck up and be brave.”  Their grief is allowed unrestrained expression.  (Let me say parenthetically that there’s nothing worse than the loss of a child.  I have conducted approximately 500 funerals.  Yet I can never become accustomed to the funeral of a child, even of an infant, even of the baby born prematurely and weighing three pounds.  We should remember too that when a child dies, the parents will separate 70% of the time.  In other words, few marriages can withstand the shock and distress of the death of a child.) In our society, on the other hand, we think there’s something virtuous about grieving stoically.  At the funeral parlour we say about the recent widow, “She’s holding up so well.”  “Holding up” is an expression we should reserve for five years later.  Tell me: did Jesus “hold up” upon hearing of the death of Lazarus?  I recall reading that Jesus wept.  There’s nothing virtuous, and everything unhealthy, about stifling grief.  Grief that’s suppressed now is going to appear later in much more troublesome guise.  More to the point, to expect the bereaved to appear stoical is to burden them with unrealistic expectations that can only leave them feeling guilty because they are psychologically weak (supposedly.)  And if they are believers, it’s to leave them feeling they are spiritual failures as well. If we are sensitive at all to the terrible unfairness of life; if we are moved at all by the pain some people must endure in themselves or witness in others, then we know there are tears that can’t be helped. Several years ago I wrote a magazine article, “God’s Grace Also in the Mentally Ill.”  One week after she read the article a woman in Regina sent me a letter.  At age three this woman fell ill with polio.  From that day to this she has had steel braces on both legs, and she hobbles with crutches.  Her brother, one year older than she, knew that she needed help and he always provided help. When she was six and he seven, he put her in his wagon and pulled her miles through Winnipeg to Assiniboine Park Zoo so that she too could see the animals and the beautiful park.  And then he pulled her miles back again, an all-day mission.  When he was nine he was given his first two-wheeler.  With much difficulty he manoeuvred his handicapped sister up onto the handlebars of his bike, her steel-clad limbs sticking straight out.  His playmates teased him, “We’d never give our sister a ride on our bike.”  “One day your sisters will ride their own bicycles,” the nine year old shot back, “but mine never will.”  They never teased him again, the woman told me.  Throughout her high school days her brother carried her up and down two flights of stairs, day-in and day-out.  He couldn’t have been more thoughtful. Then when he was 21 he was diagnosed schizophrenic.  He’s been deranged ever since.  He lives in a group home.  His sister has him out every week-end and takes him for a drive in her hand controlled car.  As they were driving around Winnipeg one day he saw the crowds of downtown workers and shoppers, and he cried out, “Who cares?”  Then he turned to his sister and said, “You care.”  They spend Christmas Day together as well, since she has never married and, she told me in her letter, no one is ever going to invite the two of them to Christmas dinner. As I read this woman’s letter I thought of her brother’s torment: locked up in his derangement for 35 years.  I thought of her anguish: not only her disability, not only the burden of her brother, but also the terrible unfairness of it all.  And then I thought of her parents: two children, one wounded through polio, the other wounded through psychosis.  As I read the letter the woman sent me I cried like a child.  And every time I re-read the letter for the next several days I wept again. There is a weeping we can’t help.  It isn’t a sign of human weakness. Neither is it a sign of spiritual deficiency.  It’s a sign that our hearts haven’t shrivelled in the face of life’s torment.   II: — There are also tears of a different sort, tears we ought to shed.  While we ought to shed them, most people don’t.  We ought to weep when we perceive a world riddled with evil and warped by sin; and we ought to weep above all in the face of a church, the herald of God’s kingdom, that has compromised itself pitiably. Erasmus (who came to be known as “the flitting Dutchman”) was the most brilliant figure in the era of the Protestant Reformation.  All of the Reformers were intellectual giants: Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer, Zwingli, Bullinger, Calvin, Cranmer.  Yet Erasmus was special, his brilliance rivalled only by that of Melanchthon.  But Erasmus was a dilettante and a fence-sitter.  He saw the dreadful abuses in the church as well as the dilution of the gospel.  He saw what would have to be done.  He knew what price would have to be paid to get it done – and he decided not to pay it.  He sat on the fence.  To be sure, he wrote clever, sharply-worded satires that ridiculed abuses in the church (as if any of this could ever be funny.)  Others noted that when Erasmus saw the wretched state of the church he laughed and called for another glass of Flemish wine.  Luther, on the other hand; Luther, we are told, went home and cried all night. Jesus wept over Jerusalem , the city.  Jerusalem : Hier Shalem, “city of shalom,” city of salvation.  City of salvation?  It slays the prophets and crucifies the Messiah.  Our Lord’s heart broke over the city, for that city “didn’t know the things that made for its peace, shalom.”  Paul wept over the church, he tells us.  We should weep over both the city and the church. Have you ever wept over the city?  A highly-placed bank executive in my former congregation told me he had on his desk a letter from Queen’s Park explaining the provincial government’s logic in placing the first provincial casino in Windsor , Ontario .  Here’s the logic.  Casino gambling generates huge sums of money for the provincial government.  Casino gambling also impoverishes the people who frequent casinos – overwhelmingly people who are poor enough already.  A casino in a border city would attract large numbers of Americans.  Americans (disproportionately poor Afro-Americans) would come to Windsor , lose their money as the Ontario government scooped it up, and then return to the United States where they would then be the responsibility of the American government and its welfare system.  Result: Ontario gathers up huge sums of money while the state of Michigan is saddled with burgeoning welfare rolls.  We import American dollars; we export American social problems.  My bank-executive friend had the letter on his desk with these details spelled out as clearly as I have spelled them out to you.  The entire scheme was exploitative, racist as well. The next casino would be in Niagara Falls .  Another small border city.  Same logic.  The third casino would be in Rama, the aboriginal reserve near Orillia .  This time the poor people rendered poorer still would be aboriginals, and they are the responsibility of the federal government.  Import the money, export the social problem. Whose idea was this?  The NDP government of Ontario conceived it.  And what is the origin of the NDP?  The party arose from the Methodist Church in the prairies during the Great Depression. It pledged itself to speak for those otherwise unable to be heard.  The poorest were precisely the people for whom the NDP arose.  In other words, the people who suffer most from government exploitation now are the people whom the NDP’s foreparents wept over. Have you ever wept over the church?   The United Church is Canada ’s largest Protestant denomination, and its collapse is grievous.  It has taken itself down through doctrinal dilution, theological compromise, ethical subversion.  Plainly The United Church has intentionally rendered itself apostate through its denial of the Incarnation, denial of the Atonement, denial of the Resurrection, denial of the Trinity, and of course its denial of the discipleship Jesus Christ requires of his followers. Its book membership (about three times the number of people who appear on Sunday morning) is today what it was in 1927.  (I trust the Presbyterian Church is more discerning and more faithful, because the PCC is older, smaller and more fragile than the UCC, and if meanders in the direction of the UCC it will never survive.)  Weep? Recently I was approached by a Toronto woman who had become pregnant as a teenager.  Unmarried, she had an abortion.  Subsequently she came to faith in Jesus Christ.  As is always the case where faith is authentic and profound, every aspect of her life was reconfigured.  Now a lawyer, she provides legal assistance (and personal support) for unmarried pregnant teenagers.  For her, abortion is no longer the solution.  Yet she’s heartbroken.  She says that her large, city congregation shuns teenagers who are obviously pregnant; i.e., teenagers who don’t have abortions.  And it shuns with equal vehemence teenagers who do.  In other words, shunning is what her congregation does best.  The apostle Paul wept over congregations whose betrayal of the gospel was worse than the world’s ignorance of the gospel. There are tears that ought to be shed.   III: — But finally, ultimately, there are no tears to be shed.  We are not going to weep.  “Weeping may tarry for the night,” says the psalmist, “but joy comes with the morning.”  There are nights – tearful nights – that can’t be avoided and can only be endured.  But ultimately we don’t live in the night.  We are formed by our Lord’s resurrection and informed by it as well.  Therefore we live in the morning; we live for the morning. The book of Revelation has long been a favourite with me.  I’m always moved at John’s magnificent affirmation, “Weep not, for the lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered.”  The only reason for not weeping is that the lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered.  But this is reason enough. When John says “Weep not” he doesn’t mean we should sniff up our tears and deny our grief; i.e., take back what was said earlier to be normal and necessary.  John means something else.  He means that weeping doesn’t characterize God’s people.  As Christians we do shed tears, including the tears that we ought to shed.  But we aren’t characterized by our tears.  We are characterized by our Lord’s triumph.  We weep not, ultimately, just because Jesus Christ has conquered. From time to time people tell me what they expect or at least look for in a pastor.  I smile to myself, because I think that often what’s looked for isn’t hugely important; e.g., administrative gifts. (Many lay people have superior administrative talent.  Let them do congregational administration.)  Myself, I think that what a pastor must have above everything else is a conviction concerning Christ’s victory; a conviction so deep in him that it goes all the way down to his DNA, and he exhales it upon his people both explicitly and implicitly even as it seeps out of every pore.  A pastor has to be convinced unshakeably of Christ’s victory if he’s profoundly to support and sustain his people. Not every day in a minister’s life unfolds hectically, but some days do.  On one of those days I worked at a sermon until noon , then drove to Richmond Hill to bury a friend.  He was an unusual fellow.  He owned a junk-yard and made a living dealing in scrap metal.  He had shoulder-length hair and hands like a gorilla’s.  From time to time we went to a Maple Leaf hockey game together, and then cavorted in downtown Toronto until it was time to come home.  He chewed tobacco, and he had dreadful aim.  He spat and spewed and sprayed and slobbered gooey brown juice in all directions.  The day of his funeral his wife solemnly placed a package of Red Chief chewing tobacco in his coffin.  He loved me, even as we were as far apart educationally (he had left school at 14) and as far apart culturally as two people could be. After the funeral I called on a woman from two congregations back whose husband (an elder in the congregation) was forced to leave the family home when he was found committing incest with a fourteen year-old daughter.  (This incident followed two earlier convictions for sexually molesting children, which convictions had been hidden from wife, employer, neighbours, everyone.) Then I drove to Etobicoke to see a woman whose fifty year-old brother, chronically mentally ill, had just been mishandled by the courts and had been sent to a maximum security prison. Then I came home to supper.  I thought of what the writer of Ecclesiastes says: “There is nothing new under the sun.”  And then I thought of what the writer of Revelation overheard God saying: “Behold, I make all things new.”  Because the lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered he does make all things new and will.  If our faith is so slight as to be only a smidgen, it’s still faith, and therefore it binds us to him who is resurrection and life.  Which is to say, the schizophrenic man, his disabled sister, the molested children (no doubt scarred for this life) and even the molester himself – you and I and all who have trusted Jesus – all alike are to be made new.  Because the lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered he determines ultimately what no one else can determine since no one else has conquered.  Jesus Christ the Victor determines our identity, who we really are right now underneath all the layers of disguise and disfiguration.  In addition our Lord determines our destiny, what our future will be on the day of our Lord’s appearing and we stand before him without spot or blemish, wound or scar. That’s the day for which I live.  That’s the “morning” for which I live.  And that’s why weeping can never tarry for more than the night.  Our struggle will never be fruitless, and therefore we ought never to lose heart. The book of Revelation closes magnificently. “And I heard a great voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with             men… he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more. Neither shall             there be mourning nor crying nor pain – any more.”   What God has promised to do he has already begun to do in you and in me and in countless others.  The lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered.  Therefore while there are tears that we may shed, and tears that we ought to shed, the day is guaranteed, the “morning,” when no tear will be shed. The Lion of the tribe of Judah – our blessed Lord – he has conquered.

Victor Shepherd           October 2004