by Larry Patten
More on Jesus’ tears in a moment.
First, I remember another’s weeping.
Arriving at my cramped office adjacent to the sanctuary, he had been the one to make the appointment. The two of us represented the clichéd taboo subjects to avoid: religion and politics. In the small town where we lived, I was the pastor of a church. He was one of that zip code’s movers and shakers, a guy whose yes or no meant a local project would succeed or be stuck in bureaucratic purgatory.
I had no idea why he wanted to see me for a lunchtime meeting. Wasn’t he supposed to be at work?
Though I would never break confidentiality, it doesn’t matter. I cannot recall his concerns. This was years ago. Hundreds of folks in various churches preceded or followed him into my office. And yet I can still hear his sobs. Within moments of settling into the folding chair across from me, he was a wreck. Tears swept in from a storm deep within his soul. I can see his body shaking and hear his sentences fade as if tumbling from a ledge. None of us like to be out-of-control, weak, exposed. Though he was with me, he was also alone.
Needing to confess.
Or seek solace.
Or be honest.
Or all of the above.
You know tears. I know tears. Jesus knew tears. In the two-thousand-year-long theological debates about Jesus’ divinity and humanity, his tears always added points to the human side of the scorecard. How irresistible and telling is John 11:35’s sparse passage. I grew up in Sunday school with the Revised Standard Version’s two words: Jesus wept. In the newer New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the verse doubled in size: Jesus began to weep.
Truth in brevity.
Lazarus, Jesus’ pal, the beloved brother of two doting sisters, and probably an all-around nice guy, had died.
Sure, we could hurry to the good stuff, the whiz-bang miracle of bringing Lazarus back among the living, breathing, and stubborn humans. But I prefer to pause at the shortest speed bump of a verse in the Bible.
Life overwhelms us. Jesus wept.
Death overwhelms us. Jesus wept.
Tears are the liquid equalizers. The rich can’t hire anyone to detour the weeping. The poor gaze at a stunning double rainbow or are handed a few bucks by a stranger and cry. The wise and foolish bawl their eyes out over a kind gesture. We laugh and weep. We want to share the best or worst news that just happened with the perfect explanation, but all we do is blubber. Once, when I made the hardest professional decision of my life—leaving enjoyable work as a hospice chaplain to become the pastor of a church in crisis—I went over to my best friend’s home to share my decision. I could hardly get any words out. I cried. Was I happy with my decision? Or was I not happy?
Maybe both. God knows.
The tears were the truth of the confusion, of the hopes, of the fears.
Thank God the writer of John had the chutzpah to show that the Prince of Peace, the miracle worker of Nazareth, the Son of Humanity, the child of Mary and Joseph, was staggered by a friend’s death. Imagine your belief in Jesus, your willingness to (try to) follow his impossible, narrow, rocky path without John 11:35. I know my faith would be less without those tears.
Life staggers us. Our face floods. Tears make us beggars all, dismal and desperate for comfort.
When remembering the formal baptisms I celebrated during my ministry, of engaging in a sacrament proclaiming God’s gift of life over death, I also recall some of the informal tears shed in my presence.
Doesn’t weeping include some of baptism’s essential elements? Water. Vulnerability. Honesty.
What an honor it was—whether when a hospice chaplain, church pastor, or campus minister—to hold another’s hand as their tears flowed. Or as my tears sometimes flowed. Tears are a liquid mirror to our most essential feelings: joy, dread, loss, transformation, futility. They are the shedding of the old, the embracing of the new. How right Frederick Buechner was when he wrote, “Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.”
That mover and shaker left my office less than an hour later. Probably back to work. Back to pressures. Back to failures. Back to successes.
I had grasped his hand as he trembled and wept.
Did I help him? Comfort him? Challenge him?
All I know for sure is that I was there for and with him.
Much of my best ministry had little to do with words. Which I believe is the case, whether we are ordained or lay, for all of us.
Larry Patten is a retired United Methodist pastor living in Fresno, California. He has worked in churches, hospices, and campus ministry. His writing has appeared in publications such as The Christian Century, Spirituality & Health, and Ruminate. He is the author of A Companion for the Hospice Journey.