When I was at university, I was in college alongside many people training to be church leaders. Part of their training was a week dedicated to the theme of ‘Death and Dying’, which aimed to equip them for that inevitable part of their ministry: people dying. As part of it, they were taken to a morgue and spent ten minutes on their own in a room with a dead body. The theory was, it was something they would almost certainly have to do at some point, and it would be useful for them to have some idea of the mix of feelings and thoughts that would come up at that point.
I remember one student say this: “I don’t know why they’re trying to get us to feel all emotional about the death of someone we didn’t know. We don’t need to. Our job when someone dies isn’t to cry about it, but to make the arrangements, speak the truth and be strong for those who should be crying.”
I can’t imagine Jesus saying that sort of thing. I feel as though the incarnation models for us something really rather different from that. Jesus was faced with a world in turmoil – broken, misguided, lost. He did not make arrangements for us, speak the truth and stay strong. He did arrange for things to become different, and He did speak (and live) truth in the most powerful possible way. But that was not by staying strong for the rest of us who needed Him.
He became weak like the rest of us who needed Him.
In seeking to serve people, we need to love them. In loving them, we must care about them. In caring about them, we must feel for them. So when they are happy, we should want to smile. When they are sad, we should want to cry (or express sadness in whatever way we express sadness).
I feel as though any kind of ministry to people which maintains an emotional barrier between us and them is unworthy of Jesus. He does not model a work/life balance which means switching off the pain of the day when you get back home. He does not model ‘staying strong’ for the sake of others. Jesus wept.
What has sparked these thoughts? Yesterday, I went on my first pastoral outing with one of the pastors from our church. It was to a residential care home for the elderly. When we got there, we were told one of the residents, Mabel, had died that morning just a few hours before. We were asked if we could go up to see and ‘say a little prayer for’ her husband, Albert. They shared a room at the home.
We went up to their room and entered. I didn’t expect Mabel’s body still to be there, but it was. Their daughter was there too, who reassured us that Mabel had been a Christian. I followed my pastor’s lead, and we knelt down in front of Albert whose blindness meant he couldn’t really see us unless we came close, took a hand each, and offered our condolences. Albert expressed thanks to us, certainty that his wife was at peace now, with no more pain, and deep gratitude to his daughter who was now looking after him so well (despite just losing her mother). All of this through tears.
We prayed with and for him. Never have I been more aware, I think, of the deep power and hope of the resurrection.
And I wept.
Not in a chest-beating, ashcloth-tearing, ash-rubbing sort of way, but there were tears in my eyes. I had never met Albert, Mabel or their daughter before yesterday, but I shed tears for all of them as I sat with them and afterwards. And I think I was right to.
Weeping the Truth in Love
“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15)
I don’t know how my colleague at university would explain that verse. I wonder if he would speak of the difference between genuine and contrived emotion. We shouldn’t just make ourselves cry to show solidarity with others. And I don’t disagree. But I don’t think that’s what Paul is asking of us. Nor do I think it is why Jesus (or I) cried.
What Paul is calling us to and what Christ modelled for us is this: genuinely feeling the pain and sorrow that others feel. Not acting out their feelings, but really sharing them. If as Christians we do not feel the sadness of those we know, I think we need to ask ourselves why. If as Christian leaders we do not feel joy at the triumphs and sadness at the trials of those we seek to minister to and serve, I think we need to seriously question if we are in the right job.
Because death is sad. It’s not how things should be. It tears families apart. It casts people into loneliness. it cuts short what is beautiful and good. We cannot just know this – we need to feel it. For ourselves and for others.
Our commitment to the truth does not exist just in our brains. If something is unjust, we must feel anger about it. If something is life-giving, we must feel joy. If something is awful, we must feel sad. And in all these, we must let those feelings show. The loving thing, and the right thing, is to feel the truth.
We do not just speak the truth in love. We laugh the truth in love. We scream the truth in love. We sing the truth in love. We tremble and shake the truth in love. We dance the truth in love.
And yes, we weep the truth in love.