Do you know what the shortest verse in the Bible is? It certainly isn’t one that you could have memorized in your Sunday school classes; it would have been way too easy, at least for most. It is in John 11 and in the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. As Jesus finally arrived to the tomb of a now four-day-old dead Lazarus, he saw the deep sorrow of Martha and Mary Martha Magdalene and the Jews in the village, and in a deep moment of empathy and humanity, verse 35 simply says “Jesus wept.” In this small verse of just two word is found the profound beauty of the Christian faith and practice.
December 26, 2004, a Tsunami in southeast Asia ravaged with waves, destroying whole towns and took thousands upon thousands out to sea, never to return. Included in these thousands upon thousands was a friend. Just four years before the Tsunami, in February of 2001, my wife Holly and I vacationed at a small beach resort in the southern Thailand in a beach town called Khao Lak. Holly’s first couple days there were not so good. She got food poisoning from an airline meal on the way. The beach resort was owned by a lovely family, and one of its members particularly impressed us. Fah, a kind, ever-smiling, sincere soul, despite working sunup to sundown everyday, cooked Holly a special Thai meal for upset stomachs. If there were ever a servant’s heart, it was Fah’s. But on that day after Christmas in 2004, the waves invaded Khao Lak, taking Fah with them and never bringing her back. She perished with over 229,000 others. The beach resort was destroyed. The tragedy thousands of miles away became more personal for us.
In 2004, Christmas came. Christ’s birth was celebrated, and its significance remembered. A day after, the Tsunami came. An earthquake in the Indian Ocean bore waves that could not be celebrated only respected, feared, and cursed after they subsided. The relationship between these two days – Christmas day and its celebration of Christ’s birth and the day that the Tsunami came and destroyed everything in its path – its profundity confounded me. God’s coming one day, that first Christmas day, meant hope. But what about that day after Christmas. Did God come on the day that the waves took so many? Did God create or allow another flood to devastate whole communities, even though God in Genesis promised Noah that He would never do so again?
If one is honest about faith, one cannot help but to question the meaning of the Tsunami, or of any irrational tragedy such as wars killing innocent children, famine ravaging a whole continent, or a virus destroying lives all across the world.
As Christians, or Jews or Muslims for that matter, who all express faith in an almighty, all-powerful yet all-merciful God, it is easy wonder about that claim of God’s omnipotence and mercy. How could an all powerful yet all merciful Father allow hundreds of thousands of His children to die in such a brutal fashion?
It is the age-old question of Theodicy, the question of God’s idea of justice, of God’s letting bad things happen to good or innocent people. It is a question that still pervades, especially in situations of genocide, natural disasters like the Tsunami of 2004, or the Pandemic of 2020.
Just a month after the Tsunami, on January 29, 2005, my grandmother died. That day my wife and I were supposed to have dinner with friends. We got a call from my sister around 10:00 in the morning, just before Car Talk on NPR. Gram who was 89 had been diagnosed with lymphatic cancer just weeks before. Up to this point, she was a picture of health. She was still driving, a 1988 Dodge Aries. She was active. She visited folks at the nursing home every week.
I remember a crisp November day as Gram helped my uncle and I unload firewood from his truck. I can still see her breath rising in the air and her smiles all around. But that day in January, Holly and I rushed to the hospital to be with Gram and family. It was clear that she was dying. I would spend the day at the hospital saying my goodbyes, comforting and receiving comfort from family members. At 11:30 PM, my Grandmother, Mary Egnasher, passed gently, taking her last breath to choruses of love-moved tears.
During that day, I watched as Gram’s pastor, Pastor Osborne of the Bible Baptist Church of Ghent, New York, came to console the family and to pray with us. Pastor Osborn is as fundamentalist as fundamentalist can get. He is one of those hellfire and brimstone Baptist preachers who yell absolute truth from the pulpit. But on this occasion, he was a gentle source of comfort, offering his condolences, prayers and a warm smile. He would later do the funeral service, still a source of comfort, offering words of hope.
Most all of my family are ardent Evangelicals, at least they are of Evangelical persuasion. In my early 20’s I left that space. I could not conscientiously remain an Evangelical, seeing Evangelicalism’s exclusive teaching as lacking compassion. At that time, I was in the Unitarian Universalist ordination process. Unitarian Universalism as you may know, are no longer Christian-based though both the Unitarian and Universalist traditions began that way.
But in the moment of grief and pain, I realized I needed the Christian-basis that I raised me. I needed that old-time religion that I had resisted and run away from. Fortunately, that’s what I experienced.
Those old hymns. The rhythm and richness of prayers. The scriptures reminding us that God is our shepherd whose mere presence comforts us. The preaching of Christ and his humanity and his understanding of our grief. The sharing of our pain and the sensing of the Lord’s peace through it all. All of these things resonated so deeply and were so necessary for me amid my loss.
I attended the First Congregational Church in Albany a couple weeks later. The first time in a Christian church on a Sunday morning in some time. The liturgy hit me deep. It was as if my mother were singing me to sleep. Then came Pastor Randy Hammer’s sermon. I remember his words, “God suffers with us.”
God is not some external Santa Claus figure making a list and checking it twice, wielding out rewards and punishments as he sees fit. God is not a puppeteer controlling us puppets and the stage acted upon. God is closer to us then that. God comes to earth in the form of a man, humbling himself as a suffering servant. And that figure, that form, that Christ, weeps with us.
This is a theology of tears. God weeps. God weeps with us. God weeps divine tears. And in our vulnerable moments when tears mark our brokenness, the tears of the One who weeps and our own tears entwine.
God without tears is an impersonal God too transcendent to mean anything to us. God with tears is like us, for us, with us, within us. Thankfully, we have a God that suffers with us and even weeps with us.
And these divine tears lead to healing.
Tears heal us… literally. Scientists have shown that tears release negative toxins and helpful chemicals that help us heal and deal with hardship. I do not think it coincidence that Jesus’ weeping gives way to his healing of Lazarus. Weeping, greatly disturbed, as verse 38 claims, Jesus breathes in his salt-drenched tears and then calls Lazarus forth with a cry. Then he asks the people to unbind the source of sorrow, the cloth of death wrapped around him.
Sorrow without tears is a kind of death where we keep the sadness inside the caves of our hearts, denying it, not letting sorrow have its day. But tears though overwhelming and unpleasant begin the healing process.
Maybe Jesus’ greatest superpower was his divine tears, his tears of grief and compassion. They led him to heal others and even defeat death.
I close with this – thankfully, the story doesn’t end with weeping. Yes, Jesus wept. But same one who wept, also said “come forth” and “unbind him and let him go free.” Good Friday weeping leads to Easter joy. I end with this beautiful Psalm that tells the story, Psalm 30. Let it be our prayer:
Lord, we give you honor.
You brought us out of deep trouble.
You didn’t give our foe the joy of seeing us all die.
Lord my God, we called out to you for help.
And you healed us.
Lord, you brought us up from the place of the dead.
You kept us from going down into the pit.
Sing the praises of the Lord, you who are faithful.
Praise God and the name that is holy.
The Lord’s anger lasts for only a moment.
But the Lord’s favor lasts for a whole life.
Weeping might stay for the night.
But joy comes in the morning.
When we felt safe, we said,
“we will always be secure.”
Lord, when you gave us your help,
you made Mount Zion stand firm.
But when we lost your help,
we were terrified.
Lord, we called out to you.
we cried to you for mercy.
We said, “What good will come if we become silent in death?
What good will come if we go down into the grave?
Can the dust of our dead bodies praise you?
Can they tell how faithful you are?
Lord, hear us. Have mercy on us.
Lord, help us.”
You turned our loud crying into dancing.
You removed our clothes of sadness and dressed us with joy.
So our hearts will sing your praises. We can’t keep silent.
Lord, my God, we will praise you forever.