Worship Through Weeping

Brian-Micheloe-Doss Jesus Wept

(Artwork: “Jesus Wept” by Brian-Micheloe-Doss)

I think I cry more easily than I used to.

I am not certain of why that is.

Perhaps the accumulation of years has deepened my emotional bandwidth. Or perhaps my experiences of grief and loss have ushered me into the kind of sorrow that never quite leaves, so that the act of crying feels more like a companion than a stranger.

Whatever the reason, my tears flow more easily now than they did when I was in my twenties and thirties. A few months ago, while looking at photos from an old family album, I began to cry. It was spontaneous and unexpected—an honest emotional response to treasured memories and ongoing grief. It felt authentic, even prayerful. It also felt healthy.

About a week after that experience, an acquaintance told me that he did not feel like going to church these days. When I asked why, his response caught me completely off guard.

I am embarrassed by my own emotion…I lost my mom, my dad, and my brother over the last year-and-a-half. Tears come out of nowhere these days. Music makes me cry. Prayer makes me cry. Stories make me cry. Communion makes me cry…I’m afraid that I would just sit there in a church service and wipe away tears. I think it’s off-putting to people. Who wants a weeping mess to be sitting beside them in a pew?

The conversation left me both heartbroken and enlightened. It made me wonder how many people, like this man, see the church, not as a safe and appropriate place for the messiness of human emotion, but as a sanitized environment in which emotions are carefully guarded, images are managed, and the rhythms of tidy politeness are protected. In sanctuaries where a tearful Savior is regularly worshiped and where the brokenness of the human pilgrimage is regularly named, could it be that a portion of the church’s people are so utterly intimidated by the emotional intensity of wordless weeping that they are unintentionally creating barriers against those who feel unpresentable in the rawness of their grief and pain?

In a recent article entitled “Crying In Worship” (which appeared in the June 20 issue of “The Christian Century”), Heidi Haverkamp offers these insights:

Most of us have something to cry about, no matter what time of year it is. So I find myself wishing that people cried in church more often. Why not? We welcome people to wear jeans, to bring their children, to receive communion, to fill out a visitor’s card—why not also welcome people to cry? Most of us could stand to be reminded that we are not alone in carrying grief, worry, and struggle. If we can’t cry in church, what’s the point?

If tears are not the enemy, then why do some in the church act as if they are? I can only speculate. Perhaps the shedding of tears frustrates the all-too-common “fix it” mentality, since tears are normally devoted to pain that cannot be quickly fixed. Perhaps tears are too often interpreted as an expression of weakness instead of a courageous practice of vulnerability. Or perhaps tears are seen as being inappropriately intimate and honest—an unsettling and unwelcome reminder of the nearness of brokenness.

If such thinking has any grounding in the church, and it might, then the church’s people would do well to spend regular time engaging with these Biblical convictions:

  • We follow a Jesus who openly wept over a beloved friend and a beloved city, meaning that Jesus believed that tears were the only appropriate response to some circumstances
  • Christocentric community demands nothing less than a willingness to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), so that followers of Jesus might allow their hearts to connect in the intimacy and profundity of authentic emotion
  • Tears, at their deepest, are prayers without words—the inarticulate cries of a soul that joins creation in “groaning for redemption” (Romans 8:22)

If this is truth, then weeping is not an an obstacle to relationship but rather an invitation to stand upon the sacred ground of relational vulnerability. Weeping is not a reason to stay away from church but rather a sacred opportunity to allow the divine tears of a tender-hearted God to commingle with those of the worshiper.

As Heidi Haverkamp puts it in the article I referenced earlier, “I wonder if this could be a blessing for others…to sit and cry in church when we need to, to be God’s people all together, with all the joys and sorrows, smiles and tears, of human life, before the One who loves us so much.”

Perhaps a Christ-follower will become most authentically human only when he or she stewards emotions, not with a spirit of shame or withdrawal, but with the kind of vulnerability that gives to weeping the space it needs to gasp and to breathe. Perhaps the church will be at its most sacramental only when it believes that the cup of salvation holds a grace that is substantial enough to accommodate the tears of the broken.

The Outraged Jesus

Artwork by Bernadette Lopez)

(Artwork by Bernadette Lopez)

It is an unsettling image, isn’t it?  I am speaking of the image of Jesus cleansing the Jerusalem temple, turning over the tables, and chasing out the moneychangers. Here is how Scripture describes it:

In the temple, he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple…and overturned their tables. (John 2:14-15)

Throughout my years of ministry, whenever people, particularly men, have approached this moment in Scripture, they have often seen it as the one time in the Bible when Jesus became a real “man’s man.” I call it the (Sylvester) Stallonification of Jesus. I once heard a man put it this way in a Bible study:

If I saw this kind of Jesus more often in the Bible—you know, the kind of Jesus who roughs up his enemies instead of telling us to love them all the time—I’d find it a whole lot easier to follow him.

The danger in this sort of thinking, of course, is that it can lead a person to use a Scripture like this to justify his own oafishness and his own bad manners. “Look, Jesus got angry! So can I! Jesus turned over the tables in God’s house, so why can’t I throw the ottoman through the window in MY house!”

What a dreadful thing it is to reduce a Scripture like this to nothing more than a justification of unhealthy anger or a validation of distorted masculinity. Jesus, after all, did not need this moment of dynamic anger to validate his personhood. His wholehearted identity as a man was already fully on display throughout his life and ministry. Never is Jesus any more of a man than when he willingly suffers and dies on a cross for the sake of a fallen world; or when he tenderly weeps over the death of his friend Lazarus; or when he desperately cries over the city of Jerusalem and its sin. Never is Jesus any more of a man than when he welcomes the children to come to him; or when he speaks words of life to a spiritually hurting Samaritan woman beside a water well on a hot afternoon; or when he wraps a towel around his waist and washes his disciples feet as a tangible demonstration of the fact that a new kingdom was in place—a kingdom in which servanthood is valued over power and where humility is valued over advancement.

Jesus’ anger in the temple is not a validation of Jesus’ status as a tough guy. It is rather an indication that some of the accepted rhythms of temple life inspired outrage in the very heart of God—a heart that Jesus represented and incarnated.

At what accepted rhythms was Jesus so angry?

The overarching sin to which Jesus seems to be responding in the temple is not the sin of buying and selling per se. Rather, Jesus seems to be angry about a much bigger issue: specifically, the ease with which people of faith conform to the principles and priorities that govern all the other parts of our fallen world. What does Jesus find when he walks into the temple? He finds business as usual. He finds a superficial (and, presumably, corruptly dehumanizing) commerce between merchant and customer, masking itself as service but fueled by the same kind of interplay that one could find just as easily in the marketplace.

Jesus’ anger reveals his demand that our temples and sanctuaries—both the literal temple of one’s place of worship and the metaphorical temple of the human heart—be transformed through sanctification, in order that they might become settings in which people practice a way of life and community that is unlike anything else the world has to offer. In the sanctified temple, sharing and sacrificial generosity take priority over buying and selling; repentance and forgiveness eclipse manipulation and exploitation; and the shared penchant for profit and pecking order begins to give way to an agapic and Christocentric communion.

Perhaps Jesus’ anger is grounded in his heartbreak over his realization of how frequently God’s people resist the call to function by a different economy, a different set of practices, and a different arrangement of priorities. In the “house of prayer” that God desires and that Jesus came to incarnate, people relate to one another, not as potential buyers and sellers (customers and merchants), but as redeemed spiritual siblings who have been liberated from social and economic hierarchies in order to be able to experience a new and often countercultural engagement (in Greek, “koinonia”).

I am inspired to personalize Jesus’ anger. What about the temple of my heart disheartens Jesus when he walks into it? What about the temple of my life inspires righteous anger in Jesus when he sees how frequently I have settled for attitudes, priorities, and patterns of behavior that dehumanize the very people he loves?

It is not a hateful anger that Jesus practices. It is an anger emerging from his heart of indefatigable love for this fallen world and its misguided people. It is an anger over the very things that should make me angry.

The question is, will I allow Jesus’ righteous anger to inspire manipulative denial or authentic repentance and redirection?

Changes

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Do any of you remember the David Bowie song “Changes” from his 1972 album “Hunky Dory”? I find myself singing the chorus of that song even as I type these words:

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes
Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-changes
Gonna’ have to be a different man
Time may change me, but I can’t trace time

Changes rarely happen without some struggle. And yet, in spite of the challenges, the rhythms of transition are often where God accomplishes some of God’s most magnificent work.

I am finding evidence of change wherever I look these days. Changes in our denomination. Changes in the political climate of our country and the nature of our social discourse. Changes in the dynamics of our churches and the communities to which they are connected. Changes in how people think about spirituality and its ramifications.

Changes.

On a personal level, the changes are even more daunting. Effective July 1, I will become the District Superintendent of the Butler District in United Methodism’s Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference. I will be succeeding my current District Superintendent, Joel Garrett, who will retire on July 1 and whose creative ministry and trustworthy friendship have been a regular source of blessing in my life for the last 26 years.

My new appointment requires that I  say hello to a work I have done before. It also requires that I say goodbye to the work of serving as a Senior Pastor to a congregation I dearly love and admire.

Changes.

In the eyes of some, District Superintendents are little more than denominational bureaucrats who toe the party line, extend the episcopal office, put out ecclesiastical fires on occasion, manage the distribution and collection of paperwork, and show up for the yearly administrative dinosaur known as the church conference. Others conceptualize the District Superintendents as the backroom negotiators who shuffle around pastors in that inscrutable segment of United Methodist polity called the appointment system.

For me to be able to return to the role of District Superintendent with a sense of integrity and purpose, I must cultivate within myself a vision for the work that might carry me beyond the sinking sand of cynicism to a more dynamic spirit of hope. District Superintendents, at their best, can be attentive encouragers who hold pastors gently but firmly accountable for their ministry but who also allow themselves to be held gently but firmly accountable by their pastors and congregations. District Superintendents can be facilitators of authentic worship who dare to see worship as humankind’s only appropriate response to God’s majesty and who diligently create opportunities for their brothers and sisters on the district to connect with one another in the context of the communal adoration of God.

They can be relentless champions for outreach and mission who work with other visionaries to create opportunities for hands-on ministry beyond the walls of the church building. They can be sojourners who travel alongside the pastors and laity of their district, comforting the afflicted with gentle words, afflicting the “too comfortable” with prophetic words, and listening quietly when no words are necessary, all the while cultivating the kind of attentiveness that honors the integrity of those they superintend.

They can be enthusiastic practitioners of the spiritual disciplines, who pray for their pastors and churches, who study the Word and meditate upon its revelation, who preach the Gospel with passion, who fast for discernment (in order to remind themselves that they are hungrier for God than they are for food), who worship as though their lives depended on it, and who commit themselves to holy conferencing (both with the churches on their district and the Cabinet).

District Superintendents have a unique opportunity in a changing denomination to lead with simultaneous compassion and vision, so that their ministry is driven, not by a commitment to institutional maintenance, but by a fervent commitment to relational evangelism and missional innovation.

My emotions concerning this new appointment are deeply mixed because of my love for the people of Butler First Church with whom I have journeyed over the last five years as Senior Pastor. Granted, I will have the privilege of serving as this church’s District Superintendent, which is both a blessing and an honor. That relationship, however, is something different than serving as the church’s Senior Pastor. Another Senior Pastor will come and will lead with beautiful giftedness and inspiring integrity. Of this I am greatly confident. One of the strengths of our denomination’s system of polity, after all, is our perpetual discernment of how pastoral leaders can be best deployed and how churches can be best served. With great sadness, I will let go of the role of Senior Pastor. With great joy, I will become an ardent supporter and encourager of my successor.

Please pray for me. Pray for my wife, Tara, who is as unsettled by this transition as I am. Pray for the incredible souls at Butler First Church and for their new pastor (yet to be named). Pray for our Bishop and Cabinet as they engage in the messy and meaningful work of another appointment season. Pray for Joel and Debbie Garrett as they prepare for Joel’s retirement. Along the way, allow yourself to be completely undone by the holiness and hugeness of God amidst all the “ch-ch-ch-ch-changes” with which you might be confronted.

Finer Footwear

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I remember being in the presence of real violence for the very first time. I was in kindergarten. The kickball game at recess had been interrupted because two of my classmates were arguing over a play at first base:

“I was safe!”

“No! You were out!”

The argument escalated until one of the boys balled up his fist and hit the other boy squarely in the face. Standing close by, I was horrified by the unmistakable sound of flesh smashing against flesh. The boy who had been hit fell to the ground. I stood there, transfixed by the intensity of the moment and nauseated by the sight of blood trickling out of the fallen boy’s mouth.

I won’t ever forget that moment. In my mind, I can still hear the punch. It was my brutal initiation into a violent world—a world of warfare and terrorism; a world of hateful words and bitter feuds; a world in which children learn to fight one another over something as insignificant as a kickball game.

The fact that we live in the midst of such violence makes the following words of Scripture all the more meaningful: “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the Gospel of Peace” (Ephesians 6:15). These words unsettle me whenever I read them (which I did just this morning). They unsettle me because of the way in which they bring to light the fact that, in my personal spiritual garb, I am often much more drawn to the combat boots of coercion and contempt than I am to the shoes of the Gospel of Peace.

When I reflect upon this particular portion of the spiritual armor of God, I am instantaneously reminded that the way of Christ invites me to become more passionate about reconciliation than I am about retaliation; more passionate about mercy than I am about manipulation; more passionate about patient listening than I am about winning the argument.

I may not have the wherewithal as an individual soul to bring peace to the Middle East. I may not possess the necessary influence to end all manifestations of warfare. But will the fact that I cannot create ALL peace prevent me from creating SOME peace? Will I dare to incarnate the Gospel of Peace in my little corner of the world? Will I allow myself to be so inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit that I become a peacemaker in my home, in my family, in my neighborhood, in my network of relationships, in the rhythms of social media, and in the hallways of my church? What might such a peace-making life look like for me?

As I type these words, I am praying that I will begin to make a more substantive place in my spiritual wardrobe for the shoes that enable me to proclaim the Gospel of Peace wherever I walk. I am envisioning the kind of “wardrobe expansion” that produces a counter-cultural disciple whose words are edifying rather than insulting, whose demeanor is engaging rather than dismissive, and whose governing passion is for authentic relationship rather than acrimonious division? Then, and only then, will I be able to say with integrity that I am a proclaimer and practitioner of the Gospel of Peace.

The Sanctification of Social Media

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As I reflect on my own journey with social media (more specifically, Facebook and Twitter), I am compelled to confess that, more than once, I have fallen into the narcissistic patterns that these particular modes of communication often nurture.  I have convinced myself, for example, that the content of my lunch or dinner is newsworthy enough to share; that my frustration over a mundane matter warrants a public hearing; that my opinion is too well-crafted not to be expressed; or that my joke is simply far too funny to be kept to myself.  Having an instantaneous audience is a seductive prospect, one that often inspires even the best of us to lower the bar concerning communicational boundaries.

Easily forgotten is the fact that contexts like Facebook and Twitter are without the interpretive nuances of tone, facial expression, and body language.  A playfully sarcastic comment, minus the buffer of a smile or a wink, can land upon a reader’s heart as an insensitive barb.  (There exists plenty of complex emotional territory, after all, that emoticons simply cannot cover.)  Also frequently overlooked is the varying degree of relational depth represented by one’s collection of Facebook friends and Twitter followers.  A polemical political or theological opinion on a divisive issue may be taken in stride by one’s relatives.  Casual acquaintances, on the other hand, may be utterly (and painfully) alienated by what they perceive to be a callous and arrogant disregard for other viewpoints.

To be fair, however, I must also acknowledge that I experience some of my most playful and rewarding connections in the cyber-chambers of Facebook and Twitter.  (In what other context could I possibly find the bishops in my life interacting with my childhood friends in a threaded conversation?!).  Moreover, some of my most substantive theological dialogues these days occur, not in church offices or sanctuaries, but in the Facebook message center.  And when it comes to daily chuckles inspired by the wit of friends and colleagues, there is no better resource than social media.

If, then, social media has the potential for both communal edification and communal destruction (building up and tearing down), those of us who are Christ-followers are left with the very specific and critical challenge of reflecting upon what it means to subordinate even our usage of social media to the transforming Lordship of Jesus.  To put it differently, how might the Christ-follower’s presence in social media create more light than heat, more windows than walls, and more mutual respect than reciprocal resentment?

This question cannot be adequately addressed in a single blog post.  But these are some of the convictions that represent my personal starting point:

When I move in the direction of humor in social media, I want to be certain that my humor is grounded in playful incongruities and random absurdities rather than personal insults and particularized belittlement.  All too frequently, I have utilized humor as communicational camouflage in order to validate a disparaging and demeaning perspective.  Such perspectives, quite frankly, are far better dealt with in the whispers of prayer than they are in the pages of Facebook.

If I am sharing a personal detail about my life, my joys, and my struggles, I want to be certain that it is an appropriate expression of self-revelation and not a manifestation of a narcissistic need to be coddled, pitied, or celebrated.  As I look back through some of my Facebook posts, it becomes clear to me how easy it is to cross the line that exists between playful (or prayerful) self-revelation and a self-aggrandizing display of personal matters that demand a far more intimate audience.

If I am articulating an opinion on a matter that is controversial, I want to make certain that my tone is graciously conversational instead of obnoxiously abrasive.  As convinced as I may be that I am right about something, does my tone convey my willingness to acknowledge the possibility that I am wrong?  And am I venturing into subject matter that demands something more than the kind of “bumper sticker theology” and “sound bite philosophizing” that Facebook and Twitter invite?  It is incumbent upon me to wrestle with these questions before posting a viewpoint that might very well become the only lens through which others might view me, thereby compromising the holistic nature of my witness.  Perhaps the most common form of idolatry in the human pilgrimage, after all, is the eagerness to bow at the altar of one’s own opinions.  I wonder how frequently I have utilized social media as a means of perpetuating the illusion that my opinions are more important than they really are.

If I am posting about my marriage, I want to make certain that I am doing nothing to cheapen or diminish the marital covenant in which I live.  Likewise, as I navigate my way through the social media network, I do not want to post anything that would trivialize or denigrate my friendships, my family relationships, and my professional acquaintances.

Most of all, I want to make certain that there is no inconsistency whatsoever between who I am in the pew or pulpit and who I am in the post or tweet, so that even my social networking might bear witness to who it is that occupies the throne of my heart.

Perhaps a Presidential election season is an excellent opportunity for us to bring even our relationship with social media to the foot of the cross.  If you do not make use of the social media websites, it may be time for you to face the reality that those websites represent a vast mission field that church leaders cannot afford to ignore.  If you already make use of these websites, I encourage you to make certain that your social networking in no way compromises the integrity of your discipleship.