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Drawing Near to God with the Heart: Tears

Wednesday March 8 2017

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: Tears

Some years ago I attended a session of a class on the Desert Fathers, those monks of the fourth and fifth centuries who lived in the deserts of Syria and Egypt and who dispensed wisdom to those who came to visit them. I was blessed indeed that this one particular class covered the topic of the Desert Fathers and their attitude toward tears.

The Desert Fathers advocated weeping. They experienced tears as an excellent way to express sadness and sorrow at our own sin. They believed that at the same time that we are crying for our sins, we will find that our tears are also about the joy and wonder of God’s grace and forgiveness. These two components of tears, sorrow for sin and joy in God’s grace, will not be separate, they believed, but we will switch from one to the other almost instantaneously.

When I became a mother in my late twenties, I was surprised to find how much more easily I cried than ever before. Tears have been closer to the surface for me for since then, but in my forties my tears somehow changed. I couldn’t put my finger on the change until I sat in on that class on the Desert Fathers.

The tears I experience now really are about both sorrow and joy. I do cry about my own sin. These are seldom tears about one-time sins. My tears seem to center on the sins I can’t stop doing: recurring negative thoughts about specific people, my tendency to hate myself because of being overweight, and longings and attractions I have for things I don’t have. As I wrote last week, part of maturity for me has been facing my inner darkness.

Just like the Desert Fathers predicted, mingled in with my tears of sorrow for sin, I find tears of joy and wonder that God’s love is so great and that he has shown that love to me. In fact, it’s in the face of the God’s abundant love and grace that I feel such sorrow, because I can’t seem to receive his overflowing love in some parts of my life. Some parts of my life are so broken. I am so blessed, yet I continue to turn away from God’s blessings and seek my own way. Not all the time, but more often than I want to. I cry about that.

I also cry about sin in the world. I cry about the 21,000 people who die each day from hunger-related causes, mostly children,[1] and I cry at the hugeness of evil that keeps the rich and poor so separate and living such different lives. I cry about the hugeness of evil that would motivate people to give their lives so innocent people would die in terrorist attacks. I cry about the people I know and love who are experiencing pain from so many different awful things in their lives. And simultaneously I am crying because God’s grace and love are much more immense than evil. His love and grace are so real and significant and tangible in so many ways, yet there are so many places in human life that seem immune to his love. How can this be? It makes me cry.

I cry because of my longing for heaven. I long for the place and time where everything will be made right, where evil will no longer exist, and where my love for God will be able to flower into the kind of joyous obedience and peaceful acceptance that I long for now. I cry because my moments of emptiness now are so painful in the light of the reality that heaven is coming one day.

Sometimes I find myself getting tears in my eyes in public setting where it is embarrassing to cry. I’m trying to learn to let those tears be there, as an expression of a deep heart and soul reality that I believe mostly pleases God. As I have accepted my tears more fully, I am finding I can identify more clearly the emotions that lie behind the tears. Mixed in with the tears that please God – sorrow for sin, the awareness of God’s grace, and the longing that everything will be put right – are also tears of self-pity and self-aggrandizement. Even in my tears I find the bizarre mix of faithfulness and selfishness that characterizes all of human life – this mix that got me started crying in the first place!

I commend to you tears as a way of expressing deep longings and heart realities. Our tears can be a tutor to help us understand what we are truly feeling and what we truly value. In our tears the Holy Spirit brings out heart realities too deep for words. When we are consumed by embarrassment at our tears, we lose the opportunity to let our tears teach us and express inner realities without words.

This is the sixth post in a series about Drawing Near to God with the Heart. Previous posts:
Introduction: Drawing near to God with the heart         
God woos us          
A journey with the Psalms           
Praying the Psalms       
God's presence through the Holy Spirit          
Facing the inner darkness         

(The series continues next week with "All will be well." Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post is excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife, available in paperback here and on kindle here.)

[1] http://www.poverty.com/

Grace gifts versus guilt-inducing obligations

Monday November 17 2014

Grace gifts versus guilt-inducing obligations

I’ve been speaking and writing about the Sabbath for almost a decade, but I recently had an aha experience about Sabbath keeping in my life and its connection to other spiritual practices.

Much of my speaking and writing flows out of my own Sabbath observance, which is close to its 35 year anniversary. When we were young adults, my husband and I lived in Israel for 18 months. Our apartment was in a Jewish neighborhood in Tel Aviv, so everything was closed on the Sabbath day. Everything. We didn’t have a car, and the busses didn’t run, so it was a day with incredibly few options and a very slow pace.

For the first few months, we chafed at the sense of confinement, but later we relaxed into the rhythm of six days of activity and one day of vastly reduced options. When we returned to Seattle, we decided to adopt a Sabbath pattern of our own. Thirty-five years ago, Christians weren’t talking about the Sabbath at all, so some of our friends thought we were a bit weird.

Some people told us we were legalistic. We were stunned by their comments, because we had experienced the slow pace and reduced options of the Sabbath as a major gift that we wanted to keep on receiving. Sure, the fourth commandment calls for a Sabbath, but we never experienced it as an onerous command. We had learned to receive it as a gift, and we wanted to keep receiving that gift.

My recent aha moment came when I compared Sabbath keeping to having a daily quiet time. In my early years as a Christian, I was taught that a daily quiet time in the specific form of cognitive-based Bible study and intercessory prayer is a non-negotiable, something all Christians have to do. I have often tried to have a daily quiet time in that form, and I have succeeded only intermittently. I have felt a lot of guilt around my quiet time failures.

I think about my grandfather, who grew up in a family with a very rigid Sabbath practice. For his parents, a quiet Sunday Sabbath was non-negotiable, and little boys were forced to sit still for one whole day every week. My grandfather stopped attending church as a young man, and seldom darkened the door of a church for the rest of this life. Far from being a gift, for him the Sabbath was one of the factors that drove him from the church.

Encouragement to have a daily quiet time didn’t drive me from the church, but the guilt associated with my failure to measure up hasn’t done much to nurture my faith. Yet the Sabbath has taught me oceans about God’s grace and love for me. The Sabbath has been a factor in shaping me into a person who loves God, receives good gifts from God and tries to respond in faithful service. The Sabbath has helped me understand that my form of a daily quiet time needs to involve stillness and silence, not serious study of the Bible and not just intercessory prayer.

We call spiritual practices “disciplines” because they require an act of the will and persistent obedience. Yet it seems increasingly clear to me that the necessary discipline and persistence need to be rooted in receiving practices as gifts rather than as obligations.

My questions of the day: what Christian practices in your life feel like a gift? Do you perceive any ways they are shaping you?

(If you'd like to read some articles I've written on the sabbath, click here and scroll two-thirds of the way down the page. You'll find a half dozen articles about the sabbath. Here are links to my Sabbath book and my Sabbath Bible study guide. My book Joy Together has a chapter on communal Sabbath keeping. This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices. If you'd like to receive an email when I post something on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under "subscribe.")