Saturday, 2 April 2016

The Power of Tears

“Tears” by Frederick Buechner

"They say that whenever the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich went to the beach, he would pile up a mound of sand and sit on it gazing out at the ocean with tears running down his cheeks. One wonders what there was about it that moved him so.

The beauty and the power of it? The inexpressible mystery of it? The futility of all those waves endlessly flowing in and ebbing out again? The sense that it was out of the ocean that life originally came and that when life finally ends, it is the ocean that will still remain? Who knows? . . .

Maybe it was when he looked at the ocean that he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to. Maybe what made him weep was how vast and overwhelming it was and yet at the same time as near as the breath of it in his nostrils, as salty as his own tears."

The old saying goes “Early to bed, early to rise, makes all men healthy, wealthy and wise.” Well over the last few months I have become an early riser. I certainly feel healthier for this. I’m not sure I am any wealthier, well certainly not in the material sense, although my life does indeed feel much richer. Am I any wiser? Well I think that others will have to be the judge of that.

I do though rise very early in the morning these days, usually between 5 and 6am. I have to do so in order to exercise before beginning my usual day. Now each day I go through a simple exercise routine before going out for my daily walk. Except on Tuesday’s, Thursday’s and Sunday’s. On Tuesday’s and Thursday’s I attend an early morning meditation after exercising and will go for my walk later in the day and on Sunday’s I get ready for leading worship and will again usually go walking later in the day.

While I am exercising I usually listen to the radio. The stations I listen to are often varied, from Talk Sport to Radio 4. It’s strange but I do not seem to want to listen to music while going through my exercise regime. These days I to listen to music while driving and not really while doing anything else.

…I digress…

Well one Sunday, a little while ago, I turned on the Radio at about 6am and began to exercise. The program I listened to was titled “Something Understood”, it was mesmerising and caught me right in the heart of me and I have listened to this program about every other week since. Each week they explore a subject through poetry, prose, music and personal anecdotal reflection. A few weeks ago I listened to a beautifully moving piece titled “I sat down and wept” by Samira Ahmed. It was a reflection on the ambiguous power of tears and it awakened by homiletic consciousness on that cold late winter morning. The program looked specifically at our attitudes to people who weep and weeping in general. It was fascinating.

While listening there was one poem, by the contemporary British poet Andrew McMillan, that caught me deep in the heart of me. It was titled “The Men are Weeping in the Gym”

It struck me powerfully as I considered myself exercising at this ungodly hour.

Below is a recording of Andrew sharing the poem and a written version...

“The men are weeping in the gym” by Andrew McMillan

The men are weeping in the gym
Using the hand dryer to cover their sobs
Their hearts have grown too big for their chests
Their chests have grown too big for their shirts
They are dressed like kids who have forgotten their games kits
They are crying in the toilets
And because they have built themselves as statues
This must mean that God has entered them
They are ringing their faces like sweat towels in the sink
Their veins are about to burst their banks
They are flooding out of themselves onto the tiles
They have turned water into protein shakes
They have got too close to the mirrors
They have got too close to the glass
And now they are laying in the broken pools of own their faces
The lines of them at the decline press
The bicep curl
Waiting, staring straight ahead
Swearing that the wetness on their cheeks is perspiration
That the words they mutter as they lift are meaningless
That they feel nothing when the muscle tears itself from itself
That they don’t hear the thousands of tiny fracturing’s needed to build something stronger.

The men are weeping in the gym

Andrew McMillan is a gay man from the north of England and the poem is partly inspired by his fascination with heterosexual masculinity and the way that men attempt to impress other men. I get the impression that he sees a sadness in it all.

As I listened it made me pause and think as I exercised before getting ready to lead worship. He captured one of the reasons why I have had a phobia about gyms, something I am beginning to overcome. I exercise to be as healthy as I can be. I am certainly not attempting to impress anyone. Thankfully I rarely look to others for approval.

McMillan suggests that many modern young men feel they no longer have a real emotional outlet. That actually the concept of the modern man is not as real as some suggest and that young men are struggling for identity and going more deeply into themselves and into what he calls masculine activity, that they feel fragile, scared and weak. He suggests that many young men have reacted against the idea of the modern man and that they feel under a new pressure to be something that they cannot be, to behave in a way they should behave, to look a way they should look. Modern man can cry, but do they really know who they are? Are they really free?

Yes modern men can cry publicly, can show tears. Think of Obama who cried following another tragic school shooting, British politicians too as well as many celebrities can express tears publicly. Something that perhaps they couldn’t have done in the past and yet there is a deeper sense of repression in there. It is suggested that when men cry it is actually controlled, where as in women that this is viewed as losing control and a sign of weakness. So there is still a sense of needing to be strong and in control involved when showing emotion publicly.

There is something deeply sad in all of this…I suspect that we men are missing out of something deeply sacred…There is something deeply sacred in tears…

This got me thinking about how and where we cry. In recent times I have heard several people say that they cannot cry alone; that they need other people to be there so that they can feel safe enough to cry. I suspect that this has something to do with the fear of being out of control and being unable to get back to what they perceive as normality. I may well be wrong, but I don’t think so. If you cry in public you will of course be heard and there will usually be someone or even several people who will respond and help you to put things back together again. Sometimes though I think it best just to let someone fall apart and cry. To not put them back together again, just to be with them and to let them let it go.

One thing I have noticed about myself is that I rarely cry in public, not in an utterly out of control way. I think the last time I did so in an utterly uncontrolled way was when I carried Ethan’s coffin out of the church as his funeral. I broke completely in that moment. Nothing could have held that flood back. That said even then I had to maintain some control, even if it was just of my arms and legs.

I do shed tears often, sometimes while leading worship. I don’t fear it. I know these tears are sacred and it is my soul responding to something greater than myself…

...But do I ever lose complete control?

Well I do at times fight back my tears. Not as much as I used to, but I do. I remember going to see my granddad just days before he died at Kirkwood Hospice. As I saw him there asleep I had to fight back the tears as I began to speak to him and he awoke. I somehow managed to get myself back together and spend a little time with him in those last days. I kind of knew somewhere deep within me that if my granddad saw me crying it would hurt him and that was the last thing I wanted to do in that moment. As I drove home all I could do was weep, but there was no one else there while I did so. It was similar with “our Allen” and other friends and loved ones. It has been the same with loving members of the congregation and friends too. I shed tears, but I don’t seem to lose control utterly. I allow the tears to sooth both myself and others but I rarely lose complete control.

…Yes I am open to shedding tears, but I do not weep uncontrollably, well at least not publicly…

And yet I know that there is a strength in tears. We weep with gratitude over all the amazing gifts that life offers to us. We weep communally when we share moments of great joy with others. These tears enable us to connect to our deepest feelings. They help us express our grief at endings and the loss of those who are precious to us.

As Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat remind us

“Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. He also wept over the city of Jerusalem and in our time, we weep over Jerusalem and Baghdad and Kabul and the refugee cities in Palestine and the Sudan and elsewhere. A Yiddish proverb says, "What soap is for the baby, tears are for the soul."

The early Christian desert fathers and mothers had the highest regard for what they called "the gift of tears." According to Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, these drops "are like the breaking of the waters of the womb before the birth of a child." That's a wonderful way to describe the connection between pain and joy!”

Ancient Greek, Roman and Hebrew cultures recognised the sacredness of tears. During their funeral rites they would cry into lacrimatories or tear cups. These small veils, filled with tears and sealed would often be buried with the deceased. In one sense these buried the griever’s feelings but they were also a way of offering a tribute to the lost loved one. In this sense the tears were the final gift to the life that had been lost.

So even though I know that weeping, that crying is a deep sacrament of love, I still do not want to let go absolutely and I know I am not alone. I feel that many of us still find this difficult. I suspect in so doing we are missing out on really hitting the depths of our human experience and transcending absolutely our human created limits. You see when we weep tears our experiences stretch beyond what the mind can comprehend, for tears truly tear open our hearts. Something so many of us, myself included, are afraid of, or so it would seem.

Tears are sacraments of love. Crying is a true spiritual experience that connects us to our deeper selves, one another, all life and that power that both creates and connects all life.

May we fear no more to shed our tears.

...I will end this little "spot" with the following reflection by David O. Rankin

“A Time to Cry” by David O. Rankin

The mother waited for her child at the bus stop. The bus arrived on time, depositing the passengers on the other side of the highway.

The eight-year-old boy broke from the group and began running across the four lanes of concrete.
The blue Cadillac crushed him like a plastic doll.

In the living-room that day:
You tell her to speak to God.
You tell her to eat and sleep.
You tell her to look to the future.
You tell her to walk in cool air.
You tell her to bear the pain and sorrow.
You tell her to think of the other children.

But your face is wet with tears; and your heart is gripped with fear; and your mind is lost in darkness; and your soul plunges wildly into the desolation of the valley – where all words are symbols of absurdity.

Yes there will be another day. But today-there is nothing to do but share the tragedy. There is nothing to do but cry!

Taken from “Portraits from the Cross”

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