Tears In A Bottle

“You yourself have kept track of my misery. Put my tears into your bottle – aren’t they on your scroll already?” 

Psalm 56:8 (Common English Bible)

               Many of us have a bucket list – a list of experiences we would cherish before death. They require no explanation to others, no defense. They are deeply personal. Further, an explanation may reduce the depth, color, and richness of personal meaning. Most people recognize that what is experienced deeply can rarely be expressed with words. Words are useful for the communication of thought. They are less useful for conveying deeply held emotions, feelings, and convictions. A strong writer can approach this depth of meaning better than most. But always, words have a reducing effect. Permit me to simply state that high on my bucket list are three experiences I would value: a cameo appearance in a stage production of the musical RENT, a balloon handler in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and sharing a cappuccino with David Hyde Pierce.

               Some will remember that David Hyde Pierce played the character of Niles Crane on the popular television series, Frasier.  On three occasions I have enjoyed David Hyde Pierce on a Broadway stage: Spamalot, Curtains, and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. If I were to have an occasion to have a private conversation with Pierce over coffee my first question to him would be, “What makes you cry?” An answer to that question often points to deeply held convictions; points to those values, and struggles, and principles that grip our hearts. Again, words are limiting. But they can point another in the right direction. An answer to the question, “What makes you cry?” provides a window into the depths of another’s soul.

               Naturally, tears come in a rich variety. A powerful conviction of truth draws tears to my eyes every time. I simply cannot read in Luke’s Gospel the story of Simeon taking the infant Jesus in his arms without my chest becoming heavy and tears forming in my eyes. Here, Simeon recognizes this child as God’s salvation. This is a story that reaches beyond the descriptive; it is evocative. In faith, Simeon sees God’s decisive hand in the unfolding drama of human history. Grief is another variety of tears. Old Testament teacher, Walter Brueggemann helps us with understanding this passage from the Psalms. Here is a confidence that God has kept, treasured, and preserved “my tears”; that is, all the pain and suffering that the psalmist has experienced. “God is the great rememberer who treasures pain so that the psalmist is free to move beyond that pain.”[i]   

               There is an ancient Jewish practice that provides care in times of misery and grief. A small bottle is provided to collect the tears of anguish and loss. The top of the bottle has a small hole in it that would allow those tears to evaporate over time. When the bottle is completely dry, the time for grieving is over. The Psalmist wants us to know that God has a bottle with our name on it. When tears of grief flow, God collects them in that bottle. This is how seriously God takes our grief; how God honors and shares in our loss. But there is a small hole in the top of that bottle. Over time the tears will evaporate. When the bottle is dry, and our eyes are clear, we see that God remains. And God redirects our eyes to tomorrow.


[i]Walter Brueggemann, William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms: New Cambridge Bible Commentary. (New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018) 254.


Never Alone

“Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no danger because you are with me. 
Your rod and your staff – they protect me.”
Psalm 23:4 (Common English Bible)
 Every parent knows what it is like to be awakened in the middle of the night by the cry of a child. “Daddy, there are monsters under my bed,” my daughter, Rachael insisted. “No, sweetheart, there are no monsters under your bed.” “How do you know?” “I’ll turn on the lights and together we will take a look.” Not only under the bed, we also looked in her closet and under the pile of clothes Rachael promised her mom she would pick-up and put away properly. “No monsters.” I kissed my daughter goodnight – again – and I turned off her light and returned to bed.
 Years later and a little older, Rachael had other fears but was less willing to voice them. Fortunately, parents develop the capacity to notice little nuances here and subtleties there that betray their child’s fears. Parents stumble over an appropriate response – a response that protects the child’s dignity while comforting the fears. Words are often used. Words of reason, words of encouragement, words of assurance that everything will turnout exactly as it should be. And then, one day Rachael arrived at a place where she was able to tell me exactly what she needed, “Would you stay with me?” “Yes, yes, of course I will stay with you.”
Then the day arrived all to soon, the day I would drop my daughter off for college. After her mother and I helped her move her things into her dormitory room, toured the campus and said our goodbyes, my wife and I went to dinner without our daughter. I remember that day well. My wife, Grace, and I were seated at a Longhorn Steakhouse restaurant and menus placed in our hands. There was an empty chair at the table, one always occupied by Rachael. One glance at the empty chair and the tears flowed. I sobbed.

The tears were less about missing my daughter, though I certainly was missing her. I sobbed because I now understood that I wouldn’t be there when Rachael sensed monsters under her bed. I wouldn’t be there to take her hand when life became less certain. I wouldn’t be there when she simply needed me to “stay with her.” Moravian College was only an hour away but it seemed so much further when it’s your child that is now starting out on their own. I had only one thing I could do now for my daughter. I prayed. “Keep your promise, God. When Rachael steps into that dark place, be with her. Your rod and staff, use them to guide her and protect her. I am calling you out, O, God, on your promise.”



Finding Hope in the Present Difficulty

“But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
Romans 5:3-5 (Common English Bible)
              Covid-19 has produced among us a mood of calamity, discouragement, and despair. A vast structure of optimism that social distancing, wearing facemasks, and the summer heat would defeat the virus is quickly becoming dismantled. The epicenter of our nation’s infection has simply moved from the City of New York to encompass California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida. Any sense that the ravages of this virus would soon “disappear” has now dissipated. Dr. Anthony Fauci just recently expressed optimism that we may defeat this virus in as “little” as 12 to 18 months. We have a long battle ahead in our nation. Who today escapes the problem of wanting hope, but on every side seeing the collapse of hope?
              If today, then, we are to grasp hope, we must rethink our way of getting it. These words from Paul’s letter to the Roman Church provide help: “we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” What is striking in these few words is that Paul’s navigation to the place of hope is by another way than the route we have grown accustom. An easy-going optimism is the road we have traveled well. Only, that route now disappoints.
              What Paul speaks of may be heard more clearly in the guidance I received early from my personal trainer, Bill Dorton. As Bill constructed a personalized training program for my particular needs, he summed-up what would be involved: He would place before me multiple challenges that would resist my effort. Through my effort I would build strength upon strength to meet the resistance. Over time, the meeting of that challenge of the opposing resistance would develop muscle, burn fat, and body tone would appear. Once I began to notice the change in my body – both in strength and in physical tone – I would increasing grow hopeful of a better quality of life. I don’t know if Bill was aware that he was taking a page from Paul’s playbook: “trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
              Optimism can be cheap. To recline and engage in wishful thinking for better days simply results in defeat. Paul calls us to meet the present trouble as someone in physical training meets the resistance of the weights in a gym. Yet, notice, we are not alone. Paul concludes his thoughts on the matter by declaring that the Holy Spirit has been given to us. As I train in a gym with the guidance, and strength, and encouragement of my trainer, so God comes alongside us in the Holy Spirit. When our own strength is insufficient, the Holy Spirit joins our grip on the training bar. When we grow discouraged, the Holy Spirit whispers encouragement. And when we are in trouble, the Holy Spirit reminds us that we are not alone. Because “the love of God has been poured out in our hearts” we are not beaten. Our victory remains just ahead.


Ordinary Saints

“Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much.”
Luke 16:10 (Common English Bible)
            There are people who live daily in the grip of a vast inferiority complex. Always ready to do some great thing, contribute on a grand scale, and produce extraordinary changes or innovations they fail to value the small and ordinary. With an insufficient view of less imposing matters of life they settle into a pattern of mediocrity. Worse, failure to appreciate the importance of common occasions and tasks their lives tumble into defeat and despair. Their take on a life well lived is in variance to the view of God, “Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much.” God does not despise the common, ordinary, and small. On one particular occasion, Jesus celebrates the power of faith that is as small as a mustard seed.
            Generally, the failure to value the common and small is located in the ignorance of the real significance of events, which we think we understand. Recently, a pastor received a note from someone in a former church who wrote of how their life was turned by some single word of compassion and hope given at a time of desperation and fear. The pastor struggled to remember the occasion, an incident that seemed so small and trivial as to scarcely warrant the pastor’s notice. On the other hand, many of us can recount high and stirring occasions, in which, at the time, appeared to have occupied a large stage in the unfolding drama of the day only now leaving no trace of importance in their memory.
            One personal experience suggests that there may be more value and honor and reward in attending to the daily small and ordinary occasions than one great event. When my daughter, Rachael, was very young she spoke of a friend from school. Seated at the family dinner table, Rachael shared that Cathy’s father was taking her to Hawaii that summer for vacation. My wife and I glanced at one another, bracing for our daughter’s certain disappointment when we had to share that we simply could not afford a vacation as nice. But Rachael continued, “But I have a family that loves me and that is all I need.” That should have been enough for me but I probed deeper. “Doesn’t Cathy’s parents love her?” I asked. “Maybe. But Cathy’s dad works long hours. She never sees her dad. You help me everyday with my homework and read to me at bedtime. I prefer that.”
            Jesus is asking that we reappraise the value of living honorably in the ordinary and small things of life. Not all of us will occupy a leading role in a Broadway play, serve on a prestigious board, or appear on the cover of a magazine for some extraordinary achievement. As a young disciple, Jesus tells us that we all begin “first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain.” (Mark 4:28) It is the very nature of growth that we have a humble beginning. The character of a disciple is developed by attention to the small things as growth occurs. The disciple that accepts – and loves – the duties of the common, daily walk with Christ shines brightly not because they purpose to shine, but because they are filled with the light of Christ. It is then that what may appear small and ordinary grows dignified and sacred in our sight.


Defeated Lives

“Aren’t two sparrows sold for a small coin? But not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father knowing about it already. Don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows.”
Matthew 10:29, 31 (Common English Bible)
            The Band’s Visit, currently on Broadway, has won several major awards including Best Musical at the 72nd Tony Awards. Music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses, the musical is based on the 2007 Israel film of the same title. More a play than a musical, The Band’s Visit is a ninety-minute narrative of a single night in the small, isolated Israel desert town, Bet Hatikva. The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra – an eight-member ensemble – has accepted an invitation to perform in the cultural center of Petah Tikvah. Difficulty with accents results in bus tickets to the wrong Israeli town. The next bus out of town – and to the band’s intended destination – is not until the next morning. A charismatic woman named Dina, the owner of the local café, offers the band a meal and a place to stay for the night.
            The musical opens silently with words projected on a bare wall: “Sometime ago, some musicians from Egypt came to our town. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” Those few words powerfully informs the audience that they are now invited into the lives of people who feel defeated; people who long for any sense that they are noticed and that their lives matter. With the arrival of the band from Egypt, a deep journey into brokenness begins – the brokenness of the residents of Bet Hatikva and the brokenness of the members of the band. Dina speaks to the prevailing mood of insignificance that has settled deep into the consciousness of their small town when she addresses the band: “They (Petah Tikvah) have art and culture and music. Here we have my café and apartments.” The citizens of Bet Hatikva long for significance, for the presence of meaning to their meager, small lives.
            Here, in this teaching from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus demonstrates a firm grasp of the fear of living lives that are seemingly unimportant. Though the larger conversation that surrounds this teaching addresses the conflict and persecution the disciples can expect as they do the work of Christ, it does present the view that nothing in the world went unnoticed by Jesus – even something as small as a sparrow falling from the sky. And, “You are worth more than many sparrows.”  Few of us set out to be common. Most of us strive to excellence in our chosen endeavor, to outstrip our competitors and receive recognition that we have added uncommon value to the world. Ambition is, of course, an admirable quality. But, as Christians, we should never lose sight that, as children of God, we are all without distinction in God’s eyes.
            Perhaps the most powerful dynamic of the musical, The Band’s Visit is how circumstances bring people together who hold a low appraisal of themselves. Thrust together for a night, they listen deeply to one another’s brokenness, and care unreservedly for each other. Within that embracing environment of love, healing bubbles forth for each person. People who led defeated lives discover that the simple act of listening, caring, and loving profoundly changes a life of another. That is the Christian source of inspiration – that each person, regardless of social rank or stature or achievement, can be used mightily to make a difference in someone’s life. It is this that provides a more balanced self-appraisal. The musical ends with Dina stepping to center stage, facing the audience intently, and saying, “Sometime ago, some musicians from Egypt came to our town. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” Don’t believe that for one moment.