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Holy Tears

There’s an old folktale that goes something like this: There was once a boy whose little sister was very sick. The boy fretted and worried about his sister. What could he do to make her feel better? How could he help? So, he went to an elder in the village and asked. “Elder, how can I

help my sister get better?” The elder looked at the boy and said, “Do this- visit all the homes in the village until you find a home that has never known suffering. When you find the home that has never suffered, borrow a pot from them and cook your sister a soup. The soup will make her well again.” Trusting the elder, the boy set off.

First, he visited his neighbors and asked, “Have you ever suffered?” “Yes,” the old couple responded. “We have suffered for many years.” “Oh, what happened?” asked the boy. “We have a son, you know,” the woman began. “He left home a long time ago and made choices that hurt himself, and us too. So yes, we have suffered.” The boy left, continuing his quest to find someone who had never suffered.

He arrived at the home of his teacher and asked whether he had ever suffered. “Certainly, yes,” said the teacher. “I had always hoped to get married and have children, but as you see, I live alone and am lonely. I have suffered.” The boy nodded, thanked his teacher, and went on his way.

Along the way, he stopped into the home of the baker. “Have you ever suffered?” he asked. “Oh, so often,” was the baker’s reply. “I work all day to be sure there is bread for everyone in the village, but there is rarely enough food to feed my own children,” she replied.

With the baker’s reply in mind, the boy decided to visit the home of the wealthiest family in the village. Surely they had not suffered! But when he asked, he found out that they too, had suffered. The wealthy man’s mother had been sick for many years and watching her die slowly broke his heart every day.

The boy stopped in every home in the village before arriving back at the elder’s house. “Elder, I have asked everyone in this village and there is no one whose pot I can borrow, because everyone has suffered!” “Yes, child,” the elder responded. “Everyone suffers, including your sister, including you.”

The wisdom is true- everyone suffers. Whether in community or alone, visible or invisible, shared pain or not, everyone knows suffering. And in today’s story from 1 Samuel, we get an honest and up-close view of true pain in a way we rarely do.

Hannah, as the story tells us, was experiencing infertility. In the ancient near east, having children was a mark of honor, and not having children was dishonor. In addition to being looked down upon, not having a child meant that Hannah’s future was insecure. After her husband Elkanah’s death, his children by his other wife, Peninnah, would inherit everything. Hannah would have nothing and would have to rely on the generosity of Peninnah’s son’s to survive. And of course, that was not a given, because Peninnah was cruel to Hannah. She mocked Hannah and looked down on her. And Elkanah, despite his love for Hannah, did not understand her pain. “Hannah, why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” he asked. Elkanah was well meaning, but his words reveal a clear lack of understanding and compassion for Hannah’s situation.

So, in desperation for a baby, but likely also for respect, security, and understanding, Hannah goes to the Temple to pray. The text says that she was “deeply distressed…and wept bitterly.” And through her deep despair and misery, Hannah prays. She prays and cries dramatically. The priest, Eli, believes her to be drunk, she’s so obviously upset. No, she says “I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.” Eli offers a blessing to her- that God would give her what she has asked for, and it happens. She has a baby, Samuel, who Hannah offers to God and by extension, to the Temple. Again, she prays, but this time, rather than a prayer of petition, it’s a prayer of worship and praise. Hannah speaks of God’s justice and provision, in words that will later be echoed in the prayer of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It’s a wonderful, beautiful story. But we have to be careful not to zip to the end. Yes, there is a happy ending, but Hannah’s grief and suffering are important and there’s something for us to learn there.

The folktale I shared with you earlier tells us the truth: everyone suffers. Perhaps your struggle was not the same as Hannah’s, but maybe it was. Something like 1 in 8 couples in the US experience infertility and around 1 in 4 pregnancies result in a miscarriage. So many among us do know Hannah’s specific pain. Or maybe you can relate to the social stigma Hannah carried with her. Perhaps you understand her likely fear about financial security. Maybe, more generally speaking, you understand having a body that won’t do what you want it to do. Or maybe your suffering is completely different. But here's the point- whether we talk about it or not, everyone experiences real pain. There’s a reason that R.E.M.’s 1992 song “Everybody Hurts” has resonated with people for 30 years. We get it- “everybody cries, everybody hurts sometimes.”

This is true for people we think of as heroes of the faith too. Infertility is actually a thread that runs through so many of the stories of scripture. But beyond that, we see deep pain and suffering in the psalms. Consider these words from Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” So many of the prophets suffer and lament, so many, in fact, that one of the marks of a prophet is that the prophet weeps. Or think of Elijah who said to God, “it is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.[1] Think of Jesus who cries at the death of his friend, who suffers in the garden and on the cross. Imagine the pain in Mary’s heart as she watched her son suffer and die. Everybody hurts, indeed.

Oftentimes, one of the reasons non-church-goers give for their reluctance to participate in church is the inauthenticity of Christians, the hypocrisy, the desire to act like shiny, happy, Jesus people even when that is not the truth of our experience. But that is not the model we have for us in scripture. Instead, we see people like Hannah who pour their hearts out with weeping, and anger, frustration, despair, regret, and true pain. And that authenticity is holy. Those are holy tears because they fall before God from a place of truth. When we deny our suffering and attempt to carry the burden alone, we don’t just keep out other people; we prevent God from entering into our suffering with us. Holy tears fall before the Lord.

Eli, of course, has no idea what is happening. I suppose he sees this woman who is a hot mess at the temple, she’s crying and whatever else, and Eli does not exactly have the most generous view of her at first. He accuses her of being drunk and making a spectacle of herself. But when Hannah unburdens herself and tells Eli what’s going on, the situation changes. She shares that she is troubled, that she’s been praying and pour her heart out to the Lord, and that’s she’s been sharing her anxiety and worry with God.

And upon seeing Hannah’s distress, Eli does something different. He offers Hannah a blessing- “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made.” I wonder if Eli learned a lesson that day too. Perhaps he learned not to rush to judgment and instead to offer a listening ear. Regardless, he comes to see Hannah differently, and he cares about her and her needs. And ultimately, Hannah goes home and she feels better for the holy tears she has shed. Allowing Eli to help carry her burden has eased her pain, as it so often does. When we share what’s on our hearts and minds with safe people, we often find that it’s a bit more manageable. We may be tempted to think “oh, they won’t care,” or “it’s just too much. But the people who love you are stronger than you think, they’re more able to carry your burdens than you give them credit for. Let yourself be loved.

And here’s the truth- “God is not fragile” either.[2] God can manage whatever hard feelings you’re experiencing. God wants to be in that suffering with you. By all appearances, Hannah had no one in her life she could share her suffering with, except for God, her creator who loved her. And it was enough. God could handle her sadness and her bitterness. This week, I had a conversation with one of my children in which I said “if something happens and you don’t feel safe or you don’t like what’s happening, I want to know. I need you to tell me.” I’m sure you’ve all had a similar conversation with someone you care for. So how more does our heavenly parent want to love and care and help us? God does not desire a stiff upper lip from you. God desires honesty. It is okay with God for you to be whatever you are, including mad, sad, and confused. The pain in this world is often irrational and unfair. We don’t understand why things happen the way they do. But if Hannah, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, and Jesus can explode and weep and pour out their souls before God, why not you? So pray angry prayers, ask hard questions, cry holy tears. God can manage it.

Friends, I have to believe that our holy tears, like Hannah’s can bring us healing. Everyone suffers; we have all known pain. This is what it is to be a human, to love others, to be present in the world. We will suffer. But I believe that in sharing the truth of ourselves with one another, we find the blessing of relief. In allowing others to help carry our burdens, we find they are not quite so heavy. And we may not get the desire of our heart in the same way as Hannah, but I do believe that in laying our wounds open before God’s light, they can find healing. Friends, feel it all. Let the truth of your life happen to you. Name your sadness and suffering, if only to God. Like Eli, bear witness to the suffering of others, carry one another’s burdens, and pray for one another. This is the gift of community. This is the gift of a life together. May your holy tears fall in the presence of those who love you, and may they bring you peace and relief. Amen.

[1] 1 Kings 19:4 [2] A universal truth I most recently read from Sarah Bessey, on Facebook, quoting herself from A Rhythm of Prayer.

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