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Pay Attention to Your Tears

Genesis 28:10-17; Luke 7:36-50
June 13, 2021
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

One of the central paradoxes of the Christian faith is that we talk a lot about God guiding us, helping us, and being with us in times of trouble, and yet for all of our talk about God’s presence, most of us have had few, if any times, that we can point to and say without doubt that we knew in that moment with undeniable clarity that God was present.  Even if you have had an occasional mystical experience of God, you likely wondered afterward if that experience could have been merely the result, as Ebenezer Scrooge says of his vision, “of an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.”  Certainly, few of us can claim to have the kind of easy going relationship with God that our biblical characters appear to have in which God engages in conversation frequently and unmistakably.  In contrast, for most of us, it is only in hindsight that we can say, “Surely the presence of the Lord was in that place.”

The central paradox of the Christian faith is that we believe God speaks to us but we rarely hear God’s voice with clarity and certainty, so how do we, as faithful Christians, know when God is speaking? 

While there is no one answer to that question, I have always liked the advice given by Frederick Buechner, novelist, poet, and spiritual thinker.  He said that if you want to know when God is speaking, you must “pay attention to your tears.” 

Pay attention to your tears.

Surely Jacob wept that lonely night when he was fleeing for his life from his angry brother, when he had only rocks to pillow his head.  He paid attention to his tears and as he looked at his uncertain future felt God’s certain comfort that there was still hope for him, and so he was able to say the next morning, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.”

When the sinful woman poured oil over Jesus’ feet, the Bible says that the oil mingled with her tears.  She wept tears of remorse for her sins and tears of love for the man who was willing to accept her and forgive her.  That night, through the honesty of her tears, she came to experience restoration.  Surely the presence of the Lord was in that place.

To know what God is saying to you, to experience the presence of God in your life, pay attention to your tears. 

Think about an occasion when tears have come unbidden to your eyes.  What did those tears say about you, about your loves, about the course of your life, about your deepest needs or fears or dreams?  

We cry at the birth of a new baby, not out of sadness but because of the importance of family, the miracle of life, and the possibility of joy.  We cry at the death of a loved one because of the way our lives become so intertwined with others, because we realize that are not isolated individuals but are a community of love and relationships.  Even our silliest tears – tears at a heartwarming commercial or an unexpectedly beautiful sunset — remind us that in spite of the constant harangue of bad news thrown at us everyday by a cynical weary society, we still cherish a belief in the basic goodness of life.  

“You never know what may cause them,” Buechner wrote of our tears. “The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it…. a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure,” he says. “Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay closest attention. They are telling you something about the secret of who you are, [and] more often than not God is speaking to you through them the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.” (1)

Pay attention to your tears.

Last September, after a summer of protests and upheaval in our country following the death of George Floyd, ESPN began its coverage of the college football season with a roundtable discussion about racial injustice led by Maria Taylor, an analyst and host for ESPN.  The roundtable featured seven college football players from the Power 5 conference who have been involved in leading protests and marches on their campuses to highlight the injustices faced by people of color in America.  During the roundtable, several of them shared their own experiences with racism. 

Michigan defensive back Hunter Reynolds said that he has had people say to him, “You’re pretty articulate for a Black kid.”

Joseph Ossai who plays for Texas said that he always tries to wear team jerseys when he’s driving because if cops stop him, when they find out that he plays for Texas, they become friendly and want to talk only about the upcoming game.  

“I discovered early on,” he said, “that football makes you safe,” but he worries about the kids in his community who don’t have the safety of the team insignia to protect them, for whom every traffic stop could end in violence.

After the roundtable, ESPN brought in its regular College GameDay analysts who reflected on what they had heard, and as the analyst Kirk Herbstreit talked, he became increasingly emotional. 

“[I heard a quote that says]” Herbstreit began, “justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”  Herbstreit, who is white, continued, “The Black community is hurting….  How do you listen to these stories and not feel pain and not want to help?… [They have to worry about] wearing a hoodie. Putting your hands at 10 and 2. ‘Oh god, I’d better look out because I’m wearing Nike gear.’ Like, what? What are we talking about? You can’t relate to that if you’re white,” he said, “but you can listen and you can try to help. Because this is not OK.”  At that point, Herbstreit became so upset that he broke into tears, on national television, and choked out, “It’s just not [OK]. We’ve got to do better, man. We’ve got to lock arm-in-arm and be together….We gotta do better,” he said through his tears. (2)

The tears that stung his eyes, the tears that we shed when we hear of injustice and the pain of those who suffer from bigotry and cruelty say what needs to be said — this is not right, — and when we pay attention to those tears, we can hear the voice of God summoning us to do better. 

Pay attention to your tears.  

Every week, we listen to the gospel’s commands to love our neighbor, seek justice for the oppressed, practice kindness, and be generous of spirit.  Every week, we hear the stories of Jesus welcoming sinners to his table, of a Samaritan who helps a man bleeding on the road to Jericho, of a father who forgives his wayward son.  Every week, we sing of God’s amazing grace, and every week we pray for one another and the world.  Week after week, the words of our faith trickle down past our thoughts, seep deep into our hearts, and fill the cracks in our souls, and it is that conviction of God’s love for us and for all people that wells up again in our tears drawing us in a direction that is most certainly of Christ.

Let me end with one more story of tears.

Last week, Verda Tetteh graduated from high school in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.  Tetteh was born in Ghana and came to America when her parents immigrated here ten years ago.  They own a grocery store in Fitchburg where Tetteh worked all through high school in order to help her family make ends meet, but at the same time she studied hard and achieved such academic excellence that she was awarded a prestigious state scholarship and admission to Harvard.  At her graduation last week, the principal announced that she was also being given the school’s highest honor: a “General Excellence” award that comes with $40,000.

During her graduation speech, Tetteh encouraged her fellow seniors, saying “If we’re being honest with ourselves, some of us were born with the odds stacked against us… but to every immigrant child, [I’m here to tell you] you can make it,” she said, tears filling her eyes. 

Tetteh’s tears were tears of pride, tears of joy in her success, but also tears of empathy for others who would know the same struggles she had known as an immigrant in America.  And she attention to those tears.  As the graduation ceremony was about to end, unexpectedly Tetteh walked back onto stage.  She took the mike and said, “I’ve been listening to our school administrators espouse being selfless and being bold,” and so [I ask them to give my $40,000 award money to someone going to a community college.  I am so very grateful for this, but I also know that I am not the one who needs this the most,” she said.

The principal told The Washington Post later that he was glad he didn’t have to speak after that because Tetteh’s gift had moved him to tears, but her parents said, “We are a Christian family.  We believe we don’t need to have so much before you give to others.” (3)

How do we know that God is present and speaking to us?  Pay attention to your tears.  Let the stories of our faith get deep into your heart; let the hymns seep into your bones; let the prayers work on your spirit, and then, when they rise from your heart to spill out from your eyes in tears, pay attention.  Those tears may be saying to you, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.”


1. from Beyond Words by Frederick Buechner

2. for both videos and article


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