“There are tissues in the pews now.” That’s what one elder said was the biggest change our congregation had been through during the previous couple of years. We had been doing some work as a church in “turn-around;” in attempting to shift from a declining congregation to a growing congregation, we made changes. “Before we didn’t need tissues in the pews,” she said, “now we do.” You see, we knew that turnaround would only happen as part of a spiritual awakening. We encouraged authenticity in worship, we preached from the heart and not just the head, we shared music and art and drama that expressed our real faith … and now, it wasn’t an unusual thing to see people cry in worship.
Sometimes, when we are confronted with the presence of the Holy Spirit in worship, we cry. It can happen when we are prayed for, when we take communion, when we sing an especially inspirational hymn, when we share in a time of mourning or a time of joy. I believe crying is a side effect of the softening of our hearts … and it’s necessary to “understand” and internalize both the limitations of our humanness the fullness of the grace of God.
Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. (Nehemiah 8:9 NIV)
The people tried their best. They were holding on to a remnant of faith and tradition and identity as the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They had an inkling of what God expected of them, but they didn’t understand. When Ezra, the religious scholar and priest, returned to Jerusalem, he found good people, but people who were not “pure” in their following of the Law. They did not understand the Law. And so, after they banded together as a people and rebuilt the temple, after they stepped out in courage to rebuild a safe place … then … only then, Ezra and Nehemiah call them together to read the Word of God.
They don’t come in with words of judgement, they tell them they are sinners, or that they are falling short of God’s demands, or that God will bring havoc on them. No, Ezra and Nehemiah work to build community first, to create a safe place, and they invite the people to hear the Word, to take it in and let it speak to them. When the Word is understood, though, the people weep. They know they have not been 100% faithful. For the people of Jerusalem, it was about the purity of the people and their eclecticism of other gods and other cultures. If there is one thing that’s clear throughout the first testament, it’s that God is the one and only god. Nothing should spoil that.
We try our best, but we still fall short. Maybe we didn’t know. Or we understood it in a different way. Perhaps, we didn’t realize we were causing our children (or our parents) such heartache. We never thought about how our words or our actions were being heard by people of color. We prefer not to think about how we participate in a culture of violence or poverty. We never understood our consumerism or wealth as worshipping other gods. We never meant to exclude people from our congregation, we just wanted to preach the truth.
When we are confronted with the Truth, though, we are also comforted by the God of Grace … a God who never gives up on us. That’s the word Nehemiah has for the people … no need to mourn, no need to weep, no need to sit in shame, guilt, or self-pity, no need to fear. Let’s just get to work and do what we can to change it.
Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10 NIV)
Repentance … turning around … changing. It’s what the Word of God is constantly calling us to. And in the process we are loved, we are claimed, we are comforted, we are given safe passage, we are “home”. Our strength for change is in knowing that we are God’s people. This is the Day the Lord Has Made.
May our churches provide a safe place to hear the Word of God, that we may need tissues in the pews … so our hearts are softened, we understand God’s word for our lives, and we are changed … and go out in joy and feasting and generosity.