I wrote the core of this post a few weeks ago, then waited on sending it. The timing didn’t seem right. It does now. Not because Donald Trump won the election, but because of the wreckage of broken hearts and spirits his election leaves behind. I woke this morning broken by a dark sadness that will linger for a long time. And while I deeply appreciate the many posts and articles I’ve seen by those who have already begun doing the hard work of picking up the pieces of their own discouragement and moving forward; I’m not there yet. I grieve deeply for what this act reveals about our country and what it portends for our future. And I know there are millions of people not only in the United States but around the world with whom I share this grief. As a pastor, specifically, I post this piece to let those with broken hearts and broken spirits know that we are not alone:
Most of the “portraits” of Jesus I have ever seen depict him as a pasty white, emaciated figure with slightly greasy hair gazing off in the distance toward some realm unseen by mere mortals. This forlorn picture is often further “enhanced” by being set against a sickly greenish-brown background. This Jesus seems like someone more in need of a good hearty meal and a shower than someone you’d want to spend your life following. So the first time I saw “Laughing Jesus” I thought to myself, “Now that’s the dude I would want to follow!” The simple black-ink, line-drawing set against a plain white background portrays a full-bearded, middle-eastern man with his head thrown back in gut-busting laughter. This guy clearly drank wine, worked with wood, laughed at a good joke.
I still love the image, and the idea behind it. It serves as a vital counterpoint to the more common portrait of “Sickly Jesus.” And though, for me it conveys characteristics of the Messiah that are likely realistic; it is not, in a literal way, a Biblically accurate image. In one of those I-had-never-really-thought-about-it-but-now-that-you-point-it-out-I wonder-why-I-never-noticed-it-before moments, I recently read a comment that noted the strange truth that not once, in any of the gospels, or anywhere else in the New Testament, does anyone ever write about, or remark on, Jesus laughing. Further, no one ever even mentions him smiling! Jesus himself never encourages his followers to laugh, to smile, or even to “be happy!” Jesus never commands anyone to “Turn that frown upside down!”
But Jesus did weep. And that his followers noticed and wrote about. Jesus wept for the pain and suffering that the death of his friend, Lazarus – and, I think the reality of death in general – inflicted on the community of those he loved. Jesus also wept in the garden just before his arrest, anticipating his own horrific death on a cross. And, rather than saying things like, “Smile, God loves you;” he said things like, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”
In this recognition of pain and suffering, Jesus followed a long line of Biblical authors. Many of David’s psalms profess heart wrenching grief and nights filled with tears. We read tragic stories of mother’s weeping and wailing for their children. Jeremiah claims the title “Lamentations” for an entire book.
Yet even with all of these biblical witnesses, far too many American followers of Christ seem unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge the pain and suffering they themselves experience, or worse still, the pain and suffering of others. All too often, those who feel veiled under a pall of grief, whether for the loss of a child, a parent, a spouse, the loss of dignity, hope, innocence, encounter Christians offering bromides like: “It’ll be okay, just pray!” “Count your blessings!” Rather than serving to encourage the spirits of those who grieve, these exhortations usually just deepen the wounds and further isolate those who suffer. But Jesus weeps. Jesus weeps with them and for them.
In a review of the surprisingly deep and wise Pixar movie, Inside Out, Ethan McCarthy takes a moment to reflect on what we know of Jesus’ own emotional depth and wisdom:
Scripture calls Jesus “the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” Jesus – who knew better than anyone the promise of eternal joy – was not a jolly messenger of cosmic bliss, but a suffering servant. The icons of church tradition never show a smiling Christ. He gazes back at us with a look far beyond all happiness and frivolity. It is the gaze of pure joy, tinged with grief.
Happiness can’t accommodate grief; joy arises from it.
If we open ourselves to the world at all, to love or be loved, we will be hurt. And whereas we may not be sure if God gets our sense of humor, we know that God got our sense of pain. When the wound goes deep, when the heart breaks and the spirit aches, let it be. Wail and mourn, wear black and wear a frown. Weep if you want. God does.