In a recent issue of the Christian Century journal, a writer reflected on a truth about the hard places of life. She says that whenever she visits a museum, she always rewards herself with a trip to the gift shop at the end. On her last visit to an art museum in Atlanta, she was waiting in line to purchase a box of Van Gough note cards when she happened to notice a clear glass bowl full of smooth silver pebbles on the counter by the cash register. She writes, “Each [pebble] was about as big as my thumb, with one word etched on the surface. Even without touching them, I could see that one said ‘hope’ and another said ‘love.’”
She continued, “I had a recently widowed friend who could use some pebbles like that, so I sank my hand in the bowl to see what else I might fish up. ‘Tears’ said the next pebble. ‘Loss’ said the next. Well, I thought, my friend already has enough of those, so I put them back and kept fishing. I found a couple of gratitudes, along with a few more hopes and loves, but only by looking hard. Over and over, I brought up whole handfuls of tears and loss, which outnumbered the other pebbles by at least 20 to one. Everyone had enough of those, apparently, or did not want to own them.
“I discovered one ‘forgiveness’ in the bottom of the bowl, which told me what the bestseller had been. Pushing all the other pebbles aside, I plucked it up and laid it on the counter with ‘hope,’ ‘love’ and ‘gratitude.’ Then I looked back at all the ‘tears’ and ‘loss’ left in the bowl and thought maybe that was part of the problem-(that no one wanted to own them-–) so I chose one of each and added them to my collection.
“I felt almost cruel giving them to my friend, but her sad mouth softened when she saw them. She may not have wanted them, but she knew they were hers, and seeing them in her hand with all the others told her story better than the edited version I first had in mind. ‘Tears’ belonged next to ‘love,’ and ‘hope’ took on more luster when nestled against ‘loss.’ ‘Gratitude’ was no longer a platitude and ‘forgiveness’ had something major to forgive. Holding all of the pebbles together in one hand turned out to be exactly what she needed.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Spectacular failure,” Christian Century, February 22, 2005)
This is a day about tears, and loss. A day for getting in touch with the sadness that is within ourselves as we encounter the sadness of Jesus on the cross. In a world that prefers to look on the bright side as much as possible, today, once again, Golgotha stands in stark silhouette against the darkened sky.
Jesus hangs on the cross. He has been put through a terrible ordeal. He is experiencing unbearable pain. And with an anguished cry he calls out into the gathering gloom, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
It is a cry of abandonment…met by silence.
Can it be that God has cursed this ugly scene and departed? Jesus cries out – “God, where are you? Where is the fire from heaven? Where is your Spirit to be found in this mean and angry crowd? I need to know your peace…but I can only feel insufferable pain. Have you left me to be alone? Have you turned your back on me? Am I forsaken?
No dove descends. No light breaks through. No voice is heard. The Son of man cries out for God in his hour of need…but from God, there is only silence.
And I wonder…if maybe at some point in your life it has been that way for you. If you have ever been near the bottom – or maybe hit bottom…if you were at that point where you offered your prayers and your tears, your loneliness and your distress to God, only to be confronted with the void of God’s absence. Like the mother I talked with a couple of weeks ago…a person walking through a deep valley…she spoke about her child’s problem and asked poignantly, “The one thing I can’t understand, is where is God in all of this?”
It is a deeply troubling question. It is a searching question of the soul.
Maybe you also have experienced a cross-shaped place in your life…when a love grew cold and the hopes and dreams you once held so dearly turned to ashes; when you lost a job and your future dimmed; when you were betrayed by someone whom you thought was a friend. Or maybe it was when after years of marriage to the person who meant so very much to you, who had in fact become part of you…died…and now there are still times you feel a loss too deep for you to describe, and you cannot help whispering aloud to God, “Why? Why Lord? Why does this still hurt so much?”
When we reach out to God and encounter only an emptiness, we are brought close to the tears of Jesus on the cross. Or perhaps better put, it is his tears on the cross that brings Jesus closer to us.
Sooner or later, just about every one of us pays a visit to the kingdom of despair. We cry out, “God please help me. God please tell me why. God please show me the way. I am begging you, O Lord, please release me from this suffering, from this helplessness, from this darkness.” And yet another day comes, and it is precisely like the last one. Nothing has changed. Sooner or later, every person of faith must reckon with this mystery.
The big question is: What is the reason for God’s silence? And you and I who have suffered in silence…you and I who have been there at what we believed was the end of the rope…you and I who have brought our tears to God and cried out…in the silence, the great secret of God is revealed.
For in the silence of that darkest hour, God entered into the abyss of suffering and death. God is the broken, crucified one. It is God who is suffering and crying out. It is God who is speaking, not from the safety of heaven above, but from the hell of the cross on earth. In Jesus’ cry and in our cries, God is there…in some unfathomable way going through all our suffering and hardships with us.
In the cross, God descends to the depth of our human suffering. In the cross, God declares in a way deeper than words, “There is no pain you can bear that I have not borne. There is no darkness that can overtake you that I have not seen. There is no fear that might grip you that I have not known. All that comes to you, I have passed through. When you come to pass through it, I am with you.”
Where would we be without the cross? Where would we be without the knowledge that Jesus joins us in the dark chasms and silent valleys, a partner with us in all that we suffer. And though we comprehend only silence, all the while God is pressing relentlessly toward Easter.
We live, all of us, a life that is somewhere suspended between Good Friday’s noon and Easter’s dawn. And in our own suffering, our own hurts, our own defeats, though Easter may be yet to come, in its hope we can trust God to bring light to our darkness…and our tears will be blessed by love, and our losses made more bearable in sharing our sorrow with the One who suffers with us.
And so we can endure…through all the Fridays that come to us as we await Easter’s d