Weeping Over Scripture

When the seventh month came – the people of Israel being settled in their towns – all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it face the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the Law. The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose… And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. Also… the Levites helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” Fall the people wept when they heard the words of the law.

– Nehemiah 8:1-4a, 5-9

Generally speaking, I’m not a very emotional person. I don’ t typically where my emotions on my sleeve. With the exceptions of close friends who read my non-verbal communication well, most people won’t know if I’m angry or upset or depressed. For better or for worse, I generally prefer to deal with my emotions internally.

Consequently, it usually takes a lot for me to cry. I can think of very few times that I’ve wept. I couldn’t tell you the last time I cried while watching a movie. I can, however, tell you the last time I cried while reading a book.

It’s happened to me only once. I was in college, and was working on an independent study during my senior year focusing on theologically significant themes in various dramas. I was reading the play Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht. Towards the end of the play, which takes place during the Thirty Years War, Mother Courage’s mute daughter Kattrin is shot as she attempts to warn a nearby village of an impending attack by beating a large drum. The soldiers shoot her, but the town is saved. My description of the scene doesn’t give full justice to its beauty. I sat there with tears flowing down my face as I read this scene, and I realized that I was weeping in response to the gospel. Kattrin’s death was salvific for the nearby village.

What bothers me, though, is that I’ve never had an experience like this reading the actual story of Jesus in any of the gospel narratives, let alone in response to any portion of Scripture. In the passage above from Nehemiah, the people weep in response to hearing Ezra read the law and the Levites interpret it. Granted, the people are then told that weeping isn’t the correct response; they ought to be rejoicing. Nevertheless, the weeping is an indication that the law was cutting right into their hearts.

I can think of very few times when I’ve read Scripture and felt like weeping (or rejoicing, for that matter), and I’ve never actually wept. The same is true in most of my experiences hearing Scripture in corporate worship (a context closer to the one in Nehemiah). With some exceptions (most often in Charismatic congregations and non-White congregations), Christians rarely respond with any emotion to the reading of Scripture. In fact, there are times (and I speak firstly in reference to my own worship leadership and preaching) that our reading of Scripture feels only like a “transition” into the sermon.

Now, I realize that being concerned about emotional responses can be a slippery slope. Thinking about this too much can lead to manipulative attempts to elicit emotions for all the wrong reasons. But how do we create in our worship communities a culture of emotional openness? And what obstacles stand in the way of creating that culture?

Lifting Hands in Worship

If you’ve ever wondered why some Christians raise their hands in worship, this is the best explanation I’ve ever read. This is from Patrick Henry Reardon’s Christ in the Psalms. He’s commenting on the opening of Psalm 41: “Let my prayer rise before you as incense, the lifting of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”

Whenever, then, we Christians raise our hands in prayer, as St. Paul tells us to do (cf. 1 Tim 2:8), it is  to symbolize that our prayer, our entire relationship to God, is founded in the power of the Cross. We are thereby proclaiming that we have no access to God except through the Cross of the Lord. The raising of our hands in prayer is acceptable to God only because of its relationship to that true evening sacrifice through which we draw near.

Scripture: The “With-God” Book

The Bible is all about human life “with God.” It is about how God has made this “with-God” life possible and will bring it to pass. In fact, the name Immanuel, meaning in Hebrew “God is with us,” is the title given to the one and only redeemer, because it refers to God’s everlasting intent for human life – namely, that we should be in every aspect a dwelling place of God. Indeed, the unity of the Bible is discovered in the development of life “with God” as a reality on earth, centered in the person of Jesus…

– Introduction to The Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible

In my personal spiritual development, I’ve begun to think more about Scripture. I’ve noticed lately that more often than not my times of personal reading and studying of Scripture have been dry. Many times I’ll read a passage of Scripture, finish, and then realize that I have no idea what I just read. Other times when I am actually making an effort to be fully present to the text, I more often find the curiosities of my brain being stimulated, rather than the desires of my heart.

I find this excerpt from the Intro to the Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible to be really helpful, particularly because the emphasis on being “with God” challenges me to heighten my expectations when approaching Scripture. In my life, there are numerous people I would call “faith role-models” – people whom I look at  and think to myself, “God is with that person.” I admire and trust these people. I feel safe following them because I am confident that the path they are on is one toward God.

These people aren’t just friends whom I know personally, although I’m blessed to have many friends whom I count among these role-models. Within the communion of saints, there are men and women, living and dead, whom I’ve never met personally, and some who have lived long before I, who have had great influence on my faith. Brother Lawrence, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. Augustine, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are some of the first to come to mind. Again, the theme among all these individuals is a particular “with-God-ness.”

Regardless of how well I know the individually personally, whether friend or stranger, I’m excited to follow these people. I look forward to learning from them, as they challenge me to a greater faithfulness. It’s this same eagerness, likely even a greater eagerness, that I think I need to cultivate in approaching Scripture. Scripture is a book about and written by “with-God” people. In fact, the writers of Scripture are so closely “with-God” that anyone seeking to be closer to God will need to follow them. And, of course, at the heart of Scripture is Christ Himself, God-with-us.

A fruitful reading of Scripture, then, begins with one’s desire for being with God, and seeking to meet that desire in the communion of the saints. The desire to be with God is met in following the writers of Scripture, the prophets and the apostles, as they follow Christ.