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?