A text for all times
Not all biblical texts win ready assent. As I write, Leviticus and 2 Corinthians are fine; Genesis always was and John 14.6 has had a rough ride of late. Others remain favourites, and alongside Psalm 23.1 and John 3.16 can surely be placed Romans 12.15. The reference may not be instantly familiar: the words are, ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, and with those who weep.’ The apostle’s couplet takes eleven words in English, but (as often) six in Greek. What could be simpler?
The careful reader, like the faithful preacher, not only notices the order (rejoicing first?) and context (the fruits of love, the response to grace?) but teases out what is hidden by the very simplicity of it. What seems obvious, in these phrases as in Psalm 23 and John 14, is so demanding. If it were not, we might be better at heeding the apostolic words. But obvious, memorable or otherwise, they are widely disregarded or evaded. How so?
For a start, we are not as good as we think at this rejoicing. We fail to listen to our rejoicing friends. We interrupt, or look at our watches; some clergy invariably treat junior colleagues in this way. Worse, we control our impatient lack of interest until we can cap the story we have been half-hearing with one of our own.
We then deceive ourselves that we are rejoicing with our friends, but we are really substituting our own rejoicing for theirs. The hidden message is that ours matters more because we matter more. The remedy? Cut it out! Learn the ways of love, for which that whole chapter provides a beautiful framework.
If we are not always good at rejoicing, what a mess we make of weeping!
Last year I wept more than in any other way of my sixty-five to date. I value beyond words those friends who wept with me. But in being hurt by those who have not, I also see myself in the unflattering light of this particular mirror.
We may often fail in our weeping or fail to weep at all. Sometimes, as with rejoicing,
we simply drown someone else’s sorrows in our own. I have known a bereaved wife given two minutes to explain how she feels, and then regaled with ten about her friend’s bad cold. To weep with those who weep does not mean proving that our sorrows are worse than theirs.
Or we approach the tearful mourner with an excruciating heartiness apparently aimed at cheering them up, getting them to be positive, to face the future and all those things we convince ourselves are good for them. One memorable quote to survive the emotional wreckage following Princess Diana’s death came from someone who said we could not dictate to others how they must grieve. We nod our heads in agreement to that fragment of newspaper wisdom; do we truly believe it?
Some grieving is done before death; days, weeks, even years. If there is pain in the sudden wrenching away of life, so there is, differently, in a gradual loss of faculties. Many know the drawn-out agony of hearing a once articulate loved one talking nonsense, as the grasp of words or memory falters and fails. Or a healthy, fit person slowly losing control of limbs, balance or breath.
What can be the last straw is to find well-meaning friends jollying us along with assurances that everything is getting better. They are lying. Things get inexorably worse. There may be better days – even signs of remission or limited healing – but fantasies of imagined improvement are cruel. The mirage will disappear. You know your friends are pretending; so, if they think for a moment, do they? To be fair, unbelievers are generally more dishonest than Christians. For how can anyone square such pretences with following Christ? How can such delusions ever prepare one of you for death, or the other(s) for irreparable loss?
A quite different variety of failure treats the sufferer or sorrower as an outcast. A very few acquaintances (I put it no higher) simply sent me to Coventry along with my tears. When I have time, I hope I shall grieve for them, for anyone who misses out on obedience misses out on much more. For the time being, I am simply sorry for myself. Whatever happened to those phone calls, letters, cards and visits? Answer: they vanished before the terrible need to avoid sharing my weeping – or yours.
Eleven words or six, I find them a great comfort. But as ever with this two-edged book, its comfort is also a gift I must use. In the school of Christ, who rejoiced and wept, there is no slot in the timetable for self-congratu1ation.