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The Spirit of God in Daily Life: In Our Sorrow

August 14, 2011


Sermon:  The Spirit of God in Daily Life:  In Our Sorrow
Text:  Psalm 6:2-4, 6-9
Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint.
My soul is in anguish.
How long, O LORD, how long?
Turn, O LORD, and deliver me;
Save me because of your unfailing love.
I am worn out from groaning;
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
And drench my pillow with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
They fail because of my grief.
But the LORD has heard my weeping.
The LORD has heard my cry for mercy;
The LORD accepts my prayer.


We continue our series The Spirit of God in Daily Life.  Last week, we talked about the experience of the Holy Spirit in humor.  Though some of you thought that topic was a little frivolous, it is not.  God’s Spirit brings healing into our lives through humor.

Thinking back through this series, you might say, “You have talked with us about the Holy Spirit and suffering and about the Holy Spirit and joy.  Last week you preached about humor, and now this week you are speaking on sorrow.  Is this a bi-polar sermon series?  Have you become manic-depressive?”  Not at all.  My point is that the Holy Spirit is with us in every experience of life.  The Spirit is our constant companion, so close, in fact, that we can sense that invisible presence if we pay attention.

Perhaps you saw the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?   Do you remember the song sung by George Clooney, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”?  A bluegrass band with a singer from Virginia, Ralph Stanley, originally recorded that song.  Stanley learned the words from his father.  The words “I am a man of constant sorrow,” followed by “I’ve seen trouble all my days,” come to all of us at some point.  The truth is that all of us have experienced times when sorrow seems so constant.

As I sit here on this platform and look out at you, I can see etched on every face lines of sorrow.  You know that we have been through some of those times together.  We have stood together by graves at a time when your heart was broken.  As your pastor, it has been a great privilege to be with you during those times.  I must say that it has been a privilege to be with you at other times, as well.  Sorrow is our constant companion.  Nobody is exempt.  It comes into every life.

We learn about grief at an early age.  We learn to grieve through all incidents in life:  the death of a pet, the loss of a good friend, the moving away of a friend.  During our Children’s Sermon this morning, we heard a young child say that he was sad when he dropped his ice cream.  That was a grief experience for him.  Anyone who has ever dropped an ice cream cone has experienced grief.

Years ago, we took our three-year-old son to the Kentucky State Fair in Louisville.  Nothing would do but for him to have some cotton candy.  I bought him some, but I wanted him to keep it wrapped in its cellophane package until we got home.  My son did not agree with my plan.  That wrapper was coming off, and he was going to taste that treat.  He took a taste or two and sure did like it.  He insisted on carrying it and, of course, dropped it.  You know what happens to cotton candy when it falls to the ground at a state fair.  You pick up a couple of cigarette butts, especially in Kentucky, as well as plenty of grit and grime.

I told our son that we would have to throw the cotton candy away, but he begged, “No, don’t throw it away, Daddy.”

I re-wrapped the candy in the cellophane, thinking out-of-sight/out-of-mind.  I planned to throw it away at some later time, but before I could do so, he remembered.  When we got home, he grabbed that cotton candy, ran to the bathroom sink, and tried to wash off the dirt.  Do you know what happens to spun sugar when held under water?  Poof!  It was gone!  He turned around, looked at me, and said, “All gone!”  That loss of cotton candy was a grief experience for him.

Adolescence has the distinctive grief experience of a fallen hero.  A football coach who decides to get married becomes like a fallen hero to some kids.

I was working in an institution for juvenile delinquents on the night of the fight called Thrilla in Manila.  A young man from the inner city of Louisville, Cassius Clay – later known as Mohammed Ali – fought Joe Frazier.  When Ali lost, street-hardened kids wept.  He was their hero.

I have seen adolescents grieve because of broken courtships.  The adults in their world may say, “It’s just one.  There are many more.  The woods are full of them.  You will have another one in a few weeks.”  A broken courtship hurts.  It, too, is a real grief experience.

Perhaps the most profound encounter with grief for an adolescent is the death of a peer.  Think about the first time someone your age died.  For many, many people, that happened during adolescence.  Teenagers come to realize that if one sixteen-year-old can die, then another sixteen-year-old, including themselves, can also die.  The death of a peer brings our sense of immortality to an end.

Grief, so common to us all, comes in a variety of ways.  I often say at a funeral that grief sometimes comes as a harsh intruder.  A young person dies, and we are shocked.  Sometimes grief comes as a gentle blessing, as it did for Betty Gwinn.  Betty’s son told me the day after she died, “I feel as if a weight has been lifted from me.”  Death can come as a gentle blessing because it just seems to be right.  When Christians die after a long illness, they leave this life to go on to heaven.  There is a sense of relief, a sense of blessing.

One of the most difficult grief experiences not associated with death is divorce.  Few families have not been touched by divorce.  The experience of divorce is hard.  Nothing is more painful than being de-selected, un-chosen.  Parents who watch a child go through divorce also hurt.  Divorce causes much damage because it is really hard to come to any kind of closure.  The Scriptures teach us that as the Christian church, the body of Christ, we are to comfort each other during loss, during sorrow.  It is the reason the Apostle Paul would tell us, “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).  In our community of faith, shared grief binds us together.

We see sorrow expressed in other situations.  Alexander the Great wept because he had no more kingdoms to conquer.  We might think, My, how selfish!  Grief be sometimes be that selfish.  We look at Job, who grieved because of his many afflictions.  Job said, “My face is red with weeping; deep shadows ring my eyes” (Job 16:16).  Hannah, coming before the Lord, pours out her grief in prayer because she is childless.  Her heart’s desire is to have a child.  David, the great king, poet, songwriter, and man after God’s own heart, had many experiences of grief:  the death of an infant child, the death of Saul and Jonathan, the death of his son Absalom.

We see others in the Bible weeping in remorse.  Simon Peter weeps bitterly, the Scripture says, after he hears the rooster crowing in downtown Jerusalem and realizes that he has denied his Lord.  A woman comes in from the street, weeping.  She soaks Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipes them dry with her hair.  She then kisses his feet and pours perfume on them.  She has deep remorse for the way she has lived.  Jeremiah, called the “weeping prophet,” writes, “My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within, my heart is poured out on the ground because my people are destroyed, because children and infants faint in the streets of the city” (Lamentations 2:11).  Perhaps in the Old Testament, Isaiah gives us the most profound statement about sorrow when he tells us that the Messiah to come will be “a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).  Isaiah points to the life of Jesus during times when he weeps.

Some people believe that Jesus, as the Son of God, should have been able to rise above sorrow.  He was one hundred percent human, as well as one hundred percent divine.  We see Jesus weeping with Mary and Martha at the tomb of Lazarus even though he knew Lazarus would be raised from the dead.  We see him weeping over Jerusalem because it was a city that did not know the time of their visitation.  We see Jesus weeping in the Garden of Gethsemane and weeping on the cross.

After looking at these instances recorded in Scripture, we raise the question, How can the Holly Spirit help us during these times?  Let me share some lessons that I have come to understand from my experiences with grief.

First, sorrow is a great teacher.  The experience of losing a child often results in divorce.  About fifty percent of the couples who lose a child subsequently get a divorce.  I did not understand why that fact is true at first.  You would think this shared grief would bring a couple closer.

While Clare and I were trying to get through Erik’s death together, I learned that men and women grieve very differently.  At one point in our grief experience, Clare said to me, “Kirk, I just don’t think you loved Erik quite as much as I did.”

I asked, “Why, Clare?”

“Because you don’t cry as much as I do.”

I grieve privately.  I think I am a bit like Thomas.  He was not with those other ten disciples when Jesus first appeared after his resurrection.  Thomas could have gone off by himself somewhere to grieve.  That is perfectly fine.  You do not have to grieve in a group.  You can grieve privately.

Clare said that it was after Erik died that she gave up mascara.  She said, “It’s just not worth it.”  She confesses that she has learned to grieve in the shower, to weep in the shower.  She said that weeping in the shower was not as messy.  She also said it was really the only time her family would let her weep.

Second, I have come to understand that our weeping is a prayer.  We learn from Romans 8:26 that we do not have to have words in order to pray.  The Holy Spirit intercedes for us with “groanings that are too deep for words.” Psalm 6, the passage that serves as our text this morning, confirms that.  Did you hear the psalmist’s words?  “The Lord has heard my weeping.”  Psalm 139:4 says, “Even before a word is on my tongue, the Lord knows it all together.”  We do not have to have words to express our sorrow.  God responds to our tears.

We speak so often about the death and resurrection of Jesus, but I have also come to understand that the Holy Spirit points us to the life of Jesus as a model of how we should live.  Look at this man, this Son of God, this Son of Man, the one you call Lord and Savior.  The Scriptures do not conceal the tears of Jesus.  His weeping becomes an example for the first disciples.

See how he carries his own sorrow.  See how he wants to carry our sorrow.  We are reminded that crying is a part of being a human being.  Crying is a part of our humanity, as it was for Jesus.  In Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow,” (Matthew 26:38) and the book of Hebrews says, “The days of his flesh, Jesus offered up petitions and supplications, with strong crying and bitter tears, to him who was able to save him from death…” (Hebrews 5:7).  The words of Isaiah 53:4 say, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”

We sing the words, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.  What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.”  Isaac Watts words this compassion so beautifully in his hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”: “See from His head, His hands, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down!”  That sorrow and love was for all of us.

I have come to understand that tears are a gift.  God created us with tear glands and ducts.   Psalm 56:8 is a very strange but beautiful verse that tells us that God treasures our tears.  In fact, the psalmist says that God collects our tears in a bottle.  Imagine God saving our tears.  Little bottles intended for carrying our tears are called lachrymatories.  Rebecca Wells’ book The Divine Secrets of the Ya-ya Sisterhood provides an explanation for tear bottles.  Wells writes that in older days, it was one of the greatest gifts you could give someone.  It meant that you loved them and shared a grief that brought you together.

After Erik died, Clare told me that she would like to find a small tear bottle, a lachrymatory, and give it to June, Erik’s wife.  We finally found two antique bottles.  I bought them both, one for Clare and one for June.  They each put that bottle on a necklace so that they could wear it around the neck.  Both said that the only problem with the bottles is that they just were not large enough to hold all their tears.

I continue to be astonished when well-meaning Christians instruct grieving people not to cry.  How silly!  If we cannot cry at a time of deep sorrow, when can we cry?  Ecclesiastes 3:4 says there has to be a time to cry:  “There is a time to laugh and a time to weep.”  When the time to weep comes, we need to weep.

I was invited to have coffee with a group of physicians in the medical staff lounge at Spartanburg Regional Hospital.  It is like entering into the inner chamber – a sacred space.  It is not so sacred.  We just sit there and drink coffee.

One of these physicians had been through a terrible grief experience.  He said in his clinical way, “I know why we come equipped with tear ducts.  They are intended to be used.”

Another spoke up, “Yes, psychosomatic evidence links chronic sinus problems in some people with the inability to adequately cry.”

Another physician clarified, “Sinus problems are caused by weeping backwards.  Instead of the tears coming out, they go into the sinuses and clog them.”

I do not know whether that statement is true, but this explanation was the physician’s way of clinically trying to understand the experience of weeping.

I learned that nobody is exempt from sorrow early on when I served as a chaplain in the emergency room at Louisville General Hospital, the large charity hospital in Kentucky.  One time while I was there, a young intern worked throughout the night to stabilize a man who had had a terrible heart attack.  Just about the time he got the man stabilized and asked the family into the patient’s room, the man died.  After ministering to the family, I found that young physician, sitting with his head in his hands, crying.  He said, “I don’t know why I have gone into this profession.  There is so much sorrow.”

Nobody is exempt.  If you think you are, just wait.

I have come to understand that our sorrow will not last forever.  The Scriptures promise us, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).  You may not regain your joy the very next day.  It might take a while, but joy is ahead for you.  Certainly we can expect to find joy in heaven.  Listen to what John wrote about the experience of heaven in Revelation 21:1-4:

God’s dwelling place is now among his people, and he will dwell with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death,’ no mourning, no crying, no pain for former things have passed away.  All things have been made new.

When Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth, he went into the synagogue and read from the scroll of Isaiah (Isaiah 61:1-3).

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,
     because the Lord has anointed me
     to preach good news to the poor. 
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
     to proclaim freedom for the captives
     and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
     and the day of vengeance of our God
to comfort all who mourn,
     and provide for those who grieve in Zion –
to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness
     instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
     instead of a spirit of despair.

Our sorrow will not last forever, and we do not have to wait until we get to heaven for relief.  At some point while we are still on earth, our sorrow will subside and allow us to reclaim our joy.

The old hymn “Jesus, I Come” tells us, “Out of my bondage sorrow and night, Jesus I come.  Jesus I come.  Out of earth’s sorrow into Thy balm, Out of life’s storms and into Thy calm, Out of distress to jubilant psalm, Jesus, I come to Thee.”

Horatio Spafford was a prominent lawyer in Chicago.  In 1871, he and his wife lost their only son, who was four years old.  Shortly after that, the great Chicago Fire pretty much wiped out Spafford financially.  In 1873, he planned to travel to Europe with his family, but he had some business to tend to regarding new zoning after the fire.  He sent his family ahead on an ocean liner across the Atlantic.  Their ship collided with a sailing vessel and sank rapidly.  All four of Horatio Spafford’s daughters were drowned.  His wife alone, Anna, survived.  She sent him a now famous telegram:  “Saved alone.”  Shortly afterward, Spafford made his way to England to be reunited with his wife.  On his journey across the Atlantic, the captain of the ship showed him the place where his children died.  After seeing the spot, Spafford went to his cabin and wrote these words:

                        When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
                        When sorrows like sea billows roll;
                        Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
                        It is well, it is well with my soul.

Could I invite you to stand and sing those words together as a congregation?

So I ask you.  Is it well with your soul?  Do you know the love of the Lord Jesus, the one who understands our griefs and carries our sorrows?  If you have never accepted him as your Savior, I invite you to make that decision.


Kirk H. Neely
© August 2011


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