I grew up in a house where tears were never seen.
My mother had been brought up in an orphanage at a time when little was known about the emotional needs of children, and my father had his own very different struggles.
As a result, I developed a deep shame around my tears.
When I was twelve, my father died, and a schoolfriend told me I was heartless because I was not grieving in a way she could recognise.
It was to be some years before, with help, I was able to let myself cry about his death. I’m still working on receiving my tears as a gift: at times it is easier than others.
A couple of years ago, pre-pandemic, I embarked on a journey to explore and better understand the myriad of reasons why we shed tears. I also reflected on the accounts in the bible when both men and women are recorded as weeping.
We often associate crying with pain or grief, but in the bible there are many emotions expressed through tears – for example gratitude, friendship, fear and empathy. Tears too, I believe, can be a form of prayer – perhaps at times the deepest and most authentic prayer – coming from the very depths of who we are.
Held in a divine bottle
The result of that exploration is my second book, Held in Your Bottle. The title comes from Psalm 58, where God is described as holding our tears in a bottle. Bottles would have been precious in that culture, in contrast to the more disposable clay jars used every day.
At times, in my previous roles of counsellor and then church minister, I have quoted the Psalm to people. I have had the frequent reply ‘It must be a big bottle’.
My own is not as big as it might have been, perhaps, had I made peace with my tears earlier in life. Yet its value is not, I believe, related to the number it contains, but God’s unrelenting love for each of us.
Jesus, of course, is shown in the gospel to be a man of tears.
At the tomb of his friend Lazarus we find him weeping, a grief tinged with anger at the ravages of death, a strength of emotion not diminished by the fact he is about to raise Lazarus to life.
And later, looking over Jerusalem, he laments, a deeply empathic response to all that he senses about the tragic future awaiting the city.
Pain, loss and regret
The biblical narrative shows he is joined by many others, from Esau who weeps with regret, through Joseph where the family pain he experiences results in tears, and more familiar instances of weeping such as for David’s many losses.
Yet, as we learn from the extraordinary story of Hagar, God sees those tears – and rather wonderfully in naming God she becomes the bible’s first theologian.
I had no idea when I began the journey how relevant the book would be by the time it came to publication. The pandemic has ripped through our certainties and resulted in so much loss, but also in other emotions such as gratitude as the vaccines began to be rolled out.
The book has a simple format: each chapter begins with a modern story of tears cried in particular circumstances, followed by an imaginative retelling of a Bible story linked with the same emotion.
The final section is an exploration of the way in which our emotions work to help us more fully understand both ourselves and others. It ends with some open questions to help the reader see the relevance in their own lives and continue to reflect.
Understanding our tears
Perhaps, as we continue to contemplate all that the past eighteen months have meant, individually and corporately, you might like to join me in a journey to better understand our tears – whether they are copious or very few…
Jeannie Kendall is a Baptist Minister and teaches Pastoral Supervision at Spurgeon’s College. If you would like a personally signed copy of her book see www.jeanniekendall.co.uk