Chaplain’s Corner: CXXV

“Tears in a Bottle”

When you think of an archeologist painstakingly excavating an ancient site, what kinds of objects do you picture coming into view? Coins, pottery, inscriptions, and shards of bone are valued finds. But one of the objects that frequently ends up in an archeologist’s bag is a tear bottle.

At least 3,000 years ago, people in the Mediterranean world began the practice of collecting their tears in small vials. Romans preferred glass. Jews tended to use small clay vessels. Tears of loss, bereavement, and pain-not to mention love and joy-might be captured and then treasured as a special way to remember a person or event.

A tear bottle-technically called a lachrymatory-might be offered as a tender gift. Archeologists have found thousands clustered around cemeteries. Sometimes they were interred with the deceased. Family members and friends were making a silent statement: “This is how much I miss you. This is how much I love you.” The tradition was revived during the Middle Ages and again during Victorian times. Today you can order personalized tear bottles from a number of online vendors. After all, there are just as many tears flowing in our own time as in the ancient world.

Lachrymatories are even mentioned in the Bible. David writes in Psalm 56:6 “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” This is extraordinary. God keeps track of our tears, recording them in “His Book” as if maintaining a ledger of our most private moments of pain. And our tears end up not just in our own bottles but in His Bottle. We know of no other statement from the ancient world that rivals such an intimate expression of God’s love for people.

There was a song a few years ago by Bette Midler about God watching us from a distance. But who wants a God who watches his messed up creation from a distance? When we are in trouble we want God “with us.” For the Hebrews, God was a God who displayed an astonishing emotional bandwidth. According to Scripture, He could feel frustration, regret, and deep joy. He could roll up His sleeves and go to work, hold His people tenderly in His arms like a nursing mother, or fly into a rage like a jealous husband stricken by the discovery of his wife’s unfaithfulness.

And He could cry.

In John 11, Jesus’ eyes well up near the fresh grave of his friend Lazarus. Jesus was saying, “This is what God the Father is like. He’s not on the sidelines of life, watching from a distance. He’s not neutral. He weeps with those who suffer. He welcomes our tears into his bottle.”

But what kind of God do you believe in?

You can be content with the philosophers, to stick with all the “omni’s”-that God is omnicompetent (can do anything), omnipresent (can exist everywhere), and omniscient (knows everything). Or you can believe this winter day that God is the kind of God who cries at funerals. And that God cries along with you as well in all your darkest moments.

Ron Naylor, Chaplain