I’ve always wanted to cry prettier. I’ve got the crying thing down; I just want to not look so scary. My nose turns bright red, my face gets splotchy, and snot and tears instantly cascade onto my shirt. I tend to be emotive all the way around. I laugh easily, I scream easily, and I cry easily. Screaming and laughing tend to be accepted a little more readily than the whole crying thing (you can always tell when I’m in the movie theater).
For a time, I tried to refrain from crying. I had a whole bunch of mind games where I would think about bunnies or clowns so I wouldn’t get over involved in someone else’s sorrow. But I failed; mainly because clowns are scary and my family ate bunnies growing up.
Then, I got some good advice from a pastor who was my mentor in Michigan. I had a string of difficult funerals and tears had become my daily bread. After the funeral of a beloved woman in the congregation, this pastor pulled me aside and said that pastors normally make a choice at this point in their lives. They either turn off their emotions and harden their hearts or they grow good bowels and tender hearts. That’s not his direct quote, but it is the Biblical equivalent of what he meant.
Bowels get talked about in the New Testament almost as much as they do in a nursing home. It’s a great Greek word, “splagchnon,” which gets translated into English as mercy, compassion, or kindness. It gets translated in the King James Version as bowels so you have some weird verses like, “For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ” Philemon 1:8.
But, the language of “bowels and guts” resonates with me much more than “heart and love” language. Great joy and great sorrow hit us in the gut. That is where pain and joy churn; that is where we carry what feels like a bowling ball when we laugh hard and when we sob.
My favorite verse about bowels is Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”(NRSV) The word “tenderhearted” literally translated means “strong bowels.” For a long time I saw my tears as weakness, my inability to stand strong, but now I see them as signs of a tender heart and strong bowels.
Part of my calling as a Christian is to carry my brothers’ and sisters’ sorrow with them. As Jesus carried the cross, his followers carry the pain and brokenness of the world. Our bowels ache with those who grieve, who are abused, oppressed, despised, forsaken, lost or in pain. This isn’t a maudlin despair fest, but we share in pain with the hope of forgiveness, healing and new life. That’s what makes strong bowels and tender hearts a possibility.
It is tempting to harden my heart, I know I can be cynical and sarcastic, but I’m working on strengthening my bowels and keeping my heart tender. So, I’m okay with crying, but I still wish I could do it without looking like Rudolph gushing snot.
• Tari Stage-Harvey is the pastor of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church.