Holy Moments
Tom Willadsen

In the Bible laughter is often contrasted with tears.  Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a “time to weep and a time to laugh.”  [“Turn, turn, turn,” scholars agree, was inserted by a later redactor.]  In the New Testament Jesus said, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”  For a long time, I have thought about the similarity between laughter and tears.  To put it in a Tillichian sense, laughter and tears are not opposites, but opposite ends of a polarity.  In the same way that strong individuals make strong communities, strong emotion yields hearty laughter and heart-cleansing weeping.

Anne Lamott calls laughter “carbonated holiness.”  To continue the metaphor, one could call tears “distilled holiness.”  Last week I shared holy tears and laughter with two members of my congregation.   That these encounters took place mere hours apart reminds me of why I love ministry.

Monday afternoon I visited Lois.  Lois’s husband of more than fifty-five years had died a few days before, and I stopped by her condo to plan the funeral.  Lois wanted to do everything right, and she had never been a widow before.   She had a lot of questions.  For example, “Is it all right to play ‘Morning Has Broken’ at the funeral?”  The funeral director could not find a recording in his inventory.  I went to the public library and found two recordings: Cat Stevens’s classic from 1972, and another by a singer named Daniel O’Donnell.  I played Cat Stevens and got a tepid response.  The instant Lois heard O’Donnell, she said, “He’s the one on Channel 38 when they’re asking for money!  All the old ladies like me with white hair like him!!”  When I stopped laughing I wrote that down verbatim.  Carbonated holiness indeed.

Toward the end of my visit I asked about what her husband liked to do:  where was he happiest?  Planting strawberries and raspberries brought him great joy she told me.  He took great pride in his flower garden.  He would always bring her gladiolas.  It was the word “gladiolas” that started her tears.  For nearly ninety minutes Lois had maintained her composure.  She had been numb to the depth of her sadness, until remembering her husband’s proud smile presenting flowers to her.  This was another holy moment for me.  I have learned when to expect them but am always surprised by what triggers them.  We sat together, crying quietly.  This holiness was hardly carbonated, but it was profound.

My phone rang at home that evening.  Lois’s friend Connie called me to suggest some Bible passages for the funeral.  Lois asked Connie to make the call because Connie is more knowledgeable about the Bible than she is.  Connie suggested Romans 8, a passage I always use at funerals, though I omit the verse about lambs being slaughtered.  Connie also suggested Lamentations 3:22–33.  I have never preached Lamentations at a funeral.  It is an interesting book.  It is structured like an archery target.  The bulls-eye is this soaring passage,

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness,
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul
“therefore I will hope in him.” [NRSV]

If you’re going to use Lamentations, this is exactly the part to lift up at a funeral.  This along with Paul’s words to the Romans that the love of Christ is stronger than anything—even death. “Yes,” I assure Connie, “I can work with these.”

Two days later, just before the service Connie introduces herself, and I thank her again for her suggestions.  I finally get to speak to Lois as we are about to begin.  She tells me, “I still talk to him.”  This is hardly surprising.  Arnold has been dead less than a week, and they have been together since the Truman administration. 

“Bet you’re getting the same response as before,” I observe.  After more than thirty years at the foundry, Arnold was very hard of hearing.  We giggle together, sharing a little more carbonated holiness, before she sits in the front row.

Four hours later, when I am one mouse click from heading home; a man knocks on my office door.  “Got a minute, pastor?”

“Sure, c’mon in, sit down!”

This man needs a Bible.  We talk about his struggles and disappointments.  He cannot think of anything that will bring him joy.  We talk about his childhood, his marriage, his kids, his job.  He’s looking for a Bible Rx.  Through the course of our conversation, I think of passages I want him to look at.  Passages I hope he will read slowly.  Passages I suggest he sip like fine brandy. 

We walk to the Sunday school room and I get a Contemporary English Version for him.  There’s a kid with a skateboard on the cover.  

I write the day’s date on the title page.  Then I write “Luke 15:11–32,” because he’s the prodigal who has come to himself and has turned toward home.  I write “Psalm 139,” because there is nowhere he can escape from God’s care.  He suggests John 3:16, to which I shout, “It’s up—it’s good!”  We share a laugh, remembering the guy in the rainbow wig who used to hold up signs at football games. 

Thinking back to that afternoon’s funeral, I turn to Lamentations 3.  In the CEV the words that precede the happy bulls-eye are these:

I am a joke to everyone—
no one ever stops making fun of me.
God has turned my life sour.
He made me eat gravel and rubbed me in the dirt.
I cannot find peace or remember happiness.

Except for the part about gravel, this is practically a summary of what he has told me for the last ninety minutes.  I say, “Ooh, listen to this,” when my eyes fall on those words.  Then I read.  It is like looking into a mirror. 

I watch his face as he hears these words.  We share an eerie laugh of recognition.

His pain is real. 

And his tide has turned.

He thanks me.  I thank him for his courage, his honesty, for his willingness to say, “I don’t want to feel this way anymore.”

I am not the least bit surprised that the Holy Spirit has found a way to connect Arnold, the dead, proud grower of gladiolas; Connie, Arnold’s widow’s attentive friend; scripture; me; and this hurting man.  This kind of thing happens all the time. 

It is as real and holy as laughter and tears.


Tom Willadsen is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

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