Thursday, November 12, 2009

Things That Made Me Cry

I don't score very high on most tests of emotional depth, but I have to admit that, in my adult life, several things have brought a tear to my eye, a sniffle to my nose, and maybe even a sob to my throat.

When I read aloud any of the "Seven Poems Every Boy Should Know" from The Dangerous Book for Boys, most of them get me choked up.

The scene at the end of the movie Field of Dreams, where Kevin Costner plays catch with his dad, turns me into a blubbery mess every time. Perhaps this is why, as a learned reflex, I tend to get misty at sports-related dramatic movies. Sean Astin saying "Thank God!" in Rudy does it.

Numerous books have reduced me to tears. A certain house-elf's funeral, about half-way through the seventh Harry Potter, did it. The final pages of Smith of Wootton Major, The Glass Key, and, in an entirely different league, The Great Gilly Hopkins, cost me loads of Kleenex. Endings of books are easily the most dangerous region for my tear ducts, but beginnings can be rough too. I remember laughing and crying in chapter one of Susan Cooper's book The Boggart and the Monster.

Music has often moved me to experience very deep emotions. Florestan's first note ("Gott!") in Act II of Beethoven's Fidelio pierced me to the heart. Awe at the beauty of biblical narrative sung by three countertenors in John Adams's El NiƱo gave me a certain misty feeling. One time I even made myself cry by trying to imagine a world in which Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending didn't exist. It isn't necessarily true, when the song "Yellow Taxi-Cab" says you don't know what you've got till its gone. Speaking of which, I once got a lump in my throat when I realized what that song was about.

All my life, I have enjoyed watching my father get choked up by his own preaching. He gets so involved in his message that it sometimes becomes difficult for him to spit it out. So when I was at the seminary, and I found a particular Luther quote in a history text - where the Reformer refused to turn aside from entering Worms, even while in danger of being burnt at the stake, and said he would go into the city "even if therre were as many devils in it as tiles on the roof" - it's no big surprise that I burst into tears. My tears turned to laughter when I thought: "I'm turning into my Dad!"

When my cat Lionel died in my arms at the Cat Clinic, the floodgates didn't open until I came home and stumbled across a pile of laundry he had been sleeping in. The cat-shaped dent in the clothes brought home to me that he would never catnap again.

One of my profs passed away when I was in college. I wasn't particularly surprised when I heard the news. Some time later, it occurred to me that I was going to miss hearing him preach in the campus chapel - and that's when something broke open inside me, and I wept.

I find that, in general, the kinds of things that make me cry have one thing in common. There is a truthfulness about them. Nobility, courage, integrity, quality. I haven't often laughed at myself through my tears and said, "What stuff this is!" I am seldom ashamed of the sentiment that triggers my emotions. Because for the most part, the emotion isn't based on sentimentality, but on admiration, or on the recognition of something dear.

Frodo's fate at the end of The Lord of the Rings played sentimentally in the Peter Jackson film, to my immense impatience. In the book, by contrast, it came across as brutally and unsparingly real, and the thought of it oppressed my spirits for days. I went through all the stages of mourning, pacing from room to room with an ache that I almost couldn't bear, and now and then suddenly getting damp-eyed on short notice. I mourned because it had become so real that it squeezed out the possibility of warm and comforting fantasy. But the tears were good, because they were a response to rightness.

The Bible stabs the heart with similar daggers of awful truthfulness. David's words on learning of the death of his sons inspire such a response: "O my son Absalom -- my son, my son Absalom -- if only I had died in your place! O Absalom my son, my son!" (2 Samuel 18:33); and "I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me" (2 Samuel 12:23). What Paul says about the "thorn in his flesh" in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, about the power of sin dwelling in his members in Romans 7:24-25, and about his courage in the face of nearly certain death in 2 Timothy 4:6-8 are likewise moving.

But what Paul says of being "poured out as a drink-offering" pales beside the power of the most important words (for my money) that Jesus is known to have said, not many hours before his death on a cross: "Take, eat; this is my body, which is given/broken for you; do this in remembrance of me. Drink of this, all of you; this cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you/for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me" (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25). Try to imagine the confusion of the apostles as they first heard these words, when the possibility of their Master's cruel death was far from their slow, stubborn hearts. Try to imagine the courage of the man speaking these words who, later that evening, wept and perspired blood in the agitation of his spirit as he struggled to master his fear of what was to come. Try, just try, to imagine the gospel of a world redeemed through one Man's sin-offering, and what would remain of it without these words. And then, try not to weep when you consider the impact on the souls of countless Christians who have had these words plucked out of their hearts by the lying and denying of false prophets...

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