read Luke 17. As a writer who longs to be a better writer, if a passage in a book makes me cry, I underline it until I rip holes in the paper. I want to know: “how did that writer DO that to me?” William Wordsworth once claimed to have tapped into a place “too deep for tears.” I’m not sure there is such a place. Tears seem to me to come from the deepest place of all. So where do they come from? What makes us cry?
On Valentine’s Day I was innocently reading the home section of the New York Times, which you would think would be perfectly safe, when BOOM, the waterworks started. Here’s an excerpt from the article by Alissa Rubin that moved me, about her time as a war correspondent in Afghanistan:
“Those first nights, I made myself soup and recalled T. S. Eliot’s poem about the three kings’ journey to Bethlehem: the opening lines seemed to have been written for a person shivering in an unfamiliar place.
‘A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of year for a journey/and such a long journey/the ways deep and the weather sharp/the very dead of winter.’
“There was so much I did not understand that first winter about how important it is to carry reminders of home when you go to hostile places. The hardest part was never the bombs, it was the lack of the familiar, a sense of the predictable, of even the most mundane pleasure. War zones are stripped down. Usually there are no choices — about what to eat, or much else. The food is mostly cold and functional. The kind you can shove into a pocket or throw under a car seat: protein bars, raisins, a box of potato chips. These are calories, not cuisine.
“That first cold year, I came to understand the seemingly contradictory impulses that whipsawed me. I wanted to go to the back of beyond. I needed to push myself to some geographic and emotional edge, but I was homesick. I dreamed of home and, not least, of the foods that signified home.
“Over the months I discovered that if I could recreate small moments of home that would carry me (in my imagination) to times and places and people I loved, then the worst hardship could be endured.”
That’s when my tears welled up. Why? Yes, Rubin’s article is beautifully written. Yes, she writes about evoking memories of her father by bringing Melitta coffee with her, and my father now has stage 4 melanoma. Yes, it moves any writer when someone shares that literature actually helped carry them through hard times as T.S. Eliot did for Rubin – because so much of the time as a writer you wonder if you’re really doing any good for anyone at all. But there’s more. Rubin taps into something deep, something to do with the two contradictory impulses she says “whipsawed” her, something to do with the need for reminders of home when in hostile places. We don’t need to go to Afghanistan to find a hostile place. Our homes can feel hostile. Our closest friends and family can feel hostile. Our own hearts can feel hostile. So what is it about this contrast she evokes between hostility and home that makes us cry?
Science claims to have found the magic formula for what makes us cry – at least in music. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, a Dr Sloboda discovered a quality he called appoggiatura. It’s a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound, which apparently creates tension in the listener. Adele has appoggiature in spades: “‘Someone Like You,’ which Adele wrote with Dan Wilson, is sprinkled with ornamental notes similar to appoggiaturas. In addition, during the chorus, Adele slightly modulates her pitch at the end of long notes right before the accompaniment goes to a new harmony, creating mini-roller coasters of tension and resolution.”
There is something profoundly fascinating about the idea that dissonance makes us cry. Certainly Rubin’s article points out a dissonance, too – the dissonance between home and hostility. The Wall Street journal article claims that we love Adele’s music because this kind of dissonance releases endorphins. Really? Is that all? Are our tears just a chemical reaction in the brain? Or is there perhaps a spiritual explanation for what is going on.
Many people find that the Bible moves us to tears. Perhaps it does so for the very same reason as Rubin’s writing and Adele’s music. The Bible is in constant tension; in every chapter of the Bible, we encounter the tension between God’s holiness and our unholiness. The two contrasting truths rise up out of the Word together. If it weren’t for the cross, the two themes would contrast in a jarring way. But because of the cross, they contrast in a harmonic way. The cross means that the dissonance between God’s perfection and our imperfection creates a melody. The harmony occurs because God fills in the gap. The dissonance makes us weep – and it’s not just endorphins being released. Instead, it’s the release of guilt. It’s the exhale of the redeemed. It’s the reassurance of finding the love of our one true home no matter how hostile our own hearts.
In the 17th chapter of Luke, for instance, we find Christ imploring us not to “cling to our life” or else we will “lose it.” The life he doesn’t want us to cling to is one of unforgiveness; of tempting others to sin; of a lack of faith; of pride; of disobedience to God; and of ingratitude. We are not supposed to look back when God tells us to go. We are not supposed to pack or return home.
Right. Got it.
The problem is, even as we read about all this, we may say, “yes, yes, yes, Lord, you’ve got the right person. I won’t cling to the bad. You can rely on me. I will cling to You instead” – and about a nanosecond later, we will find ourselves doing the very things we didn’t want to do. We will find ourselves clinging as if our lives depended on it to our unforgiveness, pride, disobedience and ingratitude – because, in a certain sense, our lives do depend on those things. In order to let go of unforgiveness, we would have to admit that, we, too, need God’s and other people’s forgiveness even when we don’t deserve it. To abandon our pride, we would have to admit that we can be horribly wrong at times. To give up our disobedience to God would mean admitting that He is our master and we but the servants. To start being grateful would mean we’d have to accept that God is in control, and that we are to bless Him whether He gives or takes away – and WHO COULD DO ALL THAT ALL THE TIME?
Certainly not me. When God says go – all too often, we run in the opposite direction. That is a truth.
But there’s another truth rising up out of the same chapter. God knew that we couldn’t do any of these things, and so He did them for us. “For the joy set before Him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame.” Hebrews 12:2 (NIV). Jesus did not look back. When God said go, He went. Jesus left his place in heaven to be born on earth as a human baby. Jesus left his place on earth to be nailed to a cross like a criminal. Jesus left his place in the constant beautiful presence of God, to go to hell – the one place where God does not live – so that we would not have to go there. This is the source of all true dissonance – God went to hell for us out of love. It’s the tension underlying all other tensions. It’s what makes us cry.
So when we read about Alissa Rubin, alone in a war torn land, brewing a tiny cup of coffee to remember her father – we sense that that is the very place of need where our loving God moves in. He longs to comfort us. His love rises up out of the scent of coffee, if we could only become aware of His presence. God arrives when we need Him most. Our longing for home is a longing for Eden. It’s a longing for heaven. It’s a longing for our one true home, where we will always be welcomed with open arms. Other people break our hearts. We break our own hearts. But we long not for Someone Like You, but someone like Jesus. And we will find Him if we look for Him. He promises that. Jesus is there when no one else is.
Jesus’ love moves us to tears because we want it so badly and yet know, deep down, that it’s impossible. Luckily, God specializes in the impossible. He creates melody out of the impossible. It’s good to want the impossible. That’s a longing for Jesus Christ, the Lord of love, the one who made us, the one who died to bring us back to life. We can let go of the life to which we cling – one white knuckled finger at a time – because Jesus gently, quietly urges us on with songs of home and stories of how He will come again. We might have a cold journey of it, but the warmth is always whispering to us, always creating a tension, always urging us forward into the one true melody of love.
posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on February 15, 2012, with thanks to Dominic Wong for posting the link to the Wall Street journal article on his Facebook page.