Originally presented in middle school daily worship service. Photos in this post have been provided by Mr. Baad and are not for personal use.
As we experience this month of advent, this month of the virtue of Joyfulness, I have been thinking a lot, perhaps surprisingly, about the act of crying. But you say, “Mr. Baad, why are you thinking about crying? This is supposed to be the month of joy! That makes no sense at all.”
Well… let me explain.
I have always found it curious that there are people in this life who rarely cry. I am sure many of us can think of relatives who fit this description. My father, like this stoic pictured here - for instance, I have only seen him cry (sort of) once in my life - when he was delivering the eulogy at my grandfather’s (his father’s) funeral. Even then, I wouldn’t say he really cried. There were a couple of momentary pauses where he needed to gather himself, but I am not sure I actually saw any tears. It was one of the more emotionally courageous moments I have witnessed. I am not sure how he did it.
I have been lucky enough to inherit many qualities from my father. But, his ease in holding back tears was definitely not one of them. I often joke that I well up watching Hallmark greeting card commercials. As a child of a different time, I will say that I have sometimes felt ashamed at my inability to control my tears. I am glad that as a society, we have progressed a bit in allowing people - particularly men - to show more emotion, like the man pictured here. I have realized though, that my tears most often come not when I am sad. Rather they come when I am feeling all sorts of other emotions - love, empathy, anger - you name it, really the full spectrum of feeling. I frequently end up looking like this fella. It just doesn’t take much to make me cry - so much so that I decided to do a little research about why people cry.
According to a 2016 Time magazine article by Mandy Oaklander, people have been speculating about where tears come from and why humans shed them since about 1500 B.C. For centuries, people thought tears originated in the heart; the Old Testament describes tears as the by-product of when the heart’s material weakens and turns into water. Later, a Classical Greek philosopher thought that the mind was the trigger for tears. A prevailing theory in the 1600s held that emotions—especially love—heated the heart, which generated water vapor in order to cool itself down. The heart vapor would then rise to the head, condense near the eyes and escape as tears.
By the late 1600s, scientists had discovered that we have glands close to our eyes that produce the tears we see when we cry. In the twentieth century, psychologists determined that tears show others that we are vulnerable, and vulnerability is critical to human connection and, therefore, human evolution. Love is connection, after all. Michael Trimble, a professor emeritus at University College London and leading researcher into crying, said, “There must have been some point in time, evolutionarily, when the tear became something that automatically set off empathy and compassion in another. Actually being able to cry emotionally, and being able to respond to that, is a very important part of being human.”
Well… that interpretation makes me feel better. I like to think I am a human with at least some level of empathy and compassion.
So as I think about why we cry, I imagine that it often can be a large mix of emotions that can trigger our tears. We cry both when our emotional tank is being emptied through anger and grief and when it is being filled through love and empathy. A few weeks ago, Father Nate shared with us St. Augustine’s quote about how our greatest calling is to connect with God. Augustine knew that we will be spiritually restless, anxious until we find our relationship with God. God knows that it is in this connection, this love, that we find the joy we seek. That is when our tank is filled.
In today’s reading from Chronicles, we are warned about the mistakes that humans make in looking for fulfillment in the wrong places.
For all the gods of the nations are idols,
God is reminding us that we humans set up idols - false gods - things that are not from God but are created by people - for us to worship, for us to try to find fulfillment. Things like wealth, power, pleasure, and honor. However, God reminds us that true joy is found only when we dwell in God’s place, the Creator’s place - loving him and carrying out his will.
but the Lord made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before him;
strength and joy are in his dwelling place.
So how do we find a space where we can dwell with God? What might God’s love for us look like? I struggle sometimes imagining that God loves me. I am grateful that I have had people in my life like you have in yours with Father Nate and Chaplain Kennedy - people who we can turn to when we are having these doubts. One of my go-to people is the priest at the church I attend.
Here is the image he gave me during a time of doubt. He asked me to imagine that God is like a father who watches over his child while he plays. He is there to love, to protect, to provide comfort when injured, but not to direct or dictate. The child, for their part, knows the father is there, can be turned to for support and comfort when hurt or confused, and should be honored through the child’s behavior while playing. There is an unconditional love that exists both from the father to the child - on the father's part a commitment to give freedom of play while being ready to support and comfort the child when physically or emotionally broken - on the child’s part an honoring of the father and the role he plays in giving and nurturing the child’s life.
I hope this image provides you comfort. For me, it reminds me that God is always close by. If I search for God, he will be there - not to fix my problems - but to remind me that I am loved no matter what. It is good to know he is there.
The advent story in this month of joy is the connection that God creates with all of us by sending his only son to be among us. As I imagine the ways that kind of joy is in my life, that I fill my emotional tank, I think about those images and experiences which cause me at my age to feel overwhelmed with unconditional love, to shed tears of joy. Here is what comes to mind for me.
First is this picture taken in the spring of 1965 in Berkeley Heights, NJ and now acts as my phone background. That is my mother on the left and me on the right. I have no doubt that many of us have similar pictures of ourselves stashed away in a photo album or electronic file. I harbor no illusions that my mother’s love for me is any greater than your parents’ for you. There is something about her look, though, a gaze that reminds me of the universal truth embodied in the deep bond of affection that exists in the parent/child relationship. It fills my tank.
Second is this picture taken about thirty-four years later, in the spring of 1999. I am the one on the left of this picture. My daughter is on the right. She used to spend her after-school time with me every day as I was coaching either football or baseball, hanging out and sometimes hitching a ride on my tractor as I manicured the infield dirt. What this picture reminds me of is that we are lucky to have people with whom we ride on the tractor of life. There are times when we ride closely together, as depicted in this picture, but even when we are not physically together, we each have those to whom we will always feel bonded, feel connected; we love and feel loved by.
These two pictures create those tears of joy for me because they embody the love that God wants for all of us. Tears come from being overwhelmed by emotion regardless of its nature. I am overwhelmed because I am reminded how darn lucky I am to have expressions of God’s love in my life every day. It reminds me that he is near; he is looking over my shoulder, watching me play, loving me unconditionally.
May we all feel God’s presence and love in this advent season.