I’ve shed tears exactly two times in the last six weeks. Ever since these two moments, I’ve been trying to figure out if and how they are connected.

Moment Number One:
New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik, Iceland. My wife and I had the extraordinary opportunity to knock a biggie off the bucket list—to see the northern lights. During the initial months of planning, I ran across a random travel blog that was singing the praises of Reykjavik’s New Year’s Eve celebration. The city party, so I was told, would put all other New Year’s celebrations to shame. Okay, Iceland. Bring it.

Normally, a festive New Year’s celebration consists of small pockets of fireworks for the hour or so before midnight, then a 15-minute firework show that builds to a 90-second crescendo, the highly anticipated finale. Iceland, by contrast, followed a more ‘aggressive’ schedule:

4pm-9pm: Shoot off a bunch of fireworks in random areas of the city.
9-10pm: Go to your local neighborhood bonfire and watch more fireworks off the water.
10-11pm: Go home and watch the annual New Year’s special TV show. (It’s what Icelanders do)
11-1145pm: Walk outside and see more fireworks than you’ve ever seen before in your life. Coming from everywhere.
1145-1155pm: Double that amount.
1156pm: Consider for a moment how all other fireworks shows are going to be disappointing henceforth.
1157-1215pm: The finale. Think missiles being launched in 14 different directions from 50 or more launch sites (all within a hundred yards of where you’re standing) for about 20 minutes straight. No regard for propriety or sleeping puppies. More light and sound than I can possibly imagine. It was awesome … I was full of awe.

Somewhere around 1145pm, before the finale, my eyes were watering—and not just because it was 25 degrees outside and smoke was everywhere. I was emotional.

Moment Number Two:
About two weeks ago, the season’s first Grand Slam tennis tournament was coming to a close, the Australian Open. The men’s final featured arguably the two greatest men’s tennis players ever to play, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. During the pre-match telecast, the producers cut to their 2009 final in which Nadal beat Federer in an absolute classic—not the first time they were the two lead characters in a magnificent drama [1]. During the post-match interviews before the crowd, Federer is stuck. He simply cannot say anything—a mix of intense fatigue, disappointment, confusion at losing when he played practically perfect. His wife, Mirka, watches intensely from the stands and has the look of a devastated soulmate. I watched this re-run with tears in my eyes:

I’ve seen this 3 more times in preparation for this post, and folks, I’m in tears every time.

I’m not so much interested in Federer here. I’m utterly fascinated with the crowd. What provokes their enthusiastic reception of this beaten and clearly emotional mega-athlete?

Consider that when a person speaks to other people and gets emotional—the usual reaction from a those gathered is almost always somber, silent, focused, and sympathetic. But in the above moment, the exact opposite happens. It’s raucous. Celebratory. It’s as if the crowd defies the reality of the moment. This is not a defeat, the crowd shouts. This is a victory in deep disguise and we are going to reveal it as such [2].

So what’s the connection?

. . .

These experiences draw me deeply into the human experience–victory and loss, defiance and understanding. For the former moment (Iceland), I was witnessing far more than a giddy pyrotechnic display of color and sound…though I was certainly witnessing that. The subterranean reality was that, even in the midst of cold and darkness, life was breaking through. It’s Cindy Lauper showing up in a BMW commercial unexpectedly.

I was caught up in the emotion of God’s creatures celebrating something profound: life itself. Usually, our celebrations are limited to life’s achievements. This, however, was a celebration of human identity … that simple living is the outright defiance of humanity’s greatest and final enemy, death. I’m sure I was the only one thinking theology in an island-nation not exactly known for its intense confessional piety—but the joyful affirmation of life was there, nonetheless.

In one sense, the Christian narrative was subtly reinforced.
From the stark landscape of bleak beauty, vitality will explode.
From the stump a shoot will emerge.
Where death appears to have taken root, life unexpectedly grabs a foothold.
The occupied cross transforms into the empty tomb.

Perhaps the imago Dei in men and women occasionally breaks forth into song and color because it can do nothing other. Like a latent seed, wedged deep in the cracks of a dry desert bed; it only needs water to sprout and bloom. After all, if men and woman remain silent, will not the very rocks themselves cry out?

Where death appears to have taken root, life unexpectedly grabs a foothold.”

With regards to Moment Number Two, there is something remarkable that the human condition is one of striving. Federer’s crushing loss wasn’t viewed as a defeat. It was quite the opposite. Somehow the crowd moved closer to Roger in its collective reaction, knowing a story without having to say it out loud. The story? That man strives. That the risk of pursuing something remarkable often ends in disappointment but the person is better for the journey.

These events, these moments make us emotional because they connect us to something far greater than ourselves. Sometimes we cry because it feels hopeless; other times, we cry precisely because we hope. C.S. Lewis once wrote, ‘It may even be said that it is by [properly-taught emotions] that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal’[3]. Part of the parental duty is to teach a young child how to properly channel their sentiments and emotions—to be able to recognize that some things are, in fact, beautiful and worthy of praise. In other words, a child can be taught to react well to real, objective beauty or excellence … and these reactions are not just simple feelings.

At this point, we may have reason to be nervous. Our theological selves might be coming into conflict with our experience of everyday living. When I suggest that it is deeply human—even, perhaps, beautiful—to witness an act of human striving, it’s easy to slide down a dangerous slope and say that God’s chief aim for humanity is to seek out the transcendent by effort. This is a complicated way of saying that a man, as a function of being a man, must perform something as a central feature of his identity. Yet the Christian message steers us away from such conclusions: God mends the relationship, God offers his full self, God imparts us with Christ’s identity. This is certainly true.

But I suggest that there has to be some sort of theological vocabulary for the great struggle and achievement of man that allows for the measured applause of said struggle without descending into a theology of glory. We can and should be able to embrace the totality of the life we have been given–which includes all sorts of arduous journeys–without wagging a finger at those who empathize, encourage … even admire. To be human is to err, for certain, but to be human is all we can be because we are creatures. As creatures, we necessarily reflect the dignity and purposes of the Creator. As creatures, we cling to the cross so that his victory might shine through our shortcomings.

I sincerely hope it’s possible to be a theologian of the cross and yet still recognize the presence of God’s masterwork in other human beings. Such hopes bring me to tears.

[1] The duo played a year earlier in the 2008 Wimbledon Final. The match has been widely considered the greatest tennis match ever played. Rafael Nadal beat Federer, 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7.
[2] Interestingly enough, the 2017 Final turned out to be another instant classic. This time, Federer beat Nadal, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
[3] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Harper, 1974), 25.

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.