Crying for Strangers

When Tim Russert died suddenly in June, I felt like I had lost a friend. Millions of people felt that way, and it’s not that unusual a phenomenon when someone famous–whose face and voice are a common presence in one’s home–disappears from our lives. In this case, since I am something of a political junkee, I absorbed Russert’s insights with great interest across the last ten to fifteen years in no small part because Tim was often uncannily insightful. Even our children became aware of the esteem in which we held Mr. Russert, perhaps because in recent years my wife got into the habit of loudly exclaiming “Tim!” each time Russert appeared on the T V screen. (Indeed, if my wife ever forgot to call out Tim’s name, one or both of our kids would prompt her!)

But then came that Friday when, shortly after coming home from work, my wife asked me if I had heard the bad news. I hadn’t and so was deeply saddened when she told me. Later that evening tears streamed down my cheeks as I watched the various tributes and retrospectives about Russert. Emotionally I was, as we say in our home, “a mess.”

But why? I had never met Tim Russert. Even if I had had the chance at some past point to shake his hand at some event, it would have meant very little to him and would not have significantly changed my life, either. And any way, there are plenty of people whom I did know personally in the church or community but whose deaths did not reduce me to the red-eyed mess I was that Friday in June. What’s more, most every day there are so many deaths far more tragic than Mr. Russert’s (think of Iraqi children blown up in outdoor marketplaces just as they reached for a nice, juicy kiwi for lunch) that also don’t affect me nearly as deeply as they ought.

So why do we sometimes weep for strangers? Why doesn’t a perusal of any given day’s obituary page in the newspaper cause us to well up in tears when we spy the death of a toddler or a parent of young children, as happens more days than not? Is it because the human heart can absorb only so much sorrow? Maybe over time we build up defense mechanisms so that we don’t get upset–as my daughter still does–every time we see a baby bird that fell to the sidewalk or a deer lying dead at the side of the freeway. Maybe at some point, deep in our subconscious, we figure out that the only way to get along in this world is to accept the daily reality of death and tragedy but to not let it seep into our hearts lest we become over whelmed to the point of not being able to function.

When offering prayers in public worship, I have often noted that only God could know every single instance of suffering in this world and yet not be undone by that knowledge. We often praise God for the power he displays in soaring spectacles of creation like towering mountains or the raw energy of a humpback whale breaching among ocean swells. But an oft-neglected instance of divine power is God’s ability to hear the cry of every starving child, to hear the death rattle in the chest of every expiring cancer victim, to discern the whimper of every grieving parent and yet not collapse under the sorrow and the pity of it all. Lacking divine fortitude, the rest of us would not fare so well if we had the scope of God’s awareness.

Perhaps this is the reason, or part of it, why we don’t start to cry over every glance through the obituaries or every story on the news about the deaths of strangers in faraway places. But that still doesn’t explain why the deaths of certain strangers can push us over the emotional edge. Maybe such selective sorrow is also our way of parsing a world of sorrows too over whelming to deal with on a constant basis. Maybe we cry for certain strangers as a kind of release for the larger sadness we feel just generally. Maybe each time we cry for even those whom we don’t know personally we are tacitly acknowledging a fact we tend to resist, which is that in every one of our lives we will have our fair share of opportunities to grieve over those whom we do know and love best of all.

Perhaps. And while we’re on the subject, maybe that’s why Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus. As the Son of God, it’s a wonder Jesus did not lament his way through his entire life on this earth. After all, he sensed better than anyone around him all that was tragic, sad, and just plain wrong with this world. So on that day in Bethany, despite knowing that he was about to bring his friend back out into the light of this life, perhaps the sorrow of it all just caught up with Jesus and the tears flowed not just for Lazarus–maybe not even primarily for Lazarus–but for every one of us who are entangled in this death-thralled world. “See how he loved him,” some in the crowd observed. But a better conclusion might have been “See how he loves all life.” When John opened his gospel, he said of Jesus “in him was life.” That spark of life as God meant it to be exists in each of us. Perhaps that’s the part of us that laments all deaths and that whelms us with emotion at certain times to make up for all those other times when we can’t let the sadness of our world seep too deeply into our hearts.

Again, perhaps. In the end I’m not sure what hit me so hard at Tim Russert’s passing and I’m not sure, either, if my ability to cr y then spoke well of me or ill of me when I don’t feel such pain for other daily tragedies. But in the longest possible run, if our Lord and Savior taught us anything, we are reminded that being able to mourn is a blessed thing and that the kingdom laughter promised to mourners will somehow or another emerge straight out of all our sadness and tears.

Scott Hoezee is director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and co-editor of Perspectives.