I don’t often cry. In fact, in the last year, despite all of my moving, deploying, and continual good-byes, I have scarcely cried at the times most would have deemed appropriate. When others dissolve into tears, I find I can’t help but balance out the situation through some version of stoicism. Rather, I seem to always cry at the gym. Yes, there is something about the combination of the elliptical and reading a really good theological article or book that has the power to undo me almost without fail.
When I first arrived in Afghanistan, equipped with old copies of Christian Century and Sojourners, it was an article about mutual care and hospitality between Muslims and Christians in some random church in Tennessee or a story about a pastor giving ashes to her three year old, marking the sign of the cross and uttering familiar words, “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return...” that brought tears to my eyes. A few months ago, it was a book entitled All Over But the Shoutin’ by NY Times author Rick Bragg. It was a tale of resilient poverty along the same dirt roads where my grandparents grew up in rural Alabama. I couldn’t help but be reminded that our complex human struggles, whether they be about race or class or anything else, form us for better and for worse, giving us ample opportunity to respond in faith or not.
Over the years, my reading taste has been refined. I appreciate the books of my past and the companions I have known through them along the way. I also know there is seldom going backwards where reading preference is concerned. I feel especially lucky that one of my dearest friends also happens to be an independent bookseller. This means that I never have to think twice when she recommends a title, and I always have a pile of possibilities from which to chose next to my bed. I also have the occasional opportunity to read uncorrected proofs whenever she sends them my way. This is fortunate since there are no book stores in Afghanistan and the Recycle Book Bins primarily carry Nicholas Sparks or Jodi Picoult. Most people are completely satisfied with these kinds of authors. A few years ago, I may have agreed with them.
These days, when reading is a luxury, and often a choice between sleeping a little more, the books I decide to pick up have to be worth it. Trite prose and predictable romance are no longer appealing. Instead, I want to be moved. I want to grab hold of something significant which might inform my work, my ministry, and my ability to comprehend the collective human experience in a way that I had not yet considered. It is no surprise that these are also the kinds of stories that pierce the heart. Since I read while running furiously in place at the gym, inevitably I succumb to the sobs which have been dammed up over the weeks and months. Our tears find their way to freedom eventually, no matter how well we hold them in place.
I have often wondered if people notice me, weeping more conspicuously than I would chose, if these things were always our choice. I can’t imagine how I would explain my tears. No, I am not going through a hard time, any more than any other person who is simply living by putting one foot in front of the other. No, I have no problem to speak of. I really am fine. I am just reading.