For 39 years, Thomas Ethelbert Skilling III has been a fixture on WGN-TV in Chicago. In some ways, Tom Skilling and the changeable and oft-brutal weather in the Windy City are a match made in heaven. Skilling, now 65, is famous for his little-kid passion for the ever-buckling jet stream and the seemingly endless cold fronts that come our way. Many in the Chicagoland region depend on his colorful, complex, computer-aided forecasts before they head out the door.
But this past August it was Skilling who was on the road, doing a remote from the southern Illinois college town of Carbondale, there with untold thousands to witness the sun’s total eclipse. As Skilling, under a darkening sky, faced the camera to set up the extremely rare celestial event, he said in a steady but expectant voice, “We’ve been told that people start sobbing, and for some it’s just a life-changing event.”
Then the floodgates broke.
“And we may start doing that, too,” the presumed highest-paid local weatherman in the nation said as his voice cracked and the tears started to flow. Clearly embarrassed, Skilling struggled to get off the air as quickly as possible, telling the crew back in Chicago in a high-pitched, sobbing voice, “I’ll get my act together, guys, and I will be back to you—I promise you! Guys, back to you.”
But why did Skilling, a scientist long practiced in observing and predicting the chaotic interplay of air, clouds, and vapor, suddenly cry like a schoolboy when the lifeless rock we call the moon blindly interposed itself between us and the sun? It’s just physics, right?
Not quite. When totality happened, the normally verbose weatherman gawked with all the rest, stammering in wonderment, “Oh look at that . . . wow . . . look at that.” Skilling, who says he’s not especially religious, called the eclipse a shared “spiritual experience . . . on a par with a religious experience.”
Indeed. Chicago Tribune media critic Chris Jones calls Skilling “a man of singular passion—the weather—and he had just seen the purest manifestation of its raw power, its abiding beauty, its comforting immutability.” Jones added that the tears were completely understandable, “when a day is like no other (almost), when the sublime is manifest, when the resistant moon is emboldened to march right out there in front of the showy orange sun that takes all the focus and the rave reviews, the consequences be damned.”
The ancients, of course, could be cowed by such events, seeing in them portents of the end of the world or the fall of an empire. As the Old Testament prophet Joel said, “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.”
For those deaf to the Word of God, the Lord still woos us through His creation. “They were pretty raw emotions to be broadcasting on a mass medium,” Skilling admits. “I was telling myself, ‘Get it together, you’re on television.’ . . . I was overwhelmed by the enormity of it . . . it makes you realize we’re a very, very small part of a huge universe.”
As David said,
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
The unexpected tears of a meteorologist are a reminder that the Good, the True, and the Beautiful exist and can still touch us, that the cosmos is far grander than what we can call forth on our artificially bright LCD screens, that we all long for the One in whom “we live and move and have our being.” They also hint that this world is not what it once was and that our time here, like a total eclipse of the star around which we orbit, is incredibly fleeting.
Yet our nighttime tears can seem endless. Tom Skilling undoubtedly has shed more than a few. His younger brother, Jeff, to mention just one example, was sent to prison over the Enron scandal. The heartache that Tom Skilling must feel is untold, but achingly real. No matter our accomplishments, a sense of loss is never far away. The more we try to cling to this world, the more it slips through our fingers. G. K. Chesterton reminds us:
For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
John Milton was right—paradise is lost. Yet the universe itself—far from being a soulless machine—longs for its own restoration. As Paul said, “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” when the Resurrected One returns. Paradise will be regained. “Weeping may tarry for the night,” David said, “but joy comes with the morning.”
So the next time you are privileged to see an eclipse, or hear the early fall breeze rustle the imperceptibly changing leaves of a silver maple, don’t be embarrassed if you shed a tear or two. You are in good company. The Lord is calling you Home.
Image courtesy of Jorge Villalba at iStock by Getty Images. Illustration designed by Heidi Allums.
Stan Guthrie is an editor at large for Christianity Today and for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. His latest book is “The Seven Signs of Jesus: God’s Proof for the Open-Minded.”