4/24/2006

ALMA MATER

I had the joy of visting my dear alma mater this Easter weekend, for the spectacle we all know as Spring Sing. I try to tell people at work why in the world I'm heading back to Arkansas, but they never seem to really get it. By far, the best part about the whole event for my wife and me is getting to see people we were in college with - friends we can reconnect with over shared bonds of wild experiences and lessons learned since. The best time to see everyone is the cast party after the Saturday night show - a tradition that spans at least a decade and has always been in the same place, so all the old folks know where it is. We all gather 'round, do all that sharing, sing our crazy club songs for each other and swelter in an overcrowded room with college students burning up from activity, excitement and adrenaline.

We stayed up late (well, late for us old married folks) into the night, then had to wake up for church at an hour that seemed so early it could probably be only represented by an imaginary number. Blearily my wife and I stumbled into Sunday-appropriate clothes and steadied each other down the shuffling walk to the hotel complimentary breakfast. We'd reached that state of tired where the caffeine wakes your body up just enough that it realizes truly how tired you are and only wants to sleep more. Adding condiments with that level of fine motor control is just a joke, as I managed to turn my preprocessed egg patties into a salty mess in very short order. With the in-laws driving (thankfully), we made it to early service at church and found seats quickly, hoping nobody noticed our almost-a-hangover.

I don't know how you get when you're truly tired, but when I'm at that point, I find that my emotions come to me frighteningly fast. It's as though that buffer of my usual good sense is stripped away by fatigue, and everything I'm feeling strikes to the top in vivid color in every case. I tell you all this to say that while all that tempted me to just dismiss what I felt at worship that day, I couldn't shake these emotions because they seemed grounded in a deeper truth than I planned on encountering.

Worship was great - a well-paced combination of scriptures and songs, with very few moments taken for sermonizing or announcements. My father in-law was so thankful for a tempo that kept him from sleep that he thanked the minister personally! The fully planned part of the service ended with the traditional invitation, a moment that only signalled to my fuzzy mind that it was time to stand, and that the end was near at last. I can honestly say that my mind was upon things Divine during the worship, but I can also say that the chance to eat again and hopefully regain some portion of my energy at lunch was definitely thought of.

With the invitation song fully in stride, and everyone standing to clear the aisles, a father and his daughter made their way to the front row of seats. The girl could only have been 14 or 15 at the most, and she must have had something like Cerebral Palsy or Spina Bifida, because her motions were forced through tremoring muscles and wavering steps.

She leaned in a familiar way upon her father as she pushed her disobedient body down an aisle that must have seemed 60 feet long to her, even though it would be only 6 feet to a ruler. It was hard to watch her body force her to make several attempts at sitting down, but she seemed to have a peculiar expression on her face - a mixture of determination, happiness and anxiety. The preacher came down to meet her at the front, and a whole row of college students (that probably didn't know her) left their seats to find ones behind her in support.

The song ended and we all sat back down, some finally seeing over the crowd what all the hubub was about. The preacher returned to his pulpit to tell us the good news: Kaitlin, this girl, wanted to be baptized. From that moment, it just caught me; I was so emotionally touched by seeing this girl, wrestling not only with the life questions that come with being a teenager, but also the ones screamed out by this degenerative disease, seeing that in the face of all of this her soul had found it's one true and supreme Love - and that she wanted to show her love in practice. A definite lump lodged itself in my throat and defied any attempts at manly supression. This girl was going to demonstrate to me something deeper than I'd come prepared to see: a naked and beautiful truth about the One I chose for my Lord and Master.

Her father rose to his feet, and lended his strength to help his daughter to hers. He told us that they had rehearsed this occasion thoroughly the night before, but that Kaitlin found herself to be very nervous this Easter morning in the face of all of the reality and all the people (a packed auditorium of easily 500). A muffled laugh swept through the crowd as we all remembered our baptism Day, or just empathized with her stage fright. The father told us he would just go through all the points they talked about, and let her just affirm her answers.

"Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?"

Nod.

"And do you believe that he came down to Earth?"

Another nod.

"And that He died for our sins and rose again?"

More nods, as the signals for this motion echoed through her neck's muscles.

"And do you believe that He's coming back one day to take us with Him to be in Heaven with the Father?"

"Yes!" - uncertain lips unable to restrain a certain voice.

The father said through tears and joy that he was so proud of her, and that they were now going to baptize her for the remission of her sins. A spotty "Amen" wove through the crowd, and my view of the scene distorted as my eyes suddenly found themselves handling more water than they were capable.

Men and women came forward to help as the parties were separated to their respective sides of the baptistry, where the daughter donned a "gown" (more like a waterproof bag with holes and a zipper), and the father strapped on Arkansas-redneck-appropriate camoflauge waders. The two came together again in the middle through sounds of rustling water, and the daughter again clung to her father for support. Her father's words dropped sotto voce as a crash course in "How to Survive Baptism Without Drowning" with the ever-essential "Chapter 5 - Hold on to Your Nose" was administered. He returned to full volume with words I've always found to be simply magical:

"...I now baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son..."

The daughter broke the plane of the water, finding its symbolic burial below.

"..and of the Holy Spirit."

Her father pulled her from the water to what must have been an incredibly beautiful scene - his "newborn" daughter taking the first breath of her second life. Dry clothes and propriety aside, the father held his daughter tight in joy and love - and I noticed something.

For the first time since I'd seen her begin this journey, she wasn't shaking.

And as I applauded with the rest of the congregation, I couldn't help but think...

My life is wracked daily with the struggles of sin. My spirit has to force my body to walk a straight path each and every second of my life. I lean on my Father, and should do so familiarly as He guides me through my struggle. We walk a path that to His eternal eye seems but a few steps, and seems to me to be the fullness of decades. He washes me in the power of His Redemption through His grace and mercy. And one day He will call me up from the plane I inhabit, and He will view his favorite sight: His child taking the first breath of an eternal life with Him. And even though I may have lived decades, I will cling to Him with joy and love as a child.

And never again will I be shaken.


2 comments:

Phylemon said...

Eric, thanks for this. I was going to be sarcastic and say that once I finally got over being all serious in my blog, you picked up the slack, but the fact of the matter is that this post was beautiful, and it meant a lot to me.

The Swan said...

Thanks, Paul. You know, I don't often get the chance to just try to write something beautiful, and that's what I tried to do here. Don't worry, I'll get back to the lighthearted stuff later.