Throwing in the Towel

Our son Gary was born in a hospital connected with the prison where his mother was serving time for grand theft. With a birth weight slightly more than three pounds, Gary could whimper softly but was too weak to cry for his first year on Earth. We were told Gary would never walk because to his mental retardation was added cerebral palsy affecting all four limbs.

As a little boy, Gary was very sweet, very verbal, and very brave. He struggled mightily to learn to walk with the aid of cuff crutches and in the process developed upper body muscles that a weight lifter might well envy. When other children were toddling around, Gary was on all fours dragging his crippled legs along the floor.

One day he looked up and inquired, “Dad, why can’t I walk like other kids?’ The medical answer is that his legs are crippled. If there is a theological answer, I am reminded a hundred times a day that I do not know it. All of us — but some more than others — “are born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).

Still Christians know the day will come when “many with palsies, and that were lame,” will be healed (Acts 8:7 KJV). In the heavenly kingdom, we will see the lame walking, the mute speaking, the crippled whole, and the blind seeing the Glory of God (Matthew 15:31). In the meantime, Gary, as a man of 40 years, is engaged in regular and meaningful, if lightly paid, work.

Gary is a genuine churchman. He can be counted on to be present every Sunday and while he cannot read, he sings many memorized hymns. He looks forward to the offering. He says his prayers, and there is no parishioner who loves and trusts his pastor more. Gary has been a 40-year blessing to the family that adopted him.

When I was growing up, foot-washing sects, based on John 13, abounded. I assumed that Calvinists washed their own feet with some regularity, but washing other people’s feet was not part of our order of worship. I was curious that nobody seemed to know why. Indeed I was so persistent in asking questions about this and other theological subjects that a lot of the congregation got extremely annoyed and told me I should go to a seminary as soon as possible or some other place approximating a seminary but with a much warmer climate.

In seminary I learned from John Calvin that Christians are not enjoined to re-enact every action of Jesus and the foot-washing ceremony is one of these events which is not presented for our exact imitation.

However, Calvin continues, he who is the Master and Lord of all did give an example to be followed by all the godly, that none might think it a burden to stoop to a service to our fellow human beings, however mean and lowly it might appear to be. What counts toward greatness among Christians is not person, power or position, but service.

The problem for me is that, like most Calvinists, I have a deep suspicion of all pleasure. Therefore, I am afraid that when I am doing what I enjoy, like reading and writing theology, I may just be serving myself and not the Lord. I sometimes wonder if there is anything I do as a Christian that I would not do otherwise?

For many years, after Gary became too heavy for St. Margaret (my wife) to lift, it became my daily task to help him with his bath. I didn’t always enjoy this activity, but when it became a burden I imagined my Lord’s voice saying in gentle reproach, “Charles, do you really have anything to do today that is more important than washing the feet of this child of mine?”

When I get to Heaven and the Lord asks whether I have tried to serve him, I will not dare to refer to what I have read or written, nor to the classes of brilliant students I have known, nor to the remarkable people I call friend. I will hold out a towel and point silently to Gary.


The Apostle Paul and the god Poseidon

Marrying, as I did, a gorgeous redhead (there being no other kind) includes automatic induction into the League of Timid Men. This explains why I did not object when my lady wife announced that she was going to learn to ski so she could join our grown children on the snowy mountains. Actually, I was delighted to hear this decision since she had been contemplating learning to hang glide. In the lodge some months later, before pulling my chair closer to the fire to indulge my enthusiasm for the novels of Charlie Dickens, I happily waved my family away to the slopes. The skiing experience was all downhill from there.

Some months later Margaret began windsurfing. I certainly did not want to take the wind out of her sail because I found it very pleasant to carry my book and chair down to the sunny beach. As I finished each chapter I looked up and waved to the daughter of Nereus. In windsurfing it is important that the ocean waves back.

Unfortunately, the next project involved me more directly. Spending most of her childhood in the Sudan and Egypt, little Margaret loved to watch the graceful feluccas on the Nile. Therefore, in these latter days she determined to learn to sail a boat. That is when I discovered that sailing is an activity best described as hours of unrelenting boredom alternating with moments of sheer terror.

Sailing is very dangerous. For example, when Athena got hacked off because Ajax dared to lay violent hands on the prophetess Cassandra, Poseidon agreed to stir up his waters with wild whirlwinds and let dead men choke the bays and line the shores and reefs. If the whims of Poseidon don’t worry you, just study Acts 27-28 with the help of sailor and scholar James Smith’s 1866 Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul. Paul’s ship was caught in a typhoon of such violence that the mariners had to give the ship to the gale and scud before it for 14(!) days. For these two weeks Julius, Aristarchus, St. Paul and St. Luke were too scared to eat. Nearing land the ship hit a shoal, the bow stuck and the stern broke up. All 276 men had to swim for their lives. Reaching the island of Malta, Paul immediately got hisself snake bit.

My previous connection to boats was limited to trying to visualize the scene with Cleopatra (Queen of Denial) when The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne/ Burn’d on the water; the stern was beaten gold,/ Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that/ The winds were lovesick with them (“Antony and Cleopatra,” act 2, scene 2, lines 196-9).

Apparently some kinds of sailing vessels require ballast, and I discovered that my role in this endeavor was to provide it. Sounded easy. I am an expert at sitting, but I thought it was a waste of mental energy to learn silly nautical terms like “port” and “starboard” when I already knew “right” and “left.”

So came the great day of our maiden voyage. Lady Margaret, Admiral of the Ocean Seas, took her place at the tiller holding the main sheet. The intrepid Sir Ballast sat amidships with the jib and the journey began. Calm seas and gentle winds convinced Sir Ballast that a merry “yo, ho ho” would not be amiss. Just then the wind whipped up and the boat began to fly across the lake at such a tremendous speed that capsizing appeared imminent.

In this crisis my Lady Admiral calmly but firmly instructed her crew (namely me) to “trim the boat.” Now, I know how to “trim” hair or a Christmas tree, but I had no idea how to “trim” a boat. In another couple of seconds we would have been under water. Butt (if you will pardon the expression) recognizing the problem (namely me), and with the command presence only the great ones possess, new instructions were immediately issued. “Hang your rear end over the right side!”

This is the only time I can ever remember that I got to throw my weight around. In addition I was promoted to my present and permanent rank: rear admiral.