I went to a private Baptist university, a cluster of red brick buildings and manicured mauls, in an unspectacular town in Central Texas. I am thankful for my university experience and remember fondly the majority of my time there. But in the first week, I hated it.
My mother was raised Catholic and my father Methodist in a dusty and forgettable footnote of West Texas that has become more dusty and more forgettable as the years have passed. Even if my mother had not been made to feel like an outsider by her disapproving Church of Christ relatives and my father not been completely estranged by, well, everything as far as I can tell, the theological differences between their two spiritual upbringings would have, in all likelihood, conspired to lead them to the decision they eventually made anyway - assuming they got hitched in the first place - which was to leave decisions about the whole "God" thing up to my sister and me. In some ways this worked swimmingly, in others it was a total disaster, like when my sister, after spending the night with a friend on a Saturday, was taken by the friend's family to a Baptist service the following morning and nearly caused the Sunday School teacher to burst into flames when she, feeling the need to contribute to the morning's study, made up a Bible verse, name number and all, or when I, after a similarly timed overnight invite from a friend, wound up at an Episcopalian service chomping down on a Communion wafer with all the grace and solemnity one might reserve for an after school snack of Ritz crackers. From a young age, our familiarity with organized religion could be best described as remote and uneasy.
It was in this context that I arrived on the campus of the World's Largest Baptist University in late summer of 1998. One of the reasons I chose to go to this particular university was the welcoming feeling of community I experienced during my first visit to the campus as a high school senior. People actually said, "Hello," as I fumbled my way from building to building with an arm-load of maps and brochures. This was a far cry from the cacophony and measured aloofness of the large state schools I had visited, and my sister had already blazed a trail in that direction anyway. Ever the contrarian, I wanted to do something different, even if my high school teachers and friends were left stupefied and expressionless when I told them where I had chosen to attend school or if it was unlikely that I would ever be able to support a wining football team (Apparently, God doesn't much interfere with matters between the sidelines).
For all incoming freshmen, the World's Largest Baptist University organizes an entire week - Welcome Week - as an orientation to the university and the community. Mostly, this consists of community service outings, pizza socials, ice cream socials, watermelon socials, Dr. Pepper socials, movie socials, and social socials, but occasionally, after a vigorous water balloon fight, the organizers and student leaders bring up the Big JC and His role in campus life. One cannot mistake to what kind of university he has come. After a solid week of this I was beginning to wonder what kind of college experience I had signed up for.
Feeling a little socialed out and more than a little duped after the third or fourth time my kind, bearded Christian student leader had asked me out for lunch or Ultimate Frisbee only to commence Operation Save My Soul - acoustic guitar in hand - I tactfully notified him that I was probably going to bow out on the culmination of the week's festivities, an "important event" to be hosted at the university's basketball arena. He was relentless and insisted that I go. "You will love it," he implored. And after a week of being sanded down by all sorts of Baptist fun, I remember thinking to myself, "Maybe you haven't given this whole thing a fair shake. Push your comfort zone around a bit and give it a go. After all, it's college, right?" Hence, I caved.
The arena was packed with sunburned and fresh-faced college neophytes like myself all sitting clustered in pockets of new and uneasy friendships wondering how the hell - excuse me, heck - they were going to find their way to their first ever college class the following morning. I'm not really sure what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't the pseudo camp meeting the event turned in to. There was acoustic guitar music in the simple, non-hurried #G, #C, #D chord progression anyone familiar with contemporary Christian music would instantly recognize. People stood, and not because they were tired of sitting. Apparently, as I was uncomfortably realizing, an abiding love of The Lord is best demonstrated in the standing position, eyes closed, hands stretched toward the ceiling, and swaying contemplatively to and fro with a slightly drugged looking smile on one's face. There was a testimonial. An upperclassman earnestly related to us how she had been saved from the den of iniquity that was her previous university (Coincidentally, the same impossibly huge state school at which my sister was receiving a world class education) by coming to God's chosen institution of higher learning.
I somehow willed my way through what I guess was intended to be a pep rally for The Lord with a straight face and thought the event was over, but as my fellow classmates and I silently made our way to the exit doors, some out of absorption in the moment and some, like me, out of shear confusion about what the heck just happened, we were met by more student leaders passing out candle light vigil candles from massive cardboard boxes. Yes, there is such a thing as a candle light vigil candle. It's not just a candle. It's a candle with a cardboard cone attached to it, on which is printed something ridiculous like, "Candle Light Vigil Candle: For All of Your Vigil Needs," to prevent hot wax from dripping on its holder's hand. Before I could shout, "Nehemiah!", I had not one, but two candle light vigil candles lighted and placed in my hands and was following a weaving line of flickering light to the university marina on the shores of a river in which bodies would be routinely pulled in the next few years.
At the time though, it must have seemed an idyllic setting for yet another reflective praise and worship session complete with yet another kind, bearded Christian and an acoustic guitar and yet another former drug-addled tramp ready to guide us melodiously through a meditation on why we had chosen the World's Largest Baptist University as our place of study. The university's marina is half circle shaped. The waterline is rimmed with a wooden dock at which Sunfish sailboats are tethered and further inland from the dock is a concrete sidewalk. Beyond the sidewalk, a steep, grassy hill leads up to a road, parking lot, and soccer field. It was a typical late summer Texas night; warm but not hot, lots of insect noise, and the fecund smell of vegetation growing on the banks of the river. As my classmates and I, double-fisting our candle light vigil candles, teetered our way precariously down the grassy hill to find a spot to sit not already occupied by fire ants, some of the student leaders lit candles on a giant, floating Styrofoam cross that was anchored in the middle of the marina waters.
For a few minutes, in the stillness of the night, the water from the marina reflected the light from the cross, the candles, the stars, and the fireflies in a constantly dancing collage of golden flames and darting greens. The moon was a quarter of the way through it's nighttime trek across the sky and the last pink and orange hues from the setting sun were melting away on the opposite horizon. The student leaders had stopped talking and the guitar was only a whisper to the soundtrack of emerging crickets and retiring cicadas now quieting their cries against the day's heat. I found myself broadsided by the moment. It was still and it was beautiful.
Then the cross caught on fire.
It started as two or three violent but small flashes from among the calmly flickering candles, but then the Styrofoam reached its flash point with an audible whoosh and the gentle, golden glow of the candles' flames transformed into an angry and treacherous looking multi-colored flame that lashed out aggressively from the floating inferno. I was no longer caught in the moment, but now taking obvious delight in glancing from face to face in the suddenly nervous and confused crowd of my classmates.
The kind, bearded Christian atop the marina deck tried to save the situation by proclaiming the flaming cross a sign of our burning desire to be closer to God, but then the noxious smoke from the melting Styrofoam billowed its way into part of the gathered crowd and the students there started to cough and hack as they extinguished their candle light vigil candles and scattered in an effort to escape the smoke. I half expected the MC to try and spin the smoke as a manifestation of the Holy Ghost infusing those fortunate coughing and hacking students with the love of The Lord, but he just started and stopped two or three times to say something and then gave up. After the initial explosion, with the smoke now coursing out of the marina through a clear spot in the crowd made by vacated students, some sense of serenity started to settle back on to the crowd and the MC must have thought he had saved the situation with his whole "burning-desire-to-be-closer-to-God" thing. I hadn't noticed, as I was now trying to stifle my laughter by burying my head in the crook of my elbow, that, while things were beginning to settle down, a panicked troop of student leaders had commandeered one of the Sunfish and were using their hands as paddles to splash their way out to the burning cross. I looked up just in time to see them put out the flaming chunk of Styrofoam that now floated pathetically in the marina with three quick silence-shattering blasts from a fire extinguisher. Apparently, our burning desire to be closer to The Lord had been deemed a health hazard and needed to be extinguished forthwith.
To their credit, the kind, bearded Christian, the former drug-addled tramp, and the student leaders nobly soldiered on for a good five minutes while the half submerged and charred remains of the cross smoldered in the marina and periodic violent coughing fits erupted from within the crowd, but the moment had been lost. I was in stitches.
When they realized the situation could not be salvaged, the student leaders called all of the freshmen into small groups for a brief round robin discussion/reflection of the week and of our coming years at the World's Largest Baptist University. I listened politely as two of my classmates discussed their newly polished commitment to seek God in all they did, and then it was my turn to reflect and discuss.
"Did you guys not see the freakin' cross catch on fire?! That was hilarious!"
I was quickly pierced with disapproving looks from around the gathered circle, but instead of feeling shamed as an intruding pagan, I felt confident and hopeful. My history of remote, uneasy disillusion was floating with the melted cross in the marina. I was smiling. God, I had decided, had a wicked sense of humor. How can you not like a guy like that?