Baptized by fire, in the river of dreams.
Last night I was invited with the Fr Austin (the Pastor) by a parishioner and her two boys to a Billy Joel concert in Madison Square Garden. Don't tell anyone, but this was Fr Austin's first concert--which floored me when he admitted it!
We were about to leave to walk over to the Garden, and I noticed that he was wearing his priest clothing. "Really?", I said, "you're going like that?". He grinned sheepishly, and then said he was too tired to change, and anyway, who was going to be looking at him? OK, I said, thinking that now everyone was going to be looking at me, walking with the priest through the arena!
Anyway, as we entered the Garden we got onto one line, slowly working our way to the ticket takers. As I was talking to Fr Austin, I noticed a couple of people in the next line staring at me. They looked vaguely familiar, and then suddenly one of them reached over and interrupted us. “Fr Jim?”, and suddenly I recognized him as one of my former students. In the summer of 2002 after he had completed his junior year, we had traveled together with other students to Eastern Kentucky where we spent two weeks building a house for a very poor family.
One night after a long, backbreaking day of building a roof over the rooms, I went for a walk with him down a country road lined with wild flowers and high grasses. The katydids were just starting their nightly chirping, perhaps boasting of their accomplishments with the hope of attracting a bride. I remember asking him how it was going for him on the trip. He loved it, he said. “You know, I think it’s the best thing that has happened to me since I came to college.”
I pretended to be insulted. “What? The class you had with me wasn’t the best thing?”. He laughed, and said, sorry no offense, but... no.
And then he stopped for a moment, and paused. “But actually,” he said, “something you said in class was what made me come to Kentucky in the first place. Do you know what it was?” I thought for a moment. He had taken a class with me called the Art of Film. “You wrote it on the board the first day,” he reminded me. Ohhh yeah, I remembered.
In big bold letters at the top of the board I had written: “People do what they want to do.” It’s one of my famous lines, something I would tell students all the time to get them to think about being true to themselves and their word.
People do what they want to do.
They would usually look at me quizzically when I said that, a ‘duh, no kidding’ response on their faces, but they often didn’t really get it.
Then I’d have to explain that most of us say we are going to lose weight, work hard, be kind, love others more; most of us claim that we want to eat more healthily, push ourselves to study harder, stop spending money that we don’t really have, refrain from hurting other people with our gossip; that we want to be more truthful, more loving, more humble; less jealous, greedy, proud, lustful, lazy.
But we don’t often do what we say, and our actions reveal what we really want to do and be. A student could tell me that he wanted to get straight A’s, but when he spent his study time with video games or playing beer pong, well, that said a lot more about what he really wanted to do. Likewise, a father can say he wants to be closer with his family, but when he chooses to stay late every night at work, or block out every weekend to do something without his wife, daughters and sons—well, that’s pretty telling about who he really wants to be, what he really wants to do. Actions speak way louder than lofty words of intention.
In the Gospel Jesus tells the story of two sons who are asked to help a father, and the first son is more honest in his feelings and tells the father hell no, he won’t help, but then later after thinking about it, he does come to his father's aid. The story actually focuses on the second son who said he would do what his father asked, and then didn’t. And you know, he may have really intended to help his father. But people do what they want to do, not often what they say they will do.
It’s about walking the walk AND talking the talk.
My student confirmed that it was indeed those seven words on the board—people do what they want to do---that had affected him. All his college years, he told me, in all the reading and studying and partying he had been doing, he had been searching for the truth about himself, and about, well, everything.
We came to a small lake, and sat down beside it. The moon was just starting to show itself in the fading light of the sun. “I’ve been going around in circles, talking...but not doing anything, really” he said. He looked over at the lake and pointed to the water right in front of us. “I realized that I just had to jump into the water and start swimming”.
The trip to Kentucky was about finally doing what he really wanted to do, and he was loving it.
We got to our seats in the Garden, and the place was packed and alive with anticipation and good vibes. Our generous host was a huge fan, and she asked me if I had a favorite Billy Joel song. I hadn’t really thought about it, and told her that I liked a lot of them.
But once the concert started, I knew right away which of his songs I like the best. It’s the title song from his album The River of Dreams.
Although he claims to be an atheist, Billy Joel was inspired to write a kind of gospel song, identifying himself with biblical imagery and words from a psalm.
“In the middle of the night,” the lyrics say, “ I go walking in my sleep through the desert of truth, to the river so deep… I stand on the shore and try to cross to the opposite side…I know I’m searching for something…I hope it doesn’t take the rest of my life until I find what it is that I am looking for..."
In the music video for the song, a bunch of people jump into a river, and a Gospel choir appears, clapping and singing to the music, and there is a moment when someone is dunked into the river and baptized as Billy Joel sings, “Baptized by the fire, I wade into the river that runs to the promised land…”.
Yeah, I thought, that’s the whole deal about baptism, about practicing the faith.
Most of us, no matter our age or circumstance in life, wake up, sometimes in the middle of the night, wondering how or why we got to this place, this point. Maybe we’ve gotten lost in the process, stuck in our routine, mired in small details. Maybe we’ve been talking the talk, and we suddenly wake up to realize that we have stopped walking the walk. What is it, we wonder, that we really want to do?
Well, there’s the shore, and there’s the water, and it’s calling us to jump in, all caution to the wind.
After the concert, Fr Austin and I walked home. There were people everywhere in the city that never sleeps. We passed a line of young people waiting to get into a club, pounding music escaping from the door each time it was opened. I suggested to Fr Austin, that maybe we could try that, give him another new adventure for the night. He wasn't buying it, though! Imagine the priest clothing there!
We turned onto 31st Street and passed the Church of St Francis of Assisi, where almost a dozen people outside the building were getting ready to settle down into their sidewalk beds of cardboard and rags.
There was still a short line at Shake Shack, and McDonald’s was doing brisk business as well.
When we got back to the rectory, Fr Austin took his dog Murphy out to run after a ball, and I needed to walk some more, so I wondered over towards the East River. The moon was shining all over the waters, making McDonald’s wrappers and every other discarded thing look beautiful.
How is it, I wondered, that God’s light keeps shining down on us even as we keep on doing all the things that we shouldn’t be doing, and not doing the good things we claim we want to do?
Why doesn’t God just give us a good scare every once in a while—shut down the sun temporarily, make the stars go zipping around us all amok, turn the seas red or the sky black, make the rain purple, the snow into stones—to make us see who is really in charge, whose world this really is, whose we really are?
You might remember a book and a movie called Out of Africa. In it a young boy named Kitau appears at the a Christian woman’s door and asks for a job. She hires him and is impressed and grateful for his hard work, but is surprised when after three months he asks her for a letter of recommendation to give to Sheik Al bin Salim, a Muslim living in a nearby town. She is mystified by his decision to leave, and offers him more money to stay with her. He declines and explains that he is trying to decide whether to become either a Christian or a Muslim, and his purpose in working for her had been to see, up close, the ways of Christians. After working for the Sheik and seeing how Muslims behaved, he would choose.
“Good heavens, Kitau,” the woman says, “you might have told me that when you came here.” She wondered if her actions as a Christian spoke as truthfully as her declaration that she believed in Jesus, and in all his teachings. People do what they want to do, right?
Jumping into the river in our baptism means that we walk the walk, and if our faith means anything at all, what we do is more important than what we say. People do what they want to do, and being a follower of Jesus means that we want to throw all caution to the wind and align ourselves and our lives with love.
It needn’t be anything too dramatic. Even the small things matter: staying after the party to clean up, when everyone else has left in a cacophony of laughter and conversation; reaching out with a smile and a hand to the person who appears lost and abandoned; listening to someone who is starving for attention and self esteem; asking someone to jump into the river with you, on an adventure of giving that will certainly require you both forget about your own troubles.
In the middle of the night, when you go walking in your sleep through the desert of truth to the river so deep, “have in you the same attitude that is in Christ Jesus…do nothing out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but for those of others.”
People do what they want to do. So…what do you want to do with your life?