Climbing Capernaum

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The boy’s legs were useless.

He could write and speak his name perfectly well (Brett), he could use his young hands to grip the braided climbing rope supporting his frame, but his body from the waist down was as inoperable as felled masts of white pine. Like the moon in a clear, harvest sky, he dangled there thirty feet above the ground, a suspended child, a saint as it turns out, exhausted by the events leading up to this moment where he glowed at the upper reaches of the man-made rock-climbing tower out of nothing short of utter fatigue and extreme revelry where the two emotions mixed and mingled as if they were reunited friends. The raucous cheering of the audience below made it perfectly clear that this was no ordinary moment, either for them or for Brett.

Normally this spot on the sidewalk adjacent to the climbing wall is a somewhat stale, recurrent place as participants, mostly high-school aged, with perfectly functioning bodies take to the fixed rocks on the wall each and every day during the summer months, some reaching the top with ease, others giving up apathetically midway, some never bothering to feign an attempt. But today, if only for a few passing hours, this sun-drenched location atop the bluffs of Pelican Lake in northwest Minnesota is, like its biblical lakeside village counterpart, a Capernaum of sorts, a place where not only the physically impaired are raised, but the physically well can, if our eyes are open to the scene, find a healing as well.

A multi-generational crowd composed of adults, college and high-school aged gathers. We come and go as we please. I feel the sunlight searing my sandaled toes. I feel my toes. I feel. The boy, currently draped in a climbing harness and seated in his wheelchair, awaits final clearance to begin his ascent. Two men, his counselor-leaders for the week, also donning harnesses, are prepared to climb the wall with Brett assisting him along the way. They are his feet. I witness the utmost patience of these gentlemen as they coax, urge and literally lift the physically crippled young man to a height and an experience that he might never have reached without such assistance, without such community, without such delighted belief. Like a banner on top of the world, this scene is a flagrant display of courage that rivals any contemporary professional athlete’s stamina and pursuit of adulatory perfection.

The oldest of three siblings, I am for all intents and purposes a scaredy-cat. For as far back as I can remember, I maintained an overly cautious and hyper-responsible childhood. I rarely took risks then, and I find I rarely take them now as an adult. But as I am prone to do, tears percolate from my sunglass-veiled eyes at the very sight of such a risky, overtly spiritual and Christ-like display, which I am convinced I am privy to. The boy possesses a rowdy belief that he has it in him to scale the wall. His counselor-leaders, in turn, possess a believing hope that, just like the young man lowered by his pals through the thatched roof to the feet of Jesus, their faith will heal the boy whom they now hoist. Though science might disagree, this physical exhibition has far less to do with actual physics than it does with the intangibilities of lion-like courage, the swearing off of fear, and the Ghost of God moving with such ease and freedom through the discarded remnants of society as to render them mesmerizingly holy, while leaving the beautiful remainder as limp as withered limbs. Has Your Kingdom finally come?

The climbing wall is made up of a pattern of strategically placed rocks and of various planks of wood, all held together by the bones of structural integrity. The human body is much the same, held together by bones, capillaries, vessels and ligaments. The body of Christ is made up of many parts, talents and gifts, some receiving glory, some rarely receiving acknowledgment if any notice at all, but all are worthy in their unworthiness to serve the other. And that is the way it is in Capernaum and along the shores of Pelican Lake where the broken in body are Heaven-strong in heart and spirit, possessing a belief so childishly simple that it seems too good to possess any truth at all. Here, the weakest things of earth shame the glamorous and the strong, and the physically well, if we are lucky enough, are overcome with the shocking realization that we too need just as much help in all our climbing, flailing and falling.

At the height of exalted exhaustion, may we peer through the torn roofs of our lives and view the gathered community in support – those who cared for us from the very beginning, those clinging to the taut ropes of both theirs and our faith – and may we bless the Lord of our once-broken souls who coaxed, urged and lifted us to the good and final End.

Eric Peters, affectionately called "Pappy" by those who love him, is the grand old curmudgeon of the Rabbit Room. But his small stature and often quiet presence belie a giant talent. He's a songwriter of the first order, and a catalogue of great records bears witness to it. His last album, Birds of Relocation, blew minds and found its way onto “year’s best” lists all over the country. When he's not painting, trolling bookstores, or dabbling in photography, he's touring the country in support of his latest record, Far Side of the Sea.


2 Comments

  1. Aaron Roughton

    “But as I am prone to do, tears percolate from my sunglass-veiled eyes at the very sight of such a risky, overtly spiritual and Christ-like display, which I am convinced I am privy to.”

    Tears percolated from mine as I read about it. Thanks for writing about this experience Eric. When I see people who are “disabled,” in whatever arrogant way I choose to define that, it usually makes me feel like a coward. There’s a guy who gets dropped off at the gym I go to on my lunch break. Each day he is escorted through the front door and left by the cab driver. He then taps his way to a treadmill and exercises. He’s completely blind and almost completely deaf. Sometimes I am walking along nearby on my treadmill and I’m overwhelmed by his courage. Overwhelmed and ashamed. I don’t know anything of his faith, but surely it’s bigger than mine.

  2. Josh

    My little sister has been in a wheelchair since a car wreck in 2004. Eric, you can’t possibly have any idea what this story has done today. Thank you very much.

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