Lake City, MI is as fine a place as any to witness the kingdom come. Throughout the course of my thirty-
days at a Young Life summer camp, the faint revelation occurs every Wednesday evening just as the night’s burger-themed dinner is winding down. Tangibly speaking, it has all the trappings of a drive-thru restaurant, minus the automobile exhaust and roller skates. Yet the
unmistakable aroma of gifted myrrh and heaven’s grace permeates the room the way a perfume awakens a forgotten memory of a forgotten soul. This unpretentious setting is as placid and unassuming as it is dangerously rife with the blunt force of unswerving grace. Strangely, it has more in common with the first dance at a royal Habsburg wedding than it does an American 1950’s-era grease joint
At first glance the scenery, characters, and homemade props are innocuous. But like the curtain going up on the final act of a play, I see something more everlasting, the true scope of the moment. As the evening progresses and the scales fall from my cynical eyes, this benign vignette trumpet-screams with sacred peals that make me wilt.
The event’s zenith takes place after the dining hall work crew, comprised entirely of high school volunteers, serves the final embellishments of dinner. They clear plates, cups, and silverware and then discreetly retreat into the kitchen. Amid the general playfulness of the room, no one seems to notice the servers’ subtle disappearance. The vast dining hall is decked out in all the vestments of a pre-60’s America, from the red-and-white checkered tablecloths to the shimmering streamers and paraphernalia draped festival-like overhead. Everyone, campers included, is bedecked in period garb: rolled up white-sleeve t-shirts, pomade pompadours, resplendent bouffant dos, and painted lips and eyes. The girls and boys serving on work crew are a forty-person team: beautiful, handsome, and hailing from all points of America.
Suddenly, era music (á la Chuck Berry) blares over the loudspeakers, and the previously sequestered dining hall servers simultaneously burst back into the room parading with one another and dancing a choreographed bit. As if on cue, they fan out into the seated, gawking crowd of teen-aged guests and proceed to select dance partners from among them. In many instances I witness attractive work crew girls taking the hands of some not so worldly-handsome, or “lovely,” high school boys to dance with them. By the looks on some of their scarlet faces, I imagine it is probably the first dance for many of these gents. As I witness the boys’ delighted, silent pride at being handpicked for the occasion, I empathize with their sweaty palms and gut full of nervous butterflies. (My own memory of being shy and scared-to-death-of-pretty-girls is still fixed vividly and awkwardly in my mind. Some inadequacies are slow to erode.) But they dance, and it is at this moment when the noise of earth – our longing for acceptance and approval – is drowned out by the melee of a welcoming heaven in its unconditional melody.
I see illustrated before my eyes, like the intentions of a renowned playwright, the glory of the lovely seeking out the unlovely, rapturing them, revealing to them in so few words that the heart is, after all, the thing that matters most. Traversing all points past and future, the canvas vigorously paints itself before me, reminding me of my own final and glorious Reconciliation: the first dance shared by the long-separated bride and bridegroom. In short, it is a brief snapshot of an eternal kingdom, of a good and merciful heaven, that final resting place of flesh, bone, hate, hypocrisy and perception masquerading as truth. Can you see it? It is the lone lamb missing from the fold, resting now in the lion’s arms, unscathed, un-fearing, cherished beyond rational comprehension. The question is not whether we get lost. The question is whether or not we allow ourselves to be found in our unloveliness.
Most days I spend veiled in some desperate form of vanity, basking in rabid self-centeredness, unable to see heaven revealing its secrets to me like a prolific victory garden. I am thankful that once a week, at least during my double fortnight here, I am allowed to witness this playful, harmless, innocent scene. I must excuse myself from the table and from the dining hall because the holiness whirling about me is more than my presence can bear. I quell tears at the sight of homely children waltzing about the room in the hands of lovely and handsome members of the opposite sex, many of whom may not fully comprehend, this side of heaven, the full implications of their small act of restoring value and worth to a fellow human being. On this night of metaphor, the pairing of human dignity and God’s habitual love is clothed in purple royalty. At epiphany’s dawning I realize it will one day be me doing the dancing: the unlovely, ragged creature of earth taking the hand of incarnate beauty, dancing about the halls of heaven as if that luminous venue had been reserved for me from the beginning. It is a dance I long for.
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.