One Transcendent Moment

A few years ago, I realized how awful I am at vacations.  Some of that has to do with my struggle to actually go on vacation.  I can pack the car, suspend the newspaper subscription, load up the family, drive for half a day, and rearrange the GPS coordinates of my physical location, all without genuinely going on vacation.  It’s hard to unwind and renew when there’s just so many competing obligations.  Like countless others in our stretched-thin society, I’ve even worn this attitude as a badge of honor, convincing myself that I’m so important I can’t afford to relax.   Not only is this exceedingly arrogant, it’s also stupid.  The only prizes given to the overstressed are the ones in Cath labs.

So I’m trying to keep that in mind.

My other struggle with getting away has to do with tempering expectations.  No matter how many times I tell myself otherwise, I still fall for the vacation fairy tale.  You know, the one where the weather is spectacular.  The lines are never long.  And my children magically morph into perfectly behaved angels — no arguments or fistfights or screaming fits of “tell him to stop breathing on me.”  Somewhere along the way, I confused vacation with heaven.  I’m still not sure how that happened.  But a temporary change in zip code won’t turn frogs into princes.  And it won’t fix whatever is busted back in the real world.

So I’m trying to keep that in mind, too.

My friend Kevin once told me about his experience of settling into a new place of worship.  He had served as a pastor for many years before leaving vocational ministry.  When he returned to church as a layperson, he was surprised by the sense of liberation he felt on Sunday mornings.  Free of the endless self-judgments that ministers make during a worship service, he realized that he didn’t need perfectly sung anthems or crowd pleasing sermons.  Instead, he went looking for “one transcendent moment,” as he called it.  One note in a song.  One line uttered in prayer.  One glimpse of sacramental bread, blessed and broken.

That’s a good practice for worship.  And I’m finding it’s pretty helpful for vacation, too.  Whenever I get away, I’m looking for that one transcendent moment.  I don’t expect — or even need — much more than that.

So last week my family piled in the car, and we drove seven hours to the gulf coast.  We spent another hour or so unpacking and arranging.  Then we put on swimsuits.  Lathered the kids in sunscreen.  We walked down to the beach in the brilliance of the late afternoon sun.  And there we felt the sand between our toes.

When the the surf began to sing the hymn of invitation, I knew why I was there.  The ocean swayed reverently, calling me to walk an aisle strewn with seashells and sandcastles.  I waded out into the water determined to let myself know the entirety of this moment.  Filling my lungs, I dove beneath the surface, swimming as far as that one breath would carry me.  We are buried in baptism — those are the words my tradition claims.  And we are raised to new life.  I emerged with my ears stinging from pressure, my chest straining to respire.  Drenched in the vast mystery of the open sea, I lifted my face to the cloudless sky and basked in the holy trinity of salt, sunlight and coastal breeze.  It lasted all of 17 seconds.  I remember… because I counted.  I wanted to see how long it would take before the preoccupied mind asserted itself again.  And while that blip of time amounts to barely more than half a standard commercial break, 17 seconds can make a Sabbath.

Maybe that’s all most of us really need.  Just 17 seconds here and there.  17 seconds to get away from your own luggage.  17 seconds to taste the world on your lips.  17 seconds to hold hands with your own magnificent mortality.  And 17 seconds to rest in a swell of one transcendent moment.