Last week, for the first time in 16 years, I became a student once again. I have begun my work toward a Doctorate of Ministry at Campbell University Divinity School. Although I didn’t have any First Day of School jitters last Thursday, it did occur to me that I hadn’t done this in some time.
I remember my first day of elementary school. I was unsure and uneasy. My mother took a picture of me clutching my small, red backpack and a paper grocery bag (school supplies, maybe?). I was nervous, but my mother seemed to think I could handle it. She watched me from the screen door as I climbed onto the school bus. I suppose I survived that first day.
I remember my first day of middle school. I was terrified. Everything was new and different and fraught with danger—new school bus, new school, new classmates, new lunch room, new routine, new, new, new. I’m not sure that I survived that first day.
I remember my first day of high school. I was exhilarated. We had moved from Atlanta to Asheville and I had already attended band camp the week before. I had shortened my name from Jeffrey to Jeff. I had stepped out of my awkward middle school years and felt confident in the person that I was becoming. Everything was new and I thought it was delicious.
I remember my first day of college. I was befuddled. My first class was a mile from my dormitory and I hadn’t planned effectively. I dressed too formally and was shedding clothes by noon. I knew no one in my classes and I was anxious that everyone would recognize that I was an in-over-my-head freshman. Still, it was a new world and I could eat all the tacos I wanted for supper that evening.
I remember my first day of seminary. I didn’t know how they did school in New Jersey. Orientation had been helpful and my classmates were proving to be fellow pilgrims. But still, I wasn’t sure I could cut it. I recall hyperventilating throughout the day as my syllabi revealed the expectation that I read a book a week a class in a schedule where I was taking five classes. If memory serves correct, I ate ice cream that first night of class on Mercer Street in Princeton. Because I could.
Last Thursday, many of these first impressions from First Days came roaring back to me. But this go-round, there were new observations to be made. Like, how young the college students looked. Or, how the faculty didn’t seem so intimidating or other-worldly as they had in years gone by. I was able to park my car far closer to the classroom than I ever had, and one of the university’s young employees even called me, ‘sir.’ But just as it had been for my other ‘Firsts,’ I was exhilarated to be in a classroom, learning, listening, sharing and reflecting. I suppose that I survived that first day, too.
Life is full of First Days and we shouldn’t take them lightly. There are first days of school, first days on the new job, first days of retirement. We have first dates, first kisses and first days of marriage. We suffer through first-losses, first days after being fired, and first days of treatment. There are first days of recovery, first days of knowing that you’re pregnant, and first days after a storm.
No wonder we take photos of our children on the first day of school! The photos become markers for us to remember and to recall what it was like in that very moment. The snapshots that we take on those first days help us to have a point of reference when we look back to see how much we have grown. First days are like Opening Day in baseball. The first day of baseball inaugurates the beginning of a long season of unknowns. Who knows what might happen? Anything’s possible.
The Israelites were nervous, too, that First Day. For an entire generation they had been wandering without a home in the wilderness. But that was about to end. Under Joshua’s leadership the people had arrived at the banks of the Jordan river. Stepping into the water, the people found themselves at a bus stop on the way to a new reality. Joshua would then kneel down on one knee, and would encourage them by telling them that God’s presence—in their case, the Ark of the Covenant—would go before them and that they didn’t have to be afraid of what lay ahead. And just as our cameras today freeze time, the river that the Israelites stepped into stopped flowing and they could cross over the dry riverbed into their Promised Land. When they had all crossed over on that First Day, God directed the people to build a monument of stones in the middle of the river to help them remember what God had done for them. It not only served as a witness to God’s provision for them in their past, it was also intended to be a lasting monument of God’s faithfulness for future generations.
For you see, First Days are important. They herald new seasons and hint at great accomplishments and pending growth. And none of that, and nothing, is possible apart from God.