Friday, April 3, 2009

Holy Hands

I’ve always believed that ministers were held to a higher ethical standard than others, even other Christians. Part of my stubborn belief in biblical authority, I suppose. It was James who said: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brothers, knowing that you will receive a greater judgment” (my translation). I figure I’ve done enough to tick off the Almighty; I don’t want to exacerbate my situation on Judgment Day with ministerial misconduct.

Mostly, it’s because I had holy hands laid on me on a Sunday night long ago (1972) in a little church in South Florida. They filed by, put their hands on my shoulders, and whispered words in my ear that haunt me and harass me and help me remember both who and Whose I am. In the Catholic Church, candidates for both the diaconate and priesthood prostrate themselves (lie face down before the altar) at ordination during the litany of the saints. It has primary meanings of total submission to God, unworthiness for the office, and utter dependence on God to keep one's vows inviolate. Baptists think prostration is something you have removed when it gets diseased. Too bad. We could probably learn a lot both about the ministry and ourselves with our mugs in the muck.

I’m not saying I’m perfect, mind you. I’m not. Ask Cheryl. She’ll say: “How much time you got?” I am saying that I’ve always tried to conduct myself with integrity so as not to bring dishonor to my vocation and shame to my colleagues. As a result, I’ve made some decisions through the years that were not politically correct or professionally expedient but which were necessitated by integrity, if you still believe in that kind of thing. I do. I told the truth once when everybody else around me at an institution where I worked was either lying or ducking for cover; and when it became clear that self-interest trumped integrity, I resigned and left. I’ve never regretted that decision, but I have to confess to a profound disappointment in the fact that many of those ducking and lying had had, like me, holy hands laid on them at some point in their lives.

I know it sounds so “last year” actually to believe that ordination means something; that when we take vows and make promises we are expected to keep them. I know in this day of “convenient truths” and “relative ethics,” even for ministers, the notion of being called and “set apart” to a life “worthy of the calling with which you were called” seems passé and arcane. But then I remember the holy hands, and I cannot put on and take off my integrity like a winter jacket on a summer day just because somebody turned the page on the calendar.

That’s why, I guess, I’m still surprised (I hope I always will be) when a student studying for ministry cheats or lies or sacrifices their integrity on the altar of a passing grade. I still recall the student who telephoned me one day to tell me that he would have to miss my midterm due to his grandmother’s sudden, life-threatening illness. He hoped, he went on to say, that, given the extenuating circumstances, he wouldn’t be penalized. I assured him that he wouldn’t. A week or so later, I passed him in the hall and asked, “How’s your grandmother?” He looked confused. I said: “She was sick; near death I recall.” He flushed and managed an embarrassed: “Uh…she’s better now. Thanks for asking.” As I walked away reflecting on the exchange, I was more disappointed…hurt really…than angry, and I couldn’t help thinking: “I wonder if the people at the church where he’s pastor, who laid holy hands on him, knew he was capable of this?”

More than anything else, that’s what keeps my darker side in check and my integrity intact. I can’t escape them. I don't remember their names anymore; I can't see their faces any longer; but I still feel the weight of their hands on my shoulders. Dear God I pray I always do.

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