hands and promises

This is another reflection to celebrate the 20th anniversary of my ordination.  This one is about the actual event of my ordination.  There are many things I remember about the day.

  • The music!!!!  I was ordained in a Roman Catholic Cathedral.  I didn’t question how it could happen that a bunch of protestants (Lutherans no less!) could use a cathedral for worship (which included using the altar for communion), but our synod did so for a few years.  The building was understandably massive.  The space overwhelming.  Lutherans in the United States generally don’t have such spaces, so it was a bit of a shock to my system.  Not only that, but the building was made for the music.  I can’t tell you the specs of the organ, but it too was massive and the sound was massive and the sound moved through my whole body.  The one word to sum up the space and the music – MASSIVE.  (Enough to be repeated four times in one paragraph!)
  • The congregation.  Lutherans have some big churches, but the vast majority are not “cathedral size.” The congregation gathered on this day filled the cathedral.  The love and support exhibited just by folks’ presence with us was enormous.  And to hear hundreds of people join together in prayer, praying the “Our Father” with that many people was just, well… utterly inspiring and uplifting.
  • The juxtaposition of pride and humility.  I was so proud of getting to this point in my life.  Four years of hard classroom and practical work, plus the earlier years of discerning before seminary.  Searching in theological thought and in my own personal growth had led me to feel rightly proud to be receiving the Church’s blessing. YET… at the same time I was completely humbled by the experience of being blessed by the Church, frightened even.  Afraid that I wasn’t up to the tasks that lay ahead.  Afraid of letting people down.  Afraid of making mistakes.  Afraid of failure.  (All those things I was frightened of?  All of them have happened.  And both the Church, and I, have survived. Proof that the Church is more than me, and that God uses the flawed and sinful to share the gospel!)

But there are two things I remember the most.

The first were the promises that each candidate for ordination must make.  They are both wonderful and fierce, beginning with “Before almighty God, to whom you must give account…”  Gulp.  Humility again. All kinds of promises – promises having to do with Scripture, prayer, Creeds, and Confessions; but also promises about how to lead the people.  Promises about nourishing the people with the Word and Sacraments, how I would go about living my life as a public person, and being a witness to Christ in the world. Weighty promises.  Serious stuff.  Stuff I took (and still take) seriously.  Heavy for sure.  In those moments of promises I literally began to shake as I, along with each other candidate, individually had to respond out loud, “I will, and I ask God to help me.”  Yes Lord, please help me!

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The second thing I remember the most vividly was the laying on of hands.  During the laying on of hands, the candidate is kneeling (and we were “free” kneeling with just a cushion for our knees – no kneelers for support), and the bishop along with several others (visiting bishops, assistant bishops, and the candidate’s sponsors) lay their hands on the candidates head for a blessing.  After the emotional weight of the promises, the physical weight of all those hands on my head was overpowering.  During the laying on of hands I came the closest I’ve ever come to being slain in the Spirit.  I felt weak, like I was going to fall over.  It wasn’t the same as fainting (I’ve done that before and know what that’s like).  This was really different, all my senses were heightened, but my strength was just gone. Luckily I didn’t make a scene and steadied myself.  But I have never forgotten how overcome I felt – kneeling, surrounded, weighed down and prayed for by that group of spiritual leaders.  There are no words really…

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After the laying on of hands each candidate receives a stole as a sign of the pastoral office.  They stand and turn to face the congregation gathered.  The bishop then asks the people to acknowledge the new pastors and pray for them – at that point they are acclaimed to be pastors and there is thunderous applause!  I mean thunderous.  And all the new pastors can do is stand there and take it.  You can’t say, “No really, it’s ok, you can stop now,” or “Please, really, sit down and let’s get on with worship.”  But then you remember they’re not just clapping for you (although family and friends may beg to differ), they’re also clapping for the Church and its ministry, and for the proclamation of the gospel.

Some parts of that day have long faded from my memory, but these things stay with me, because they impact my call to Word and Sacrament ministry even now:  music, people, pride and humility, promises, touching and blessing. This is how we are Jesus, and how we do Jesus, and how we bring Jesus to the world.

Soli Deo Gloria.

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