Hands

This weekend was an anniversary of sorts. Each September 22 marks another year of  my ordained ministry; 27 years and counting at this point.  I reflected on that event and wrote this piece which I shared with some others who were just beginning their journey.

Men’s hands, women’s hands, left hands, right hands—I do not know the number and never will. My eyes are closed as I kneel on the rock floor of this little church building being touched by dozens of people I barely know. I am being ordained to the gospel ministry. I am being symbolically handled by these people, who were mostly strangers to me to be honest. The Laying on of Hands is as ancient as life itself. I am receiving what countless others have experienced before.

When we come into this life we are handled by doctors and nurses and perhaps midwives. We are passed around by family members who all want to hold us and touch our little hands that grasp instinctively but without any knowledge of what we have hold of or who has hold of us. Being held is comforting and necessary for us as infants. The hands of others are attending to our needs and doing the very things that will keep us alive.

We gradually learn that our hands are what enable us to manipulate things in our external world. A child will learn that a hand can take an object and throw it to the floor. Another set of hands will pick it up and return it to us and the game will be played again and again. Those little hands are now making things happen in this life and it fascinates us to no end. If I can do this, then what else might I make happen…

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We will learn to grasp and throw, to hold and let go. We will learn to draw and write, to fingerpaint. We will perhaps play ball or piano or guitar, or even the pipes! We will shake hands with others. We will hold hands with friends and dear ones. We will feed ourselves and brush our teeth. We will learn to type on a keyboard or tie knots in a piece of rope. Our hands will become one of the most intense ways in which we deal with the world in which we find ourselves.

All these hands upon me have gone through all of that. They too have learned to live life. They have worked for a living and to provide for others; they have cared for loved ones who were infirm or dying; they have cooked Sunday dinners for family; they have dug the graves of their neighbors; they have raised a harvest and reared children; they have been folded in prayer; they have been fisted in frustration at life’s twists; they have opened their Bibles; they have held up hymnals to sing together; they have done more living than I will ever know or appreciate. And now they are laid on me. In this moment I am the one who is being touched.

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But those gathered in this room at this moment are not the first. God laid a hand on me long before this moment. God with tender care and infinite wisdom laid a hand on me to guide me in this direction. In more times and ways than I will ever be able to grasp God has had a hand in my life—closing doors and opening others, pointing this way rather than that, pushing me when it was needed, restraining me when I would have launched head-first into disasters of my own making. I would not have arrived at this moment of life—indeed, I would not be alive at all, I suspect—had God’s Hand not been active. While I could never see it clearly, it seems obvious in retrospect that the Hand of God was moving all along the way. The hands that touch me now are symbolic of the Hand that was holding mine.

In a way all these hands are also now pushing me away—setting me aside for something other than a normal life. There is a sense in which I will be kept at arm’s distance from the very ones who are so close right now. To be ordained means that my hands and my life’s work will now be distinct from the common tasks that these hands do so often. They will hope that I am able and willing to put my hand to the plow and not look back, but they will also hope that I am able to work with them in those common tasks and thereby prove that I am a ‘regular guy,’ a ‘normal person,’ someone who is ‘down to earth.’ But in those moments when life seems to be getting out of hand, they will expect me to somehow know how to handle it with them and for them. Having been conferred with the blessing means that I am in some sense now ‘special.’

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Yet these hands that touch me now will also want a great deal of intimacy with my life. These are the hands that I will hold when they experience the wonder of new birth. I will hold and baptize their babies. I will hug and help their children. I will teach them hand motions that tell the story of God’s love.

These are the hands that I will hold when I pray with them as they lay in a hospital bed uneasy and unsure of what is coming next. I will try to uphold them and encourage them as they recover from life’s ills and ailments. I will embrace them when they hear words like ‘cancer’ and ‘terminal.’

These are the hands that I will hold when their loved ones have died and entered into the life that is beyond this life. They will reach out and grab my hands as if there is some kind of hope that can only be found in the touch of someone they believe to be closer to God. There will be moments of desperation in which they cling to me as if I had the power of life and death within my grasp.

These are the hands that will help hold me up when I myself am down. They will bring gifts of caring and leave them on my doorstep. They will write notes of encouragement and appreciation. They will bake delicious food and offer it as if it were a sacrament to my soul—a casserole might become communion with enough care.

These are the hands that will wave to me when we pass on the road or am walking down the street. These are the hands that I will shake in greeting and friendship.

Perhaps some of these hands will be the ones who usher me through life’s final transition. They may tend to my needs when I am unable to lift or use my own hands. God only knows.

Whatever your hand finds to do—do it heartily as unto the Lord. All those words and all these hands are pushing me now in this direction. In the moment when I receive the Laying on of Hands there is a mystery of presence and power; I will never know who actually had a hand on me; and yet, I know whose hand is behind it all. It is that hand I will hold from now on. I will hold on tight. Yet I will be held even more tightly than I realize.

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