I was ordained to the Christian ministry on this day in 1975 at the Newton Highlands Congregational Church in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts, by the Metropolitan Boston Association of the United Church of Christ. Dudne Breeze, the pastor, preached the sermon, and a good one it was. Jerry Handspicker, my teacher at Andover Newton Theological School and the associate pastor, offered the ordaining prayer, which asked God to endow me with all manner of things for my ministry, and he seemed in deadly earnest. After thirty-four years I now understand why. Jerry, ironically, also presided at the service of thanksgiving for my ministry when I retired five years ago, so he book-ended my three decades of active ministry. We sang “Holy, holy, holy,” and “Be Thou My Vision.” My then girlfriend, now wife, Martha, made me a handsome set of liturgical stoles. Good food was served. There were probably grape leaves.
There were no tongues of fire or other obvious signs and wonders, although the whole event was wondrous to me, and when the clergy laid their hands on me I felt an enormous weight, a feeling about ordination that has never entirely left me.
I got to my first parish in rural Maine and realized soon enough that I didn’t know what I was doing, and that feeling has never entirely left me either. My first congregations (I had two) taught me how to be a minister every bit as much as seminary, and I will always be grateful to them. God blessed me throughout my ministry with wonderful saints of the church who encouraged and sustained me, and put up with me even when I was acting like a damn fool.
Early in my ministry I refused all honoraria, and thereby offended nearly everyone that offered me one. I was shopping for clothes the week before my wedding, and the good Roman Catholic salesman at the haberdashery rang me up with a ten percent clergy discount. I tried to explain all the high-minded reasons I couldn’t accept it and watched his face fall. I called my mentor Fred Robie, the sage of Sanford, who simply said, “My Daddy taught me that when someone gives you something, you say ‘thank you.’” Lesson learned. Would that everything I needed to learn was that simple.
What else did I learn?
- I learned that a wedding rehearsal is the meeting of two clans, and that at any moment violence might break out.
- I learned that a pastor needs a tender heart, but a thick skin.
- I learned that when you are relating to broken people some of their brokenness may get aimed at you. I learned that you aren’t supposed to take this personally, although I invariably did.
- I learned that the faithful aren’t much impressed by the BEM document, especially if you want to move around the furniture in the chancel.
- I learned that for some folks it’s not the height, depth, or breadth of a sermon that is decisive, but its length.
- I learned that exercising discipline around baptism involves water, and lots of it is hot.
- I learned that what I said in the pulpit and what people heard were not necessarily the same.
- I learned that sometimes peoples lives were moved and even changed by what they heard even when it wasn’t what I said.
- I learned to love some difficult people.
- I learned that around pledging time Chicken Little competes with Jesus Christ as head of the church.
- I learned that we clergy preach salvation by grace to the people, but act as if it were by works for us.
- I learned that it is a high privilege to spend time with dying people.
- I learned that struggling with a text all week, and then breaking it open for the congregation on Sunday sometimes felt like the best job in the world. And sometimes it didn’t.
- I learned that God is good all the time.
Like everyone else I had my good days and my bad days. And like any moderately self-aware person who prays I know my failings better than anyone except God (and perhaps Martha). But I learned it really is all about grace. I am proud (in a good way) to have been a minister.