New York Diarist: Into Your Hands

(I wrote this in December, 2010)

Four long years had passed since I last visited New York, and it seemed at times as though my once-frequent trips out there had become a thing of the past. But a friend of long duration, with whom I had walked and talked through the interminable ELCA ordination process, was going to be ordained in Floral Park on Long Island, and it was imperative that I go. Never mind that it was winter, never mind that the ordination was at 2 p.m. on a Saturday and I was set to preach and preside at communion on Sunday. I am no ordination junkie, but this one could not be missed if I could at all help it.

So I left Midway at 7:55 a.m. on Friday, red stole and iPad in tow. Sleep beckoned, but John the Baptist beckoned more insistently, and I got a good deal of drafting done over America’s industrial heartland. It had been eight years since I last passed through LaGuardia, but the M60 was still right there to take me toward the subway. It’s such a quick trip at this point that I no longer begrudge Robert Moses for not extending the N/Q line all the way to the airport, however much wiser Chicago has been in linking its airports to the city.

On the train, I checked the map and saw that it entered Manhattan at 59th and Lexington. I remembered St. Peter’s Lutheran Church being near there, so I alighted onto a busy and church-less Lexington Avenue for the daily noon mass. A few blocks south I ran into it. The pastor noted that he and I would constitute quorum. As it happened, we were abundant with mid-day worshipers. Three of us heard a proper sermon (on the relationship between disappointment and promise) and we all gathered to share the elements, the body and blood of the Lord, in the midst of the bustle of an oblivious city. Intimate daily gatherings of this sort were a big part of my piety in years past. I miss them. They both signify and enact the image of the church as a saving remnant, a holy mystery that deifies a dying world through unending praise and self-giving service. As I left, I introduced myself and my business. The pastor celebrating the service said that he was a supervisor for one of the ordinands at the next day’s ceremony. The small world of urban Lutheranism is delightful.

Shortly thereafter I met my brother near Penn Station. We wandered south toward an overcrowded McSorley’s, ending up at a place I’d never been called Jimmy’s No. 43. Anyone reading this who drinks beer and has reasonable access to 7th Street in Manhattan should really go there. A passing herd asked if there was a sports bar nearby, which neither of us could answer. But really, why? I love sports as much as the next guy, but splendid American pale ales are better by far.

We ended up at the Met as guests of the Belgian American Education Foundation, a wonderful institution and a testament to Herbert Hoover’s heroic pre-presidential career. The curator of European painting talked us through the highlights of the exhibit of the work of Jan Gossart, a 16th c. luminary. The detail was fascinating and minute. What, one wonders, would the long-dead magister have thought of seeing a hand he painted represented on a digital screen in a metropolis yet unborn at the time of his death? Fortunate, and bewildered, one hopes. As the crowd went upstairs for the Gossart exhibit, I pulled my brother aside for a look at Brueghel’s The Harvesters–Polk County made heroic! And the great Caravaggio Denial of St. Peter, containing such immense psychological insight in a furrowed brow, downcast eyes, and in-turned hands.

The next day found us back at Penn Station, boarding a Long Island Railroad train for Floral Park. A too-leisurely lunch and a too-brisk walk later, we were at St. Paul’s International Lutheran Church. I greeted my friend, heaved on a borrowed alb, put on my own red stole, and got in the procession. Whether it was negligence or just hazing the out-of-towner, I was put at the head of the clergy. I’m pretty sure I screwed it up, which might well have heartened my somewhat pietistically-inclined friend if he’d known.

The Metropolitan New York Synod is headed by Bishop Robert Rimbo, who preached a very good sermon on the texts for the following day (a mercy to those of us who had to preach, though I resisted the temptation to quote at length). My friend was presented for ordination by his father, a Lutheran pastor, and is the descendant on his mother’s side of a very long line of Lutheran pastors. He knelt alongside another Caucasian man, an African-American woman, and a Latino man. The clergy present crowded the chancel for the laying-on of hands. It was a big enough crowd that I had to settle for being one or two degrees removed from the ordinands, but when the bishop came to John, I wedged in and got a hand on his shoulder as the gifts of the Spirit were prayed down on him for his particular tasks.

There is undoubtedly an element of the superstitious in this. I am a relatively catholic Lutheran, and I still don’t have a good idea of why we borrow a sign from the age of magic to set apart a minister of the Gospel. Did the bishop’s hand, or mine, or all the others, convey the Holy Spirit to my friend? Is there anything in me that passed into him? I would be hesitant to say so. But I have handled the holy things, I have baptized (though only in the last month), I have given pardon and blessing through the imposition of my hands. Truly, it is the greatest of privileges to do so. But bakers and mechanics use their hands each day, and we don’t make new bakers or mechanics by placing them under the hands of older practitioners.

So I don’t really know what happens, if that’s even the right word, in the laying-on of hands. But I did it, as I once received it, with full and devout reverence. Someone full of prayer and experience and charity and hope for me and my ministry laid their hands on me, and on them many hands bearing so many more prayers and so much more experience laid their hands. By degrees the whole beating heart of the world is represented, dead hands upon dead hands upon dead hands, time out of mind, carrying their fervent prayers, hours of dread, and puzzled perseverance down to our own hands in our own time. That, my friends, is awesome.

In my anxiety I had requested a cab for ten minutes after the scheduled end of the service. Before ‘Go in peace,’ I had thrown off the borrowed alb, stuffed the stole back into my bag, waved vainly at John and family, embraced my dear brother and headed back to LaGuardia and Chicago. Saturday’s snow was done falling when I landed, full of words for my own little cell in this heaving, changing, ever-reborn Body.

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