We had an ordination service at our church this evening. There were seven men ordained for service as deacons. Most of them were young, as I was when I became a deacon almost 30 years ago.
Different churches handle the ordination ceremony differently, I’m sure. At our church all the ordained men in the assembly are invited to line up and pray over the new deacons and lay hands on them. Tonight it was my privilege to line up with a large group to pray and lay hands on those making new commitments to serve Christ and the church
To the casual observer, this process must seem strange. It certainly is unusual. The ordination service is the longest and quietest service of the year. It’s a squirmy kid’s worst nightmare. Yet I can tell you from my own experiences, it can be quite meaningful.
On the night of my ordination, about a hundred men lined up to pray over me and others who were also being ordained. I was 31 years old at the time. Many of the men there to participate in the service seemed ancient to me, though they were probably about the age I am now, which is 60.
I think about that night sometimes as a reminder of how old I look to anyone born after 1970. I don’t feel old now, and doubtless most of those men did not feel old then, but they looked ancient to me.
I’m told there was an era in our past when older men and women were held in the highest esteem. Younger men and women sought their counsel. The words of the elderly carried weight. That’s not always true anymore. Even in the church it is more common to celebrate youth and view the older generation with all the enthusiasm of a history final.
Yet there is wisdom to be found and fellowship to be enjoyed with those who might be twice your age, or even older. Some of those who stood in that line to bless me almost 30 years ago taught me great lessons and gave me great encouragement. Memories of those men give me a sense of joy and gratitude.
One of the older deacons in line the night of my ordination was John Stophel. All the gentlemen of Downton Abbey on their very best behavior could not match John in his formality and courtesy. I grew to admire him as the most prepared man, and perhaps the most diligent worker, I ever met. Yet he was never unkind to those like me who were often less prepared and less diligent.
Another in the line was Shelley Bostick. I grew to admire Shelley as the most humble of servants, but also as a man of great resolve and courage. Shelley and his wife Lyda loved children, and they spent countless hours caring for every child that passed through our church doors. After his death I learned that during the troubled 60s, when his Black neighbors were threatened, Shelley went at night and sat in his neighbor’s front yard to confront a carload of racists who wanted to cause trouble. What love and courage!
Bernard Stone was in that line. Bernard was short—almost elf-like in appearance and countenance. He always had a smile and a joke. What I admired most about Bernard, however, was the way he treated his wife Betty. She was even shorter than Bernard and with a bigger smile. The way Bernard and Betty treated each other was something every young married couple should see.
Another in line was Lawrence Bryant. More than 50 years ago our church began to televise its weekly services, and almost from the beginning Lawrence as in the control booth. He knew every inch of wire, every solder and switch. Each week the service went live on time because Lawrence was there to keep the equipment running, a job that could not be done just in an hour on Sundays. Lawrence recruited me to be a director of the broadcast, but he was always in control. Never once did I hear him raise his voice or say an unkind word to anyone on the crew, even when we messed up.
As these men and so many others prayed over me that night in 1983, I experienced something almost otherworldly. With my head bowed and eyes closed, voice after voice successively hovered over me and whispered down, I could not tell who was speaking. Unknown hands touched my head, which began to spin and wobble as if I was in a small boat on large waves.
In the middle of the disorienting chorus of whispers, two firm hands grasped my head and a clear voice came close and said, “Bill, this is Barton, and I want you to know you are very special to me.” Then he prayed.
That was Barton Thigpen, who I met the first week I was a member at church. Barton’s great gift was encouragement, and he was certainly encouraging to me. Of all the men who prayed over me that night, Barton was the only one who made it personal. And frankly, his prayer is the only one I remember.
The Lord works in mysterious ways. About 20 years later I got a call from Darryl Craft, who was at that time our new pastor, the first pastor I ever had who was younger than me. Darryl said, “Barton Thigpen’s had a stroke. I’m going to pick you up and we’ll go see him.” Darryl had never called me to do anything remotely like that before, and he never did after. Why he called me that day—well, as the old people say, “Lord only knows.”
When we arrived at the emergency room the staff let the pastor—and me with him--speed right to the trauma room where Barton was lying on a gurney. Not even the family was there. Darryl spoke words of comfort and prayed over Him. Then Barton looked my way. I held his hand as he struggled to speak. He said, “I love you, Bill.” He died two days later. Those had to be some of the last words he spoke.
Love, diligence, courage, compassion, kindness, faithfulness, encouragement—these are critical elements of the Christian life. I am grateful for older men who showed me these things, modeled these things, taught me with action and not just words.
I’m struck by the reality that I am now the older man, and that there is heavy responsibility that goes with the title. It’s not enough to just speak. It’s not enough to just go through the ceremony. It takes more than a disembodied prayer to pass along a blessing.