So I was very close to ordination. I was delighted to be ordained a deacon, which is the last step between, before becoming a priest. But then it all fell apart. ~ Thomas Keneally
Unlike Mr. Keneally’s experience, in my case it all seems to have fallen together.
Sunday, October 21, 2012. I, along with five other ordinands, sat at the front of the sanctuary for the service of ordination as deacons of the church. Looking out over the congregation, I couldn’t help but wonder how this had happened. I couldn’t help but marvel at the amazing, sometimes frightening, sequence of events that brought me to this place and this time.
- Ordination: the process by which individuals are consecrated, that is, set apart as clergy to perform various religious rites and ceremonies.
- Ordinand: a candidate for ordination.
- Benjamin Eakin: always considered a highly unlikely candidate for ordination.
I tend not to see myself in a very good light. Perhaps that’s been obvious at times. In fact, left to my own devices, I see myself as something less than worthy of notice. The roots for that go back a very long time and I won’t go into them again here. Suffice it to say I am not my biggest fan.
As I’ve said before, I stood before a congregation a few years ago to join my first church in forty years. Standing there, my thought had been, “I wish I could see myself the way these people seem to see me.” It had been only four months since first setting foot in church again and there I was joining that church. It was the beginning of a process toward changing my view of myself.
To give credit where credit is due, though, I have to admit the sequence of events began much farther back than those four years. In fact, odd as it sounds, I suppose the sequence had already begun by the time I walked away from church at age seventeen. What followed was a largely dark period of thirty-three years where much of what I might have recognized as me disappeared behind a blur of alcohol. Fighting my way back, though, finally began in earnest at age fifty with the struggle to get sober. I was to find that more of me survived than I might have suspected.
So, let’s just say the semi-conscious journey to those chairs down front began in 2003. With most things, I am nothing if not a slow learner and a fast forgetter. More than that, though, I had to fight my way through a lot of anger that was preventing me from even beginning to consider looking at what I’d come to believe about myself and the world over the years.
I’d always considered myself to be open and accepting of the world at large. It’s very uncomfortable to realize that’s not precisely the truth. I’m not saying there wasn’t a part of me that was open and accepting, I’m saying that part of me had been buried beneath a series of masks designed to protect me from the world. The problem with that approach is, once you circle the wagons, you find it affords very little protection. Instead, what you end up with is isolation. While that may seem safe at first, the result is a continually smaller world. Once the process starts, it becomes easier to continually tighten the circle. I ended up with my wagon mired in a tiny world where there was no feeling of protection at all.
I think what I saw when I first returned to church was something of a surprise to me. Without meaning to, I noticed there were loving, caring people there. These people weren’t at all the self-righteous, judging people I expected. Of course, I reserved the right at first to change my mind as soon as their true colors began to show. Usually, when I’m suspicious of something, I’m able to confirm my suspicions soon enough – even if that something isn’t really there. Self-fulfilling prophecies tend to work that way. Despite my tentative, suspicious view of the people I met at church, I found I was gradually accepting that my long-held stereotype of haughty, got-my-ticket-punched church folk was, at best, exaggerated.
Change is rarely ever pretty, almost always uncomfortable. Letting go of my negative feelings about church people has taken a while. It helps, though, when you are surrounded by people who seem to genuinely care about the world around them. The fact they are also human tends not to get in the way nearly so much. It’s largely a change of perspective. When I stop focusing on what I consider the negatives about people, I’m able to see that spark of the divine I believe exists in us all. If I’m ever able to forgive you for being human, I may find a way to forgive myself, also.
When I found out I was to be ordained as a deacon, I told an old friend I hoped to have a ring for him to kiss by the time he got back from vacation. He replied, “Ben, my father was a deacon in the Baptist Church for many years. There is no ring. I do, however, still remember the secret handshake.” Even deacons, I think, should surround themselves with smart-alecs. It keeps you humble – and laughing. My friend, Judy P., said Tom might want to start calling me “Your Eminence.” Tom thought perhaps not. Instead, he said he was afraid I was now forever going to be known as Deacon Eek-in. I’m pretty sure he’s right.
In case you’re not aware, my last name is pronounced “Akin” but spelled “Eakin.” The “E” is silent. Rather, I should say the “E” is supposed to be silent. I’ve spent a lifetime correcting people: “No, the E is silent.” I don’t much correct folks anymore. Somehow it’s just not particularly important these days.
So, Deacon Eek-in it is, I suppose. Either way you say it, God will know who you’re talking about. With help, I hope what he hears you say about me is good. At the very least, God will know whether or not you’re right.
When I was growing up, it seems I never walked from Sunday School to worship without looking over to see some of the deacons smoking in the alley. Despite some apprehension I had about that, I have been assured smoking is not actually a requirement for being a deacon. Somehow, that’s a comfort.
Back to ordination. Each of the six ordinands were to take part in the service in one way or another. I was to lead the invocation at the beginning of the service so walked out behind the pastor, music director, and two of the other ordinands. Up onto the dais we went. I and another of the ordinands sat down in the chairs on the left. Looking around, I realized everyone else up there was still standing. The music director wouldn’t motion everyone to sit until the entire choir was in place. Too late. It was going to look even more odd for me to stand again. I must point out, though, that I only sat down because the ordinand next to me sat down first. It was one of those monkey-see, monkey-do things. My very first faux pas as an almost deacon. Ah, well, it will surely not be the last.
I love to manufacture problems. Pretty early on in my new church career, I became aware of deacons again. Looking ahead, I knew there was at least a tiny chance someone might eventually ask me to serve. The plan I hatched in my head was that if I moved my church membership often enough, I could ensure a deaconship could never happen. By the time I was asked if I’d serve, I knew I didn’t want to go elsewhere. As I’ve said, things had changed. When a friend asked me at the end of August if I’d serve if she nominated me, I can’t express the honor I felt simply from being asked.
I had to fast-forward through the DVD of the ordination service to find out when the six of us actually became deacons. The service was largely a blur to me. But, there came that moment when it was declared from the pulpit that we were deacons. I don’t think I felt any different at that moment than I had the moment before. That would come shortly in the laying on of hands ceremony.
The six of us – new deacons – moved to the front of the sanctuary to sit in chairs facing the congregation. Slowly, the congregation became a sea of individuals moving past us. They leaned over to offer congratulations, perhaps a prayer. I don’t remember much of what was said. I mostly remember how I felt. The tears started immediately as the pastor leaned down to me first. The tears continued until the end. Viewing the DVD, I realized that, from the vantage point of the balcony, this ceremony was very much like watching grass grow.
From the perspective of one who sat in those chairs down front, however, it seemed the world had shifted just a bit on its axis. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with admitting the ceremony made me feel special – if only for a little while. You see, time had passed since that thought of “I wish I could see myself a little the way these people seem to see me.” I now realized that I was beginning to see what they saw. Very gradually, I’ve begun to forgive myself for being human. I’ve begun to accept that there’s at least a small part of me that wants to serve others. Perhaps I’ve done that in some ways for a very long time. The difference now is that I see I may really have not had an ulterior motive behind every move I’ve made over the years. Part of that is simply who Ben is, no matter how I may have tried to deny it.
So, now the real work begins. In so many ways, I really have just fallen off the turnip truck. Thankfully, I have no idea yet what that work is to be. I’d hate to scare myself more than I do normally. Next Sunday will be my first deacon meeting. In my church, deacons serve three-year terms. As I understand it, I became a deacon on October 21. My term as an active deacon, however, didn’t start until November 1. So, in a way, each of the two preceding weeks could serve as week one for Deacon Eek-in.
What’s ahead I can only guess. I know the deacons go to camp together once a year. Oh, sure, they call is a retreat but I know that’s just a grown-up word for camp. I’ve already begun writing my name inside my underwear. There’s just so much to learn — so much preparation.
All jokes aside, I have been given a gift I never expected to receive. Two congregations have played a part in helping move me from that deer-in-the-headlights guy at the front of one church to that grateful-to-God guy at the front of another. Through the eyes of each one of those people, I believe, God looked out and smiled at me.
It’s amazing what a smile can do.