THE MOST IMPORTANT THING I LEARNED IN SEMINARY
By R. Joseph Owles
The most important thing I learned in seminary was not a particular doctrine, or any particular point of scholarship. It was not even learning Greek and Hebrew so that the Bible could be better understood by using the original languages. These were all important, and I am now grateful that these thing were required to graduate; although, at the time, my gratitude may have been lacking. I have since come to respect just how important these things are, and how important they were to learn while in seminary. Yet, as important as they were, and still are, they were not the most important thing I learned in seminary. The most important thing I learned in seminary, I learned from a handshake.
It was in May of 1995. I had just completed my first year of seminary and was spending my summer engaged in what is called “Clinical Pastoral Education” at the University of Louisville Hospital. I was assigned the Oncology ward as the primary location for my pastoral duties in the hospital–mostly being with patients receiving Chemotherapy, and of course, being with the nurses and staff who administered Chemotherapy. Technically, each of us were responsible for covering the entire hospital, but we each had a section of the hospital to which we were assigned and spent most of our time.
The first day I arrived on the Oncology ward, one of the nurses took me around and introduced me to “the regulars.” I do not remember a single person to whom she introduced me–except one. In the middle of our round of introductions, she introduced me to a very young man–younger than I was at the time and I was only 26 years old. After she introduced us, I instinctively stretched out my arm, taking the man’s hand in mine, shaking it politely. We exchanged some pleasant small talk. Then we moved on to the next bed. As we were moving along, before we got to the next bed, the nurse said to me, “Do you know what you just did?”
I was suddenly horrified. I thought I had broken some rule or unintentionally insulted the young man I just met. I told her that I didn’t know what I did, and asked if I did something wrong. She said, “You touched him.”
“Was that wrong?” I asked.
“Not at all. But he has full blown AIDS. Nobody touches him. Nobody is ALLOWED to touch him. When we touch him, we have to wear gloves. It’s been months since anyone just touched him with bare hands. You have no idea how much that meant to him.”
She was right. I had no idea. I still don’t, quite frankly. But I do know that even though it was unintentional, it was powerful. I would love to tell the story in a way in which I knew his condition and bravely thrust my hand into his, but it was an accident. I had no idea. If the truth were told, I probably would have been afraid to touch him had I known. Thank God I did not know because that handshake taught me more about ministry than all the books I read, lectures I heard, sermons I listened to in all the worship services, during the entire time I was in seminary.
I eventually earned two Masters degrees at that seminary. I learned a lot of stuff. But what I learned about ministry, I learned from a handshake on the Oncology ward on an uneventful morning in the Spring of 1995. I learned that my role in ministry is to reach out and touch people, especially those who are deemed “untouchable.”
I think of this young man every time I hear and read about Jesus interacting with lepers in the Gospels. Lepers were literally the untouchable people in Jesus’s day. Worse than just suffering from an illness, the lepers were treated in a way that cut them off from society and human interaction. They were not only feared as potential carriers of a disease, they were unclean, and ran the risk of contaminating others with their ceremonial uncleanness.
We lose a large part of the healing stories in the Gospels if we think they are just about sick people getting well. The stories of healing are not just about sick people getting well, they are about a person who is cut off from everything being reconnected. They are stories about people being restored to full humanity.
Perhaps we like the illness aspect in our time because we do not generally think in terms becoming “unclean.” We do spend a lot of our time and energy thinking about illness. Illness is the one thing that can still scare us. We have learned so much, conquered so much, tamed so much of nature, but we are still at the mercy of infectious critters that we cannot even see. Illness terrifies us. Watch the news! Illness is all over the broadcasts. There’s Avian Flu, Anthrax, Small Pox, flesh eating bacteria. When I was a kid, AIDS was all over the news. I even remember a panic over something called Swine Flu when I was really young, and then it came back a few years ago. The leading cause of death in the United States is Heart Disease–an illness. The second is Cancer–a variety of illnesses. The third is stroke and cerebral events. The fourth is Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases. The fifth leading cause of death for Americans are Unintentional Injuries caused by Accidents. So out of the top five leading causes of death for Americans, the top four are illness or medical conditions. So when we hear a story of a leper coming to Jesus, we think that it is merely a story about a cure and we move on. That is what we want it to be about because that is what scares us. So we apply the story to our lives by saying something like, “Isn’t it great that Jesus has power over illness; maybe if I get sick, he’ll heal me too.”
Lepers were more than just sick. They were required to live alone and to maintain a distance of fifty paces from all other people. If the leper touched another person, that person was unclean until examined by a priest who would declare him clean. The leper was unable to work, was forced to wear torn clothes, was forced to beg for food and the most basic needs for survival. He was feared because of his condition. He could not attend any form of worship service. He could not attend any type of community function. He had to yell out, “Unclean! Unclean!” as he walked, so that nobody would get close enough to him to be contaminated. The leper was cut off from everything and everyone.
We meet one leper in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, who “came up to Jesus [on his knees], begging him, saying things like, “You can make me clean if it’s what you want” (my translation). It is significant that he did not say to Jesus, “You can heal me if it’s what you want.” He said, “You can make me clean.” The leper is not focused on getting well, the leper is focused on getting clean. The leper wants to be restored to normal life. The leper wants to get a job, provide for his family, stop begging, put on some nice clothes, and go to church, maybe even go to a company picnic, or see a ball game. Of course this means that the illness must be cured for this to occur, but the leper is focused on quality of life, not mere existence. He’s not asking Jesus for a cure; he’s asking Jesus for a life. He went to the one who said, “I have come so that they may have life, and life more abundant” and told him that he would like to have some of that abundant life.
How did Jesus respond? He stretched out his hand and touched the untouchable man. The man who was not supposed to be touched under any circumstance, was touched by Jesus, not metaphorically touched, but literally touched. Jesus makes himself unclean to make the unclean man clean. To me that says it all. Jesus risks his own cleanliness to make someone who is unclean, clean. Because for Christ, no one is unclean.
So that leper, touched by Jesus, must have felt much of what that young man felt as I shook his hand. People, who were in actuality more dangerous to the man with AIDS than he was to them, were terrified of him. And he became untouchable–cut off from everyday life and cut off from everyday relationships. He was seen as a risk to health and life, and even if people didn’t actually believe that he was morally bad for having AIDS, they still treated him that way. He was the leper of his time.
Lepers haven’t gone anywhere. There are still plenty of them around. Our society is filled with lepers, not sick people per se, but people who have been cut off and feel isolated, alone, spiritually and emotionally impoverished, who are untouchable. Elderly people sit in nursing homes, begging for someone to visit them. Homeless people lie in train stations and on street corners, begging for someone to acknowledge them as human beings. People with a variety of mental illnesses are shuffled off where the rest of us don’t have to look at them. The world is filled with people who are crying out for help, but don’t know how to ask for it: The alcoholic who wants to stop drinking, but doesn’t know how; the convict who wants to go straight, but doesn’t know how to survive by playing by the rules–and for that matter, doesn’t even know what the rules are; the chronically depressed who want to live a normal, happy life, but who doesn’t even know how to find the strength to get out of bed. There are lepers all around me. I am surrounded by people who are cut off, who are isolated, who are alone. It is my calling, not as a priest, not even as a Christian (though this is what we are all called by Christ to do), but as a human being, to reach out to them and touch them, reminding them that they are human beings as well. It is my duty to reach out to them, to find ways to touch their lives, and not worry about maintaining my own cleanliness. The only way I can help is by putting myself in a position to get dirty, to risk becoming unclean in the eyes of others, even the religious.
There are plenty of people in and out of the church who are better than I am at maintaining their own sense of purity. They seem to know who is “clean” and who is “unclean.” They pronounce judgments on the unclean and murmur when they dare to show up in their churches–even though showing up and getting clean is what they are told to do by those in the churches. But I cannot think of a single time when Jesus pronounces a single person unclean–and it is not as if he didn’t have plenty of opportunity. He tended to hang around with the people who would be easy to pronounce “unclean” if he really wanted to. But he never does. No one is unclean to Jesus–no one! Therefore, no one is unclean to me–no one! Because Jesus’ cleanliness is more contagious than anyone’s uncleanliness. Those who seem to be on the wrong side of God in the Gospels call people unclean, but they do nothing to make them clean. Jesus reaches out and touches them and makes them clean. Jesus is the priest that I am supposed to model, not the ones in the Bible who determine who is worthy and who is not.
I am not perfect, just ask anyone I know. My ministry is not perfect. I make mistakes. I forget things I should know. What I have learned, however, is that in my ministry, it is permissible for me to draw a blank on biblical names, forget a part of a prayer, and allow some of the scholarship to fade from time to time, but it is NEVER acceptable for me not to reach out and touch someone who desperately needs to be touched. This is the lesson I learned all those years ago in seminary. This is the lesson I learned from a simple handshake. It was the most important thing I learned in seminary, and the one thing I hope I never forget.
The Very Reverend Father R. Joseph Owles is a priest in the North American Old Catholic Church. (Link NAOCC to http://www.naoldcatholic.com/about/) He serves the church as The Theologian to the Presiding Bishop. He is also the founder of the Kingdom of God Catholic Church (link KoGCC to http://kogcc.net) providing traditional, pastoral services to those who may not have access to a pastor or church ministry throughout Southern New Jersey to whomever is in need of ministry, regardless of affiliation, or lack thereof; regardless of economic condition; regardless of circumstance.