Oh be careful little hands what you do

It's amazing how Sunday school songs can stick with people for the rest of their lives.

"Oh be careful little hands what you do! Oh be careful little hands what you do," sang social activist Tony Campolo, as he led a recent Milligan College (Tenn.) chapel audience in the hand motions that children have learned for generations. "God is up above. He is looking down in love. So be careful little hands what you do."

This song may sound silly, but it's not.

"That song! That song ruined my dating life," shouted Campolo. "You know, I'd be out there in a car and just when I'm ready to make the move, this voice from heaven says, 'Be careful little hands, what you do.' "

This kind of slapstick sermonizing always brings howls of laughter, especially on college campuses. The 64-year-old storyteller delivers more than 400 sermons and lectures a year and few people are better at making students laugh, think and cry at the same time. But he also wants to inspire tough questions.

Campolo has heard one question more than any other, ever since the Labor Day call from the White House asking him to serve as one of President Bill Clinton's three pastoral counselors. The question could be phrased this way: Has he sung "Oh be careful little hands what you do" recently in the Oval Office?

"Everybody wants to know what I say to the president and what the president says to me," said Campolo, who is both an ordained Baptist minister and a sociology professor at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pa. However, he has honored the confidentiality of this relationship, because "I don't think that you can talk about the president and to the president at the same time."

In the pulpit, Campolo's thundering voice and hot emotions often threaten the volume needles on tape recorders. He has admitted that the president often endsup shouting back at him, even though Campolo is an outspoken Democrat and a sworn foe of the Religious Right.

While the preacher won't discuss these sessions with the press, his sermons frequently address issues that are at the heart of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. At Milligan College, for example, he noted that many believers forget that it's "quite possible to be forgiven and not to be cleansed." Many also forget that, when they wallow in their sins, they bring pain to God.

Christianity teaches that Jesus is truly divine and that his life and ministry - such as his sacrifice on the cross -- transcend human time. Thus, Jesus is constantly carrying the sins of the world and of individual sinners. During a visit to another campus, Campolo said he met a young man who was a perfect example of those who fail to take this doctrine seriously.

"He said, 'Yeah, I do a lot of things that are wrong, you know, a lot of stuff sexually. I'm really into it. But, you know, I believe it's all taken care of on Calvary,' " said Campolo. "I was furious. I said, 'The next time you're screwing around, I hope you can hear Jesus screaming in pain! Because at that very moment, as he hangs on Calvary, he feels your sin and is absorbing it!' "

It's normal to hear preachers use this kind of language. But during the past year, it has become common to hear the likes of Geraldo Rivera and Larry King leading discussions of sin and grace, repentance and forgiveness. While this has been a troubling experience for many people, Campolo believes it has been good for the country.

For one thing, people on both sides of the political aisle are being forced to seek common ground on moral issues.

"All of a sudden we realize that no one sins to himself," said Campolo. "When you commit a sinful act, it has a rippling effect that goes around the world and back. We recognize that there is no such thing as private sin, anymore. It's all connected. And what is more, we have this sense now that there are a set of absolutes out there. There is a right. There is a wrong."