When I was in elementary school, I wore the same outfit to church every week.
I think I remember the outfit changing every six months to a year, but it really didn’t change that much from week to week. The shirt, though it was replaced by a larger size occasionally to accommodate the growth spurts, was of the short-sleeve button down collared variety. The pants were a little more diverse depending on when you saw me, though I only really remember two pairs: a pair of straight dark blue slacks, and a pair of light gray cargo pants with Velcro on the pockets.
There was even a designated hanger in my closet, on which the entire church ensemble hung together. There were a few other assorted dress items that hung unused next to the church hanger, including a 5th-grade sized blue blazer, but I only remember being made to wear that once for Christmas Eve. We’d lit the Christ candle on the Advent wreath that year, so it did seem like a big deal to be wearing that blazer. But on most Sundays, I wore my white dress shirt and whatever pair of pants happened to be hanging with it at that point.
I hated dressing up for church, as most males of any age still do. As far as I was concerned, I was being gracious to allow that single outfit to hang in that closet. It was annoying enough to have to slide it out of the way to reach certain toys, but to come to that point every Sunday when I had to pull on my dumb itchy church slacks and my dumb stiff white church shirt and tighten my dumb belt was truly the low point in my week.
Something needs to be explained here before I go much further. I actually didn’t mind the slight chafing of the pants or the way the collar on the shirt rubbed against my neck. What really got on my nerves every time I put on this outfit, what I found more irritating than anything else, was that I knew I needed to stay clean as long as I was in it. There would be less running across the church lawn, there would be less shuffling on my knees across the church carpet, there would be no walking through the dirt or getting sweaty in my shirt.
When in church clothes I had to stay church clean, and that meant a lot less of the kind of activity in which I really wanted to involve myself. Imagine my jealousy of the kids who weren’t made to wear any kind of church outfits, the ones who just showed up in jeans and maybe a nice shirt if their parents had been attentive enough. They ran on the grass, they shuffled across the carpet, they got sweaty jumping around the church basement. And there I was, restrained in what might as well have been an orange jumpsuit, except even guys in orange jumpsuits can still run and jump and lift weights and stuff.
Nowadays, I find myself still reacting to the expectations of dress around the church. However, it’s a very different situation. I don’t react as strongly to the people who may want me to wear the orange jumpsuit. In fact, I don’t really know how much people expect me to do that. No, these days I react more to the others. I react more to the people who think I enjoy the clean, straight-laced image of my position. I react more to the people who think I’d never walk through the dirt, get sweaty, loosen the tie. They’re the same ones who don’t believe it when they find out about my tattoos, who fall over themselves when they hear about my Sopranos obsession, who might rather believe that Coffeewife is pregnant by the Jesus Stork rather than the traditional route (pastors don’t do that, do they?).
I actually harbor quite a lot of frustration these days on this topic. People both inside and outside the church seem to think that they have me all figured out once they find out that I’m a pastor. They see the title, they see the churchy outfit, and that must be all they need to know.
At times, I want to do something that proves them all wrong. I want to get a tattoo on my wrist or my finger, something they can’t miss. I want to wear my Dave Matthews Band shirt to worship. I want to bring people over to the parsonage to see my wine rack. I want to do anything that will get people to see past the outfit; past the idea that I wear the same thing every day, let alone that I love wearing it.
You know what I wonder sometimes, though? I wonder if people want me in that outfit. I wonder if people like me in that special superhuman, super-clean category. For some, I embody some kind of ideal as the Professional Christian, the one who gets it right, the cleanly-dressed perfect example. For others, I embody Everything Wrong With Organized Religion. And never mind the specifics or the way I try to work against the grain or painstakingly try to get others in on that work. I think that for some, I truly am the one to peg as boring, irrelevant, goofy, or pandering. I need to wear the outfit for this group because then I can be the scapegoat, or the punching bag, or the easily dismissed stereotype. I’m the childhood that they could finally abandon, or certainly I’m in lockstep with all the weirdos on the 700 Club.
I hated dressing up for church when I was little, and to tell you the truth I still hate it. But more than that, nowadays I hate others dressing me up. You know what? Let’s run through the dirt together. Buy me a beer and tell me your troubles. Let’s you and me catch a ballgame, play around at Guitar Center, even visit the tattoo parlor. Get me out of this jumpsuit, man. It’s not me, and I think that deep down you already know that or want to believe it. Let me prove it to you. Can you let me down off the pedestal or stop snickering long enough for me to do that?
Maybe I’ll just go ahead and get that wrist tattoo.