Vintage POC: I Want to Preach at General Synod

Beginning Friday is the 28th General Synod of the United Church of Christ. I won't be attending, but thought I'd revisit this post from March 2008.

I want to preach at General Synod.

I preach almost every week, so you know I’ve had a lot of practice.

No, seriously. You should see it. I’ve got a couple shelves of commentaries that I pull out every week, and I study. I turn the text inside out, pull it apart, piece it back together and make new shapes out of it. I ponder the richness of its meaning for a new day and age where people are interested in the new day and age. I relate it. I’m very good at relating. You could say that I’m relatable. I’m a relatable preacher. I take a text and relate it because people like relatability. You should see the amount of relating that I do. This isn’t some dusty, overly poetic stuff…I’m gritty. A gritty kind of relatable. Unless you don’t like gritty. Do you like gritty? Or do you like poetic more? I can do poetic. But rest assured, it’s a relatable poetic.

So let me preach at General Synod. I preach almost every week, so you know I’ve had a lot of practice.

Maybe you’re looking for something more prophetic, something to really bring the masses to their feet in passionate angry appreciation. Maybe you want something that’ll inspire protests and demonstrations and strongly-worded letters and righteous indignation, but most of all something that’ll look good on a DVD.

I’m righteous. I’m indignant. I’d look good on a DVD. Just you watch. I’ll righteously, indignantly cut down the evil empires of our day and age (not someone else’s day and age, mind you, but OUR day and age, the NEW day and age). I’ll cut them down with God’s righteous anger, which happens to be my righteous anger, too. And it’ll be a relatable, poetic and/or gritty righteous anger for our new day and age and not some old has-been day and age.

Go ahead and let me preach at General Synod. I preach almost every week, so you know I’ve had lots and lots of practice.

I know what it is…you want someone who’s well-known. You want someone with a book deal, who speaks at conventions, who has honorary degrees and serves on National or International Councils of Justice and Truth. Well, it just so happens that once had a magazine article published. Yeah, really, I did. With ink. And on shiny paper. I spoke at an 8th-grade assembly once, and one other time I gave a talk to a senior citizens’ group. I serve on a local board that oversees a food pantry. I walk in the Relay for Life. I don’t have an honorary degree, but I have three that I studied for. Plus I’m sure any day now somebody will give me one. It’s just a matter of time. They’ll read my magazine article or watch me walking around that track and be all like, “Hey! That’s our guy!” I’m sure that’s all it’ll take.

Let me preach at General Synod. You know you want to. I preach almost every week and to our day and age, not to some crusty old day and age with horse-drawn wagons and outdoor toilets. You know I’ve had lots of practice.

I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy. Maybe that’ll help. I can have my guy with the phone number for the next guy CALL the next guy, who will in turn look up his number for the next next guy, who subsequently of course will call the aforementioned guy and say, “This guy I know, who knows this other guy, knows this other guy who knows a guy who wants to preach at Synod. He’ll preach to our day and age and get people to write strongly-worded letters and has a magazine article and any day now will have an honorary degree. Okay then, I’ll let him know he’s in!” And that’s all it’ll take because when they hear that I’ll preach to our day and age and not some musty day and age with wooden ships and the Plague, I know they’ll give me a shot.

So get me on the freaking schedule for General Synod, because I preach almost every week and sometimes twice if it’s Christmas Eve, so I’ve had tons and tons of practice.

Okay, fine. They won’t give me a stupid honorary degree. Not many people have really seen my magazine article, but the few that did gave me some very nice compliments. I know a guy…hell, I know a lot of guys. Some of them come to my Bible studies, one plows the parking lot, and another one watches wrestling with me. They know some guys who in turn know some guys, but really all we do is keep up with each others’ lives and sometimes pray and sometimes just talk and laugh.

I don't proclaim justice from the rooftops that often, but I’ve had some honest one-on-one conversations. I’ve never really gotten that righteously indignant, but I’ve hounded people to give more time and energy to Habitat and food delivery and cancer treatment and mental health awareness. I don't run an orphanage or anything like that, but I help people in need when I meet them.

I’ve never even received a standing ovation, not even at that 8th-grade assembly. But some people think that I have a gift. Some have said that through tears of sadness or laughter because something I said actually connected. It doesn’t happen every week or every month. But every once in a while I say the right thing.

You don’t have to let me preach at General Synod. But you have to understand that I’ve had lots of practice with relationships and people’s struggles with health, faith, life, and death, people who’ve been treated to the joy and the disappointment of this day and age. I talk to them a lot, and I often preach to them…almost every Sunday, in fact.

Almost every Sunday, but really almost every day of the week.

So you know I’ve had lots of practice.

Pop Culture Roundup

No books begun yet. No movies and no TV worth mentioning. But it's been a decent week musically, so here are a few songs via Youtube.

First, I downloaded Adele's album 21 this week, which is very good. Here's the song you probably already know, "Rolling in the Deep:"

Weird Al Yankovic's new album Alpocolypse dropped this week. I've heard the whole thing but haven't purchased anything. He does make fun of songs by Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, among others. Here's his parody of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," entitled "Perform this Way."

Finally, I stumbled across an artist named Chilly Gonzales this week, who has a rap album called The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales where the backing tracks are all orchestral. Here's the first track, "Supervillian Music:"

The Next Thing

For the past couple of years, I've been wondering about The Next Thing. By that, I mean that, once Coffeewife graduates from her latest program, what would I do? Once it would be "my turn," so to speak, what sort of education- or career-related change or additional thing would I want to pursue?

As I considered my options, there were a wide variety of possibilities. These included another Masters or even a Doctor of Ministry degree, training in spiritual direction or further Clinical Pastoral Education, or becoming more involved in some justice issue or organization. I thought about all of these for many months, and none of them really stood out to me. In a way, I wanted to do them all, which also meant that I wasn't really committed to doing any of them. So I waited and I prayed and I considered and I weighed pros and cons, and after a while I started think that maybe none of these are really something I want to do right now. After all, who says that I have to take on something when Coffeewife is finished?

But then, at some point as I considered that, the notion of spiritual direction began to rise above the others.

I've taken an increased interest in spiritual practices since my seminary days, during which I was exposed to a wide variety of them. At our opening retreat I walked the labyrinth for the first time and have treasured it as a practice ever since. That first semester, I took a class on spiritual practices and had an opportunity to experience many including Lectio Divina, the Examen, prayer postures, the labyrinth again, and others. My second year I participated in a spirituality group called the Healing Circle, which again exposed me to a wide variety of practices. This is to say nothing of other experiences in both college and seminary including a wide range of worship practices, taking on a 40-hour fast, special practices and abstentions during Lent, occasionally attending a Reform synagogue on Friday evenings, Taize worship, and others. All of these contributed to my appreciation for the breadth of spiritual practices that are available, and an ever-increasing desire for people to experience them; for people to know that there can be so many possibilities for cultivating an awareness of divine presence besides the singular tradition with which many have been familiar for their entire lives.

Becoming certified as a spiritual director seemed to me to be one way to make this desire a reality. For the uninitiated, a spiritual director is one who is trained in a spiritual tradition in order to guide others in discovering God's presence in their daily lives, usually in encouraging people to practice the disciplines in which the SD is trained, but also by asking questions about where and how one has experienced God since the last meeting. One could argue that I already do this as a pastor, but this is a more specialized and intentional way of doing that that includes training in a discipline and more regular meetings than most pastors and parishioners have together, among other differences.

Anyway, I filled out an application the other month, had an interview, and have been accepted into the spiritual direction program at the Ignatian Spirituality Institute at John Carroll University in Cleveland. This program trains people in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. It's a two-year certificate program featuring classwork the first year and a practicum the second. However, it was suggested to me that I wait an extra year to begin the classwork and just experience the Exercises with a spiritual director in the meantime, which every student would have to do in addition to classwork anyway.

I actually liked this suggestion. I think that I'd like to take an extra year and not have these activities on top of each other. To be honest, part of the appeal of this program was its minimal schedule as it relates to how much time it might take away from family and church. To take this extra year and spread out the requirements would, I think, make the schedule more manageable for the Coffeehousehold. I've discovered that I actually don't want to do a full-out academic program such as a Masters or D.Min; I have no desire for that lifestyle at this point in my life. So going through this program at a more leisurely pace is fine with me.

And, of course, at the same time it's my Next Thing. I don't know that I'll even desire any other Next Things after this Thing, at least in terms of formalized study. But wondering about that doesn't even matter right now.

Programming Notes

Hi. I thought I'd give readers a heads-up on a few things. Well, really one main thing and then some other things I tacked on at the end.

I'm thinking about a name change for the blog. I've explained the current name a couple times, but I'm seeing a constant presence of what I presume to be mostly one-time visitors who clearly are looking for a philosophy blog, as in Socrates and Leibniz and did the tree make a sound in the forest and whatever. While the misunderstanding is not major and the inevitable disappointment that these visitors feel is not really my problem, I'm thinking it would just be better if I gave this place a name that is more clear about the content. I have a few ideas, and once I settle on one it'll probably just happen.

I've grown attached to the current name after 6 1/2 years, but changing it makes sense. I may eventually export the whole blog to a new URL, but I wouldn't do that without a lot of advance notice. And I know that blogs change names without warning, but for those of you who've been reading for a while, especially if you have me bookmarked or listed in your own blog's sidebar, giving some warning seems like the courteous thing. Maybe this whole thing is minor or maybe it isn't, but I still want people to be able to find me and know that it's me.

That's really the major thing. Besides that, I've got some posts in the queue about cemeteries, where I am nowadays in the emerging/emergent conversation, and probably something about General Synod. for those.

And as always, thanks for reading.

Pop Culture Roundup

I think it's about time to read Gilead again. That's all I got in terms of books right now.

We saw X-Men: First Class this past week, which gives the origins of the X-Men all the way back to before Professor X and Magneto met (and, of course before they were known by those names). We are given more backstory to Magneto's time in the concentration camp, and the evil character who killed his mother and against whom he seeks revenge through the movie. Xavier (who has hair and can walk), meanwhile, actually took the woman eventually known as Mystique under his wing from a very young age. The seeds of mutant discrimination are planted as the movie goes on, and Mystique and the eventual Beast wrestle with their own self-loathing issues as well. In Mystique's case, it's interesting to see that Xavier actually contributes to those feelings, and yet there is no culminating retaliation. Truthfully, Xavier is a bit of an arrogant jerk, and it's particularly highlighted by these occasional exchanges with her. This was a pretty strong starting point, although some of the details don't mesh with the trilogy from earlier years.

And that's to say nothing of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which we were inspired to see a few nights later. Hints of Wolverine's story were given in those movies, and while they do flesh that out they do it in kind of a bland, typical-action-movie way, along with throwing as many other recognizable mutants into the mix as they can, ultimately mutilating the whole thing. Xavier is paralyzed as a young man in the latest movie, here's Xavier still walking. Emma Frost is the bad guy's confident right hand woman in the latest movie, here she is as a young, scared little girl. That's to say nothing of what I understand is the overall craptastic treatment of Wolverine's story from the comic books, although I'm sure there's at least some of that in every superhero movie. Maybe I shouldn't be comparing the two movies, but I'm sure there's been a lot of that. Overall, this was disappointing and underwhelming.

So, Chris is still employed on NY Ink, even after the last episode ended in a shoving match between him and Ami. In fact, he's part of the opening credits so I guess he's sticking around. I haven't seen the episode that aired last night, so I don't know if it gets worse again, but the second ended with Ami and Chris wrestling in Ami's makeshift basement gym, and this somehow earned Chris some credibility with the rest of the shop even though he got his butt kicked. Meanwhile, somebody will have to enlighten me as to whether this is just the New York thing, but there were parts of the episode where people just decided to yell at each other, particularly the shop managers. Then Chris of all people inserts his two cents about how silly it is that they're arguing and how they should just handle the situation they're yelling about, and they all turn on him and blame him for the shop drama. It was ridiculous. If the drama with Chris is subsiding, we'll still get plenty of it from these other workers, and probably for little to no reason other than their personalities drive them to seek it.

Gordon Atkinson (the artist formerly known as Real Live Preacher) writes a letter to his doubting daughter.

Here are Mumford and Sons performing "Dust Bowl Dance:"

Eight Takeaways from the 2011 Ohio Conference Annual Gathering

This past weekend was the Ohio Conference Annual Gathering, held at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. For the uninitiated, Conferences are large regional judicatories of the United Church of Christ. Many Conferences seemed to have their meetings this same weekend if my Facebook feed is to be believed. Anyway, here's a list of eight notable things about this year's gathering from my perspective:

1. It was my first time back at Heidelberg in a few years, and I loved the chance just to be back on campus. They're working on some great things such as a new dorm and commons that will include an on-campus pub. They also gutted the old cavernous science building and made it into a modern, non-cavernous, technologically-impressive business building. I was also impressed with the cafeteria, which is also more open and whose food seems to no longer suck. However, they have not yet renovated the dorm that I stayed in, and I got a horrible night's sleep. Still, this year being a decade since I graduated, there was something special about this trip for me and I was glad to be back.

2. The size of the gathering saddened me. I've been led to believe that there was a day when Seiberling Gymnasium was packed during plenary; when the bleachers had to be pulled out for people to sit on in addition to the seating on the floor. I have to imagine that at that time the campus was crawling with delegates, clergy, and youth and the place would feel "full." I would hazard a guess that there were maybe 200 people there at the most, and that's probably being generous. For what I believe is still the largest Conference in the UCC, that's definitely not great. But we're in an age where judicatory gatherings don't entice and energize people to come like they used to, and even as I recognize that and even get excited about the possibilities of this moment, it also made me wish to catch a glimpse of those glory days just to see what it was like. If nothing else, it helped me better understand churchpeople who constantly tell of all the things the church used to do but no longer can.

3. Tony Robinson was the keynote speaker at this event; he also led an afternoon-long workshop on Friday. Robinson writes and speaks extensively about revitalizing churches. He came to an Association meeting a few years ago, and it was the first time that I realized and was heartened by the fact that the UCC is talking about this cultural moment and what churches need to do. That said, I didn't hear a whole lot of new stuff. It's good to be reminded, but I didn't feel very invested.

4. In conjunction with that, I didn't feel like doing anything very quickly this weekend. I was late to that workshop, I wandered in and out of it several times, I was late to some of the Saturday stuff. There were stretches when I just wanted to wander around the campus or call Coffeewife or leisurely look at some Heidelberg thing. That isn't really a commentary on the event, I just felt like taking my time with everything and enjoying my physical location.

5. I had a very natural rapport with the current students who helped work the event. We joked around, especially after they discovered that my room was registered under my dad's name. We talked about college stuff such as Greek Life and the renovations. That was a cool thing.

6. I met Luke, he of Associated Luke, while I was there. I think we had a natural rapport as well as we talked about church, music, and Michigan, among other things. He seems to be doing awesome things in his church including coordinating a Pearl Jam worship service. It's always fun when an online acquaintance becomes a real-live one.

7. As mentioned, my room was registered under my dad's name. On top of that, my nametag (which did have the correct name and information about my church on it) said that I'm celebrating 40 years of ordination this year. Of course, it's my dad who is celebrating this milestone. He wasn't registered for this event, and he wasn't even in Ohio at the time, so I don't know what happened there. Nevertheless, I had a good laugh about it with others throughout the weekend. I'd even hoped that they'd have some sort of ordination recognition during plenary, at which point I was fully planning on standing up. Alas.

8. On the way home, I stopped by the cemetery where my college friend Darren was laid to rest. It's on the way, and I do this whenever I take this route. I had a realization while there, looking at the picture of him engraved onto the stone: I'm eight years older than when it happened, but in that picture he'll always be 26. It was quite the revelation in several ways: how long it's been, how much older I am, and how much older he'll never be. It was a sobering moment, to say the least.

So, that was my weekend with the Ohio Conference. A little reflection on church, a little rest and reflection, a little personal enjoyment and reminiscing.

Vestments, Part 3

I've now been wearing a collar on Sunday mornings and on other occasions that I deem appropriate for over a month. I've already shared my experience on a hospital psychiatric unit that solidified my conviction that this was a good idea. Predictably, this addition to my wardrobe invited some questions from church members about it, which I gladly summarized in a recent newsletter article to help people understand. Those reasons are summarized thus:

1. A sign of my role. While scouring the internets looking for reasons why other pastors wear them, a common analogy that I read over and over was that of collar as uniform. Police officers, doctors and nurses, mailmen, military personnel, etc., etc., etc., wear uniforms that clearly designate them in their role. The collar thus is a pastor's uniform. And there are times when one needs to know who the pastor is in the room.
2. The collar is a symbol of servitude. The metaphor is much more abrasive today, but the collar is sometimes called a "dog collar" or is taken to symbolize slavery to Christ. Whether those particular metaphors are used, it remains that the collar symbolizes servitude to God and not a symbol of supreme church authority. More on this in a minute.
3. Accessibility. You've read the psych ward story. If I hadn't worn a collar that day, people would have questioned my presence on that unit if I'd been let on at all, and I wouldn't have had the extra conversations that I had either. My experiences while wearing a collar have been the direct opposite of the effect I thought it would have.
4. It takes me out of the equation. No admiring my snazzy suit or tie. Just me in a solid-color shirt and tab.
5. No more ties. Boo yah!

The strange thing is, just a few weeks prior to my making the decision to wear a collar, I was gearing up to get rid of vestments, let alone start wearing clergy shirts. And it was because I was wondering whether such things get in the way for people, as denoted in Part 1. One of my main concerns regarding this was that such things are seen as authoritarian; that they designate me as special or that they perpetuate the theologically flawed concept that I am the only one who ministers to people. I'm the professional with the M.Div, after all. Furthermore, such status in a faith community often may lead to a privileged position that enjoys many extra perks and respect, the very thing that Jesus warns his disciples about:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,* and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. - Matthew 23:1-7
It's worth noting that there is a lot that can be nuanced about this passage, first and foremost about the Pharisees being made the two-dimensional bad guys in the Gospels and second about people who deliberately use their positions in this way vs. those who humbly serve in their role. But the overall sentiment is one that I have taken very seriously of late. Between wondering if vestments get in people's way and wanting to be as accessible to people as I can, I was on the verge of eschewing all formal signs of authority as part of what I thought was the best way to do that.

At the beginning of May, I took a week's vacation. Over the course of that week, I listened to the sermon from my ordination service three times. On that afternoon, the preacher for the day talked about a multitude of things related to ordained ministry. He talked about wrestling with God like Jacob and walking into the pulpit with a limp, he talked about being a "keeper of the Word and its integrity," he talked about the call to guide others in the meaning of the Gospel, and he gave a piece of advice that I've always remembered: "If today you feel like a king at a coronation...get over it." And he followed it up with this: "People will humble you before they'll follow you."

I can attest to that. In the past seven years I have been humbled more times than I can name. I've been reminded over and over and over again that ordained ministry, even with its clothing of designation and distinction (meaning simply that it makes me distinct), is not meant to be a position of privilege like a king. I am, as my collar indicates, a servant. I am a pastor. That is my vocation, my calling. I am an empowerer and guide and leader of a flock of ministers. I am not better than them, I am simply called to a particular role among them. For many, clergy shirts and vestments are the outward marker of that role, which is one of servitude and not of power. Ordination is not coronation: it is the act of designating a person for this servant role.

So I wear my collar, sometimes with sneakers and sometimes even with jeans (I can be casual in other ways). But I wear it knowing what it means and who I am as I wear it.

Perhaps the question with which I wrestle the most often regarding ordination and vestments is their place in this new moment that is happening in American Christianity. Postmodernism, that ideological shifting of authority that many scholars and leaders of the church say is happening, certainly affects the pastoral office. In this age where information is available to all at the click of a button, where the "expert culture" of clergy and church has been questioned, and where there debate of how best to educate pastors besides or in place of the traditional route of seven years of schooling, what sort of authority does ordination carry? Is a pastor wearing a collar out of place? Is a pastor out of place, period?

Yes and no. In the past 60 years (though really, much longer) there has been every attempt to make pastors as un-pastorish or un-expertish as possible. The eschewing of vestments and collars and even any formal attire at all as made notable by some churches calling themselves "emerging" have been in part to remove some of that distinctiveness, to make the pastor as approachable, as informal, and as non-expert-seeming as possible. Furthermore, certain strands of Christianity are suspicious of clergy who are too educated, as if too much knowledge will stifle the work of the Spirit and transform leaders into dry, ineffective valleys of bones. The more the pastor seems just like you, the reasoning goes, the more appeal he or she will have.

I understand that reasoning, and I actually like a lot of it. I don't dress up if I don't have to. Before I started donning a collar on Sundays, that was the only day of the week I wore a tie, excepting weddings and funerals. I wear jeans to the office whenever possible, and sometimes even to visit parishioners. I want to be accessible, and I don't always see the value in formality.

And yet I can't shake my recent experience on that psych unit. As mentioned, I can wear a collar but still find ways to be informal. I wore jeans to the hospital that day. That wasn't important to people; the collar was. That's all everybody saw. It immediately opened people up to a level of sharing that wearing jeans and anything else wouldn't have. I was seen as the authority, the one set apart to be consulted, confessed to, and questioned.

It's been my experience that, for all the pontificating by authors and speakers, this culture still craves symbol and people specifically designated in their roles by those symbols. This is not a universal thing, and in those cases personality needs to pick up where symbol fails.

Pop Culture Roundup

I finished Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity this week. I'd been reading it off and on for months as part of my book discussion group. I wasn't actually sure what we're meant to discuss for next time so I just went ahead and read the rest. If you're already familiar with McLaren, nothing will be tremendously new here. Also, if you're familiar with 200+ years of modern Biblical scholarship and theological traditions besides fundamentalism and neo-Calvinism, nothing will be tremendously new. I understand that McLaren is writing to an audience within Evangelicalism disillusioned with the same old, same old, but emerging/emergent really are behind the curve theologically. I have an entire post in me about that, I think. So stay tuned.

My brother and I went to an Akron Aeros game last weekend because Jerry "the King" Lawler made an appearance to throw out the first pitch and sign autographs. We signed up for a special meet and greet before the game, during which we could take our time and talk with him a little more. Jerry told us how he prefers wrestling to commentating, his origins in the Cleveland area, and his meeting Snooki at Wrestlemania, among other things. He was very personable and seemed to like chatting with fans. My personal favorite moment was when he went to sign a picture for me and we shared our disdain for the weird way to spell Jeff with Gs and Os and whatever. Then my brother and I got to sit up in one of the luxury boxes for the game, which was fun as well even though the Aeros got blown out.

We watched the first episode of NY Ink this past week. Ami James has left his Miami shop and has come back to New York to start a new gig. The shop itself looks like an art gallery, which James made a point of doing as he shares that he wants to be seen as a true artist. This first show had some drama, particularly between two of the shop managers, but moreso between Ami and an artist who basically seems to walk off the street and ask him to return a favor from back in the day. Ami lets him stay, and he immediately clashes with everybody else. Since it was only the first episode, it's hard to tell yet whether this show will go the way of Miami Ink, which was more about the customers and their stories, or LA Ink, which is more about the drama between the artists. Early indications are that it'll be the latter, but we'll see.

Metanoia, the blog of a mother, candidate for ordination in the PC(USA), and spiritual director--among so many other things--has been added to the bloglist.

Here's the trailer for the final Harry Potter film, which WOO!

Vestments, Part 2

One of my pastoral heroes nowadays is Nadia Bolz-Weber. She is one who is ordained in a mainline tradition (ELCA) and who treasures the heritage of that tradition, yet who also has an eye on how the culture has changed and what the church may need to do to relate to this new moment. I've learned a lot from her and have been thankful for her contributions to the larger conversation regarding what the mainline should be about decades after our "glory years" have passed.

Nadia gave an interview last year on God Complex Radio, during which she made some comments about ordination, and I thought that they were so good that I wrote them down in a Moleskine:
Listen, I'm not the special person in the community...I'm the person who's set aside to not have the same freedoms as everyone else. I'm the one person in this church who's not free to have a conversation with someone and chat about it later. I'm the one person who's not free to flirt with other people in the church. I'm not free to point to anything but Christ and him crucified.
As I've waded through the waters of the emerging/emergent/missional/contempervant church and the writings of its main proponents, recently I've started to question the place of pastoral authority. Am I special? Am I set aside or set above others? Do I really have to wear a tie on Sundays even if nobody else does? Are vestments still helpful? What does being a pastor and executing the duties of the office mean nowadays? These questions and more have been swirling around in my head for months.

Honestly, it started with the vestment question: are they still useful, or could I relate to people better by not wearing them? This had a couple different components to it. First are the comments about my "dress" that I mentioned in my last post. In a less casual time in this and many other churches' lives, what do these outward symbols of my vocation say to people nowadays? Do they really say anything?

A new person who eventually joined first visited on a Sunday when I didn't vest due to our hosting a guest preacher. I still served as liturgist, just in coat and tie instead. When we started meeting to talk about her joining the church, she recalled that Sunday and how positively she had responded to the lack of robes. She'd been a part of a more conservative denomination that used vestments and to see me up there without robes was refreshing to her. She still recognized me in my particular role, but didn't see vestments as necessary for that. In fact, she seemed to find me more approachable without them.

Second, I'm big on the concept of the priesthood of all believers, the belief that I may be the pastor, but we're all ministers called to serve according to our gifts. What do my vestments mean in light of that belief? What does it mean to be "set apart" as pastor in light of that?

Naturally, the vestment question eventually expanded into the larger question of ordination and its authority. I'll deal with this specific issue in Part 3. For the purposes of this entry, I want to focus on two other things: approachability and symbolism. I occasionally wonder whether those people who comment on my alb see it as a barrier; don't see me as approachable. Of course, they think I'm approachable enough to make the comment to begin with, so maybe that's not the issue for them. For some, the symbolism of traditional clergy attire gets in the way for at least one or both of the following reasons: 1) the symbolism isn't understood, or 2) the symbolism carries a negative stigma either due to a personal experience or to a cultural meme of clergy as scam artist, abuser, purveyor of rigid traditionalism, etc. Either of these reasons could lead to the conclusion that such symbolism shouldn't be used or has lost its effectiveness, and should be discarded. And this is how we end up with churches forsaking any and all Christian symbols from worship spaces and pastors preaching in suits or jeans. There's nothing wrong with those things per se, but should symbolism simply be done away with so completely?

I bought a denim clergy shirt a couple years ago. It was mostly done as a joke. It was on the clearance rack at Cokesbury, and seeing it caused me to recall a RealLivePreacher essay about buying a denim clergy shirt, wearing it to a disc golf course, and shocking a couple Gen-Xers with his behavior. Inspired by that essay, I picked it up, unsure whether I would ever actually wear it. I am not a very formal person if I can help it. I do like the feel and look of a suit, but I don't wear them unless I have to. I don't wear a tie if I don't have to. I don't dress up for the office if I don't have to. I've toyed with the idea of a visible tattoo to loosen up those who aren't sure about pastors in general, as if to say to them, "It's all right. I'm on your side. I'm one of the good guys. Let's talk." I want to exude that aura in my ministry whenever possible, and to me what I wear is a big part of that. RLP could visualize a way to make a denim clergy shirt do that, so I figured I'd scoop it up off the sale rack and maybe try it out someday.

It was months later on a day that I had to make a hospital visit when I spotted the shirt hanging in my closet and thought, "Why not?" I pulled it on with khaki pants and my blue blazer complete with UCC pin and checked myself in the mirror, marveling at the strangeness of that tab. I know Protestant clergy who wear these, but I certainly wasn't used to seeing myself in such a thing.

Anyway, as I walked through the halls of the hospital, something amazing happened. I received more acknowledgments and smiles that day from passersby than I had in years coming to this place in just a shirt and tie. On those days, I was some guy that people ignored. On this day, however, I was wearing something that designated me in a particular role causing many to react much differently. I have to imagine that it also repelled some people, but it wasn't noticeable. For the most part, on that day my collar had made me more approachable. It made something clear to everyone about who I was and what I was about, and from what I could tell the response was very positive. I wore my clergy shirt again a few months later, and the same thing happened: smiles, nods, access to people in a different way. Amazing.

Much more recently, I've purchased several more collared shirts and have begun wearing them for worship and on other occasions. The other week, I got word of a church member in a restricted unit of one of our local hospitals. Figuring that I'd have an easier time getting to see her if I wore a collar, I put on a traditional black clergy shirt and set off. There was no hesitation at the desk telling me where she was, and the woman there even made it a point to make small talk, something that I've never experienced at this desk over the past 6 1/2 years. Several other hospital workers made it a point to say hello as well. When I walked onto the unit, someone (not my patient) stood, held his arms out wide, and said, "Father!" After visiting with my patient, this guy requested that I talk to him for a while. On the way off the unit, a third patient wanted to chat as well. None of this would have happened, nobody would have thought me approachable, without that collar. That symbol of my office opened doors that otherwise would have remained closed.

I bring up Nadia because she wears collars, at least for Sunday worship. She's grounded in her tradition; she does it out of respect for her office. The quote from Nadia above shows that perhaps she sees it as a symbol of servitude, of being yoked to her role. At the same time, obviously, her visible tattoos provide an outward sign that she's not what you think even when she wears the collar. Moreso, I might argue, her personality helps offset assumptions that may arise with the collar alone.

Vestments and collars, first and foremost, serve as symbols of the sentiment in what Nadia says: pastors are set apart for a particular role. Even as she has striven for a model and philosophy of church that addresses our new cultural moment, here she is in these traditional symbols of her vocation, unwilling to give them up even as she recognizes that so many other things cannot remain as they should. Why? Because, as Nadia says, her role sets her apart. She is not just "one of them." She kind of is, but she isn't. There is a balancing act to be kept between approachability and one's role in the community. Thus a collar or stole as a symbol of that role can still have value regardless of a cultural attitude that generally has become more relaxed about such symbols.

If my hospital experiences while wearing the collar is any indication, there is a certain respect, even hungering, for such symbolism to be retained or recaptured. A collar clearly designated my role to others and seemingly opened doors to people's attention that hasn't whenever I've made visits without one. In a culture where many Christians have lost an understanding of or appreciation for symbol, it may be that such a clear designation is still appreciated, still desired. And there may be ways to redeem that symbol without doing away with it.

Vestments, Part 1

During the weeks leading up to my ordination, I purchased a Geneva gown. The moment was an exciting one: it symbolized for me a passing from one way of being, one vocation, fully into another. After such a long process of education, interviews, and requirements, I would take on the yoke of my calling symbolized by my red stole, which popped brilliantly against the black of my robe that cool January day. It's what I'd dreamt of wearing for so long, and that dream finally came true.

Months later at my installation, the church presented me with a white alb. To me, the alb is more representative of what I want to be about as a pastor: originating from the earliest days of the church, it was given to all newly baptized believers to wear as a sign of their putting on new life in Christ. Thus it symbolizes my commonality with all Christians through baptism, contrasted with the Geneva gown, which was borrowed from academia centuries ago and still carries with it the symbology of pastor-as-scholar, one set above others. Some traditions, particularly the Reformed branch that helped spread its use, greatly value that. There's good reason for it, but I still prefer my alb, though I break out the gown once a year for Maundy Thursday, more for its color than any other reason.

Very recently, I read about the origins of the Geneva gown. Back when what we'd call the Reformation was beginning, a guy named Andreas Karlstadt--a contemporary of Luther--decided that he was going to do something radical in worship. He started by translating and saying the Mass in German rather than Latin, which may have been enough. In addition, however, he decided to eschew the traditional vestments of his day and wear "regular clothes" instead. Since he was a professor at the University of Wittenberg, he wore his black academic robe. Luther was scandalized by this at first, but three years later he'd begin wearing one himself.

So, how about that? The Geneva gown, now worn by many Protestant clergy as a formal vestment, originated as a rejection of vestments.

The reasons for vestments are plenty. They signify the pastor or priest's role as worship leader, as bringer of the Word and officiant of sacrament. They say to worshippers, "this person with whom you have entrusted these tasks is fulfilling his or her calling." That was what it meant to me at my ordination. Since then, I've come to understand them in other ways. Nowadays, I see wearing vestments as becoming part of the furniture: the pulpit, lectern, communion table and whatever else has been prepared for the worship moment in ways appropriate to the season, and by donning my alb and stole I have prepared my own physical self. They're meant to call attention beyond me, as the rest of the space is meant to do as well. People aren't looking at what I'm wearing...they're looking beyond me toward the One whom we've gathered to worship.

Or so I've thought. While my own reasoning has been true in one sense, it seems not to be true in another.

In over six years of ministry where I am, I have received at least a half dozen comments about the "dress" that I wear for worship. These are made in jest, yet reveal something about the understanding (or lack thereof) and appreciation (or lack thereof) for the use of vestments in worship. We have quite a few people who are relatively new to a mainline Protestant tradition that includes the pastor wearing such things, yet these comments have not come solely from them. They've also come from people who, to the best of my knowledge, have grown up accustomed to seeing the man or woman up front in a robe and stole. Contrast this with worship moments over the years when I've worn a coat and tie instead, and people seemed to go out of their way to compliment what I was wearing.

Overall, I think that many congregations have arrived at a less formal place than decades gone by. On a typical Sunday, I can count on one hand the number of men wearing ties, let alone suits, and I don't need my entire hand (and usually one of them is me). For the most part, one will see business casual: most men wear blazers or sweaters without ties, women wear slacks or dresses that don't suggest a lot of maintenance, and in general a handful or more are in jeans. I had a discussion recently on Facebook with a few church members who affirmed the idea that God doesn't care what one wears to worship; that the more important thing is that we're there participating. Increasingly, dressing up for worship seems to be a vestige of a bygone era.

Taking all this into account, I've been conducting an experiment the past few months. One Sunday, I got up and did my usual morning routine prior to driving to the church. However, I changed two things: I put on my sneakers instead of my dress shoes, and I went without a tie. Otherwise, I did everything that I normally do when I got to the church, including pulling on my alb for worship. The next week, I wore a favorite pullover, again with sneakers. The third week, I wore a different pullover. And every week, nobody commented on my more informal attire, my lack of a tie, my silly choice of sneakers with dress pants, none of it. And this experiment, along with years of comments about this but not about that, or ribbing comments about this and positive comments about that, have led me to certain conclusions and questions.

What if my vestments have been more of an impediment to people's worship than what I wear underneath it? What if they're a distraction or puzzlement for people more than a removal of one? And is it really a matter of more education and understanding in getting people to see why such things are worn at all? I wonder what Karlstadt's original congregation thought the first time he stepped up in his academic gown, whether they were scandalized or relieved. Could you imagine at least some of them saying, "Finally, ol' Andy decided not to wear that other stuff?" Given the spirit of the day, it makes sense that somebody would have.

Honestly, my vestments get in my own way sometimes. I play guitar a couple times during our service, and pulling the instrument over my head and taking it off causes my alb to bunch up and my stole to go all wonky. It seems like I'm constantly fiddling with it, which further calls attention to the fact that I'm wearing it. As much as some of my parishioners don't understand why I wear it to begin with, the rubrics of our service sometimes cause me to question it as well.

On the other hand, you know what? I do feel more "official" in vestments in a way that I don't while leading worship in a suit. This is probably due to my upbringing as much as anything: I have been part of churches in which vestments are worn way more than not. Besides that, however, leading worship in vestments seems more right to me than not, like I am taking on the yoke of my calling more properly when I vest. It is part of the tradition that I've known, and while I'm fine with bucking tradition if it has lost its meaning, I'm not completely convinced that this tradition has. Some days I do, but not always.

The other month was our ecumenical Holy Week service led by the local ministerial association. We don't vest for it basically because our Nazarene colleague doesn't. Our Lutheran guy wears a collar and our Catholic priest does tend to wear a stole, but for the most part we're all in suits for these community services. So I put on my suit and figured I'd wear my tie with crosses printed on it. I looked myself over in the mirror, and felt kind of...I don't even know. It's like the only way people might know I'm the officiant is because of my tie. That bugged me, and helped me see the other side of my ponderings about losing the vestments.

There is definitely an argument to be made against what I felt, of course. "Why does there need to be a designated officiant? Why do you get to dress up? Why are you special? Aren't we all ministers?" These sorts of questions are what causes me to question them, and it fairly easily can slide into a questioning of the concept of ordination. I personally answer that by saying that I've been called to be a guide to other ministers, set aside to pastor a flock of people meant to go out into the world and serve as faithful disciples. Vestments may be one of the outward signs of such a calling, but maybe we've put too much stock into this one outward sign at the expense of exploring other possiblities.

So many years after a younger version of myself first received the yoke of that stole around my neck, I've been wondering whether I need that outward sign of the invisible grace that was bestowed upon me that afternoon. It's becoming increasingly clear to me that my people aren't terribly concerned about its symbolism. In fact, it may be more symbolic and meaningful if I'd just wear "regular clothes," like them.

Or maybe that's all the more reason to keep such symbols around.

Pop Culture Roundup

In case you missed my review of Eugene Peterson's The Pastor, you can find it here.

We watched the first episode of The Borgias this week, about an aristocratic Spanish family whose patriarch, Rodrigo, becomes Pope Alexander VI. Of course, since he's Pope, his family isn't exactly legitimate. But then again, he and other family members do a lot of things that aren't legitimate. His oldest son Cesare, a bishop, carries out a lot of his dirty deeds including bribery and murder. His younger son serves in the Papal Army and lives his own reckless lifestyle. The first episode depicts Rodrigo's politicking and simony in order to become Pope, and then he needs to take nefarious actions to keep his position in the face of opposition. I wasn't sure about the show at first: it took a little bit to get into. But by the end, I wanted to see what happens next. On the other hand, it's not an urgent type of feeling.

One of my new favorite blogs is Jesus Needs New PR, which gathers Christian pop culture absurdity from around the internet and displays it in one convenient location. And it may not be all that surprising that he finds some pretty wacky stuff: dumb church signs, a group for Christian men who like to go skinny-dipping (seriously), cheesy/awful songs, and much much more. Here's a trailer I found there for what basically amounts to a Christian version of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, complete with inferior production and acting, but it's okay...IT'S CHRISTIAN!

Here's a cat hugging a baby kitten:

Vintage CC: Pastoral Grief

A recent post by Jan about depression in ministry caused me to recall this post from last year.

I've been thinking a lot lately about pastoral grief. I don't mean grief in the "wounded healer" sense, where a pastor ministers to someone in grief while aware of his or her own brokenness and emotions. I mean grief in terms of a sense of loss in one's ministry. It's not a pastoral care issue, but a vocational one.

I first started thinking about this when I read Dan Allender's Sabbath earlier this year, and near the back of the book he mentions loss as something that may creep up in moments of silence. When preparing for a six-month sabbatical, he tells of meeting with the academic dean at the school at which he teaches, where he is asked if he'll be prepared for the grief that may surface in moments of silence:
He reminded me of what I knew--most start-up organizations are fraught with untimely departures, chaos, mountains of blame, monumental mistakes, heartache, exhaustion, and loss. He then prayed that our sabbatical would be the beginning of owning the loss and grief associated with the startup of Mars Hill Graduate School.
While it's Allender's intention to dissuade people from dealing with loss during the practice of Sabbath, I was drawn to what he identifies here. I think it's pretty easy to see that this same sort of grief is present with most pastors, whether most of us are aware of it or not.

Much has been written about the typical week a pastor may face. It seems quite cliche for me to give any sort of list here, but I will anyway: visits, sermon and worship preparation, teaching classes, planning programs, dealing with staff, fielding complaints and concerns, organizing volunteers, and so on. The type of grief to which Allender alludes comes from the visit that is emotionally exhausting, the sermon that people clearly didn't care for, the class that spurred a theological argument, the program that didn't live up to expectations, the difficult staff member, the complainer who never seems happy, and the scramble to replace volunteers who have had enough.

Maybe that second list seems cliche as well. Pastors deal with difficult situations and people. It's part of the calling and it can't be avoided. So we're encouraged to find mentors or peer groups or spiritual directors; times and places to process and gripe and emotionally vomit and recharge. But I wonder if many of us ever really deal with that deeper sense of grief. Sure, we get together and swap stories about the time that this guy came in to complain about the hymns or the time when hardly anybody showed up to a program in which we invested a lot of time and energy to organize.

There's more to it even than that. I could relate to you (and in some instances repeat) my own experiences from points in my life where the scales fell from my eyes and I've been able to see the church for what it is: filled with a mixed bag of broken people who are hurting, fearful, devoted, comfortable, bored, loving, hesitant, noncommittal, selfish, seeking answers, or otherwise not the monolithic group of faithful saints you think they're supposed to be. When these sorts of realizations creep in, there is bound to be grief due to loss of innocence, naivete, and idealism.

I could also relate (or repeat) the passing away of markers, culminating moments, points of reference, on which I've relied since beginning full-time ministry. Read this if you want the recap. When that happens, there is bound to be grief due to loss of a spiritual home, physically or otherwise.

And in various points in ministry within a specific context, there may come points where one wonders if the end is near. I've tried so much and failed at so much, one may say. What more can I do? And attached to that are relationships that have formed, roots that have grown, a genuine desire to move forward alongside fellow disciples that seems to be frustrated time and time again. When that builds up, there is bound to be grief, whether due to loss happening in the relationship or anticipatory grief as a change is considered.

How often do we pastors deal with that deeper sense of loss that such moments may build up within us? And if pastors do deal with this sense of loss, whether consciously or unconsciously, what may it mean? I think that, if left to stew below the surface, it affects what sort of impact we may have in our places of ministry. It affects our sense of vocation. It may cause us to question whether we're the right fit for a particular place any more, or whether we're the right fit anywhere. It may affect confidence, energy, self-awareness, and ambition.

After a while, the types of things that Allender mentions can take their toll, and it may not be until a moment of silence--if we ever make time for one--when it will all spill out. Worse yet, it may manifest in unhealthy behaviors or result in burnout.

How exactly should pastors deal with this type of grief, anyway? Perhaps those peer groups could be more than just gripe sessions, but it'd take a lot of trust for such a deeper level of processing. Or maybe it's just a matter of catharsis--beating a drum, visiting a shooting range, hitting a punching bag--but this may just be treating symptoms rather than the cause.

I don't really have an answer to that question at the moment. Right now, I'm still trying to form my thoughts on the grief part. Ministry has its ups and downs, and there are times when one just needs to vent or throw inanimate objects and then carry on with the day. But it may be that something lingers, and something may linger the next time as well, and the next, until one is dealing with a whole pile of lingering things that end up altering one's sense of call or one's effectiveness in ministry. And then what happens?

Will it just finally manifest in that moment of silence? Will it manifest in other destructive ways? Or can it be dealt with honestly, constructively, before one reaches that point?