Thursday, February 27, 2014

Clerical Collars & My Calling to Ministry

On occasion, someone will ask me, “Why do you wear that clerical collar?” 

The answer I give, “Because I’m a cleric,” is usually not enough, and we segue into a longer explanation.

The narrative history of my relationship to the clerical collar goes like this: 

After finishing my undergraduate degree in the early 1990s, and working with people in urban settings of great need, I began visiting incarcerated parishioners or the incarcerated family members of parishioners.  (Working with inner-city persons, this is sadly too common.)

Jails and Prisons are unique in many ways.  (I dare not explore the contours of their complexity here.)  I learned quite quickly that staff persons in “correctional” facilities are generally only kind to persons on staff, in uniform.

I remembered an inner city minister from my college years sharing with me that, in Hispanic neighborhoods (with a greater history connected to Catholicism), the clerical collar earns an immediate welcome.

I didn’t like the way I was being treated in the prison system, even as a minister, so I did some research, spent some money, and began to wear the clerical collar on my visits.

At that time, I read a (no doubt earlier version) of Ken Collin’s views on wearing the Clerical Collar.  (Ken is one of the earliest Christian bloggers I know – blogging since the mid 1990s!) I wasn’t “convinced” that he was correct, but I did think his “positions” were reasonable.  (I’ve since come to agree more with his perspectives, as my story will narrate here.)

More than needing to have a “position” on the collar, though, I found that I was treated differently by prison system staff.  And, more curious and surprising to me, I was routinely stopped by more than one person in the parking lot of the correctional facility as I went in,  and at least one as I came out, who wanted me to pray for them.  And, in truth, I’ve never been asked for a hand-out when I’ve had on my collar.  In fact, I just realized this as I type this!  While I’ve never been asked for a hand-out, I have routinely been asked for prayer, or for offering a blessing!

These experiences shaped my “early” understanding of the dress of a cleric.  Though, I still only “put on the collar” on unique days when I was headed to places of incarceration.  I would normally put on the collar for entering the facility, and then take it back off after leaving.

In time, I started wearing the collar not just “in-and-out” of the facilities, but on the days that I would visit the facility.  A new curious thing happened.  People treated me with a small measure of what I would call “disdain.”  With a minor tone in their voice, or a particular look on a face, people would say to me, “Why are you wearing that today?”  Or, “What’s the deal with the collar?”  What surprised me about this is the fact that I would often be asked this, on the University campus where I work.  I might be, for example, in the cafeteria when someone would say this to me, and in the immediate vicinity were cafeteria employees with varying uniforms, students in nursing programs in nursing attire, and athletes of various kinds in certain athletic gear (not uniforms precisely, but nevertheless, a kind of specific uniformed attire for athletes) and no one asked these people why they were wearing “that” on this day.  No one asks a police officer why he’s in Uniform or an M.D. why he’s in scrubs, or a technician at the Automotive Shop why they are wearing “that” today!  They’re obviously wearing the recognized uniform of their industry and occupation.  But, for clerical collars, it was perceived differently, and I always felt as though the questions asked of me were 80% out of disdain or somehow thinking I was “one-upping” someone somehow, trying to look pretentious or something.

Over the years, I had good reason to find other need to want to intentionally be present with people as a recognized cleric.  I found it important to look clerical in some roles in ministry.  The next place that I began to routinely plan for clerical attire was not in parish ministry, but in political advocacy work.  As I began intentional advocacy work with State Senators, my congresswoman and then congressman, I wanted to be received as an advocate representing both the causes I was sharing, and I wanted to be recognized as a minister.  I did this not to “stand out” in State and Federal offices (though it does that!), but to be received as a Christian Minister in a defined an identifiable way at the outset of the meeting, even before words would be shared.  I do think it probably makes a difference, too, on how an administrative assistant “buzzed me through.  I was not wearing the collar as a “gimmick.”  I only wanted to be recognized as a Christian Minister, my identifiable dress demonstrating my ministerial calling.

I began to wear the collar more routinely, when I didn’t have “reason” to wear it.  I did this, in large part to “normalize” people to it since within my tradition (Church of the Nazarene), very, very, very few ministers wear clerical attire, even in worship.

From the Ken Collins article (same as above), I knew that the collar was a protestant “innovation” and  not from the Roman Catholic church.  More than that, though, I took note that Aaronic priests in the early tradition of God’s work with a people wore unique clothing.  This did not become for me “the” argument to justify clerical clothing, but I do think it is important that early persons in the Bible *all* dressed in marked ways according to the Torah, and the priests were set apart still differently.

Finally for me, in this long genesis over many years, about three years ago I went to a professional business lunch hosted by the University where I teach.  I stood in front of the closet the morning of the lunch and debated back and forth, “Collar? Tie? Collar? Tie?”  I decided it was a business lunch, so I’d better go with the tie.  To make a long story short, for the first time, I felt like I didn’t fit – and I felt like an imposter even – with the tie on.  At the table, as each new person sat before lunch to introduce themselves, I kept being introduced as being “from the University.”  While that was true, the expectation that my clothing presented, included an assumption that I was from the Business department, and it was a business lunch, so the next question was something about teaching in the Business School. On this day, I realized quite profoundly, “I am not a businessman and I don’t want to be considered a businessman, I need to dress differently.” 

Now, mind you!  I can still wear a tie, or a t-shirt, or shorts, and I actually have business interests and even own and run a Limited Liability Company (LLC) so I am a business person, too!  And  yet, I am one of the very few who get to wear the clerical collar.  I’m one of the few called-out-ones who get to serve in one of the most  wonderful, unique and fulfilling roles in life, that of the Christian Ministry.

So, over years of “trying it on” in different contexts, I’ve realized the Clerical Collar is part of my life’s calling in many deliberate ways and in specific social contexts.

When I wear the clerical collar, it is nearly always the case that  every-single-day I bear the “uniform” of ministry, both strangers and persons I know ask me for a prayer or a word of blessing. 

And I’m always delighted to share in prayer and in blessing!  (Memorizing the Aaronic Benediction of Numbers 6 is a great thing for any minister, by the way!  It can be used in so many settings of congregational or personal ministry opportunities.)

The clerical collar marks me as one called out to service in the and for the Kingdom of God – and in some social settings of cultural value – this is urgently important.

And yet, ultimately, I wear the collar simply because it serves to remind me of my vocation to serve.

 For further reading: 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Thousands of handwritten notes

I've been handwriting notes to people for decades - deliberately since I was a Campus Ministries Coordinator in College in 1991.  I've used the same personalized letterhead since 1992. (See the picture of my "Random thoughts from marty" - created on my Graduate school neighbor's Mac computer when this kind of design was only possible on a Mac 'back in the day.')

My department chair was surprised when I had reason to tell him a few years ago, "You don't know I write hundreds of hand-written personal notes to students every year, do you?"  (I didn't tell him then, though he'll know now if he ever reads this, that one of the ways I manage to pacify my impatience during long meetings is to write notes as it helps me feel that something tangible is being accomplished!)

In fact, in recent years I've learned to strategically send more notes to learners who take the hardest courses from me!  Just last week, one student said to me, "I miss getting your notes."  I said to her, "I'm sorry!  You're not in my classes this semester and I use my course rosters to create my mailing lists!"  I sent her a note the next day!

When I was a Children's Pastor, I wrote thousands of time to hundreds children (especially those involved with intentional discipleship with me), "I.B.I.Y.B.I.Y." (I Believe In You, Believe In Yourself.)  I've watched those kids mature to become young adults.  They have blossomed.  I'm delightfully happy for them.

My hope is that students (and colleagues & friends) will realize the investment of my life that I hope to extend to them with these notes.  I genuinely try to bring encouraging words of meaning & inspiration to others.

In our "mobile-text-message-world" - my sense is that my hand-written notes to most University students more often get trashed than treasured.  That's fine.  I get that.

And yet, for all recipients, I genuinely pray that they will know not just for a moment, but in long term ways how much I believe in them and have high hopes for them.

An unremarkable funeral that will be most memorable.

A few weeks ago, a colleague in counseling contacted me about a need for a client in professional therapy.

The client’s wife died the day before.

The client, now a widower, was already dealing with existential issues, including the grief and loss of a son in recent years.  The family situation was such that my therapist friend knew the family had no ability to “hire” services for a funeral; and he knew they had no faith community in to partner with them in their loss.

In the next 48 hours, I worked with my colleague, a grieving husband, and a grieving son to plan and officiate for a dignified memorial ceremony.

We arranged for free space at the University where I teach, utilizing our prayer chapel.  

I met with the Widower personally, to hear some of his story, and through his stories to “meet” his wife.

The next day I officiated at the memorial service.  Only the widower, his son, the therapist, and the cremated remains of the Deceased were present.  A husband and son, and, for all intent and purposes, a total stranger (me!) and a professional consultant.

Our time was still sacred as Another gathered with us.

The simple service included words of blessing and prayer, reminders of loss and grief, consistent with what I present in any funeral service.  As with any memorial or funeral service, the family said a few personal words as the son shared stories about his mom.  At the request of the Widower, I shared a few stories about objects that were precious to he and his wife, including the last gift the widower had purchased for his wife before her death.  With a simple sound-system, at the request of the Widower, I played a song that had been most memorable to the deceased mother, when her son had passed, “Forever Young” by Rod Stewart.

In some ways it was the most un-remarkable of memorial services.

In other ways, it was the most poignantly powerful memorial service I have ever had opportunity to share with others.  It will be more “memorable” to me than others I have officiated.

The therapist took the Widower and his son to a cafeteria restaurant afterwards, their favorite place to eat, at their request.

He shared with me later, “Just experienced my first funeral meal at Jeff’s Country CafĂ©.”  

The therapist continued, “I used to think a person’s life was judged, at least in part, by the number of people who came to their funeral.  The last several years, working with the forgotten; working with people who have been overlooked, has radically changed my thinking.  This family would never have been in a place to ‘be known’ in the same way we are.  But God knows them.   Thanks for your ministry to them and to me today, friend.”

Perhaps the greatest impact we need to have in the lives of others, with others, is to partner with them in loss, to be present with them in grief.  

May we find ways to extend grace, love, kindness and hope to all those in need.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

My vertiginous life & wonderful wife!

When we were dating, I told my girlfriend (now wife) I was “vertiginous.” 

I am liable to cause (for myself or others) the feeling of “vertigo” from the whirling, rotating, spinning nature of all that goes on in my life.

We talked about this the other day as my wife reminded me, “I knew what I was getting when I married you.”  Followed with, “I just didn’t know what I was getting when I married you.”

I’m the luckiest of men to be so incredibly loved by this wonderful woman.

The past few months have been as vertiginous as ever.   

Our kids are in great & curious transitions; meaningful times of unique one-on-one mentorship with about 15 students where I teach; a full teaching load; developing an online course for the University, several short but significant writing projects (and required research to engage them);  leading travel in the Jordan, Palestine & Israel already and planning travel to Africa in a few weeks;  conference work in the Oklahoma City, the state of Oklahoma, and in California;  writing recommendations and applications for others in projects;  making my own applications for projects;  grading (lots of grading!); nursing a shoulder injury and the requisite appointments and some physical therapy for recovery from a partial rotator cuff tear (wondering if the WaveHouse Surfing experience was really worth it – but it was!); a commitment to read again the Isaiah textbooks I have assigned for the Seminary course I’m teaching; vacancies and make-ready work in our rental properties; church life with family in Sabbath cycles;  the unexpected and unplanned, officiating a funeral;  time for dinner and lunch dates with my wife; and, believe it or not, some meaningful time for intentional prayer and quiet, coupled with some routine exercise experiences in my life that challenge my spirit and body to stay “in shape.” 

It’s been a whirling, spinning, rotating few weeks and months; and it appears it will remain that way for the next several months.

I’m delighted to partner in family life, and in meaningful daily existence, with a woman who loves me and helps me, and keeps me from getting off-balance in my own vertiginous way.  

I am blessed beyond measure to be partnered in relational grace, shared stewardship of life, loving affection, and mutuality of existence with this wonderful woman who is my wife.

Alles wirkliche im Leben ist Begegnung” – Martin Buber.