Collared

It is the first week of Lent and I may have already failed one of the major challenges of the Lenten journey. I am not one to give things up for Lent, and I have been notoriously bad at picking up a new spiritual practice to carry for the Lenten season. I think a lot of people are like me in this regard, or perhaps I am like most people. Or perhaps since Valentines Day fell on the second day of Lent this year, I could not create reality out of the notion of giving something I liked up and chocolate being present at the same time. See, this Lenten stuff all gets very complicated.

I did actually take something up for Lent this year, more specifically for Ash Wednesday. As a chaplain I have found that Ash Wednesday is probably the one holiday that I am called upon to function as clergy in ways that many parish pastors do. In fact, it is the only Christian holiday that calls for me to prepare and led a worship service in the context of my ministry setting (memorial services are different.) So this year I decided to go for it! Inspired by Womenspirit’s sale, I ordered a clergy collar shirt! I was not at all sure it would arrive in time for Ash Wednesday but it did,  so I took it as a sign that I should wear it to work.

The shirt is a lovely royal blue. The collar was tight and uncomfortable but we became friends by the end of the day. I have to be honest. The context in which I minister is one where my authority as a woman clergy person is regularly challenged and occasionally outright denied. This is not specific to my context, its specific to mainstream American Christianity, I know this. Several of my colleagues had encouraged me to wear a collar to work, Ash Wednesday and the need to lead a service, seemed the perfect day, so I did it.

This is what I learned from a day in the collar. The collar has power. There is no doubt about it. It  defines one’s role–as I found I did not have to introduce myself as the chaplain because people assumed. A collar defines one role and authority externally but internally as well. I felt more confident in my role, and there was I felt flow of respect towards me that I don’t always experience. It was as if the sight of me in my collar demanded a recognition not often granted.

It felt great! And that is where I failed, or so I thought. Yes it did feel great to experience authority and respect in ways I do not experience it when I am not wearing a clergy collar. But this was not exactly the rush of new found authority and sovereignty, as in the temptation Jesus faces in the wilderness. It was not that because it was not lasting. It was not that because it was not ego-infused. The clerical collar will come off and former patterns of relationship will no longer be interrupted by its presence. I thought I had failed a Lenten insight because I had experienced for the first time the authority people grant to those in the collar, and I thought it was good. I did not fail, because I realize that experiencing the power of  this authority was not about me. The only authority I have is the authority entrusted to me by God to care for God’s people. It is the authority of the yoke, the predecessor to the collar. The authority granted to those who answer the needs of others, even when that collared individual may desire to choose another way, like sleep. The collar is powerful, but it is not the power of authority, only the power of authoritative servitude and reluctant prophethood that flows from answering God’s demand to love others.

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A Word is a Word is a Word

Forewarning: This post may seem unbecoming coming from clergy, but we are not your grandmother’s clergy! Do not fear, be brave!

The title of this blog may seem familiar to some of you. Not because you have heard it before, but because it sounds like Gertrude Stein’s “a rose is a rose is a rose”. That is intentional. This line of Stein’s verse is famous in American/Modern poetry because it points out the hypocrisy of language in the modern and post modern era. In fact, Stein’s words want us to see that so much of what we make words to express is sometimes not what we mean at all and sometimes exactly what we mean. Hmmm…what? Yes in the modern and post-modern world we live with words that both say exactly what they mean and not at all what they mean–all at the same time. And we wonder why our society sometimes seems so crazy! We seem to live in a world that wants to reject the basic theological and religious principles of the “both / and” while at the same time society promotes dual meanings of so many things.

We used to live in a world where the social rules were clear and people more or less knew what was expected of them. The black and white time of knowing what was acceptable when and where–is no more, yes even before I was born we moved into the Technicolor age! The time when people both understood that others expected to be treated according to the Golden Rule and one might expect to be treated according to the Golden Rule is gone. We do not even know what to expect of our own language in such a twisted age. Or do we?

This has all been on my mind as I serve as a chaplain in multiple places. We often forget that our world is now in color rather than black or white. In some cases it is more shocking for those I meet to realize that I am an honest authentic human being then it is for them to accept that I am female and clergy! Several times in the past few months I have over heard people speaking plainly and honestly, letting the four letter words fly. But then they suddenly realize I am near by and I hear the refrain “We gotta be good, the chaplain is here”. Nothing makes me laugh more! Really, are they afraid of me? But inside it makes me sad for those I serve with and for myself. It makes me sad that individuals feel a need to censor their most authentic self as unfitting to being in the presence of those human beings who have been set aside as God’s servants. Occasionally in fulfilling priestly duties clergy may fulfill the role of the representative of God for portions of the liturgy, but clergy people are not God! Confusing clergy, in all they do, with actual representatives of God can be catastrophic, as I learned in my grandfather’s church.

In my years of chaplaincy, I have had my share of encounters in which I have heard many a swear word, not in a profane way but in an honest–there are no other words for this kind of way! I learned much and walked away from a particular encounter with great respect for an individual who in the face of power was authentically and piercingly honest even when every other word that had to be said was a swear word. I mean, when you get to down to the bones of it isn’t God, God’self a rather honestly authentic but there are no other words to describe it kind of being?

So, please do not feel the need to censor yourself around me. Really I am big woman, I can deal with it and I am not gonna judge anyone’s swearing (I feel differently about language that defames or degrades human beings). There is no need to pretend you don’t use the four letter words simply because I am around. I like four letter words–they can be theological. After all have you ever heard clergy talk amongst themselves when they think no one is listening? Besides, LOVE, is also a four letter word. Let’s be real, a word is a word, is a word. Except for that one Word from which all others spring.