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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Divine Partnering

They love to have the place of honor 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. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.

—Matthew 23:1-12

What drives our actions? Jesus points to the scribes and Pharisees saying (paraphrased) “do what they teach and not what they do.” Jesus says that the teachings may be in the right place, but not their hearts. What compels them to share wisdom? In this text, we are introduced to people who do work for their own desires including taking places of honor and prestige in the community.

There are a number of actions we take to better ourselves. Giving our time, talent, and treasure to important causes feels good. There are also times we take action because it makes us look good or makes us feel better about ourselves.

I entered college and graduate school to strengthen some of my skills and increase my knowledge so that I could make a bigger contribution to the world—but that wasn’t the whole reason. I discovered that deep inside I was hoping that I would somehow attain deeper respect from others and feel better about my place in the world. I was also feeling a bit insecure about being a lesbian woman entering the ministry. My feelings became more apparent when I heard the story of a local college professor who was called an epithet based on his sexual orientation when all he wanted to do was share a drink with friends. I was saddened to hear of the event and realized that even if I had the letters “Rev.” or “Dr.” in front of my name, I would not be shielded from harm. I was going to school, in part, because I thought my education could protect me. The truth is that if I desire to do what is right and honor God, I am choosing a challenging path. The lives of Jesus and the prophets show us all too clearly how those who carry the message of love and peace are not always readily received.

We cannot do this work alone. Because of this, we cannot expect to take all the credit, either. This work of honoring God with our lives requires nothing short of the power of God acting in and through us.

God gives us a glimpse of the peaceable realm when those who wish to store up all the glory for themselves will be humbled and those who are humbled will be celebrated. It is when we are most humble that we are able to truly experience peace and witness the power of God.

Oh God, it is said that I must decrease in order for you to increase within me. I pray that desires for my own will may decrease that I may discover how the unique gifts you have freely given me can be fine tuned to live out your will to bring about the peaceable realm. Amen.

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Angela Henderson, M.Div. currently serves as the Unitarian Universalist campus minister at UC Davis. She graduated with her Master of Divinity degree from Claremont School of Theology in 2010 and is a candidate for ministry.