Under The Collar Experiment

Friday, January 17, 2014


Before I went to seminary, I was a teacher of gifted-and-talented high school students in a small town near Dallas.  If you would have told me then that I would be some 12 years later wearing a clerical collar in Tulsa, Okla., I would have bet everything against it.  

I heard the first whispers of my call while teaching a course titled Theory of Knowledge.  The purpose of the course is to explore the ways in which we must make an intellectual leap of faith (in a sense) in every subject area – math, science, literature, etc.  Even A=A is an assumption at its core because we are merely agreeing that we have identified the same thing. It is nearly impossible to be absolutely certain. Absolute consistency ensures incompleteness.

As a reward system in this class, instead of sugaring them up with candy, I would ding (in quite a Pavlovian manner) a call bell.   Whenever someone contributed an idea to further the discussion at hand they would get a ding! When they had an intellectual breakthrough, they earned a ding! When the third replacement bell broke, as most things seem to do eventually in public education, I simply said the word, “Ding!” 

They pined, even begged, for these dings as small treasures of affirmation and confirmation that they were on the right track.  I was, in a sense, saving souls even then by disrupting their fundamentalist systems of knowledge grounded merely in the concrete.  It was the good news of broadened perception. It was a revelation of unexpected truths.

It was this class – these students – who pushed me into the church.  They were so bright, so earnest, and had such sensitive hypocrisy detection, that it had a profound impact on me when they asked, “How can you be so hopeful when you believe that you can’t really know anything for certain?”  It was a great question.  Why was I hopeful in the face of such doubt and uncertainty? 

I found a church and a minister to help me begin to answer that question.  After three years of sermons and exploration, a quiet voice began to suggest that I needed to go to seminary myself.   I visited an ecumenical school in Rochester, N.Y.  The idea of spending an entire year studying Genesis and that much snow made it easy to change my mind.  Yet, The Voice did not cease.  Despite a brochure touting all of the incredible non-state schools from which their current class had received their Bachelor’s (and many even a Master’s), I sent in my University of Oklahoma transcript and arranged for an interview at Meadville Lombard in Chicago.

After the interview, I decided to take a tour of the University of Chicago campus. I strolled into Rockefeller chapel and sat down in a pew to reflect on the interview, enjoying the quiet of that very cathedral-like space.  I was overwhelmed with the prospect that I might actually be doing this. “This” consisted of quitting my teaching job, selling my house, and uprooting my partner (along with her own separate support system) to Chicago. Like doubting Thomas (or more like the extremely doubting Gideon),  I found myself begging for a sign: a still small voice, something, anything, would suffice.

I expected nothing from my request, and, even as the thought was forming, I mocked my childlike demands on a God in whom I did not believe.  Gazing at the glorious stained glass window behind the pulpit at a flame that actually resembled a chalice, a single, ominous bell tolled and echoed throughout the sanctuary.

In that moment, I felt dinged by the Universe. 

Like any good free thinker, I immediately looked at my watch. Certain it was 1 o’clock, a rational explanation of my experience.  But it wasn’t. I was flooded with conflicting emotion, and I began to weep.  Jungian synchronicity? Circumstantial evidence? It really didn’t matter. Do I believe some outward God in the sky was speaking to me through church bells? No, I don't. The meaning I made was indeed my own.  No one else but me would have confirmed the meaning and the purpose of that moment in the same way.  Every area of knowledge requires a leap of faith, even the most rational, most scientific. 

Our tradition could stand a little space for the mystical and the revelatory, room for the personal discovery alongside the rational.  Maybe the experiment of wearing my collar is a means of evangelizing a post- post- modernism, what Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker call metamodernism: a philosophy that negotiates between a yearning for universal truths on the one hand, makes space for relativism on the other, between hope and doubt, sincerity and irony, clarity and humility, construction and deconstruction.   

I am interested in meta-theology: where we can explore the edges of hope and doubt, clarity and humility and reconstruct frame than can hold freedom's unfolding; where we have values in common but space to express those values in radically different ways.



  1. I love this so much. I have had several mystical "Ding" moments that have reduced me to tears, even prostrate on the floor. No one else would ascribe the same meaning to them that I do.

    I would imagine that wearing a collar the way you do, you may be providing "Ding" moments for others. Thank you.

    1. Thank you Dawn! We need to be able to talk about those moments freely.. I hope you can where you are.

  2. "In that moment, I felt Dinged by the Universe." I got chills when I read that line! That class was the single most pivotal step in my education, and life. I lost everything I knew to be true and had to build it all up again from scratch. In the end, it actually made room for a very strong faith in the Universe, that rests on all that building. It was great to read your story with it too! I'd love to hear what that minister first told you about hope and how it fits into all this unknowing. Keep up the great writing!

  3. Love your experiment, your ministry (especially your work at the abortion clinic and in the prison setting) and your writing. Thanks for sharing it! I'm a collar wearing clergy too. For me, having a wife, being male and being Lutheran I have found that it has created some similar experiences over the years but some different ones as well. My wife particularly loves showing me public affection when she believes a stranger has concluded that I am a Catholic Priest! When I served a UCC congregation as an interim I briefly stopped wearing the collar since it wasn't their tradition. One day, however, three members of my congregation who served on the school board were going to confront a very public and nasty bully on the board at their next meeting. I decided to show up in a collar and just sit in the room to show them support. After the meeting four other board members, not associated with the church, came to me and told me how seeing the collar gave them strength to stand up to the bully. I've worn it whenever I'm working after that. Blessings in your ministry!

  4. Very interesting. Loved reading this one.

  5. I love this story. Every time you've told that story, I love hearing it. Even though I know the outcome, and the know the part about hearing the "ding" in the sanctuary...it's like I can hardly wait until you get to "that part" of the story. I'm like a little kid waiting for the "good part" of the fairy tale. I'm anticipating and picturing "hearing the "ding" coming from out of nowhere, yet somewhere, with celestial meaning. Such a fabulous story!