Under The Collar Experiment

Monday, March 31, 2014

All in?

I learned how to play poker in seminary.  We played at least once a month, using all the loose change we had lying around the house.  I knew how to play, in theory, before then, but regular play taught me a lot about the different ways people play the game.  I was more interested in the friendship and the food, so the education was a bonus.

The way a minister approaches poker is not necessarily consistent with the way they approach religion, but it might say something about how they approach life.   There are those who only play when they feel they are guaranteed to win and so they fold nearly every hand. There are others who can't help but stay in the game even when the odds are not in their favor and so they call at every turn.  There are better and worse bluffers, and there are those who seem to always raise the stakes just to keep it interesting.  There are the rule enforcers, the boisterous winners, and the sore losers, even among the clergy.

For the past five years, some of my non-clergy friends and I have gathered at one another's homes every other month to play Texas Hold'em. It costs $20 to play, and the top three place. Since our daughter was born, I haven't played as often.  Friday was the first time I had been since January when I began the collar experiment.  I honestly hadn't thought about the impact of the collar on this informal poker scene until I showed up and the jokes began."So does the collar mean you will always call?"  "I guess you won't be bluffing tonight?" Some of the usual faces were there, and I was introduced to four new people.  I am sure that meeting me for the first time in a collar at a poker game made for interesting follow-up fodder.

I was one of two women.  And even though she knew the game way better than I do, she caught a bad beat and was the first one out.  I was a bit rusty, so I started off pretty terrible. As the evening went on, I caught some good cards in good positions and won a few decent pots.

By the time we consolidated tables, I was in fourth place out of five.  Then I hit several really great hands in a row and played them pretty aggressively, knocking out one player and taking a pretty significant chunk from the chip leader.

As the night wore on, my usual 8:30 bedtime long passed, I was getting tired and the hip folks had other places to be.  I asked if we could just count the chips and call it. After the chip leader took a look at his stack, clearly thinking he had won, he agreed. After the count, I had won by a fairly minimal amount, much to the dismay of the most-of-the-night chip leader. The other two winners who placed 2nd and 3rd were Tom and Harry, which left me with an unfortunate new poker name.

I must admit,  I was surprised I had won... but the chips don't lie.  I do not believe wearing my collar had anything to do with my win.  I do not believe that God was on my side or that my collar necessarily threw anyone off their game. As in life, on any given day, sometimes we are dealt a strong hand and sometimes we're not. On some days, it may appear our win is inevitable and then a single card can take it away. Poker is a harsh mistress and a good teacher. The more we learn to work with what we have, enjoy the people we are with, and keep showing up -- as long as we're all in --the better the game will be.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Revved Rev

I have a confession to make, I bought a red convertible. I feel like I am supposed to be apologetic and explain myself.

It's a 2006 Toyota Solara with 40,000 miles.  I found a great enough deal that I do not have a car payment. It's a Toyota for God's sake!  I will drive it until it falls apart ... or I do ... whichever comes first.  It's practical. My guilt, likely, has something to do with a categorical image of what a minister is supposed to be.

The fact is that I have been making very practical choices my entire life.  But, what I have come to realize is that there is no time when our lives become fixed.  There are seasons, but the seasons are not identical, they are only familiar.

My discernment over the past 6 months has created some changes in my role at the church, my relationship with my spouse and our child, and now with my ride. I have officially stepped into what most Americans would stereotype as a mid-life crisis. I would prefer to call it developmentally appropriate behavior. To everything there is a season. There is a time for planning and a time for spontaneity.  A time for security and a time for risk. A time to plant and a time to reap.

There are myriads of ways for a life to unfold. Sometimes we are stuck in the place where we believe our past is the only predictor of our future. The fact is that we are able to invent and reinvent ourselves at any point in our lives. Often it takes being faced with our mortality to remember that we don't have to keep doing what we have always done.  

So now I realize why people in mid-life buy red convertibles. It doesn't have to be because we are trying to relive our childhood. It could be because we realize the finite period we have left  to experience joy, unbridled joy, like the wind in our hair on a warm spring day. And so now I will be the minister in a collar with the top down.

Judge that. :)

Thursday, March 20, 2014


I have been farsighted most of my life, living in the future and not the present. My trip to the optometrist today reminded me of the power of living in present. We shift our baseline in difficult circumstances and adapt so easily sometimes, we may not even know what we are missing.   I went to the optometrist today.   I had never seen this doctor before.  It was one of those optometrists next to the eyeglasses-in-an-hour stores.  The staff in the doctor's office was not pleasant but not outwardly rude.  It was clear they did not particularly like their jobs or the patients served there.  I made an appointment when I realized I had to move things at an arms length to be able to read them.  Turns out, I have graduated from only wearing glasses when I read or have eyestrain to all the time even driving.  And yes.. they are bifocals. Damn it.  Welcome to this new stage of life.

When the doctor came into the examination room, the first thing I noticed about him was the lingering odor of cigarette smoke that came in the door with him.  It surprised me a bit.  I am rarely around smokers anymore. He said some pleasantries and I watched him as he noticed my collar. He said, "I am impressed by your collar."  I said smiling,  "There is no need to be impressed."  We chit chatted about what denomination and what church.  He told me a pretty terrible St. Peter letting people into heaven joke and all about his wife who has macular degeneration and was going blind.   After he finished the eye exam and showed me pictures of the inside of my eyeball (trippy), he announced that my far away vision had actually gotten better.  Excellent!! I thought.  He was in his 70's and gruff.  It was obvious who set the cultural tone in the office.  But he was also thoughtful. After he shifted the conversation to an A&E special he had been watching on Judas, he announced with a bit of trepidation, "You know, I don't think the Bible includes all the important stuff about Jesus.  They didn't let everything into the Bible."   

I said and much to his surprise, "No I don't think so either.  The people who made that decision were considering the impact on governing a society, too."  

We talked for awhile of  the relationship between religion and war as he made me read tiny letters and follow a light on the tip of a pen. For a moment he sat contemplating.  We said nothing looking at each other for an almost awkwardly long period of time.  This gave me an opportunity to broach something else I'd noticed since he first sat in front of me.  I had debated whether to say anything from the moment I noticed.  I was cognizant that my words had more weight about personal issues in a collar.  I took the risk.

"I'm concerned about your breathing,' I said.  

He had an abnormal breathing problem that when I closed my eyes sounded like so many other oxygen tank pumps I had heard... but there was no pump... just sharp inhalations lips pursed at the beginning of his breathing pattern as he spoke.  He looked at me quizzically.  I had chosen my words carefully.. I didn't say "You shouldn't smoke"  Nor was I even thinking it.  I was just feeling empathy for his struggle.

He told me that he "sounded pretty good for a 2 pack a day smoker." He also said he was 70 years old and had lived a good life. He said his biggest problem was just how deep he would dig in his heels when someone told him not to do something, which people had been telling him his whole life.   

I have tried to tell people I love not to do things that harm them.  I do not think it ever worked,  Not once.  Telling a stranger wouldn't have a different outcome. Telling him I was concerned about his breathing was honest, vulnerable, risky.  He told me he had wanted to try to quit by changing first to e-cigarettes and was looking for another reason to try to do so.  I believe today I was his reason, not because I showed up as clergy rather because I showed up as myself, in a collar.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Little Callus

Two men came to know one another on a spiritual level. Not in the space of a beautifully lit sanctuary, but in the damp basement of a community center. These men were drawn together in the sacred space of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was in those meetings that they shared their stories of their struggles with addiction, that great and unfortunate normalizer. They were from two completely different backgrounds with two very different experiences of the world.

Over several years, these men shared stories about their lowest moments, their incredible successes, and their growing appreciation for the reoccurring miracle of a single day. It came to pass that one of these men, a Philosophy Professor, was offered a job in another city.  The other man was a local rancher. At the Professor’s last meeting, he grew more and more aware of just how much he had learned from the Rancher and just how much he would miss him: his stories, his vulnerability, his resilience.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the Professor was surprised when the Rancher immediately got up and came toward him. The Rancher said, “Sir, I just wanted to wish you well and let you know that I am pulling for you.  I’ll miss having you here. I have learned a lot from you.”

The Professor was genuinely touched. This Rancher had much more sobriety.   Within the walls of AA, the Professor was keenly aware that he was the student and not the teacher.

In that moment the Rancher stuck out his hand and said, “I apologize that I haven’t offered to shake your hand before today.” The Rancher looked down at the floor, then at his hands, and then back to the Professor. “I’ve just got so many calluses on these old hands,” he said, ashamed to shake hands with the Professor because he had labored hands, callused and worn.

The Professor, took in a long deep breath, smiled and said, “And all this time, I have been too embarrassed to shake your hand because I don’t have any calluses on mine.”

It was their willingness to be vulnerable, to flip the social expectation on its head about who was teaching whom. That was the greatest teacher and their strength. I have told this story in chapel and in a sermon and today it means something quite different to me. Our work, our life shows up on us differently.  For some it may be calloused hands, a few creases around the eyes, or a little less hair on the crown. We all have something to teach one another.

I have known many strong and wonderful men with laborer’s hands. And I have known many strong leaders with not a callus to show. This story reminds me to pay attention to the difference between tough and strong, for we are easily fooled.

Our skin responds to repetitive pain, pressure, and irritation by forming an additional protective layer on top of the affected area … a callus.  This callus serves as protection for future contact. It is as though our body is assuming that the future contact will be painful.  Calluses help some to continue to do the things they love.  Calluses can help you build the necessary resistance to be able to create music on a stringed instrument, or to learn to rock climb, to run, even to walk even in certain shoes.

When we practice something over and over we don’t have to feel our way through anymore … it becomes a pattern … a habit and sometimes even a callus. Too much friction occurring too fast will cause a blister or an abrasion instead.

We are taught that wounds show weakness and vulnerability … but calluses mean we are tough. We also use the word callous to describe someone who is unfeeling, insensitive, or heartless, someone who has packed on layer after layer between themselves and the world. The world is full of plenty of opportunities to build calluses. Sometimes, it is necessary to add another layer between you and the world in order to keep moving forward.

It took a lot of faith and heartbreak for me to learn that there is a difference between tough and strong. Both of those men in my story did the hard work to show up, be vulnerable, recognize the value in difference … and they took a good look at their own hands…that is what it means to be strong.

Being strong means your repetitive contact is not just on the surface of the skin,  it’s on the inside: in the muscle, in the heart,  and muscles grow strong from being torn apart and rebuilt.

Being strong is not about insensitivity. It’s not about being tough.  It’s about vulnerability. And we are called in the church to show up for each other over and over again to the degree that we feel we can, as vulnerable as we can muster, so that we can become stronger out there in the world…

Because there are a lot of times out there in the world…When all you can do is buckle up and bare down.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Dust to Dust

In church there is a constant tension of preparing for the inevitable in life and a weekly rehearsal of creating a world as we hope it will one day become. Wednesday  night I administered ashes in chapel.  It is one of my favorite services.  We offer a mix of ash and olive oil in the shape of a cross on the hand near the wrist or on the forehead.  The people are instructed to look the ministers administering the ashes in the eye and to remain silent. We speak the words "From dust you have come, to dust you shall return." This fact of our mortality does not require a thank you. The ritual is not about the personal relationship between the congregant and the minister.  It is about our relationship to our own death.  The minister merely reminds us in ritual to take stock. There are so many times in our lives that force us to take stock of why we are here and how we are spending our time. These moments are often out of our control: a diagnosis, a death, the loss of a job, being the victim of a crime.  The world feels as though it is divided into two: before and after.  There are moments where we have chosen a path that takes us in a new direction that are marked similarly.  There was the way my life was before this choice and the way it is now.  Rituals help us mark these times with significance.  Ash Wednesday helps us prepare for these times with intention.  

The view on Ash Wednesday from the chancel offers a different marker that is more personal.  I gaze into the eyes of the living not knowing which or if any of those to whom I am offering ashes, I will bury this year.  I am also reminded of those who I marked last year who are no longer on this earth.  Wearing the collar, much like wearing the robe reminds me of this cycle of life and death.  It reminds me of those to whom I have ministered, of those whom I have memorialized and whose stories I carry with me.