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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Context, Costume, and Identity

Under the best of circumstances, my children's sermons suck.  This past Sunday was no exception.  And it was not the best of circumstances.

I'd just invited the children to come forward, and they'd all come up (all four of them--not bad, actually, for the middle of summer) and assembled themselves in a line, sitting on the stair leading up to the chancel area.  I took a breath and opened my mouth, about to launch into my vain attempt to be interesting and informative to the average six year old, when one of them spoke up and demanded, "Where's the pastor?"

I was the only adult standing, I'd led the liturgy up to this point (with the assisting minister and reader--great lay leadership and participation in this congregation!), my clerical collar peeked out the top of my alb, and my stole matched (more or less) the paraments on the pulpit and altar.  Several people in the congregation snickered in their amusement as I said to the child, "I'm the pastor."  He looked at me in stark disbelief, and I heard more snickering as I found myself having to explain, "I know I'm not your regular pastor, but he's on vacation, and I'm filling in while he's away."  The kid seemed to accept that, and I was finally able to launch into my poorly crafted children's sermon, which flopped as usual, and then they were free to go back to their seats and I was free to go back to my comfort zone in the pulpit.  But that child's question, and the fact that he hadn't recognized me as pastor even while I was in full costume and doing all the things a pastor does during worship stuck with me.

Anyone can wear the costume and say they're a pastor, but that doesn't mean they are one.  Even someone wearing all the appropriate clothes and doing all the appropriate things in a worship setting can just as easily be an imposter.

That innocent question from a confused child had exposed me for what I'd been feeling like all along.  When I don the uniform and stand up there on Sunday mornings, I feel like an imposter.  Even though I'm technically in good standing with my roster status listed as "On Leave From Call - Family Leave," I also can't forget that some have labeled me (and I've labeled myself, if I'm going to be honest about it) as a "failed pastor."  My last call went horribly wrong for a variety of reasons, and I enjoyed no coverage or support from my bishop or his staff.  It's unclear if I could get another call now even if I wanted to (which, right now, I most certainly do not want).  I've done nothing pastoral for a solid year (no preaching, no worship planning or leadership, no teaching, no visiting, nothing).  The moment I returned to Massachusetts and made myself known to a few pastors in the New England Synod, I was immediately sucked back into the vortex of pulpit supply.  But despite the three weeks I've already served as substitute pastor, with two more to go (and still counting), I've not felt like a pastor.  At all.

An hour and a half after that six year old asked me that question, I showed up for the last day's programming of Readercon 22.

Readercon is an annual convention of science fiction and fantasy writers and fans.  Unlike other science fiction conventions, Readercon focuses almost exclusively on the craft of writing.  I learned about it from my husband, who is an avid reader of the genre.  I have nothing against science fiction myself, but it's never particularly grabbed me, either.  However, because Readercon focuses so heavily on the craft of writing, most of the panels are of interest to a nonfiction writer and aspiring writer of literary (opposed to speculative) fiction, like me.

I'd attended the previous two days of programming as well, and I'd pretty much blended into the scenery.  On Sunday, however, I'd come straight from worship, and even though I'd left my stole, alb, and pectoral cross in the car, I was still wearing my tabbed black clergy shirt and black skirt.  This time, I was noticed.

Why didn't I de-tab before going in?  I could have.  But I think I was rebelling against an anti-religious sentiment that had been pervading the entire convention.  Earlier in the weekend, at different panels, I'd heard religion (particularly Christianity) referred to as -- at best -- a "silly superstition" and -- at worst -- a "dangerous colonial imperialism" that "oppressed" people.  The context was inappropriate for a debate on the merits of my particular theology, but I was in no mood to hide my beliefs, either.  I had a legitimate reason to be wearing that collar; I wasn't about to 'camouflage' my uniform because many of the people there didn't think much of what it represented.

The reaction to me was mixed.  Some people asked me, politely and (I interpreted) out of genuine curiosity, what brought me to Readercon.  I recognize that some of the anti-religious sentiment was triggered by some Christians' very vocal opposition to the science fiction and fantasy genres as a whole.  All of it has been categorically dismissed as 'pagan' or 'devil-inspired.'  My presence was a curiosity, and my uniform combined with my bearing and manner (i.e. I was engaging with the panels the way everyone else was, rather than pounding a bible and threatening hell and damnation on everyone who wouldn't repent and be saved) made me an approachable representative of Christianity.  Some talked to me about religion.  Others disregarded my attire and talked to me as a human being (how refreshing!).  Others gave me a very wide berth when I walked down the hallway.  But no one attacked me.

And through it all, it felt right to me.  I knew I was wearing 'distinctive' clothing, but it felt more like a uniform than a costume.  I felt like the clerical collar represented who I was and what I believed.  As I talked with people, I was even able to bring legitimacy to my claims of being a writer because of the writing I've done in the course of my ministry.  I'm a writer who ministers.  I'm a minister who writes.  I can't do one without the other.

Officially, I'm in a period of discernment as I focus on raising my kids.  (At least that's my justification for staying on the roster, rather than just dropping off.)  I think what I need to discern is why I feel more like a pastor at a gathering of non-religious science fiction writers and fans, but I feel like an imposter at church.  What is my calling, anyway?


  1. As you well know from reading my most recent post, I'm completely in touch with your final question. Though we approach the question from very different perspectives and objectives in the overall sense, the question remains the same. Its one of those questions too that when you put it out on a blog post many readers of your blog will try to answer for you. No one means any harm by their attempt but no one can ever really answer it but us right?

    I suppose at some point we'll both figure it out...and if not I also suppose it won't entirely matter in the end right?


  2. When things go horribly wrong during worship, especially when I'm doing pulpit supply in a strange church and don't know all their quirks, I usually shrug it off at the end and tell the worship assistant "worship happened." Whether we figure out how to identify ourselves or not, the fact remains that we're doing what we're doing, we're prioritizing what we're prioritizing, and life is happening. It may not always be happening the way we want and we may sometimes need to make some changes, but it's happening nonetheless, and that (I believe) is a good thing.

    You're right about us being the only ones who can answer that question for ourselves. Sorry I lead that charge on your last post!