Less of me, more of God. Less of me, more of God. Repeat after me . . . . This is the mantra of my life. You’d think I would have caught on by now, really adopted, integrated and incorporated the idea. Ha! Still trying.
It came up again for me yesterday when I got an email from a friend just finishing divinity school. She wrote to ask me for advice on purchasing a robe (clerical, not bath).
We Baptists have a particular handicap in the mysterious frontier of clerical robing. See, even today, only very few of us do it. It all goes back to culture and tradition, of course, when Free Church evangelicals were busy settling all over the American West and forgot to pack their robes when they left the East Coast.
And also they did not want to be mistaken for . . . (gasp!) Catholics.
But it’s a new day, friends, and robes are back in, even for some Baptists. So, in light of Elizabeth’s current robe exploration and my on-going quest to live the mantra “less of me, more of God ” I thought it might be a good idea to reexamine the whole clerical robe-wearing phenomenon.
In case you were wondering here are the generally-accepted reasons pastors wear robes: they represent a professional role; they help the congregation focus on worship and not so much on the person; they add to the general solemn feeling of the worship experience.
And here are the real reasons pastors wear robes: they come in colors that go with anything; you can never grow out of them no matter how much weight you gain; if your waders leak during a baptism and your clothes get wet no one will know if you are really wearing an emergency pair of shorts under your robe (this has really happened to me. Twice).
It’s true. Like most things about pastors, while this issue appears to be lofty-minded and holy in origin it’s really very shallow.
I fully admit that this shallow approach to robing could be uniquely mine, but if it is I can only explain that fact by recalling a very early, damaging experience I had when I first started out.
It was probably the second Sunday of my first job on a church staff. I had insisted to my male colleagues that we should all be wearing robes so we’d look uniform up front (even then in my naiveté I had some sense that people were scrutinizing me especially closely. Read my post from December 19 if you want to hear more of my thoughts on this issue . . .). Since I did not own a robe at this time my boss scrounged around the office and came up with an old one that had been lying around. A few minutes of lint-removal later it seemed that, while a little too short, it would work fine until I could acquire one of my own (on another note, do you have any idea how much a clerical robe costs?!?!? They are outrageously expensive. This is just another among the many injustices in this world that must be addressed as time permits). I did notice that the robe we’d found had doctoral stripes on the sleeves but I didn’t have time to either finish my doctorate or remove the velvet stripes before worship so I just wore the robe.I’ll never forget the telephone call I got that Sunday evening from a congregation member deeply offended because she felt I was being dismissive of her doctorate by wearing a robe with stripes when I clearly had not yet earned a doctoral degree. I think she meant well, she was trying to be honest. But I certainly hope she had no idea how insecure I’d felt up front that morning; how very unsure I was about my own abilities; how I had really been doing just the best I knew how to do. I hope she didn’t because her telephone call was like a very sharp pin in the side of my newly and tentatively inflated self-confidence. I hung up the telephone and cried and cried.
The next day this church member dropped off a high school graduation robe of her son’s that she’d uncovered in the attic after our conversation. It wasn’t suitable for use, and not only because it was made out of some plasticky kind of disposable table cloth material. It also was way too small (thus violating one of the cardinal rules of all clerical robes—they must fit no matter what size you are—see above). And it had long strips hanging down off the undersides of the sleeves.
All of these things combined made me look when I tried it on like a character from one of the Harry Potter movies who had had a very unsuccessful run in Weight Watchers.
I stood in front of the mirror in the church bathroom and cried some more.
Eventually I got my very own personal robe (thanks to my in-laws, who gave it to me for ordination). It is made out of a very light-weight polyester fabric that will not wrinkle no matter what. It drapes beautifully and has worn well for almost ten years now. It has taken me through so many pounds, both up and down, that I can’t bear to type in the number here. And it does not have velvet doctoral stripes on the sleeves. Yet.
In case you are wondering, Elizabeth, here are Amy’s must-have rules for robes:
- As lightweight a fabric as possible. Clerical robes are HOT.
- Must fall to exactly mid-calf in order to permit occasional lapse into vanity through the wearing of really cool new shoes that at least one person will notice and comment on (I said I am TRYING to live less of me, more of God. I didn’t say I was always successful).
- Must have very cool, blousy sleeves for dramatic benedictions and pastoral blessings (but not hanging strips of cloth, which somehow look to me rather witch-like).
- Pocket. The robe must have a pocket. Here’s what’s in mine: a breath mint, a small bottle of hand sanitizer and some lipstick. Essentials (but that’s another blog entry).
- Must have enough fabric in pleats to accommodate any and all physical changes, including pregnancy and very successful diets (remember, these things are expensive. Nobody on a pastor’s salary can afford to have a “fat robe” and a “skinny robe”).
- Must not wrinkle so you can easily pack it in a suitcase, throw it in the trunk, take it somewhere on the Metro and still show up looking pastoral.
Yes, a good robe must have all these qualities and then one more, rather intangible quality. That quality is a little aura, if you want to call it that, that reminds me that when I shrug it on and zip it up I am stepping outside myself and entering a holy opportunity for there to be less of me and more of God (something this world really and truly needs).
So, I think pastors more than most people need to wear robes. After all, we’re the ones who seem to have the hardest time remembering we’re NOT God. Perhaps we need that little extra something, a tangible reminder, that, once again, it’s time to push ourselves out of the spotlight and allow a little room for God to step in.