Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Collar-less Christians

On Sunday morning, I wear a uniform.  Perhaps I am a little more laid back than many of my other clergy colleagues in that I wear blue jeans and boots, but every Sunday, I still wear a black, button-down clergy shirt with a white clerical collar.

Sometimes, I even go all out on our Gospel Sundays and wear a black coat and a felt hat, but that's become pretty rare.  Yet, the uniform is still there.

In the past couple of months, a couple of clergy colleagues have written in their blogs the reasons they wear their uniform during the work week.  Their arguments are very persuasive, particularly the one by Rev. David Hansen who compares wearing a clergy collar to a policeman wearing his or her uniform--you don't necessarily look for a policeman until you really need one, and then the uniform helps you find one.  Duly noted.  Pastor Hansen backs up his analogy with a story of a hospital visit when he was approached by a family who was losing a loved one.  Because he was wearing his collar, the family approached him, and he was able to minister to them during the end of life issues. 

I do not deny the power of Pastor Hansen's argument.  It's real.  It's true.  It almost makes me want to wear my collar during the work week.

But I have a story of my own to tell. 

Yesterday, I headed to the hospital to visit one of my members who was undergoing treatments for a rare disease.  After a visit and prayer, I headed to the elevator intent on driving down the road and getting some lunch.  A gentleman had arrived moments before and had pushed the elevator button ahead of time, and as luck would have it the elevator arrived just as I walked into the waiting area.

I turned to the gentleman, and as is my wont at these time said, "Thank you for pushing the button and waiting so that I didn't have to."

That elicited a smile as we entered the elevator together.

On the way down, I struck up a conversation expecting it to last maybe a minute or two--until we reached the hospital lobby and went our separate ways.  I asked, "Do you have a loved one in the hospital?"

I have become accustomed to asking that question in hospital elevators--except when there is obviously a person who works at the hospital, then I ask, "Rough day today?"  I ask because there is always a chance to offer Christian compassion at these times.  More than once, I have entered into conversations, albeit brief, about God's power to heal and the need for prayer with families and individuals, and this circumstance was the same--but different.

The gentleman replied, "Yes, but it's about at the end.  My aunt is 92 and we're looking at hospice."

I responded, "I'm sorry to hear that.  In some ways, I understand.  I've walked through such things with a lot of people."

The expression on his face meant he was looking for an explanation.

I said, "I'm a pastor."

Then, the floodgates opened.  "My aunt was very religious.  Do you get out here often?  Do you think you could stop by and see her?  She'd probably, really appreciate someone praying with her and letting her know someone is there at the end?  Will you be here later this week?"

The elevator reached the bottom floor.  I said, "I actually won't be in later this week, but I will be happy to go and see your aunt right now and pray with her."

We pushed the button and headed back up all the while conversing as he filled me in on his family, his aunt, his uncle who was retired Air Force who was disabled in WWII, how the uncle had died and how he hoped the two of them would be reunited.  "They call my aunt Grace," he ended.

I went to Grace's bedside.  She had been given a morphine shot and was quite out of it, but she still responded when I called her name.  She said, "Yes," when I asked her if she would like me to pray for her and with her.  And I did.

After I prayed and Grace was sleeping, I gave the gentleman my name and phone number.  I also got his so that I could contact him later this week.  Who knows what will come of this in the days to come?

But I did think about this incident at length yesterday afternoon and evening.  I thought about the ministry that God used me to perform at this hospital.  And I thought about my role as a clergy and how I wasn't wearing a collar.  And I thought about all the people who are believers in Christ, who are collar-less Christians who don't have clergy uniforms who still make up the priesthood of all believers.  And I thought about how God desires to use all of them--as well as those of us who are clergy--to minister in and to this world.  And I wondered, "How will folks know we care if we are not marked--if we do not stand out in some form or fashion?"

Of course, the answer was plain as day--WE MUST MAKE THE FIRST MOVE.  We, as collar-less Christians, can only be identified if we are willing to take the risk, ask questions, engage other people.  That is the biggest difference in the ministry performed by Pastor Hansen and myself.  Neither is wrong, but one method says, "I'm here if you need me.  You can find me by how I look."   The other doesn't wait for the other to initiate conversation, but seeks out the other--engages other people looking to uncover need when someone may be too afraid to ask. 

Again, let me stress this, both methods work in providing ministry.  However, I will stick with going collar-less. Why?

If the Church's primary job is evangelism...
If all of God's people are called to engage in that job...
If most of God's people are not easily identifiable because they don't wear a uniform...

Then, they must be willing to break through those initial fears and take risks to engage others--in hospitals, in offices, in schools, in grocery stores, in restaurants, at Little League fields, and wherever else their lives lead them.  They must be willing to talk to strangers, in a non-threatening manner, asking questions to break the ice so that some form of relationship can be established--then, once those initial barriers are broken down, perhaps a need will be uncovered.  THIS IS NOT EASY!!!   IT IS EXTREMELY DIFFICULT!!!

I know.  I don't wear a collar.  It's hard to engage another person and get under the superficial litany that we engage in on a daily basis.  You know, the one where you walk up to someone and say, "How's it going?"  They respond, "Fine.  How are you?"  You say, "Fine," and then the conversation is over.  It's easy to make an attempt to be friendly.  It's harder to truly engage another person.  It's harder to be exposed to their raw emotions--anger, grief, pain, frustration, or even happiness, joy, jubilation, elation.  The former because it's depressing.  The latter because it can lead to jealousy.  Yet, in order to engage in our calling, I believe we must take that risk.  We must be willing to make ourselves vulnerable.  Only then, can we truly minister to those who are in need.

And we have to take the first step.  Collar-less Christians have to begin the process instead of waiting for others to simply come up to us.  We must be attuned to another's body language.  We must be willing to break the ice, ask different questions, lead with different greetings:

Do you have a loved one here in the hospital, nursing home, rehab center, etc.?
Having a rough day?
You look happy.
Are you new at this job?
I know you put up with a lot of stuff, I hope I'll be easier on you.
You look like you're having some difficulty.  Can I help?

The other day, I was stopped at a gas station.  A minivan drove up next to my car with an elderly couple.  A military bumper sticker was on the back.  The elderly woman got out to fill her car.  The elderly man was apparently too week or handicapped.  I asked the woman, "Would you like me to clean your windshield?

She responded, "Yes, that would be fantastic."  As I began cleaning, she said, "Now, you don't want anything for it, now do you?"

Laughing (instead of getting offended), I said, "No ma'am.  Nothing at all."

She said, "You know, this world would be a much better place if more people acted like you."

I said, "Who's going to change the world if we don't?"  That stopped her in her tracks for a second, but I think my words ring true.

It will be collar-less Christians--those who are willing to engage others, show kindness, caring, and God's love, who will make that difference.  I am learning how to be one such collar-less Christian outside of Sunday morning, and I hope to share my experiences and equip others to go and do likewise.


Carol L Koenig said...

Carol Koenig, Bob and Karen Hartman's neighbor;
I signed up for emails to receive news on Christian Patterson, an honorary Koenig. I pray for those you lift in prayer, delete other emails, and dutifully read your blog this morning. We had a pastor like you at Ashord UMC in Houston, Jim Killen. He taught us so much of faith and service and better yet he lived his faith. In my experience, most men and women of God ar so much more alike than the differences of denomination. I'm sure it's the result of keeping the up channel open. God Bless you.

Kevin Haug said...

Thank you for your comments, Carol. All I can say is, we try.