It started innocently enough.
Ralph Starling showed up on Pentecost Sunday without his red tie (I had encouraged everyone to wear red on Pentecost, especially those who were leading in worship) and I said, “No problem. You can wear my red stole.”
I had this beautiful handmade Pentecost stole, with “tongues of fire” on it hanging up in my closet. It was made for me by a woman in Texas who does this kind of thing as her specialty. I love it, but I don’t get many chances to wear it as the ministers at First Baptist typically wear robes only on special occasions.
So Ralph hung it around his neck as he did the Welcome and Call to Worship, and it looked so good on him I asked if I could get it back before the sermon at the 11:00 service. I thought, “Why not? Pentecost is a special occasion!” So I slipped out during one of the hymns, put on my robe and stole, and came back out to preach.
It felt good. It looked good. And someone told me afterward, “You were on fire!” (I thought he was talking about my preaching; turns out he was only talking about my stole).
I posted the picture on Facebook and asked for opinions. The overwhelming majority of those were positive. Many people said I should wear the robe every week.
The next week was Trinity Sunday, and we had a youth choir from a Methodist Church in North Carolina visiting. I had a white stole hanging in my closet, perfect for Trinity Sunday, and the visiting youth choir was used to seeing their minister in a robe and stole. So, I did it again: I preached in my robe and stole and it felt great.
At my last church I preached in a robe every week, and I enjoyed it for several reasons. 1) I didn’t have to think so much about what I was going to wear on Sunday, or whether my shirt matched my tie, 2) theologically, a robe is intended to let the preacher “disappear” so that the word of God can be heard, and 3) the stole is a symbol of “the yoke of Christ,” and every time I put it on before I preached I would feel the responsibility to speak a word for him.
Maybe that’s why, last Sunday, even though there wasn’t any real reason to do so, and it wasn’t what you would call a “special” Sunday (the Second Sunday after Pentecost), I put on the robe again, and a beautiful green stole that matched the colors on the pulpit and the communion table.
And that’s when my phone began to ring.
It started with a mention that one of our Sunday school teachers didn’t care much for the robe and stole. And then I got email from a former deacon chair who spelled out reasons, both traditional and theological, for returning to a suit and tie. And finally a member of my “kitchen cabinet,” my informal advisory panel, gave me some informal advice: “It’s just not us,” he said, apologetically.
And that’s what stuck.
For ten years I’ve been wearing a suit and tie on Sunday mornings out of respect for this church’s tradition. I’ve done some other things to push us toward a more liturgical style of worship: we use the lectionary; we say “Thanks be to God”; we observe the colors and seasons of the Christian year. But the robe and stole was probably a step too far, and people who love me and love the church were honest enough to say so.
It “clicked” for me last night, when I went to an interfaith dinner and saw the pastor of River Road Church, Baptist, wearing a clerical collar. It looked good on him, and fit in nicely with that church’s formal, liturgical tradition. But I thought, “That’s not me,” in the same way one of my advisors had said, “That’s not us.”
So, look for me in a suit this Sunday, honoring the tradition of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, but grateful to be in a place where the pastor can wear a robe and a stole if he wants to.
Don’t be surprised if it comes out again—next Pentecost.