Why I Don't Wear a Clerical Robe

A spiritual value I really try to apply and live by is the value of simplicity. I live rather simply. I dress simply. I eat pretty simply. I try to keep it simple. 

That said, wearing a clerical robe on Sundays to me doesn’t match how I usually approach life. And of all hours, the Worship hour when we stand before and sit with God demands simplicity and humility.

In this vein of thought, there is a Protestant Reformer that I especially admire who sadly is not as known as Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. His name is Andreas Karlstadt. In addition to implementing the removal of all symbols from the sanctuary, he also rejected the wearing of clerical vestments and eventually even of academic gowns which is the style Protestant clergy still use. He wore simple, peasant garb, believing that we are all priests and pastors, and we are all equally created in God’s image.

Lastly, I prefer the Johnny Cash approach. The Man in Black, another hero of mine, influences my clerical garb – wearing black with only white on the collar and white soles and laces on my Chuck Taylors (and of course colorful ball caps when out in public). 

Of course, I close with Cash’s song, Man in Black:

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
Why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love & charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.

Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen' that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen' that we all were on their side.

Well, there's things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin' everywhere you go,
But 'til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You'll never see me wear a suit of white.

Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black.

Jesus on Wealth

We live in a culture that values wealth. I think this is abundantly clear. We highlight our rag to riches stories. We place wealthy people on pedestals and see them as people to emulate. We elect into power mostly wealthy people. We measure the state of our country and other countries by measures of economic wealth.

The same can be said about the religious culture Jesus confronted… It said in many ways in society, blessed are the rich.

That is why Jesus presented and still presents a problem for many.

Jesus did not see material wealth as an inherent positive. In fact, he saw it as just the opposite. Material wealth for Jesus served as a detriment when it came to what Jesus was all about – God’s Commonwealth, which most biblical translations translate as the kingdom of God.

God’s Commonwealth is the translation suggested by renowned theologian John Cobb. This is Cobb’s rationale for translating Kingdom of God as Commonwealth of God.

The Greek phrase that we translate as “kingdom of God” is basileia theos. A basileia is a politically defined region. It could be a kingdom, and indeed most of them were, but the term does not include that as part of its meaning. If you suppose in advance that God is like a king, then the basileia of God will certainly be a kingdom. But if God is like a father, then his region or land will not be a kingdom. We might describe a father’s basileia better as the family estate. Depending on the kind of father we are talking about, that might be governed in various ways. When we consider how Jesus talked about God, the answer is that it would be managed for the sake of all who lived there with special concern for the weak and needy. We have no word for this, but my proposal is “commonwealth.” Jesus’ message is that the “divine commonwealth is at hand.” Everyone should reverse directions and join in this new possibility. There is no reason to think of the God whose basileia this is, as a monarch!

Indeed, Jesus’ vision of a community based in and grounded in the reality of a loving God, this vision of the beloved community of God, included a sharing of wealth, a common wealth.

Think of heaven, which when we pray the Lord’s Prayer we pray will come to earth. Thy commonwealth come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In heaven, is there poverty? In heaven, is there a disparity between those who possess wealth and those who do not? No, in heaven, whatever kind of wealth there is, it is shared, it is held in common. Jesus wants that model brought to earth.

As for personal wealth, Jesus never condemns it per se. We often misquote Jesus’ apostle in I Timothy when it comes to money and wealth. Money isn’t the root of all evil, but the love of money is. Jesus in the gospels simply wants money and wealth to be used wisely and compassionately, serving the goodness of God and God’s commonwealth.

Jesus’ deeper concerns are not wealth itself, but what wealth does to the rich, and what it means for the poor.

Jesus is a good follower of Tanakh and Yahweh. In the Tanakh, Jesus’ Bible, the wealthy are commanded to protect and give to the poor so that the poor are not destitute and do not die. This is what Moses and the prophets teach. When Jesus tells the rich man to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, it is fully in keeping with the Yahweh-faith.

Where Rabbi Jesus is unique is that he claims God sides with, indeed favors the poor, not the rich. We see this in Jesus very first introduction of himself and his ministry. He claims in Luke 4, he’s come with good news first and foremost to who – to the poor. He goes on to say in the Sermon in the Plain in Luke 6, blessed are the poor and woe to those who are rich. He lauds a poor woman who gives the little she has over and against the rich who give more but only a portion. Again and again, Jesus highlights the last, the least, the lost, commanding we include them first and foremost.


That said, Jesus doesn’t exclude the rich. He wants the rich to become part of God’s commonwealth. Matthew, a rich tax-collector, became one of twelve. Yet he knows how hard it is for the wealthy to follow the way of God’s commonwealth, the way of humility and compassion, the way of Jesus, which are all the same thing.

Why is it hard for the wealthy to become part of God’s commonwealth? The more we have, the more we become attached to what we have. The more we have, the more we want. The more we have, the harder it is to let go of. And that’s what Jesus wants – for us to let go of all that holds us back from real connection to him and to real compassion for all of God’s children. Jesus wants for us to let go of what in the end we don’t need and give it to those who are in need.

Now, I want to be clear, this tendency to make money an idol is in all of us. The wealthy are not any different than us in an essential way. Judge lest ye be judged.

Christ’s larger point is to let go of those things we hold too tightly or hold too tightly to for the sake of God’s commonwealth. Christ’s point is to look at every human being, especially the poor, as if we were looking through the eyes of God who loves each of us like a loving parent loves her children. Does a loving parent allow her children to be poor when there is so much wealth to be shared? I think we know the answer to that question.


I’d like to close with a reading of Jesus’ famous beatitudes which gets at the ethos of God’s commonwealth. This reading is from a new translation of the New Testament called First Nations Translation. I read it in honor of Indigenous People’s Day tomorrow:

1When Creator Sets Free (Jesus) saw this great crowd, he went back up into the mountainside and sat down to teach the people. His followers came to him there, 2so he took a deep breath, opened his mouth, and began to share his wisdom with them and teach them how to see Creator’s good road. 3“Creator’s blessing rests on the poor, the ones with broken spirits. The good road from above is theirs to walk. 4“Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who walk a trail of tears, for he will wipe the tears from their eyes and comfort them. 5“Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who walk softly and in a humble manner. The earth, land, and sky will welcome them and always be their home. 6“Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who hunger and thirst for wrongs to be made right again. They will eat and drink until they are full. 7“Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who are merciful and kind to others. Their kindness will find its way back to them—full circle. 8“Creator’s blessing rests on the pure of heart. They are the ones who will see the Great Spirit. 9“Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who make peace. It will be said of them, ‘They are the children of the Great Spirit!’ 10“Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who are hunted down and mistreated for doing what is right, for they are walking the good road from above… 14 As you walk the road with me, you are a light shining in this dark world. A village built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one hides a torch under a basket. Instead it is lifted up high on a pole, so all who are in the house can see it. 16 In the same way, let your light shine by doing what is good and right. When others see, they will give honor to your Father—the One Above Us All.

Where’d All the Young Folks Go?

 13 People were bringing children to Jesus so that he would bless them. But the disciples scolded them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he grew angry and said to them, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. 15 I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” 16 Then he hugged the children and blessed them.

In the short vignette from the gospel of Mark chapter 10, the disciples of Jesus want to hinder children from coming to Jesus. They want to turn them away.

Why, you ask. Well, you need to consider that we live in a different day and age, a day and age where children are treated special, lovingly, and exalted. This is a very kid-centric time we live in, in most ways anyway, and rightly so. But in Jesus’ times, kids were not seen as special or exalted. For families struggling to get by and survive, children were expensive, first of all. And infant mortality was high. In other words, for most families, living hand to mouth and without modern medicine, having another kid meant many more worries. There were no gender-reveal parties in Jesus’ day.

And in public, children were to be seen but not heard. Children were often seen as nuisances when it came to adult concerns. Adults in public, men especially, didn’t want to be bothered by children.   

Thankfully, Jesus was different. Jesus when it came to children was moderner in an ancient time. He treated children special, lovingly, and exalted them, as he does in our scripture reading.

But I want to focus on the disciples hindering young people from coming to Jesus. and yes, I am expanding things from children to young people. The disciples weren’t successful. However, to apply the story to us, when it comes to us hindering young people, we are much more successful, granted, unconsciously so.

There is this thing called retention. When it comes to retaining our young people, the Congregationalist-UCC tradition is very poor. According to a huge survey on religion in America from a few years ago, only 70% at most remain Congregationalists or UCC into their adulthood. We are turning our children away somehow, hindering them from coming to the Jesus we know and love.

How, is the question. What are we as a denomination doing or not doing unconsciously – and I highlight unconsciously – that influence our children to leave the UCC when they become adults?

To answer that, we ought to do a deeper dive into the numbers. So, according to Pew Research’s Religious Landscape Study from 2015, Congregationalists, which is predominately UCC, see 31% of their kids continue to identify with the denomination they were brought up in. So, 31% continue as UCCers. 36% join other Christian denominations, 6% join another religion altogether, and 28% become unaffiliated. Congregationalists are at the very bottom when it comes to retention. At the top? At the top of the retention rate list are non-Christian traditions, namely Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. First is Hinduism with 80% remaining Hindu into adulthood. Then there is Islam and Judaism, at 77% and 75% respectively remaining Muslim and Jewish. The Christian group that does the best when it comes to retaining their youth is the Black Protestant church with 70% remaining apart of that tradition into adulthood. The Evangelical tradition follows with 65% remaining Evangelical into adulthood. Catholics retain 59% of their youth. And mainline Protestantism, just 45%.

So, the UCC problem with retention is a mainline Protestant problem. Compared to non-Christian traditions, Evangelical traditions and the Catholic tradition, mainline churches do much worse when it comes to retaining their kids. And among mainline churches, the UCC does the worst of all with 31% of young people continuing as UCC into adulthood.

Here are my thoughts in the how and why we do so poorly as a denomination. And let me just say here that this is not a personal thing. I am not personal critiquing anyone here. Lord knows how we as parents struggle and fail. Nor do I want anyone to feel any kind of guilt. No "shoulda-coulda-wouldas." Regret is wasted energy. All we can do is start where we are and seek to improve. That’s it.

Let me also say that the Christian Education program here at CCP is top-notch. Nicole, Rex, and Cheryl do a wonderful job. CE is not, let me repeat, not the problem. It just isn’t enough! Nor is confirmation.

That said, I give some thoughts about some things our denomination and our collective body might do to improve our retention rate.

When considering those that do better in retaining their young, these seem to be the common denominator:

1.)  personal, applicable connection to one’s live between Monday and Sunday.

For the non-Christian religions I mentioned, this personal connection is seen in the daily devotional practices that Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism require. Hinduism, for example, requires daily worship practice called puja as well as frequent religious festivals through the year. Islam, five times daily prayer. Judaism, regular prayer and a kosher diet.  

In the Black church and the Evangelical traditions, the personal connection is a bit different but just as pervasive in one’s life. The personal connection to one’s life comes in the form of a personal relationship with Jesus that is a daily thing. “A daily walk with Jesus,” is what is often called, and this daily walk in turn influences regular spiritual practices such as Bible study, prayer time, and attending multiple church services throughout the week.  That personal connection to Jesus is key. It is a heart thing, a relationship that is focused on and fostered.

2.)   a deep sense of community experienced throughout the week

Whether a Hindu or a Black Christian, community is central. In these spiritual communities, folks not only worship together, but they eat together, celebrate together, and simply come together throughout the week. As a communities, these religious groups are more like a close cousin to kids than distant uncle or aunt.

So, a personal connection to divinity, in our case to Jesus, and devotional practices throughout the week, and coming together in community as much as possible with fellow sojourners – this, I would say, correlates to retaining young people.

In other words, a more than just Sunday morning approach to the spiritual life that includes a deep sense of community, this seems to enhance young people wanting to remain in the faith.  

So, as I come to a close, what are some things we can do to enhance a deeper connection to Jesus? Is there a regular spiritual practice done throughout the week we can gather around here at Plainville Congregational? And lastly what can we do to enhance a deep sense of community throughout the week?    

These are some of the questions I am asking myself. I am asking knowing as a parent I am far, far from having it figured out.

Jesus said to his disciples, do not hinder the young from coming to me. Let them come and sit with me and be blessed. And Jesus embraced their presence and their personhood, and they experienced connection to the divine. They experienced some kind of spiritual transformation. They experienced community with Jesus and his people. And I’d like to think those young people who shared that moment with Jesus became part of the Jesus movement that we call the church.

That is what we are aiming for still. Let us make it so in the ways we can.