I thought I was choking. I looked up to my mom and cried, “I can’t breath!” It was hot in the sanctuary and the red sweater she forced me to wear to church had a death grip around my neck. I fidgeted in my seat in an uncomfortable tussle. It wasn’t fair! Why did she make me wear such a restrictive and suffocating article of clothing? I slumped in defeat, attempted to loosen my collar and let my ten-year-old mind wander past the words of the pastor.
Truth is, mom is a genius. How could she have known she was really just preparing me for what was to come almost twenty years later?
I knew pastors in Malawi wore clerical collars. Weeks before Hailey and I arrived, we got an email asking if we could bring a few. Our friends at the Josaphat Mwale Theological Institute really appreciated the delivery of collars by the La Jolla Pres. mission team in July (thanks Gibbs), but more were needed. I drove to the local Catholic goods store in San Diego to see what they had. Who would have known there were so many types of collars! Plastic collars, cloth collars, incensed collars, machine washable collars…you name it, they make it. As the store clerk threw a variety in the bag, I couldn’t help but think they all looked equally stiff and stifling. It didn’t matter; I knew that if I were to really be seen as a pastor in Malawi I’d have to wear one. I even bought a special shirt, thinking it might make it more bearable.
I avoided wearing a collar for our first few meetings, but I knew it was inevitable that the day would come. Yesterday was that day. We were to attend a commissioning (installation) service for another pastor, so we could have an idea of what one looks like prior to our own. First, I couldn’t figure out how to use the special shirt (Hailey and I decided it must be missing buttons…). Then, as we made multiple attempts to put the thing on “right,” we were baffled at how a Catholic Priest could dress all by himself, without the aid of a wife. You wouldn’t think it would be a difficult task, but they don’t just slide under the collar. Finally, we got it on. The memories of gasping for air as a ten year old quickly returned and were only intensified by the reality that I would have this thing on for the entire day.
If it weren’t for a sore rear end (five hours on a wooden bench will do that to just about anyone) and not knowing the language, the pool of sweat building beneath my jacket and clerical collar would have been more noticeable. We sat upfront with the pastors and the honored guests, so my juvenile squirming had to remain to a minimum. During one song, as we stood, I wiped my brow and looked out on the congregation. There is nothing quite like a thousand plus Malawians (the church was literally over flowing) standing, dancing and singing praises to their Creator. We sat down and a speaker got up and, in Chichewa, said, “God is good!” The church responded with a thundering, “ALL THE TIME!!!” My cynical mind forces me to focus on the things I can’t comprehend and, too often, gets in the way of understanding this simple piece of theology. God really is good all the time; even when neighbors are starving, people are dying from curable diseases or when I was a 10-year-old sitting in a stale service gasping for air.