Sunday, November 15, 2009

Repenting of My Suit

I wrote this for The House Studio's Changed Minds project.

My Dad fed me Dress for Success with my morning cereal. Barely out of pee-wee football, I could tell when someone was underdressed for an event.

Just when I was beginning to get pimples, I was also mastering which ties were classics and acceptable (diagonal stripes, dots, and paisleys), which were fashionable but unwise (plaids, abstract shapes, and stripes in any direction other than diagonal), and which were downright poor taste (pictures of any kind).

By Driver’s Ed, I could tell the difference between a 100% cotton shirt and “synthetics,” and I could tie my own tie at the right length.

In university, when I began to preach, I was a model “disciple” of my father’s rabbinical teaching of John Malloy’s Dress for Success philosophy. When I carried my Bible to the pulpit, I was never lacking my conservative tie, perfect suit, over-the-calf black socks, and wingtips.

After graduating from seminary, I landed in Cheonan, South Korea, as the bivocational pastor of a small international church on the campus of Korea Nazarene University. In addition to pastoring this family-sized church of 50, I taught conversational English at KNU.

Korea is deeply conservative in professional men’s dress. Suits are the expected norm for most office workers and for every leader. Pastors, above all, are expected to dress formally.

Throughout my first several years here, I donned a suit and tie with almost daily regularity. I repeated to myself some of my Dad’s maxims: You only get one chance to make a first impression. What you wear determines whether people will trust what you say. It may not be fair, but this is how it is. You can work with reality or break yourself against it.

But slowly, I began to chafe under the formality. Why am I doing this? What are we trying to say with these suits and ties? Why do we put on a coat in the middle of the summer?

I read Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees and saw startling parallels between their “extra long tassels” and my own neckties. The only purpose of a necktie (year round) and a suit coat (in warm weather) is to give the impression of a certain level of power and importance. The exact purpose of these clothes is to separate the powerful and important people from those without power or social significance. I couldn’t help judging myself and my peers as hypocrites who were trying to show off our status of power.

I also began to question the immense cost of this formal attire. Although I got most of my clothes on the cheap, I knew that many of my peers and our leaders spend thousands of dollars a year on these symbols of power. A sense of injustice grew in me. I was participating in a system of waste, excess, and self-promotion, which sucks millions of dollars from some of our most generous pockets.

I was particularly haunted by an experience from my university years. I invited my working-class cousins to go to church with me. After several requests, they reluctantly joined me in attending a conservative megachurch in an upper-middle class neighborhood. They felt woefully out of place in their T-shirts and blue jeans among suits and fancy dresses. The experience was such a disaster, that I didn’t even discuss church or God with them for a very long time. Years later, when I was attending a more relaxed church, I thought they might have a better chance of fitting in enough to actually hear the message. However, they rebuffed my offer with the claim that they had nothing to wear. They only consented to join me when I promised to wear blue-jeans as well.

I read biographies of Mother Theresa and was struck by her intentional decision to don the simple cotton clothing of the poor in her city. For a time, I seriously considered forming an “order neveaux” that chose to wear only blue shirts and khakis, as a form of public dissent against both the formal and high-fashion cultures.

I prayed. I read. I sought advice from others. My parents were predictably against the idea. My wife wisely stood on the sidelines and let me process all my conflicting thoughts and desires and fears. On more than one occasion I stood in front of my closet with the resolution to throw out every suit and tie I owned.

When our church decided to make several changes at once, changing our location and meeting time all in one move, I decided to add a wardrobe change for myself. When I walked into the new place, I left the suit and tie behind.

For another year or so, I continued to wear suits into my English classrooms at KNU. I reasoned that while I am in an official university role, I should go along with the formal Korean culture. So it was suits on class days and semi-casual wear on church days.

However, I began to feel dichotomous – like I was presenting two selves to the world. Also, my decision not to wear suits to church still did not resolve my participation in the “suit-system” during the week. I still felt like I was participating in a social system built on hypocrisy and contributing to global injustice.

About 4 years after taking my first pastorate and committing to the daily “uniform” of pastors and professors, I purged my closet of all but two suits and a handful of ties. My wife finally voiced her opinion and talked me into wearing suits for weddings and funerals. I am still not sure how this jives with my desire to be consistent at all times. For now, I agree with her advice that some special occasions seem to call for special clothing, and further that I should avoid giving offense if at all possible.

I may not be finished making adjustments in my clothing ethics, but for me, this process of intentional dress is a key component in my discipleship of Jesus. I want everything I do to help me follow him more, to be closer to his example. I want to be as simple and honest as I can manage. At the same time, I want to create as few barriers between myself as others as possible.

I don’t want to impose my clothing ethic on others, and I don’t want to judge all suit-wearers as Pharisaical hypocrites. But I do believe that questioning our motives and even our cultures is a healthy practice for all of us – especially those of us who long to follow our countercultural Messiah.

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