Photo by Elevate on Unsplash

Trading my stole for an apron

October 17, 2023

Since I was a child, I’ve been particular about clothes. I have a faint but unmistakable memory concerning a burdensome yellow onesie with what I’ll call “footies.” The intent of this extra bit of cloth covering the feet was to provide warmth but also traction. Running along the bottom was a material comprised of equal parts non-slip fabric and small rubber dots. The goal was to reduce the inescapable falls a toddler amasses over the course of a day as they unsuccessfully navigate across kitchen tile and wooden floors.

I loathed those “footies.”

I would scream, cry, and refuse to walk on them. I called them “popcorn feet,” a descriptor my young mind conjured up—somehow linking those pesky hard dots to those small and disappointing unpopped kernels found at the bottom of Orville Redenbacher’s bag.

As I grew older, my penchant for clothes having to feel a certain way would follow me. The sleeves of a T-shirt required ending well above the elbow. Abrasive materials like wool were a no-no. Turtlenecks left me with a sense of being strangled. You couldn’t get me to wear what we Southerners refer to as a toboggan on my head when the temperature turned cool outside. I’d strike harder than a union worker if told to wear something over my ears.

My mother would tell you I was a clothes contrarian. She struggled to dress me for the appropriate seasons. If it was cold, I’d pull out a pair of shorts and roll up the arms on my jacket. In the dead of summer, I’d sneak out of the house in a sweatshirt. She still regales anyone who’ll listen about the time when she picked me up from summer school, on the count of my missing so many days from strep throat and tonsillitis likely caused by my exposed head, and saw me walking toward the car in a Mexican Baja hoodie. I hid it that morning in my backpack so as not to catch any blowback from her. It takes a lot to embarrass my mother, but this was a good start.

Somewhere, amid popcorn feet, torn jeans, fishnets, and Converse covered in band names and duct tape, I came to see what one wore or didn’t wear as a window into who they were. Clothing could announce your acceptance of the status quo or be the flag of your resistance.

My attire has always displayed a refusal to be whatever anyone else thought it should be. A collection of pieces actively working in silence to convey what I was screaming on the inside. Habiliments often causing a second glance for better or for worse. One of the most flattering remarks I ever had about an outfit was from a former roommate. I walked into a brewery one night to meet him and a group of friends. He gave me a proper once over before saying, “You don’t look like anyone in here.”

I took this as a compliment. He may not have intended it to be.

You could say that I’ve developed a distinguishable style for myself over the years. And in the words of Skip Engblom, co-founder of the Zephyr Surf and Skate Teams, “Style is everything.”

Because of this, I’m an evangelist of the idea that what one wears should mean something. It helps tell their story.

I will try to tell you a little bit more of mine as it pertains to what attire I choose and choose not to wear.

So, without further ado, let’s talk vestments.

I’ve never been a big fan of robes and stoles. I do have them, of course. When you’re a pastor, you accumulate such items. I can’t tell you how many copies of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters have mysteriously appeared on my shelves. Too many, to the point you’d think I bought a bundle of them at Costco. Vestments I have, but I rarely use them outside of the church calendar’s heavier seasons. I’m fine with dusting off my cassock for Advent and Lent. Even I can admit, it’s nice rolling out of bed on a Sunday morning and not thinking about what to wear. Ministerial scrubs have their place, I suppose. The only stole I’ve ever bought for myself was a red one I needed for my own installation service. All others have been gifted to me. I have an academic hood and robe tucked away at my church office. It’s the kind they bestow on you at graduation and is as thin as Dead Sea Scroll papyrus.

When I see an apron, I think of service. I think of hospitality. I want my apron to remind me that to follow the lowly Galilean, I’m called to a life of service and hospitality, which embraces the personal and works to strip away anything disingenuous.

Clerical collars are a waste around my neck since you can’t see much below my chin anyway, thanks to the length of my beard. This burning bush of facial hair cancels out the smattering of bowties I still hold onto for unknown reasons, and relieves me of worrying whether or not I need to use a half or double Windsor knot.

I thought these garments would become more comfortable when I became a pastor. Even with the degrees and ordination, the stole, the robe, and the unofficial Baptist blue suit jacket, none quite feel right. For a few years, I thought perhaps I needed to break this divine dress in like a pair of new cowboy boots. Those “boots” never got any easier to wear as time went on. So now, they capture dust bunnies beside the bowties in the closet.

The point I’m trying to make is this: traditional church garb doesn’t feel right on me. I’ve all but stopped wearing it.

What do I wear to church when I stand behind a pulpit?

I still gussy up and don a jacket or sports coat. I’ve got a red argyle one that would make a Scotsman blush enough to match it. No tie of any kind goes around my neck. Instead, I cycle through an assortment of ascots and silk bandanas. If the mood hits me right, I replace them with a handkerchief resembling the likes of what my grandfather would have tucked in his back pocket.

Oh, and I’ve started wearing aprons.

This recent development began when two youths in my congregation helped my family with some last-minute babysitting. When my spouse and I arrived home, we thanked them profusely and tried to stick a couple of twenties in their pockets for the trouble. They wouldn’t accept it. Their firm stance smelled of parental-infused manners and politeness, yet I wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“Well, if you won’t take the money, can I make you something? What’s your favorite dessert?” I asked them. Word has already spread in my new congregation of my bordering-on-obsessive passion for baking.

They glanced at each other, smiled, and quipped almost in unison, “Anything chocolate would be fine.”

Where some preachers might burn Saturday night’s midnight oil to polish off a sermon, I instead see time better spent watching my stand mixer cream butter and sugar together.

As the clock on the stove moves closer to displaying the witching hour, I’ve got a Death By Chocolate Espresso Cake cooled down enough so it can be iced. Here, in a quietness only the darkness can gift, I rotate my heavy cake stand under the warm glow of blessed kitchen lights while applying a fluffy coat of frosting. My presentation skills are improving, thanks to my spouse and numerous YouTube videos. The amount I’ve slathered on is criminal and worthy of a few hallelujahs. I stand back and shove my hands in my pockets.

My apron pockets. I look down and notice I must have slipped my apron on, but I’m unsure when. Doing so has become more natural since I received it a few weeks ago. Before this, patches of lingering white flour stood out on my black jeans with the illuminating force of a neon sign—proof of my cookery doings to all who saw me on those days. A badge of honor, if you will.

I take stock of what this practical article of clothing resting over my shoulder and around my waist says about me. More aptly put, what I want it to say about me.

You see, when I see an apron, I think of service. I think of hospitality. I think of an immaculate server at my table, guiding me through the menu, pointing me to a dish that will leave me making reservations to return and have it again. I think of my grandmother, who wore an apron in her own kitchen and the industrial kitchen of a retirement home where she worked. She fed my family and those who didn’t have much family left. Through her, I learned a person who wears an apron ensures everybody gets fed.

I want the donning of my apron to mean something, too. I want it to be a symbol letting others know I’m here to serve them the best way I know how in the moment. I want it to tell them I’m attentive to their needs, open to them, and while not always, this might mean baking them a cake in the middle of the night out of sheer gratitude for their presence in my life. I want to wear it when I stand behind a pulpit because I want to remind myself that to follow the lowly Galilean, I’m called to a life of service and hospitality, which embraces the personal and works to strip away anything disingenuous. I can already tell you the apron suits me better than the stole. It doesn’t feel as heavy with expectations or concerned with agendas as that stole often does.

I might go so far as to say tying on an apron is like taking on an easy yoke and accepting a light burden.

Maybe more of us would do well to trade in our vestments for aprons.

Justin Cox is senior pastor, Second Baptist Church in Suffield, Connecticut. He received his theological education from Campbell University and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program at McAfee School of Theology.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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