A week ago I went to the Puyallup Fair. We go pretty much every year, to look at the animals, eat the mandatory scone and see the rodeo, or listen to whoever is in concert that strikes our fancy. This time we went to see a horse circus. It’s kind of our end of summer birthday treat.
As it happens I was wearing my minister rig: pretty much the Man in Black with my little white flash of dog collar. As we were going along the fairway, someone called out, “Hey, Father!” I was talking to my wife at the time, and my hearing isn’t so good, so it took a second to realize what I had heard, so I turned, but couldn’t make out who had called. I gave a general wave in what I hoped was the right direction, and we passed on. If it was you who called out, I’m sorry I missed you.
Remembering this the next day, my wife asked, “Is it just Catholic Priests who are called Father, or other ministers as well?” I answered that basically, priests are called “Father” and ministers “Reverend,” more or less. So Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox are Father, and Lutheran, Unitarian, Baptist and the rest are mostly Rev. And soldiers call everybody “Padre.” Really, though, there isn’t any rule.
“Why do most people call ministers Father, then?” she asked. I’m not sure, but I think it’s because (especially here in Cascadia) many people aren’t religious, or at any rate, don’t go to church, and so get their ideas from the TV or movies, and for some reason those like to show Catholics. Better costumes, I suppose. Except on the BBC, where everyone is C of E, except Father Brown.
If somebody calls me Father, I ask if they are Catholic, and if yes, tell them I’m not a priest, because it matters to them. Anyone else, they can call me whatever they like. Just as long as they aren’t a dick about it. But what is interesting about this is that people do respond to the dog collar. Always positively.
Sometimes they want to talk, sometimes just say hello, sometimes to ask where my church is. Well, as you know, I don’t do the church thing, so I just say I have no brick-and-mortar church; I’m just online. Here. But the interesting thing is, my impression is people like to see priests, or ministers, or whatever. I know I always feel a little lift when I see a Buddhist monk around town. I’m glad they are there, doing their thing.
I think this is because, even though we are a very secular society here in Seattle, and most of the people I know are atheists, the reaction to somebody wearing a dog collar is positive. This is because, as I like to say, it’s a badge, declaring, “I’m more interested in values than things.” And in a world where we are bombarded by advertising exhorting us to go buy and consume and fulfill ourselves by wanting more and earning more, people like to be reminded of something else. Even if they think, “How can you possibly dedicate your life to a fairy tale?” They like to see ministers or priests doing their thing.
Because, after all, a dog collar is a kind of advertisement. And yes, ministers are selling something, in a way. But I live in the hope that most of them are selling the ideal of knowing the value of things, and not just the cost of things. Perhaps the simple idea of treating the people around you well. Loving your neighbor, even. Something like that. Not being a dick, anyway.
Goodness knows, priests as people, and churches as institutions are fallible, venal, sometimes corrupt. And there are some ministers out there who are in it for the money, or worse. And this is why, I sometimes think, many ministers have stopped wearing their dog collars in public. Because …. well. They don’t want to catch the flack. Being a minister isn’t very cool, after all. It’s kind of antiquated. Pathetic, really.
Only there isn’t any flack that I can see. Only polite interest. Maybe even an ironic thought that though they can’t believe in anything, it’s kind of nice to think that maybe someone else does. Call it God, call it the Good, call it Buddha. Whatever you want to call it, I think people kind of miss it. And they want somebody out there, putting some effort into making the world a better place. Even if that very notion is really old fashioned and out of date.
But some things never go out of date. Like treating others with respect. As individuals, not as members of a group. With compassion. As you would like to be treated yourself. You know, with kindness. Fairness. Honesty, maybe. Sympathy and understanding. Honor. Virtue, however you define it. Love. All the things that are also fairy tales, but that make our lives not just better, but possible. And it really doesn’t matter where you get your inspiration to believe that a life of values is a happier one than a life of consumption, making the statement that you believe in something beyond the physical is welcome in our society.
After all, if God is a myth, so are Democracy and Freedom. Fairness and honesty don’t exist, except in our hearts and in our minds and in our actions. The Golden Rule has no mass, no energy, no physical existence.
Dickishness is an attitude, not an atom.
Which is why I wish more ministers wore their dog collars. In the 20 years I have lived in Seattle I have seen two men showing their colors. One Lutheran Minister we gave a lift to, and one Catholic Priest, striding along like Father Brown on a case. It’s why I go out with my dog collar, especially if I plan to see someone in anyway connected with what I believe is my vocation: to teach the love of beauty and creativity, of honesty and compassion, and of not being a dick.
Because sometimes someone on the street will call out, “Bless me, Father!” And if he wants the blessing of a rational humanist art-minister, he’s welcome to it.
Can’t do any harm. And to refuse would be the act of a dick.