Today I’ve traded my alb for ordinary street clothes, traded a modern version of typical business wear in the first-century Middle East for what some call business-casual in the twenty-first-century West – a formal costume for work clothes. More than a nod to summer informality, it’s a symbol of the time in which the church is living and a reminder of what we have to do.
When I was ordained, few Methodist pastors in the United States wore an alb, the white, sometimes-hooded, loose-fitting thing you’ve seen Dan, Diane, and me wear for worship. The typical Sunday dress for most of us a generation ago was a black Geneva gown, a symbol of scholarship and academia. But historically that was a recent development; until the late 1940s, most of our preachers wore a simple black business suit or, in some more formal city churches, a morning coat.
Now most Methodist pastors wear some variation of the alb, a garment typical of the formal business attire, or Sunday-morning best, worn by adult males in first-century Palestine, the world of Jesus and the early church. The change from Geneva gown to alb made good sense, I think.
For one thing, it identified us less as scholars and more as pastors. Scholarship is important, even essential – I try to spend about twenty-five percent of my professional time in some kind of study and prayer – but the alb helps emphasize our role as pastor or shepherd more than scholar. If I have to choose, I’ll take a pastor who cares for my soul and leads me to green pastures over one who has a lot of diplomas on her wall or a lot of initials after his name.
Another thing the alb does is reorient us in time. It symbolically takes us back to the first century, where we can imagine faith was purer, the Holy Spirit stronger, the church more vital. Or it takes us into the future, calling up an image of those who have come through the great ordeal and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:14). Either way the alb can be a dramatic symbol of a time when life was or will be better in some way.
Aren’t we often doing that, taking imaginative trips to a better time than the one we’re in? Especially aren’t we doing that today, when the world we knew seems to be coming to pieces? All of us have a golden past we like to revisit, a time when things were right in a way they aren’t today, when the world seemed less crazy and the center of life seemed to hold steadier. Maybe it was during your childhood, or when you were first in love, or when job and family combined in just the right way, and you remember wondering how life could get any better.
Or maybe it’s a golden future that tugs at our imagination, a time when the difficulties of life will be eased, and losses will be healed, and our best hopes realized – when life will finally be as it was meant to be and every question will be answered and every mystery solved, when we will no longer see in a mirror, dimly, but will see face to face (1 Cor. 13:12). It will be a time, we imagine, such as Jesus promised, when all of us who are carrying heavy burdens will find rest for our souls (Matt. 11:28-30), souls that so desperately need rest from the craziness in the world today.
It’s an old game, one that’s probably written into our spiritual DNA and certainly was written into the story of the Exodus, the faith-forming story of a people who shook off slavery and began a journey toward a life God promised, toward “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod. 7:8), a journey toward life the way life ought to be, the way it was created to be but so often falls short of being. It was a good vision to follow.
But it was a difficult vision to sustain, and it was prone to disappoint. Somewhere in the journey, in that hard place between the familiar past and an uncertain future, they started to yearn for the good old days, for the way life used to be. “Is it too little,” they complained to their leaders, “that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness” (Num. 16:13)? You see how good even slavery can look sometimes in retrospect.
And that “land flowing with milk and honey” – once they got there they found it was seldom if ever as good as they hoped it would be. They were always falling in and out of favor with God, always struggling to secure their place in a new homeland, always one political regime change away from realizing God’s promise. And in the end, as a result of that terrible war with Rome, they lost it.
The trouble with the golden past is that it was never really as good as we remember it was. And the trouble with the golden future is that it’s always just beyond reach. The only time we have is today. The perfect past and the perfect future don’t exist except in what we and God make of this day.
Jeremiah understood in his day – and it’s just as true in ours – that the land flowing with milk and honey is not a place or condition we reach someday. It’s found only in our living today in harmony with the laws of life that God has established (Jer. 11:1-5). Ezekiel also understood that Israel would enter the land flowing with milk and honey not tomorrow but today, if they would return to the ordinances of God and divorce themselves from the false gods they had come to worship (Ezek. 20:5-7, 15-16). And that means that the land flowing with milk and honey is not merely God’s promise; it’s also the result of our hard work in partnership with God today.
So I’ve traded my alb, the dramatic symbol of past and future, for some working clothes, an equally dramatic symbol of the work we have to do today. We have to let go of the past and work free of the hold it has on us – celebrate it, yes, but let go of it. And we have to give up our favorite illusions about what we want the future to be, so we can be surprised by what God is doing today. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” Isaiah said. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it” (Isa. 43:18-19)?
And today we have to roll up our sleeves and work to claim the fullness of God’s promise for ourselves and for the communities in which we live. As St. Paul said, we have to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that God is at work in us in everything we do today, so that we might have more and better life than we ever dreamed of having (John 10:10 The Message).
There’s an old saying: “Look to this day, for it is life, the very life of life. In its brief course lie all the realities and [truths] of your existence: the bliss of growth; the glory of action; the splendor of beauty. For yesterday is already a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision. But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope.” That’s the greeting of every new beginning. So consider well the new day, the new week, the new life that opens before us. ▪