[This essay first appeared in a 1992 winter issue of Fairfacts, the newsletter of the Fairfax Nursing Center in Virginia, where Hank served as chaplain.]
I am terminally practical and CHEAP. As l thought of dressing up for the annual Halloween costume parade at the nursing center, l had hoped to find something I could wear again. Then I realized I had been getting into Country and Western dancing since last spring. Bingo! I’d dress up as a cowboy.
I already had a pair of $19 boots (well, that’s what I paid for them while I was a freshman at the University of Florida in 1967). l bought my black jeans on sale at Sears for $10. I still needed a shirt and hat. I’ll spare you the details of shopping for these items, but my whole outfit did not cost over $50 and did l look good.
I was pleasantly surprised by the effect the costume had on women. A week after I put my cowboy ensemble together, I was dancing with a young woman from my church at a country dancing spot we both frequent. She said she liked my hat, then added, “I can’t wait to tell my mother I was dancing with a Southern Baptist minister.”
I guess her mother remembered the days when Southern Baptists didn’t dance because it might lead to worse forms of evil. I’m glad those days are past. I would hate to have my spirituality put into question just because I enjoy dancing.
The costume parade
The day of the costume parade at the nursing center arrived. I sauntered down the halls in my boots, black hat, and black attire. (I am guessing that is what cowboys do — “saunter.”) Once again, the cowboy outfit got attention in ways my normal work clothing never did. All was going well until, halfway through the parade, one of the elderly, female residents saw me and exclaimed, “Hank? Is that you? Dressed like THAT? And you’re a minister?”
At the time, I let it pass. But as soon as I saw this dear, old friend the following Monday she called me over and said, “I’m really sorry for what I said on Friday.” I couldn’t remember until she reminded me. She added, “It’s okay for ministers to dress like that. Will you forgive me?”
I said, “Oh, that was nothing. I didn’t let it bother me. Yet, I do think it is unfair that ministers are not expected to have a little fun and dress up on Halloween, even if it is a cowboy dressed in all black.” I told her I just wanted to be a real person. Approachable and down to earth.
Here’s the Advent part
My breaking the rules of convention of what is expected of a minister has its theological grounding in the Christmas story. In the Christian tradition, God broke many of the rules in becoming embodied in Jesus, starting in Bethlehem. A savior born to a peasant? In a stable? Welcomed by lower-class shepherds?
This child would grow up and break the sacred Sabbath laws. He would say to live you must die. To receive, you must give away. And to be welcomed into the kingdom, you must welcome those rejected by the conventional religious wisdom.
The thought that God was in Christ suddenly lifts our humanity into the very presence of the divine. Cowboy boots and all.
Chaplain Hank Dunn is the author of Hard Choices for Loving People: CPR, Feeding Tubes, Palliative Care, Comfort Measures and the Patient with a Serious Illness and Light in the Shadows. Together, they have sold over 4 million copies. You can purchase his books at hankdunn.com or on Amazon.