The collar for me is for the occasions when it is helpful for the people to be able to recognise my as minister. Not because I'm special, or more important - it's not a status thing. But it is a symbolic thing, and I embrace the symbolic nature of my role in Christian community. Ecumenically - and this was an ecumenical gathering - the collar is a universal symbol of ordination. So people could look across the room and know my place in the room. Ministers' symbolic role is to be a reminder to the community of the call of God on all our lives. So when Ministers preside at communion or baptise members (and in the Uniting Church, it is only ministers who can), we do so with and on behalf of the community. When I turn up at an ecumenical prayer gathering, I do so with and on behalf of my community.
The liturgy for each World Day of Prayer is composed by women from a different country each year. This year, we were invited into prayer by women from France, who shaped the liturgy around concern for the stranger. We heard stories of women who live in France who have come from Eastern Europe on a promise of work but found themselves caught in prostitution; who have been born of African parents and though born in France are still treated as a stranger; who work in hospitals that offer medical treatment to people from developing countries where certain health care is not available. The stories are of struggle to find welcome, and of the success of French communities who have the courage to welcome strangers and invite them into a fulness of life in France.
The reading from Matthew (25:31-40) was interspersed with the names of places from around the world, in what was quite a moving interpretation of the text. Jesus is saying to his followers that when we welcome the stranger - the refugee from the Sudan, Iran - when we feed those who hunger - for peace in Syria - (I'm remembering these inaccurately, but you get the point), when we give water to those who thirst - for a friend in Adelaide ... and thus pausing to name places of hunger and thirst in our world, we were challenged again by these ancient words handed down through communities of faith.
Members of the Blackwood Circle of Friends spoke of the challenges faced by refugees and assylum seekers in Australia, and the disappointing truth that we are among the less generous and welcoming of countries - rich or poor - in response to these, our very vulnerable, neighbours. And they spoke of the positive and rewarding relationships the Circles of Friends build with refugees and assylum seekers who are released temporarily or permanently from detention. Friendship, generous welcome and support, gives life - to those who are welcomed, and those who welcome.
I have said it before - we are fully human together.
I always find these stories challenging personally, as I don't feel the call to the coal face, as it were. My health seems robust at times, but in reality it is quite fragile, and I tend to guard my space, my solitude, as part of my protection of this fragile health. So I'm not sure I am the one who will welcome strangers literally into my home, and I struggle with guilt about this. So what is it that I can do, as a writer, philosopher - as a minister who is a symbolic reminder to the people of the call of God to welcome strangers ... ?
I do what I can: I hear the stories, tell the stories, and encourage those who are called to the practical tasks of feeding the hungry. And I tell the story of Jesus in my community of faith, so that together we hear Jesus' call to radical love and welcome of our neighbours, and together we can respond. For that is where I feel I can do something practical, together as part of the body of Christ.