Playing Dress Up

Post Author: Mary Beth McSwain

There I stood, looking at myself in the mirror.  I had done this many times before.  As a little girl playing dress up, I recall stuffing tissues into the backs of my mom’s heels and proudly stomping around the house.  I recall putting on deep red lipstick, borrowed from my five-year-old best friend, a precious ruby red form of what I thought to be womanhood.  And I recall filling the tops of my dresses with two pairs of socks and staring admirably at the woman I had yet to grow into.

Yet this time was different.  It was November 2011, over Thanksgiving weekend.  My husband and I had volunteered to help my mom clear out my dad’s office at the church he served as head pastor for 23 years.  My dad had just died of cancer and there hadn’t been time to clean out his office.  We sorted through accordions of files, all dedicated to the ministry.  On the files we saw titles like “Session,” “Capital Campaign,” “Christmas Eve Services,” “Vision Planning.”  We sorted books on the church, on trips to the Holy Land, on different Bible translations.  While my husband and mom began toting the trash into the bin outside, I decided to conquer the task of cleaning out my dad’s bathroom.

I found them in the closet: my dad’s stoles, thick rainbows of fabric hanging on each shoulder of hangers, each strand of cloth representing a strand of ministry my dad performed—a stole for baptisms, a stole for Communion, a stole from mission trips, a stole for Advent.  I was lost in the memories, in the meaning of these stoles until my mom interrupted me.  “Sweetie, you can take any of those you want.  Dad would have loved nothing more than for you to have those.”

She went back to sorting files and I eagerly assumed my dress up role.  I placed one stole on my shoulders after another, carefully arranging each one to lay flat over my chest, meticulously pulling my hair out from the collar each time, and there I stood, looking at myself in the mirror. How many times had my dad straightened the collar of his stole here?  How many times had my dad arranged his microphone here?  How many times did my dad go over the order of service here with this stole on?  How many people did my dad hug after he preached in these stoles?  How many people did he baptize and call children of God in this one?  How many people all over the world would recognize my dad as the pastor on the mission field in this one?  How many times did my dad say “On the night he was betrayed” in this one?    How many times did my dad light the Advent candle and preach of Jesus’ birth in this one?  I suddenly felt the weight of the fabric and the heat accumulating on my shoulders as I looked at myself.

Near the end of Exodus, God commands Moses to set up a tent of meeting. The passage is full of detailed descriptions of elements in the tabernacle: an altar for incense, a basin for washing, a lamp stand. And there are priestly garments for Aaron.  In Exodus 28:2-3, God commands Moses, “Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron to give him dignity and honor. Tell all the skilled workers to whom I have given wisdom in such matters that they are to make garments for Aaron, for his consecration, so he may serve me as priest.”  So Aaron serves as priest throughout Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.  And near the end of Numbers, God says to Moses:  “’Get Aaron and his son Eleazar and take them up Mount Hor. Remove Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar, for Aaron will be gathered to his people; he will die there.’ Moses did as the LORD commanded: They went up Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. Moses removed Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar. And Aaron died there on top of the mountain” (Numbers 20:25-28).

There wasn’t time for my dad to remove his stoles and place them on me before he died. But in that moment, as I looked at myself in the mirror in my dad’s office, I was not a little girl playing dress up.  I was a woman called by God and encouraged and inspired by my dad to continue ministry.  Just as my dad exclaimed in delight “This one’s mine!” on the day of my birth because I was the first child with his dimples, so God delights in my calling to ministry, so God delights in watching me play dress up in the stoles I can’t wait to wear, so God exclaims “This one’s mine!”

The stoles still hang as thick rainbows of fabric, although now they hang as strands of ministry in my closet, strands of ministry to which I am called and to which I will be ordained soon enough.  And although now I do have the adult feet to fit into heels, the option of wearing lipstick, and a chest that doesn’t need socks to fill it out, I now have the most excitement about getting to wear my dad’s stoles and turning dress up into a real life calling.

Mary Beth McSwain is a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School (M. Div., 2010).  She recently moved to Tucson, Arizona from Spokane, Washington and is currently acquainting herself with ministerial life in the Southwest.  She hopes to find a place to serve in ministry soon.

photo credit: pathlost via photo pin cc

17 replies
  1. Joyce Smothers
    Joyce Smothers says:

    This is beautifully written. I appreciated reading it.
    I am sad about the young clergywomen and their maximum age which excludes me by 30 years. I am a “YOUNG” pastor, ordained seven years ago, though I am 65 years old. We have a harder time than the chronologically young, in getting calls, and are sensitive about it. In seminary, young students ignored me. No one under 28 spoke to me unless I spoke to them first. It hurt when they bashed us as ‘Baby Boomers:–as if we can help when we were born.. Older women have feelings, and we’ve been 22 and 35 too. All women in ministry are pioneers–even now.

  2. Bromleigh
    Bromleigh says:

    Mary Beth, thank you for this beautiful piece.

    Joyce, I’m now serving as the Associate Managing Editor for Fidelia’s, and I wanted to thank you for your comment. You can always e-mail the Board with comments such as this. ‎We are so sorry for the ill-treatment you received in seminary; ours, as with any, is not a generation without fault, and the young have always been a bit inward focused. That said, our project is intended to support those who feel the effects of a confluence of demographic factors: we are those who have a career for the first time, who are women in a field in which men still seem to dominate, if power and authority not in numbers, we are clergy in a society that isn’t sure what to make of that, we are often working mothers in an economy that is, at best, ambivalent about motherhood. Your experience is certainly valid, and while it is true that women of all ages face challenges in ministry, and new clergy have a learning curve no matter their age, the founders of TYCWP were interested in the confluence. We do routinely hear from folks who have “aged out” — and indeed, some of our own members are “aging” out. We’re working on continuing to support the latter: I’d encourage you to start your own network, and find some grant money! We got ours from Louisville! Blessings on your ministry!

  3. Sarah Kingsbery
    Sarah Kingsbery says:

    This piece brought the tears. My father’s battle with cancer led me to leave seminary for a time. While my fear was often that he would not be around to dance with me at my wedding, having resumed my seminary education, I am just as thankful that the stem cell transplant has made it almost certain that he will be around to see me ordained (something that is much more on track to happen in the next couple of years than a wedding.)
    I am glad, Mary Beth, that you have the powerful memories contained within those stoles to remind you throughout your future ministry of one of those who helped you find your path.

  4. Molly Fraser
    Molly Fraser says:

    This is beautiful. I’m hope we see a book someday out of this author. Thank you for sharing a memory that so many of us can relate with even if we do not share the parent-child pastor lineage.

  5. Julie
    Julie says:

    Re-reading this, and again it brought tears to my eyes. I could see you standing there looking into the mirror. Thank you for such a wonderful piece.

  6. April
    April says:

    Mary Beth, thank you for sharing this.

    I, too, lost my father recently, and though he was not ordained, his ministry has shaped my ministry in countless ways. Thank you for this grace-filled reminder of the Communion of Saints. Blessings to you as you continue to grieve, but also as you celebrate and remember the gifts that God has given you in your dad.

  7. Ross Carper
    Ross Carper says:

    Wow, Mary Beth. Such a well written and touching personal essay. Thank you for being who you are in ministry and continuing your dad’s legacy. We miss you in Spokane, and I didn’t know you were a great writer, too…

  8. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I inherited a set of stoles too but from my grandfather. I do wear them occasionally and when I do celebrate this link between his ministry and mine, made all the more poignant that his ordination was 51 years before mine.

    Thank you for sharing.

  9. Averill & Diana Engstrom
    Averill & Diana Engstrom says:

    Mary Beth We are so proud of you. Jesus, Your Dad & MoM, Julie, Jonathan, and FPC of Haines City are so proud of you. What a wonderful story.

  10. Mary Alice McSwain Ahlgren
    Mary Alice McSwain Ahlgren says:

    Excellent writing, Mary Beth! I appreciate the insight into your life with this story. I do hope you will be ordained soon.

  11. Camelle Daley
    Camelle Daley says:

    This is so beautiful. I can’t help but hear God quietly answering all your questions 🙂
    My Dad passed away 4 years ago due to cancer and it was a very reflective time for me too. One of the things I reflected on was my middle name, which he gave me, ‘ilona’. I looked it up and found out it was Hungarian for Beauty. Not long after, God gave me the name House of ilona, House of beauty, the company that I started where I design ladies clothing including a Clergy Range for Women in Ministry.
    Our Dads may have gone but they have left so much and some things we couldn’t experience until they’re gone. It’s a spiritual inheritance. God bless you!

  12. Lee Mallory
    Lee Mallory says:

    My family & I were the fortunate recipients of your Father’s love,advice & wisdom over his years of service. Your beautiful & well written article about his stoles brought fresh batches of tears as I struggled to get through the “how many times” section. It gives me cheer & great promise, though to think of you wearing them, & I know you’ll wear them well. Thanks for your article,for sharing your Dad with us, and for your future service to our Lord &Master.

  13. Karla Anderson
    Karla Anderson says:

    Mary Beth, What a precious & beautiful testimony to your Dad’s legacy not just to you, but to everyone who reads this reflection. I have no question that you will receive a call & be ordained very soon. Thank you so much for your time with us in Spokane (much too short), but I know that our Heavenly Father has great plans for you. Remember we are praying for you & are very excited about all that God has waiting for you. We are very blessed & grateful for the time you shared with us in ministry! Blessings always :o)


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