The Last Suit

Lent has begun and I find myself gripped by an inexplicable urge to clean my closet.

For those who observe the six-week period of Lent, it’s a time of introspection and reflection, a time of eliminating that which separates us from God. Traditionally this has meant giving up something – particularly something that seems self-indulgent, like chocolate or alcohol, or a habit that might create a barrier between the self and the divine.

Something that I came to terms with years ago is that I need to work out my spiritual life in the physical world.  Because when I do that, I have irrefutable, tangible, proof of what I truly value. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Lent has prompted me to open up my clothes closet.

Now I generally don’t have a problem culling my wardrobe, relegating worn-out items to the rag bag, or taking what no longer fits or suits me to the thrift shop. I usually enjoy the process.  It’s satisfyingly practical. Clothes wear out.  They often don’t survive the latest weight loss or gain.  They go out of style – though I’ve never paid a lot of attention to the latest fads.

But on this particular dive into the closet, I noticed that I skipped over one item.  It’s the item I always skip over.  Not because I wear it so frequently, but because I never know if I’m going to need it again.

It’s the black pinstripe suit.

For years that suit was a staple item in my professional fundraiser collection.  When I returned to parish ministry, after a decade-long hiatus, it took on new life as my funeral suit. But I haven’t been a fundraiser for 14 years. And I retired from full-time parish ministry and hospital chaplaincy in 2022. These days my work consists of offering spiritual direction, leading retreats, filling in for others as relief chaplain or guest minister. None of which requires that suit.

So why have I kept it?

As I stood there staring at the suit it slowly dawned on me that holding on to it has nothing to do with the suit.  Rather, it has everything to do with my investment in my identity as a competent professional.  I have a suit to prove it.

But there’s more. This isn’t just a suit – it’s the last suit.  I had already given all the others away. Which makes this one even more important. There’s a fear of letting go of what the suit represents: the professional who is valued in the world.  Making money.  Reaching a goal set by the organization for which I work, whether or not it’s my goal. Recognition and affirmation for something I do.

For a while, those things provided meaning and purpose in my life.  And we all need meaning and purpose and our professions – our work – can provide those things.

Until they don’t.

As fulfilling as striving toward professional goals might be, once we reach them we’re always faced with the question, “What next?”

Eventually we find ourselves yearning to make way for new priorities.  Priorities that might be more related to friends and family, learning a new skill just for fun, volunteering for a cause dear to our heart, etc.

Weighing what to do with that suit brought me to an uncomfortable realization: I’ll never be ready to receive what’s in store for me next until I let go of the things that keep me stuck in a false belief that I’m something I used to be – but am no longer.

I’m no longer a professional fundraiser.  I’m no longer the pastor of a church.

Admitting these things has stirred up grief. But it has also made my decision easy.  My priorities have changed. It’s time to let go of what I no longer need and pass it on to someone else who does.  It’s time to release the phase of my life that is over so that I can step into a new phase of life.

Maybe tossing out no-longer-needed items in the closet isn’t such a bad place to start this Lenten journey after all.