by Kristen Glass Perez

A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us. (Acts 16:14-15)

I love clothes. Seriously. I have had a long love affair with fashion. Shoes, dresses, skirts, jeans, outerwear, jewelry, accessories–you name it–I love! I can pretty much plot my life through fashion trends; highs (a timeless kitten heel leopard pump), lows (acid wash), and a few where the judgment is still out (infinity scarves). Throughout it all, I have tried to seek appropriate balance, yet also demonstrate who I am through the clothing. It’s hard to trace where this love came from, yet I am tempted to link part of it to a childhood toy called Fashion Plates. It was a toy where you could create different outfit combinations by placing a piece of paper over a design and rubbing a colored pencil over it. Voila! A wrap dress paired with moon boots was possible. I loved that toy. As I grew up, I began to learn that you couldn’t always pair things in life together as easily as you could with Fashion Plates.

Mixing identities and fashion choices

In my adult life, working every day on a college campus as a chaplain brings me into a lot of conversation about clothing. Sometimes, it is someone who says to me “You don’t dress like a chaplain!?” and I am never quite sure if that is supposed to be a compliment or not. Other times, it is a conversation about what is appropriate to wear to a particular event; “What IS Business Casual anyway?” Often, though, this conversation seems to point towards a longing for an option that doesn’t seem to exist. “How can I go to my sorority formal when I don’t have a dress?” “How can I wear shorts that aren’t too short and not look dumb?” “How can I go to a Halloween party dressed as somebody funny, and not be made fun of?” In these moments, I wish there was a real live fashion plate. Maybe it would be an app–but it would be something where we could instantly pair together some things that might not make sense. Forget mixing patterns, what about mixing up identities and choices? Smart and artistic? Independent and friendly? Fashionable and faithful?

That is why I love the story of Lydia. As described in the book of Acts, Lydia was a dealer of purple cloth and is often depicted in iconography as wearing a purple shawl. Her hometown of Thyatira was the purple cloth capital of the Roman Empire. I often like to imagine the Thyatiran version of fashion week and envision Lydia displaying her cloth.

Baptism: A fashion DO!

In many ways, Lydia lived out a fashion plate app. Lydia was very much of this world, living and dealing with the Empire. Lydia was already a worshipper of God when she and her household were struck by the transformative love of Jesus as told to them by Paul. They were baptized and then Lydia opened her household to Paul and his companions. She kept on as who she was, yet also was clothed anew in her baptism. We don’t know everything about her, but we know that she was a strong enough example that we are still talking about her and her purple cloth many years later. Lydia was exactly herself, yet completely transformed to live out the gospel in the world. Purple cloth and all.

This business of being in the world and of the world, can feel so tricky. In an era where the predominant message for little girls is to grow up to be Ariel, Jasmine, Belle, or Elsa–we struggle a lot with polarities. Our clothing says a lot about who we are. It can also say a lot about who we are not. How many times have we all heard; “You don’t look like a… mom, missionary, pastor, politician, adult, technician, officer, daughter, sister, friend?” Perhaps a different question is to ask how many times we ourselves have internalized those messages. My own question might sound like; “How can I possibly be a fashion loving ministry professional grounded in the Lutheran tradition?” That is why I love the story of Lydia.

This fall, I would encourage you to live as Lydia does. Behind the cloth(ing), lies another story. We have only one life and only one world and we live in it. We have an opportunity to live in the world as the people God has created us to be. That means making all of your choices in a way that both inwardly and outwardly reflects who you are because that is who you are called to be. When we live like Lydia, the question shifts from “How can I be who I am? To “How can I NOT be who I am?”

Recently, a student on my campus told me about her plans for her Halloween costume. She plans to go as artist Frida Kahlo. She is studying theater, women’s studies and religion. She is in a sorority and on a club sports team. Thanks be to God for her and all of the Lydias who continue to live in our world.

Discussion questions:

1. If you were to create a “fashion plate” of your identity, what might some of the pieces look like?

2. What parts of your life right now might be challenging to reconcile with one another? Are you struggling with your own questions, or are you struggling with other people’s questions?

3. What does it look like to be faithful to who God created you to be?

Closing prayer:

Loving God, we thank you for all of the ways in which you clothe us for your work in the world. Send your Holy Spirit to guide us through those moments and stages of our lives when it might not seem possible to be who we are and help us to live fully into who you have called and created us to be. Amen.

Thus article first appeared in the October 2014 issue of Boldcafe.

The Rev. Kristen Glass Perez is University Chaplain and Executive Director of Religious & Spiritual Life at Northwestern University, Evanston, Il.