Monday, September 1, 2014

Church Clothes

Summer clothes
During last summer's vacation through SE Asia we made several stops that required "special" clothes.  Not only were no shoes allowed (something we were familiar with from our Malaysian trip), but everyone was required to wear long pants (and spandex did not count) and shirts with sleeves, and to leave their cameras in a locked box outside. In one place we were patted down to be certain we didn't try to sneak in a cell phone. Finally everyone needed to speak in a whisper.  Having read ahead we were prepared with long pants for my husband and dresses and skirts for the girls and I.  Less experienced tourists were offered wrap dresses or large linen pants to cover up with. 

So what's with a dress code for tourists?  Well it's simple.  In those countries and cultures, removing shoes and hats, not pointing the camera about, and wearing modest clothing is a way to signal respect.  The places we were visiting were temples, war memorials, graves and a royal residence, all places that require some semblance of respect for others, their beliefs, their leaders and their losses. 

What do we have in modern American culture that signals respect?  That's the question I was asking myself as we went through the unfamiliar ritual of taking off our shoes and putting our cameras away.   It's the question I'd like consider in this post.

The question itself is a challenge to us. We have business clothes, casual clothes, uniforms and work clothes, party clothes, and dress clothes but what clothes mean reverence?  We have no equivalent of taking off our shoes or bowing down in front of an altar. 

Would it help to mimic these eastern cultures and institute a dress code? Should we start a pat down at the church doors?  Put up a sign: No dress, No tie, No service? Perhaps everyone who turns up dressed immodestly should be directed to a guest information center and exchange their driver's license for a pair of coveralls?

I think not.  It was working for the culture where we were.  The gawking tourist needed a reminder that they were in a place where real people died, worshiped, and ruled.  However, it would only serve to alienate the seekers in our authority-phobic culture.

There was a time in my life when I railed at dress codes too.  I dismissed them as white washing: a way to hide who people were.  Wasn't it just displaying "superiority" and excluding those who couldn't comply?  As a case worker, I became especially frustrated and angry when people stared and backed away from the harmless people I had come to love simply because their clothes screamed poverty.

Churches already have an unspoken dress code of their own. The codes are a kind of language.  While I was in Searcy, AR, there was a conservative upper-class congregation where hats were not unseen.  In the blue-collar elderly congregation where we attended the preacher never appeared without jacket and tie, but the congregants often turned up in clean overalls.  Students, rumpled and sleepy, could find a warm welcome in a more casual church down the road.  3 churches - 3 dress codes.  Were any of them irreverent?

Christians agree: God deserves our glory, our reverence and our respect.  John imagines the throne room of heaven as a place where the elders throw down their crowns.  Isaiah saw the angels covering their feet and eyes and crying out glory to God.  In John 9 when the man formerly blind realizes that Jesus is the Christ, he literally falls down and worships him.  The Bible is full of the idea that God is not only worthy of our respect, but that when confronted with him it is a believer's most natural response. 

A natural response that I am afraid is very difficult to translate into our modern culture.  It's past time for us, one by one, to think about how we can authentically show our respect to God.

As I considered my own efforts to show respect I realized there were two aspects to be take into account: God and my brothers and sisters.  The Bible gives no specific instructions on "worship clothes" that I've ever found.  

However there are a some overriding principles:
Our actions should not shame the poor - James 2:1-13
Our dress should bring glory to God and not ourselves - 1 Peter 3:1-3
We should love our neighbor (at times by trying to fit in) - James 2:8, 1 Corinthians 9:18-23)

Respecting God means giving him glory by being holy from my heart.  One small aspect of this is not drawing attention to myself when I should have been drawing attention to him.  So in the States, I wear "church" clothes to church.  Not because I want to show-off, but because I don't want to stand out as stylish or garish. When I was abroad welcoming my sisters and brothers into my home for worship, I wore my casual clothes; that's what they wore too. As a case worker going into the homes of the impoverished, I wore clothes that were in sync with my environment.

I invite you to consider your clothes in a different way.  Purpose to show respect and reverence by your dress, both respect to those you are with and respect to the God we serve. 
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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