I taught Sunday School yesterday at The First Presbyterian Church of Somerset, KY.
I’ve had a little hiatus from church for a spell- the very first hiatus I’ve ever taken. You see I grew up with a mother and grandmother who saw to it that I was in church every time the doors were open and sometimes even when the doors weren’t open.
Our family cleaned our little church (Carter Ridge Baptist) on Saturdays in preparation for the Sunday service, so I often tagged along to help clean out the gum wrappers that got stuck among the hymnals in the back of the pews, to practice on the piano before momma and daddy saved up to buy me one and to order the crayons and construction paper in the Sunday School rooms.
I loved this time of being in the House of God (that’s what we called it) with just my mom. It made me feel like an extra special favorite trusted friend of Jesus’s to get to come over to His daddy’s house when no one was home.
Looking back, I have no idea why it was us who did it. It certainly wasn’t because my mom had a lot of extra time, she was a banker all my life and was always engaged in community activities outside her full-time job. It may have been because we lived close to the church, or we needed the little extra money the church gave us for doing it. But it may have just been because my momma is a hard worker and a reliable person who finds it difficult to say no to anyone who needs her.
Whatever the reason mom took on the job, one thing I remember about starting to perform this service was a careful discussion of what would be appropriate to wear to church when we went to clean. You see, at our church, women and girls wore dresses. Always. Men and boys wore their nicest pants whether they were jeans or slacks, and a nice clean, ironed shirt- usually with buttons, and never with a slogan written on it.
In this day and age of anything goes, it may be very difficult for some of you to imagine a discussion like this. I’ve attended many a church as an adult where folks were wearing t-shirts, jeans, tank tops, and shorts to worship, and no one batted an eye- except maybe me.
This “come as you are” attitude is seen as progress for many, and I completely understand this way of thinking. I understand the argument that casual dress helps different socioeconomic groups blend. Because the poor may not have access to Sunday go to meeting clothes, making the service casual may help all feel less pressure and more accepted. I understand the argument that casual dress allows families to allocate the resources they might’ve spent on fancy clothes to mission work. Plus, gender equality is mostly about the right to wear pants, so if you want to be seen as a progressive congregation you have to let go of these tired attitudes about dresses for women.
These are very compassionate, compelling arguments for casual dress (except for maybe that last one). But what compels me to write today is not so much a case against casual dress as a defense of getting gussied up for God.
At Sunday School yesterday, I inquired about Easter preparations, and little Jenna (who was outfitted to the nines on Palm Sunday) very proudly explained to me that her Easter dress is even prettier than the one she was wearing, and that she’s got new sunglasses to match! She was wearing her Easter shoes a week early (something my momma would’ve never permitted), but she was very pleased with them as well.
Whether she knew it or not, Jenna and her parents are participating in a long tradition of giving your very best to God.
What I learned at a very early age is that God knows precisely what you look like and how you act all the time, and when He visits you at your house or at school, or in the garden, He’s perfectly content with whatever you happen to have on. However, when you go to God’s house (church) you ought to make an effort. Wash behind your ears. Comb your hair extra neatly, and put on your best clothes.
This expectation of bringing your best also applied to your behavior. You brought your best manners. You NEVER ran inside the church house. You did not have snacks in your pew, although a small stick of gum politely chewed, not smacked was permitted. I cannot even imagine what might’ve happened if you’d had a cell phone that rang or beeped!
It should be noted that this was not only before the days of cell phones, but also before the days of nearly every church in town and country having a basketball court. In fact, there was a hotly contested issue of whether we should have a kitchen or even eat inside the church building outside the sanctuary at all. At the time, the church of my childhood decided a picnic shelter was as close as they’d dare get to the fellowship halls the town churches were all building.
As best I could understand all of this both then and now is that certain measures are necessary to maintain a level of respect and reverence.
These measures are not unlike the habits of certain wives in a by-gone era getting up early to put their make-up on before their husbands got out of bed, or the habits of certain husbands of that same era taking care to not speak crassly or use vulgar language in the presence of women.
Don’t misunderstand me to say I want to go back and “make America great again”.
There are many, many ways in which I am so grateful things have changed. But before you go judging the smiling families all gussied up in their Easter finery next Sunday as out of touch, think on what measures you take to behave reverently and respectfully. How do you go out of your way to bring your best to the people, places, things and deities you value most?
I’d love to hear about how you do it.
If you don’t have anything or anyone to whom you are reverent and respectful, I’d look for something or someone worth your time. Because it is one of the most wonderful parts of the human experience to give your best and highest to something or someone better and higher who unconditionally loves and accepts your worst and lowest.
In case you were still wondering, momma and I settled on skirts and tennis shoes for church cleaning, but dresses, ruffled socks, white patent-leather shoes, and a matching purse for Easter!
Happy Holy Week Y’all!