Monday, February 22, 2010

Faith Works 2-27

Faith Works 2-27-10

Jeff Gill


Sunday-Go-To-Meetin' Clothes May Be A Bit Frayed




So many of you have written about my accidental tour through the "side issues" of modern worship practices, and I appreciate them all, and will always try to return some kind of response, albeit brief.


It's kept me looking at these questions and nudging at new angles of subjects I've addressed before, such as the history of worship music.  What kinds and sorts are "right" for giving thanks to God and gathering a congregation together? It's complex and filled with, well, division.


Do you notice I haven't really gone there yet, either? Yep. Give me a little more time. It's a big one.


I did find a mention in James B. Finley's autobiography of how, in the 1830s, the question of whether or not to use Isaac Watts' hymns in worship was splitting both churches and even families. Isaac Watts, the author of hymns like "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," and "Joy To the World," was once controversial enough to fracture a congregation, just over whether to sing his stuff. Anyhow.


Clothing is often a major point of departure between approaches to worship style. Here as in all of my offerings, my intention is not to say which approach is the ideal, let alone the one, right, and true approach for all Christians (the only group for which I can even imperfectly speak), but to talk about where our assumptions about how to do things in worship come from . . . which often is not scriptural or even official, just cultural, and much less than timeless.


Why is there any norm, or standard about "what to wear to church" among people of faith? As I grew up as a good Midwestern Protestant Christian, it was one of those timeless, since Mt. Sinai kind of things that no one, not even the heathen, wore jeans to church, and the bottom line was that you wore your best. If you had the nerve to ask why, when Jesus wore a single robe and sandals, you heard something around the lines of "we want to offer only our best to the Lord."


Who can argue with that?


And I don't really want to, except it became a sort of church uniform, where you wore on Sunday and to funerals what you'd wear to the bank to ask for a loan (yes, I'm sounding older with each paragraph, aren't I?) or to visit the museum or the Statehouse (cue uproarious laughter from anyone under 50).


And it became a barrier. If you didn't have a suit and tie, or nice but modest dress, then you just knew you couldn't make it through the door. End of story.


Where this story begins, though, is on the western frontier, back when we, Licking County, were part of the wild, wild west (see James B. Finley, above). Before the Civil War, it's a peculiarity that in all formal, official portraits, men were actually clean shaven. Beards only came back into style with the veterans returning with full length beards, mustaches, and muttonchop whiskers (oft called, in an inversion of Gen. Burnsides, sideburns).


Before that, did men shave to the skin each day? The answer is certainly not. Most men went around bristly and stubbled, until that one day a week when the big kettle was hauled up over the fire, and everyone, starting with Dad, got a bath (being the youngest was *really* a bummer back then). If you were well-off, your family might have a toothbrush, even. "A" toothbrush. Yes, that's what I mean.


And Mom would sharpen up the razor for her husband with the leather strop she used to keep order in the house the rest of the week, a hundred strokes on each side of the blade.


Then the next morning, freshly bathed for the first (and last) time that week, and Pater Familias gleamingly shaved, everyone dug into the two sets of clothes they had, and put on the nicer set. The "Sunday-go-to-meetin'" set.


Over time, families went from two pairs of britches to three, to four, and to five or six with a "dress" outfit, but the idea that you wore your best outfit hung on. Now, many men don't even own a suit, let alone a hat or gloves (or a buggy whip, for that matter).


My mom still doesn't like the idea of anyone wearing jeans to church, even a new pair without holes in the knees. The question is still open, looking a bit different in the light of history: what is the "proper" garb for going to church?


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him what you like to wear to worship at, or follow Knapsack

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