A woman walked into the health club the Saturday before Thanksgiving wearing a fancy Christmas sweater and skirt. My eyes bulged, my jaw dropped, and I had to bite my tongue. I wanted to ask her, “Couldn’t you at least wait until Advent to break out the Christmas clothes?”
What to wear? It’s an age old dilemma. Fig leaves or no fig leaves? Tie or open collar? Sport coat or sweater? Pants or skirt? Long dress or short dress? Heels or flats? Hose or socks? Chinos or jeans? Black tie, business casual or informal? Robe or no robe? Swaddling clothes, organic baby playsuits or designer PJ’s?
I usually err on the side of overdressing rather than underdressing. Unless it’s my day off or I’m exercising, I tend to dress professionally. Perhaps that stems from my embarrassment a few years ago when I attended my first meeting of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in Nashville. It wasn’t a formal meeting of the board but a small gathering of the nominations committee. When I arrived at the meeting wearing casual slacks and a short-sleeved shirt, I was shocked to find everyone else in suits. As I attempted to shrink into nothingness so no one would notice me for two days, I vowed never again to be underdressed.
“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” So said Mark Twain a hundred years ago. Business etiquette expert, Lydia Ramsey, says that the Queen of England is reported to have told Prince Charles, “Dress gives one the outward sign from which people can judge the inward state of mind. One they can see, the other they cannot.” Ramsey comments, “Clearly, she (the Queen) was saying what many people are reluctant to accept; that people judge us by the way we dress. In all situations, business and social, our outward appearance sends a message.”
What is your attitude toward clothes? When I was on the Board of Ordained Ministry, we were careful to tell candidates to wear professional attire to the interview, just as BOM members changed into business clothing on our interview days. My youngest daughter, who is in the Business School at the University of Michigan, tells me that in the business world, you not only have to wear suits, but they have to be of a certain color and style!
How we dress is affected by the social culture and physical environment in which we work. I’ve noticed that clergy dress varies around the Grand Rapids District. There are churches, where if you appear in a suit at the office, everyone will ask, “Do you have a funeral or a conference meeting in Grand Rapids?” In other settings, usually in the city, there is an expectation for business attire. In my last 13 years in a local church in Grand Rapids, I wore a skirted suit almost every day. Clergy in churches with more traditional worship often wear robes, whereas clergy leading contemporary worship usually don’t wear robes. I’ve even seen clergy wearing jeans on Sunday morning, which, admittedly, is way out of my comfort zone.
Like many of you, I grew up in a home where we always dressed up for Sunday. When our own children were small, we referred to Sunday as the day when we wore our church clothes and our churches shoes. We weren’t trying to impress anyone but were simply trying to teach our children to offer their very best to God.
Today, however, we realize that if United Methodists are going to live out our intent to have “open hearts, open minds, open doors,” then we need to create an atmosphere where people are welcome no matter what they are wearing. After all, Jesus tells us in Matthew 6 that we shouldn’t worry about what we wear because life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. That’s why the ushers at First Church, Grand Rapids, gave up wearing morning coats and white gloves many years ago. It’s wonderful to see people wearing pin stripe suits and wing tip shoes sitting in worship next to those wearing jeans, a tee shirt and tennis shoes.
During this Advent season, my prayer is that we will focus not so much on what clothes to put on, but on “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ,” as the December 2 lectionary passage from Romans 13 suggests. What matters is not how beautiful the Christmas decorations are in our sanctuaries but how gracious our hospitality is toward those who visit our churches, looking for hope for their broken spirits. What matters is not how we dress for Christmas, but that we can look beyond suits and tattered jeans to see Christ in one another. What matters is not whether we sing Advent hymns or Christmas carols but whether we speak words of grace and peace to our neighbor. What matters is not what we wear on the outside but that “as God’s chosen ones, we clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience” (Colossians 3:12).
How will you attire yourself for ministry this Advent? Will righteousness be the belt around your waist, and faithfulness the belt around your loins, as with the shoot that will come out of the stump of Jesse? Will you style yourself after John the Baptist, with his camel’s hair clothing and leather belt? Or will you go for the crazy Christmas tie, holiday sweater, Santa socks, or red and green look? With what qualities do you need to clothe yourself in order to model the love of Christ?
Perhaps the most important gift you can give to others this Advent is teaching them how to dress. “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossian 3:14).
P.S. I’m still thinking about pulling out my red shoes next Sunday.