Defending a dress code

Someone asked online the other day whether the church I attend has a dress code, saying she didn’t have “dress-up” clothes and didn’t want to feel out of place. I responded by saying, no, there’s no dress code there. Come as you are!

She said thanks.

Someone else took that a step further, saying that any church that has a dress code is being exclusive.

I let that go because I didn’t want to get political over a sincere question. But I do have a response.

Dressing up

While churches should welcome all who visit, I grew up in a church that did have a dress code. I wore a suit and tie to church as a teenager. (Perhaps that’s where my lifelong rebellion to ties comes from.)

While a suit and tie (or a long dress) is not a symbol of comfort, it has a specific purpose. Those who wear formal clothes, in a business or church setting, are showing off their best side. Formality shows dignity and respect to those we interact with.

Again, formal clothes are not meant for comfort (although they shouldn’t be distractingly uncomfortable). They serve a higher purpose. We are giving our best. We have standards. It costs money to buy formal clothes, and in certain settings, they are necessary.

Weddings and funerals require more than T-shirt and flip-flops. Why? Respect for those we are honoring.

Dressing down

Having no dress code on Sunday mornings is fine, to make sure that no one is excluded. But I think we’ve taken that thought too far. We are so casual, we’ve forgotten who the God of the universe really is. It’s hard to offer respect in a T-shirt and flip-flops. We can start there with God, but should we remain there our whole lives?

I’m reading the book of Leviticus in the Bible with a group of friends. It’s a long list of rules for animal and grain sacrifices, purification rituals and standards for daily living. It’s hard reading. Does it even apply to 21st century America?

Oh, yes. My study Bible offers this commentary:

 

We may be tempted to dismiss Leviticus as a record of bizarre rituals of a different age. But its practices made sense to the people of the day and offer important insights for us into God’s nature and character.

 

Israel, from the day God formed the nation, had to follow different rules than every other nation did. Israel was set apart. Its standards for living were much higher. The Israelites didn’t always appreciate that. At one point they wanted a king, solely because every other nation had one. God said He was their king, but that wasn’t good enough for them. God said fine, but you’ll have problems as a result. And they did.

Holy standards

The higher standards remained, even as Israel rebelled.

The Ten Commandments, as well as all the Levitical laws and rules, didn’t apply outside Israel. But inside Israel, they did.

God had something special planned for the nation. The higher standards benefited Israel as much as it did giving God the honor and respect He deserved. Do not commit adultery, for example: When we do commit adultery, the side effects are obvious and horribly damaging. But we do it anyway, don’t we?

As Christians who inherit this lifestyle, we are held to this higher standard. It’s easy to point fingers at us when we fall short. We all do, you know, whether we admit it or not.

Here’s the kicker: Those outside the church by definition aren’t following God’s standards. They follow their own man- (and woman)-made rules, many of which are based on Biblical principles (again, whether we admit that or not).

Where God’s standards and man’s standards differ is where we clash. Hard. It’s difficult to find compromise when we see life through different eyes. I’m not talking Republican and Democrat; I’m talking much bigger than that. I’m talking Christian and non-Christian.

Those two groups read the Bible differently, and here’s the explanation. Do we read Leviticus, for example, as a list of bizarre rituals, or insight into our holy God? Same words, two totally different meanings.

Best foot forward

The business world understands this better than the church does. Business executives put their best foot forward to lure customers to their product or service. If a business cuts corners, customers eventually will find out – and leave for a competitor.

High standards have a cost. Businesses have to put out time and money to research and build the best products and services, and then they charge us accordingly to consume them.

With God, the high standards are a lifestyle choice. That choice affects the way we think and live, the lens through which we see life. Are we willing to submit to a high standard, or not?

There are consequences and side effects whichever choice we make.

With God, it’s not a decide-once-and-live-happily-ever-after decision. Perhaps that’s why so few people accept God’s standards. It’s a daily thing. When we fall short, we ask God (and each other, when necessary) for forgiveness. Then we do it again. Forgive, and be forgiven. Seventy times seven times, in Jesus’ words.

I wish more people in the church understood holiness. In our efforts at being casual, it’s a lost theme.

But God is God and the standards remain, whether anyone follows them or not. Israel learned that the hard way over time in Old Testament days. I fear we are learning that the hard way today as well.

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Overcoming the Great Sadness

I think deeply, but I do not feel. I buried my feelings deep inside my heart a long time ago.

This is my escape, my way to conceal pain. I can’t remember the last time I cried. Seriously. I rarely laugh. I’ll share my thoughts, but rarely my longings and deep desires. It’s too much to expect that my deep desires might ever come true.

This is my Great Sadness.

And this is why I was moved by The Shack, showing in theaters now, based on the book by the same name (which I own).

Some Christians are bothered by the theology presented in the film. I think that misses the point. The main character in the movie suffers a horrible tragedy not of his doing. There’s a bad guy to blame. It’s totally unfair. The main character, Mack, has a right to be angry. Doesn’t he? Let the bad guy burn in hell!

The author calls the tragedy a Great Sadness.

Do you have a Great Sadness? The Shack is for you.

Returning to the scene of the crime

Mack’s Great Sadness is a dramatic event that most of us cannot relate to personally. But I’m sure each of us can point to “unfair” events in our lives.

Mack is drawn back to the shack, where the horrible crime was committed. He had to face his anger and bitterness head-on, in the very place where the anger began. Author John Eldredge, who wrote “Wild At Heart,” calls this re-entering your wound. Every man (and woman) has a deep wound in his life. To overcome that wound, we must re-enter it and let God heal it, Eldredge writes.

This is difficult. I haven’t figured out how to do that yet in my own life.

God as a woman?

While at the shack, Mack meets God. This is where the theology gets interesting. God is portrayed as a black woman. Jesus is a Middle Eastern-looking guy, an accurate representation, actually. The Holy Spirit is a tall, thin Asian woman.

Is representing God as a woman sacrilegious? I don’t think so. The Bible says “God created humankind in his image … male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27, emphasis added)

God has femaleness in Him. Otherwise, He could not have created women. We rarely acknowledge that.

For most of the movie, Mack needed a mother’s touch to face his deep wound. This is why God appeared to him as a woman. There’s one scene where God appears as a white man, because the lesson Mack needed to learn at that point required a man’s point of view. In the movie, then, God appears as a woman and a man, depending on the circumstances and the lesson Mack was being taught.

Can God not do this for us as well? The Bible calls God Father many times, but never specifically calls God “mother.” Does God have maternal qualities? Certainly. There’s no doubt.

As a man, it’s easy for me to bury my feelings deep in my heart. I’d rather do something than speak it. It’s the way I’m wired. Do I need maternal leadership to help me discover my feelings and share them? I’m sure I do.

Jesus did things in the movie that He would have done in real life as well. In the movie as in the Bible, He was a carpenter. He had a shed and built something (you’ll have to see the movie to find out what it was). He walked on water – there’s a pond behind the shack. Mack walked on water, too. Except when he tried to do it on his own; then he sank. “It works better if we do it together,” Jesus told him. Um, yes. The real Jesus would say something like that, too.

Finding justice

Jesus led Mack across the pond to meet another person, called Wisdom. This is a powerful scene that describes justice – real justice – better than I’ve seen or heard it described anywhere else. Life is not fair. How do we deal with the Great Sadness in our lives when it shows up unexpectedly? Where is God in the midst of pain and suffering? Why does God allow awful things to happen to us?

God hears us when we ask these deep questions, even if we ask in anger, sorrow and/or frustration. And we must re-enter the wound at its source to get the full answer.

The Holy Spirit tended a garden, which was a beautiful mess. Mack agreed with that assessment as he walked through it. The Spirit told Mack the garden represented his heart. You’ll have to watch the movie to see what the Holy Spirit does with that garden.

Finding forgiveness

When God appears to Mack as a man, He helps Mack forgive the evil man who caused the Great Sadness in his life. Whether the evil man deserves forgiveness or not is irrelevant. Whether the evil man accepts Mack’s forgiveness also is irrelevant.

Forgiveness is a decision Mack must make on his own.

Which he can’t, of course. That’s why God had to meet him at the shack and show him how to forgive.

Forgiveness does not reverse tragedy. It acknowledges that the Great Sadness is very real, but that the Great Sadness does not have to define who we are. By the hand of God, we can overcome it.

This takes time. It’s not a one-time deal, and the movie makes this clear. God gets it. He is patient, and helps us along this journey.

This message is so timely today. I see so much anger around me. I daresay many of us have a Great Sadness in our hearts, something unfair that happened that angers us and that it’s easy to blame God for. Even if He didn’t cause it, He allowed it, right?

See the movie. Take that question directly to God.

The God of the Bible will answer it. You and I both will find healing as we talk honestly with God, and follow His lead.

I haven’t figured it all out yet. I’m still a work in progress.

Finding healing

There’s hope. There is healing. It happens all the time. But our hearts have to be ready for it. God will not force His hand. He gave us free will; we can push Him away if we want to.

There are consequences for that, one of which is that we will miss out on so many blessings that God wants to give us.

One of His biggest blessings is joy, which comes when the Great Sadness is defeated in our hearts.

This is what I saw in The Shack. If you are analyzing the movie with your head only and not your heart, you’ll miss the big picture. Just as you’ll miss the big picture of life itself.

It’s not about judgment. It’s about forgiveness.

That’s the only way the Great Sadness disappears.