The following is an excerpt from a book I’ve been working on for over a year now. I’ve hit the pause button to work on some of the infrastructure of my social platform, which is why there has been a change to my website and blog posts every Monday. A new Instagram account specific to my writing and speaking is coming soon, along with some other changes. I thought you might enjoy an early draft of one of the chapters. If I’m honest with you, I’m a bit afraid to publish this book. I think there are potential problems for me as the writer and for you, the reader, on each side of our journey. And yet, I feel the book’s message is necessary and helpful. Tell me your thoughts in the comments.

Chapter 4: Suits and Tattoos

The Church should be where everyone can come, no matter where they are. No matter what they are wearing. In fact, many churches advertise that is precisely what they are. Come as you are is their mantra. And it’s been this way for many years. Of course, it’s not entirely honest. You can come as you are as long as you eventually end up looking like us. If we’re a hip, progressive Church that wears casual clothing, we’ll tolerate your suit for a bit. If we’re a suit, power-dressing Church, we’ll tolerate your jeans for a short while. This is hiding behind God in clothes.

         My friend Zach is an alcoholic. He would argue with me on that point. He has argued with me on that point. He has been married several times, and we met because he left his wife for a three-month sabbatical. He just forgot to tell her it was a sabbatical. One day, we were talking about Church, and he was distraught. Why was he upset? Great question. He was upset because his Church let some guy serve communion in shorts.

“I had to see his hairy legs! That doesn’t bring honor to God. We’re not one of those liberal churches.” To me, the obvious question for Zach is, did his drinking or cheating on his wives bring honor to God? Zach’s problem is hiding from those things by worrying about what other people are wearing. Of course, he’s not new at it.

When I was a kid, a couple lived about a half mile from my house. They had two boys that bracketed my age. One was a year older than me, and one was a year younger. The parents were deaf, and their life was difficult as a low-income family in rural Pennsylvania. Some tragedies had occurred in their family outside of ordinary disasters that strike all of us.

I am trying to remember what they were, and I can’t recall them. I was the odd kid out because I went to a Christian school. The boys were very accepting of me and treated me like one of them. This was obviously important to a kid. In return, they were treated like one of us. They ate at our house, and we regularly hung out at the park where their family home was located. I wasn’t allowed to play little league because it would have required me to miss Church on Wednesday nights. Both of those boys played, though. As far as I know, their family was not religious. I would attend their games regularly (when they weren’t on Wednesday nights) because they were my friends.

         As an overthinking teen eager to share the love of Jesus with everyone, I would sign Jesus loves You to the parents at almost every game. One day, Theo (the older boy and not his real name) asked me why I would do that. I started to explain my faith in a less-than-coherent manner. Somehow, Theo asked me about Church, and he and I agreed that he would come to Church with us for a Sunday night service. If you have never attended Church or only started attending in the last ten to fifteen years, church attendance then looked a bit different than it does today. There were typically three services on Sunday. Sunday school, Sunday Morning Worship, and Sunday night worship. Then, there was a mid-week prayer meeting. To be sure, there are a lot of churches that still operate this way, which is how Theo ended up going to Church with us on a Sunday night. He didn’t want to go on Sunday morning and have to get up so early, plus it was a whole morning commitment. He wasn’t sure about spending that much time.

         Sunday night in mid-summer. It was hot. I forgot to tell him that we don’t wear shorts. That’s a whole story, but I didn’t wear shorts until sixth grade. Ever. After sixth grade, I would wear them but not to church. So we picked Theo up, and we drove to Church.

While there, we engaged in rituals familiar to me but not him.

         Remember, he’s never been to Church before in his fifteen years. I am not saying it was wrong to engage in those rituals. It was proper, and we should have considered how a visitor might have felt experiencing them for the very first time. This is a whole world of newness to him. Looking back, we did so many things that were muscle memory. We would stand and sing after the offering. Just having an offering had to seem strange to him. We sang the prescribed three songs, took the offering, and operated the service normally. The service was over, we stood up and sang the first and third stanzas of some hymn (to be fair, I could not testify in court this is what happened, but it would have been common practice), we prayed and started to file out of our seats.

         Sitting in front of us was an elderly couple that my family knew well. They were sweet people, and we had known them for years. For the sake of the story, we’ll call them the Sugerwells. Mrs. Sugerwell turned around in her seat and said to Theo, “My, my don’t you look comfortable!” She looked pointedly at his shorts. I was mortified, and honestly, I wasn’t even sure why. I just knew what happened should not have happened. Here is a guy who probably already feels incredibly uncomfortable. He took a risk; to my knowledge, it was his last risk regarding attending church services. Whenever I would bring up visiting again, he would politely turn me down.

         I can hear someone asking what this had to do with hiding behind God. Well, anonymous someone, I’m glad you asked. There was a culture of hiding behind clothes in that Church. Spiritual people dressed a certain way before they went to Church. The obvious implication is that people who didn’t dress that certain way couldn’t be spiritual. Maybe I’m overstating my case, but if I am, it is not by much.

         There was an unambiguous code. A code that isn’t in the Bible. And the essence of hiding behind god is creating things as necessary or signs of spirituality that are not in the Bible. The code stated that those who were in dressed professionally. But serious question: did Jesus dress professionally? Did the apostles? Did they ensure they had their Sunday best on to go before God?

Before we answer that, let me tell you a college story.

#Tattoos, Maturity, and Spirituality

         I was early for chapel. A rarity for me at that time. I had a girlfriend on campus then, so it probably had something to do with that. In those days, we had to cross our names off a pre-printed list to prove we had been in the chapel service. They lined up 10 or other students with a sheet of our names. Each of these students became your “chapel checker” for the year. You could miss ten (two weeks’ worth) of chapels for the semester. More than that, and you had to pay a fine. These fines could pile up quickly; admittedly, I paid my share over the years. This day, I walked up to the coat rack, hung my jacket, and walked over to my chapel checker. I am still determining how one became a chapel checker. Did they have to pass a background check? Did they have to have some special training? Were they the students secretly wanting to work for IRS when they graduated college? I imagine they were actually friends with whoever picked people for that position. Like almost everything else on campus, this probably had more to do with who liked you and who you knew than anything else. Either way, I had to sign in by crossing my name off. This was the semester I would keep all of my cuts until the end. (I had my own issues tied to chapel attendance– maybe God would love me more if I went all the time. Those issues had nothing to do with the school) I walked up to my checker and crossed my name out. We started chatting for a few minutes, and up walked Kate*. She looked me up and down and said words that forever changed my life and world.

    Before I tell you the profound words she shared with me, allow me a moment to set the backdrop for you. Our school rule book stated that first- and second-year students had to wear a collared shirt with three buttons (yes, I knew a student who received a point because his shirt only had 2 buttons–Let’s talk about legalism), casual dress slacks, dress socks, and dress shoes. There was an “or,” and I loved that beautiful little word my first three semesters at Bible College (BC). Underclassmen could also wear colored jeans that were not blue and a sweater or BC gear. I bought one blue BC sweatshirt and three pairs of colored jeans (Red, Green, and Black). I wore those three pairs of jeans and that BC sweatshirt over a T-shirt almost daily. I was well within the bounds of the rules, and I enjoy jeans more than any other pants, no matter how comfortable Dockers want to tell me their pants are. Given my choice, I’ll always slap on a comfortable pair of jeans, boots, and a cozy T with a hoodie. Nevertheless, the rules were the rules, and I was following them.

    I am and always will be a momma’s boy. I can’t adequately measure the profound impact my mother had on me. This year, my mom bought me a sweet tie. I loved it. I thought it looked good on me, and I was proud to wear it because my mom had bought it. This morning, I was up early, so I dressed up. I put on my red jeans and boots–which were OK according to the rules because there was snow outside. I put on a denim shirt (believe it or not, that was the way to dress back then) and this tie that my mom had bought me.

    Now, let’s go back to my chapel checker. I was chatting with her, waiting for my girlfriend to walk up, when Kate* walked up and said to me, “WOW, Joe, you must really be getting your life right with God.” This statement struck me as odd on a lot of levels. Kate and I were friends for the first two weeks of our Freshman year, but we had only talked a little since then. She did not really know anything about me. Of course, I am sure I had acted in some way that she found to be wrong or offensive, or she had heard a story, but still, to walk up to me and make this proclamation threw me off kilter. I had no idea how to respond, so I looked at her and asked what drew her to that conclusion. Here is her response word for word; I will always remember it. These words were literally like blows to my conscience.

    She replied, “Well, look at you.” She pointed at my tie. “You’ve been wearing ties, and you’re early to the chapel. I’m so happy for you. Good for you, keep it up.”  She smiled and walked away. I don’t remember anything else about that day. Still, I remember that conversation as if it happened yesterday. As I am writing this, it has been at least twenty-some years.

         After this encounter, I started paying attention to the other students around me. The first- and second-year students who were “going somewhere,” whom other students paid attention to, wore ties daily. They did everything they could to look like the upper-level students, who had to wear ties and coats. The legalism was so entrenched that a student who had been there more than four semesters but was still academically a sophomore had to wear the “upperclassmen” dress even though they were in no way an upperclassman. The system was more concerned with controlling behavior than changing hearts.

    I realized that I was doing what she said, and I was doing it because I wanted people to think that God and I were tight. I wanted people to look at me and think that I was “spiritually mature”–whatever that meant. In a year and a half, I learned the game’s rules. On this campus, mature people walked a certain way, dressed a certain way, and debated certain things in a particular manner. They talked in a specific code about “wrestling with God.” I did these things because I wanted to be cool. I had made the right friends and turned my head when the right people broke the same rules as the other people. In short, I had sold out to the system. I was a fraud. Instead of being honest and talking about what I wrestled with God about, I only wrestled with the “spiritual issues.” There were things the spiritual could talk about, and there were things you couldn’t talk about and still be spiritual.

    Kate’s comments helped me realize I had become the very thing I hated. I never wore another tie that year. I went back to what I called my “freshman dress code.” It was within the bounds of the rules, and no one thought it was cool. I am unsure if I changed who my friends were or if they stopped being my friends. Almost all of my friends that year would not be people who would consider me a friend, nor would I consider them friends three years later when I graduated.

    This is the most insidious aspect of creating a subculture where behavior is modified, but the heart is not allowed to be expressed. As with any good gang, the message of my Bible College was you are either one of us or you are not in the team. You look, walk, talk, act like us, or are out. There can be no compromise, no dissent, and certainly no discussion. Everything is done to preserve the status quo of the gang. Make no mistake, in many respects, Bible College is every bit a gang. It is an overt attempt to change you from the outside in, which is completely backward from how we see the Bible prescribe change for people.

    To be sure, the idea of a sub-culture is found in any group of people. In other words, any group will always have trendsetters who set the standard others follow. The problem with a Bible College with the kind of dress code that mine had is that it fosters the idea that there is a Christian way to dress. No matter how much it is said that there is not, actions always speak louder than words. Always.

    Let me express it another way. In the house that I grew up in, T-shirts were casual. If your shirt had a collar, it was a dress shirt regardless of how many buttons were on it. When we went out for fun, we wore a T-shirt. When I went to college, there was a group that believed that T-shirts were not to be worn in public. If you went out, you were to wear a collar. Usually, what would be called a “polo shirt.” I now realize this was because the school was full of what would be considered the “prep” sub-culture. My problem with this sub-culture I encountered in college was that it became elevated to spirituality. If you didn’t dress that way, you were not as spiritual as those that did. It has nothing to do with the idea that you came from a culture that didn’t dress that way. It had to have something to do with your level of spiritual maturity.

    Now, stop and think about that for a moment. How many students do you suppose to go to a Bible College struggling with the idea of their relationship with God? How many grew up in what I call fighting fundamentalism, where they were taught they have to earn God’s love? Regardless of what is said, actions always speak louder than words. A system that sets up a “class” system will always override those kind souls who stand before a class and tell us that we do not affect how much God loves us. The system said something completely different.

    Please understand this is not about shirts and ties or hooded sweatshirts. It has to do with the idea that wrestling with wearing certain things or not wearing certain things makes one spiritual. This is especially insidious at a college that is supposed to be about the business of helping you explore and deepen your spirituality. This is about the idea that says, “WOW, you and God must be tight because you’re wearing a tie more often now….” That is the way of the Pharisees. That is the path to death and destruction. That is hiding behind God.

Now, someone is probably thinking, “Well, OK, I am sorry that happened, and it sucks, but it’s not like that anymore.” Are you sure? I think it still exists today, and certainly, there are still churches that unofficially look down on people who don’t dress up for Church. To be fair, to that college, they have adjusted and grown over the intervening years. To be sure, this was less a problem of theirs and more a problem of the actual chapel checker, who, for all we know, has also grown from that moment to now.

         But there’s something else we need to consider. What about the person wearing a suit in most modern-day settings? How often are they judged because they are wearing a suit? I have lost track of the social media memes I have seen with the dressed-up couple sitting next to the tattooed couple. The suited couple is always the ones judging the tattooed couple. And, of course, they are hypocrites. Not just hypocrites, but they are <i>the</i> hypocrites.

         But why is this the case? Why must the suited couple be the ones who are judging the tattooed couple? Isn’t that reaction the same thing the previously wronged tattooed person is reacting to? The problem with hiding behind god is that it is often rooted in hurt. And often, the god we’re hiding behind is a god of our own creation. Those who were previously hurt are now committing the same attacks by which they were injured and are covering it up by hiding behind a god. The god of rightness and a god of superiority.

         It often reminds me of the story of the pharisee (a religious man, to be sure) who stood up and loudly proclaimed, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men, cheaters, sinners, adulterers….” Of course, the difference today is we would be more likely to hear a prayer about how we thank God that we are not like those poor fools who dress up in suits and miss the whole point of the gospel.

         My friend, this is hiding behind God. It is the danger of what happens when we think there is only one way to dress, act or even talk. We create a system about sustaining the system rather than bringing glory to God. Let’s be honest with ourselves; how we dress is primarily an issue of preference. It’s not an issue of salvation or even a doctrinal one. It’s an issue of taste.

         We get into trouble when we grab our preferences and desires and make them into a theological sticking point. We create a false refuge to hide in and create circles to keep people out. If you prefer to wear a suit, wear one. If you choose to wear your faith or your life on your body in the form of art, so be it.

         But know this: the minute you start expecting other people to share your opinion of a preference, you’re engaging in bad theology. Bad theology is the cause and the end result of hiding behind God.

         The entire message of the gospel is to come as you are. Come wearing whatever you own or want to wear. But Joe! But Joe! What about the slippery slope? You know this argument, right? If the line is over there, we should draw another new line over here to keep ourselves away from that trouble. That’s precisely what the religious leader of the day did, and Jesus called them out for it.

Why? Because they were hiding behind their preference of staying far away from the line of demarcation. The law says that you should rest on Sabbath? Awesome! We’ll add don’t work by feeding your animals. We’ll move the line given to us a couple of hundred feet for everyone’s safety. We’ll avoid the slippery slope.

What’s the problem with that? The problem is that God calls us to storm the gates of Hell. They won’t prevail against the Church that He built. In other words, we are called to live in the dangerous land because that is where we find those who need us most. Rescue the Perishing is a great hymn. It’s a great hymn because it reminds us that the whole point of this ride around the earth is to live like Jesus to those who are perishing. Jesus is merciful. Jesus will save. When we make our clothes some litmus test, we effectively shelter in place and call out to those in danger, feebly trying to shout over the very storm we should be in, attempting to rescue those in trouble.

For years, an entire culture would judge a person based on how they dressed. Years later, I was visiting a Christian College I considered attending. One of the guys in the group had a tattoo on his left arm. A girl asked him if he was sure he was a Christian.

What would bring his salvation to question? Well, the American Eagle on his shoulder, of course. We’re not all that far from there today, are we? How many people have their love of God questioned because they prefer to wear a suit and tie on Sunday morning?

While this chapter has little to do with politics, it has much to do with the idea that people who express differently may not be saved because they express differently than we do.

That’s the essence of hiding: bring all the people together and hide behind a wall of ideology so that we can avoid any uncomfortableness of being forced to examine our beliefs. At a minimum, we’ve tied the commands of God to something they are not linked to in any way. In the worst possible scenarios, we’ve tied God’s love to something He doesn’t connect them to. 

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