An elderly friend recently told me about an incident that occurred at her senior residence one Sunday morning. It seems that one of the residents, a sweet-natured 92-year old great-grandmother with mild dementia, came to breakfast, dressed in her usual attire— casual denim slacks and blouse.
Over pancakes and sausage, one of the tablemates mentioned something about their Sunday School class which meets in the library following breakfast. Suddenly, the face of the woman in the denim slacks went pale, as if she had just received tragic news.
Muttering that she’d forgotten that it was Sunday morning, she abruptly pushed back her barely-touched pancakes and stood up. In a self-scolding tone, she told her tablemates, “I’ve got to hurry back to my apartment and change clothes.”
Her tablemates tried to assure her that she was dressed just fine for Sunday School. “No, I’ve got to change into a dress. My Daddy taught me look my best for church,” she continued. Then as she began to walk away, she turned back and added, “It’s about respect.”
When my friend told me the story, I had conflicted emotions. Initially, I was sad, even a little frustrated, that this sweet 92-year old woman was dealing with the remnants of her long-deceased father’s expectations. I wanted to say, “She just needs to get over it, for heaven’s sake. I’m pretty sure that Jesus doesn’t care if she wears denim to Sunday School!”
But the episode also reminded me of a recent conversation I’d had with a retired minister. He talked openly about the inner struggle he feels when he sees church members dressed in skimpy clothes and flip-flops, drinking coffee in take-out cups as they gather for worship in the sanctuary.
“I know Jesus meets us where we are. I know he cares more about our hearts than our dress or coffee habits,” he said. “But I can’t help but wonder what has happened to the idea of biblical holiness and respect.”
His statement stirred up a vivid memory of my own. It was Advent almost twenty-five years ago. Our family was gathered with others to help decorate the sanctuary. As we unpacked the Christmas tree and lights, a 10-year old girl jumped up on the communion rail and began to walk its length as if it were an Olympic balance beam.
I remember being stunned, especially when I realized that her parents were seemingly unperturbed, just a few feet from me. They said nothing to their daughter, and I could feel myself getting upset. About that time, the minister walked in and surveyed the situation. Without missing a beat, he asked the girl to help hang the lights on the tree. But I admit, it bothered me that no one seemed to explain to the girl (or her parents) that the communion rail was something to be set apart for the sacrament.
It got me to thinking about my feelings, and the reaction of the elderly woman and the retired minister. Each of us brought an expectation partly shaped by our own upbringing and experience. To the great-grandmother, not being dressed in your Sunday best was a sign of disrespect. For the retired minister, it was drinking coffee in take-out cups in the sanctuary. For me, it was using the communion rail as a balance beam.
I’ve been thinking how discussions about respect at church often disintegrate into young-old conflict. Older adults are often quick to criticize younger folks for not showing respect for the church building. Younger folks may counter that older adults get so hung up on building issues and rules that they miss the point of ministry.
I think there is truth to be found in both camps. The challenge is how to talk about such issues so that we can better understand the “why” behind another’s strong feelings. Maybe, just maybe… a good place to start is with the woman in the denim slacks.