Friday, November 23, 2012

Suits and Ties, Starchy White Shirts, and True Worship

Those preachers I heard in the late 1940s and early 1950s were a rowdy bunch. They made up for their lack of formal education with additional unction or “anointing” as some of them called it. The story was frequently told of the new preacher hired by a backwoods congregation. To the dismay of some of the parishioners he not only chewed “tabaccy”, he spat it out while he was preaching. When confronted by the board of deacons his response was, “Ah cain’t hep it; when ah gits anointed, I do spit.”

Fortunately I lived far enough north, and in a large enough town, that such lack of refinement was uncommon. The gospel quartets that came to sing routinely took a break, allowing the local pastor to preach a “salvation sermon” while they grabbed a quick smoke out back of the church, but they didn’t bring their sins into the church.

What I remember most, though, about those early preachers – early in my lifetime – was the gleaming white shirts and handkerchiefs. Every sermon began with a fully clad preacher, suit coat on and pants pressed to a razor sharp crease in front. The suit coat lasted through the introduction and perhaps through the scripture reading, although the scripture reading often never got finished before the sermon took over and superseded it. In any case, as soon as the “anointed” part of the sermon began, the suit coat came off and the handkerchief came out. And what wonders they were. Pure white, starched, and pressed without a visible wrinkle.

Buildings were invariably warm – hot in summer, over-warm in winter – so it was not long before the shirt’s sleeves were rolled up and patches of perspiration showed through on the shirt. The handkerchief served as both a face mop and a prop to be waved at appropriate emotional moments in the sermon.

And the preachers weren’t the only ones suffering. Every male above 10 years old was likewise dressed in their Sunday best, even if it wasn’t Sunday; made uncomfortable by the scratchy starched collar and a placket made so stiff with starch that one could hardly bend over.

Of course things have changed radically in the 65 years since I sat, miserably attired, watching with little sympathy, the sweat rings grow under the preacher’s arms and down his back. I did wonder, though, at the tenacity of those men. The misery they put themselves through bore testimony, to me at least, of their sincerity and determination to fulfill their Divine calling.

But as I say, things have changed; we now have year-round air-conditioned buildings. No preacher need raise a sweat except through nervousness, and few do. Sermons have become more conversational; less theatrical and athletic. My childhood fascination with those fire-breathing prophets has given way to a preference for more reasoned discourse. And now, of late, our preachers and ministers (and congregants too) have adopted casual, comfortable, starch-free attire. Blue jeans and loosely fitting shirts, out at the waist, have replaced the suit, shirt, and tie. The handkerchief has given way to a Kleenex box tucked away in the podium. The minister preaches, anchored in one place and needs no gleaming white banner to wave.

All these thoughts came to me on Thanksgiving Day as I watched the Houston Oilers defeat the Detroit Lions by a single field goal, in overtime. (Detroit was robbed by a very bad call that resulted in an Oiler’s touchdown, but that is beside the point I’m making here.)

It struck me, as I watched the priests and high priests of the church of professional football (the announcers and commentators), that they are the reincarnation of my old-time preachers. In their expensive suits, and their gleaming white shirts, and their fashionable ties; in their sincerity and their enthusiasm; in their certainty, their authority, they fall not one whit below those prophets of old.

If only their broadcast booths were not air-conditioned; if in their enthusiasm they had to strip off their coats and roll up their sleeves; if they had to mop their brows with genuine cloth handkerchiefs, and if the sweat stains grew under their arms from quarter to quarter, I’d almost think I was back in church again.

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