The Dirty Side of Worship

It’s part of the Sunday liturgy of most families. A kind of lauds through which the morning of the Lord’s Day is to be acknowledged:    

“Go clean up. I am not taking you to worship looking like that.”

When I was growing up, I was taught cleanliness was next to godliness. Once I became a parent, it was not long before I realized the truer truth, that cleanliness with boys is also next to impossible.

My children are all grown up now, several with children of their own. On a side note, it is gratifying to see how God so masterfully answers our frequent prayers as parents: “Just wait until you’re a parent and you have a child just like you. Then you’ll know …” God, it seems, is not only good but has a marvelous sense of humor, as well.

Children are not all the same. Our oldest, TJ, was, as the expression goes, all boy: funny, bright and filled with boundless energy. He was also the kind of kid who can be dressed for church, belted into a car, driven two minutes and arrive looking like he hadn’t bathed in a week or changed clothes in a month.

The problem is, to be honest, I just didn’t like taking my kids to worship if they weren’t squeaky-clean. They needed to look like good kids in a good pastor’s family ought to look to go to worship. If you have kids or know people who have kids or know people who know people who have kids, then you already know this great truth: You need to tell them to clean up if you’re getting ready to go to worship.

Of course, Jesus must have been a tidy person. All the paintings show that. Sparkling cleaner-than-clean robe, bright smile, perfect teeth, clean hands—right down to the fingernails. That must have been difficult in dust-blown Galilee and Judea. Probably one of those other miracles the gospels do not include: the no-dirt-sticks-to-me miracle.

The Pharisees did not think so, of course. They thought Jesus was a bit of a slob. In fact, they knew untidiness of Jesus was another perfectly clear sign He was a false messiah. At one point, they even called Him a “wine bibber” and a “glutton.” A little later, they pointed out, in disgust, Jesus did not even have the decency to ask His followers to wash up before supper (Luke 7:34 and 11:38).

“Why do your followers ignore the things all the old people taught us?” they asked Him once. “They don’t even wash their hands before dinner. That’s just disgusting.”

Maybe the no-dirt-sticks-to-me miracle existed only in the imagination of artists who decide to show us what He looked like. They never needed to add a caption saying, “Jesus is third from the left in the front row.” No. You always knew. Jesus is the cleanest one. Whitest robes. The most handsome. Perfect hair. Perfect teeth. (I mean, who wants a Messiah with crooked teeth?) 

We’ve always had this idea that looking good was naturally connected to being good. Pretty people are better people than ugly people. The good girl is the prettiest girl in the story. Always. Cinderella, Snow White, Esther, Ruth and Rachel. In fact, Mary’s real first name was not Virgin, it was Beautiful. The Beautiful Virgin Mary, pictured here with adorably cute baby boy (Christmas music playing in the background).

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Tom Lawson
Tom has taught in Christian higher education for 25 years, with a focus on the theology and history of Christian worship. Tom, along with his wife Linda, serves on the faculty of Ozark Christian College (Joplin, Missouri, US). Tom grew up among the Primitive Baptists of the Appalachian mountains. Through his adult life, he has served in churches and taught at schools associated with the Christian Churches (of the Stone-Campbell Movement).

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