Sunday, June 1, 2014

If God So Clothe The Grass

Note: A few weeks ago, my bishop asked me to give a talk on the topic "how the way we dress reflects how we feel about the Savior." Knowing that such a theme was loaded with social and spiritual implications, I spent a lot of time researching and studying in order to write something I felt was doctrinally sound and thoughtful. I gave my talk last Sunday and since then a few people have asked me for copies. Soooo I just decided to stick it on my blog. 

An apocryphal allegory titled “The Hymn of the Pearl,” chronicles the story of a prince whose parents send him on a mission to obtain a great pearl. As he leaves, his parents promise him a beautiful robe and heirship with his older brother when he returns. However, upon arriving in this new land, he wanders among strangers, forgets who he is, and writes, “I put on a robe like theirs.” He soon adopts the customs of this new place, forgetting his mission altogether. When his parents remind him of his mission in an urgent letter, he remembers his identity and finishes his quest by defeating an evil serpent and obtaining the pearl. He strips off the filthy robes of his former life and returns home to his family.

Clothing is deeply metaphorical throughout the scriptures, and is especially relevant in this parable.  The robe the young man wears in “mortality” represents his forgetfulness of his true identity as a child of royal parents, and his natural inclination to assimilate and take on the qualities of those around him. The robes he will wear upon his return represent the completion of his mission and the work he has done to earn his heirship. In mortality, the way we dress may at times represent different attitudes we have towards situations and people. This particular parable uses clothing as a representation of spiritual progress or the lack thereof.

In the book of Genesis, after Adam and Eve partake of the fruit and must be cast out of the garden of Eden, Christ makes coats of skins for them, as a covering. This gift of clothing is particularly interesting in light of the fact that Adam and Eve have made clothing for themselves only a few verses before, upon discovering that they were naked. Coming to this point in the creation, I think a lot of us want an explanation. What exactly was wrong with Adam and Eve in their natural state? What was the point of their being clothed?

In Mosiah 3:19, we read, “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord..” In the scriptures, nakedness is a representation of man in his natural state. What’s wrong with our natural state? Essentially, it is void of progress. This brings new meaning to scriptures describing the judgement day, saying,”Wherefore, we shall have a perfect knowledge of… our nakedness.” We will be intensely aware of our lack of progress, of the ways we have fallen short, of the moments we chose to settle back into old, human, natural habits.

After Adam and Eve speak with the Lord and must be cast out of the garden of Eden, the Lord himself makes coats of skins for them. Adam and Eve are already ostensibly not naked, having made fig leaf aprons for themselves a few verses before. But somehow, the clothing that Christ has to offer is important. Maybe (and probably) it’s much better made. It will protect them physically. And most importantly, it represents his love for them, and will serve as a physical reminder of Him while they travail in the world, separated from Him and from their Heavenly Parents. This clothing represents His Atonement.

The verse on nakedness I quoted before ends on a different note, saying, “and the righteous shall have a perfect knowledge of their enjoyment, and their righteousness, being clothed with purity, yea, even with the robe of righteousness.” That robe of righteousness is the clothing that Christ has to offer us. It’s a clothing of progress, a clothing that allows us to change and become better than our natural selves. Sure, we can progress, to a degree, on our own. We can walk around wearing fairly primitive fig leaf aprons. Or we can progress towards the stature of Christ and wear the clothing he offers. We can become something greater than ourselves.

To bring this conversation up to speed, what relevance do these accounts have in relation to the way we dress today?

The Savior said, “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” These verses relay the idea that our Father will take care of us spiritually and physically, if we will rely on Him completely. As a materially limitless God, He is capable of this mercy. In these verses, God is telling us telling us he’ll clothe us better than the lilies, which are clothed better than the likes of King Solomon. He isn’t offering to dress us in burlap sacks here. He’s offering the best he’s got.

What does such an assertion say about the way God wants us to dress? What would clothes that come from God look like? Feel like? Are they beautiful? Are they simple? What do they say about us? 

The Lord asserts that “Zion must arise and put on her beautiful garments.” The virtuous woman described in Proverbs “maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.” In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord counsels us to let our “beauty [be] the beauty of the work of [our] own hands.” Prosperous periods in the Book of Mormon are almost always characterized by the spinning of “fine linen” for clothing.

Still, expensive clothing used as a status symbol is condemned in the scriptures. The wicked are described as being “alifted up in the pride of [their] hearts, and [wearing] stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of [their] apparel.” They wear rich colors, jewelry, variable suits of clothing. They desire to attract attention and are probably appearance-obsessed. And yet, the Lord’s clothing is sometimes described as glorious. What does His clothing that say about Him? And in Matthew God promised to clothe us better than King Solomon. What do His promises say about us? 

The important thing to remember here is that when we receive blessings from the Lord, we must continue to remember the Lord. I doubt that the Lord would prefer it if we were to (somewhat masochistically) dress in itchy rags for the rest of our lives. Such asceticism (or rejection of the enjoyment of life) isn’t pleasing to God! He wants us to feel happy. I’d even say he wants us to feel beautiful, attractive, comfortable in our skin, aware of our divine heritage.

How does the way we dress reveal how we feel about the Savior? It shows that we know who we are, and we know our relationship to Him, that with him, we are heirs of a heavenly kingdom. The way we dress an expression of our divine nature and our love. I think more important than any display or non-display of our physical bodies is the display of obedience, the physical representation of where our hearts stand in relation to the Lord. While I don’t profess to understand all the reasons behind the importance of clothing choice, I think it’s doubtful that God instituted clothing as a means to shame us, or make us question our worth.

A harrowing scene in the classic novel Jane Eyre defines precisely the attitude we should avoid with regards to our clothing or the clothing of others. In this scene, the wicked schoolmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst, surveys his students and notices the vibrant red curly hair of an orphan named Julia. Although her teacher quietly asserts that Julia’s hair is naturally red and curly, Mr. Brocklehurst orders that her hair be cut off and somehow dressed differently. He then orders all the students to line up against the wall, so that he can ascertain their plainness, which he terms modesty.

“He scrutinised the reverse of these living medals some five minutes, then pronounced sentence. These words fell like the knell of doom -

"All those top-knots must be cut off."

Miss Temple seemed to remonstrate.

"Madam," he pursued, "I have a Master to serve whose kingdom is not of this world: my mission is to mortify in these girls the lusts of the flesh; to teach them to clothe themselves with shame-facedness and sobriety, not with braided hair and costly apparel; and each of the young persons before us has a string of hair twisted in plaits which vanity itself might have woven; these, I repeat, must be cut off; think of the time wasted, of--"

Mr. Brocklehurst was here interrupted: three other visitors, ladies, now entered the room. They ought to have come a little sooner to have heard his lecture on dress, for they were splendidly attired in velvet, silk, and furs. The two younger of the trio (fine girls of sixteen and seventeen) had grey beaver hats, then in fashion, shaded with ostrich plumes, and from under the brim of this graceful head-dress fell a profusion of light tresses, elaborately curled; the elder lady was enveloped in a costly velvet shawl, trimmed with ermine, and she wore a false front of French curls.”

This passage shows that Mr. Brocklehurst’s true motivation is not one of devotion to God, but of condescension and the infliction of shame. He holds others to a standard to which he does not hold himself, or even those who come from a higher social standing than he. With regards to modesty, we must remember that the way others choose to dress is a personal decision. Rather than seek to hold others to our personal standards, we should seek to inspire the testimony of Christ, which is the only true motivation for any commandment-keeping. To very liberally paraphrase a verse in Mark 2:27, “And he said unto them, [clothing] was made for man [and women] and not man for [clothing].”

A verse in Joel reads, “ And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.” More important to the Lord than the state of our clothing  is the state of our hearts in relation to him. When we choose to dress or act or do anything out of true love and respect for the Lord, we will always make the right choice.

The crowning and perhaps the only moment when our clothing will truly reflect our feelings for the Savior will come at the judgement day, when Christ will descend in robes of red, and say, “I have trodden the wine-press alone, and have brought judgment upon all people; and none were with me; ...their blood have I sprinkled upon my garments, and stained all my raiment...And now the year of my redeemed is come; and they shall mention the loving kindness of their Lord, and all that he has bestowed upon them according to his goodness, and according to his loving kindness, forever and ever.”

Our robes, if we are faithful, will be white, cleansed through the Atonement of Christ, our respective clothing a beautiful metaphor of his merciful exchange on our behalf. Speaking to John the Revelator, an elder asks, “What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?” Says John, “Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

I know that the Savior lives, because I've felt his influence in my life, and I believe that if we focus primarily on our testimony of Him and His Atonement, we will be guided and sure in our decisions. Our very lives will reflect how we feel for Him. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.