Reverence and self-control at public events

Are Americans getting sillier? Is that even possible from people who speak seriously of pet rocks and extreme burritos? If “silly” means doing things that do not fit the situation, I’d have to say yes. Incongruity is a basic element of humor?the guy who shows up at a wedding wearing swim fins or kazoo music in a grand theater. But is it humorous when the swim fins guy shows up at your wedding?

I guess that’s what prompts my concern. I attended two graduation ceremonies this year?one high school and one college. The high school event was in a church auditorium and the college one was in the school’s chapel. Both events were punctuated by “Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!” and a Freon air horn when certain grads did their stroll. A quieter reminder of silliness came during President Reagan’s funeral(s). As he lay in repose in the Capitol rotunda, a huge crowd stood in line to walk past the casket. One pilgrim lamented having to go back to his hotel to leave his camera when the guards (in formal dress uniforms and buttoned collars) on duty refused to let him bring it into the building. Would you normally bring a camera to someone’s funeral or into the funeral home during the viewing of a body? How about the tank tops and shorts and flip-flops? There comes a time when incongruity is just plain disrespectful.

Contrast this behavior and a hundred other examples you could cite with the guidelines for church leaders and members listed in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. Here are few concepts given high priority in Paul’s letters.

* Sober: Originally, this referred to the normal way we use the word today?not drunk. It came to encompass a broader concept including self-awareness and good judgment. As a virtue in the lives of overseers and other church leaders Paul had the broader use in mind since he made separate mention of alcohol abuse. A sober person knows who he is, where he is, and how to respond to those realities. It should not be seen as grimness but rather the ability to be serious when dealing with serious matters.

* Self-control: The pastoral letters give frequent mention of self-control and they use a word sometimes translated “temperance.” Again, the idea of avoiding drunkenness is part of the meaning but only part. Exercising self-control means that we can stop doing something that we may feel like doing. This is something that is lost to those who abuse alcohol but also to those who are immature or enslaved to bad habits. Self-control is mentioned repeatedly in the pastorals; this implies importance and relevance. A person with self-control can refrain from shouting whatever is on his mind in church or in a movie theater. Some of our fellows apparently lack this virtue.

* Respectability: Also rendered “good behavior” or “modesty,” the word may be understood as being aware of our situation and our audience. The people around us will see and judge the way we carry on as well as the way we refrain from carrying on. We should be worthy of respect by our good and appropriate behavior. This may sound like a repressive virtue to those who see respectability as exclusive of fun or self-expression. These same folks?all of us, in fact?would be concerned to look up from our gurney to see our heart surgeon in a clown wig and reeking of whiskey. Here at least we demand respectability.

* Reverence: This word is used of respect between people and an awe of God. To live reverently is respect the things that are holy. People are created in God’s image. Other things may be worthy of our respect as God gives them value or if they are committed to God, as in a worship meeting. Respect is an attitude of the heart expressed in many external ways. Lack of reverence is the same, an internal condition expressed externally?perhaps as a “Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!” during a serious commencement exercise.

In Galatians, Paul adds several more virtues in his list of the fruit of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit empowers us to be and do all these things in our new life. I think this power is like the power of a child to walk and talk and feed himself. It is a real potential that comes with new life but it also must develop with maturity and effort. In other words, we must practice self-control to get better at it. If we do not, we will be unfit for leadership and have a poor reputation.

Christian Americans are also Americans. Our culture is increasingly informal in so many ways. These expressions can be if they encourage equality of worth amongst our diverse gifts and roles. Informality can also degrade serious things or build into us the habit of irreverent silliness. This is a concern when worship services become a gathering of a few guys who just happened to be in the neighborhood and thought they might stop by on their way to whatever else is going on. We dress that way; we act that way, and woe to the person who suggests that reverence sometimes means sit still and be quiet.

I am that guy. Freedom of speech is a right, not a mandate for those empowered with divine self-control. The Lord looks on the inner person. He sees right past the sweat pants and the Grateful Dead t-shirt. True enough; but when he does this, he might see a lazy man who wants all those around him to be impressed with how little he cares. We were not set free for this.

Wow, I must really sound like a crank. The fact is, I think even sports fans have become too rowdy. The current goal for some seems to be to call attention to themselves by being loud, outrageously dressed, or weird in some other way. It has less and less to do with the team or the game and everything to do with the individual fan. I even heard a fan heckling at the 18UP>th hole of U.S. Open golf tournament. The tendency to extremes has carried over into every place we gather.

Some places and events call for us to know when we’re onstage and when we shouldn’t be. They call on us to know how and when to play the appropriate role. That is an important mark of maturity without which we will be rightly seen as juvenile.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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