Robert Kirby: Go ye into all the world, LDS missionaries, without purse or necktie

(Courtesy photo) Elder Robert Kirby during his mission.

Word came down Friday from Mount COB (Church Office Building) that the dress code for missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint will be relaxed.

This time, it’s just for elders, or male missionaries. The dress code for female, or sister, missionaries was changed in December 2018 to allow them to wear dress pants at their discretion.

Elders may now — with the approval of area leaders — proselytize without neckties, wear blue dress shirts, and, in some extreme cases, even preach the gospel in “Baptism for the Grateful Dead” T-shirts.

Yeah, I made up that last part.

Not that it matters, but I think the shifts in missionary appearances are positive. It shows that the church is capable of change even if it comes too late.

My own missionary service fell somewhere between elders no longer having to wear fedoras and when we were required to wear our nametags in the shower.

It was this kind of slow change that made serving a mission one of the most stifling periods of my life. Fortunately, I had been conditioned by first serving in the military. I wouldn’t have lasted the entire two years if I hadn’t.

There were similarities between the two — deference to authority, uniformed appearance, and the frequent necessity of keeping one’s genuine thoughts to oneself.

Since none of that came naturally to me, it was tough. But while I didn’t much care for the Army, at least there I got to shoot guns, play with impressive explosives, and jump out of airplanes.

Compare that to the sketchy blessings that come from knocking on an endless line of doors in the blazing sun, while accompanied by someone whose goal in life was to memorize verbatim the Doctrine and Covenants.

Like the military, the mission had inviolable rules. Failure to comply brought punishments ranging from being sent home in disgrace (spiritual firing squad) to a simple heavenly humbling (the involuntary evacuation of one’s bowels on a bicycle 5 kilometers from the apartment).

As you may have guessed, conformity is not something that comes easy to me. At best, I can manage about an hour before I start looking for ways to individualize the moment. This was particularly true when it came to our appearance.

In 1973, missionaries were expected to dress like minions of J. Edgar Hoover — white shirt, conservative necktie, dark suit, sturdy oxfords and a briefcase. With a look this colorless, it was easy to alter this manner of dress just enough to avoid sensory deprivation.

I sometimes donned red socks, or a Bugs Bunny tie, or didn’t shave for several days. The locals never seemed to mind or even notice these differences, but it drove some missionaries crazy. My companion was one of them. He couldn’t leave it alone.

Elder Lekker • “The Lord wouldn’t approve of that tie, elder.”

Me • “Really? He never said anything about it to me.”

But the rules had to be obeyed. One morning, Bugs vanished. Lekker swore he had nothing to do with it. Sometimes you have to break the small rules to obey the bigger ones.

The next day, I went to work without a tie. It took another day of trying to preach the gospel without a tie before Lekker “found” Bugs under his bed. How it got there, he didn’t know.

We wrote it off to the Lord moving ties in mysterious ways. But who knew that I was actually ahead of the times by almost 50 years?

Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.

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