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Come Back, Brother and Sister
By Aaron Johnston May 21, 2004

What ever happened to good old-fashioned manners? When I was a kid, for example, we'd be horsewhipped if we didn't say ma'am and sir.

"Would you like another piece of fried chicken?" a friend's mother might ask.

"Yes, ma'am," I'd say.

Then she'd smile all sweet-like and put a chicken leg on my plate -- at which point I'd say, "Thank you, ma'am."

Now, had I said, "Heck yeah, woman. Toss me some more of that cooked carcass," I would have got a licking so bad, you would have heard about it on the evening news.

But times are changing. Rarely, if ever, do I hear sir or ma'am. In fact, some people get mighty angry if you call them that.

"Don't call me sir. What, do I look old to you?"

How did this happen? How did being polite become offensive?

Maybe I'm stuck in a generation I should have outgrown. Or maybe my southern upbringing is more uncommon than I thought. Either way, it's sad that respectable social behavior is slowly losing its footing.

And the same can be said for church etiquette. It's slipping.

Consider the many titles we use: brother, sister, bishop, president, elder, patriarch. Some of these have endured the gradual erosion of social decorum, but others are nearly extinct.

I cringe, for example, every time I hear a male missionary refer to his companion by last name only.

"Hey, Henderson. What should we do on our P-Day?"

No no, my sweet, young missionary. His name is Elder Henderson. Not Henderson. Or Hindie. Or Hindu. Elder Henderson.

Why the fuss? Because elder is a privileged and distinguished title that separates this man from most. It means he holds the priesthood of God and has been called and set apart by one with authority to serve as an ambassador of the Lord. That's no small thing.

To call him by his last name only is, in effect, to disregard his sacred calling.

The same, of course, is true for sister missionaries. When we call them by their title, we acknowledge that they are the Lord's servants and our sisters in the family of Christ.

But an even more grievous faux pas is to drop the title of bishop or president. It's not Bishop Webber, for example, it's Frank. And it's not President Ryerson, it's Jerry.

When did this become acceptable?

The bishop is the bishop. That's what we should call him, if not out of respect for the individual, then at least out of respect for the calling.

Most bishops would agree. You won't likely hear one stand at the pulpit the day he's sustained and announce to the ward, "Just for the record, ya'll can all keep calling me Shane same as always. There'll be none of this Bishop Smith silliness. And those who knows me real good can still call me Nooky."

Granted, if that does happen, you can bet your scripture case that the stake president will go home and wonder when oh when did he lose the gift of discernment.

But even if we're not the bishop, we're probably still victims of etiquette erosion. Take me, for example. No one calls me Brother Johnston anymore. I'm just Aaron.

I can understand, of course, that once strong friendships are made, it sounds more formal to call each other Brother or Sister Last Name. I call all of my close buddies by their first name, in church or out.

The one exception is when I'm speaking from the pulpit. We should always use the more formal name when addressing the congregation.

For example, to say "Brother Keller called me last night and asked me to give this talk." is perfectly acceptable. But to say "Rick called me last night...," is not. And yet this happens all the time. In my ward, it happens nearly every week.

Personally, when I'm at the pulpit, I don't even refer to my wife by her first name. It's always Sister Johnston this and Sister Johnston that. Never Lauren. Some may consider that extreme, but to them I say, "Hey, there are children and youth in the congregation."

And children and youth should never be exempt. Sunbeam kids, for example, should always call their teacher Brother or Sister So-and-So, never Pam or Julie or Kirk.

In fact, I'm willing to bet that this is one of the signs of the times -- right up there with the moon turning blood red. Every time a young beehive calls her advisor by her first name, we can be sure the end is nigh.

I can't help but think of the good old days, the early days of the church when brother was more than a title of respect; it was a genuine display of affection.

We've all heard stories of Brother Joseph and Brother Brigham. Back then men shook hands by grabbing each other's forearms.

And when they called each other brother, they meant it. You are my brother, as close to me in spirit as my born kin is to me in blood. I'll follow you to the end of the earth. Or, should hell impede me, I'll die trying.

History teaches they were true to their word.

Wouldn't it be nice if future generations said the same about us? They loved each other. They knit their hearts together. They were true brothers and sisters.

So even if social etiquette doesn't appeal to you, the meaning behind the title should. Call me your brother, not because it's proper, but because you consider me such.

And if you want to call me by my first name, well that's OK too. Let's just be careful the tradition doesn't die. Because, in truth, it's not a tradition; it's who we are, brothers and sisters in Christ, literal siblings under God.

Copyright © 2004 by Aaron Johnston

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