Jun 28, 2017

Sitting in a pew -- I'm the worst!

I'm lousy at sitting in pews.

Of course as a "professional" church goer, I don't do it very often. On Sunday mornings I strut around the altar in fancy vestments, stand in the pulpit for 10-12 minutes, and sit only when other people are doing liturgical things -- like reading from the Bible or singing a choral anthem.

But as Summer rolls around and vacation looms, I'll be spending a few weeks sitting in pews at some yet-to-be-determined churches. And I'll again realize just how easily annoyed I can be. Uncharitable thoughts inevitable arise. Like:
"I can't believe how many typos are in this bulletin. 'The Lard be with you?!' Come on!" 
"That is not the proper order in which to light the altar candles. What kind of liturgical yahoo trained this acolyte anyway?"  
"If this hymn was played any slower, I swear I'd fall asleep standing up." 
"Would it be rude to yell, 'I object!' in the middle of this vaguely heretical sermon?"
Perhaps it's simply an occupational hazard. I mean, when bus drivers ride the bus, they can't help but think to themselves how poorly the driver took that turn back on Main and Elm, right? But I'll be honest. No one likes sitting next to me -- certainly not my family. It may be the what-I-thought-was-barely-audible-but-apparently-was-not sighs too deep for words.

I remember a slightly different approach to clergy sitting in the pews that was equally irritating to the priest's family when on vacation. The spouse used to complain about her husband the minister acting as "Pew Captain" whenever they'd be in church together. He'd be the first one in the congregation to stand up or respond to a versicle. His "amens" were hearty and he encouraged everyone around him to sing louder.

I guess that would be a different kind of annoying. But the truth is I'm easily distracted when I sit in church and this does nothing at all for my spiritual life.

It's not a bad thing to want to worship in the beauty of holiness or to want worship to be "decently and in order." But when small things consistently get in the way of your experience with and of God, you may have some spiritual work to do. I know I do.

And it's worth reflecting on two questions: Where does your mind go during worship? And where does your heart go? Not every service will feel like a heaven-meets-earth transcendent moment. I get that. But you also have to put yourself in a receptive frame of mind to encounter the holy and be accepting and grateful -- and forgiving -- in order to experience God's amazing grace.

So worship, as important as it is, can never become an idol in and of itself. We can't sacrifice our faith on the altar of personal piety. Certainly not when it comes to going to church in an unfamiliar place a few Sundays a year.

So wherever I end up worshipping this Summer, I'll try my best to relax and enjoy being in relationship with Jesus while having a break from being in liturgical control.

And, anyway, I'm sure I'll have some clergy stop by St. John's this summer. And they'll feel the same way about some of the things I'm doing up there.


Unknown said...

When I made the involuntary (due to lack of available jobs) transition from altar to pew with my family, I had recently attended a diocesan clergy conference. There is NOTHING like worshipping with a roomful of "pew captains" to call one's attention to pew etiquette. I felt like I was in the midst of a liturgical pissing contest. One among us reminded us gently that if we could not hear the voices of the ppl to either side of us blending with our own, we were violating their worship space. I must confess that I continue to notice and judge and score. I expect that I always will do so. I have just gotten much better about not holding up my scorecard for all to see. Now I restrain myself until I can safely rant to my fam in the car on the way home.

Katrina said...

Actually, this is not unique to clergy or to occasions of visiting other churches. I'm an Altar Guild Directress. Part of the job definition is to be picky, picky, picky. Martha on steroids, if you will. When I train new members, I impress upon them the need to do things the "right" way. But I emphasize that God does not care (at least I think God does not care) that the linens are not matching or ironed perfectly. God does not care that candles are lit in the proper order (late acolytes often necessitate that we light them.) God does not care that there is a smudge on the Missal stand. But, I think, God does care that we are doing our very best in order to please God. It is part of our worship. And as I sit in the pew, I, too, stifle a sigh as the acolyte lights the Gospel candle first, or sits there like a bump on a log when the offering plates should be being brought out to the ushers, or when the ushers are not moving the communion line along. I frown when "newbies" in the congregation (often guests of the Baptism party) fail to turn to face the Gospel as it is processed into the aisle. And, so, I find myself constantly upbraiding myself, and asking God for forgiveness for my sin and for guidance to remember why I am sitting in that pew. Why did I come to Church today? Did I get up on Sunday morning and plan to criticize every little variance from "decorum?" No, I got up with JOY in my heart, longing to be with God and my fellow pew-sitters. Oh, Lord, may it be so.

Lisa Izzo said...

Thank you for this blog post and for the comments. I have been (off and on) a member of our church's worship team. In that role, I often find myself the recipient of "ear bending" comments about how things went during a worship service. I now have some good responses to reports about the communion table being off-center or the ushers not following protocol: "Why did you come to church today? Were you seeking God, and did you find him?
Does God care about the placement of the communion table or the form of the ushers, or does God care about whether people are worshiping together and working to create his will on earth?"