Leave the judgment at home and be open to the experience and people around you.
The other Sunday I was wondering if there was some new practice that would help me nurture my faith during this Lenten season. Was there some new habit to develop? The minister was in the middle of the sermon and a few niggling criticisms passed through my mind, small-minded unholy judgments, when I stopped myself. Here was something I could do right now. I’d make it my Lenten practice to get more out of church.
1) Pray for the preacher.
This was a suggestion I remember reading from Fred Rogers–yes, that Rogers, Mister Rogers (he happened to be an ordained minister). Don’t put yourself in a judgmental frame of mind when you listen to a sermon. It’s not like watching a movie, sharpening your knife to skewer any fault in a performance or script. No one is asking you to be a critic. A sermon is a gift of love from a fellow follower of Jesus. Hear it. Better yet, hear the part in it that God wants you to hear. There is always something. If Mister Rogers always found something, so could I.
2) Love the people in the space.
Some clever-minded wag sent me this quote: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.” I laughed at that…and then started thinking. How do we care for each other in the pews? How do we look after each other? Religion’s not just vertical; it’s also horizontal (a little bit like the cross). Once at the end of a prayer I saw a woman lean across a pew to adjust another woman’s dress that wasn’t quite buttoned right in the back. That seemed like a prayer itself.
3) Love the people outside even more.
What are we doing for the “least of these” outside our walls? How are we reaching them? Do they know about our soup kitchen? Can I bring something for the food pantry? One morning I was rushing to church and hurried past an older man dressed in a threadbare suit. “Good morning,” I said. “Morning,” he said back, then pointed to our church, “You should go there,” he said. “It’s a good place.” I’d never seen him before in my life but liked to think that he slipped into a pew–or the soup kitchen–when I wasn’t there.
4) Sing AND pray.
The words in the songs are prayers, too, not just pretty things for us to sing. The psalms themselves were originally sung. How often do you get to sing with a lot of people in one place, voices echoing off the walls? When do you get to be a part of an A-team chorus (and every church congregation is an A-team)? This is 10 times better than singing in the shower. Forget being self-conscious. “Make a joyful noise” says the Bible. Nowhere does God say, “You’ve got to be a top-paid rock star or trained opera singer to sing MY words.”
5) Daydream about God.
The novelist Kurt Vonnegut once said, “People don’t come to church for preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.” Your mind will wander in church. Mine does. But who’s to say it might not be wandering in a God-ordained way? I’m reminded of the woman on a retreat who confessed to the monk, “I keep falling asleep when I pray.” “Maybe God is simply telling you that you need to sleep,” he replied. I waste a lot of time daydreaming about silly stuff. Here’s a chance to daydream about the divine.