05 January 2012

Falling Asleep in Church

My post from Monday got me thinking a bit more on falling asleep during worship - because I have myself slept in church and because I have watched people to sleep in church.

I distinctly recall my grandmother nudging me with her elbow to wake up a young child; I was born with the gift of being able to fall asleep in just about any place. And I remember a friend of mine who always fell asleep in church too. He would nod off and the pastor would always wake him. The pastor would not yell or trick his voice instead he would simply call on my friend in a subliminal fashion right in mid-sentence. Something like this, "Paul anguished over the church he started in Cornith, Jim wake up, they just would not follow his instructions." And I remember the elderly gentleman, at the church I interned at in divinity school, who would nod off as soon as I announced the gospel lesson .

I have never found it offensive that folk fall asleep in church while I preach. Some folk need the rest, some folk are just too tuckered to pay attention, for some it is the most restful moments of their week, and for others the hour of worship is the same time of their daily nap. I will occasionally tease someone for nodding off; usually, however, when people apologize for falling asleep I act like I did not know it or say I assumed they were simply deep in prayer/thought.

And falling asleep is ecumenical. While serving in RI the local UCC pastor and myself decided to hold joint services during the summer months. I preached at the UCC church for July and the UCC pastor preached at the Baptist church for August. It was a great experience for the summers we did this. I was on pastoral call for him congregation when he was on vacation and he was on call when I was on vacation. So the joint services enabled the two congregations to feel more comfortable with pastors and each other. Our orders of service were almost, if not, identical and we both had UCC hymnals, but they had one thing that we did not: cushioned pews!

The first Sunday I preached there I noticed those who were on their turf nestle in for their morning nap and I noticed those from the Baptist church who usually napped express much enjoyment when their bums were comforted by the presence of cushioned pews. I knew I would only hold them for a few minutes before the rhythms of my sentences lulled them to sweeter thoughts. So I employed a few tricks of the trade: I variegated the pitch and speed of my voice, I paused longer, I used lots of words that started with the letter P, knocked on the pulpit from time to time." My tricks worked but not in the manner I expected. Instead of saying how much they enjoyed the sermon the three or four from both congregations who nodded off were very grumpy for not getting their nap. I put the tricks away for the summer.

And believe it or not one of the reasons I am is a pastor is directly related to folk falling asleep in church! The first church I served was full of wonderful old souls. They were kind, considerate, and compassionate. And there was one grace filled napper; a lovely woman who would go to sleep right after the first hymn until she would wake up about middle way through the last hymn. When I announced that I was leaving for another call she came to the parsonage to talk with me about my choice. She was hurt and a bit mad. The next Sunday I didn't know if she would or would not attend worship. She attended and she came down front (she always had sat in the next to the last pew) and sat on the third pew. She tried, oh she tried, to stay awake but she could not; she fought all the way up to the first paragraph of my sermon before nodding off. After the worship she apologized for sleeping and said, "I tried" (actually she talked in the third person when referring to herself). She said she wanted to listen to my last sermons. She did that for my last four Sundays. Her pew change was a simple move but it was a moment of grace, it was a gift for me and I am thankful, eternally, grateful for her act.

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