by Dan Kois
“Why is church so boring?” asked my daughter on Sunday morning.
“You really think it’s boring?” I said.
L. considered. We were walking down the sidewalk, flanked by piles of disgusting, road-spattered snow twice her size. She and H. were dressed in Valentine’s-appropriate dresses, their heavy jackets and chunky boots clashing wildly with the pink hearts all over their tights. We were surrounded by the pre-church bustle, that mix of reverence and irreverence — hushed voices squeezing in a few more jokes before the pipe organs starts — that was once so familiar to me.
As we climbed the steps to the front door, L. turned to me and clarified. “Not all of church is boring,” she said. “There are two parts of church. The not-boring part is Sunday School. The boring part of church is when we have to sit in our seats and listen to songs.”
The past five months have convinced me that, often, L. is right. Church is boring. It’s not only boring, of course, but when it’s boring, it’s really boring.
Since I’d stopped attending church upon graduating from high school, my primary church-related pop-culture references in the past fifteen years have been in The Simpsons: the whole family in their nice clothes, Bart’s hair slicked down, Marge looking embarrassed, Homer with his head thrown back, snoring. I myself have not snored in church, I don’t think, but I have definitely dozed off. Even on cold winter days, the sanctuary is steamy, and the pews get a lot of direct sunlight. And the rhythm of (how to say this) non-black church preaching — “Blah blah BLAH, blah blah blah blah blah: blah blah” — sounds exactly the same as when I was a kid, and is about as lulling as speech can get.
Of course, there have been Sundays when church was invigorating: the music was great, the sermon was interesting, the verses from Job perfectly chosen for a week in which most of the congregation saw A Serious Man. There have been Sundays during which I was feeling particularly alert and aware and ready to think. This past Sunday was not one of those Sundays.
After delivering H. to the full-hour toddler playroom, L. and I sat in our customary pew, joined by our neighbor, Karen, and her daughters. It was Women’s Sunday, a yearly tradition at Rock Spring UCC, in which the service is given over to the women of the church, pastoral interns and laywomen alike. The effect on the service was a little jarring, not specifically because they were all women; one of the church’s three everyday ministers is a woman, though she sat Women’s Sunday out. But when you hand a church service to people unaccustomed to running a church service, things can get a little amateur hour. The ordinarily quick pace of the service slowed to a crawl as women looked at each other, silently working out who was next; one flustered lay reader missed a couple of lines in the pre-offertory call and response.
A restless L. spent the first twenty minutes of the service drawing Valentines on the bulletin and kicking the seat in front of her. At Rock Spring, school-aged kids hang out in the sanctuary until the children’s sermon. Then parents take them to Sunday School. We walked down the steps, L. growing more and more excited as we approached her room. “Hi, L.!” the teacher said. “We’re decorating cookies today!”
L. turned to me. “Cookies!” she cried, clasping her hands in delight, a four-year-old experiencing rapture.
As I waited outside the sanctuary doors, listening for a good moment to re-enter, I could almost hear the Simpsons, shedding their dress clothes in the front hallway after another dull Lovejoy sermon. “This is the best part of the week!” Homer cries. Lisa agrees: “It’s the longest possible time before more church!”
Our return to church last fall was spurred by a lot of things: a desire to meet people in our new suburban neighborhood; concerns about the moral framework our kids were growing up with; L.’s total freakout about dying. Thus far we’d barely met anyone, and it was unclear whether L. was getting anything out of the experience other than twenty minutes of frustration and some free cookies. But church had surprised me by offering me something I hadn’t even known I’d wanted in my life. Not faith — not yet. Not really grace. Boredom.
Inside the sanctuary, a laywomen delivered the sermon — on “love,” natch — and I sat peacefully and listened. I knew when we decided to return to church that it would sometimes be boring. What I didn’t expect was how much I would come to appreciate that boredom — how much I look forward to sitting in the back pew, basking in the sun, as my eyes unfocus and the choir sings Amen. It’s not the old church boredom I’m feeling, the kid-sized desperation of being stuck somewhere awful, listening to something that lasts forever, itching inside your own skin. It’s more akin to relaxing thoughtfully, settling down, opening up your mind. Meditating, I guess, although I’ve never actually ommmmed.
The best part of returning to church so far has been that it’s offered an oasis of calm in our ridiculous lives. We wake up, we hectically prepare the kids for school, we work and work and work, we pick the kids up, we put them to bed, we work some more. Even this day, Valentine’s Day, my wife skipped church to continue a project. (We hired a babysitter for that afternoon, but not so we could go out for romantic dinner — so we could work.) Sometimes we get to play with our kids for a while. Sometimes we get to watch Lost. But church is one hour a week in which we don’t have to write or research or pitch or network or parent or do much of anything. One hour a week in which all we have to do is think. One hour a week of sweet boredom.
When I was a kid, time going slowly felt like torture. As a grown-up — as my days and weeks and years hurtle by — I find that one creeping hour feels like a gift.
“How was Sunday School?” I asked L. when church was over. She was clutching a cookie that seemed to have been the subject of some kind of extreme-sports version of cookie-decorating; pink frosting and red sparkles and candy hearts jockeyed for space on its overcrowded surface. Sprinkles clung to the cookie’s edges for dear life. H. stood next to her, anxiously awaiting some sign that her sister might share that cookie with her. I geared up for a battle, as there was no way L. would ever do so willingly.
L. broke off the tiniest possible chunk of her cookie and handed it to her sister. Pink hearts clattered on the classroom floor. “It was not boring,” she said.
Previously: Prologue: “This Is A Song”