When I was a kid I hated the first hour of church (and sometimes the second and third). In the Mormon church, which I’ve attended since I was born, church is three hours each Sunday. The first hour is typically sacrament meeting. During sacrament meeting, as a congregation we take the bread and water, and afterward a few members of the congregation will give what we call “a talk” where they discuss different gospel topics and share scripture and life experiences. During this time we sit in the pews and listen.
When I attended church as a child I loathed this part of church. I was SO BORED. And not because I didn’t like or believe what the speakers were saying but because sitting with my arms folded for an entire hour was pure torture. While my dad was the leader of the congregation we always sat on the front row but when he no longer held that position we sat in the back of the chapel. I would sit as quietly as I could and try and listen but my eyes would wander to what was going on around me and my mind would be gone, off into some sort of imaginary place. I specifically remember one Sunday, sitting and enviously watching the kids in front of me play with a felt book. It had a farm scene with a barn and the kids had a small pile of felt animals they were placing around the barn. I would have given my left ponytail to play with that book.
As I got older I found ways to endure the boredom. I would sit as far away from parents as possible and goof off as quietly as possible with my siblings. I loved sitting by my younger brother Wes. We would hit or scratch each other and see how long we could get away with it before one of us made a noise and we both got in trouble. Good times for sure.
When I was young it was usually just the first hour or church I had to endure. After that I got to go to primary with all of the other kids and most of the time the leaders had fun activities planned. We got to sing and color and play. Hallelujah!
Once I graduated from primary all three hours of church became fairly similar for me. Sit. Listen. Try to learn.
Then, twice a year we would have General Conference. This conference was broadcast via satellite (and then later internet) and when I was young we would often go to another members house to watch. The conference was two hours long. Two long boring, trying to kill me, hours. One time I spent a good portion of the session scooting slowly closer and closer to a set of stairs that could possibly lead me to freedom. If I scooted slowly enough maybe no one would notice that I had disappeared up those stairs in search of some toys. I got caught and directed back to the floor right in front of the tv.
When I left for college I decided to skip church a couple of times because no one was forcing me to go and I just wanted to avoid the sheer tedium of sitting for that long. It was then that I realized that I actually missed and liked the things I was learning there, I just hated how bored I got trying to hold still. So I went back. And I tried harder to sit and listen and be a good church person.
Then I got married and had Mandy and suddenly, church was wonderful!! I was no longer expected to sit still with my hands folded and listen for three hours. Because I was expected to listen and take care of my baby at the same time. And I was very good at that. Having six kids gave me years of church where I could listen with intermittent distractions, changing diapers, breast feeding, consoling a crying child, walking the halls to rock a baby to sleep. I actually looked forward to going.
And then my babies got older and needed me less and sometimes I was starting to be faced with boring church again. Right about this time I began therapy and was learning to pay attention to my body and my mind and my heart and what it was that I needed at any given moment. And one week at church, when my lap became child free, I grabbed a piece of paper from under the pew in front of me and started folding some origami and my hands were busy. And my mind was listening.
I realized then that I had a hard time sitting still for three hours with my arms folded. And I was an adult. And I should be able to sit and listen and fold my arms for three hours of church and why can’t I do that? Is it because I don’t have enough faith or I don’t study the gospel enough? When I was a kid I’d always known that church would just be easier when I got older. And then it wasn’t.
So I stopped folding my origami for a minute and tried to listen. And the more I tried to focus the more crazy ideas popped into my head and the further my mind was from the topic being discussed. So I started folding again. And with my hands busy my mind could capture what was being said and hold onto it and enjoy it. After that I tried to bring things to church for my hands to do. (No wonder all of my notebooks from school were filled with pages of patterns and doodles.)
When I started drawing it seemed the perfect focusing distraction. I could sit for all three hours and draw and get more out of church than I had ever before. When I first started doing it I felt a bit of shame. Occasionally people would look at me while I drew through an entire lesson and I was sure they thought I wasn’t listening. So I started commenting more on the lessons to prove that I could in fact, draw and listen at the same time. Then I realized that it doesn’t matter what other people think about my sketching during church, because it was helping me listen and remember more and feel more whole.
This entire experience has given me a different perspective on my own children. If I can’t sit through three hours of church with my arms folded and my legs still and listen intently…maybe they can’t either. I know there are some people who can and actually like to, but I’m certain there are those like me who it’s much harder for.
So, we give our kids options. We still like them to sit and use a whisper if they need to talk but we let them bring a small handful of Legos or a coloring book and markers or a notebook and pen.
This entire ordeal has gotten me thinking too…what if we are doing our children a great disservice by trying to force them to be still, especially the ones like me who really want to be “good” but physically can’t? What if there are some children who would learn much more deeply and much more quickly if they were allowed to fidget or even walk around while they listened? I know it’s church and it’s supposed to be quiet and invite God’s spirit in and there are those who would argue that any added noise distracts people but what about those who need the movement to allow their brain to focus? I don’t have the answers. I just have a lot lot lot more patience for my own kids and their struggle with church.
I want to be open to their needs, whatever they may be. I want them to feel like they can enjoy church in their own way, even if it’s a bit unconventional. Here’s to all the good church members who aren’t reverent but are reverent in their own way! I’m fidgeting too.