ERROL CASTENS: Ecclesiastical emergency measures: Dull sermons call for drastic actions

Preaching, for me, was a short-term calling.

In the pulpit, I was usually dull as dishwater: It's amazing how easy it is to lose one's train of thought, even in a one-track mind. I often bogged down in what during sermon prep had seemed the most solid theological ground.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. riveted Christendom and the world with his “I Have a Dream” sermon. My sermons sent the faithful off to their own land of dreams.

As a token of remorse for my shortcomings as a once-upon-a-time preacher, I herewith offer these suggestions for staying awake to any church that can't decide if its own minister is sharpening his speaking skills or just grinding them down:

1. Chew gum to stay awake. When all the flavor's gone, stick it in someone's hair. Pick someone with absolutely no sense of humor.

2. Pinch yourself hard. If that isn't enough to keep you alert, pinch someone else hard. Adrenaline from the resulting scream will provide the whole congregation with several minutes of effortless attentiveness.

3. If you happen to doze off and wake up with your head hanging over the pew back, mouth open and eyes looking straight up, raise your hands and shout “Hallelujah! What visions of rapture!” This, too, is an aid to the whole audience's attention – especially in a liturgical service.

4. In an old country church, try to count the wasps circling overhead. If the sermon really drags, try to catch one. Offer to share an extra with an equally desperate pew neighbor.

5. Recite aloud Robert Burns' poem, “To a Louse.” Make sure there's a matronly woman in the pew in front of you. As you finish the recitation, snatch her shawl off her shoulders and stomp it in the aisle. Sit back down, rub your hands in a satisfied manner as though you had slain a dragon, and graciously assure the stunned-speechless preacher that he may continue.

6. Knit. It's as uninteresting as Bro. Dishwater's third-in-a-series sermon on the second census of Israel (with special attention to the significance of Zelophehad), but you sit fully aware that if you fall asleep with those needles in your hands, you'll skewer your eyeball.

7. Sneak two candles from the foyer into your pocket. (Make sure they're unlit, at least until you take them out.) Hand one to the 6-year-old boy in the pew behind you and have a pretend swordfight.

8. Sit on the back row and roll nickels down the aisle. When the usher tries to stop you, ask why she or the church – is so opposed to change.

9. Gargle with Dr. Tichenor's. If anyone tries to quiet you, tell him he obviously doesn't have the gift of interpretation of tongues.

10. Smuggle a haba–ero pepper into church in a plastic bag in your pocket. Just before time to extend the right hand of fellowship, rub some of its juice on your palm. People will notice the hot sensation even before they touch you. You'll spend the rest of the service trying not to notice the points and whispers (or, in a contemporary service, the surreptitious text messaging) as fellow churchgoers speculate about how you merited such a manifestation of the Spirit.

11. If Bro. Dishwater just can't bring himself to find a stopping point, take a generous bite of the haba–ero. Your immediate and obviously heartfelt repentance will compel great-grandmothers to confess utter depravity, strong men will weep in joyful mourning over their now-washed sins and a Unitarian who's there only to drive his elderly mother will get saved and become a missionary to China.

Errol Castens is the Daily Journal religion editor. Contact him at 678-1586 or

Click video to hear audio