Ever since I made the conscious decision to start going to Friday prayers again a few years ago, I have at times regretted the decision. It is not that I believe that I don't believe in the good of prayer in general or the communal prayer in particular. I'm a believer (scientifically speaking, of course) in the relationship between religious engagement and positive social benefit. Numerous studies purport to link churchgoing with lower rates of teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse, school performance, etc. (I have yet to see the study that shows such a benefit from watching "The 700 Club," or reading any of the "Left Behind" series, however.)
I'll also readily admit that I've had some good experiences at the mosque on Fridays. Even so, it's not as if I demand to be lifted off the carpet in awe, my life forever changed, by an enrapturing service. (I don't think that I could handle more than a few life-changing moments at this point as it is. It's hard enough just slogging to the gym.)
No, what reduces me to bouts of perditional dissatisfaction is the unpredictability of what I'm going to hear on any given Friday. Mosques vary in their degrees of organization, and it's the rare one that has a reliable imam who is likely to give the khutba every week, allowing you to develop a degree of consistency. Even at the largest, most wealthy masjid you are as likely to hear from a studied scholar one week, a gynecologist the next, and a high schooler attempting to spread the chocolate milk across his face into a beard the week after that.
My most recent pang of regret hit about a month ago, smack in the middle of what had been an uplifting Friday service. The imam, of Arab descent and based at a different mosque than the one I was visiting, had spent a good 10 minutes about one of the finest qualities of our prophet, peace be with him: his love for people, Muslims or not. It is a quality that is not emphasized enough among Muslims (and it is safe to say that it is almost never emphasized among non-Muslims, especially in American discourse).
Unfortunately, after a precious few minutes of self-reflection on how I need to emulate Muhammad's love, my spirit was slammed down against the cement floor of the mosque. Within seconds, the imam's gentle demeanor evaporated revealing an agitated animation about what he supposed to be the antithesis of the prophet's inimitable love: women leading prayers.
Yeah, the connection eluded me too. It took me a minute to regain my bearings and realize that the whole exhortation to be excellent to one another had been just a setup, a tease for an unpleasant switch-and-bait. The imam, as he ticked off almost by rote the religio-legal reasons against women being imams, morphed like Jim Carrey in "The Mask" into an bundle of activity and volume, waving his arms, eyes glaring, the occasional spittle flying off his lips.
By the end, I didn't just feel dejected - I felt had. The whole brouhaha about women leading prayer had been beside the point. Regardless of whether or not I agree with the concept of or need for women to lead prayers, the imam had disingenuously injected his own reflexively regurgitated (at least by what he presented) opinions on the issue into the mosque by using "`The Prophet's Love" as a mere pretext. I wondered which of these two points was really more important to him.
On leaving I had a brainwave that I followed on impulse. If it is required for me as a Muslim to go to the Mosque for Friday prayers, do I really need to sit back and take it when I find the imam's words unpleasant? I decided to take a small, personally important action. After prayer, I usually donate $5 to the mosque for hosting the service; but with that illuminating display, Pffffffffft went the donation. I only gave $1.
Of course, $4 makes no difference to the mosque in any real sense. It's arguable whether mosques pay attention to the opinions of their congregants at all, as most seem to cater their policies to the beliefs of the few heavy hitters donating large amounts of cash. Perhaps, though, this is my effort to suggest a new trend in Muslim circles: performance based sermons. It seems only fair that if in every other aspect of life - spiritual as well as lay - we are rewarded based upon our performance, we have the right to expect our imams and mosques to undertake their Friday responsibilities much more seriously in return for our support.