In Good Order

Once upon a time in a land not so far away, a church named Rivervale met to conduct worship every Sunday in a very nice sanctuary. Always their service followed a pleasant style, tastefully created by a liturgically sensitive Committee on Music and Worship. Rivervale members were of one mind in claiming that at their church everything was done in the best possible order. When the event I am about to relate took place, both Rivervale pastors were absent. The preaching pastor had been sent to northern Minnesota to study Central American politics, and the pastor of music and youth was vacationing with her spouse in southern Ontario. The Rivervale Church was in need of three weeks of pulpit supply.

The Consistorial Advisory Committee on Pulpit Supply drew up a list, chose three names from that list, and submitted them, in order of preference, to the church council. As usual the people of Rivervale were of one mind: the council unanimously approved the committee's first choice. No strife in Rivervale.

Thus, the Secretary for Rivervale's Consistorial Advisory Committee for Pulpit Supply contacted a revered septuagenarian, the Reverend Professor Mr. August Seemly, who had created a great and loyal following after a long and distinguished career of wetting his finger in the wind and then letting slip occasional hints of heresy in the halls of the seminary where he was employed.

And there was great rejoicing in Rivervale v/hen the Rev. Mr. Seemly accepted, for the people were assured that the quality of exposition would certainly not be diminished with the famous theological captain standing on deck and guiding the ship of church at Rivervale.

When the professor arrived that first Sunday, he sat in the velvet lap of one of the council room's easy chairs and perused the contents of Rivervale's weekly bulletin. The cover illustration he found evocative without being too bold—two doves rendered in a slightly impressionistic style, soaring through dawn's early morning amber. Instinctively, he perceived the subtle urgings of the artist's vision, seeing hope both in the integrity of the lines emanating from the doves and in the ambient sky itself, rendered sensitively in pastels.

Inside the bulletin, he found the liturgy meticulously detailed. The litany for Father's Day had been drawn exclusively (for consistency in syntax and meter) from the book of Proverbs. He judged the choral anthem—which would be sung from the gallery, of course—as being especially topical and its musical setting perfectly apropos for the text he had submitted already a month ago to the Committee on Music and Worship. He noted the place of the anthem—directly after the sermon—as being perfectly sequent, the whole a finely tuned and imaginative response to what he was planning from the pulpit.

Following the customary council-room prayer, the congregation's vice president ushered the Reverend Mr. Seemly up toward the front of the church, a gesture he found not only tastefully traditional (adapted slightly, but still somewhat reminiscent of the tradition of the old country), but also decidedly hospitable and gracious.

On either side of the pulpit stood the baptismal font and the communion table, pointing—as they should, he thought—toward the thin oak pulpit, its modern lines all that were needed at center stage. No flowers had been added to snare the interest and attention of the congregation, of course. And at the sides of the front hung only two banners, reserved in composition, really, both of them celebrating, with boldly stroked landscapes, the God of four seasons. Nothing at all garish, he noted approvingly.

The congregation's attire appeared respectable and fitting for people who had come to praise God on such a perfect Sabbath morning. And the sun's rays draped over the pews in great swaths of color from the earth tones set forever in the stained glass. The service began, as one would have expected, just on time.

In fact, everything about Rivervale and this service seemed so right to the noted August Seemly that he felt that perhaps right there in the sanctuary the spheres themselves were making music. In short, the professor deduced that Rivervale's vaunted reputation as a place for bona fide liturgical aficionados was truly earned.

Under the leadership of August Seemly the service that Sunday proceeded without incident. The confession and assurance, drawn without significant revision from a meditational prayer once uttered by an ancient reformer, was poetic and meaningful. The sermon, one of Rev. Seemly's favorites, made several useful distinctions about fatherhood, then ended by urging the congregation to do justice and love God's children of all colors, creeds, and persuasions.

The offering seemed the only appropriate way to conclude such a lyrical service. Seemly tugged gently at the sleeves of his robe as he sat behind the pulpit and watched the deacons stand at aisle ends, passing the tasseled plates. The organist had chosen Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," one of August Seemly's favorites, and so he sat there feeling immensely blessed.

In the midst of his reveries, something happened. In order to better feel Bach's insistent devotion, August Seemly closed his eyes—watching, as it were, the master's meditational rhythms pass across the slate of darkness created in his mind. But alas, the Rev. Mr. Seemly was no more a young man. What's more, he had eaten an abundant breakfast. Soon, he was asleep.

The deacons came forward with their offerings and stood before the proscenium. The congregation, not knowing its place at such an unforeseen event, remained seated, looking quizzically at each other, of course, but not daring to speak. The elders blushed. The choir raised their hands simultaneously to their mouths as if horribly aghast.

And no one moved. Nothing like this had been planned. The Committee on Music and Worship simply had not foreseen such a strange event happening in the pattern of worship, and the liturgy sheet provided no indication of what anyone should do.

The story goes that they are seated there yet today, the Rev. August Seemly decidedly asleep behind the pulpit, the organist still playing Bach, the deacons standing up front with baskets full to overflowing, the choir with their hands at their mouths, and the congregation, in perfect silence, amazed and befuddled.

And it is said that all the good members of Rivervale are sincere in hoping that the Rev. Mr. Seemly will soon awaken.

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.