Juxtaposition

It's quiet in there now. There's a crack in the curtain, and when I looked inside, I saw all of those kids sitting there on the edge of their chairs, just like I thought they would. That's not to say I wasn't worried. I prayed a lot...

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It all started with Cornelius Opgenorth, the guy everybody knows as Connie. Connie's a real character—wears his white mane long, like an old lion. Now I'll grant you he's tighter than a fist, and he never once had a good thing to say about our former pastor, but I trust that man's instincts. Oh, they may be a little out of square sometimes, but then so is a good old house.

So I was visiting Connie because it was my turn.

"Come on in," he said. "I don't know why I get all these elder visits. At my age, I can't do so much wrong."

He's got a sense of humor too—I like that in old guys.

He lives in the east wing of Rest Lawn Home, and he's about the spunkiest pain in the butt around. The nurses all hate him, he says, laughing. Up above his bed he's got a picture of an old man wearing a neckerchief, riding a hayrack, and on the TV stands a photo of his family. Five kids, all of them moved away.

"Ralph," he said to me, pointing. "I didn't like it that we weren't going to have a sermon last Maundy Thursday. Where two or three are gathered, I think, someone ought to open the Word. So when I heard about it, I didn't want to go." He paused for a moment, then continued. "But I got an old motor, Ralph, and when worship comes the t'ing runs, like it or not."

I thought I was about to get it for the no-sermon liturgy the elders passed for Maundy Thursday. That's what I thought. Connie doesn't always take to change.

"But it was good, Ralph," he said, waving his finger in the air again. "I tell myself, it t'ain't no real service without someone saying, 'Thus saith the Lord,' but this one was good. It was nothing but communion, but I don't think I had such a Lord's Supper since the war—except for when Trintje died, that one too, of course. Did I tell you about the time once when it looked so bad, and then we had the Lord's Supper ... ? Yeah," he said, "maybe I'm like all them others, eh? I talk too much about what used to be." His lips pursed just a moment. "But when I took that bread and wine—well, that's a miracle, isn't it, Ralph? That's forgiveness. What a t'ing that is—do you ever t'ink of it that way? Sure you do."

That's what he said. I'm not making this up.

"That was wonderful worship," he said, pulling his fingers through that long, white hair. "That was communion, all right. That's what it was exactly."

And then his eyes narrowed, as if the good stuff were over.

"But I hated the pie afterwards. Ralph," he said, "I came out of that service with the Lord, and then we all go in that fellowship hall and yah-tah-tah, yah-tah-tah—all jabber, just like what we had done a minute before was nothing but a football game." He looked around as if he wished there were another hundred elders to hear the truth. "That was bad juxtaposition."

"What?" I said.

"Juxtaposition," he said. "You speak the language. It means the way t'ings were put together." Up came the pointer. "Bring it to the elders," he said. "Tell them it shouldn't ought to happen that way againóno social like that."

"You didn't like the pie?" I said.

"Best lemon meringue your wife ever baked," he said. "But right after the body and the blood is no time for pie."

This man has pushed people around in our church for forty years, but ever since his favorite daughter got divorced, he's lost the edge. All he's got left is instincts, and I trust his instincts.

So I brought it to the elders, and a couple of them winced right away—Burt and Forrie nodded as if what Connie Opgenorth said was exactly what they'd thought long before.

"He didn't like the pie?" Clary Vogel wondered.

"That's not it," I told him. "He says it was a lousy juxtaposition."

"What?" Clary said.

"Juxtaposition," I told him. "You know Connie—he reads a lot. Juxtaposition. He means the way it all worked together."

And then Forrie talked. He doesn't say much usually, but he said he knew what Connie meant. "You know how there's times in church when you just feel that everybody's with it?—you know what I mean?" he said. "You can hear a pin drop." He had his hands folded out in front of him as if he were saying a prayer. "That's what it was like in that service," he said.

"You guys know it, too. It was really moving. There was something about that service all right. It was meaningful. You could just feel it."

After Forrie had his say, you could hear chairs squeak in the silence. Some men get nervous when people talk that way.

Anyway, the upshot of that meeting was that I got to talk to Brandon Phelpson about it. He's the youth leader, and every time I see him with the kids, I tell myself that we got us a great one. Every other church around here has a youth pastor, but we figure we don't have to lay out the loot as long as we get Brandon and Phyl, his wife, for nothing.

So I was elected. I got to talk to this guy—tell him that next year they should have their fund-raiser on Prayer Day instead. "Let Maundy Thursday alone for all of us to do some reflection," I told him.

"Reflection?" he said. "Kids don't reflect on anything. Ever see the T-shirts they wear, Ralph?" he said. "If it's not Motley Crue or Guns 'N Roses, it's 'Just Do It.'" He rolled his eyes. "The elders think kids are going to do some 'reflection'?"

"That ain't it exactly," I said.

"Well then, what is it?" he said.

I knew I should be careful what I said. The way I figure, you want leaders to be a little possessive about their programs. It means they like what they're doing. Besides, we lose Brandon Phelpson and his wife, and we suffer a major loss. So I had to tread lightly, I figured.

"It's nothing against a pie social," I said.

"We've been doing it after Maundy Thursday for years," he said. "What happened this time?"

"Some people feel that this time the service was different," I told him. "Worship Committee put together something special."

"It was—it didn't have a sermon."

"Maybe that was it," I told him.

"But something this time was different. Listen," I said again, "the elders say you just ought to have it after Prayer Day instead. Having it on Maundy Thursday is a lousy juxtaposition." That's how I said it.

"A what?" he said.

"It's a lousy juxtaposition."

"So what's to say that next year's Maundy Thursday will be so special?" he said. "Maybe you just hit on something good this year, and next year it'll be back to the old boring routine."

Here I am, an old man, trying to tell this kid that he shouldn't get in a rut because he's too young. Having trouble with change is supposed to be a problem for folks my age—or Connie's for that matter. "What's the matter with you, Brandon," I said, "can't you change? "

Maybe that was too aggressive.

"Me change?" he said, ticked off. "What about this church? Shoot, I'm the one who wants the kids to take a service. I'm the one who thinks we ought to have videos—there are good ones, too. I'm the one who says we ought to just skip the evening service with the kids and play sand volleyball."

"It's a matter of give-and-take," I told him.

"So where's the give on your part?" he said. "The consistory is always on my case—"

"Nonsense," I said.

"Nonsense, nothing," he said, and the whole litany of turndowns came tumbling out in a wave that crashed so hard I couldn't get a word in edgewise for ten minutes. Retreats, song services, shorts in church—it went on and on.

Maybe I hit him at just the wrong time. I don't know. Maybe he's burned out—that happens to good people in youth ministry. Maybe it was too much to ask.

"All right," he said finally, "you tell them." That's the last word. "You can explain to them why the consistory wants them to change their pie social. Next Sunday—you tell them."

It came to me a day later—how Connie fit into the picture, I mean. I didn't do it because I was scared. I would have talked to those kids myself, but—well, I thought right away it was a really good juxtaposition.

He's in there now—with Brandon and his wife, Phyllis, and all those kids. I helped him down the stairs this morning, and when I told him what I wanted him to say, his lips turned down like a child's. He was nervous, I know.

"Tell 'em about communion," I told him. "Tell them about communion during the war—with the Nazis all around. And tell them about when Trintje died—tell them that too. Tell them what it felt like then, Connie," I said. I had ahold of his arm. "Just tell them what you feel," I said. "Tell them about the miracle."

"You going to be in there?" he asked.

"No," I told him. "You don't need me."

"I need an elder," he told me.

"You already are one," I told him. And he nodded at me, as if for once I'd told the truth.

He's in there now, behind the closed curtain, and it's so quiet you could hear a pin drop.

Here, peek in for yourself once. Have a look. There's an old man talking to all those kids. Listen for yourself. Hear that? He's talking about communion.

Look at him there, on that old chair, with all that white hair spilling.

 

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