For a Dime I'd Quit This Committee: Another war over worship

That it happened when it did, no one could have guessed. Who'd expect a worship war midsummer—the time when things aren't really rolling along in church with much steam? That it would happen, however, could have been predicted by anyone with even a little bit of foresight. The "praise and worship" brouhaha had been fomenting for almost two years, and all that energy finally blew the cork off the unsettled peace otherwise registered on the faces of the Prince of Peace Fellowship worship committee.

Dr. Blake Stuart has been chair for almost three years—a veteran of worship committee wars, a medical doctor by trade arid a healer by predilection, a man Regan Bittner claims has 1 Corinthians 13 taped to the inside of his eyelids. Bittner once told his wife that the good doctor is the Neville Chamberlain of Prince of Peace Fellowship, the quintessential nice guy, a man with the guts of a tub of Dream Whip.

Bittner thinks of himself as the somewhat loyal opposition: his constituency the suffering, silent majority the martyred many overrun by the flaky few whoVe never seen a fad they didn't like. A highly successful accountant by trade, Bittner's spent the last twenty years' worth of mornings with two solid bowls of Grape Nuts Flakes. His desk is a dream, everything foursquare. And he likes his worship as lean as his beef, the way God intended it.

When Florence Mayfield officially made her proposal, Dr. Stuart smiled as diplomatically as always. 'An interesting proposal," he said, his fashionable goatee pinched in his fingers.

Bittner thinks Florence Mayfield spends far too much time thinking about church. Martyr-like, she'd openly dedicated her next ten years to the j oys of motherhood. She calls herself an activist for the children. One of these children—the nursery's own holy terror—belongs to her.

"When you think about it—the kids miss out on so much in the summer, no Sunday school or anything," Flo said. "I just don't know how I'm going to participate in the service next year with my little Janey wiggling on my lap. We have to make our services more accessible to our little people."

At that, whatever residue of good will Bittner could maintain evaporated. Flo went on to propose that Prince of Peace hold the always upbeat "Praise and Worship" services every Sunday during the summer, "... for the kids," Flo said, who "so love them."

Bittner wondered who'd done the research. His own kids' enthusiasm for swinging worship services wouldn't have torched a stew man, even though May-field and her ilk loved being up front shakm' and raisin' their arms arid beatin' on things, as if the Holy Spirit, like a genie, would suddenly appear from a tambourine. Praise n' Worship, he called it privately like "Cap'n Crunch."

"Perhaps we're not as conscious of the needs of our children as we should be," the good doctor pointed out, appending rationale. "What do the rest of you think?"

Typical nineties leadership, Bittner thought: throw the topic out on the water and see if some dead panacea floats, belly-up to the surface. Representative democracy. Church politics. Let's just talk this through here, arid we'll be sure to find the sanction of the Spirit. He wondered what would have happened to Moses' hapless flock if the Lord had polled them before deciding on manna.

"Regan," Stuart said, "what do you think?"

Cut Hie silliness is what he wanted to say. I'm sick arid tired of the hoopla. "Praise and Worship" is a Macys parade pr the chwchs closet Shakers. But he choked all of that sarcasm one more time, and what came out was bland enough. "I don't believe my children take such great fancy toward that style of worship," he said.

Of course, Flo Mayfield said to herself. Bittner's children's reactions were based on tire fact that they were his children—best seen and not heard. Neanderthal child-rearing. Flo was convinced Bittner had no heart. Open up his chest and you'd find an Amana.

"Are you saying that 'Praise and Worship' isnt affecting your kids?" she asked, smiling politely.

Bittner tried to inject levity. "I don't know that anything affects my kids," he said.

They're just as heartless as he, Flo thought.

"Then do I understand you to say that you would oppose such a proposal?" the good doctor asked him.

Bittner was irritated by the haste of what seemed to him a bottom-line question not three minutes into the discussion. He knew Dr. Stuart had brought them to that point so quickly because Regan Bittner was the only committee member who had any reservations.

The doctor stayed at him. "I mean, is it a style of worship that you have some specific feelings about Regan?" he asked.

Questions like that gave him gas. If he wanted therapy Bittner thought, he'd find a shrink. But he continued to dodge. "I don't know" he said, biding time, hoping Stuart would bring in some other voices— even though he knew from the start he was vastly outnumbered. "What about you, Lexi?" Regan said, passing the attention across the table.

Lexi Maret is the worship committee's token youth member. As a junior high student she'd had a poem published in an anthology. Someone thought she could probably pump out a litany or two using that kind of gift. And she did. Regularly. But she was no zealot, and the older she grew the more wary she became, spending most of her time in committee meetings listening and reading the regularly accessible auras on display around her.

"Yes, what about you, Lex?" the good doctor said. "Tell us what the young people think."

Nausea crept into her whenever he said something like that—as if somehow she should know what every last kid in the church felt like. She shrugged her shoulders lightly and said nothing.

"Well, I'm for it," Marti Reynolds interjected.

That didn't shock Bittner. Regan was convinced Marti had a view as regular as the dawn: whatever was done twenty years ago is dead wrong. She'd be something from the Age of Aquarius if she didn't drive a Lincoln Town Car.

"We have to be more upbeat—that's all there is to it. What Praise and Worship brings us is movement, life. We got to grow."

"I agree," Hazel Brinks said, but then everybody knew Hazel Brinks plays Paul Schaffer to Marti's Letterman.

There's some people," Marti told Bittner, "who come to church to 'have it done,' to be passive, to check in—as if church were a hospital." She nodded at him, as if expecting his approval. "That's it for some people—church as chiropractor: come in for a treatment and leave with less pain. As long as somebody else does it, and whatever gets done doesn't upset anyone. What's wrong with being more active?"

"Some people don't like to be bothered..."

"Bothered?" Marti said, her voice rising into an aria. "What kind of silliness is that? Worship is something that shouldn't really boilier us, something that's just sort of regular, something ordinary, something— well—inert? Something dead, like a cemetery?"

Bittner rolled his eyes at what he thought was a gross exaggeration.

"You've got to say this, Regan, "she said, "at least nobody sleeps!"

Florence Mayfield didn't have to use her fingers to know she'd already won big. Even Bittner wouldn't vote no, she thought. He didn't have the guts.

"Well," the good doctor said, "are we ready to vote here?"

"What's the motion?" Regan said.

"The motion is that we propose to the council that 'Praise and Worship' services be held every Sunday during the rest of the summer, instead of once a month—isn't that right, Flo?"

Flo nodded proudly then looked up at Regan, anxious to tweak him. "Mr. Bittner," she said, "what do you really think?' He could say anything now and it wouldn't matter anyway she thought.

Regan squirmed for the right words. He was sick unto death of acting like a hand brake here, always trying to batten the hatches when the ship of church lurched into some uproarious new weather system.

"Go ahead," Marti told him.

Regan looked up at the good doctor.

"Yes, Regan," Hazel said. "Tell us what you think—you represent a significant part of this church..."

"What part?" he said.

At that point Flo thought it possible to set her fangs behind the guise of a little humor. "The fuddy-duddies," she said, giggling.

The good doctor frowned. "Now, Florence, I don't think..."

"I didn't mean it," she said. "I was just being cute."

"Okay here's the vote from the fud-dies—the male fuddies," Bittner said, looking directly at Flo. "If they're my party then I better see they get a hearing."

"Go on," Flo said, aching for a fight.

"I think the whole Praise and Worship thing is empty-headed"—the shot heard clearly round the table. But he didn't quit. "I trunk those ditty choruses you make us sing are dumb. I think the effort to orchestrate the Holy Spirit is not only stupid, but blasphemous. I think the way you stand up there and try to conjure..."

"You had this all rehearsed, didn't you?" Flo said. "You got this written down."

"I've had a long time to prepare," Regan spit. "Besides, you asked for it." He started digging in his heels. "It's the height of idiocy—the way you cover up the stained glass windows because we have to read lyrics off the silver screen. It's Sunday morning," he said, "and outside the sun is turning the world bright with color, and we put black trash bags—of all things— over the windows because reading those choruses off a sheet of paper would be thwarting the Spirit. It's idiotic," he said. "It's nuts. It's plain loony to think the Holy Spirit will be poured out only if our faces are lifted. You're all daft."

Steam fairly trumpeted from Flo's ears. Hazel hardly dared look up. Lexi sat back, her legs crossed, but Regan felt as if he'd only fed the first belt of ammo into a machine gun.

The good doctor stood. "Thank you for sharing that with us," he said, with a suddenly notable facial tick. 'Are there other opinions?"

"He wants to go back to World War II," Marti said, pointing. "What he wants is to go to sleep in church—for everything to be regular as clockwork so that he knows—" she paused, as if measuring her words— "that he's still in charge."

"That's exactly it," Hazel said. "He wants his way just like all men."

We need to come to some consensus here," the good doctor said, hying to bring some peace.

"Consensus, schmensus," Regan snapped. "I'm dead in the water and you know it. You got your consensus. The warm fuzzies win again."

"But you need to be more loving...."

"They asked," he said, pointing. "They insisted."

"Now we know how the Ice Age feels," Flo said. "That's helpful."

"For a dime I'd quit this committee," Regan said. "For a nickel, I'd walk right out of here."

Flo rifled through her purse and picked out a quarter. She slapped it down on the table and shoved it across.

But before he could grab it, Lexi took it. She picked it up, held it in front of her, showed it to all of them individually as if that quarter were something from show and tell. And then she stood up from her chair—this tall, willowy young girl, the token youth on the committee—and without saying one word to anyone, without even giving an opinion, she tucked that quarter magically into her clenched fist and simply walked out, left the room and the church.

At last report, she hadn't returned.

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