A September New Year's Resolution

Fran needed the courage of a kindergartner to face this year's worship planning

From the outside, Fran was happy—or so she told her friends—that her little girl's lip didn't curl in fear when the two of them talked about her first day at school; she was proud, she said, of Abby's independent spirit. But inside she ished her baby would show at least some regret bout leaving the nest. That morning, Abby had awakened on her own, just like her older brother and sister, dressed herself, showed up at the breakfast table as if she were a seasoned veteran, and headed toward the bus stop toting her brand-new knapsack on her back and a smile the size of a shield across her face.

A shield, Fran told herself, because school could be a war. Her other kids had had their share of skirmishes, even battles: "Mandy doesn't like me, Mom." "Billy Scruggs told me to shut my fat mouth." "Teacher has favorites, and I'm not one of them." "I tried, I really did." "I'm sick, Mom. Do I have to go to school?" Little Abby had no idea what she was about to face. She walked off in childlike innocence, smiling.

"Abby," she'd said from the front door, "be good."

But Abby never heard her. Wore that smile like a shield and never even looked back.

Now Fran was at her office at church, facing the blank screen on her computer, trying to create an agenda for the liturgy committee in those moments when she wasn't wondering whose kids were seated beside Abby in her daughter's first kindergarten class. But she had things to do—goodness knows she had things to do. Most people might celebrate New Year's in January, but as long as the church calendar began anew in September, Braxton Street Church would ring in the new at just about the same time kids went back to school. No noisemakers, no champagne, no bowl games; but somewhere around Labor Day, programs yawned and stretched from their long summer naps, choirs cleared their collective throats, church school rooms got dusted, and the liturgy committee circled around the table and started popping ideas.

Fran was telling herself she should have listened to friends who advised half-day kindergartens when Ben Ferringa dropped by her office, his face aglow, to tell her what he'd experienced at a Benedictine monastery on a two-week sojourn he'd deliberately designed, he said, to light some fires in himself that had, through time, grown dim. He said he'd discovered his religious roots ran deeper than the Reformation; Calvin and Luther had thrown out something divine (though not the divine Child, of course) with the dirty bathwater of Roman Catholic excesses.

Fran had been thinking about her own divine child and what she was eating—or wasn't eating— for snack. Picky ... my goodness, Abby was picky.

"I knew nothing about sacraments," he told her, his finger pointing. "I mean I was born and reared in the Reformed faith, and I never experienced true communion before."

Not twenty minutes earlier, Fran had been remembering how they'd held Abby up in front of church for her baptism, she and Matt with the older kids at their side, how they'd sworn something huge before tons of witnesses.

"We did this incredible exercise one night," Ben continued, "after really getting to know people—I mean, really getting to know them." He raised both hands up before her. "Let me show you," he said, and he nodded at her as if she were to do the same.

She raised her hands.

"We held each other's palms," he told her, "put our hands together like this." There the two of them sat, palms flattened against each other's across her desk. "We prayed together, confessed our sins. I've never felt as close to anyone in my life," he said.

Fran hoped he hadn't explained things exactly that way to his wife.

"Three services a day, eight hours of quiet time, journaling, and prayer," he said, his eyes shining blissfully. "Can you imagine? Me? For two weeks? Nothing but immersion in God." He shook his head. "We've missed something, Fran," he told her. "I never knew how much until I came to know God at the monastery."

She was happy for him—she really was.

"I'm just full of ideas for liturgy," he told her. "There's so much we can do." He took out his pocket calendar before he left and insisted she write down the address of the monastery. It was in Nevada, of all places.

Once Ben was gone, Fran curled her fingers over the keyboard, typed in "Devotions" beneath "Agenda," and reached for her Bible. She wondered if Abby was finger painting or singing or ... It was just past ten. She opened the Bible.

Twenty minutes later, she got a call from Tony Woods, who, he said, got conned into a Promise Keepers rally in Oklahoma City because his two boys and his son-in-law insisted. "You know," he said, "I was dreading it. I really was. But Fran," and then a full-fledged dramatic pause that came up from the receiver like a drum roll, "I was dead wrong. Can you imagine me and my boys singing 'Holy, Holy, Holy,' arms around each other? I told my wife I would say my batteries got recharged, but I'm not sure I had batteries at all before Promise Keepers—no lie."

Fran told him it must have been wonderful.

"Wonderful?" he said. "No words to describe it. Good night, it's going to be hard coming back to church. What we got to do at Braxton is pump new life into the troops, you know? I don't know how yet, but I'm going to do what I can this year. You can count on that."

She told him that just now she had been working on the agenda for the first liturgy committee meeting, and he said he knew that—that was why he called.

When she put down the phone, she flipped through the Bible, wondering if there really was anything to the old silliness of simply letting it fall open to the Lord's guidance.

Lonnie Harmon dropped by no more than a half an hour later and told her she'd been to Willow Creek Church because her daughter lives in the western suburbs. "It just seems to me that we're almost completely unconscious of how we come off to the non-churched," Lonnie said. "You know what I mean?"

Lonnie said she was on her prep time at school, but she was so excited that she just had to run over quickly and tell Fran what she'd experienced. She didn't even sit down—just stood in the doorway and oozed zeal. "So I'm sitting there on Sunday with a gadzillion people, and I had this strange vision-like thing," Lonnie told her. "I suddenly felt like I was a translator—I felt bilingual or something," she said, shaking her head. "I mean, what I was doing was standing up in front of our church like someone signing the words of the whole service." She twirled her fingers in front of her radiant face. "I was, like, translating our service to people who didn't know a thing about Christ—and that's when it hit me." She slapped her hands together. "We've got to change our approach. You know the Great Commission. We've just plain forgotten it at Braxton Street."

The open Bible lay between them, but Fran still hadn't found a passage for devotions, largely because she didn't know what she was looking for. "Blessed are the peacemakers," she thought. But how appropos would it be to start the liturgical year with the Beatitudes? Maybe not appropos, she thought, but necessary.

"If you want to talk about this more," Lonnie said, "I'll be glad to. I've got tons of ideas." She slapped the brochure between the pages of the Bible. "Look this over," she said. "I've got to run." Halfway through the church, she yelled back through the empty building. "By the way, Fran," she said, "I saw your little angel this morning in school—she looked right at home, wasn't scared a bit."

Fran put her hand on the open Bible and told herself she wished she had something of what Abby had carried into her first day. Lonnie wanted a whole new language, Tony wanted a spot in the liturgy to hug his boys, and Ben wanted, of all things, more silence, more ritual and hands-on religious symbolism. And she didn't even have a passage for devotions, much less an agenda.

It was almost lunch. She wondered whether Abby would lie down when she was supposed to, hoped she got the right color mat, because if she didn't she was likely to let that teacher know—Abby, her baby.

Roman numeral I—"Devotions." She had two days, she thought. Maybe there would be some handwriting on the wall. She looked up at the clock when she heard the church door close again and realized it had to be Grant coming down with take-out Chinese as he often did on Mondays. It was. He set down the sweet-and-sour chicken in front of her and kept the Mongolian beef himself, even though they snooped off each other's plates. "How's your day?" he asked, the smells filling the office deliciously. But he didn't give her an opportunity to answer. "I talked to Jenny Dykstra at work," he said. "She was visiting at her sister's place in Seattle." He laughed, giving away the direction of the story as he always did. "She says they've got this unspoken rule not to talk church at family gatherings because all it does is get them into brawls." He dropped a hefty forkful of rice into his beef.

"She's a conservative Presbyterian, isn't she?—" Fran said, "Jenny's sister?"

"Tiny church, orthodox," her husband said. "That's where they went on Sunday. Jenny said a Jewish guy greeted them—named Levi. She said there were all colors of people there, and the preacher was Indian—from India." He acted surprised. "She says there was, like, zero spectacle in the service—nothing, and she says she had to admit it was beautiful in its simplicity. People liked each other, she said, and it wasn't a circus—no three rings, no 'who's performing today.' She loved it." He put down his plastic fork and reached for Fran's hands. "She said I should warn you. She's going to come off really conservative this year in liturgy. It's time we get back to what's basic." He tweaked her thumbs. "What's the matter?" he said. "You look beat."

"It's the new year," she said.

"How was your morning?"

There was too much to say. She shrugged her shoulders.

"So, hon," he said, "get your baby off to school without a struggle?"

When she'd tried to get one last wave out of her, Abby hadn't even turned around. "Okay, I'll admit it, I cried," she said. "Go ahead—tell me I'm too sentimental."

"She's your baby" he said. "You got every right in the world to cry for her."

"She didn't look like she needed my tears—a smile across her face wide as a shield."

He stopped eating. "So who'd you cry for?"

"I can't stand it when you ask questions like that," she told him, smiling. "Don't do your therapy on me."

"Tough morning?" he said.

"Why can't we smile like Abby did when she walked off to school?" she asked him. "Why do we lose that? And where?"

"You're the preacher—"

"But you're the therapist."

He pointed at the sweet-and-sour chicken. "Go on," he said. "There's enough anorexic women in the world." He sipped at his tea between mouthfuls. "Besides," he told her, "you know way too much to be a child."

"What do I know?" she said, as much to herself as anyone. "What do I really know?"

Her husband poked his fork at her. "That we're starting a new year, that your family loves you, that if you don't eat that stuff I'll have it all myself. That once everything starts up here again—"

But her mind wasn't with what Grant was saying. What stayed with her was what she'd asked—What do I know? What do I know? What do I know?

"I know that my redeemer liveth," she recited aloud. "I know that I belong, body and soul, to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ." The words kept coming, as if specially delivered to her soul. "Now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I am known."

And then a smile she absolutely couldn't help. "I know whom I have believed," she said. She heard the music in her ears at the same moment she saw her baby in school, happy, a smile like a shield.

He stopped eating, looked at her seriously. "You want to talk about your morning, Fran?" he said, noting that her eyes and attention were fixed far away. "Did something go on here—something I ought to know about?"

She picked up her fork, reached into his beef, then shoveled it into her mouth, and smiled at him—like a shield, she thought. There ought to be something in the Psalms she could use to start out the year, something from King David, something about a shield and buckler, something about carrying it into the fray. She looked at her husband, sitting there nonplussed. "Your food is getting cold," she said. "Anorexia sneaks up on people, you know."

"You okay?" he said.

She looked at him lovingly, brandishing her smile.

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