Lord Have Mercy: Lakeside Church Wrestles with Raised Hands

The council, very much on edge as they talked about it, concluded that the turmoil began when Lizzy Sibbelink visited her sister Heather up north and worshiped at Heather's church on Cutler Avenue.

"Not a real wild place either," Elder Swart claimed, remembering his father's pastorate there when he was a boy. "Not known for anything outlandish," he told the others. "Fine place—quite soft-spoken. Not usually on the cutting edge." On that basis they concluded that what the Sibbe-links saw and experienced had to be quite widespread already up north.

Lizzy had brought her husband along to Heather's this time, and the both of them came back with a fever. What they'd seen at Cutler Street Church, the consistory already knew, was people with their hands raised, during singing especially and sometimes even during prayer. "A whole church of them—" Elder Wilmot wondered— "like a herd of Texas longhorns?"

What had happened was clear: in a church full of arm-raisers, you start to feel apostate if you don't chuck them up yourself. "Okay," Arn must have thought, looking around at a congregation of armpits, "when in Rome"— and up both hands went. That made Lizzy the odd woman out.

Elder Swart said he heard from others who had been there that Lizzy had hesitated for awhile. She looked around at all the others in Cutler Street, including Arn. She shifted her weight from foot to foot, obviously undecided. But, finally, reluctantly— after two verses of "Our God Reigns" and a swarm of compelling smiles from those already uplifted around her—she pulled up her arms too.

That's where the problem began, the consistory said. Arn they could have dealt with, coming as he did from a family given to displays of spirituality, the kind of people who pray well in public and shed tears the way some people do dandruff. But Lizzy was something else. Once she raised her hands—something no one could believe, Lizzy being Lizzy—she began to like it. That's right. Arn smiled at her and pointed two fingers in the air as if, in tandem, the two of them had just won the Cotton Bowl. Lizzy nodded back politely, people said, cutting a wholesale smile out of whatever was left of her quickly dissipating cynicism.

On their trip south the two of them argued, back and forth, about how to present their new form of worship to their home church. After all, wasn't it painfully obvious that Lakeside was in dire need of some kind of change, some kind of "revival"? (It was Arn who said the word revival actually—or that's what the consistory had heard— and when the word fell, innocently, from his lips, Lizzy swallowed hard, as if he'd let out something profane. But then she said, "Sure, why not?")

That was the beginning.

When Lizzy got back, she went to work. "I mean," she told people, "what's wrong with expressing your faith like that?" "I mean," she said, "how can anybody try to quench the Spirit?" "I mean," she said, "how long has it been since there's been even a glowing ember in First Church of the Ice Box?"—meaning Lakeside, the consistory understood. Lizzy and Arn Sibbelink came back from their trip up north converted and dedicated their summer to getting Lakeside Church to raise its hands.

And now the council, a whole room of worried elders and deacons, had to decide what to do about the matter…

Swart leaned back, looked up at the picture of his father with the former pastors, and wished he could have one of those fat black cigars old-time consistories used to savor in silence right in this room. Of course, now there were women, he thought—but then who knows? Maybe they'd be frustrated enough to join him in a stogie.

"I don't like it," Wilmot said, breaking the silence. "It puts people in a swoon. Why last week I saw Herman Fry almost pass out, I swear, his eyes closed tight. There he stood, like he had grown antennae." He tossed his eyes up in the air. "You know, Pastor," he said, "you got to cut down on numbers of verses, or people'U drop like flies."

"Nonsense," Ferris said. "You can't tell people how they can or can't express themselves. If the Spirit's in them, then they're going to raise their hands. We've got no business trying to stanch what the Spirit's up to." Silence. (Ferris and her husband raise their hands.)

"What I want to know," Swart said finally, "is why the Spirit works like a virus." He put both elbows up on the table. "We'd never have had a problem here if the Sibbelinks hadn't visited up north." At that moment he raised both hands himself. "Go ahead—tell me it's the Holy Spirit. If it is, I think he's working a lot like a hula hoop. Smells like a fad to me."

"Whatever the reason," Ludinga said, "we can't tell people they can't do it. We have to face that fact." She twisted her pen between her fingers as she spoke. "I'm not excited about it myself," she said, "but we're not about to ask the ushers to remove people who lift their hands."

"Of course not," Wilmot said, and the way he moved his jaw reminded Swart that the old man had a pinch of tobacco tucked behind his lower lip. "But that doesn't mean I like it," he said. "It sets up a hierarchy. That's what we're seeing now. Some do it, some don't. Those that do are blessed, sure—and those that don't are either full of guilt because they can't do it or mad as heck at those who do for creating all this stink. We got war, boys," he said, forgetting about Ludinga and Ferris. "We got war here, and we got to do something about it."

Prickly silence fell around the table.

"What do the Scriptures say?" Swart said, finally.

Pastor Andrew took in a deep breath. "The Bible tells us in several places," he explained quietly, "to lift up our hands to the Lord in praise.

"Well, then," Swart said, as if the case were closed.

"It also says we're supposed to pour on oil when we visit the sick," Wilmot said, "and it commands us to greet each other with a holy kiss! And the book of Timothy, I think, says women aren't supposed to speak. So what does the Bible have to do with it?"

Swart felt as if he and the whole room were aboard a toboggan hurtling down some river-valley hill toward an inevitable crash.

Pastor Andrew hadn't said much, allowing them all, as he often did, to throw their opinions out over the table. Finally, when the silence had dragged on long enough, he said, "I'm going to raise my hands myself on Sunday. That's what I've decided. I'm going to do it myself."

Wilmot threw up his hands again. "Now that's Spirit-filled all right," he said, sarcastically. "Go on and plan it ahead of time. I like that—write it into the liturgy, the way we do 'Amens.' 'All together, like a mighty army. On cue/ " he said. "Why don't you put an asterisk in the bulletin—'Congregation standing—please raise your hands.' "

"I'm serious," Pastor Andrew said. "I know what's going on. I know what it's caused. You can't believe all the calls I'm getting. So-and-so's mad at so-and-so…"

"If you do it, then we all got to do it?" Wilmot asked stonily.

The preacher sat back and brought his hands up behind his head. "No," he said. "What'll happen is that I'll make it legitimate. That way, Lizzy and Arn won't be to blame anymore. They won't be black sheep. I mean, I'll make it okay—do you know what I'm saying?"

Wilmot didn't say a thing.

"I think it's a good idea," Ferris said.

"You would," Wilmot screamed. "You already raise your hands. Now you got the Reverend on your side."

"Is this a war?" she said. "Are we enemies here?" She bounced her pencil on the eraser. "I mean, aren't we all 'one in the Spirit,' here?—you know/they'll know we are Christians by our love?' "

"Pollyanna," Wilmot muttered.

Swart looked down at his watch and saw that it was already past eleven. They'd got on the subject because it came up constantly at family visiting. Item three on the agenda—three out of fourteen. With the point of his pen, he ran down the list—reports to classis, angry overtures, then, finally, benevolence, missions. Maybe they'd just quit early, he thought. It was going nowhere. Frustration sat thick as fog.

"Maybe we ought to pray," Ludinga said, finally.

"Right now?" Wilmot said.

"Yes, right now," she told him.

He looked up at the clock. "Okay— but do we raise our hands or not?"

"We can do with less sarcasm, Fred," Pastor Andrew said, and Wilmot pushed himself away from the table. "Prayer is a good suggestion," the pastor continued quietly. He looked around. Ferris was seething, and Wilmot pouting, jawing that chew. "Gene," the pastor said, pointing at Swart. "Would you lead us?"

Pray, Gene Swart thought, now? He shook his head, then looked down at the missionaries whose photos were pressed beneath the glass of the consistory table. Once, years ago, he'd made profession in this room. Now he was forty-four and he had spent more hours than he could count meeting around this table with elders and deacons…

"Gene?" Pastor Andrew asked again, as if he'd not been heard.

Pray?—pray tell, for what?—Gene thought, the air thick with the dusty stench of a battlefield, anger rising from the trenches on either side of the table. Aside from college, Lakeside had been Gene Swarfs home church from the time he was twelve. He loved sitting there in silence before the service, waiting and worshiping with the people he'd known for a lifetime.

The council stared, waiting for him to pray.

For whom?—he wondered. For the Sibbelinks? For Wilmot? For the whole bunch? He turned toward each of them, folding his hands as he met their anxious eyes. There was only one real prayer, he thought, one need worth pressing right now. He smiled, stood, and raised his hands. He shook from his shoulders when the rest of them didn't respond, and jerked his hands up again like a maestro until they were all on their feet. And then he prayed, as requested. "Lord," he said in a faint tremolo, "have mercy."

That's all. Three words. Then silence.

The twelve stood, waiting, all of them with their arms raised, until Wilmot finally said it, when no one else did. "Amen," he said, with vehemence born-again.

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