All Things Considered

They’d gathered in the pastor’s study early on that unforgettable morning because Tony Addamlee claimed she faced a horrendous three days at work and absolutely could not meet at night until at least next week, no matter how urgent. Morrie Tresshield said he was up to his ears grading papers and had trouble enough making the regularly scheduled meetings of the Liturgy Committee, much less some hastily called get-together to put out fires that didn’t exist in the first place—or shouldn’t have existed, he added.

Gerald Walborg was the one who wanted the meeting, not for himself, he said, but because of the numbers of complaints he’d received about what had happened in last week’s morning worship—and because he knew why. They were coming in so fast and furious, he said, you’d have thought his home phone was 911. He’d meet any time, he said, because he had the feeling they’d offended some of the older members of the congregation, members who’d taken a lot in the last several years but just couldn’t sit still for this one.

Which was, Pastor Scott thought, an odd way of saying it. The truth was, Pastor Scott hadn’t seen what happened. He’d made a distinct effort not to look at Christine Ranschau while she was dancing because, well, looking at her from the back felt altogether too much like a form of lechery, although he didn’t say that to anyone, not even his wife.

All things considered, Pastor Scott thought it prudent to face this one straight on, and why not? The proof was in the video. All they had to do was haul out the tape of Sunday morning’s service, review the performance, and determine whether or not there were any grounds to the complaints.

Christine Ranschau’s “dance” had been performance art—well, performance anyway, Scott thought. No one had ever tried it before in Centerville Church, although “movement” itself was nothing new. They’d had various kinds of interpretive dance for several years—to mixed reviews, usually (so the proponents claimed) because the congregation didn’t “understand” modern dance. Most of the naysayers thought the whole business clunky and dumb, and disliked it.

For a long time they’d used signers, which was a nice bridge toward more physicality in worship, because who could argue, really, with signing for the deaf—“singing in sign,” Tony Addamlee had called it. That Centerville had no deaf people was no reason not to do it, Tony had insisted, because what about visitors coming in off the street?

So for a year they’d had signers who did their own style of interpretive dance. No big deal, really, even though Pastor Scott was sure the people in church with hearing aids were the ones who would have been happy to do without all the hoopla up front.

But Christine Ranschau’s mother had seen one of Christine’s friends do this streamer thing in a church in Edina—interpret “Shout to the Lord” with modern dance, spin and twirl up on stage, the joy of the Lord swirling from the performance like a real fountain of blessings. Three or four ribbons, maybe fifteen feet long, would stream out from the dancer’s movements, follow in the wake of her spinning like a multicolored swirl, turning simple physical movement into something, well, poetic. “Stunning,” Christine’s mother said, “visually, an unbelievable blessing.”

Christine could pick up the dance from her friend and use it to praise the Lord at Centerville, her mother said. A great idea to liven up worship. Scott had asked her to talk about the whole idea before the committee because he’d wanted all of them to hear the proposal firsthand.

There really hadn’t been much of a fight, because for the most part liturgy could write its own checks at Centerville. Scott knew that Gerald Walborg didn’t like the idea much—even before Christine’s performance on Sunday. But Gerald had voted to let her do it, even though he said he’d draw the line at Hank Mellenberger dancing—and the rest of them had laughed. Hank weighed in at just over 300 pounds.

Pastor Scott hadn’t seen Christine’s performance on Sunday because he hadn’t watched. But he knew that a fairly steady stream of calls had come in on Monday, enough to make him think that more than a few might have been moved out of their comfort zones. When Gerald called, he’d figured it was time for a special meeting—all things considered.

So it was early on that never-to-be-forgotten Tuesday morning that they pulled up chairs in the study and threw in the video—Gerald, as serious as Jeremiah; Tony, silent, gearing up for a fight; and Morrie, annoyed, checking his watch, full of sarcasm. There they sat in a semi-circle, ready to study Christine’s performance art.

He’d served up coffee, opened with a prayer, announced what he wanted to do, then stuck in the tape and fast-forwarded it to the offertory, when Christine had done her thing. But even before it began, he knew this would go nowhere; the lines were already too deeply set. All he could hope for was that he himself could form an opinion, not having actually seen the performance.

It started out innocently enough. Christine was dressed a black T-shirt, long sleeves, no gaping necklines or Spandex; and the streamers—gold, purple, and deep red—were rather stunning, following her movements in a flow that looked almost poetic. From the front, Pastor Scott thought, it did look rather fascinating. He wasn’t sure he’d call it “God-glorifying” exactly, but it certainly wasn’t evil, nor was it in any way suggestive.

“I think Protestants have problems with their bodies,” Tony said.

“Couldn’t agree more,” Gerald said, as the performance went on. “Ever since I turned forty—”

“That’s not what I mean,” she said.

On the second verse, when the volume and beat started to climb, Christine raised her arms a little, and the whole package started to look, well, a little different, Scott thought—but after all, he was male, and it stuck him as possible that men would look at this a bit differently than women.

“There,” Gerald said, and he grabbed the remote from Scott’s hand and slapped pause. “Right there,” he said.

“Gracious!” Tony said. “What are we doing, looking for hot spots?”

“Right here,” Gerald said, and he punched slow-mo reverse so the images moved backward until he got the frames he wanted, Christine with her arms up and what Scott might have called a bit of sway in her hips and, well, chest.

“I can’t believe this,” Morrie said. “You’re turning this into a stag party, Gerald—you know that?”

“Look,” Gerald said, and he slapped the remote again, this time slow-mo forward, so every last jiggle got hashed into fragments.

“I’m leaving,” Tony said. “This is evil—it really is.”

“All I’m saying,” Gerald said, “is that this is what people saw.”

“People are evil,” Tony said.

“What else is new?” Gerald said.

“They are,” she insisted. She was on the edge of her chair. She hadn’t left, but she was ready to leave. “People who saw sex in that ought to have their furnaces cleaned. It’s just unbelievable, isn’t it? Just unbelievable.”

“Couldn’t agree more,” Morrie said.

“What do you think, Pastor?” Gerald said. “Am I so repressed?”

What Scott couldn’t handle any longer was Christine’s continuing to move on the screen in front of them. He got to his feet, ran up to the VCR, and hit stop—hit it quickly, because no matter who was right about the dance, Tony and Morrie were right about the embarrassment of the four of them sitting there watching like blue-nosed vigilantes waiting for the sexual beast to emerge from this gyrating dance.

Then he turned to face the jury. “I don’t know,” he said, and took a deep breath, because lights going on in his mind told him he’d rather be doing almost anything else—sending his kids off to school, writing a sermon, visiting the sick, listening to some troubled kid—anything but this, the horrendous task of judging, good or ill, someone’s blasted performance art.

“Well?” Tony said. “Are we going to tell her she can’t do it again? Are we going to go over there and say that because some old fogies and a bunch of oversexed—”

“You can’t say that,” Gerald said. “What did you think when you saw it, Pastor?” he asked. “Go on and tell us—honestly, what did you think?”

And then it happened. “Look,” Morrie said. “What on earth?”

He’d turned off the video, but not the TV, and when it came on it was tuned to CNN because sometimes during the day he’d switch it on to catch the news. So he turned around, and that’s when they all saw it—one of those huge towers of the World Trade Center simply collapsed, the whole monstrous structure falling into itself like a house of cards.

“What on earth is going on?” Gerald said.

That was the question all of them asked themselves right then. Gone was the whirling dervish, gone was the red-hot issue of performance art. The four of them sat glued to the screen, watching hundreds of New Yorkers trying to outrun a cloud of dust thick as a sandstorm.

***

For weeks after that, whenever people stopped to tell the story of where they were and what they were doing when they heard what happened on 9/11, Pastor Scott turned silent, not because he was embarrassed—there were sillier stories. Pastor Scott fell into silence at those moments because he was struck by the immensity of what had happened—how death and destruction at that moment had come into all of their lives with a gravity totally unforeseen and far beyond measure, how a tempest in a teapot at Centerville now seemed so insignificant.

Everyone had a story of where they were that morning. Morrie and Gerald and Tony—they all had stories, and so did he. Every last person in the church, in the neighborhood, in the country, in the free world at least—they all had stories.

And in a way, he thought, they were all alike. For once, all things considered, they were all alike.

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