Children's services can bring out the worst in people…and the best in God
When the Rev. Allen Spender left church that night and took a country road out of town, he was thinking that while not every church had a steeple anymore, every congregation had a bozo.
They'd spent two long hours of the council meeting hashing over what to do about Billy Aarnsen, a man who could quote church order in original Latin, whisper pious nothings to every new ear in church, and then go out and bad-mouth First Clairmont all over the city—as if the congregation he'd been a part of since birth were a den of witches.
After that council meeting Allen Spender drove out of town to think. He would rather have joined his elders down at Marco's for late coffee. Right about now, he thought, they were probably picking out which tree they'd hang Billy from. Just once, Allen Spender would have liked to be included in that ad hoc committee's planning sessions. But he was the minister. It wasn't his place.
So Allen drove alone up the road toward the hill overlooking the city. Normally, he didn't need much more than ten minutes of darkness and quiet—no tape, no radio, just the sounds of the night. Like an old-fashioned blotter the naked night often soaked up whatever emotions may have tipped and spilled in two hours of wrangling over kooks like Billy Aarnsen.
But this time silence didn't seem quite enough. This time pastor Allen Spender screamed into the night, "Billy Aarnsen, you're a madman!"
A year ago Aarnsen had told his district elder that Spender was a lily-liver because he didn't preach hellfire. Six months ago he'd stomped out of church in the middle of a service because a Gideon had told a joke about motel rooms. And just two months ago he had threatened to jerk his kids out of church school if they ever again came home with Adam and Eve paper dolls.
Billy's wife's tribulation—just living with him—gave her an anorexic's pallid face. His kids were hyper and inattentive. But his business, a construction outfit, boomed. Billy hung drywall as if he were born with his teeth stuck full of nails, and he "witnessed" as he worked. In fact, so adept was he at prooftexting that new Christians sometimes called him a walking concordance. His toothy smile was as evangelical as the governor's.
But the man had long ago gone daft.
Three of them—Spender and two elders—had driven out to visit Aarnsen at home one night, about six weeks ago. Billy had been so offended at their concern about his spiritual well-being that he'd driven them off his lot with a fireplace poker. He hadn't been in church since.
Not until the children's service.
The idea for a special service had come from the education committee, who brought it from the church school teachers, who felt they could, start the year off with a bang by getting all the kids up front to advertise the fact that another year was dawning down in the old educational wing.
"We think it will be good for the kids," Lavonne Wickets had said one day in Spender's study. "They'll think if s neat to be up there in front for once. It'll be a good kick-off."
Spender wasn't sure where the Bible said worship was a kicking tee, but if he'd learned anything in the ministry, it was not to flout the teachers unless you perversely desired icy stares sufficient to send you off to a spiritual Siberia.
So he'd said yes to the September children's service. He'd even agreed to plan it. He'd figured he could keep forty or more kids up front for almost half an hour. He'd begin with a series of recitations by the four-year-olds, short enough to memorize in a week or so, and planned like a litany so they could just pass along the mobile mike. The older children could lead the singing, read or recite Scripture, play instruments, sing duets, and so on. Then he'd finish up with a little meditation on the importance of growing in the faith—and get in a good shot for adult Sunday School. As long as he was campaigning, he'd figured, he might as well carry along one of his own planks.
Billy Aarnsen had ruined the whole service. Although he hadn't darkened the church door for the last four months, he had showed up for this service. He'd carried in his videocamera and took a pew, front and center, to fill his frame with his kids' pug-nosed smiles.
There's no sin in being a proud parent. But Billy had gone a step too far. He had put on a regular show, leaning over that Sony, one eye scrunched as if he were Stanley Kubrik. And he'd sung along uproariously on every tune, mouthing words like a man speaking through a plate-glass window, trying to cue his little daughter, who stood right up front of the pulpit drooling, three fingers in the corner of her mouth.
It had been outrageous. Spender had found himself wondering if it were possible to sell Aarnsen—and his family—to the Lutherans down the block. Maybe pick up some of their building debt or offer to roof the parsonage.
The problem was, June, Spender's own wife—and others— had loved it.
"We ought to have children up there more often, Allen," she had told him that Sunday night. "It brings their parents to church. Billy Aarnsen sat up front and tried to get his daughter to sing—did you see that, honey?" she had said, putting the finishing touches on a plate of chicken salad sandwiches and nachos—a late Sunday-night snack. 'That was so great. Delores said it was such a surprise to see Billy there—he's not been in church for so long."
"I thought it garish, June," Allen had said quietly. "I'm sorry."
She'd poured 7-Up into a glass, waiting for the fizz to settle over the ice cubes. "You're kidding, aren't you?"
"I thought it exhibitionistic, vulgar, and hideous. If I was half the man Samuel was, I would have blown Billy Aarnsen right out of the sanctuary—"
"You're not kidding."
"He took over," he had insisted. "He simply took over the service. He was the whole show."
"Oh, you're overreacting again." She'd brought the plate out to the family room and put it in front of him. "What did you preach about?" she had asked him then. "I don't remember right now."
"You see what I mean?" he had said, convinced she'd proved his point.
"I don't care what you say," his wife had insisted.
"I think it was a blessing for him to be there. I do."
"Well, it wasn't a blessing for me," he had told her, scarfing down the first sandwich. "And I know it wasn't for my elders either."
She had sat down beside him on the arm of the chair and snatched one of the biggest nachos. "Well, it was for me. I know it was. The problem with you, hon, is that you're out of patience with that man. I'm not. Maybe it's a blessing that I don't know everything—"
"I could write a book—"
"I don't care. Don't forget that he's just a fraction of a second away from change—just like the rest of us. He is, isn't he?" she had asked, grabbing his wrist. "Even Billy Aarnsen?"
He was thinking about her question as he pulled the car over to the side of the road and gazed over a bridge that crossed a river no wider than half of a two-lane street. He got out of his car and stood alone in the darkness, the river mumbling behind him like an eternal lecture someone was determined he'd hear.
It was hard to believe that God cared about a nut like Billy Aarnsen. After all, God had a whole world to manage. First Clairmont was only one of thirty-seven churches in town, and Clairmont was only one of thousands of small towns in the nations. More than half the people in this great nation had probably never even heard of this little town that lay beneath him now, houses shining like backlit jewels on a carpet of darkness. So why should God care about Billy? Why should anyone?
The fact was, Spender knew, that for some God-only-knows reason, God did care. June was right about the Spirit's mini-second: in the twinkling of an eye even a Billy-goat could flash into a lamb. Make that half-a-dozen twinklings, he thought, Billy being Billy.
God did care somehow, and that fact alone was reason for the under-shepherd, Allen Spender, to care too. Somewhere in all of this darkness one divine beam chose to glow on Billy— just as it glowed on Delores and June and even himself, brightening the world's darkness with a broad landscape of heavenly lights.
The truth was so outrageously simple.
Pastor Allen Spender turned back to his car. June would be awake when he got home.
He wasn't all that hep on children's services, he thought. Not at all—not for kick-offs. He wasn't into Las Vegas worship.
But maybe June was right. Usually the only time the kids got up front in church was at Christmas. And each year the church was packed for that service. Maybe they ought to include the children more often.
Maybe once a year just wasn't enough.