Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

The Overchurched--a story (i)

Perhaps I shouldn't have written this story. I'm sure the idea arose, long ago, from my sense that the business/busyness of church life occupies far too much of our lives. It was written at a time when the word "underchurched" was used in faith circles--as in, "there are hundreds of 'underchurched' in our community," as if more people ought to spend more time in and with church. 

Just occasionally back then--and maybe yet today--something about being "underchurched" suggested a not half-bad freedom. 

"The Overchurched" appeared, long ago, in a magazine titled Reformed Worship.

It's meant to make you think a bit and smile a little.

Pastor Dobbins’ questions about Betty Andress began the Sunday morning he looked into the choir and didn’t see her. It’s not that she was the glue that held the harmony. She was a fairly substantial alto, a voice, he figured, Cassie Henderson would miss if Betty were to stop singing; but she was far from the star. From the front of the church, he checked the praise team–no Betty. Just behind the piano sat the drama people, but she wasn’t there either.

His eyes swept through the sanctuary. Let’s see, he asked himself, where do the Andresses normally sit? Up and down the rows, his eyes wandered. Betty’s family had no traditional spot because they were always involved in something. He didn’t think they were on vacation–certainly she would have warned him. For a moment he felt abandoned–but maybe they were only visiting family across town?

And then he saw them–Betty, Glen, their three kids, all of them left side, towards the back, eyes up at the overhead, just a row behind burly Otto Vander Ham. They looked happy, too, all of them, even Betty, who, even though she had her hands raised in praise, should have been in choir.

What’s more, that very Sunday afternoon her high school kids weren’t in youth group. He’d heard the news from Evie Donohue, who hadn’t mentioned it until Wednesday or Thursday, when she’d complained that the discussion had been a humongous flop. She’d said she wondered if Betty’s kids were at their grandma’s.

In Worship Committee the next week, Pastor Dobbins noted that Betty didn’t have her usual spark. She didn’t look angry, even though the discussion got a little fierce when the committee discussed dropping the sermon altogether in lieu of a big drama spectacular the Stage Kids had been working on forever. Betty had opinions–that much he knew. But she sat back in her chair and doodled on the minutes sheet.

And that was unlike her. She was in everything at Fellowship Church. When he’d received the call, the preacher who’d been there had told him the church was blessed with wonderfully committed people–and he mentioned Betty Andress specifically.

But two weeks later, she didn’t show up for Leadership Council. She didn’t even make an appearance, and the next time he saw her–it was the night the Retreat Committee was finishing up last minute planning–he asked her if she was all right. “You okay, Betty?” he said. “Missed you at Leadership Council a couple nights ago.”

She raised her fingers to her lips. “I knew there was something I’d forgotten,” she told him, “but I just couldn’t remember what it was.” And then she fell back into silence, the whole night long.

She was too young for Alzheimers, Pastor Dobbins thought, too old to be pregnant.

“Get-away with God” came and went, and the whole Andress family showed up but didn’t stay. Friday night they were there for Hallelujah Hootenanny, and they came again on Saturday morning–but they didn’t stay overnight in the cabins. In addition, they hadn’t come early enough for Chop-Chop Barbeque or stayed late enough for the Late-Night Live Happenin’ the kids put on on Friday night. Nor were there for Saturday’s Sunrise Supplications, nor Breakfast At Dawn. They didn’t show up that morning until well after nine, when the Glad Groups were already sharing fervently. By noon they were gone, so they missed all of Fun ‘n Fellowship. It was very unlike her–or them.

Smile-wise, she didn’t appear to miss a step. Every time Pastor Dobbins saw her and her family, they looked positively gleeful. But he had been in the business long enough to know that real sorrows often hid behind smiley faces. One afternoon, he thought he’d give her a call.

“Just checking up,” he told her.

She said she came home from work early to get some exercise.

“Sometimes we forget about the people who do most around here,” he told her. “I just want to make sure that you’re still whistlin’.”

Just like that she broke into “Singing in the Rain.”

He stumbled around a bit, told her he’d noticed she wasn’t in choir, and thought maybe she had some dreary, lingering, summer cold.

“Nothing like that,” Betty told him. “Glen’s job is sometimes a headache, but that’s nothing new. No, Pastor Jack,” she said, “nobody here’s been at the doctor for almost a year now–knock on wood.”

“Knock on wood,” he repeated.

“Kids looking forward to the ‘Lock-Up’?” he asked.

“I don’t think they’re going,” she told him.

“But they worked hard on the Potato Roast?”

“I know–but they’re busy at school, and I just gave them the choice.” And then she said something strange. “You know, Jack,” she said. “I don’t think choice is such a bad thing.”

He let that one go because he had no idea what she meant.

“I told them that if they didn’t want to go, they didn’t have to. They’re busy–they’re terribly busy. We’re all busy, aren’t we?”

Weekend Lock-Up, an all-nighter, had been planned for months–the kids would get the run of the YMCA, plus videos galore, an exercise room turned into a dance studio, so many prizes from local merchants that Jeopardy would be jealous--giveaways galore. “I thought they were all looking forward to it,” he said.

“My college son’s been reading Thoreau,” she said, giggling. “He’s convinced we’re all living lives of quiet desperation?”

“Of what?” Pastor Dobbins said.

“It’s a quote. It’s from Walden or something, you know?–ah, ‘the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation’–I don’t know how it goes exactly.”

“‘Quiet desperation’?” he asked. He wondered whether Christian kids should be reading such things. “Certainly not with faith,” he told her.

“Excuse me?” she said.

“Certainly not with faith in the Lord,” he repeated. “Surely we aren’t living in ‘quiet desperation’ when we’re in Christ?” It was almost offensive. “You’re telling him that, aren’t you? Betty, tell Aaron that in the Lord there’s no desperation at all–there’s no despair.”

Once more, she giggled. “Wait till your kids get to be teenagers,” she said. “I got to go now–got to get my exercise. I’m okay–all right?”

And that was it.

Tomorrow: the conclusion.

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