Pastor Walter Mitty looked out from Poplar Park Community Church’s pulpit Sunday at people he knew so well. They all seemed hungry for hope.
There was Hilda Hossenbrenner in her regular spot two pews from the back. On Tuesday she sounded near tears as she told him how worried she was that the price of gas for her furnace would be going up forty percent this winter. Mitty knew that Hilda often made ends meet on her fixed income by eating Aldi’s macaroni and cheese during the last week of the month.
Eric and Debbie Anderson looked tense. Since Eric had come out to his pastor two years ago, he and Debbie had tried to make their life together work somehow for the sake of the kids. But the effort seemed to be taking its toll. They looked bewildered, not sure what to do next.
Their teenage son, Troy, was willing to sit in the same pew with his family only if he could find a spot at least five feet away from them.
In May Troy had looked around for something to keep his spirits up while the future of his family was being decided by his mom and dad. Troy had picked the Cubs.
How could they miss with a starting rotation that included Prior, Wood, Maddux and Zambrono. Besides, he would pick Jeremy to be on his team over Sammy any day. Tory had given up hope for the Cubs by the fourth of July, and he couldn’t admit to LaShaun that he had become a Sox fan.
Sitting two pews up from Troy was LaShaun Smith. He had worn his White Sox jersey to the service, but if he were honest he would admit that his hopes were not very high for a team that had almost blown a twelve game lead.
Before church, Pastor Mitty had noticed that Ash wasn’t teasing LaShaun about the White Sox. The teasing had become a weekly ritual between the two. When he asked Ash if he was OK, he had replied, “Pastor, these two hurricanes have really gotten to me. I know there is famine in Africa and killing in Iraq, but this happened in our country. Somehow I feel like those people who have lost everything are family. It’s all so hopeless. How do you even think about starting over when you’ve lost everything?”
But it was the look on Dominque’s face that worried Pastor Walt the most. He looked like his best friend had betrayed him. Mitty could imagine how the only black Republican in the congregation was feeling.
The president’s job approval ratings were at an all time low. Michael Brown had proved to be incompetent. Delay was fighting a felony indictment. George Ryan was in big trouble. The war in Iraq seemed to be getting worse instead of better. The price of gas for his Lexus was near three dollars a gallon. And, although his job at the bank downtown seemed secure, he found himself waking up in the middle of the night worrying that the next downsizing would include him.
Pastor Mitty knew what was going on in his people. Small congregations are that way. Like or not, people get to know you. He felt like he had to come up with a really good sermon this time, one that would fill the emptiness inside those good people with hope. The problem was that, as usual this time of year, his allergies had kicked into overdrive.
Not only was he sneezing at regular intervals during the sermon, but the itching eyes and lack of sleep had prevented him from getting even a first draft done on Saturday.
So Pastor Mitty was winging it. Instead of giving clever anecdotes illustrating the theme of his sermon, he resorted to repeating statements he had heard all his life. Between fits of coughing and sneezing, he told his people that the darkest part of the night is right before dawn and that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.
He found himself saying, “I know that some of you are struggling right now, but some day soon you’ll look back on what is happening right now and see how God was working with you.” As he said those things, however, he found that he couldn’t look Eric and Debbie in the eye.
Being a pastor is like being a stand up comedian in that there are times when you are out there by yourself and you are bombing and there’s nothing you can do but finish your routine/sermon as fast as possible and flee. The prospect of being able to flee was what kept Mitty going through three more fits of sneezing till the end of the service.
Standing at the door after the last hymn, Mitty was about to offer his apologies for performing badly when Hilda came up and hugged him.
Pastor Walt was speechless. Hilda never hugged anyone. “Pastor, that was a wonderful sermon. When you said that God was working with me even though I couldn’t see it now. . .why that was just what I needed to hear.”
Dominique waited patiently until Hilda had finished, shook his pastor’s right hand with both of his and said, “Your sermon was a blessing today, pastor. It wasn’t easy for me to hear, but I realized how self-centered I’ve been lately. I’m going to put Christ back in the center of my life.” Eight other people stood in line to say basically the same thing, and when he finally was able to make his way to the coffee hour in Fellowship Hall, he heard several people express appreciation for his ability to lead them through tough times.
Forty-five minutes later Pastor Walt sat alone in Fellowship Hall with his coffee and a big wad of used tissues in his dirty tissue pocket.
He shook his head and sneezed again. “I never said anything about being self-centered,” he thought, “or about putting Christ back in the center of your life. All I did was try to get through the sermon by repeating every cliche I could think of.”
“You look terrible.”
Mitty looked up from locking the back door by the church kitchen and saw Henry smiling at him.
“I feel rotten, Henry. Allergies.” He was about to excuse himself by saying he had to get home when he remembered his manners. “How are you doing, Henry?”
“It’s all good, Rev. Nobody snored at the shelter last night and for dinner we had roast pork, mashed potatoes and apple sauce. You know, you’ve got to put your trust in the Lord and he will take care of you.”
“You look terrible.” Pastor Walt’s neighbor stood leaning on his rake.
“Oh, hi Michael. I feel. . . .” Mitty was about to say “terrible” when he realized that he was feeling pretty good. Aside from what his allergies were doing to him. “I feel. . . .hopeful.”
“It’s hard to explain, Michael, but this morning didn’t turn out the way I expected.” Mitty grabbed a tissue from his clean tissue pocket just in time to catch another sneeze. “I preached a really bad sermon this morning. One trite thought after another.”
“And that makes you hopeful?”
“I know, but even, no, eight people came up after the service to tell me how good it was.”
“Sounds like the future of the planet doesn’t depend on you alone. You’ve got some good people in that little church, Walt.”
Mitty climbed the stairs to his front door, put his jacket on the coat tree, made a sandwich, sneezed and turned on the TV. It was his last chance this year to watch the Cubs. For some reason he felt hopeful.
This wasn’t the last game of a disastrous season but the first game of next year.