Next Sunday is confirmation day at Poplar Park Community Church. Usually it is a day to which Pastor Walter Mitty looks forward. Friends and family almost double the attendance, amplifying the festive mood.
Two weeks ago, however, Pastor Mitty began to doubt that he had done his job with the three adolescents who met with him every Wednesday evening for two years. That morning, at the men’s fellowship breakfast, Eric had gotten into a heated debate with Ash and Dominique about escapism, and that sparked what came close to an argument about why people really go to church.
At the last confirmation class that evening one of Mitty’s students asked a troubling question. They were going over the personal statements of faith they were going to read for the congregation and Troy had a problem with one of the questions Mitty had given them to guide their writing: If you believe all of this, what difference will it make in the way you live?
“I don’t get it,” Troy said. “I thought about my family and the church members, and I don’t see any difference in the way they live and those who don’t go to church.”
Mitty lost count of how many times he used the word “should” in his response.
Troy’s words haunted Pastor Mitty. What made things worse was that when he popped into the Retro the following morning to chat with Zaphne and tell her about his problem, she agreed with what Troy had said.
“That’s why I get more out of meditating here in the store than I do going to an organized church service. People use religion like they use Disney World. It’s a place to escape to and it costs a lot of money to keep going.”
“But Zaphne,” Pastor Walt protested, “your whole business is promoting escape and nostalgia.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Zaphne replied. “But I’m up front about Henry Aaron baseball cards and smiley face wastebaskets being nothing more than a nostalgia trip. Religion, you see, claims that it’s a lot more than that.”
Feeling even less confident, Mitty retreated to Bernie Rolvaag’s bookstore hoping to find an ally in his new friend.
“I think Zaphne is speaking a hard truth,” the owner of History/Herstory responded. “For the first three centuries,” he said, “the church was on fire with an authentic, empowered spirit. And then Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire and everybody and their brother joined. It was transformed overnight from a powerful movement into just another establishment institution. That’s the way I read history.”
Pastor Walt felt defeated as he trudged the three blocks back to his office. He usually didn’t mind losing a debate, but this hit home. What he was hearing made him question the value of his calling.
To his surprise Ash was on the steps going into the church. “Hi, Pastor. I stopped by to get some phone numbers. I have to remind the youth group to be here at church by 8 a.m. this Sunday. If we don’t leave by then, we’ll be late for the service at Trinity.”
“Ash, I had forgotten about your outing. Come on in. I’ll get you the numbers.” As Pastor Mitty looked through his file cabinet, he added, “You sure that’s a good idea? I mean with all the controversy about Jeremiah Wright and all … well, I mean a group of outsiders might encounter some hostility. You know what I mean?”
“I know,” Ash answered. “But as I read the Bible, Jesus didn’t pull his disciples out of the world to make them safe. He made them so safe in their relationship with him that they were no longer afraid to live what they believed in the world.”
Mitty smiled. The preacher had just heard a sermon from one of his parishioners.
“Here are the numbers for the youth group,” he said as he handed the sheet of paper to his friend, “and Ash, make sure Troy goes along.”