Pastor Walter Mitty didn’t get much sleep last night because he couldn’t make up his mind regarding what to say at the funeral this morning at the Poplar Park Community Church.
On Sunday, Dominique had pulled him aside after worship and said, “Pastor, I have a favor to ask. My Uncle Mallory died on Friday and I’d like to ask you to do the funeral”
“Sure, of course,” Mitty replied, “but wasn’t Mallory a member of Rev. Johnny Christian’s church?”
“Well, uh, yeah he was. But when I called there about a funeral, the person on the phone told me that one of their assistant pastors would be assigned to do it, and I got the impression that the guy never met my uncle, let alone knew anything about him,” Dominique said. “Rev. Johnny Christian’s church is so huge that Uncle Mallory was anonymous.”
“I didn’t know him that well either, Dominique,” Mitty said.
“I know, but I feel like you will take the time to listen to his story and make the service more personal,” Dominique replied. “He might have been one out of 20,000 members to Rev. Johnny Christian, but he was family to me.”
So Mitty agreed to do the service, and scheduled it for 11 a.m. today. He, Dominique and some of Mallory’s adult children got together on Monday in the church office to fill Mitty in on their father’s life story.
Turns out that Mallory and his late wife had worked hard as a janitor and a cook at a public school on the West Side to send their two children to the University of Illinois at Chicago where they could get the education they needed to become successful in the business world.
Judith, the oldest child, explained why Mallory kept attending Rev. Johnny Christian’s mega church. “You see,” she began, “although Rev. Johnny Christian’s promises of prosperity never really came true for my dad, somehow that dream kept him going.”
“Maybe he felt like our getting an education and making three times as much as he did somehow made the promise credible,” added Reginald, the younger child. “You know what I mean? Like when the Cubs won the World Series, we said WE won, not they won.”
After a minute of silence, Dominique said, “I think that’s why in a lot of the black churches I’ve been to the members want their pastor and the first lady to drive a Cadillac and wear fashionable clothes, even though they pay for their groceries at Aldis with a Link card. It’s like Reggie said, ‘They have a vicarious thing going on.’ When their pastor is successful, so are they.”
“I think I get what you’re saying,” said Mitty, “but then why do you want to do the funeral here? I mean, we’re not a big successful church.”
What Mitty didn’t tell the family is that he often watched Rev. Johnny Christian on Sunday evenings and did the same thing Uncle Mallory had done. As thousands of people shouted “amen” and “praise the Lord” in response to the charismatic pastor’s preaching, Mitty would fantasize he was up there on the stage with his image projected on the big screens flanking the pulpit.
But the reason Mitty couldn’t sleep last night was that he didn’t really buy Rev. Johnny Christian’s theology. He could fantasize that he was a successful preacher, but that was only an escape from the reality that membership at the Poplar Park Community Church wasn’t any bigger than when he became their pastor 20 years ago.
So, what was he going to say in his sermon this morning?
Mitty understood how Johnny Christian’s narrative worked in a way for Uncle Mallory, but he himself couldn’t authentically buy into that vision, let alone preach it at the funeral. What’s more, he couldn’t find anywhere in the Gospels where Jesus promoted that kind of view of the world.
Rev. Johnny Christian was very skilled at cherry picking verses that supported his theology, yet part of Mitty wanted what he was preaching to be his reality.
That’s what often happened inside the pastor of the Poplar Park Community Church. He would encounter situations that revealed to him how divided he was inside. He found himself believing two opposite things, like worshipping two different gods, and unable to choose one over the other.
One reason he couldn’t fall asleep was because the words to a song by the Lovin’ Spoonful he listened to on the car radio years ago kept running through his head:
Did you every have to make up your mind?
- Pick up on one and leave the other behind,
- It’s not often easy, and not often kind.
- Did you ever have to make up your mind?
Or, was that framing the issue in the wrong way? Was it maybe not either/or but somehow both/and?