The hot topic at the coffee hour after the service at the Poplar Park Community Church last Sunday was the price of gas. Ukraine was only mentioned a couple of times. That was happening 5,000 miles away. The price of gas was just down the street.

“Four bucks a gallon,” Eric Anderson complained, “and from what I hear it’s going to keep going up.”

“Insult to injury,” added Aunt Dolly. “Insult to injury. We’ve already sacrificed a lot because of the pandemic and now the war in the Ukraine is going to make life even harder.”

When Pastor Walter Mitty looked out his bedroom window the next morning, the weather looked nice, and he was tired of dwelling on how hard life can be. So after eating a chocolate chip bagel with cream cheese, he called his friend Michael next door and proposed they take a walk to the History/Herstory book store. 

As Bernie Rolvaag was making their lattes, Michael asked how business had been the last few months.

“Like most of the businesses on Main Street,” Bernie answered. “Better than a year ago, but not as good as 2019. And like some of the clothing stores, online shopping is cutting into our business. A lot of us have had to tighten our belts and adjust our family budgets. It’s like we’re being tested to see what we’re made of.”

The conversation shifted to the situation in Ukraine and that led Pastor Walt to bring up how people at church were complaining about the price of gas. 

“It makes me think of rationing during World War II,” said the bookstore owner/barista.

“Rationing?”

“Yeah. While thousands and thousands of young men were sacrificing their lives to defeat fascism, civilians back home had to make sacrifices in terms of their lifestyle. I have a lot of books on that war, and everyone was affected and had to sacrifice, because the military needed everything from gasoline to coffee.”

“And that meant,” added Pastor Walt, “that everyone in that generation made sacrifices, whether it was on the battlefield or the home front.”

“That’s right,” said Bernie, “and what strikes me in all of the accounts I read is that almost everyone in the country was willing to make those sacrifices. It wasn’t ‘it’s all about me.’ It was ‘it’s all about we.’”

“Remember the Three Musketeers?” said Michael. “All for one; one for all, right?”

Pastor Mitty wondered, “Tell me if I’m right, but during World War II the enemy was Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito. The last two years the enemy has been a bug, so is it easier to deny that it’s real because it’s invisible? So maybe we should heave a sigh of relief that in Putin we have an enemy we can at least wrap our minds around.”

Bernie said, “Maybe, Walt, but I’m wondering if not only has the enemy changed but maybe we have changed as well.”

“You mean,” asked Michael, “what’s changed is that now it’s all about me? Like there isn’t a draft anymore but a volunteer army, so I might feel bad about a war in Europe, but it won’t affect me? Like the President talks about sanctions and drones but not putting American bodies in harm’s way, so I’m not going to worry about it?”

“Well,” added Walt, “we’re already making a big deal about the sacrifice of paying more at the gas pump. Imagine how the manure would hit the rotary oscillator if the war in Ukraine escalated to the point where the army started calling up people eligible for the draft.”

The three spent the next minute or so sipping their lattes and digesting that prospect.

“You remember how Tom Brokaw referred to our grandparents as the Greatest Generation?” Bernie began. “I think part of what he was getting at is that tough times like the Great Depression and World War II have a way of exposing our character. You know, what a person or a nation is made of.”

That turned a light on in Mitty’s mind. “You know, the day after tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. It’s a day for self-examination, but everyone seems to be turned outward instead of inward.”

“Outward?”

“Yeah, like if COVID goes away, I’ll be happy. If Putin pulls back from Ukraine I’ll feel relieved. But character doesn’t depend on what happens outside of me. It’s something that is built in my spirit, and what happens outside of me only reveals what’s on the inside.”

Michael offered an insight from his tradition. “You know, Passover is coming up and the tendency is to focus on God saving his people from slavery. Like Walt said, freeing them from something outside them. But if you go further in the story, when my people got into the wilderness …”

After a pause, he continued, “… When they got into the wilderness, which was the place of testing, they found out, or God found out, how weak their character was. Same thing here when you get down to it, isn’t it?”

The conversation two days ago was punctuated by intermittent lapses into silence, as if they need time to digest everything they were hearing.

Mitty broke the silence with, “You know Jesus’ parable in which the house built on sand gets washed away by the tidal wave while the house built on the rock withstands the storm? Well, maybe that has implications not only for where we build houses in response to rising sea levels but also for how we as individuals and as a nation need to invest more of ourselves in character building.”

Tom Holmes writes a column twice-monthly in the Forest Park Review, a Growing Community Media publication.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...