In 1975, when I was eight years old, I saw this movie entitled Escape to Witch Mountain, about a boy named Tony and a girl named Tia. They were brother and sister orphans who both had suppressed memories of their past, but they knew that they must have come from somewhere special because they had remarkable powers. Tony (which happened to be the name I went by back then) could move things with his mind, and Tia could unlock any door by touch and communicate with animals.
I sat in that darkened theater, my eyes open wide, taking it all in: their narrow escape from the horrible juvenile detention home; their breathless journey towards the Blue Ridge Mountains, where they believed (but without up-front guarantees!) they would discover their true identity.
Their would-be captor, the evil Lucas Deranian (whose only interest in them was to capitalize on their paranormal gifts), was hot on their tail, and every close call they had with the guy made me squirm in my narrow theater seat and bump my brother beside me, or my father; and at times I’ll bet I yelled and groaned out loud and lost control of my popcorn too.
Even today, I continue to be an entertaining movie date.
I still remember what it was like going to sleep that night. I had seen something and heard something in that movie that made me want to drop whatever I was doing in my life and travel to the Blue Ridge Mountains to find my real family. Didn’t matter that I was sleeping in a bed in Peace River, Alberta, Canada and had no idea where the Blue Ridge Mountains were. I just wanted to go. I just wanted to leave.
I lay there in my bed, and I felt inside myself, as deeply as I knew how. I was looking for the same kind of power in myself that Tony in the movie had. I gathered up my will, I told myself to believe and that if I believed, my body would rise up off the bed like a feather, like a miracle. Finally, I would have hard evidence and reason for why I had always felt like an orphan in my life, why I had always felt like a stranger in my family and world, why I had always felt like I was meant for something else.
When I awoke the next morning, it was with the greatest disappointment. But I still would not let the memory of Tony and Tia go, their escape to Witch Mountain, the feeling I had that they were my true family and not the people in the next rooms over.
This was me at eight years old. Already comprehending the meaning of the spiritual journey and wanting to be on it; already aware of how you can be busy with the things of your world but then something cuts through all that and you hear the call to your true home and you want to drop everything and go there.
Three years later, my fascination would center elsewhere: on a paperback I carried with me pretty much everywhere, entitled Fifty Great Short Stories, edited by Milton Crane (a name I thought hilarious). The book included such gems as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” Thomas Wolfe’s “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” Flannery O’Conner’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Three-Day Blow.”
I’m eleven years old. Not sure how much of “The Three-Day Blow” I actually understood, assuming I even read it. I did read the Poe story, though—I do know that. Creepy. But it didn’t really matter how much I did or did not read, how much I did or did not understand. It was about the words. I loved them. Word after word after word, creating scenes in your mind, creating new life. I carried that book of 50 Great Short Stories everywhere I went as a reminder of that power.
I hung out a lot at my Dad’s medical office, and on Saturdays, while he’d be in his office doing his charts, I’d be out front in the receptionist’s area, where the electric typewriter was. I was a weird child. I’d turn that thing on, and it was all gnnnnnnnnnnnnnn, I could feel power surging through it, barely restrained.
I’d roll in a new sheet of paper and start typing. Each letter would bang down hard on the page, bang, bang, leave its mark. Letters building words, words building sentences. My book 50 Great Short Stories would be right beside me, and it comforted me, made me believe that perhaps the power of Jackson and Poe and Wolfe and O’Conner and Hemingway with all their words could be my power too.
I already knew that I didn’t have Tony’s extraterrestrial power of telekinesis; that had already been proven. But I still felt like an orphan, I still felt like there were Blue Ridge Mountains out there for me to travel to, where I would find my true self. I still needed to get there, somehow. Maybe writing was how.
Yet here’s what would happen as I’d sit there at the typewriter growling its electric growl. I’d go blank. I’d have no earthly idea what to say. The feelings that roiled within me: no way to translate them to words.
It was always this way.
Isn’t it amazing how, so early in life, we can already see in cameo the central challenges of our days? And how clues about the way forward come in to us from the margins, like the sound of wild swans from our story for today?
For me it was so many things: a movie, a book, and it was also people like my Church of Christ pastor in high school, who took me under his wing. We’d go on home visitations together, and we’d be driving in his car, and he had that televangelist hair that was so big and lacquered up with Aqua Net, it was kind of its own personality, and we’d be driving down the road and I swear he would wave at every car passing by, and I wanted to be friendly and caring just like him. Not so much the hair part, though….
Clues from the margins. Things that come into your life, and they make you want to drop whatever it is you happen to be doing, and do something else. Even if you don’t know what that something else is yet. You just feel restless.
You just feel like you are meant for something more.
When I was 20 years old, I had these two dreams: “I am one of six black birds. We are in a circle, teaching people. And the people encircle us.” The other one goes like this: “My elephant is trapped in a tightly-fitting glass bottle. But I release him and discover that he is just like soap. I rub him all over my body and I am purified. I discover that I can skate like I have always wanted to, as well as my favorite Olympic stars. I can even do the quadruple lutz!” When I had these dreams, I was still in college, almost on my way into graduate school. The dreams teased me with a sense that I was meant for something that would help others and be healing for myself, but what? What was I holding that I should drop, and what new thing should I take up?
I had no earthly clue.
Isn’t that the way of it? The way of our lives. Later, much later, we can look back and understand. But not up front, not in the moment. Marilynne Robinson, in her wonderful book entitled Gilead, has her main character, an old preacher, say it like this: “Now that I look back, it seems to me that in all that deep darkness a miracle was preparing. So I am right to remember it as a blessed time, and myself as waiting in confidence, even if I had no idea what I was waiting for.”
“In deep darkness, a miracle was preparing.” Have I ever told you about the first time I stepped into a Unitarian Universalist congregation? Deep darkness. Here’s what I mean. Hated it. Because the preaching was so bad. My former wife and I, with our two year old daughter in tow, went to the small Unitarian fellowship in our town, and while the people were friendly, the worship was terrible, and the preacher took 30 minutes to share his laundry list about what he did over the summer. BORING. I was outraged. I wanted to stand up and shout FRAUD. It was like I was eight years old back in that darkened theater, squirming in my seat. Laura was sitting beside me, embarrassed like crazy.
Later, when I was in seminary studying how to be a preacher in my own right, I came across these words from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address of 1838, delivered to that year’s graduating class of Unitarian ministers: “I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else had no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned.”
Who knew that I had been channeling Emerson, seated as I was there in that small Unitarian fellowship, listening to the preacher waste my time?
Sometimes the call to our true home happens not as an experience of delight but as an experience of complete disappointment. That preacher wasting my time…. Somehow I must have known about the better possibilities of preaching—that truly good preaching does not so much waste as fill, enrich, enliven, ennoble, intrigue, inspire, make you laugh, make you cry, bring you back to your senses, make you feel human again. All through words, which the preaching shapes and sends forth. An electric typewriter bangs them out mechanically, but the preacher whispers them, shouts them, sings them…. The preacher carries you with him, you and the preacher for a time are together inside a story and a meaning that, if good and true, can change your life.
Remember what it was like for me at eleven years of age? How I’d be sitting in front of the growling typewriter wanting to get started on my own short story but I’d have nothing to say? How I’d feel the power slip through my fingers, slip away? Well, after college and graduate school, and then eight years teaching college philosophy, there was no more problem. One of my first sermons in seminary was 6000 words long. Keep in mind that for me, a 20 minute sermon consists of roughly 2000 words. It was one whole hour of me, holding forth. I think I was talking about the spirituality of imperfection.
I had a lot to say, I guess, about that particular topic.
But at least, finally, I could feel power flowing through me. I couldn’t levitate like Tony, and it didn’t look like writing actual short stories was in the cards for me. But preaching was. And preaching is about going home. Preaching is about dropping everything that is inessential in life and going home.
Home to those Blue Ridge Mountains.
Ministry of course involves far more than preaching—believe me that any minister’s job involves far more than just the hour he or she is publicly visible in the pulpit. That hour requires at least 20 hours of behind-the-scenes preparation, and this is on top of 30 to 50 more hours of everything else that goes into the weekly work of caring for a congregation. But I focus on preaching because, in my almost ten-year-long career, it has proven to be the lifeblood, the thing that nourishes and energizes everything else.
This is the message of the short story I am writing for you today, banged out not on an electric typewriter but my sleek awesome MacBook. It’s why much of the focus of my sabbatical will be on writing a book that somehow incorporates writings from all my sermons over the years. Emerson once described preaching as “life passed through the fire of thought,” and it has been this way for me. Life tempered and strengthened by the fire, the inessentials burned away by the fire.
Life becoming the Life Abundant.
Our task in life is to drop everything that is inessential and go home. As best we can. Preaching is the reminder. I look back over the almost 200 sermons I have given here since 2007, when you welcomed me as your Senior Minister, and over and over again the call is to go home, to find home as best we can. Here’s just one example of a story I once used to underscore this, which some of you may recall:
A man traveling through the mountains suddenly found himself being chased by a huge hungry tiger. He ran and ran until he came to the edge of a cliff. There, with nowhere else to go, he caught hold of a thick vine and swung himself over the edge.
Above him the tiger paced, and growled. Below him he heard a sound, and looked down to see another tiger waiting for him at the bottom of the vine.
Then he heard the faint sounds of something scrambling out from the cliffside, coming close. Mice. Two of them: one white, one black. They positioned themselves just beyond his reach, and started gnawing at the vine. At this, the man started to panic; they were eating through it way too quickly. But then, something else caught his attention: a completely unexpected, fragrant smell. A wild strawberry, a big one, growing out of the cliff near by. Holding on to the vine with one hand, he reached and picked the berry with the other.
How sweet it tasted!
I can only hope that, at least sometimes over the years, in the midst of your hectic days, tigers above and tigers below, my sermons have tasted like strawberries to you. To me, the privilege of preaching has always tasted like his. It has always been an opportunity to feel a real power flowing through me and into the world, and my eight-year-old self feels vindicated finally.
There is so much more I could say, about my gratitude for serving this congregation. The kinds of things I am able to do here. Since my recent divorce, for example, I have become even clearer on the privilege of having the kind of job where I can take even my deepest screw-ups and failures and turn them into some good, some wisdom that can help another—through preaching and otherwise.
I am so grateful.
There is so much to say. But this is supposed to be a short story, and here is how it ends. It ends with a man writing a sermon about his love of preaching and his gratitude for the congregation he serves and hopes to serve for many more years. He tells them a story about his childhood, a movie he once saw, characters named Tony and Tia he loved, the Blue Ridge Mountains they wanted to go to, and he wanted to go there with them. The story is almost 40 years old.
But it’s only when he’s writing the sermon, does he actually connect the dots. He’s living in Atlanta, Georgia. The great state of Georgia. Blue Ridge Mountains are HERE, in Georgia.
With amazement, with joy, he finally understands.
He has come home.