There is a story that I know. It’s about the earth and how it floats in space on the back of a turtle. I’ve heard this story many times, and each time someone tells the story, it changes. Sometimes the change is simply in the voice of the storyteller. Sometimes the change is in the details. But in all the tellings of all the tellers, the world never leaves the turtle’s back. And the turtle never swims away.
One time, a young girl in the audience asked about the turtle and the earth. If the earth was on the back of a turtle, what was below the turtle? Another turtle, the storyteller told her. And below that turtle? Another turtle. And below that? Another turtle.
The girl began to laugh, enjoying the game, I imagine. So how many turtles are there? She wanted to know. The storyteller shrugged. No one knows for sure, he told her, but it’s turtles all the way down.
The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.
What I just read was the opening of Thomas King’s book, The Truth About Stories. Of the 542,000 books I’ve acquired during seminary, this collection of essays was an early favorite. King begins each more or less the same way, with the turtles. And he then finishes each essay with this charge: “The story I just told you? It’s yours. Do with it what you will. Tell it to friends. Forget it. But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard it. You’ve heard it, now.”
This is where I want to start today’s sermon: I want to talk about stories. Our stories. The stories of our lives. I want to suggest that it is our stories that we offer up on the altar of our ideals. It is our stories that are the text of the Resistance, our testament to resilience, our manifesto against cynicism and despair. With all of the ongoing struggles against injustice and oppression, and with all of the hate and fear we hear in the news, with all the daily challenges of life and work and family, our lives and the way we live them are the flags that we wave on the battlefield of life. Our stories are all we have. How we write them matters.
To be fair, it does seem like the perfect time of year to talk about stories. We’re three months into our New Year, and by now, we have all realized that giving up chocolate was not a sustainable idea. Did anyone make a resolution to give up chocolate this year? Did anyone give up chocolate for Lent? Blasphemers.
In the Christian tradition, Lent is that 40-day period that ends in Easter, a time of unexpected and undeserved rebirth. According to Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, Easter is the celebration of God “reaching down into the dirt of humanity and resurrecting us from the graves that we dig for ourselves through our violence, our lies, our selfishness, our arrogance, and our addictions, a time when God keeps loving us back to life.”
The path to the Resurrection is through Lent. Lent itself is a time of self-reflection, a time to pause, to remember our dreams, and to acknowledge how we have fallen short, and to commit, or perhaps even re-commit, to growth and personal change, to become ready for the call to live again.
According to my allergies, it’s also Spring. It’s a new day. A new season. Why not DO a new YOU?
I mean that “do you” pretty explicitly: Meadville-Lombard, my seminary, has this phrase, one I heard over and over my first year. It goes like this: Act yourself into a new way of thinking. Let me say that again: Act yourself into a new way of thinking.
There is a reversal there, right? We usually try thinking our way, arguing our way, into change. But my seminary is taking a very deliberate jab at us Unitarian Universalists. Following that pre-Easter thread, Christianity is said to be the religion where The Word was made Flesh; Unitarianism Universalism is the religion where the Flesh was made back into the Word. We are an in-our-heads kind of people. Given the chance, we’ll happily talk an idea right to death. It’s what we do. But too much talking can lead to no doing. Better, my professors say, to instead start with a little doing. Our thinking will catch up.
So, today, I want to do something simple. Something easy. What I want us to do today is to apply that idea to our stories. Even better: to imagine ourselves as the author of the novel that is our life. More: imagine our doings as the words and phrases, the paragraphs and pericopes, the anecdotes and the plot devices of that novel.
Here’s the why. Because as we go out into the world, no longer waiting but acting our way into a new way of thinking, I want us to live in such a way that the novel we write with all of our doings is a novel that we would recommend to our friends.
I got this idea from the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche, from his book Twilight of the Idols, where he described the meaning of life as a life that is lived with authenticity. Authenticity. That aligning of action with belief and desire, regardless – perhaps heedless — of pressure or influence. For Nietzsche, authenticity was a purely artistic act. Ultimately, we should look to no role models, gather no advice from friends, seek no guidance from heroes, but instead, strike a path as unique as we are. And only then will our work, our life’s work, the work that is our life, only then will it be truly meaningful!
Nietzsche is nothing if not melodramatic, but here, at least, he has a point. If we let our culture, our jobs, and the general busyness of our regular lives distract us from our one true job – the job of living our life – then we’re in trouble. We’re in trouble because no one else is going to do that job for us.
We are all loaded up, aren’t we? We overfill every hour, our days sliding seamlessly into weeks, months and years, and next thing we know we are saying to each other, wow, where has the time gone? The task of authentically writing the novel of our own lives, we discover, was something we handed off to a ghostwriter years ago.
As my old friend Ferris Buehler once said: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Can I confess something? That was my greatest fear. This “missing it”. Three years ago, I was a corporate executive. I led large teams. I talked CEOs out of millions of dollars. I had bonus checks. I was successful.
I was working an undetermined number of hours a week. I had conference calls starting at 7am. I was answering email at midnight on Sundays. I was traveling every week. I spent more time with my boss than my wife, more time with clients than with my kids. And while I am genuinely baffled as to how all that happened to a guy with dreams of being an academic, I am reminded of John Lennon, who said: “Life was what happened when you’re making other plans.”
25 years ago, I had plans. I did not mean to drop those plans. I was broke. I needed a job. Life happened. I made what I hoped was the best decision at the time, from the choices that I felt were available to me. But I wonder what would have happened to my story if someone had stopped me. Looked me in the eye, like I am looking at you this morning, and said to me, “it doesn’t have to be this way.”
If you’re like me, you occasionally look into the faces of the kids in our congregation and imagine who they might one day be. I’m pretty sure we all do this with kids. But when was the last time you looked into the mirror and asked yourself the same? Are you that person that you imagined? And if not, when will you start working on that chapter?
Now, truth is, none of us start a project like this from scratch. We’ve all lived a bit already, regardless of exactly how old we were when today found us. Metaphorically speaking, the novel that is our life has at least a few pages already filled in with furious scribbling. And that’s okay. In fact, that’s exactly right. But what I want us to do with this next page is to see, if perhaps for the first time in a long time, that what gets put down is at least in some measure still up to us. Yes, certain things may need to be there. Yes, some of us have more pages to work with. But every blank page can be a new beginning, or an opportunity for the unexpected. A plot twist. And as the author, we have a lot of power – we do get to decide the shape of some of the plot twists in our story.
Here are some of my favorite plot twists:
- Stan Lee of Marvel Comics published his first comic book at age 39.
- Did you know that Walt Disney was fired from his job as a newspaper editor because he lacked imagination?
- Andrea Bocelli was a practicing lawyer before pursuing a career as a singer.
- Tim and Nina Zagat were both lawyers, too, when in their late 30s they published their first collection of restaurant reviews under the Zagat name.
- Alexander Fleming was 47 when he discovered penicillin.
- Ruth started her Sex Talk show when she was 52.
- Julia Child published her first cookbook when she was 50.
- Colonel Sanders was 62 when he founded Kentucky Fried Chicken.
- Vera Wang entered the fashion industry at age 40.
- Giorgio Armani started designing clothes after his 60th
- Laura Ingalls Wilder published her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, at 65.
- Grandma Moses started that painting career in her 70’s.
- Peter Mark Roget published his first thesaurus at 73.
- Gladys Burrill ran her first marathon at 86.
- Teiichi Igarashi first climbed Mt. Fuji at age 89, and did so every year till he was 100.
If you twist my arm, I will confess that the younger-me took the idea of plot lines in the whole “write my life as a novel” maybe a tad too seriously. For example, one of my old journals actually has the line – “I want to write my deeds in the book of life with words of fire.” Look, all I can say is that there are worse inspirations than the Lord of the Rings. But this does bring me to an important point. Not everyone is going to quest into the dark and poisonous lands of Mordor to cast the Ring of Power into the fires of Mount Doom to save the world from never-ending darkness. And Thank Heaven for that.
But just because our lives are not fantastical in scope does not mean that our stories are less worthy, less meaningful, or even less important. To quote the Wizard Gandalf the Grey:
“Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay … small acts of kindness and love.”
I take great comfort in those words. I will probably never be rich, which is a shame, because I’d be an excellent rich person. But when I went about the business of living my ordinary life, attending to it, listening to it, feeding it, no one was more surprised than I was when I learned that I had it wrong. That what gave me joy was not retiring my sales quota, but feeding those around me, and that surprise led to being here with you, and occasionally telling you at least some of the things I wish someone had told me. No, I probably won’t be rich, and no, there will be no Mount Doom or words of fire for me. But I did get an unexpected and undeserved gift: the chance to live a different sort of life.
Like it or not, we are all storytellers, and in the story that we are telling, we must remember that sometimes the most transformative acts, the most powerful, the most disruptive of the status quo, those acts can be quite small. Small, like the proverbial mustard seed.
Like a walk in the woods. A phone call to a neighbor. Swapping soda for seltzer. Reading that book. Writing that book. Learning to talk to yourself like a friend. Getting more sleep. Saying “no”. Telling stories to children. Letting go of the stories you believed as a child.
Wherever we are on life’s journey, it’s never too late to reimagine our novel’s next climactic moment. To take stock of where we are, now, today. To draw a line from here to there. And to create for ourselves some simple, achievable steps that will take us there. Or that will take us somewhere else entirely.
As we turn to our close, I want to leave you with another reminder. This time, about a roadblock. I want to remind you that there really is no such thing as a perfectstory. There will always more to do, more to say, more to learn, more to explore. There will NEVER be enough pages. The possibilities of life are endless and there’s only just so much time. And that can be a problem because at least as far as I know, human beings don’t get sequels or do-overs.
What I take from all that is that mistakes HAVE to happen. Like many characters in my favorite books, I am going to get it wrong. We are all going to get it wrong. We simply don’t have time to get it perfect! And just as tragically, we might never hit “perfect authenticity”. And you know what? So what! The sooner we realize that mistakes not only happen, but are exactly what makes our lives interesting, what makes our stories human, then the sooner we are free of fear and the sooner we can take a risk. A risk that creates, a risk that changes things, a risk that sets up the next big plot twist.
So, in that spirit, I invite you to remember that we are all, already, saved from perfection. Wait! Wait. I can do better than that. Please join me in the attitude of prayer.
By the power invested in me by the spirit of life and love and bestowed upon me by the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, and in accordance with Natural Law, Divine Writ, and Human Nature, I hereby absolve you, my friends and neighbors, of the sin of perfection. Ego te absolvo.
There. Now you’re absolutely free to make those plot twists really interesting.
Change is an act of creation. We may not be god, but our lives, our stories, are ours. And this Easter season, we are absolutely free to reach down into the dirt of our humanity, into the graves we have dug for ourselves, and to create new life and a new story. Imperfectly. Haphazardly. But whatever you do, get busy. The clock is ticking.
I’m reminded of the words of Nanea Hoffman, who writes:
“None of us are getting out of here alive, so please stop treating yourself like an afterthought. Eat the delicious food. Walk in the sunshine. Jump in the ocean. Say the truth you’re carrying in your heart like hidden treasure. Be silly. Be kind. Be weird. There’s no time for anything else.”
So, got your pens ready? Your typewriters oiled? Your word processors humming? It’s time to write. And even if you’ve written a whole bunch already, know that it’s never too late to start your next story.
Like the turtles, we human beings? We are stories, all the way down.
Remember Nietzsche: “A meaningful life being a novel that you’d recommend to a friend”. That idea? That idea is yours now. Write it down. Tell it to your friends. Live it boldly. Or forget it entirely. Do with it what you will. But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard it. You’ve heard it, now.”
Because the truth about stories is that that’s all we are.
*Note: this sermon is a reworking of an earlier sermon, delivered to a different audience.