“Guiding Lights and Hidden Doorways”
All Souls Bethlehem Church
Rev. Tom Martinez
January 25, 2015
“Then they set out from Succoth and camped in Etham on the edge of the wilderness. 21The LORD was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. 22He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people”
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8″For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.”
Whenever I hear the verse in Matthew, “knock and the door shall be opened,” I think of Herman Hesse’s novel, Steppenwolf, in which the protagonist Harry Haller discovers a hidden world on the other side of a vanishing door. It’s one of those imaginary, magical-realism details that really gets at the nature of the spiritual life, where opportunities for deep connection sometimes present themselves like magic doors we can either walk through or walk on passed.
Over the years I’ve noticed there are certain places where this sort of thing is more likely to happen. Judson Memorial Church has certainly been one of those places for me. So I suppose it’s no surprise that I begin there, not at yesterday’s stupendous ordination celebration for Micah, but a few days earlier, at Rosalind Gnatt’s Ecclesiastical Council. For those of you unfamiliar with what an “EC” is, it’s basically the final hurdle on the way toward ordination, where the candidate shares their theology and faith journey and takes questions from the larger Church.
I had heard Rosalind’s story before and had read her paper describing her southern upbringing, the painful anecdote of her grandfather’s tombstone being engraved with the letters, KKK. It’s no surprise that part of her journey involved her drifting away from the early expression of organized religion she was raised in.
But I had forgotten another anecdote that jumped out at me when she retold it. She was listening to a lecture at an orientation for parents whose kids were starting college. Rosalind’s daughter had already studied abroad for a year so Rosalind was bored and began to doze off. She awakened moments later, jolted by a voice that said, “Apply to Union.”
It just so happened the lecture was given by the university’s Chaplain, so afterwards Roz went up to her and told her what happened.
The Chaplain said simply, “So when are you going to apply?”
Roz explained that that would be unthinkable—impossible! But of course she ended up attending, a decision which launched her extraordinary ministerial career. But what really struck me was the way Roz described the experience as having presented her with a spiritual door.
What exactly are these doors and how do we find them? Last week we had talked about imagery drawn from the book of Exodus, the parting of the waters, the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire. So I began to ponder another kind of light, one that leads us deeper toward the Promised Land within.
So when a friend mentioned a movie he thought I’d appreciate called, Little Accidents, I listened a little more closely than I might otherwise have. Inspired by Roz’ metaphor of spiritual doors opening, I decided to take myself to the movies. It turned out to be the final showing of the film’s run and as it happened I was the only person in the theater, adding to the Steppenwolfian sense that I had indeed found my magic door. The lights dimmed and I found myself submerged in a celluloid dream. It was a big dream informed by globalization and environmental degradation, yet the lessons were highly personal, a beacon of light illuminating the way toward healing and redemption.
Little Accidents is set against the backdrop of coal-mining country and opens with a group of miners descending into a mine, heralding a journey to the underworld of psyche and soul. The camera follows one miner’s face in particular, alluding to the deeply personal nature of the journey. Then the film jumps forward in time several months. We learn that on that earlier day a terrible accident had occurred, killing four miners and badly injuring one, Amos, who the camera followed into the mines in the film’s opening scene.
Like Virgil guiding Dante through the various levels of hell, Amos has been to hell and back after having survived the terrible accident, suffering seriously disabling physical injuries. His left arm is nearly useless, as if he had suffered a stroke. Only his injuries occurred from a different kind of brush with death, one connected to the harsh conditions in the mine.
The relentless and oppressive economic aspects of the mining’s extractive processes are powerfully captured in a few artful seconds through a close-up on coal spilling out onto a huge pile. There’s something beautiful and yet simultaneously disturbing in this flow of the Earth’s material that piles upon itself like some sort of children’s game, repeatedly reaching a kind of tipping point so that large swaths of coal break away and slide further down the pile. But while mesmerized by the hypnotic beauty of the imagery it dawns on that this is very heart of the environmental catastrophe: coal.
This is the world Amos inhabits. He has spent his life in the mines, as did his father, who cautions Amos about getting involved in the litigation arising from the aftermath of the accident that nearly killed him. His father suffers the effects of a lifetime underground and was also injured in an accident. He is the archetype of stoic masculinity incarnated in flesh, a craggy, smoking and drinking survivor whose advice is to keep your head down.
The world of the town’s children provide the film’s subplot. Owen, a boy of about twelve whose father was killed in the accident, steals a couple of beers from the fridge and sneaks out to the wood where some older boys are lighting off fireworks, a symbol of the explosive events about to take place. One of the older boys is JT, whose father is a mid-level manager at the mines, just important enough to serve as an expendable scapegoat for both the company’s management, and for the community angry over the dangerous conditions of the mines.
JT and his friends are dismissive of the younger Owen, though they guzzle his beers and speak to him briefly before ditching him and his even younger brother who has tagged along. (The younger brother has Down Syndrome and serves as a silent witness to the unfolding events.)
Shortly thereafter JT returns by himself, whereupon he and Owen exchange words about the mining accident and tussle. Owen bull-charges JT, knocking him down. Then, realizing JT is twice his size, he runs. Owen has a head start and manages to hide conceal himself in the woods, so that when JT comes barreling his way he’s able to launch a surprise attack, hurling rocks at him. JT stumbles and goes crashing down. It’s typical childhood horseplay, only JT strikes his head against a stone and is instantly killed.
Mortified by what he has done, Owen hides the body in the woods (presumably in a mine shaft) and then, the next day, lies to the police investigators who interview the boys. This plunges JT’s parents into a hellish period of limbo during which they do everything humanly possibly to find their missing son, even as they begin to assume the worst.
These two plot lines intertwine late one night through an adulterous affair. JT has been missing for a month or so, and his mother, Diane (played by Elizabeth Banks), up and about in the middle of the night with insomnia, goes to a local market to buy cigarettes. Owen is approaching the market on foot, also unable to sleep, and recognizes her, as she has attended the same local Bible study. They essentially fall into each other’s lives, she to escape the anguish of having lost her son and he as a way of dealing with his shattered life after the accident and the related pressures of the legal fallout in its wake.
As their affair unfolds, Owen starts cutting the grass and doing other odd jobs for Diane and her grieving husband. In this way all the various elements are drawn together in an ever-tightening plotline that turns on the strange vicissitudes of fate. As a work of art the film depicts the wounded masculine finding solace in the soft caress of the feminine; while the wounded feminine is sustained by masculine strength. Meanwhile Owen, burdened by the guilt over having killed JT, becomes a kind of surrogate replacement in Diane’s life, keeping her company and providing a youthful presence as she journeys through her own personal hell. At one point Owen is admiring a bicycle that had belonged to JT, and Diane has her husband take it down so that together they give it to Owen, providing him with a newfound freedom to move in the world on a journey that will eventually bring him back to that very place.
Ultimately healing comes in the form of the truth, via a process foreshadowed by an encounter between Owen and Amos. (It’s a small town and Amos had worked with Owen’s father, one of the men killed in the accident, so they know each other.) At this juncture Amos has returned to the mining company but because of his physical disabilities wasn’t able to go back down underground. So he was given a desk job, watching a monitor and sending men into the mines. Looking at one of the monitors that shows an above ground area he sees Owen wandering onto company property. Amos leaves his post and finds the boy, asking him what he’s doing there. Owen, clearly grieving, says he wants to experience what it feels like to go underground.
No doubt breaking all the rules, Amos grabs him a hard hat and together they walk into the entrance to one of the mines, pushing a button so that the door to the outside world closes behind them. The lights from their hard-hats symbolize the inner journey both of them are on, their secrets, their struggles.
Days later Owen’s riding his new bike through town and sees Amos’s truck outside a diner. He goes in and sits beside Amos at the lunch counter. Amos is having a milkshake and orders one for Owen. Only Owen is being strangely quiet.
Amos, not a man of many words himself, says, “Are you okay?”
Owen looks up at him with tear-filled eyes and shakes his head no.
Then the two are in Amos’ pickup with Owen’s bike in the back. Somehow you know that Owen has unburdened himself to Amos, telling him that he knows what happened to JT. Amos stops a respectful distance from the house and let’s Owen grab his bike and go the rest of the way himself. Diane is outside gardening. When she sees Owen approaching she says, “I didn’t know you where coming today….”
Then the camera pulls back and we can’t here their words anymore. We simply watch as Diane listens to Owen, puts her hand on his shoulder as she comes in close, and then drops to her knees. Her husband is watching this from inside the house. We see him run up to Owen and Dianne, and the three together descend into hell.
Then the film cuts to Amos who is back in front of the attorneys, being asked questions about the state of the mine leading up to the accident. Throughout the film he has obfuscated by mumbling, “I don’t remember.” Only now he’s answering directly and telling the truth.
King followed the pillar of fire out into the world, illuminating the madness of Jim Crow and the war in Vietnam. His vision was critically important and I think it is important that those of us concerned about justice continue to see by the light of his critique, especially in this day and age of rendition and torture. But there’s also a personal dimension to this struggle for justice. The big issues sometimes feel like the color of the sky, or rain falling, so big that they are part of the setting in which we live, the backdrop for our personal stories.
In this world of interlocking economic pressures, a world of accidents and death, the struggle is to find real human connection, to forge relationship and tell the truth. We can’t right all the wrongs of the world or make injustice entirely go away. But we can ease our pain and the pain of others, by building community and taking steps that will leave this place a little bit better then it was when we got here.
May it be, Amen.