“Mary Poppins Ministry”

“Mary Poppins Ministry”
A Sermon by Joshua Leach
Preached at First Parish Bedford
March 13, 2016


Thoughts to Ponder at the Beginning:
My life seems to consist of activities I began to do provisionally, temporarily, but which eventually I find I cannot keep away from.”


“Keep your bags packed.”


The Sermon:

One time in college, I nearly – emphasis on nearly – interviewed Christopher Hitchens for an online magazine. The connection between this and Mary Poppins may seem a long ways off at this point, but bear with me here.

The near-Hitchens interview occurred in the not very distant past of 2009, and you may recall that Hitchens at that point had already become a long-time fixture of the political left and of the movement known as the New Atheism. Sadly, he is no longer with us – he died at far too young an age of cancer – but when I was in school he was still a guiding star for many a young contrarian and troublemaker. For others, myself included, he was something of a fallen prophet — especially after he endorsed the Iraq War in 2003. He had never been one of my favorite writers – I didn’t read all that much of his work — but I admired him from a distance, well enough at any rate to feel a sting of betrayal. And I very came close to interviewing him – but didn’t.

First I should back up though and explain a little about how this near-circumstance almost came to be. As far back as I can remember, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, and that was a writer – or, as I somewhat more precisely and presumptuously put in elementary school, “an author.”

I was fascinated by the mystique of books long before I could understand anything that was printed inside them. Well before I could command the written English language myself, I was cutting up pieces of computer paper into tiny squares, stapling them together into folio form, and then filling them with line after squiggly line of a meaningless and unpronounceable approximation of words. The text inside these miniature books – or lack thereof — was irrelevant. The real point of making them was to be found in the front and back pages of each, where I always would ask my mom to write the words “A Novel by Josh Leach.” This would be followed by the dedication, which was the same in every one of the squiggle books: “To my mom and dad and sister.” I didn’t want to leave anyone out, you see. Oh yes, and there was an “About the Author” page at the back, which recorded the trivia of my short existence. George Orwell once said that the number one reason why he or anyone else writes is out of “sheer egotism.” I don’t know if this is universally true, but I certainly didn’t provide a counter example.

All throughout high school I preserved this utterly single-minded career ambition. I had it all worked out. I would graduate, I would go to college, and then I would start publishing novels that would transcend the false boundaries that had been placed between the highly literary and the tumultuously best-selling. That way, I would never need to have an actual job, per se, since turning 22 seemed an extremely long ways off at that point – and it certainly left me with enough time to become Norman Mailer in the interval. Oh, and plus, if this plan didn’t work out, that just meant that I was suffering for my art, and that was cool too.

In college I set about my task right away. Blessed as I was by a total lack of awareness of the ordinary limits of the probable and the appropriate, I had no trouble putting myself out there. From Dissent magazine to the New York Review of Books, if a publication was unwise enough to list an email address on their web page to collect submissions from readers, they were sure to receive an unsolicited article or book review from me. I’m sure it would be an exceptionally mortifying experience to go back and read any of these attempts now—but whether they displayed the nascent seeds of genius or not, I almost never heard back from any of the magazines and journals I contacted. I guess the New York Review of Books already had a few contributors lined up. Perhaps even blind taste tests would reveal a discernable difference between, say, the prose of Joan Didion, and a Word document created by my 19 year old self.

But one day came the exception—my big break. I had written a review of Christopher Hitchens’ then just-published memoir, Hitch-22. I don’t think I exactly read the whole book before reviewing it, but I didn’t see why that should stand in my way. After all, my opinion about the book and the tone I would adopt in reviewing it had all been worked out in advance. By turns adoring and wounded, I would describe how Hitchens had once been a light in the darkness unto many, but that he had turned his back on us all with his shift to Neoconservatism. I would end histrionically with lines from a Robert Browning poem: “We shall march prospering,—not thro’ his presence;
Songs may inspirit us,—not from his lyre;”

That was all going in regardless of what was actually in the book, so I hardly needed to read it too carefully.

Not really expecting a response at this point, I sent the article to an online literary magazine called Guernica and forgot about it. Yet within the week, I saw an unread message in my inbox and realized that, thrillingly, there had been a reply.

I scanned it quickly, trying to figure out if the response was positive or negative. It turned out not to be either, exactly. I noticed that the editor of the journal politely neglected to mention the review I had written, and I, politely, didn’t bring it up again either. Instead, the editor wrote, “Hey, we have been arranging an interview with Hitchens – do you by any chance want to lead it?”

This was an entirely unexpected complication. In the first rush of adrenaline, I wrote back saying yes, of course I would lead it, thank you, thank you! When that feeling had deserted me, however, all I was left with was the ache of utter fear. This was all far more good fortune than I had bargained for. The editor promptly wrote back and said, “Great! We’ll need you to draft some interview questions and we’ll call when we’ve confirmed a time with Hitchens.” There was no turning back now.

Over the next several weeks I spent a considerable portion of every day lying on my back on the carpet and staring at the ceiling, trying to convince myself that I was really up to this. What I couldn’t figure out was how the editor hadn’t immediately nailed me for the fraud I was. How had he been fool enough to think I could be trusted with something like this?

But no, I thought, really, I can do this. Hitchens is just a person, right? They’re just questions, aren’t they? How hard can it be? I set to work on my interview questions – trying to make them at once hard-hitting enough to be interesting, but also softball enough that I could imagine actually posing them to the famously acerbic Hitchens. No matter how I labored and sweated over them, though, the whole thing just didn’t scan. I tried to envision in my head the future in which I was actually reading these things aloud, with quavering voice and sweaty palms, and then pausing to listen for the cutting and boozy voice of Christopher Hitchens to crackle out an answer from my cell phone. This imagined scenario just didn’t play. It just seemed like a titanic impossibility, like such a scene would be an offense against god and nature, and the universe itself would have to reach out a hand to stop such an atrocity from occurring.

All my New Atheism didn’t prevent me from praying for divine intervention on my behalf. And shortly thereafter, the miraculous did indeed occur. I got another message from the editor, saying that due to an unexpected conflict in his schedule, Christopher Hitchens had called to cancel the interview and it was not clear he would reschedule.

Never have I been so relieved to see a brush with greatness pass me by. Who knew that missing an opportunity could feel so good?

I don’t think that Hitchens’ withdrawal from the interview had to do with his health, which had started to decline at that point but was still relatively stable. I suspect – and hope – it was more a matter of having other and better things to do. For whatever reason, though, the interview never took place.

Since my initial relief wore off, I have had very mixed feelings about this episode. On the one hand, I can’t really imagine that interview would have gone well, no matter how I slice it. On the other hand, it was pretty clearly a once in a lifetime proposition. The fact that it didn’t take place has, if nothing else, the unnerving finality of all truly lost opportunities, and Hitchens’ untimely passing in the years since has made that loss all the more absolute.

The Hitchens interview episode taught me something, however, that I have tried to remind myself of since then, whenever I have been faced with a missed opportunity, or a serious let-down. It taught me something about the perils of putting all my eggs in one basket, vocationally speaking. Up until that moment, I had invested all of my self-esteem, all of my hopes, and all of my ambition into a single life goal—that of becoming a freelance writer. Since then, I have become more flexible about exactly what form my future would take. It has become easier for me, when I experience a career disappointment, to feel that in some ways this was a positive development – one that had opened the space for me to pursue other projects.

For a while, I assumed this change in me was a bad thing—a sign of some loss of nerve, or deadening of the will. I tried to convince myself to pick just one thing again and pour myself into it utterly.

Throughout the next year of college, I went through a series of what might be referred to as “phases.” These may be illustrated by my ever-shifting choice of major, from philosophy to anthropology to history. Each one I hoped would become an all-consuming passion. If you had told me that it was actually okay, and, maybe even a good thing, not to have a single overriding obsession dominate one’s life, I wouldn’t have believed you. I was sure that the key to happiness was in finding that one thing again.

Yet, time went on, and I didn’t find it. What would happen instead is that I would put my name in for a particular opportunity. A job application, say, an interview, a particular graduate program. And then, as soon as I had done so, I would psychologically split in two. One part of me – the more conscious and awake part – would be leaning forward eagerly and saying “I want it I want it I want it.” That part of me was still familiar from my freelance days. The second part, though, was often open to the possibility that it wouldn’t work out, maybe even hoping it wouldn’t. It was sort of like there was a row of different Joshes, all standing back stage at a play. Only one of these versions of myself at a time would get a chance to come out into the spotlight, and he would relish it when he was out there, to be sure, and be upset when he had to leave. But all the while, the other Joshes could hardly wait to have a chance to take his place.

Maybe all of this is just a part of that thing called growing up. It’s a portion of the adjustment we come to make to the inevitable uncertainties of life, where our best laid plans may go awry, and – by the same token – some of the best things that happen to us arrive in the least expected forms.

I didn’t see it that way, though. I was convinced that this change in me had to be kept a secret—that it could only be a sign of weakness in a world where the victory so often seemed to go to the focused, the prodigious, the pre-medical majors. I was convinced that everyone else in the world knew what they were doing, and I was the only one to have missed the roll-call.

Then, a couple weeks ago, John handed me a list of basic advice for ministers that had been written by Kenn Hurto, the executive for the UUA’s Southern Region. One of the items on the list particularly caught my eye. It read, simply: “Keep your bags packed.” While this might not sound at first blush like the most encouraging message I could receive from my supervisor, it actually spoke to me immediately – seeming to validate an attitude that I had grown ashamed of, but that may have actually served as an emotional support in the face of life’s vicissitudes.

As I understood it, the “Keep Your Bags Packed” advice was more than just a salty reminder to the effect that — look, kid, things don’t always work out. It may have been that, but it is also a way of saying that leading a full life inevitably involves taking risks – risks like sending in unsolicited manuscripts to online journals who may ask you afterwards to interview famously difficult public personalities. And one will only be able to take on those risks if one has differentiated oneself enough from a particular professional role to be willing to accept the possibility of failure. As Rev. Hurto glosses the advice in further detail: “Keep your bags packed” means, in effect: “Do not place your survival in the hands of others or your job. You can’t be free to be your Self (i.e., to take stands that other’s may not like) if you emotionally need your job or role.”

So, wait a minute, I thought – keeping my bags packed was sort of like what I had been doing all along, with the whole multiple Joshes waiting backstage thing. And here I am being told that all that was not only okay, it was positively desirable!

I quickly became a missionary for the new faith of keeping one’s bags packed. A few days ago, I was talking to a friend from div school who had just started work in a new setting and was trying to find his place. For a while, he was calling me practically every day in order to agonize in excruciating detail over some minor interaction he had had with another person at the organization. “I said this. And I thought it was okay. But then I thought maybe so-and-so would take it this way, and then I was worried that,” etc. I listened to this for a while. And then, with all the ardor of the new convert, I gave him four words of advice: “Keep your bags packed,” I said.

A silence followed. The words seemed to have the same talismanic effect on him that they had on me. “Wait,” he said, only half-kidding, “So you’re saying I don’t have to obsess about every minor detail?” “Nope!” I said, and then came the real kicker – “In fact, not obsessing about the minor details can actually help you do better!” “Woah,” he said. “I know!” I said “Isn’t this great!”

At this point, my advice to my friend began overlapping with my own internal pep talk, as it sometimes does, and which is probably kind of annoying. “It’s sort of like Mary Poppins,” I went on to my friend. I don’t know where this analogy had come from, but it suddenly seemed to make all the sense in the world. “Think about it!” I said. “She’s the perfect minister. She’s the consummate professional of any kind, in fact. She literally keeps her bags packed. And at the end, when it’s time to go, she just opens her umbrella and floats away!”

“Oh right,” said my friend, “and actually, that makes her more effective at her job. She helps the family she stays with but they don’t become dependent on her.”

“Yes! See!” I said, “It all fits! She has a healthy sense of boundaries. She doesn’t become the surrogate parent to the family, she just directs the kids and their mother and father back to the love their already have for each other, so they ultimately find the keys to what they’re looking for in themselves, not in her, and that why she’s able to leave at the end and they’re able to let her go.”

My friend mulled this over for a minute. “I guess,” he said, “ that Fraulein Maria from The Sound of Music would be the example of what not to do.”

“Oh, you mean because she marries the father and tries to take the place of the impossibly idealized deceased birth parent.”

“Exactly,” said my friend, “We should write an article about this.”

“Okay,” I said, “but first I think I’ll use it in my next sermon. I just have to find a way to work it in somehow.”

It has to be said though, that, like most advice, the “keep your bags packed” adage is easier said than done. I still find that I encounter some disappointments that are so keen, I have a hard time getting in touch with whatever subconscious version of myself has been queuing in the wings waiting to take the place of the part of me that’s upset—if such a version exists. And this is not even to mention the losses that take place in our lives that really are irretrievable. In truth, not every grief can be transformed into an opportunity, and not every injustice can be reasoned away with a change of perspective.

Nor does any amount of packing my bags seem to preserve me from the curse of self-doubt. We can tell ourselves over and over to just accept the things we cannot change, as the “Serenity Prayer” advises. But that will not save us from fretting over the things that we fear we maybe could change, or might have been able to change if we had done things differently. I think about opportunities that I turned down because there was something else I’d rather be doing, or because I was too afraid at the time to see where they might have led. I can’t help but wonder – did I make a mistake?

I remember at some point in college I was ranting to my Dad about all this, and, as sometimes happens with parents, I kept becoming more irritated the more he expressed his sympathy and understanding. “You don’t get it!” I said. I accused him of doing everything perfectly. He seemed to have known exactly what he was doing with his life from the age of 18 and had never made a false step since then. I then extended this indictment to my Mom and to all adults. They had all had it easy, I was convinced, anyone over forty-five. They did not realize that society had collapsed at exactly the moment I graduated from high school.

I went on in this vein until I had thoroughly exhausted it. Then my Dad reminded me of a few things that I had sort of known already. He told me he had no intention of going into the corporate world when he was in college. Originally he wanted to be a minister. When he enrolled in business school, it was with the thought of becoming a hospital administrator. He said he took his first job in management at Frito Lay as a kind of temporary learning experience— maybe for a year or two.

18 years later, he did finally go back to seminary. Aha! I thought, So there was a master plan all along! But no. My Dad said it wasn’t that he had it all planned out. It was that he had a couple different ideas going of what he wanted to do. And when things started going less well in his corporate career, he invested in his original idea. In other words, he had kept his bags packed. As soon as one version of himself had completed his turn on stage, there was another one aching for a chance to grab the spotlight.

And once again, the movie that came to mind for me was Mary Poppins! You may recall that at the end of the film, George, the father, is dismissed from his job at the bank. While initially this threatens to be a tragic conclusion to the film, it actually opens the way for the central family to spend time together they never had before, by going to fly a kit, for example. Mary Poppins, herself, then, is not the only character in the film to do a good job of keeping her bags packed. The whole story is a reminder that it is important for each of us to preserve multiple facets of our identity. It tells us that we sacrifice important aspects of ourselves and the relationships that matter in our lives when we invest our entire self-image in a single job or ambition.

If the faith of keeping one’s bags packed has a scripture, therefore, I find its most inspired testament in the Gospel of Mary Poppins. And that, in turn, must male “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” it’s greatest hymn. Please join me in singing it together.