A Man Needs a Good Map
(This is a modified manuscript of the talk I gave at Agape this Sunday. Agape is currently doing a series with several speaker looking for spiritual meaning in movies. These are basically my personal notes, so they don’t include everything I said — plus I gesture a lot when I speak in front of a group — but if you just imagine me saying these things directly to you from behind a pulpit it might be more interesting.)
Well, the movie we’re looking for spiritual messages in today is Secondhand Lions — who’s seen the movie? It’s from 2003 and it stars Robert Duvall, Michael Caine and Haley Jo Osmett. And this one is actually so full of meaning that a person doesn’t have to look to hard to discern the spiritual bits within. They jump right out. They’re in the dialogue even.
So there’s a lot to this flick. A lot of messages about love and family and manhood. But today I’ve decided to concentrate on the idea that a man needs a good map.
So what is a map? Maps are basically ideas about a place, path or destination that are left behind for us by people who were there before us. When do you need a map? (Congregation answers: When you’re lost) That’s true, but it also occurs to me that a map isn’t particularly useful if you don’t have a destination — if you aren’t on a path. Maps are for a person who is purposely on a journey.
But we’re all on a journey, aren’t we? Isn’t life a journey? So, don’t we all need a map?
Anyway, keep that in mind and we’ll get to the movie. the movie starts out with an antsy, distrustful young man named Walter and his mother, Mae — who we figure out pretty quickly can’t really be trusted. And it comes out pretty early in the flick that Walter’s father has died.
Well, his mother has decided to drop him off with his great-uncles for the summer while she runs off to court-reporting school in Ft. Worth. Only, she seems to have an ulterior motive as well. There is a rumor that these uncles have a fortune stashed away and she urges Walter to find it.
When we meet the uncles it’s pretty clear that they are unusual — they are fishing in the pond behind their house — with shotguns. And Walter obviously doesn’t want to stay. The poor guy even hears a conversation between his mom and his uncles about how they don’t want him.
“We can’t have some sissy-boy hanging around all summer,” one of the uncles says. But, she convinces them and even implies that it will be good for Walter to be around some men — that he may even learn something.
Yet, we get the sense as she is leaving that she cares about the money more than she seems to care about Walter. She doesn’t say much about him taking care of himself she says something to the effect of “make sure to find that money.”
So, the boy is left with his two grumpy uncles. He doesn’t say much at first — and neither do they. It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t feel very good about what’s going on, he doesn’t feel comfortable with his uncles and he obviously doesn’t trust his mom.
Well, Walter and his uncles spend the rest of the day sitting on the front porch (because there is no TV and no telephone) scaring off traveling salesmen with their shotguns as Walter watches in terror. That first night, after heading to bed, Walter sees his uncle Hub out at the lake by the house sleep walking — and he seems to be looking for something.
The next day, the main item on the agenda is gardening.
“We’re retired. Gardening is what retire people do,” Garth says.
Some other family members show up while the guys are gardening — they are obviously there to try to convince the uncles to leave the money to them and they resent Walter staying there. Walter again overhears a conversation, this time suggesting the uncles take Walter to the orphanage. At that, Walter runs off to town and calls the court-reporting school his mom is supposedly at.
When the uncles find Walter he is obviously distraught and it looks like he’s been crying. He has torn a map out of the phone book. It’s a map with the area codes on it.
His uncle Garth talks to him first, “Planning your next move?” he asks. Walter shakes his head. “Where you figure on going?”
“Area code 406 — Montana,” Walter says.
“How come you aren’t heading to Ft. Worth where your momma is.”
“She’s not there. She lied. Again.”
That‘s when the other uncle chimes in — “Good luck in Montana kid,” Hub says.
But Garth is already feeling protective of this little boy and in an effort to urge him home he says “We got better maps than that one at the house.”
“Yeah,” Hub says, “A man needs a good map, that’s for sure.”
So me, I’m not an avid traveler. I haven‘t even made it east of the Mississippi River yet. But I have always loved maps. I’m pretty good with them in fact. If you give me a map I can usually find my way — as long as the map has my current location and my destination on it.
The thing is, like I said before, for a map to work, you kind of have to be going somewhere, or at least know where you are. For example, if I’m in South Dakota a map of New Mexico isn’t going to do me much good. Even if I want to be in New Mexico or I love New Mexico. You have to know where you are and where you’re going.
Anyway, the day after Walter comes back from the bus stop they’re all sitting on the porch again when another traveling sales man comes up. He’s a salesman whose been there before. He throws up a white flag and Walter urges them to see what he’s selling.
“What the hell for?” One of the uncles asks.
“What’s the good of having all the money if you’re never gonna spend it.”
It‘s a simple question, but it‘s like a revelation to the uncles. And it hints at the idea that Walter may have something to teach his uncles.
That night Walter sees Hub out sleep-walking again and starts to try to wake him when uncle Garth shows up and stops him.
Walter asks what’s wrong with Hub and Garth says, “A man’s body may grow old, but inside his spirit can still be as young and restless as ever.”
After a bit of urging from Walter, Garth starts to tell the kid where they have been for the past 40 years. What is really sweet about this scene is that it’s pretty clear that Garth wants to tell the stories, but he doesn’t think Walter cares and he’s surprised when Walter asks to hear about them.
According to Garth’s stories these old men have lived big lives full of adventure — mostly in Africa — and I assume they have plenty of maps of Africa. If not paper ones, they certainly have them in their heads. But maybe they’re grumpy because they don’t have any maps of Texas.
While Garth is talking to Walter he lights up and that moment is when it becomes clear to the watcher that all three of these men might be good for one another. They might even have new maps for one another.
Then we get a movie montage. The sales men come back and the fellas start buying. They buy a bunch of seeds and plant a garden. Because that’s what retired people do. They even buy gardening clothes. “We’re gardeners, this is what gardeners wear.”
But one of their most extravagant purchases has yet to come. After a bit of gardening for the day their lion shows up! They had planned to have a lion hunt, but the lion isn’t really up for it. It’s old and a little sick. So they let Walter keep the lion as a pet.
As they are talking about the lion being sick it occurs to me that uncles are really sort of talking about themselves. They are the real second-hand lions in the movie. And now Walter has a pet — maybe three of them.
A few weeks later, as a result of lifting a lot of Purina lion chow, Hub gets over exerted and while they are in the hospital waiting for him, Walter learns another theory about how his uncles came by all their money from a local woman. There are a couple of theories swirling around now and Walter quite doesn’t know what to believe. But he wants to believe the stories about Africa.
After the trip to the hospital Hub takes them to eat at a local eatery because he doesn’t want to go home. At lunch we find out a bit more about why Hub is so cranky.
Garth tells him to start acting his age, and then asks him what is wrong.
“All your life you’ve never been frightened of anything, what’s eating at you know?” Garth asks. “Growing old, dying? (Hub shakes his head no.) If not that, then what is it?”
“Being useless,” Hub replies. “When we were young there was always a reason — a point — so now what do we do, we garden. We out-lived our time brother.”
Poor Hub is still looking at those maps of Africa, even though he’s in Texas now. I think his map might even be too small. It’s a warriors map, to be sure. Strategic, statistical, full of fight and fire…but he can’t imagine himself being useful for anything beyond what he’s been useful for in the past. It’s like me using a map of SD when life could really be as big as the entire world.
And his could too. He’s still alive, after all, so there must be a reason for it.
Anyway, after his confession of feeling useless Hub gets into a fight with four teenagers — and wins!
The teens are pretty beaten up so Hub, Garth and Walter take them back to their place to fix ‘em up a bit and then they feed them. After dinner, while Walter and Garth are watching from a distance Hub is talking to the teens.
“What’s he telling them?“ Walter asks.
“Oh, probably his ‘what every boy needs to know about being a man’ speech.”
“Will he give me that speech?”
“Most definitely — if he’s still around,” Garth says.
That obviously gets Walter thinking. And Garth actually tells Walter that if he wants to know more about Africa he’s going to have to ask Hub.
The problem is, Hub isn’t just talking about dying anymore — he’s starting to do things that can directly contribute to that result. He gets to the point that he’s bought an airplane and has his mind set on flying it even though he doesn’t trust them to do anything but fall out of the sky — basically inventing an elaborate (maybe even heroic) death for himself.
Garth lets Walter know that he may need to hurry if he wants to learn more about Africa — if he wants to hear that speech.
And, it’s pretty clear to those watching the movie that Walter needs top hear that speech. Now I don’t want to suggest that others should tell us what to do or how to be a man/woman, etc. But some teachers, great teachers, can manage to hand you a map and let you decide which direction to go. I think that’s what the speech would be for Walter.
So, Walter follows uncle Hub out into the night while he’s sleep-walking and wakes him up. Then he demands to know if the stories about Africa are true or not because he needs to know what to believe. And Hub responds in a surprising way, by giving him a part of the ‘what every boy needs to know about being a man” speech:
“Doesn’t matter — if you wanna believe in something then believe in it. Just because something isn’t true doesn’t me you can’t believe in it…Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love… true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.”
That’s when Walter gives Hub a huge gift — a new map. A new purpose. He makes him promise to stick around to give the rest of the speech.
“You‘re my uncle, I need you to stick around and be my uncle.” Hub must have realized that moment that he‘s not so useless after all because he agrees. “Alright, I’ll stick around and be your damn uncle, but don’t expect me to be happy about it.”
Then we get another movie montage letting us know that things are good. Walter even finds where they have the money hidden. But then, his mom comes back. She tells him that his uncles were bank robbers and that they even killed people.
Obviously inspired by his uncle, Walter decides to believe that the stories about Africa are true and doesn’t tell his mom (and her new nasty boyfriend who has come along with her) where the money is.
The next day Walter is forced to bury his pet lion — that actually attacked his mom’s awful new boyfriend — and he has to leave with his mom. They have barely driven from the uncles’ place when Walter realizes that his mom is going to marry this awful man and he’s inspired to start drawing his own map — and to quit looking for himself on his mother‘s map.
“You always think a new boyfriend fixes every thing, but you always pick losers and he’s the worst one. Do something for me — for once.”
So Walter gets to stay with his uncles.
So, a man needs a good map — especially if he has a journey to make. And don’t we all have a journey to make? The truth is, you gotta know where you are and you gotta know where you’re going…and for Walter, he needed to know where to come home to — where home really was.
So, as I said, I think the problem the uncles had is that their map is still of Africa — even though they’re back in Texas. Walter’s problem is that he’s stuck on his momma’s map. But by the end of the movie, Walter has given his uncles a new map and his uncles get to show him the maps they’ve drawn and they all end up drawing new ones together.
So, how about you? Is your map of Africa? That’s not going to do you much good if you live in Texas. Or, are you trying to find yourself on someone else’s map? Your mother’s map maybe? Or the one your father gave you that’s full of locations that are nowhere near where you live?
For me, until recently, my spiritual map was Christianity — and it wasn’t really getting me anywhere. I wasn’t on that map anymore.
Maps are basically ideas about a place, path or destination that are left behind for us by people who were there before us. They meticulously drew out their paths so that we might be able to find our way — should we decide to travel in the direction they went.
It occurs to me that a lot of our culture — the mores, the traditions and the ideas about career and family (even the books movies and entertainment) that are prevalent are just maps. Ideas about ways to live that have been left behind by the people who went there before we did.
A year ago I wasn’t on the map that I was holding on to — the Bible, Christianity. No, I wasn’t there anymore. I was in unknown territory — I had no maps of the place I was currently in and I was still holding on to that old map looking at it, trying to find my way. Kind of like Hub and Garth, who still had their maps of Africa in front of them even though they had come back to Texas.
Or, honestly, I was kind of like Walter too — I didn’t really have a map of my own. I was on my mother’s map. Christianity was hers. And it is still mine in a way. But I’ve seen other maps since then and I’m obviously in that territory. (Eat, Pray, Love for example.)
Sometimes you have to draw your own map — but in order to do that you have to know where you are and you have to know which way is north. Or as I say, which way is up.