It Seemed Like a Good Idea…

Recently, I stopped at a convenience store and popped into the bathroom. When I went to wash my hands, it was one of those new-fangled combo deals — where the sink and the hand dryer are all built into the same vanity. And there was only one of them in this particular restroom. So, I waited for the guy in front of me to finish washing his hands, and as he dried his, I got started with the water. I was probably in his personal space, but, really, with only one sink, am I supposed to wait until he finishes the whole process before I get going? Anyway, as I washed, the air from the dryer was like a storm in that little sink — blowing the water places it wasn’t supposed to go.

Now, of course, it wasn’t that big of a deal. But it got me to thinking: What else seemed like a good idea when somebody drew it up, but doesn’t work so well in practice?

Well, just in the bathroom, I can think of at least a three more:

  1. Doors that open toward you when you exit. I’ve just washed my hands; why would I want to grab a door handle that’s been handled by hundreds of other people? I mean really, unless space requires it, why would they ever install bathroom doors that you push to enter, and pull to exit?
  2. Shower heads that are too short. This, of course, is a hotel deal. I was never very good in science, but it seems to me to be a basic principle that water always flows downward. So, whether the shower head is mounted four feet up, or eight feet up, it still goes to the same place. Therefore, my vertically-challenged friends can take a shower no matter where the shower head is placed; but we who are north of six feet really appreciate it when the engineers don’t design the water to come out at our navels.
  3. Finally — and this is my biggest pet peeve when it comes to restrooms — automatic anythingWhether it’s automatic toilets that don’t flush, or automatic soap dispensers that don’t dispense, or automatic sinks that don’t produce water, or automatic towel dispensers that don’t give you enough paper (like the one at my son’s work, which one time generously gave me 3/4 inch of paper for each wave of the hand). It used to be that “the wave” was a public sports cheer we all did in sync at the game; now it’s the game we all play at the sink in public restrooms. Is it really too much work for us to flush our own toilets (er, well, bad example, at least in men’s rooms). Is it really too much work to pull out our own paper towels?

And it’s not just restrooms that are full of things that seemed like a good idea. Life has those, too. My life has those, too.

It seemed like a good idea to:

  1. fix the leak myself
  2. eat that extra scoop of ice cream
  3. try to surf off the back of my friend’s boat
  4. watch just one more show on netflix

It also seemed like a good idea to:

  1. skip time in prayer
  2. yell at my kid when I was upset
  3. hold that grudge
  4. scream at that guy on the interstate

In other words, I wish it was just in public restrooms where dumb things happen. Sadly, it’s also in life. In my life.

So, how can I not believe in grace? How can I not cling to it fiercely? For what else makes sense in a world where just about everyday, I can say, But it seemed like a good idea….

What Do Commencement Speeches Tell Us About the Current Zeitgeist?

It’s graduation season. Time to put on a funny square hat, sit in a crowded room, and listen to someone speak words that are intended to send you off into the next phase of life.

It’s graduation season, so it must also be time for commencement speeches. Now, for most of us, graduation presentations are, at best, mildly interesting filler til they’re ready to pass out the diplomas, and at worst, boring bromides that are an anticlimactic way to end four years of homework and hard work.

But they are also something more. In a study of a hundred years of commencement speeches, Markella Rutherford has learned that we can tell a lot about the direction of society, and what society values, by what people say at graduations. In a summary of Rutherford’s research, the writer Chi Luu puts it this way:

Over the last hundred years, as our sense of individualism has grown and prospered, the idea of moral choice and the public understanding of morality has also become highly individualistic. While this can certainly be celebrated for freeing many from the more restrictive social rules of the past, it also seems to have left a kind of modern malaise, an age of anxiety in its wake. To put it simply, without an “objective” moral authority or rigid social structure, how can we be certain we’re doing the right thing?

What a great question! With moral choice becoming more individualized, how do we know what to do? And thus, how do newly-minted graduates know what to do now that they are being unleashed on the world?

To drill down on Rutherford’s research, Luu analyzed 10 specific commencement addresses to see what kinds of words and themes they frequently used. One word commonly used is “Yes.” Two speeches urge saying Yes as often as you can, while another recognizes that Yes will get you in trouble, while others recognize that ‘saying yes’ will lead you to look foolish. But go ahead and do it anyway.

Here’s the thing: Yes is a great word. In fact, it’s at the heart of one of my favorite passages. But for a Yes to be healthy, it has to be partnered with No. That is: we don’t only say Yes, throwing that word around as if it were confetti. We are only able to say Yes to what matters most, because we first turn away from what doesn’t. We are only able to really embrace the life we are called to when we also put up boundaries. We never just say Yes; we also have to learn to say No.

And sometimes that No is hard. Sometimes we say it to our feelings, or to what we desire in the moment. Oftentimes we feel alone in saying No; saying Yes would be so much easier. But a person who can’t say No, doesn’t really know how to say Yes. For both words must be a part of any healthy and whole life.

Or, how about the word “love”? Great word; but even more, it’s an essential practice. Now, certainly, some uses of the word Love are benign, or even good. But in the commencement speeches, there are also quotes like this one: “Make your own hope. Make your own love.”

And this one: “Keep loving what you love.”

Huh? How do I make my own love? Is it a feeling or something I conjure up? And what if what I love is destructive, or divisive, or downright petty? Should I keep loving it?

In comparison to current-day commencements, Chi Luu references a commencement speech from 1923 by a man named R.A. Carter, delivered at Paine College:

Some one has well said: “Everywhere and at all times, the men who have had definite convictions upon the great issues, and have courageously chosen righteousness, are the men who have directed the course of nations.” Also, you must have the ability to go the route morally…. You must not think that you can select the Commandments which you will keep and reject those which you do not like. The moral code of mankind, crystallized into the Ten Commandments by Moses, is the result of the reasoned experience of men who lived ages before Moses. Observation and experience convinced thoughtful men long ages ago that it is harmful to the individual, as well as to the community, to lie, to steal, to kill, and to commit adultery…

Now, I wouldn’t say things the way Mr. Carter does, and my style would certainly be different. But his overall approach, and his underlying assumption that there must be a moral foundation to our choices — well, there’s no denying that.

But commencements like Carter’s are apparently going the way of the condor. In her sampling of 10 recent speeches. you want to guess how many times Luu discover the use of the word “musn’t” in those 10? Zero. Because, I mean, really: Who are YOU to tell ME what I must not do?

The word “must,” however, does appear in the 10 speeches, like in Bradley Whitford’s address, where he says, “You must be your own guide.”

Bradley, I must say: I like you on The West Wing. You’re a very good actor. But I’ve also got to say: your advice undercuts your goal. We already have too many people who are serving as their own guides — leading to a lack of love, a disregard for creation, and the very aimlessness and malaise that is the very issue you are trying to address.

We have plenty of people who are currently saying: Dude, I gotta listen to my inner voice. To which I want to say: Dude, it’s your inner voice, and MY inner voice, that often gets us in trouble. Yes, there are times I need to follow my heart. Yes, there are times I need to do what I love. Yes, I must be an authentic person.

But all of those become aimless aphorisms unless, unless, I have a grounding, a foundation, an understanding of who I am. An understanding that isn’t limited to my own inner guide. For that, I’ve got to know the One who created me; I’ve got to listen to the One who knows me better than I know myself; and I’ve got to find myself in the One who will truly help me commence a life worth graduating into.

Are you … hangry?

Have you seen the Snickers commercials where people aren’t themselves until a buddy gives them a candy bar to eat? One bite, and the person goes from frumpy/strange/inept, back to themselves. Like in this commercial of a guy who, without Snickers, acts like a diva:

Now, I’m not sure how a candy bar with 250 calories, 12 grams of fat, and 27 grams of sugar can transform a person – especially after one bite – but the idea behind it is helpful. It’s often true that how we feel affects how we live.

In his book, The Puzzler’s Dilemma, Derrick Niederman tells of a study sponsored by Ben Gurion University. The study looked at the results of over 1,000 parole board hearings in Israel over a ten-month period. Researchers found that the likelihood a prisoner would receive parole started at 65% each day, and then steadily declined to near zero until the first meal break. After the snack break, the likelihood of parole went right back up to 65%, then declined until lunch. After lunch, the likelihood went back up again to near 65%, but fell rapidly, and then hovering near zero until the end of the day. 61772216char

In other words, our blood sugar does affect how we feel, and how we act.

Which gets me to thinking: How does how we feel affect our spiritual journey? How does how I feel affect the choices I make?

It seems to me that we place a lot of emphasis on how spiritual elements contribute to our spiritual growth. And that makes sense. Spending time in scripture and prayer, regularly worshiping, being honest with others about my struggles, and serving others – all these are important parts of my faith journey.

But what about the physical stuff that we sometimes give hardly a thought to? If, as Ben Gurion U found out, our blood sugar level can subtly affect our thinking and the choices we make, what else can? What other physical elements in your life might be affecting the spiritual choices you make?

Some suggestions:

  • Rest. Is there any doubt that rest, and a good night’s sleep, are vital to giving you the energy and clear head you need to make good choices?
  • Exercise. Not only is physical activity vital to good health, it also has real emotional and spiritual affects, too.
  • Diet. We are what we eat. How many of us give very little thought to what we eat, and how it affects how we feel?
  • Smoking. I live in the state with the 2nd highest rate of smoking. Is this really what we want to be known for, Kentucky?
  • TV Watching, Web Surfing, and Mindless Phone Swiping. As I heard someone say once, “I’ve never had an experience of God watching TV.”
  • Reading. There is no doubt that reading (or listening to a good book) helps expand your mind and your understanding of God’s world.

In short, these are some “non-spiritual” things that, I believe, greatly affect our spiritual lives. I believe they are worth regular assessment – where we ask ourselves: How am I doing in these areas?

Any area you would add to the list? Feel free to comment – while I go get lunch with a friend.