Monday, May 19, 2014

Sticks and stones

We have come to that time of the year when people share and post speeches and quotes and memorable quips that they’ve heard and read. Whether it’s the sage advice dispensed in commencement addresses, the admonition pronounced in baccalaureate sermons, the tokens of wisdom inscribed in yearbook covers, or the speeches given by valedictorians that are imbued with equal amounts of nostalgia and hope, it seems that the end of the academic year offers plenty of opportunities for people to offer or listen to words...words that have the power to inspire and form imagination and shape lives. I even ran across a website today that claims to have sorted through hundreds of commencement addresses given at universities and colleges over the past century or so and sifted from them the pithiest one-liner nuggets. It is interesting to me that in this age of the digital, CGI-enhanced screen we still choose to punctuate major life events with someone standing up at a podium and talking.
Words are my stock and trade. By virtue of what I do for a living, I find myself delivering sermons, writing personal notes, and teaching classes on a very regular basis. I do a lot of talking and writing. Despite all the effort and time I throw into those things, however, sometimes the most important (or most damaging) words I ever offer are the terse expressions of sympathy in the midst of a crisis or the off-hand remark I make in passing after worship. Whatever the scenario, in the back of my mind rings the wisdom of a theology professor who taught us to pay very close attention to the particular words we use, especially in the study of theology, because ultimately that practice is a reflection of how we pay attention to the Word of God that is to form our lives.
All this, and yet I often get cynical about how much famous quotes and memorable lines really matter. Words, after all, aren’t everything. Actions matter greatly. Fancy rhetoric can only mask inauthenticity for so long. And people who quote things all the time get annoying. Besides, I'm keenly aware that a great many words—including a heaping helping of my own—are just meaningless bluster meant more for the pride of the speaker and his or her need to be remembered than they are for the edification of the listener. Furthermore, placing so much weight on eloquent turns of phrase can diminish the contributions of those who may not be as articulate or those who are never really given a chance to speak.
Nevertheless, all this talk about speeches and the imparting of wisdom has caused me to reflect on the fact that certain phrases and quotes have been very influential in my own life. I can’t deny it. There have been a few choice passages that I’ve come across, often at critical points in my life, that have had a profound influence on my well-being, my identity, and my ability to move ahead. I have been reflecting on these quotes and passages lately and thought I’d offer them here. This is not meant (I hope) to imply any narcissism or self-divulging on my part, as if my navel-gazing has produced wisdom of which others should be in awe, but rather just a way of taking honest stock of certain words that I’ve heard or read that have, like it or not, stuck with me for a long time.
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” (accredited to Eleanor Roosevelt) This alone got me through large portions of high school.
“Live in the moment.” (Ward Williams, a guy in my high school orchestra and drama club who graduated two years ahead of me) He actually directed this quote to me, and it helped me realize that I was spending too much time resume-building in those days.
“Deal with it!” (Mr. Huie, Middle School teacher and drama director) Mr. Huie would shout this to us while we were in the middle of a class presentation or play practice whenever we would start to focus on something that was going wrong or were beginning to complain—rather than making do and getting on with things.
“I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you…we are in charge of our attitudes.” (Charles Swindoll) This, along with a larger portion of the whole passage, was printed inside of the manual for the first job I ever had. I didn’t realize it until now, but it’s basically a longer riff on Mr. Huie’s wisdom above.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away. Behold, everything has become new.” (the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17) This was the verse I chose for my confirmation. I can’t even remember where I found it. Maybe off a page of ‘inspiring Bible verses’? I doubt I was tuned in enough in 9th grade to have heard it in a sermon or read it on my own. Regardless of where I got it, I’m glad I did. The grace of Christ always makes things new. Over and over. Second chances abound. It’s amazing.

(no mediocrity)
(Emmett Wicker) More of a visual than a quote, this was handwritten on a large piece of posterboard. The speaker used it as his object lesson for our last pep talk before the first batch of campers arrived on my first summer on camp staff. He didn't tell us what the M stood for until he had been talking for a while. It was very effective rhetorical device. It was a great motivator and it has inspired me  at least to aspire to perfectionism in all of the jobs I’ve had (not that I’ve succeeded).
“What you are should speak so loudly that people cannot hear what you say.” (Dr. Martha Roy, in a paraphrase of Ralph Waldo Emerson) Perhaps this is ironic. It’s a quote that downplays quotes themselves. Character is more complex than just what comes out of your mouth. Dr. Roy, the 87-year-old matriarch and organist of my internship congregation in Cairo, embodied this quote, and yet—again, ironically—she may have been the most eloquent person I’ve ever met.
“Thank you, dear Lord, for this good life and forgive us if we do not love it enough.” (Garrison Keillor). This is the final line of one of his stories from fabled Lake Wobegon, State Fair. I listened to Keillor quite a lot growing up, but this one I heard when our English teacher read it to us in class one day. It is not very profound, but for some reason it is my favorite piece of writing of all time.

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