A few weeks ago some friends and I were reminiscing about the most notorious sermon I'd ever preached at our church. The outcry was so great that the elders had an intervention with me, asking me to take a "time out" from preaching until the furor died down.
So what did I say?
I used a urinal illustration. Well, to be fair it was bit more than that. It was a peeing in the urinal illustration.
I was trying to make a point about attention and care.
I'd started with David Foster Wallace's commencement address at Kenyon College (an adaptation of the speech can be found here from the WSJ and there is a book of Foster's address called This is Water). In this speech Foster talks about our "default setting" which is selfish self-absorption. This leads to us being unkind and uncharitable to those around us. To fight against this self-absorption Foster recommends paying attention. Here is Foster meditating on how paying attention might apply to a slice of modern life: the frustrations of food shopping in an crowded supermarket at the end of an exhausting day:
The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid g-d- people...Caring is all about paying attention, simple awareness.
Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do -- except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn't have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities...
But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars -- compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things...
It is about simple awareness -- awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us...
So I was wanting to give another memorable example of this, how paying attention leads to care. So I offered up the Amsterdam urinals.
If you've ever been in a men's restroom you know that men tend to be pretty careless when it comes to aiming properly at a urinal or toilet. This lack of care and attention is exacerbated in public toilets where you don't have to clean up your own mess. Consequently, many public bathrooms are filthy.
Well, a few years back the authorities at the Amsterdam airport had a wonderful idea for this problem. They etched a small fly in each urinal (see example pictured above). The presence of this fly focuses the attention and men just naturally aim at it. In studies done by the airport the fly urinal reduced spillage by 80%.
I thought this was a great example of how paying more attention can lead to care. In my opinion it might be one of the greatest sermon illustrations of all time.
Sadly, in a classic case of moral dumbfounding (see Chapter 4 of Unclean), many in my congregation didn't agree.
And so I sat in time out. Ah, the joys of Christian community.