Attention, Care and the Greatest Sermon Illustration of All Time

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...

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...
Caring is all about paying attention, simple awareness.

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.

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38 thoughts on “Attention, Care and the Greatest Sermon Illustration of All Time”

  1. I've been all over Europe peeing on flies, so they're not just in Amsterdam. They might have originated there, but they've spread all over. 

    And yes, the joys on Christian community, indeed!

  2. Brilliant. The fact you were put into time-out is even more telling, and it never ceases to amaze me as to what will incite furor in small minded people: a break down in Bengahzi inflames kindling thought, while the forest of the Iraqi war- a war begotten of Neo-con fantasies- remains dark and un-explored....

  3. I'm now wondering about this in the context of Heaven, which is thought to be a place of perfection:

    1. Would peeing not even exist? (This would imply that metabolism is no longer a basis of aliveness.)

    2. There could be a state of perfection in a man's body that can't help but aim regardless of one's attention.

    3. Men in a perfect state of self esteem could take to sitting as the ladies do.

    4. Men have the freedom we have here, but there, under more adult supervision men wipe up their messes.

    5. Upon arrival, men see flies printed on urinal bottoms, however, the idea is improved on by imprinting fireflies that glow under a   stream. The women, who then feel a bit of envy seek to design and invent urinating effects for their own situation- not for basic sanitary need, but for the fun of it...and they can if they want!

  4. Yes, a fine illustration.  I read about this airport innovation one Saturday several months ago in a British newspaper.  After thinking what a brilliant idea, I wondered about the focus groups and the time spent on deciding on a fly, and whether any other images were considered, perhaps even tested, a spider perhaps, or a burning cigarette, or in Europe (say at Charles de Gaulle Airport), a picture of Uncle Sam.

    I also thought of the number of airport cleaners laid off because of this new labour-saving device (the entrepreneurs profit, the workers get screwed).

    Finally, coincidentally, preaching yesterday on (the Feast of) Christ the King, I mused on what a different understanding of "glory" Jesus has from gloria mundi.  I said: "Suppose you go into a public loo while a cleaner is cleaning the sink, the urinals, the toilet.  Do you think: 'What a glorious sight?'"  Of course not.  But now cut to a basin filled with filthy water, filthy because it has just been used to wash the feet of a dozen men.  Here is disclosed gloria Christi.  And Monsignor Quixote, Grahame Greene's eponymous hero -- he presided at the sacrament of penace in a public lavatory.  When questioned by his sidekick, the dumfounded Sancho - "In a lavatory?" - Father Quixote replies, "In a lavatory, in a prison, in a church.  What's the difference?"

    After the service, no one told to take a break from preaching (my folk are pretty used to my homiletical shock tactics, surrealistic images, and bad-taste jokes).  However a woman who is a cleaner at a local hospital said, "Thanks.  I shall look at the work I do in a new light."


  5. Probably the most controversial thing I've said in a sermon was this quote from a friend (which was a part of an advent liturgy I wrote): 

    "Me, I don't have any kids.  Well, I had one kid but my old man beat that out of me when I started showing.  Not because he was pissed that I had been sleeping around--he already knew I was sleeping around because he was pimping me out to his friends for beer money.  He had been doing that since I was seven years old, so long before my friends go their periods I already knew the secret of being a woman and I already knew that it involved bleeding.  I wonder if Mary bled when God knocked her up.  I know she bled in that stable when she was giving birth to Jesus.  Bled like I bled.  Screamed and cried and shat herself.  Just like I did.  Don't see that much on the Christmas cards."

    Very mixed response to that liturgy (which can be found in full here: ).

  6. A church we used to be part of had an annual Thanksgiving service with a neighboring Jewish congregation. One year we were hosting and the visiting Rabbi mentioned a sign he had observed in our men's room, posted right over the urinal -- something to the effect that it's good to be a Christian on the outside, better to be one on the inside.  He got a huge laugh, and no time out, but then again he was a guest! 

  7. I bet. I love in her words the provocative blend of Incarnational theology and theodicy that really gets you thinking about what it might mean that "God came near." How near? That near.

  8. That's wonderful. And just so you know, getting to experience a Kim Fabricius sermon is on my bucket list. I've been following you for years over on Ben's blog.

  9. Mike,

    No tinkling in Heaven because there is no beer (according to the old German drinking song--that's why we drink it here).


    George Cooper 

  10. Reading about your urinal illustration and your church communities response to it reminded me of one of my favourite Einstein quotes - " Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds"

  11. This post is 2 for the price of one. A hilarious story and a guilt (I mean thought) provoking quote. Absolutely love both!

  12. Richard,

    I've heard of the fly in the ointment but you are simply the Middle school class clown.  

    Many church folk really have a latent Platonic allegiance as far as associating urinary and colonic activities with Jesus and divinity.  I generally preach to Veterans at the VA Chapel service each Sunday.  All of them are familiar with earthy and bawdy language.  Boundaries of "good taste" can be more easily pushed.  Several years ago, my wife mentioned she had seen Dr. OZ on an Oprah telecast where he noted that the average human passes gas fourteen times a day.   I was teaching from Hebrews and speaking of Jesus' humanity.  I quoted Dr. Oz and then asked if Jesus was more or less your average person.  The Vets responded raucously.  One stated after the laughter died down: "Hey, Chaplain, can you imagine what would happen if Jesus had let go with a supernatural one after eating lamb and lentils?"  More laughter.  Similarly, I once visited a tough combat Marine vet Jim who wanted a chaplain to counsel him regarding an Advance Directive.  After finishing our conversation, the Marine's roommate asked for me to come and offer a prayer for him.  I walked to his bed and spoke with him.  He told me that he had come back from Vietnam and had become a Holy Ghost-filled Christian.  I asked him what was ailing him.  "I have big-time colon issues from an old gut wound and had surgery a couple of days ago.  I ate for the first time today--some broth.  I want you to pray that the Holy Ghost heal me so I can eat some solid food."  I touched his shoulder and began my praying--at which point he passed an enormous amount of gas with thunder added.   His Marine roommate yelled: "Hey, Jack.  Was that the Holy Ghost?"  At which point Jack cursed his roommate, groaned, and then laughed.  I tried to begin the prayer again but could not from laughter.  I returned the next day to pray with both.  Maybe the Holy Ghost did our attention.

    Joy, indeed, and without your particular kind of respectable Church irony. 


    George Cooper

    P.S. Jesus was once a middle schooler in the temple.  May we all be as aware.  

  13. That is about the best paragraph I've read in a long time, Dan.  I went to the link and read the whole liturgy.  Great stuff.  Added to my bookmarks.  

  14. just to clarify - by illustrating do you mean you actually demonstrated or did you just talk about it?  the former might actually qualify for an intervention

  15. It's ironic how the church folks' reaction is actually all about them acting on your challenge. You caught their attention by expounding on the finesse required to guide an interrupted stream of piss without spillage, which caused them to care, and raise a fuss. Because, all most church folk care about is not being shaken from the meditative half-slumber that is attending mass; Putting in their time and weekly penance, so they could later chat with their friends without having to go through the hassle of inviting them to dinner.

  16. Did you know that Martin Luther, after an excruciating bout of kidney stones finally worked its way through, wrote a hymn in praise of God for giving us the ability to pee?

  17. I am very careful about being neat in the restroom, fly or no fly, because I am loath to leave a mess for someone else to suffer from. So I have precious little sympathy for all the devil-may-care pigs that leave a mess, without the slightest concern for others. Assh-s.

    Oh wait, I'm doing it again... ;P

  18. You're so f***ing dead on.

    If religion is about becoming more Godly in a way that is substantial, the reality of church life is an epic failure. The teachings of Christianity are wonderful, but the workers are few indeed. Joe Christian is no more compassionate than anyone else, not statistically speaking.

  19. No doubt, the focus on "salvation through belief" has led to a Christianity in which the average Christian is nothing too special. No matter how you cut it, if you don't emphasize holy works, you get conservative, complacent people that hate to be reminded of how little they actually care about others.

  20. Your first question reminds me of my youngest son's question when he had his first solid success on the potty.  He asked anxiously, "Will I have to do this for the rest of my life?"  After he received an affirmative answer, he asked hopefully,"But not in heaven?" 

  21. I was in the graduating class at DFW's commencement speech at Kenyon - and I still listen to it about once a month (it's available on iTunes). Capital-T Truth.

  22. It is indeed a fascinating illustration.

    In design circles, we often talk about things like this - how do encourage users to do the things that we want to do, how do we avoid being manipulative through such encouragement, etc.

    One of the things that pops up often alongside the urinal fly is a Swedish subway station that wanted to encourage more people to use the staircase than the escalator, so they made a staircase with steps that looked like piano keys and made piano noises. Massive numbers of people took the stairs because it was more fun, but they also got the exercise (video at The Fun Theory are folks who make these videos.

  23. You bad boy you.  I cannot believe.  I hope they put your nose right in the corner of the walls when they gave you time out.  Shame!

    Actually, it is one of the best ideas I have ever seen or heard of.  I know what I'm gonna do when I get home.  You see . . . I have a little pisser at home who needs some target practice.  Not me silly.  I said little.

     Imagine the savings in paper towels and the trees saved from having less uring to wipe off of the comodes and floors in every home across America.  Imagine the water saved from the reduction in washing urine soaked wash cloths and towels.  Imagine the time saved.  Imagine the clean toilet lids, glistening . . . without urine stains (imagine the smiles on our wives faces when they slide off of the comode seat because it was so clean!).   And less soap flushed into our water systems. 

    Oh my goodness, this shouldn't have been a cause for complaints within your church.  This should have caused everyone who cleans bathrooms to stand up and shout for joy!  And by the way, I visit your church and its men's rooms regularly.  They could use a fly too.

  24. Richard and all;  I've posted another attention getting pic at my blog....

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