The Better Letter: Sermonizing

Sermonizing can be world-altering

We are a small and hearty lot, “we” being the universe of people who love sermons – addresses designed to communicate how we ought to live our lives, often including exposition, exhortation, and practical application. My mother called it “the message.”

“Pastor gave a good message Sunday night.”

I have heard thousands of sermons in my lifetime. As a kid I heard them Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday evenings. Most were forgettable. Some were excruciating. I recall a seven-part series on death in the midst of vacation season.

On the other hand, a great sermon can be world-altering. The Sermon on the Mount surely was. Its message remains radical as ever.

“You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand — shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”

Other preachers, from John Chrysostom to John Calvin to John Wesley to Billy Graham to Martin Luther King, Jr. have made enormous impacts on peoples’ lives and cultures.

Great preachers use words to transcend the mundane — not just to make important points, but to make them stick. Words can be motivational. They can be great and can inspire greatness. Great preachers needn’t even stick (entirely) to religious themes.

Secular culture hasn’t taken sufficient advantage of the power of sermonizing. The closest (but not the only) example we have in that realm is the commencement address. The basic conceit of the commencement address is for a notable person to offer wisdom, often hard-earned, to a green crop of young minds and their proud families.

My Duke graduations featured speeches by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist William Styron as well as former Watergate Special Prosecutor and “Saturday Night Massacre” victim Archibald Cox. I remember nothing of them.

My college commencement address was offered by the novelist Kurt Vonnegut. I hated it. I spent nearly four decades criticizing Vonnegut for arguing that my generation needed to hate more.  

Years later I read the actual address (described and summarized here), honored as among the best ever, and realized I had gotten it entirely wrong. It turned out to be surprisingly good. 

“As a member of a zippier generation, with sparkle in its eyes and a snap in its stride, let me tell you what kept us as high as kites a lot of the time: hatred. All my life I’ve had people to hate — from Hitler to Nixon, not that those two are at all comparable in their villainy. It is a tragedy, perhaps, that human beings can get so much energy and enthusiasm from hate. If you want to feel ten feet tall and as though you could run a hundred miles without stopping, hate beats pure cocaine any day. Hitler resurrected a beaten, bankrupt, half-starved nation with hatred and nothing more. Imagine that.

[…]

“The members of your graduating class are not sleepy, are not listless, are not apathetic. They are simply performing the experiment of doing without hate. Hate is the missing vitamin or mineral or whatever in their diet, they have sensed correctly that hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide.”

So it goes.

This week’s TBL will consider some of the best commencement addresses – secular sermons – in recent history. May we be motivated and inspired.

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Sermonizing

Earlier this week, the Duke University alumni magazine called for commencement speeches of 50 words or less for the school’s 2021 commencement. I offered the following.

“A great education, like great art, is less about answering our questions than questioning our answers – which is not to say that good answers cannot be discovered. Seek and ye shall find. May your (ever-evolving) answers inspire you and those you influence toward what is true, beautiful, impactful, and kind.”

After I had finished that task, I got to thinking about some of the best commencement speeches I’ve heard and what they mean. 

We all suffer the ongoing delusion that we’re the center of the universe. We focus first and foremost upon ourselves and tend, most often, to focus on everything and everyone else only as they relate to us, both literally and figuratively.

College graduates on graduation day are particularly prone.

David Foster Wallace spoke eloquently, movingly even, about this egocentric delusion in a fantastic commencement address he delivered at Kenyon College in 2005 in a way that just might help to loosen the hold of this delusion on those of us able to hear what he had to say. The speech is delightfully summarized and excerpted in the short film from The Glossary below. Please take the time to watch it in full. Please. The voice you hear is Wallace's.

According to Wallace, if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be miserable a lot of the time. That’s because our natural default setting is that everything is self-centered. And that everybody else is in my way. And it isn’t even a choice (it’s a default setting – Wallace himself was clearly and terribly guilty).

I’ll even take Wallace’s point a step further. If you are automatically sure you know what reality looks like and what is truly important, you will miss out on outrageous opportunities to learn, grow, and be a blessing to others. If we have learned how to think and to pay attention we can know that we have other options. It’s a way to redeem our time. That’s the freedom offered by real education – the option to choose how we’re going to see life with the added bonus that we just might see things a bit more clearly.

Much religious thought is authoritarian – telling us what to believe and how to act. The choosing begins and ends with the chosen observance. Wallace refutes that. Modern scientific thought gets to the same end-point via other means. It claims that we have no opportunity for choosing because of the brute determinism by which cause and effect relentlessly and remorselessly govern not only our lives, but the entire universe. Wallace refutes that too. If and when we choose to live differently, to overcome the defaults which poison our thinking, we can do better and make things better.

For Wallace, “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.…” Scientism doesn’t even allow us the choosing. Make no mistake. Here, as elsewhere, Bob Dylan was right (just like David Foster Wallace).

In Wallace’s words, “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what we worship.”

It is delightfully counterintuitive to think that mere choosing is such a subversive and powerful act. Yet, as with so much of life, all of this is obvious in retrospect but painfully difficult to do even once in a great while. 

U.S. Navy Admiral William H. McRaven, ninth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, delivered a memorable commencement speech offering ten life lessons from basic SEAL training. He gave it at the University of Texas, his alma mater, in 2014. He began, memorably, by telling the graduates: “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” It is well-worth your time.

There are many terrific commencement addresses worthy of your consideration.

The Nobel laureate and physicist Richard Feynman memorably warned Caltech graduates in 1974 that, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

In 2013, author and MacArthur “genius” George Saunders suggested a worthy aspiration: “I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.”

Soviet dissident and Nobel laureate Alexandr Solzhenitsyn spoke at Harvard in 1978: “Truth eludes us if we do not concentrate our attention totally on its pursuit.”

Another Soviet dissident and Nobel laureate, Joseph Brodsky, offered six invaluable pieces of wisdom on good-personhood and the meaning of life at the University of Michigan in 1988. He began thusly: “Life is a game with many rules but no referee. One learns how to play it more by watching it than by consulting any book, including the Holy Book. Small wonder, then, that so many play dirty, that so few win, that so many lose.” He proposed this: “Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed finger is a victim’s logo.”

Author J.K. Rowling riffed on how failure focused her at Harvard in 2008. 

“Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. …[F]ailure means a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself to be anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believe I truly belonged. …[R]ock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life.”

Steve Jobs at Stanford in 2005: “[Y]ou can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So, you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” Also this: “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”

Ann Patchett at Sarah Lawrence in 2006 talked about finding our way forward. 

“Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn’t a bread crumb in sight — there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you’re supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?”

 Jonathan Safran Foer, at Middlebury College in 2013, considered technology’s dehumanizing effects. 

“These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.

“But then a funny thing happened: We began to prefer the diminished substitutes.”

Barbara Kingsolver spoke at Duke in 2008. 

“The arc of history is longer than human vision. It bends. We abolished slavery, we granted universal suffrage. We have done hard things before. And every time it took a terrible fight between people who could not imagine changing the rules, and those who said, ‘We already did. We have made the world new.’ The hardest part will be to convince yourself of the possibilities, and hang on.”

She didn’t avoid weighty matters. Instead, she described the perils of climate change, selfishness, and our increasing isolation from one another. Yet, she ended on a hopeful note. “The ridiculously earnest are known to travel in groups,” she argued. “And they are known to change the world.”

Perhaps the best of all of them wasn’t a commencement address at all.

On September 18, 2007, Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor and alumnus Randy Pausch delivered a one-of-a-kind last lecture that made the world stop and pay attention. He had pancreatic cancer and just weeks to live.

The lecture he gave – “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” – was about the importance of overcoming obstacles, enabling the dreams of others, and seizing every moment (because “time is all you have...and you may find one day that you have less than you think”). It also included whimsical and poignant thoughts about Captain Kirk, zero gravity, and (as the title indicates) achieving childhood dreams. It was a summation of everything Randy had come to believe. 

It wasn’t about dying; it was about living.

Mostly, it is a father’s effort to digest a lifetime of advice for his young children into one talk, a talk that Randy knew he would not be around long enough to deliver in person. “I’m speaking only to them,” he said. “I didn’t set out to tell the world about how to live life.”

As Randy said, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”

Randy’s last lecture became an internet sensation viewed more than 20 million times (so far), an international media story, and a best-selling book that has been published in 35 languages. To this day, people continue to talk about Randy, share his message, and put his life lessons into action in their own lives.

Randy died on July 25, 2008, at the age of 47. His last lecture takes just over an hour and 15 minutes to watch, but its lessons should last a lifetime.

And you could do a lot worse than heeding Ferris Beuller’s advice.

After looking (again) at these speeches, I took another crack at Duke’s 50-word challenge. I came up with a top ten list for living your life. I may flesh these out some day. 

  1. Take charge of your life and ask tough questions. 

  2. Love is the best answer.

  3. Seek and tell the truth.

  4. Take it personally.

  5. Experiment and take some chances.

  6. Take on worthy, big jobs.

  7. You need help.

  8. Doing trumps thinking and saying, so be kind.

  9. Focus on how you’re remembered.

  10. Start now.

As always, your mileage may vary.


Totally Worth It

The best thing I saw or read this week is available here, and is highlighted above. Other noteworthy things: The most bizarre. The stupidest. The craziest. The most interesting. The most intriguing. The worst. The funniest. The most accurate.

Real or fake? RIP, Michael Collins, the third astronaut aboard Apollo 11, who piloted the craft while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, and died Wednesday at the age of 90.

Please contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright) and let me know what you like, what you don’t like, what you’d like to see changed, and what you’d add. Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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Here’s a terrific new release of an old performance for those of us “born and raised in the boondocks.”


Benediction

This week’s musical benediction is Home Free’s lovely new rendition of “People,” featuring Jeffrey East.

“We’re all just people | Working hard, putting food on the table |Throwing up prayers and tryna stay faithful | Long as we're able

“We’re all just human, making mistakes | And love is what we do, man |Just doin’ the very best we can | ‘Cause on the other side, He ain’t checking labels

“We’re all just people”

Our final benediction comes from Marilynne Robinson, for my money the greatest living writer in English, and her excellent commencement address at the College of the Holy Cross in 2011.

“There is a benediction we love in my church. Maybe you know it, too. ‘Go into the world in peace. Help the poor, heal the sick, support the faint-hearted. Return no one evil for evil, but in all things seek the good.’ There are many here more competent to bless you than I am, and they have blessed you in many ways. I simply offer you these words because they are excellent advice.”

Thanks for reading.

Issue 61 (April 30, 2021)