What do you think of when you hear the word “average?” I think of a conversation I had years ago with a seminary friend and classmate. It was a stressful semester for me at that time. I was taking a heavy load and trying to balance my studies with my responsibilities at the small church I was serving. Like most of my friends, I was struggling, as were they, with the high expectations each of us had placed upon ourselves, but this one friend seemed to be remarkably at ease. Nothing seemed to bother him one bit, at least not anything related to our studies. When I asked him how he balanced everything that was going on in his life, his answer took me aback. He told me, “While the rest of you are grinding to get an ‘A’ in everything, I’m content with making a ‘C.’ I don’t expect to be anything other than an average student, and I’m OK with that.” Would you be OK with that? Would you be OK with being “average?”
Most of us struggle with picturing what our life will look like in the days ahead, do we not? That’s the conclusion of a Harvard psychologist, Daniel Gilbert, and two of his colleagues, who recently did a study that involved more than 19,000 people on this very common trait among us humans. Their research revealed that in fact people of all ages grossly underestimate the extent to which they will change in the future. They instead end up believing that who they are today is pretty much who they will be tomorrow, despite the fact that who they are today isn’t who they were yesterday (Science, January 2013). In other words, even though we know we have changed a lot over the years that have passed, we struggle to wrap our minds around how much change is to be expected when it comes to our future.
There is a quaint expression that I grew up with in rural Alabama. It was something I remember hearing people say when someone else did something nice for them. Instead of saying, “Thank you,” I remember hearing them say, “Much obliged.” When you think about it, that expression is more than a polite expression; it is also a deeply spiritual one. It means that I understand my obligation to the person that’s done something nice for me. I don’t take the act for granted. I don’t presume upon that person’s grace. I am “much obliged.”
In order for a person to live with any measure of purpose and significance, he has to be guided by a defined set of values that order and direct everything he says or does. These guiding values constitute core principles, bedrock beliefs that become something of a “North Star” – a fixed point of reference – that gives constancy to a person’s life even when everything all around him seems to be in a constant state of flux.
Just for fun this morning, let’s spend a moment thinking of all those things we do in life that we’d prefer not to be doing, but we do them anyway, simply because they’re in our best interest to do so. For example, many of you got up this morning and, even though it’s a Sunday, you spent 20 to 30 minutes in some form of vibrant exercise because you know that doing so is in your best interest. Others of you went to the medicine cabinet at dawn’s early light and started pulling out the pills and popping them into your mouth because you knew if you didn’t, it would come back to haunt you. Still others of you came to church this morning strapped into your car with that most uncomfortable thing ever invented, the seat belt or, better yet, you strapped your little ones in to a car seat that requires an engineering degree to master, because, well, you never know when someone might run a stop sign. I think you get the picture. Every single day we go through all manner of less than desirable activities simply because we’re better off doing them in the long run.
Daniel Hernandez was a recent college grad when he moved to New York. By his own admission he was not ready for a city that was so large and so impersonal. He had landed a job for a company that distributed press releases that were disguised as news – a form of work he described as “soul-numbing.” The only good part of the job was that it allowed their employees one day a week of paid leave to do some form of charity work, so Daniel volunteered for a suicide prevention hotline service, where he saw first-hand the number of lonely people in a place like New York who had reached the end of their rope, feeling as if they had no place to turn and, more importantly, no one to whom they could turn. What Daniel realized in the process that the real reason he had volunteered for this charity work was that he was experiencing pangs of loneliness himself, pangs that perhaps might be eased by speaking with strangers on a hotline. What Daniel discovered from his time with the hotline is that virtually every person struggles with some kind of burden and that we all need someone in life from whom we can seek help for that burden, even if the only help they can give is a simple acknowledgement that “life must be hard” (“Call If You’re Feeling Lonely,” The New York Times, 2/12/14).
You’ve probably heard the story of the man who was sitting in a window seat on an airplane flying across the desert in Arizona. The desert sun was shining white-hot on the parched earth below and the man was the only passenger on that side of the plan who had not pulled down his window shade to keep out the glare. In contrast to the other passengers who were sitting in window seats, this man kept looking out the window and actually seemed to be enjoying the scene down below.
Ernest Campbell was the pastor of the great Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan back in the 1970’s. In one of his sermons he offered what I think is a most memorable line. “It has been said that the two most important days in every person’s life are the day on which that person was born and the day on which he discovers why he was born.” The reason that line is so memorable is not so much because of one’s birthdate. The fact of the matter is that we rarely miss celebrating our birth date. The more memorable part is the second part – the part that has to do with understanding the purpose for which we were born. Sadly, there are too many people walking around today who have no clue as to “why” they were born. They have no clue as to what their purpose in life really is.
You may have seen the news this past week regarding the Supreme Court’s controversial ruling that a lawsuit filed against Apple can proceed in which IPhone users may seek remedy for what they consider to be inflated prices charged them for apps they download. I haven’t followed the arguments that carefully, because I can’t think of any apps I have downloaded on my smartphone that have cost me anything. All of the apps on my phone are free ones. Call me a cheapskate, but I think it would be silly for me to purchase anything that I can get for free.
Back in the 1980’s Larry Walters was a security guard for a Hollywood animation studio that produced children’s television series. He had always wanted to be a pilot, but had been turned down because of poor eyesight. His dream, however, would not go away. So, one day in the summer of 1982, Larry decided to take matters into his own hands. He went down to a military surplus store and bought 45 eight-foot weather balloons, filled them with helium, put on a parachute, and had friends strap him and the balloons to a lawn chair in his backyard in Southern California. His intent was to float over the Mojave Desert at a relatively safe altitude, using a pellet gun he would take along with him to burst some of the balloons in order to land.