Oh, the places you’ll go!

It’s graduation time. Which means it’s commencement address time. I don’t know what university officials ask for from a commencement speaker. My suspicion is that if you’re asking Steve Jobs to come speak, all you can really say is something like, “Please? Will you come say something? Anything really; the important thing is just you.” And, though it’s probably more true today than it was in 2005, whenever Steve Jobs speaks, there’s a lot at stake (like stock prices).

What’s so striking about this speech? For one thing, his demeanor and his tone. He’s almost quiet. He’s funny too. And obviously smart. And he speaks in a strangely personal and conversational way, despite the fact that he’s talking to hundreds (if not thousands) of people at once. He’s not silly. Yet he’s not too serious either. Somehow he seems at ease with himself and his story. At home in his skin, loving life fiercely. (I’m not sure if this quality somehow comes across in the 15 minute talk -or- if it’s just something I infer from other anecdotes, but I keep thinking fierceness is something he’s especially capable of….a fierce competitor, a fierce thinker…) Fierce, yes, but also intimately aware of the fragility of it all. A close acquaintance of death. And one who continues to benefit from the mellowing effect of this acquaintance. I get the paradoxical sense that he’s simultaneously learning to loosen his grip, all the while clutching to life as tightly as possible.

He tells three stories, to me a sign of loosening the grip. As I’ve thought about his three stories (Connect the Dots, Love and Loss, and Death), I’ve found myself thinking back to last year’s Transforming Culture Arts Symposium. I went there one night to listen to the day’s keynote speaker, Eugene Peterson. The room was full of people waiting to write down everything he had to say. I know I was. Anticipation was high.

Peterson stood up and announced that he was simply going to be telling three stories. And that’s exactly what he proceeded to do. Somewhere in the middle of the second story I set my pen down (I had written nothing). Slowly I began to relax. To allow myself to be engaged. To become a listener. To submit to the person before me…and his stories.

There’s something to stories. Certainly Jesus thought so. Peterson himself points out in Tell it Slant that even when the stakes were at their highest, when the situation could be no more urgent, on the very walk to Jerusalem where he would die, Jesus persisted in telling stories:

“Why in the world is Jesus telling unpretentious stories about crooks and manure? Why isn’t he preaching the clear word of God, calling the Samaritans to repentance, offering them the gift of salvation in plain language? As the end approaches, his language becomes even more relaxed and conversational than usual. Instead of high decibel rhetoric, calling for decisions before it’s too late, he hardly, if at all, even mentions the name of God, choosing instead to speak of neighbors and friends, losing a lamb, and the courtesies of hospitality.”

Peterson continues:

“It is common among many of us when we become more aware of what is involved in following Jesus and the urgencies involved…that we become more intense in our language…Impatient to get our message out, we depersonalize what we have to say into rote phrases or a programmatic formula without regard to the person we are meeting. As the urgency to speak God’s word increases, listening relationships diminish.”

Steve Jobs’ commencement address offers a listening relationship to which many have responded (literally millions have watched the talk online). And it’s his stories that achieve this (culminitating perhaps with his involvement in creating Pixar – one of our great modern storytellers). Jobs manages to evoke both boldness and humility in his brief talk. He closes with the enigmatic admonition to “stay hungry and stay foolish.” Worldly wisdom? Perhaps. But then again, Biblical words echo: “Blessed are you who are hungry now.” And later, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”