Ever have days when you feel like the class dunce? I do. Those occasions are slightly more embarrassing when they occur in public places where others have the opportunity to witness your brilliance. If you’re fortunate, you’ll be able to laugh at yourself and move on, though that is sometimes easier said than done.
For the past twelve months my wife and I served as part-time interim co-pastors for a Friends meeting located near our home. Thanks to the pandemic we had little else on our calendar and it felt as though the Spirit was nudging us to say yes, which we did. With appropriate pre-cautions, except for about an eight-week period beginning at Christmas, this small group met face to face throughout the year.
Every Sunday as I prepared for worship I filled a small disposable cup from a bottled water dispenser located in the kitchen. The fact that bottled water was available and this was rural Indiana where well water often has heavy iron content led me to assume the tap was off limits for drinking. No one ever said as much but why else would a water dispenser be available? This wouldn’t be the first small church I’d seen with non-potable water. Plus, I never witnessed anyone filling a cup to drink at the kitchen sink. This became part of my Sunday routine. Each morning, I filled and took a cup of pure, refrigerated water from the dispenser. Not only was it refreshing, but also had the added bonus of allowing me to discreetly lift my mask and liberate my face for a few seconds with each sip.
Over the course of a year I watched the water line slowly drop in the 5-gallon container. As we entered the month of June, I wondered which would expire first – the water supply or our contract. And by the way, what kind of refill schedule were we on that the machine hadn’t been serviced in a year? Who oversees that detail? When a request was made for any additional agenda items at the end of the June business meeting, I dutifully and respectfully pointed out the water tank needed to be refilled and asked how that was ordinarily handled. Every face in the room immediately lit like light bulbs, complete with a light chuckle and a twinkle in their eyes. There was no water service. One of the members filled the bottle from the kitchen tap when necessary! Sometime in the past they had used bottled water, but once a new softener was installed that was no longer necessary. They kept the unit because the children enjoyed drinking from it. For a moment I felt a little foolish, ready for the dunce hat and a seat on a stool in the corner, but it was good for a laugh among friends. The tank was magically refilled by next Sunday. When the time came to fill my cup, I went back to the water cooler even though its contents were the same as the liquid available from the tap. Even young habits die hard, I suppose.
In an odd sort of way this incident helped me feel closer to the group. Perhaps this was because I now knew one more innocent detail that revealed a sliver of their history and a slice of how they nurture their children. Or perhaps it was because I’d momentarily asked a stupid question and wasn’t voted off the island. The experience even prompted a few thoughts about the value of integrity in social exchanges as well.
Sometimes things are exactly what they appear to be. The apparatus located in the kitchen was, indeed, a bottled water dispenser. It looked like one. It functioned like one. It was one. Even though it was what it appeared to be, it wasn’t what it seemed to be. That is to say, the water wasn’t purified. It hadn’t been distilled. It wasn’t collected from some glacial pool located in a remote, undefiled water source hidden somewhere in the French Alps. It was still good old Indiana well water. Even though it won’t kill you, it might make you grimace were it not for the effect of the water softener. On those occasions when things aren’t what they appear to be, we’re often reliant upon the knowledge and kindness of others to share the needed information that allows us to better understand what is before us.
On this huge globe we call Earth with its billions of daily situations and transactions, such reliance multiplies significantly and becomes more crucial to our safety and success. Integrity is often missing from the equation, which complicates things immensely. As an example, last week while in the supermarket I was surprised to see that the sodium and sugar content of a popular breakfast cereal was lower than that of one purported to be healthier. I was about to put the healthier cereal back on the shelf, muttering about false advertisement, when I noticed the serving size on which those numbers were based for the sugary cereal was 1/3 less than the other brand. Once adjusted for that detail the picture looked different. Was the information on the box true? Yes, but in an effort to compete in the marketplace it was slightly altered so that things weren’t exactly as they appeared. Who knew that understanding the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, could be so tricky, or that just the facts alone could mislead you if you failed to notice just one of them?
It reminded me of a conversation with a friend who is a partner in an investment firm. He left his very first job in the industry to start his own office when he realized that weekly sales competitions with bonuses for the winner meant that the company was enticing its employees to put their own gain ahead of their clients’ interests. That created an uncomfortable ethical dilemma for him. The stock of the day was legitimate. It may or may not have been a good value at the time. Even if it was, it wasn’t necessarily a good choice for everyone’s portfolio; but in order to reach the sales goal or win the competition those details needed to be ignored for the sake of a sale. His experience serves as a reminder that something can be legal, and even encouraged, but not be ethical or moral. Integrity helps us begin to discern the difference and act accordingly.
For whatever reason, integrity has fallen through the ranks to the point of being viewed as optional and non-essential in many social exchanges. The fact that not everyone embraces it as a worthy ideal is, itself, a topic worth exploring. Meanwhile, a fed-up public has good reason to be skeptical of processes that deceive or deprive, cheating the many and rewarding the few. When integrity is lacking, trust begins to erode. Just as a rusty bottomed bucket won’t hold water, neither will the excuses used to justify the actions. Areas like politics, policing, lending practices, and healthcare costs, to name a few, are big issues that grab the headlines and leave us wishing for a better day. Decisions made affect the quality of life for many. Are they made in our best interest? Are they free from efforts to game the system or unfairly benefit a privileged few? We understandably call for better performance and accountability from those in power.
This dilemma isn’t limited to news headline items. Integrity, or the lack thereof, filters down to the simplest of exchanges between neighbors and friends as well. From property lines to play groups, integrity is the mortar that cements and stabilizes our relationships, helping ensure their dependability. Without it, an “every person for themselves” mentality emerges, and in more extreme cases, a person can feel isolated or even preyed upon. Early Friends placed great emphasis on integrity as a cornerstone of their life together, perhaps because they recognized that reliable, trustworthy relationships transform a neighborhood into a community. Who better to tell you the truth about the water you drink?
As a standard, integrity can appear to be unattainable. When defined as “incorruptible” it may feel overwhelming because none of us is flawless. But taken as “undivided or honest,” it is an idea that focuses on a commitment to be open and forthright, true to our principles. Integrity is less of a thing we do and more a way of being. Rooted among our most precious values it infiltrates our philosophy of life and social exchange, insisting on an alignment between beliefs and practices. It becomes such a part of how we are that to try and be otherwise creates a crisis of conscience.
Water. Whether drawn from the aquifer of Indiana’s soil or collected from somewhere around the world, it hardly matters so long as it quenches the thirst. Well, almost. Spare me from flavored water. And what is the point of sparkling water? Do bubbles really bring anything to the party? Surprisingly, water has become my beverage of choice (well, after my morning coffee!). Nothing fancy—just cold water. As simple and plain as it is, we can’t live without it. I have a hunch the same is true with integrity. So fill my cup, please!