Friday, June 24, 2011

On the Politics of Covetousness

In a political season (Is it ever NOT a political season?), cultural values can often be revealed in what messages and tactics political candidates use to gain the favor, and thus the votes, of the electorate. We see what at least THEY think is important to us by how they attempt to offer what we want. For this reason, a political speech or advertisement can seem either affirming or insulting. However, what appears common among many across part lines (though I find that one party does this more than others), is the encouragement to break, violate, transgress or just down right ignore the 10th Commandment: THOU SHALT NOT COVET.

The full verse of Exodus 20:17, translated for the NET Bible reads, "You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that belongs to your neighbor.” In essence, the question as to whether it is fair whether my neighbor has something that I do not should not enter my mind; and if it does, it should be expelled as a negative emotion. I'm to remember that I cannot know all the of the circumstances through which they came to possess what they do; that for all I know they gained such possessions through strictly virtuous means; and that it's possible their example is simply meant to inspire me to be more industrious. While it may be possible that my neighbor acquired their possessions through "ill gotten gain," I cannot know that for sure; and even if I do know, that is a matter for them to answer to God for - who has commanded that I not covet their possessions especially if they unethically gained them.

For this reason, one might as well, in our culture and economy, paraphrase verse 17 the following way:

You shall NOT covet...

- your neighbor's healthcare plan
- your neighbor's retirement plan
- your neighbor's car
- your neighbor's house
- your neighbor's school district
- your neighbor's subdivision
- your neighbor's prosperity
- your neighbor's daycare
- your neighbor's toys
- your neighbor's country club membership
- your neighbor's university
- your neighbor's title in the industry, or
- your neighbor's influence in the public square.

In other words, my neighbor's business is none of my business. As one that has had less that my "neighbor" almost ever since leaving home at age 20, I can attest that this is not always easy to perform. It is, however, the moral mandate nonetheless. They are responsible for them, and I am responsible for me. Each is to guard their own conscience before God; and it is God that has mandated not to covet.

If I say that it is not fair for my neighbor to have that which I do not, it is God I argue with - not with political pundits. It is God to whom I must answer if I ignore his prohibition against this attitude, just as if I had ignored his commandment of "Thou shalt do no murder," or "Thou shalt not commit adultery," or "Thou shalt not steal" to name a few others. In the choice between virtue and vice, these commands remove ambiguity concerning key moral "pillars" of a lasting society. A culture can ill-afford, and maintain any expectation of longevity, to encourage wide-spread dishonoring of fathers and mothers, rampant murder or stealing, adultery as a pastime or bearing false witness as a praiseworthy trait. In like manner, so also will the society assuredly self-destruct that encourages ubiquitous coveting as well.

For this reason, I tire so greatly of political candidates seeking to win my vote with promises to tax from my neighbor that which my neighbor then cannot refuse them, in order to turn around and offer it to me. Being among the "poor" (by all economic measures within the U.S. economy we are so - obviously not so when compared to the "developing world"), I feel particularly patronized by the promises offered by candidates during their various campaigns. I have a wealthy neighbor next door. I like him and his wife. They are a nice couple. We share life concerns and yard duties. However, whatever a politician promises to provide for me, I know that must take from him; that he'll have no choice in the matter; his generosity be damned, they will take it through taxation and offer it to me so that I'll be grateful for their provision. In essence, the politician is encouraging me to covet my neighbor's belongings and lifestyle amenities so that I'll will vote for them. They are encouraging me to break or ignore the 10th commandment!

In a culture that is increasingly venerating vice over virtue, this is another aspect that I've been disgusted with the mechanism by which our desires are revealed to the world. The politics of covetousness have me wandering whether the electorate has not so punted the Divine lawgiver as to ever receive this admonishment. Certainly no candidate will ever be elected suggesting to news reporters or potential voters, when asked whether its fair that the rich have what they do, "That's none of your business." Even a relatively poor person such as myself could hardly get away with such an admonishment now. Too many seem just naturally desirous to "get even" with "the man." I lament such instincts. It's does not speak well for us.

Monday, June 20, 2011

On the Mixture of Kung Fu and Church service

"Better to sweep the floors of the Temple than to seek one's fame and gain outside of it."

This was a common saying in the martial arts system I trained under. It's possible we romanticized the life the old Shaolin monk in the 2nd Fukien Temple, and perhaps even took at face value more than we should stories of the lifestyle of Shaolin Priests sent out into the countryside; but I figure that the old legends must have an antecedent of truth to them. These stories and legends helped us to maintain the right attitude on the Temple, and to think about our training and our responsibilities with the right frame of mind. The legends and legacies, many of which have been since supported in both popular magazines and reputable journals about martial arts, helped us think about service to our students and community, about humility in the face of authority, the passion with which we should pursue our students' growth and the reverence one should show to the history and contribution of those who have come before you.

In the Temple we started with a little "bow in" procedure that acknowledged both the past masters that had developed the Art and kept is alive throughout the ages, and also acknowledged Grand Master Simon for bringing it to us today. It was not necessarily declaring our Grand Master as superior to all other teachers in the world, but a martial artist is nothing without respect for his teacher. That respect remains with them throughout their training in the temple, and became part of their strength when they left the temple to go out and take justice and their teaching out into the world. As a result, the training lifestyle of the Shaolin priest maintains his ability to serve those around him, and keeps his skills honed for instruction as well. The priest has entered a life of service, continually training so that service does not dwindle from him.

The parallels to service in the Church are astounding. So much so that I have found that most of my old principles and ideals for serving and training in the Temple fit seamlessly with serving in the Church. When I don the vestments for a Sunday morning, it might as well be the flowing uniforms we trained in. When in the sanctuary, I have every instinct to bow when I enter or exit just like in the Temple. The Cross I carry seems well weighted like a kwan dao. Orthodoxy feels like loyalty to the "past masters." Apostolic succession of the Bishop seems reminiscent of the importance we gave to tracing the line of one's master, though a succession of masters, back to the early Temple, as a manner of claiming fidelity to the Art and the master's that have come before. I was once told that if I looked at the Church through the same lens that I looked at the Art, I'd be in a liturgical context - most likely Anglican. Well, indeed that is exactly where I am.

I considered all of this as I trained my old forms today in the backyard. In light of the clear comparisons that can be drawn, I could not help but think of my kung fu as a exercise of in service of the Church now. Each movement, every leap and strike seemed like practice for skills that Church puts to use for servicing the Lord and the community. Blurring the line between Art and Church even further, "kung fu" is often a euphemism for "excellent work." There's a "kung fu" of poetry, of architecture, of writing, of reviewing accounting statements or working on cars. Yes, there can be also a "kung fu" of liturgy and service in the Church. Thus, kung fu in my back yard now feels like a living analogy of my "kung fu" of church service. If I ever have the opportunity to teach kung fu in the church again, the combination will feel so very complete. The mixture of kung fu and church service is a joy, especially when I feel like one flows into the other without any effort at all.

Monday, June 13, 2011

On the difference between sermons and homilies

Sunday was my first occasion to deliver the homily for a liturgical service, and the differences between this setting and previous ones in which I have preached could not have been felt more strongly. The transition from one tradition to the next has been rather smooth regarding participating in other aspects of the service, but none of those so clashed with my personality and ministerial experience of preaching the sermon in the midst of the ritual's flow. In Baptist context, a physically animated communicator is not simply welcomed, but practically required. The science and art of communication must become the focal point of the service because the preaching of the Word is the most highly valued "sacrament" in that tradition.

When I was a Baptist preacher, I was very animated. I've never stood stationary behind a pulpit in my life. I moved around, gesticulating wildly to make my point with hand motions, face expressions and body stances. My marching along the stage and around the podium has even helped me address my life-long battle with talking too fast. The steps and gestures created something of a "cadence" with which to time my syllables and avoid becoming the audio equivalent of fine print. The "auctioneer" preaching style needed to be tamed and movement helped with that.

In addition, extemporaneous anecdotes or quips were also encouraged in the Baptist preaching context. Sure preparation of a quality sermon was prudent and expected, but relating to the audience was also valued; and this is achievable through letting one's "hair down" a bit. After all, the entire service builds up to the "climax" of the compelling sermon and the responses it motivates. For this reason, I've spent approximately 18 years with that approach, developing those skills and seeking to refine THAT type of delivery. I've spoken in front of churches and classrooms, and have been confident that I'd be at ease addressing them once I get going (the butterflies before have never really fully gone away).

That confidence would flee far from me last Sunday as I prepared to deliver the sermon in a context that differs so considerably from the Baptist genre. In an Anglican service the preaching of the Word is not the chief "sacrament" that the congregation will encounter - Communion is. Thus, the service does not build up to the sermon. The sermon is part of the build up to the Eucharist. For this reason, it's inappropriate for the preacher to so deliver his message in a manner that might eclipse the importance of Communion. The same characteristics valued in a Baptist preacher are not those valued in an Anglican preacher. The sermons even differ in length and structure. Consequently, it's important that the Anglican preacher remain behind the pulpit. Mobility is not your friend. In addition, I was trained that when reading the Epistle selection in the Sunday morning service, it's inappropriate to infuse too much of one's personality into the reading because, again, that would be imposing upon the reading of God's Word the distinct skills and nuances of the reader. It's NOT all about you after all.

Therefore, I wrote my sermon to the requisite length, preparing to read it as I had the Epistle lesson at other times as well. This proved a disaster for two reasons: (1) I still did remember that I was delivering a sermon, and thus all the old instincts were right on the surface desiring expression, and (2) focusing on the new constraints created somewhat of a nervous "bind" that distracted from good oratory discipline. Thus I rattled off that sucker with the speed of a radio commercial contest disclaimer. A sermon written for a strong 15 minute duration was completed in 10 minutes. The syllables smeared together like a watercolor painting left out in the rain. The dynamic acoustics of the sanctuary ensured that elderly ears would be forced to hear several sentences at once. That puzzled look on those in the audience was not attentive interest in what was being said; it was the looking of straining to discern WHAT was being said. All of the years of preaching experience had been rendered null and void for this vestment clad "greenhorn."

The solution is not, however, to think about returning to former habits. Instead the need is to adopt new ones. The sermon must be delivered with attention to the components of good communication. The chief need for me will be to SLOW - THE HECK - DOWN. One idea presented to me might prove useful. After the sermon has been written and printed out, I can stamp around the page the image a of turtle. It's slower than a hare, but gets there nonetheless. I'll be looking for that turle stamp in a stationary shop very soon. It will need to have the desired effect by the time the next preaching opportunity arises. Years of experience delivering Baptist sermons can work against you when it's time to deliver an Anglican homily. Perhaps the turtle will help me make that transition smoothly.