September 14, 2010

Notes on a Homily

First of all, if you have not read the homily, go do so. It is not long. It being the very first homily I have ever written or delivered (intentionally as such), I have a few thoughts.

I was surprised when Danny approached me at the outdoor café tables just off the courtyard where I was studying. It has become the general meeting place for the chaplaincy students before and just after class. We said our hellos as he sat down.

“I want you to do the sermon for the 9/11 service that’s coming up. I read what you wrote on your blog the other day and thought it was very interesting and appropriate,” Danny said with what I’m coming to think of as a characteristic straight-forwardness.

“Okay. I can do that.” Mind, I did not say it nearly as confidently as it reads, not because I didn’t think I could do that, but merely from surprise (and, yes, I was flattered). I’d only been here two weeks after all. And, I’d never once in my life pictured myself giving anything to anyone that could be remotely described as a “sermon.”

I was also surprised with myself for not thinking the situation would occur. I am going to school to be a chaplain, after all. Buddhist teachers give dharma talks all the time, which are akin to sermons. However, I may graft many labels onto my identity, some more appropriate than others, but “Buddhist teacher” is not one of them.

“A sermon, huh?” I repeated.

“Well, we can call it a dharma talk or a homily or what have you.”

“Oh, can we call it a sermon? That way I can tell my Mom I’m giving a sermon and she’ll be all like ‘What? Do Buddhists do that?’” I always smile at the thought of flustering my relatives. Half the time it doesn’t work, which only makes me try harder.

“Sure. I just liked the take you had in your blog on recent events surrounding the Park 51 project and thought it was relevant to this year’s remembrance.”

It still amazes me that anyone reads my blog. It doubly amazes me that anyone finds value in it. Truth be told, I would write it whether anyone would read it or not, but I can’t say I don’t enjoy a little ego stroking from time to time. I’m still human (I think).

We met the next week to discuss the memorial service and set a program. I took notes regarding what other people said the service should be about and wove those together with what I had written earlier. I wrote the homily that afternoon and sent it off to Danny, checking in with him later for feedback. Holly and I met on the Sunday prior to the service to discuss her dedication and my homily, which would follow, to avoid repetition but still tie things together.

With Danny I discussed the difference between a sermon and a dharma talk. The sermons I had experienced in my United Methodist upbringing had been largely prescriptive, while most of the dharma talks I had attended in recent years have been descriptive. What we should do versus what we do. This is not to say that dharma talks aren’t normative and don’t carry with them advice for living, but the dharma teachers I have had generally spend more time helping us understand how things work, how things are, so that we may see for ourselves ways of dealing with them. Whereas, the sermons of my childhood called us to action dictated by a central authority.

The post I had written was very much a journal entry – a description of the thoughts and feelings I had experienced surrounding the Park 51 controversy. The homily turned out to be very much a sermon, as reflected in the repetitive language of “let us” in the second half. I was concerned this wasn’t the “proper” way of giving a homily in this tradition, whatever this tradition was, not quite Buddhist but certainly not Methodist. However, Danny assured me it was fine.

Holly and I puzzled over the contentious language. Can one advocate nonviolence using the language of “enemy” and “fight?” Can one “fight violence?” The contentious language is powerful and simple, while more nuanced language might be less powerful (or more difficult for an inexperienced speaker to make powerful) and also lengthier. In addition, it is fraught with my own urges as a contentious person. Perhaps one cannot “fight violence,” but damned if I won’t try.

The final point is the struggle of we and I. The post started from a place of I. “I thought this…I think that…” The homily begins from this place as well, and I struggled with where this transition should take place. I am exhorting people to some kind of action for a purpose we all share. Should I begin with we? But I don’t want to assume others experience is like my own. So where does the language change?

If you read the homily, you’ll see where it changed, but if you look at the written speech I printed, you’ll see all kinds of last minute hand written notes. You’ll see where I changed I to we in the last sentence of the first paragraph. You’ll see which sentences are underlined and words starred, where I emphasized “violence” and “fear” and deemphasized “enemy.”

I haven’t taken the homiletics class yet where, apparently, they are going to teach us how to do these things properly. I definitely started in the deep end of the pool, but I really don’t mind. It’s all learning. Next time, memorize more, read less, use hand gestures, consider longer, etc.

But I can’t help wondering (and smiling while I do): what would that angry teenage atheist think of me now?

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