Monday, October 27, 2008

Sincerity & 'Church of 80% Sincerity'

An Abbot Pastor once said: "If there are three monks living together, of whom one remains silent in prayer at all times, and another is ailing and gives thanks for it, and a third waits on them both with sincere good will, these three are equal, as if all were performing the same work." (Thomas Merton, Wisdom of the Desert, NY: New Directions Publishing, 1970, p42-3)
The Chinese word word (誠, cheng) means honest, truthful, genuine. Put together with another word (恳, ken), it forms the word sincere (诚恳 cheng ken). In the book of Acts, the gospel writer Luke records the behaviour of the early church.
"Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." (Acts 2:46-47)

46 他们天天同心在殿里恒切地聚集,一家一家地擘饼,存着欢乐和诚恳的心用饭, 47 又赞美 神,并且得到全民的喜爱。主将得救的人,天天加给教会。(Acts 2:46-47, CNV)
The word (诚) contains 2 separate words (言, yuan) and (成, cheng) which literally means 'speak and accomplish.'The second word (恳 ken) also has 2 words: (艮 gen) [forthright, blunt, straightforward] and (心, xin) [heart]. Put together, the words indicate a willingness to speak openly, growing in honesty and sincerity of heart, not withholding one's ability to tell the truth and openly engage in conversation. The Greek word for sincere (ἀφελότης, aphelotes) means singleness of mind/heart. Contrast this with a double-minded person whose thoughts and words waver between truthfulness and lies. Any community with people who are less than sincere will never become the kind of community like that of the early church.

Common Usage in society
Sincerity is something that I came across early on when learning the letters genre. My teacher used to teach that when I end my letter to an unnamed person or organization, I should end with "Yours faithfully." If I end the letter addressed to a named or known person, especially a friend, I ought to use "Yours sincerely." Common usage thus suggests that the latter is something more personal. Words matter. The way we use it reflects the level of intimacy required. In the business world, the words we use have to be legally vetted and proof-read in order not to compromise one's position or make one susceptible to unscrupulous actions. Contracts are carefully screened, sometimes using experienced lawyers. Many organizations publish important information in small fine prints which many consumers simply ignore. Web services practically force any user to click "I Agree" when entering their web sites. There is no other option, as the alternative "I do not Agree" automatically locks one out of the web services, isolating the casual surfer who merely wanted to find out what the services are all about. Perhaps, for cases like this, the web services provider or organization ought to allow a PREVIEW of the services, a sample for people who are not willing to commit to signing up, or agreeing to all the conditions stated in the list of terms and regulations. People should be allowed to do 'window-shopping' on the web, to check something out before making any commitment. Unfortunately, organizations are too ready to cover their own legal backs as a first move.

To Be Honest
Another way to describe sincerity is the phrase "From the Bottom of my heart" which has a 2-dimensional meaning, bottom showing the depth of one's desire and 'heart' indicating something that is of the most profound part of the person. In contrast, 'off the top of my head' symbolizes something that is quickly said, and superficially done.

It is more difficult nowadays to detect who is sincere or not. Even family members sometimes hide stuff from each other. The common usage of the words "to be honest" makes me wonder if the person saying it is simply trying to 'up his level of honesty' or has been lying all along? Society has generally accepted that honesty is expected but not assumed automatically. At the immigration checkpoints, it is assumed that all visitors to the current is assumed to be an illegal immigrant unless otherwise. Hence the passport checks and questions posed to visitors tend to be attempts to verify that it is not the case before allowing the visitor to enter the country. When applying for any services, be it government departments, credit cards or supermarket vouchers, one will need to show a valid photo ID for the officer to verify one's identity. It is not assumed that one's words is to be believed right-away, especially in official matters. I have since learned that when anyone uses the words "to be honest with you," it is the bottom line that the person is offering. I remember wanting to get the best price for an item in a bazaar. The shopkeeper was not willing to budge on his price, and I am not willing to pay the full amount. Finally, he said: "To be honest with you, the price is hardly enough to cover my cost of goods." That said, the shopkeeper is trying to tell me that his business is already struggling. I sense some exasperation in the tone of the shopkeeper. That is something happening a lot nowadays, especially with a worsening economy worldwide.

The Church of 80% Sincerity
Is it really that hard to be sincere? Is it a forgone conclusion that the world is no longer sincere and there is no hope in it becoming better? Not really. David Roche is one person who tries to buck the trend. Filled with personal testimonies about his struggles to be accepted as he is in society, Roche came up with the idea of a Church of 80% Sincerity. I came across the book, largely through Anne Lamott's Plan B - Further Thought on Faith. David Roche is an interesting character. Born with a severe facial deformity, aggravated by aggressive radiation, his left side of the face became permanently disfigured. Learning to express himself honestly without feeling sorry for himself took many years. He tried to compensate for his facial abnormality with pious acts, including four years of training to become a Roman Catholic priest. His desire to find female companionship often gets stuck at the first level: "What if they do not like my face?" He opts for the other extreme to grit his teeth and endure suffering from all corners of his life. He tries to live up to Marxist-Lenin ideals of self-sacrifice but eventually rejects it when he realizes that the Marxist leaders were more interested in their ideals rather than the persons behind the ideals. Soon, it dawn upon him the idea of a "Church of 80% Sincerity." This 'church' is not a physical church but an idea he carries with him in his head, to assure himself about the nature of people around him.
In the Church of 80% Sincerity, we think 80 percent sincerity is as good as it gets. You can be 80 percent sincere 100 percent of the time, or 100 percent sincere 80 percent of the time. It's in that 20 percent area where you get some slack and you can be yourself. [David Roche, The Church of 80% Sincerity, NY: Perigee Books, 2008, p7]
Roche's Observation of Basic Motivation Factor: 'Avoiding Embarrassment'
Roche has a rather incisive understanding of human nature. He says that the basic motivating factor for people is 'not self-preservation or sex or love' but the 'desire not to be embarrassed' (Roche, 61). This is an insightful one as it means that in many of our relationships, what seem to be done in the name of 'improving teamwork' or relationships is actually a guise to avoid self-embarrassment. The moment one becomes too concerned about the external facade or one's position in society, all kinds of possible sinful acts can happen. It could be a human attempt to protect oneself, doing things in order to "cover one's ass." One offers to trade security watches with the offer: "I watch your back, you watch mine!" In Chinese society, a common practice among many is to 'save face.' For example, when speaking in public, one does not wash the dirty linen of leaders in public. Doing so will not only be embarrassing to the leaders mentioned but in extreme situations, the leaders concerned will commit suicide. Matters of face-saving are not to be trifled with in Asian society. In Singapore, a prominent leader took his own life on charges of corruption. Roche adds:
Behind the fear of embarrassment is that deeper fear, of saying what you really think and feel and telling your story, because that is when you may be exposed as stupid, inarticulate, selfish or anything else that you would rather leave undiscovered. (Roche, 61)
Roche's antidote is to continually tell his story, about his facial ugliness (and laugh at it), frequently remember his emotional struggles, and to resolve to remind self and others until one's 'fear of embarrassment turns out to be a predecessor to grace' (Roche, 70). Beautifully put.

We need to remember that on our own, we cannot save ourselves. It is useless to hide, just like it is futile for Adam and Eve, in their nakedness awareness, to hide from the holy God who knows and sees all things. We can all learn to be sincere. However, our journey to sincerity is filled with a history of personal embarrassment. Learn to laugh at ourselves, and our clumsiness. Seek forgiveness and remind ourselves that we are not perfect. So do not behave as if we are perfect. Do not even attempt to try and make other people conform to our 'perfectionist expectations' of them. Learn to honestly take a look at ourselves and our inner being. For Roche, he is not afraid to take a hard look at his face and accept himself as he is. He is brave enough to engage his deep struggles with his self-esteem. All of us need to do the same. We do not need to be facially hideous in order to do something identical. If we are truly honest with ourselves, if we are sincerely desirous of becoming good and to spread goodwill to all people, we must move beyond a mode of self-preservation, of doing things merely to avoid embarrassment. We must embrace grace. We practice sincerity by being open and frank with one another without having to inject 'let me be honest' in our conversations. We practice sincerity by speaking the truth always, and doing the right thing without any prompting. We practice sincerity by being forthright and single minded to let the truth be made known.

For Christians, we have been accepted by God the Father, who takes us as we are. We have been taught by Jesus to forgive one another, as God the Father has forgiven us. We are expected to love one another in the Spirit of the bond of peace. As we move from a Church of 80% Sincerity, let us keep a hopeful outlook, that one day, we will all be practicing Christians of 100% Sincerity, in Jesus Christ.


Video of David Roche's Speaking

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