Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas Silence

Listen to A Holy Silence, a Christmas sermon delivered this year at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, California.

Silence Paradox

Silence speaks with silent slate,
a place to project ourselves to hear
heart’s murmurings until heart comes home;
to poisoned mind on big screen large,
’til antidote resolves.

Silence guards ’gainst word distorted,
feeble language fails meaning carry
where trust away corroded and time-rusted relation.

Watchful silence better than angry exchange,
patience borne that withholds all words,
for word of God withheld lest rend us might,
before we are ready for Truth.

Silence: darkness before Truth’s dawn,
the time to anxiously prepare,
for the Light that will reveal all,
and even silent hearts exposed will show
their true hue and life’s delight.

Silence: most loving when all other love extinguished,
and all other avenues pounded to rubble,
and even fear itself grows waiting weary.
Silence: the stuff of unclosed conversations,
and business left undone,
of lives cut short and forsaken loves.

Silence: wisdom when no response will do,
when it is time to make way beyond all judgment, all control,
allow the errant heart to find its own path through the maze of life.

Silence: language of death that awaits new life,
of darkness under stars of hope ’fore God’s new Light,
of waiting upon nameless expectation,
that wraps us up against the cold...
in the warmth of silence, that faithful paradox,
where whole universes await new birth.

– Advent/Christmas 2013

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Out of Silence

A reflection offered at the 2013 Advent Silent Days at the Bishop’s Ranch, Healdsburg, California.

Just about everyone who studies music in formal settings long enough hears the apocryphal story of a student who observes her famous teacher one day sitting at the keyboard gazing intently at a music score in silence. The intensity of concentration is so striking that the student strains to see the score herself but dares not say a word. As the minutes go by in silence, the student slowly screws up her courage to finally ask out loud,

“What are you studying so intently?”

Her master teacher breaks his gaze from the pages and looks up at the student with equal intensity and simply says, “Music.”

Nervously, the student replies, “Yes, there are a lot of notes. . .”

“No, my dear,” says the master teacher, “Music is what happens between the notes. That is what must be studied.”

John Cage, one of the more colorful 20th-century composers, famously presented his koan-esque 4"33, in which a performer came out on stage and simply sat down at the instrument or music stand in silence for the time allotted, then got up, took a bow, and exited.

At a more superficial level, it was an exercise at teaching an audience to learn to listen to itself – a bit of a poke-in-the-eye from performers to their patrons who would invariably cough, wriggle, talk, or otherwise distract their way through a carefully planned and rehearsed musical masterwork. At a deeper level, it was part of Cage’s exploration that any sound – even the sound of an audience – could be considered music. But more deeply still, it was a riddle very much along the lines of the Zen koans Cage himself must have known, such as:

「隻手声あり、その声を聞け」 (Sekishu-goe ari, sono goe o kike)

Literally: “There is the sound of one hand; listen to this sound.”

Or as is often better translated into English:

“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

More so than the Western question about the noise of unobserved falling trees, the head-splitting notion of a hand clapping without its partner, like 4'33, leads us into the universe-old mystery of silence: a place where, if we but allow ourselves, we might be drawn into the primordial divine mystery.

It might be easy for us, here on retreat, to fall into pride at our taking silence seriously. This is the time of year we have a penchant for criticizing our commercial, noise-filled culture, one that seems ever more resistant to silence: crowding us and the world as it does with words, noise, and every sensory input imaginable.

But are we Christians, however traditional we regard ourselves, all that better?

We have been taught to value words so much, we even talk about the Word, incarnate in our midst this time of year. Our reverence for scripture and the sacred tasks and words of our structures and institutions have been the subject of bloodshed and reformation; we wrangle over them to this day. We preach, write, discuss, sing, and pray out loud or utter the words in our own heads and hearts in the name of discernment, seeking, and intercession. We drown out the silence with accumulated tradition and book-learning and spoken wisdom passed down across the ages.

How easily we can forget the space between the words and the notes, or the silence that fills the stories of our most beloved characters of scripture:

What is the silence about between the Annunciation, Mary’s visit with Elizabeth, and the story of Jesus’ birth? The silence about the certain silence of sleepless nights as Mary pondered mystery? Or Joseph slowly stretched himself beyond all convention to grasp the strange promise they were called to wait for, protect, and then bring to birth?

What is the silence built into the very structure of the cosmos, from the huge empty, voids between the galaxies, stars, and planets to the equally huge empty spaces between the nuclei of atoms and their orbiting electrons? What is the silence about between friends, between longtime spouses and lovers, between members of community who have shared all words until no more will come, or no more are necessary? Or the silence between a question and an answer? Or the silence in the face of suffering, awe, or perplexity?

We focus so much attention on words and sound, we tend to forget that they are always a tiny fraction of reality, and only a mere flimsy representation of what is. Like matter, they occupy the tiniest, ever-shrinking fraction of space in the universe. And they are fickle, diffuse, and fungible. It is the silence that is eternal and unnervingly real and – ironically – painfully tangible and ever-present. Scientists tell us now it is just as likely this reality will end in silence as anything else, when the boundaries of time and space are stretched out into the silent void so much that matter itself will cool, fall apart, and disintegrate.

And yet, we Christians sing “Alleluia” into the silence of the grave, and perceive resurrection in the open, silent, empty tomb.

Our reality, our spirituality – like music, like relationship, like speech – is bounded and defined by silence.

I am not at all sure which is more terrifying to us: recognizing God’s awful silence that fills the space between illumination in our lives – much like that darkness that occupies space between the stars; or that humbling realization that without other words of authority in our lives, our own egos will attempt to project our own self-serving words onto the divine silence.

The mystics have always occupied that endless spiritual dilemma, and little wonder they walk the razor’s edge between madness and enlightenment: so closely that “sensible” people often wisely avoid them. Silence carries an enormous risk, and really, the more I contemplate it, a divine risk.

God risks losing us by being silent. We might think when confronted by silence that God isn’t there, or we might end up filling the void with our own words and agendas and making them into yet more gods that fail us.

But those who dare the silent path anyway, that razor’s edge between madness and enlightenment, dare to grow up by confronting the divine silence of this life. If God doesn’t have an immediate answer or grace for every prayer or riddle life brings, then we have a chance to learn the greater spiritual virtues of patience, humility. . .maybe even wisdom. We have a chance to watch ourselves grow up beyond selfishness, ambition, and our own controlling egos; to be opened to the divine mystery at work between the words, between the notes on the page, before the cosmic dance begins, before even the first word is uttered or the first note sounds. . .

Meister Eckhart, in a sermon on the incarnation (“Where God Enters”) offers up the teaching of a sage:

“When all things lay in the midst of silence, then leapt there down into me from on high, from the royal throne, a secret word.”

He posits that at the very center of our being, the very kernel of our souls, is a place of unreachable silence, beyond all thought, all word, all sound, all music, even beyond all our awareness.

And that is where the incarnation begins.

We are made of star-stuff, after all, and the same space in all matter is in us. So are we also  made up of voids of understanding, the yawning silences of unknowing, great rifts and inconsistencies that no end of reason, research, or worldly wisdom will resolve. We are not all solid or all sound. Nor will we ever be. To believe otherwise denies an essential key of our spiritual reality, and reduces us to less – far less even – than we truly are.

Silence sets this distorting denial aside and opens us to a new grace.

It is the silence outside that risks reflecting to us the silence within. Can we keep watch there long enough to glimpse our true emptiness? And dare we hope that it is that emptiness, that silence, that huge space before all time, that silence between the words, thoughts, and notes that will be the cradle in us for God’s true song be born?

Friday, December 06, 2013

Pastoral Paradox

A well-seasoned priest once reminded me that sometimes no pastoral care is the best pastoral care. How do we as leaders decide what is important and what is the ordinary static of human relationships? And when does our attention to an interpersonal conflict magnify the difficulties more than resolve them? When is simply moving through the ordinary bumps of relationships -- as many healthy friends, spouses, and communities learn to do -- better than holding a “pastoral” conversation over a perceived problem? When do we back away enough to allow people to grow up in Christ in their own rough-and-tumble way?

Read more at Episcopal Café.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Entitlement Reform

I’ve been reflecting a great deal recently on a besetting sin of my generation: entitlement.

This past Sunday’s story from 2 Kings — one of my favorites in all of Hebrew scripture — vividly illustrates what can happen when our entitlement encounters God’s grace and gets in the way.

It has me wondering about how entitlement operates throughout our culture, and in a strange twist, how it drives the current mess in Washington. By strange I mean ironic, as a political movement pushing the damaging government shutdown and potentially dangerous debt-ceiling impasse suffers from an overgrown sense of American entitlement while simultaneously calling for “entitlement reform!” Granted, reform is needed for every sense of entitlement, and we all could all benefit from more than a little self-examination.

But what cure is there for the sin of entitlement?

The great ancient warrior Naaman teaches us about the powerful medicine of gratitude.

I say more in my sermon this past Sunday.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Daily Office Web App 2.0

A little sabbatical adventure in web programming takes flight:

BSG Daily Office 2.0 (for all browsers and mobile devices)

Daily Office App 2.0

Friday, August 16, 2013

First Profession

Camaldoli Hermitage, Big Sur
The Pacific from Kairos Hermitage at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, where I took my pre-profession retreat.

Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms—never leave it. — St. Romuald’s Brief Rule

The strength of the Brotherhood is dependent on the prayer life of each brother. — from the Rule of the Brotherhood of St. Gregory

What if all the world’s my cell?
not made for me possession steer,
not raise nor bury by ingenuity nor intellect;
not to burn with anger fierce,
nor upend with will’s forcèd strike.

During the Litany read in the Solemn Mass and First Profession at Mt. Alvernia Retreat House, Wappingers Falls, New York.

What if, staking life in prayer
and paths of grace,
this cell a paradise becomes,
God’s wondrous and mysterious hands
molding redemption in darkness,
joy in light:

Where windy mountaintops
and deep salt sea,
and fellow pilgrims
sing of watchers and holy ones—
gone before and come tomorrow
and present now,

This den of open sky and silent cave,
of gracious beauty, fierce and fragile,
Where death and life anew and sounds afresh?

Where blades of grass say heaven-sent,
and trees bare naked Spirit work;
Where blooms’ courses run,
and seasons have their turn.

Brother Richard Thomas Biernacki, Founder and Minister General of the Brotherhood of St. Gregory, witnesses my first profession.

Where music plays, sweet cacophony of instrument,
and engine makes a song.
Where kettle sings tea and coffee scent
and family spreads a meal.

Where friends come and go
and strangers sing,
Where children play
and cry and dance,
and elders gather wisdom’s strength.

This haunt of angels
and sun and moon,
Of wind and rain,
and forests’ clamor and silent sands,
and glistening cities, creative mind a team,

And lonely stillness on night wings ’fore dawn.

What if all the world’s my cell?

– with love to all my brothers and special thanks to my mentor, Br. Pete, who has taught me the value of “What if?”

Receiving a blessing from the Minister General after being clothed in the full habit of profession.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones

At the end of every summer convocation, the Brotherhood of St. Gregory holds a mission service to send its members out into the world into our many, diverse lives and ministries. Here we are yesterday at our 2013 commissioning service at Mt. Alvernia Retreat Center, Wappingers Falls, New York, lifting up our voices with Psalm 23, being sent forth by the Minister General, and raising the roof with “Ye watchers and Ye holy ones,” the hymn of the Brotherhood.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Are You Able?

A sermon delivered at the Solemn Festival Eucharist of the Brotherhood of St. Gregory and First Profession of Vows of Br. Richard Edward Helmer, BSG

The Chapel of the Stigmata
Mt. Alvernia Retreat Center
Wappingers Falls, New York

July 27, 2013

Karekin%20Madteos%20Yarianby Br. Karekin Madteos Yarian, BSG

Normally, I would not be eager to preach at this particular service, given the weightiness of it. Knowing that our beloved Minister General and our Bishop usually preach at this made it even more difficult to request a chance to speak to you today. But I asked nonetheless, because someone that I care about very deeply is making his first profession of vows today. For all of you, my brothers, I hope that you find thoughts to take away and strengthen you from what I say here, but today I speak to you Brother Richard Edward. I speak as someone who is privileged to know you, and to have had the opportunity to watch you grow over these last several years.

Today is a big day for you. A step, in fact, at the beginning of your journey in religious life. Your time of postulancy and novitiate has been much like preparation and packing before the journey begins. And now you’re going to take the first step on the road that, God grant you, will be long indeed!

What a joy! And what a terror! Just ask the sons of Zebedee. They, like you, don’t quite know what lies ahead. Oh, you might think you know what it means to follow Jesus. You might think you know what you are asking when you choose to make your vows today in the presence of your brothers. You long for the Kingdom life, and to you, like to James and John, Jesus poses a question: “Are you able?”

Before we get to that question, however, let’s take a look at who surrounds you right now: a community of men who are on the road following the Teacher. Following the Lord, whose Kingdom is not of this earth. Remember that. It is a Kingdom not of this earth, and so the kinds of power and privilege one might expect in a kingdom are not the kind we would suppose. James and John didn’t know this. And neither did the other disciples. And sometimes, we forget, too.

Jesus has to remind them – and us – that there are no positions of power here. “It is not so among you,” he says, “but whoever wants to become great  among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all.”

Now, let’s get back to that question. “Are you able?” 

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  Jesus asks them. And Jesus knows that they will. And he also knows that the road will lead to suffering even in the midst of joy. 

I want to ask you to remember a moment a long time ago, on a snow bank, where you and I know this journey really began. A moment of pain, a crisis of sorts, through which God finally and ultimately blew open all of the pre-conceived ideas you had about who you were and where your life would take you. And I want you to look at where you are now.

Are you able to remember that moment clearly? Are you able to remember and hear the call of God begun in those moments, and trust that today, you are closer than ever to answering that call?

Like Samuel, perhaps it took a while before it sunk in that it was God speaking. Take a look around you at this room full of men who will, like Eli, help you to answer when God calls and you don’t quite recognize that it is him. “Go back,” we will tell you, “and say, ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening.’”

I listen to today’s Gospel and I recognize you in it, in James and John: men with ambition in the Kingdom, who do not realize what they are asking for when they ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand.

I remember asking you once, early in your Postulancy with the brotherhood, “If this is all that God has planned in you – this parish, this small town, the members of this parish, this family, the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory – if this is all there is, is it enough? Are you able to accept it, if this might be all that God has planned for you, and see it as a gift? Are you able to drink this cup?”

I know that this is a question that you’ve wrestled with, to discover what it means to be content where you are until God calls you elsewhere. Unlike James and John, perhaps you now recognize that power and authority are different in the Kingdom than they are in the world. And I am so very, very proud of you.

Are you able to be a brother among brothers? With our faults and flaws and drama and all the normal things that come with human communities? There is a song that I love by a contemporary pop artist named Jason Mraz titled “A Beautiful Mess.” It is about the depths and realities of relationships and ways that they change and challenge us, and sometimes in the process of that change or challenge, we experience pain. Sometime deep pain. But listen to these words:

Through timeless words and priceless pictures
We’ll fly like birds not of this earth;
And tides they turn and hearts disfigure
But that’s no concern when we’re wounded together.
What a beautiful mess this is.
It’s like taking a guess when the only answer is yes.

Are you able to drink this cup?  Are you able to love us, and be challenged by us, and to challenge us, and be messy with us as we continue to grow and learn how to love one another? When you or I or any of us is wounded…God is with us.

I have so admired watching you over the last three years as you’ve embraced the perspectives of the vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. And to embrace them not as ends but as means. Means of transformation, means of spiritual growth, means of answering the call of God so that you can show the world what the love of God looks like from the perspective of one who has received it. 

And now, you are prepared to take these vows up. Or rather, you are ready to take up the struggle with them, and the pains and joys of the transformation they will bring to you. To your family. To your parish. To your friends. To the world.

God lit a fire of love in your heart on that snow bank, and God will work with you to stoke that fire until the flames can warm your heart enough should you ever reach another time or moment in your life where pain or sorrow make it feel cold. 

You and God, with the love and help of your brothers, will stoke those flames until they refine you like silver, helping you to burn away the dross – of ambitions, and assumptions, and attempts to do all you can to determine the outcome… of the future… or of our present circumstances.

You and God will stoke those flames until they dance on your very head as you spread the Gospel in the part of the world that God has set aside for you. 

And, as you near the passage from this life to the greater life that waits for us all, you and God will stoke the flames of that love until they become so powerful that they consume your spirit and carry your remains on the mighty rushing wind to the throne of God. 

Are you able to be baptized with this baptism? Are you able to drink this cup?

My brother – we have all taken up the cup. And we all take it up daily. And able or not, we trust in God to help us. We have taken up the baptism that Jesus shows us, unsure of what that holy fire will do in us. But, unlike James and John, we know where it will lead us. All of us, through this life and inexorably to our death and our entrance into the greater life that waits. We know that it may lead to struggle and messiness. But we also know that it WILL lead to joy. Inexpressible joy. We are so glad you’ve chosen the road ahead.  We don't know where it will take us, but we are with you, should God will it and you persevere, whatever happens as we travel together. 

Let us pray:

O Holy One, watch over the times of your beloved children, and grant us peace as we step into the joys and anxieties of unknowingness. For all things find their moment in you. And nothing is until it is. But you always are. Amen.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Celebrations, Firsts, and Reunions

Such a blessing this week to see a vibrant cross-section of the Church in mission, worship, and celebration.

On Sunday, I joined the 40th anniversary of Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries (EAM) celebration at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. As secretary of EAM Council from 2004-2006, I had a very gracious glimpse of the collaboration and mutual support that binds together numerous ministries with Asian-Americans and immigrant communities from all over Asia. The faithful, vibrant diversity of this part of The Episcopal Church filled Grace Cathedral with song, dance, and hope in Christ, and what a blessing it was to be reunited with old friends and kindling new friendships!

On Wednesday, I flew to Minneapolis to join The Rev. Jason Lucas in celebrating his ordination to the priesthood. Church of Our Saviour walked with him in his formation for two years as he served with us first as seminarian intern and then part of our clergy staff. In several additional joys during my brief visit to Minneapolis, I greeted the Bishop of Minnesota, The Rt. Rev. Brian Prior, who himself was a seminarian intern at Church of Our Saviour when Murray Hammond was Rector; Jason’s beloved husband, Matthew Johnson, was ordained to the vocational diaconate along with a dozen others in an historic expansion of the ministry of deacons in the Diocese of Minnesota; and Toua Vang was the first priest in the Anglican Communion ordained out of the Hmong community.

Our prayers, love, and abiding fellowship in Christ remain with them all!

A glimpse of the Presiding Bishop as she prepares to process at the EAM 40th anniversary celebration eucharist on June 23rd at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. Her moving sermon linked the immigrant experience with the spiritual journey of all Christians into the kingdom that Christ promises.
Bishop Marc Andrus blesses the water in the baptismal font to open the beautiful liturgy.
A dragon dance joins the recessional.
A Gregorian and a Franciscan. . . Br. Ambrose, originally from Japan, now resides with the Franciscan community in Los Angeles.

The EAM Japanese Convocation, including The Rev. Stina Pope (far-right), the Vicar of Christ Church - Sei Ko Kai, San Francisco, where I served for four years, grab a shashin with the Presiding Bishop. Joining the convocation this year was the Bishop of Tokyo, The Rt. Rev. Andrew Yoshimichi Ohata.
In Minneapolis, enjoying a nice dinner with Jason Lucas and Matthew Johnson on the eve of their ordinations.
Breck School Chapel, the largest Episcopalian worship space in the Diocese of Minnesota. Ordaining 17 people to the sacred orders of priests and deacons on June 27th filled the place to overflowing!
The four ordinands for priesthood, including The Rev. Toua Vang receive instruction during the rehearsal.
A happy chance meeting with Sr. Laurie Joseph BSG, while we wait for the ordination liturgy to begin.
Toua Vang stands as he is presented by his sponsoring parish, Holy Apostles', St. Paul, and his sponsoring clergy.
Jason signs his declaration of ordination vows. . .
The ordinands pray during the litany.
The Rt. Rev. Brian Prior delivers the sermon.
Jason and Matthew ordained!
The newly ordained in the Diocese of Minnesota.
Habemus sacerdotum!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Grieving a Principle

The overturning of DOMA and effective demise of Proposition 8 in California this week at the hands of the United States Supreme Court bring about a critical moment of justice for those who have been aggrieved for many years: the couples and families who have been denied benefits, access, inheritance shelters, and countless other protections and privileges granted not only to spouses but to their heirs by the government.

Those grievances are real, tangible, documented, and damaging. And they have exacted an emotional and spiritual toll from our LGBT sisters and brothers that will take significant time and effort to remediate and heal. And thousands of other families and couples remain at the crossroads in states that have yet to recognize their most hallowed relationships. There remains much work to be done before their grievances, too, are redressed.

What I question here is the ongoing “grievances” of same-sex marriage opponents, particularly at this late hour. Br. Tobias Haller takes on the whining memo of the Roman Catholic Conference of Bishops, for example. 

Compelling to me is the Supreme Court’s decision in Hollingsworth vs. Perry to deny standing to the advocates of Proposition 8. Kennedy’s dissent, together with the prevailing opinion, makes for an interesting study in what constitutes a real grievance under law (beyond mere disagreement – even if expressed by a voting majority over and against a minority). At bottom is a fundamental question that has been bubbling for me to the surface of this longstanding debate in our Church and culture over marriage:

Who is really aggrieved when a same-sex couple choose to marry?

I suppose, like the Roman bishops, we can argue that some kind of principle – biblical or traditional – is aggrieved. I will leave alone the implied or explicit theological hubris that often quickly follows: that God, therefore, must be offended. But here is where Christian orthodoxy meets the wisdom of secular jurisprudence in the United States: Ours is an incarnational faith, not a theoretical one. Real grievance of the kind we are called to address is the kind that shows up not merely in our principles or theological structures, let alone merely in the taking of personal offense. My grandmother was always fond of saying that there is no accounting for taste!

Real grievance shows up in the tangible, physical effects on the lives of God’s people. The gospels are replete with examples of Jesus making moral argumentation not on theoretical grounds, but on matters that tangibly effect the lives of his followers and audience.  He seems most offended by religious authority asserting theory over practice (a form of hypocrisy), and perhaps even worse, practice or its imposition in the name of God that tangibly brings suffering and injustice upon the people.

And for that reason, Christian morality is most real in this matter only where people suffer not merely an internal violation of their moral principles by the life decisions of others, but an external restriction from sharing in the abundance of God’s creation: love, liberty, dignity, and even such tangible graces as succor, shelter, and food – basics that marriage as an institution can sometimes help ensure.

Standing failed in the Proposition 8 decision because the parties bringing appeal to the Supreme Court could not demonstrate how they had been tangibly harmed by the lower courts’ overturning of the initiative. It is even greater justice that Judge Vaughn Walker’s brilliant and cutting 2010 decision over the fate of Proposition 8 at the District Court level now can stand on its own, especially in the ways it clearly shows the tangible harm Prop 8 wrought on same-sex couples. It is that harm – real and measurable, not merely theoretical – that violates the Constitution and, I would argue on separate yet coinciding grounds, true Christian morality.

Again, Proposition 8 has been shown to be the hollow victory it was – purchased, incidentally, at not only great expense, but by cynically appealing to a most base side of the body politic in California. It is not enough to claim offense and enshrine it into law, even while hiding it behind a hallowed, basic democratic process like a referendum.

The real lesson I wish some of our sisters and brothers would carry forward from this week is that simple appeals to principle or mere assertions about what marriage is will not do. This threadbare, rationally vacuous approach clearly avails little in civil jurisprudence. Nor should it be given any truck in thoroughgoing Christian moral argument.

Grieving a principle is a far cry from the realities of human suffering that our Savior came to address.

Show me precisely how same-sex couples sharing equivalency of rights and privileges tangibly harm my “traditional” marriage, and then we have a starting point for conversation. 

(But as we say in the Midwest: Good luck with that!)

Friday, June 14, 2013

Tohoku, Tokyo, and Kansai Reflections

“Let beauty awake for beauty’s sake.”

– from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Songs of Travel

Azaleas bloom placidly in the midst of urban frenzy outside the Ichihara’s home near Rikkyo University in Ikebukuro, a suburb of Tokyo.

Sashimi presented as part of a beautiful dinner at a restaurant in Sendai, hosted by the Bishop of Tohoku.

With The Rt. Rev. John Hiromichi Kato, Bishop of Tohoku, The Rev. Shintaro David Ichihara, and Goh Saito, a student and acolyte from Rikkyo University. Bishop Kato attended CDSP while I was in my first year there, so the evening was a welcome reunion of sorts!

Mugiho Ichihara and Daniel compare their ABC’s and hiragana in Ikebukuro.

Korakuen Garden (後楽園), considered one of the great three in Japan, offers a famous example of “borrowed scenery.” Okayama-jo (岡山城) Castle is actually on the other side of the river from Korakuen, but here is integrated fully into the garden’s many perspectives.

A chikurin (竹林 – bamboo thicket) in Korakuen.

Okayama-jo Castle, the “Crow’s Castle”, looks forbidding over the Asahi-gawa River.

Central Okayama (岡山市) includes scattered bronze statues of small children, infants with their mothers, wildlife, and this combination near Okayama Station. The hato (鳩), pigeons, add their own life to the art.

The rooftops of Miyajima (宮島), a picturesque island off the Sanyo Coast near Hiroshima. It includes some of the most beautiful shrines and scenery in the whole country.

The great gate or torii (鳥居) at Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社), Miyajima. At low tide, people can walk out to the gate. The shrine is accompanied by a beautiful pagoda and numerous other striking examples of classic Japanese architecture. Every other step offers a picture postcard view.

Todaiji (東大寺) Temple, Nara, is among the great ancient Buddhist sites of Japan, and one of the largest wooden structures in the world.

Accompanying the huge, ancient Buddha Vairocana is an eighteenth-century bosatsu (菩薩 – bodhisattva). Crowds of tourists and children attempt to grasp the wonder of this site.

St. Agnes, Kyoto.

The altar at Christ Church (Pro) Cathedral, Sendai.


Since I learned how to enter the forest of meditation, I have received sweet dewlike drops from that forest. I have found that the door to meditation is open everywhere and at any time, at midnight, or at noonday, at dawn or at dusk. Everywhere, on the street, on the trolley, on the train, in the waiting room, or in the prison cell, I am given a resting place of meditation, wherein I can meditate to my heart’s content on the almighty God who abides in my heart.” – Toyohiko Kagawa

Journeys with my son, Daniel, this past week, have given us further glimpses into the ministry of the Nippon Sei Ko Kai in Japan, and the heart of what might be regarded as Japanese spirituality. The Japanese people have often said of themselves that they are “born Shinto, marry as Christians, and die Buddhists,” a reference to the eclectic spiritual journey many in this culture follow. And it is true. Bearing witness to this reality are the ubiquitous shrines and Shinto holy places, the Christian wedding chapels more common than congregational gathering places, and the countless Buddhist cemeteries that dot the countryside and cities. Less than 1% of the population is formally baptized into Christianity, and of that, only a fraction are Anglicans. Yet the mystical connection with the incarnation everywhere in Japan is so hard for me to miss, even if very few here would describe their relationship with the earth and neighbor using that distinctly Christian theological language.

Christ Church Cathedral, Sendai, has now been razed due to earthquake damage. The congregation and diocesan offices are temporarily housed in rented space a few blocks away until a new cathedral is built.
On Sunday, at Christ Church Cathedral in Sendai, I had the privilege of speaking briefly to the church women who gathered for one of their regular lunch meetings. Christ Church Cathedral currently meets in a rented space – the original Cathedral and its affiliated diocesan offices were too badly damaged in the March, 2011, earthquake to be repaired. (Shintaro Ichihara and I gently argued over whether the rental space could be deemed a Pro Cathedral...) So now, the cathedra is tucked neatly into the corner of a room that would more likely be filled with filing cabinets, work stations, and cubicles. Each Sunday, the devoted members of the community pack into the room for prayers and eucharist, singing hymns to the accompaniment of an old, revered Yamaha pump organ, and then efficiently rearranging folding tables and stacking chairs for subsequent meetings.

The Rev. Shintaro David Ichihara and I are given a warm welcome on Sunday at Christ Church (Pro) Cathedral.

Nozomi Matsumura, Shintaro Ichihara, Daniel, and Katie Young pause for a shashin following Eucharist with the Christ Church community. Nozomi and Katie contemplate their next adventure as their internships with the Issho ni Arukou Project of the NSKK end later this month, and the project itself undergoes a metamorphosis as it returns primarily to diocesan oversight.

I spoke on Sunday of being moved deeply by my brief visit to the Diocese of Tohoku, and witnessing the recovery efforts of the Issho ni Arukou Project, but most especially by our visit to Okawa, Ishinimaki , where so many children lost their lives to the tsunami. The Buddhist altar and commemoration outside the gutted school, surrounded with so many Jizo, reminded me that contemplation and meditation provide the only path to grasp the reality of such tragedy. And contemplation is at the heart of the Christian path as much as any other. What else are we really doing when we accept a morsel of bread and regard it as kirisuto no karada (Christ’s body) and share in a common cup and call the wine kirisuto no chi (Christ’s blood)? The sacramental life is profoundly meditative, incarnational, and bound to draw us into the seeming contradictions of death and life, tragedy and joy, the spiritual and the embodied. The courage, witness, and perseverance of the members of Christ Church Cathedral and many in the Diocese of Tohoku is a testament to their commitment to this sacramental life, lived out in a world that often may perceive their Christian vocation as strange, and yet through Issho ni arukou, they have become friends to so many struggling to move beyond unimaginable loss.

The interior of St. Agnes Cathedral, Kyoto.

With The Rev. John Masato Yoshida, Dean of Bishop Williams Seminary, Kyoto, in the seminary chapel. 11 seminarians reside on campus in a three-year program preparing them for ordained ministry. Daniel was very generous with his Japanese skills, helping with translation during our visit.

Taking full advantage of our Japan Rail passes, Daniel and I have journeyed around the Western part of Japan since departing Tokyo on Monday. We had the honor of visiting the historic Cathedral Church of St. Agnes, Kyoto, and the Bishop Williams seminary just a block away, where the Dean, The Rev. John Masato Yoshida – who also chairs the Standing Liturgical Commission of the Nippon Sei Ko Kai – took time out of his busy schedule to introduce us to one of the NSKK’s two centers for theological education.

That same day, we had journeyed to Nara, the earliest capital of Japan, where in the eighth century, the Emperor Shimyo had commissioned a massive bronze image of the Buddha Vairocana. The casting of this huge work began when Charlemagne was only ten years old , the Gregorian mission to Canterbury under Augustine was barely older than the parish I now serve in the United States, and all of Christian Europe was starting its long journey through the Middle Ages. Keeping that ancient historical parallel in mind added only the magnificence of this contemplative statue that epitomizes emptiness in meditation. Moreso for me was the mental image of Buddhist monks standing together in the statues upturned hand. Our guidebook mentioned that four or five might be seen there together during the statue’s occasional cleaning. 

It’s hard to capture the grandeur of the Buddha Vairocana statue in 東大寺 (Todai-ji Temple), Nara. Imagine four monks standing in the upturned hand, and you start to get the idea. This famous site, housed in one of the largest wooden structures in the world, was overflowing with school children visiting from all over central Japan.
It reminded me of the way Japan sits in all of its vitality in the hand of the divine that we call God, holding together enormous contradictions in contemplation: building, rebuilding, preserving, and constantly reinventing on land that can move at any moment; at the edge of the sea that can overpower even the cleverest of human endeavors at any time.

In the West, we often work hard to resolve contradictions, and too often pursue a false consistency that relies on more denial of reality than anything else. We can gloss over life’s inconsistencies and race ahead in the pursuit of an unrealized future we never reach. We can fill our hearts with the gruel of self-righteous “productivity” while neglecting the cries of needful souls around us. All the while, we miss the power of the present moment – no matter where we are – and what God offers us there. Our Christian sisters and brothers in Japan, drawing on not only the lessons of being minority missionaries amongst their own people, but on the deep heritage of their culture, remind us that contemplation – meditation – is one of the great teachings of the sacramental life, and through this most intimate kind of self-emptying prayer, we connect in the holy present as Jesus did and the saints have done for millennia. 

We then can allow the infinite mercy of God’s grace to connect to us, that only resource that can help us serve in the face of any tragedy and overcome all challenges as part of the Body of Christ, living beyond death.