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.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Let Them Live Again

At the original Fuji Kindergarten, Yamamoto,  Jizo – statues of spiritual beings believed in Buddhism to shepherd the souls of deceased children, protect the living, guard travelers, and reside at the thin places between life and death – are placed in a circle in the memorial garden to honor the students who died there and the teacher who gave her life to save many others in the March 11th, 2011, tsunami.

A sermon delivered at Christ Church Cathedral, Sendai

by The Rev. Shintaro David Ichihara

trans. ed. The Rev. Br. Richard Edward Helmer

The Third Sunday after Pentecost

For the past few weeks, I have struggled with what it would mean to preach in Sendai, since both the Gospel and Old Testament readings today are stories of dead sons being restored to life.

This weekend, Richard and Daniel Helmer and I visited several parts of the Diocese of Tohoku. It was a first visit for Richard and Daniel to these tsunami-devastated areas; I had seen them before. Nevertheless, Okawa Primary School still had me at a loss for words. All that I could offer was Elijah’s prayer: “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” And, of course, this is the cry of parents who lost their children to the tsunami. It is profoundly difficult for me to preach about this from the pulpit, thinking of the reality that these families must continue to face.

One commonality found in the two stories we hear today is that the dead in each instance is the only son of the family, and he is survived only by his widowed mother. This means the widows faced a very difficult future. In their societies, a woman could not live without a patron, whether it was her father, her husband, or her son. Lacking all of them, the widows’ plight in these stories was without hope.

Elijah and Jesus both fought with this reality, and yet we know in our earthly pilgrimage that the sons of widows and countless innocents will not be raised today from the dead. The harsh reality is that the families of the victims of the tsunami remain in deep sorrow and pain, and they may never find full healing. So how, then, does today’s word speak to us?

A few weeks ago, Genji Yamaura, a Roman Catholic doctor who translated the four gospels into the Kesen Japanese dialect (spoken in the area of Ofunato) delivered a special lecture at Rikkyo University, where I serve as a chaplain. During the lecture, he invited questions from the audience. One question was, “Why do so many innocents have to experience such hardship? What do you think?”

Mr. Yamaura replied that after the earthquake and tsunami, he reached a simple conclusion: every human being dies. Regardless of the cause of death – whether tsunami, earthquake, or cirrhosis of the liver – everyone must face death. The implication of the question itself is that good people should not die, while bad people should. As you know from experience, this is nonsense. Jesus himself said that natural disaster is not a punishment from heaven. Even if people have to endure great hardships wrought by disaster, it does not mean they are making recompense for some kind of sin. God created the world so that everything on Earth might enjoy life. We are ultimately God’s instruments. Our only task is to attend to the world’s reality while listening to God with a pure mind and await the enlightenment God promises to give us. This is our most important task in life, even as we face the fact of our ultimate demise in the future.

Elijah did not have the power to compete with the desperate power of death on his own. He could only ask for God’s power to restore the boy’s life. Jesus happens upon a group of people in a funeral procession, and he has compassion for the boy’s mother. As many of you know, the words “have compassion for” implies a visceral response: a feeling in one’s abdominal organs. In the Gospel of Luke, “compassion” regularly appears with the words “see” and “approach.” The deeply seated reaction of compassion is what compels Jesus’ actions; compassion is what brings the dead son back to life.

After visiting Shinchi, Richard and I talked about the gospel for today. We had just heard the tragic story of Fuji Kindergarten and wondered how it intersected with the story of the widow’s son being brought back to life. Richard suggested that the regained life was a communal life. Not just the restoration of an individual’s physical life, it is much more: it is restoration of life in community.

Even though we all pray for return of life to the dead, we struggle with our lack of power to make it happen. Moreover, we all face a destiny of death someday, for which there may be no explanation. Yet isn’t it possible for us to see the reality of both life and death, to approach them – using the words of Luke – and to find in that approach the compassion to help recover the people lost in sorrow? While we do not even have the power to heal sorrow, we do have the power to help restore their life in community. In this sense, the focus of regained life is not just for the sons, but also for their mothers.

We are approaching an important milestone of the Issho ni Arukou Project. At this time, I feel we are called to listen to the word of God, who brings hope that everyone in such deep pain and sorrow may be restored to the fullness of life in community. Regardless of what happens next with the Project, we Christians are called to lead our lives after the example of Jesus, who sees, approaches, and has compassion; who says, “Do not weep anymore.” 

This might indeed be the special calling at this time for the people of the Diocese of Tohoku.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

When Words Fail

Katie Young, Shintaro Ichihara, and Nozomi Matsumura discuss the day’s plans.
As if yesterday’s visit to Shinchi were only a warm up, today our host, The Rev. Shintaro Ichihara, gathered us with two interns in the Issho ni Arukou Project: Nozomi Matsumura and Katie Young of The Episcopal Church’s Young Adult Service Corps. Their experience helped me greatly widen my understanding of the scope of Issho ni Arukou. Far more than just providing community relief efforts for natural disaster, the program has been helping support and provide community for immigrants married or moved into Japanese society and their children, ranging from English skills to tutoring to vocational development throughout the Tohoku diocese and region.

Katie and Nozomi’s guidance helped us also widen our vision of the scope of the earthquake and tsunami disaster. Nozomi furnished us with a finely detailed road atlas that showed – page after page – the reach of the tsunami devastation in each coastal city and town along the northeast coast, along with more aerial before-and-after pictures. And so the five of us drove north together from Sendai to Ishinomaki, a port city originally founded upon the rice trade. Driving along the coastline, we stopped to behold the tsunami’s intractable legacy on an urban setting. From burned out cars to the husks of houses where no next of kin can determine property disposition, the destruction of the tsunami remained prominent well beyond two years since the ocean first breached the sea wall. A hospital where many died was slowly being demolished. The shell of a huge school stood as testimony to the horror of young lives vanquished suddenly by an onslaught of cars and debris piled up and driven inland by the raging waves. There was no protection then from the ensuing conflagration as all that fuel gathered together and caught fire. Many subsequently perished from a blaze in the midst of water.

Most of central Ishinomaki was damaged or destroyed, and 3,000 people died there. The search for bodies continues to this day even as the city struggles to rebuild. All around are signs that read “Ganbarou Ishinomaki!” – Let’s work hard, Ishinomaki! – an appeal to the stubborn determination in the face of epic tragedy – a determination that forms the backbone of a people’s renowned resilience.

But what utterly silenced me was the journey a bit further north and east to the site of Okawa, a little agricultural village-suburb at the end of a lovely long valley of rice fields nestled between rolling, green mountains. On the way, we passed by miles and miles of trucks and workers rebuilding a massive levee system along the idyllic river and estuary. Okawa sits at the mouth to the ocean, right at sea level. Or I should write there it sat. All that is left of this community is the remnants of Okawa elementary school, a sarcophagus of terrifying proportions – an open entombment of memories of the 74 children and 10 teachers who perished there when indecision left the school’s children in the direct path of the raging waters at the foot of a steep mountainside. Shintaro told me just one teacher survived and has not been able to speak since. Only 30 pupils of the school lived to recount the event. Okawa has now all but disappeared into the ocean as the land mass of Ishinomaki descended during the earthquake by as much as a meter or more in some places. The school itself is like a huge relict or architectural headstone for the little town reclaimed by the sea forever and families broken irreperably by unspeakable tragedy. They still come and leave flowers and offerings and illumine the ruins by night.

It’s impossible to capture the heartfelt emptiness the shell of Okawa elementary school evokes. The scene screams for silence and challenges every possible path of explanation or comprehension. No wonder people come and go all day, reflecting on the tragedy that it represents, making pilgrimage perhaps not only to this shrine for the dead, but into the frightening depths of their own misgivings. But, then, that’s what thin places are for: to open us up to our own fears not about what might be, but what is, and come to grips with reality unfiltered by our denial or dreaming.
Outside the broken and twisted remains of the school are images of the Buddha along with a brand new memorial for the remembered dead and a statue of an angel looking skyward as a sign of hope. Okawa reminded me of the wounds of Christ: Christ on the cross, Christ in the tomb, Christ risen from the dead: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” that eucharistic enigma of contradictions at the spiritual foundation of our tradition. Okawa is the epitome of these contradictions that only silence can begin to comprehend. Wordy prayers give way to contemplation holding together the ironies of life and death, human ingenuity and insurmountable natural forces, fateful decisions made or not made by the well-intentioned, the simultaneous fallibility and heroism of leadership, the towering arrogance of the ego and humbling reality of suffering, the wide-eyed lively innocence of children in the face of certain death. . . Okawa elementary seems almost frozen in time, its wreckage capturing a moment that circumscribes our true nature in humility, that shatters our pretensions before our Creator; a thin place where our faith is not measured any more in ideas, theologies, or words, but rather only in watchful, contemplative silence. 

Dutifully cultivated flowers mark the perimeter of the school gutted by a fire that followed the tsunami’s destruction in Ishinomaki. Surrounding the school is a wasteland of debris and bare foundations. On one foundation sat an elderly man in silence next to a child’s bicycle while we were there. Whether it belonged to his deceased grandchild or was a simple memorial to the children who died there, we could’t tell nor ask.
A constantly tended Buddhist altar and memorial markers adorn the entrance to the Okawa elementary school grounds.