Friday, June 14, 2013


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.

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