deck chair, titanic

An American priest once told me about a vision he had. He was a down to earth kind of guy, not really given to visions. But he told me about what he believed was a real vision from God, which happened while he was at a gathering of clergy in his Diocese (which rhymes with Kerjin-ya).

In the vision his fellow clergy were sitting around a table, passing around a huge mason jar. Everybody was stuffing the jar with cash. When the jar was full, somebody took it and started squirting lighter fluid into it. Then, they set it on fire. Everybody watched the cash burn.

The priest who told me about it was horrified: You're burning the money! This is a waste! This is sinful!

His interpretation: The clergy gatherings were a complete waste of time and energy. From that day, he stopped going.

I was thinking of his vision at the Tokyo diocesan synod today. Over a hundred clergy and lay people together from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. And what did we accomplish that will have any meaningful impact on anyone's life? Hmm...

The highlight of the day for me was the opening prayer, which includes these words:
Increase the numbers of those who believe in Thee, heal those who are troubled in mind or body, bless the children, restore those who have fallen into evil and turn them toward the good, bring back those who have wandered far from Thee, forgive those who repent, and grant that all who live in this land may share in your salvation.
The rest of the day had absolutely nothing to do with any of those things. Instead, we rearranged deck chairs on the Titanic. Hearing reports from a dozen committees. Changing the way the diocesan tax (I mean, assessment) is calculated. Drawing down more funds to cover expenses.

The last order of business was a resolution to send the Government some Statement about getting rid of nuclear power plants. I never speak at these meetings, but I stood up to speak against this resolution--because the drafters didn't manage to craft the actual language we were supposed to send.

I don't know whether the government should abandon nuclear energy. I do know neither the government nor anyone else in Japan will give a flying fig about what the Tokyo Diocese of the Nippon Sei Ko Kai has to say about it.

We represent less than 5,000 people in a country of 120 million. We should be worried about growing in holiness, proclaiming the Gospel, loving our neighbors--you know, living as Christians.

Not sending out meaningless statements on diocesan letterhead. And not wasting a whole day focusing on nothing of substance.


and I mean to be one too (1 john 3:1-3)

Back at my home church of St. Alban's last Sunday. Got to preach in English for the first time in a while! They were observing the Feast of All Saint's that Sunday.

We're celebrating All Saints today. We're actually five days late. Somehow we manage to observe Halloween on October 31, but find it harder to celebrate the feast of All Saints on it's proper day, November 1...

Oh well, better late than never!

DO YOU WANT TO BE A SAINT? I remember a song we used to sing in Church when I was a child (singing): "I sing a song of the saints of God, / patient and brave and true, / who toiled and fought and lived and died / for the Lord they loved and knew."

Do you know that song? It goes on to list a lot of different vocations: One was a doctor, one was a queen, one was a soldier, one was a priest, etc.

The last words were (singing): "...and I mean to be one, too."

The question I want to ask today is: Do you? Mean to be a saint, that is?

CREATURES, BUT NOT CHILDRENSometimes you hear well-meaning Christians say things like "every person is a child of God." It sounds nice. I suspect such statements come from a desire to affirm the dignity and value of every person, and not to come off as arrogant or closed-minded.

These are good desires. We should affirm the dignity and value of every person. We shouldn't be arrogant or closed-minded

But when we say "every person is a child of God," I think we're claiming more than what the Bible allows us to claim. And when we start going beyond what God has revealed to us, we run the risk of actually obscuring the truth, replacing reality as it is with our own preferred version of reality.

And if we start out with a false or distorted version of reality, we have far less chance of making smart choices about things that really matter.

I think we can say with confidence that every person is a CREATURE of God, made by God, in His image, and therefore with inherent dignity. And we can go further and claim that every person is LOVED by God. "For God so loved the world (which means all people in it) that He gave His only begotten Son." (John 3:16). 

But I think we're on very shaky ground when we say every person is a child of God...

Sons and daughters love their parents and seek to please them, make them proud. They seek ways to be helpful to their parents. They look to their parents for direction. They are quick to obey.

(That is to say, good children are quick to obey. My children, well...not so much. When I tell my seven-year-old to take his foot out of his sister's ear, I mean "now" but he thinks, "in a few minutes, when it gets boring.")

Sons and daughters come to bear a family resemblance, in terms of the way they speak and act, and set their priorities. Sons and daughters mature in the character of their parents.

In this sense, the Bible very clearly says human beings are NOT children of God. We do not seek to please Him and serve Him in the world. We do not resemble God in our words and actions. We do not reflect God's character.

At the very least, I think we have to say that, if are children of God, we are children who have turned our backs on our home, and squandered our inheritance, and are living as prodigal sons and daughters in a far country.

Like the prodigal son in Jesus' parable, if we are honest most of us would have to confess: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son" (Luke 15:21).

I know that's been true of my life.

EVEN SO, CALLED CHILDRENThe amazingly good news of Jesus Christ is stated straight out in our Epistle today: "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God." (3:1)

I want you to take some time simply to savor that. "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God."

Even people like us, unworthy as we are, can be called children of God--and that is all down, not to anything we do or don't do, but to the sheer, incredible love of the Father. And because God in His love has called us His children, "that is now what we are."

Please get this, because it's important: We WERE NOT children of God, we WEREN'T WORTHY to be called His children, but now we ARE His children because out of love He has CHOSEN TO CALL us His children.

At the beginning of his Gospel, John puts it this way: "To all who have received [Jesus Christ]--those who believe in his name--he has given the right to become God's children." (John 1:12)

Notice there are no conditions attached to this. "To ALL who have received Jesus."

You can't get more inclusive than that. There is no discrimination here. Nobody is shut out or told "you can't belong."

In biblical terms, the "name" of Jesus signifies the meaning of His life work, and above all His atoning death on the cross. Jesus' name literally means "God saves," and to believe in His name is to bet the farm on the salvation He won for us through His death.

When Jesus came into the world, in fact, He was traveling into the far country where all of us prodigal sons and daughters live, far away from the love of the Father, spiritually starving, morally impoverished, dishonored, disgraced, caught up in a cycle of wounding and sorrow and selfishness and hard-heartedness.

Jesus came into this far country to lead us all home again. The cross became the road home for us.

You don't have to understand exactly how that works--it's hard for me to wrap my head around it a lot of the time--you just have to know that it was for you, too, and receive the gift of salvation from His hands.

CHILDREN, AND SO BECOMING SAINTSSo, because of God's love reaching out to us through Jesus Christ, we have been put into a new status with God: "Beloved, we are God's children now" (1 John 3:2) .

But the Good News doesn't end there:
"Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when Jesus is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure." (3:2-3)

We are children of God, and as His children, we are all heading in a certain direction. The details of where we're going aren't clear. There are probably lots of things we can't fully understand from our present vantage point. What's important is that we will be like Jesus.

John talks about "purifying" ourselves. I don't know about you, but hearing the word "purity" instantly makes me think of goody-goody, holier-than-thou types—the kind of people I tend to want to avoid.

(I think this is one of the devil's linguistic victories, actually, to associate perfectly good words like "purity" with mostly negative connotations. Kind of like "holy" is associated with "holier-than-thou" and "righteous" morphs into "self-righteous".)

So it helped me to me as I was thinking about this sermon to focus the phrase "just as He is pure." Just as Jesus is pure. I think of Jesus as someone who was able to laugh from the belly, but without mockery. Who was brilliant without being cynical. Shrewd without being jaded. Who understood the ways of the world and of the human heart better than anyone else on earth, but was always capable of experiencing simple joys.

Jesus said: "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it" (Mark 10:15, Luke 18:17)

Maybe part of being a child of God means recovering this kind of purity--the ability to enjoy the simple blessings of life, the ability to take life as it comes...and the ability to obey in small, daily things.

Where we are heading is on a need-to-know basis. Simple obedience is all that's expected of us. (I'll date myself if I draw a comparison to Karate Kid: Wash on. Wash off. Or in the new Karate Kid--actually Kung Fu Kid: Put on jacket. Take off jacket. The boy didn't know what the destination was. He simply had to obey.)

Earlier in his Letter, John wrote: "Whoever says, 'I abide in Christ,' ought to walk just as he walked" (2:6). Here is where the Sermon on the Mount is PURE GOLD to a child of God, seeking to walk as Christ walked.

We read the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount this morning, the so-called "Beatitudes" of chapter 5. The Sermon goes on through chapter 7.

The Sermon on the Mount is a roadmap for living life with a child's heart, a child's purity. It's kind of like a GPS navigation system for aspiring to Christlikeness. It marks off the road of purity and joy, and it also warns against the dead ends and dangers of the world, which lead us away from God.

Leon Bloy, a 20th century French writer, once said “the only tragedy in life is not to become a saint.” Becoming a saint is about realizing our deepest, greatest potential, becoming who we were truly destined to be. What a shame it would be to miss out on that.

At the end of the day, becoming a saint is not about what you do--you can be a doctor, or a queen, or a soldier, or a priest, or whatever--but it's about how much love you do it with. And God--who is Love, as John writes in this letter--who comes to dwell with His children, and in us, is always ready to give us His love to do all the things we do to please Him.

The saint, the child of God who, with God's help, tries and keeps trying to walk just as Christ walked, has this to look forward to: He, she will see God as He is. And God is more beautiful, more delightful, more satisfying, than anything we can possibly imagine.

The saints we remember today are already there! Do you mean to be one too?


Sveiks! to my Latvian readers

From time to time, I check the record of traffic to Still a Long Way Off.

As far as I know, there are about four people in Japan who know about this blog. One of them is my wife. And even fewer people in the States (although my friend Anne at An Undercurrent of Hostility kindly linked to me from her blog--I will return the favor when I can work out how to...)

With the global reach of Internet search engines, I'm not surprised to get the occasional random visitor. I seem to get a lot of Japanese-language visitors who are searching on particular Bible passages.

I get the occasional European or Latin American visitor.

I get a fairly steady, tiny trickle of visitors from South Korea (감사합니다)

But I am mystified as to why I suddenly had 30--thirty!--visitors from Latvia last week. Or maybe it was one Latvian guy who kept coming back for seconds? Or better yet, a beautiful Latvian maiden desperate for theological enlightenment?

Seriously, why the sudden interest? Did my secret past as a CIA spy operating in Eastern Europe suddenly turn up on Wikileaks? Does the word "Kevin" mean something amusing in Latvian? Did I do something horribly offensive?

Well, all I can say is: Paldies! Let me know what you think, and why I had the pleasure of your visit.

Uz redzēšanos! Ceru, ka drīz atkal tiksimies!





(ヨハネ・パウロ第二世の「体の神学」を説き明かすクリストファー・ウェストのホームページを参照しました。特にこの記事:"What is the Theology of the Body & Why is it Changing so Many Lives?")

no marrying in heaven (Luke 20:35)

From my study of Luke 20 this week...

"Those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage." (Luke 20:35)
On that day, our longing for union will not be jettisoned--it will be fulfilled. The mystery of marriage is merely an earthly sign of the heavenly reality. When we are in heaven, we will no longer need signs. The "marriage feast of the Lamb" (Rev 19:7)--the union of love we all seek--will be consummated. All who are bound to Christ will be bound to one another, forming the community of the redeemed, the holy city of God, the Bride of the Lamb, who is Christ. The miracle of becoming one flesh that husband and wife experience on earth is a foreshadowing of this (Eph 5:31-32). For us, this will be a completely new experience, but it will also bear a recognizable resemblance to the deep, intimate, child-producing union experienced by husband and wife in this life.  
h/t Christopher West's website dedicated to Pope John Paul II's "Theology of the Body." See the article "What is the Theology of the Body & Why is it Changing so Many Lives?"


left behind: tsunami stories (V)

A volunteer from the nursing college was visiting an evacuation shelter a couple of months after the tsunami. There, she met an elderly couple. Both of them had mobility issues due to their legs.

When the earthquake struck, they were at home with their daughter. As the tsunami warnings started sounding, the daughter grew worried about her son, their grandson, and decided to go pick him up.

She helped both her parents get up on the low table in the dining room, in case the waters came in and the floor got wet. Then she set out in her car to find her son.

The tsunami came rushing into their house, and the old couple found themselves being lifted up, along with the table, all the way to the ceiling. Like a raft.

The water was about to engulf them, too, and they were sure they were going to drown. But then it suddenly receded, setting the table gently back down on the floor again.

Although the inside of the house was in shambles, the two of them were wet but unharmed.

But their daughter and grandson never came home.

The grandmother couldn't stop crying as she related this story in the shelter. "It should've been us who died," she kept repeating. 

The grandfather just kept rubbing his useless legs, saying nothing.

the wisdom of babes

Chaplain's Message from the November 2011 issue of "Akarui Mado (Bright Window)", the hospital's staff-oriented newsletter.

Before I became a father, I really didn't pay much attention to babies. I had never really spent much time around them, actually. Guys don't usually spend hours fawning over the newborn children of their friends.

I thought babies were cute, sure. Like puppies or harp seals or those Kobito Zukan (gnome) characters. Cute, but not all that interesting. And I figured, in the end, their cuteness was probably outweighed by stinky diapers and sleep deprivation and endless screaming.

But then my first child was born, and I got to spend time with a baby for the first time. I got to hold him, and rock him to sleep, and give him the bottle, and listen to his little breathing sounds. I got to let him sleep on my chest. He rode on my shoulders.

And I had to change lots of diapers and lose sleep and put up with screaming. But I didn't mind so much.

I discovered that this baby was fascinating. That all babies are fascinating. They are little mysteries. They never get boring.

But babies grow up and become Little People. Still fun to be with, to be sure, but not nearly so mysterious.

Recently I got the chance to hold my friend's seven-month-old daughter at a church festival. She was very calm, not nervous around strangers at all. She was content to let me hold her and walk around.

(I went around introducing this very Asian-looking little girl as my daughter—"She takes after me, don't you think?" and enjoyed seeing the confused look on people's faces.)

One of the things I find so interesting about babies is their utter acceptance of reality, and their total trust in their parents.

Later in life, we start trying to change our environment. Younger children try to use words like magic to change things. "That WASN'T the last strawberry! It WASN'T! There's more!" I takes them a while to discover that that doesn't work, but when they do, they start learning to influence people in other ways, with begging, threats, pressure, argument, the exchange of favors.

In fact, they're no different from grownups. It's just that grownups get more skilled in these tactics.

And children also learn to doubt their parents, because sometimes our parents do what we want, and sometimes they do what's best for us, even when it's not what we want.

Anyway, we learn to see our environment as something changeable, and we learn to see the people around us as at least somewhat untrustworthy.

But what I wonder is, do we lose something important in this learning process?

It seems to me that babies are born with a certain kind of knowing--not knowledge, or information, or rational conclusions, but a kind of direct intuition.

Knowing, for example, that there is Someone greater than us, Someone on whom our life depends--and realizing that this Someone knew us before we knew Him, and called us by name before we even knew we had names

Knowing that when we cry out for help or comfort, our cry will never go unheard.

Knowing that whatever comes up in life, in the end, all will be well. We may taste pain, or hunger, or fear, or sadness, or loneliness, or separation, for a time, but finally, all will be well. We will never be abandoned.

Sometimes when I have the rare opportunity to hold a baby, I wonder, have I lost sight of something important in the process of growing up. And I think, can I get it back somehow?






















kindergarten in a hotspot: tsunami stories (IV)

The following is an excerpt of a documentary I was recently asked to translate into English:

Kohriyama is home to Saint Paul's Kindergarten. The school is located in one of the city's so-called radioactive "hotspots."

School employees carry out decontamination efforts every single day. Both in the morning and in the evening, they break into teams to wash the entire school building. They also wipe down all surfaces inside the classrooms.

The children wear masks to school. Even the children understand that masks are helpful in avoiding contact with radioactive materials.

The high radiation levels at the school weren't discovered until more than a month after the nuclear meltdown. Inspectors from the Education ministry informed the kindergarten about the radiation amounts. The topsoil of the school grounds was immediately dug up and removed.

But no one would agree to dispose of the topsoil, so it sat in a pile in a corner of the school grounds.

Radiation measurements taken of the dirt pile were high enough to be reported in the news.

After searching for a solution to the disposal problem, the school finally decided to seal the contaminated dirt in thick rubber sheeting and bury it deep underground in an area next to the school.

Now that the dirt has been taken away, radiation levels on the school grounds are down to zero-point-three microsieverts.

For a while, requests from parents to take their children out of the kindergarten were increasing. But now that decontamination efforts have brought radiation levels down, the parents' anxiety has turned into a deepened sense of trust.
[The head of the kindergarten:] "For these children who can't leave and go somewhere else, I thought, how can we let them run around and play--how can we make sure they have a safe place to be? We've just got to clean things up and bring the levels down. That's basically the only thing I worry about every day.
We're fighting a horror that we can't see. If it had color we could wipe it up, or at least keep from touching it. If it had a bad smell we could go inside... But it's nothing like that. That's what makes it so scary."

playing funeral: tsunami stories (III)

The following is an excerpt of a documentary I was recently asked to translate into English:

On the first day back, childcare students from St. Mary's College in Nagoya came to volunteer at the kindergarten.

Their reason for coming so far to this place? They wanted to be with the children who had gone through the experience of the tsunami. What surprised the college students was how the children played during break times: "Pretend Funeral" was a popular game…
"What do you want to play? Funeral? Medicine?"
"There wasn't any medicine at Grandma and Grandpa's funeral!"
Eight children from Fuji Kindergarten died in the tsunami. For many people, starting up the school again brought very mixed feelings.
[The head of the kindergarten:] "Should we really go ahead with this after eight of our children died? Part of me thinks we shouldn't. We had about 50 children there, scared to death in the buses… We hadn't done anything at all to provide psychological care for them."
"We have a big responsibility toward the children who lived, who are alive."
It's important to focus on the here and now for the children who lived, who are alive. That's probably what Junko Nakaso, who died while trying to save her children's lives, would have wanted.

last bus ride: tsunami stories (II)

The following is an excerpt of a documentary I was recently asked to translate into English:

Minoru and Yoshimi Miyake, whose lives were lost in the tsunami, were devoted members of St. John's. Their daughter, Junko Nakaso, was also one of the victims of the tsunami.

Junko worked as a teacher at Fuji Kindergarten in Yamamoto-cho, a town just north of Shinchi-machi. On March 11, Junko and her colleagues were riding the bus home with 18 children from the kindergarten when the tsunami struck.

Reports say that the bus and all its passengers were swept along by the tsunami and struck a house, and then began slowly filling with water.

In ice-cold weather, Junko worked to get all the children safely out of the bus. While waiting for help to come, she sought to encourage the children and keep them calm. Military rescue efforts began the next morning.

By that time, Junko had already been called home to be with the Lord.

holding on: tsunami stories (I)

The following is an excerpt of a documentary I was recently asked to translate into English:

Minami Sanriku-cho in Miyagi Prefecture. Nearly three quarters of the homes in this town were lost in the tsunami.

One of the town's residents is Kiyomi Suzuki. When the tsunami struck, he barely escaped. That day, when he sensed the danger of a tsunami, Suzuki hurried to reach higher ground. He climbed to where the factory of his handicapped son was.

When he got to the top of the hill, Suzuki turned to see the tsunami pouring in over the town below. Just a few minutes later, he says, the tsunami had risen all the way to his feet.
"Uh-oh, I thought. This is not good. Then all of a sudden it came rushing up to where I was."
Desperate, Suzuki ran to the buildings behind him, but the rushing water soon rose as high as he was.
"When I got here, the water was already up over my head. So I was being pushed along with the wave…I was floating in brown water. And then I saw this [drain pipe].
Until I got here, two or three times I came close to drowning. I thought I was going to die. Oh, so this is what it's like to die, I thought. I was almost ready to give up. And then I found this drain pipe. I thought, I've got to grab onto this. I grabbed it like this… And then, a few seconds later, whoosh! The water went down. All that water, and then it was gone. There was nothing left around here. It all happened so fast. In the blink of an eye."