Torii – A Gate to God?

IMG_2552

Torii, a link between the sacred and profane – a gate to gods and all that lies beyond. Does this mean that God is there and not here? Are we left without guidance or care unless we search for it? And when we seek, is it enough to pass through, beyond? Who is there to greet us, and how far should we go? 

So many questions spring from a deep desire for the divine, to encounter the one who created, formed and fashioned. Yet this Shinto shrine is not where HaShem dwells. Instead people come to pay respects to Kami gods. Does this mean that God is absent, the Alpha and Omega is limited by space and belief?

So often we are guilty of confining God, of organising God within our own understanding. Why is this torii filled expression of God not acceptable? That deep yearning to know, to be heard, to find that which lies beyond propels people to pursue, to purify themselves and pray. It is beautiful and honourable.

Even though these expressions do not fit with that western, middle-class, male driven understanding of God and worship, does that make them second rate, or worse, unacceptable? Must all ritual and practice fit into one single understanding of God and salvation? Is Jesus the Christ absent in this space?

Does Jesus, our intercessor, fail to hear or acknowledge the steady stream of pleas written on ema? Does he refuse to take them to God our Creator? Is this a place where the Holy Spirit refuses to go-between one and another? Is the Trinity absent or unwelcome here? I cannot conceive that it would be so.

God is not limited by time and space – Adonai cares for creation, people and place. God is here as I pass through the Torii, and God is present on my return. God lives in each of us, we see an echo of that divine, perfect face in one another. Torii, rather than being a gate towards the  sacred, is a reminder that God is here – now.

Growing disciples in an age of busyness

I had the great privilege of spending a few days alongside a community of ordinands at Central Theological College in Tokyo during my time here. The college itself felt to be a symbol of the history and potential available to the NSKK (the Anglican Church in Japan) more widely, with its huge space to accommodate the, as yet, unknown.

A number of people I have encountered have said that the NSKK is shrinking, both in terms of membership and clergy, and needs to think more widely about growth strategies. Whilst it feels like this is an issue that may be pertinent to a number of provinces and dioceses in the Anglican Communion, and yet the ways in which growth is often understood – typically by what can be quantified – concerns me a great deal.

I found myself reminding my hosts of Jesus’ ministry: how his twelve disciples became eleven after a huge betrayal and the crucifixion – and yet modern Christians are the legacy of such humble beginnings. Despite the logic, against the odds, followers of ‘The Way’ grew in large numbers…but why? What made such growth possible all those centuries ago, and yet seemingly so difficult to achieve now?

There is something about both modern British and Japanese culture which boasts an element of entitlement to all things material. All things are possible in our societies – from electronic baths to robot servers to control of household appliances from smartphones. In my view, people within our societies have never been so busy and yet we are given (for a price!) so much to help with that.

One question which keeps coming back within all of these musings is ‘What does the Good News have to offer that is liberating within our tired, over-pressurised society?’ Put more simply, what different way does the Good News point to? When membership of a church means taking on the running of an aspect of church life, volunteering to help with children’s groups, planning the annual church festival or bazaar, and being added to the coffee, reading and prayer rota; what aspect of this new life is liberating? It has struck me that possibly churches have ceased to be attractive to working people because they simply do not have time to participate in all that they are expected to.

I remember trying to justify to my priest why I could not be involved in a fourth church activity as a full-time secondary school teacher who regularly needed to work between 50-60 hours a week. He did not understand and thought that I ought to speak to my line manager about my workload if I was not able to find time for this one other thing. Incidentally, there was no conversation about whether I was gifted for this one other thing or called to it!

So, how can the Church be more relevant to the people it serves? How can it offer liberation from the pressure that we are barely able to see much of the time, due to busyness? Equally how do we move away from the cycle we seem trapped within of serving the church (building), rather than the church (followers of God) serving the wider community?

My hosts heard me refer back to prayer so many times whilst I was with them, but it is so important. I was tasked with praying for between two and three hours a day for each day I served within the NSKK, and through that diligence I have grown in the depth of my relationship with God and noticed God changing my outlook….this example from Jesus is surely the first place to begin?

Seeking the Holy

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I have loved going to places of pilgrimage in Tokyo and blending into the background as I watch the expectation of the sacred or seeking of the experience of the sacred. Yet at Sensouji, it was not so much the obvious places where I found the sacred, but somewhat off the beaten track. Old treasure, lighting, stillness, solitude or the wind offered wonderful reminders of that ever present divinity – if only we will stop long enough to look, to see, to hear and to feel.

間 – ma (space between)

I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the ways in which difference is held together in Japan, and the Japanese understanding of beauty and stillness. I have been struck by the number of people from other lands who have made Japan their home for so many years, as well as reflecting on my own story, and why I returned to Britain after living here for four years. There is a mix of ancient and modern, secular and sacred, stillness and disturbance, each held in such close proximity.

DSC_0001

There can be invitation alongside hostility…

DSC_0002

…it can feel like two parallel universes; equally as a foreigner here, all that I have known can feel like it is from a parallel universe, one that is presently inaccessible.

DSC_0033

Rituals and respectfulness can demonstrate the beauty of the soul.

DSC_0026

Often blue sky and sunshine can elevate the soul.

DSC_0037

Equally, without warning, unfortunate events unfold; those that you would much rather leave behind or not have to receive, like ‘bad fortunes’ that can be left in the safety of the shrine rather than accompanying you home.

DSC_0051

Then there are customs which bring you to your knees, like these prayers for children – especially those who did not have very long with us – given hats and bibs to keep them warm, as well as windmills to offer relief from the sun.

DSC_0053

It seems that there is nowhere quite like this wonderful place of contradictions amidst harmony – where space or stillness is sought after within a busyness that I may never truly understand….

The draw of Meiji Jingū

What better activity for a wet and dreary Saturday afternoon than to visit a Shinto Shrine? Having been in Tokyo for just a week, working through the jet lag for most of that, I was keen to get out and about.

Slightly surprisingly, we weren’t the only people who had this idea, and the weather was little distraction for most.

But why Meiji Jingū, why this day, why in the rain? Is this about belief, tradition, or something else? In the midst of the busyness of Tokyo life, whether or not Shinto traditions are followed, is there some sort of peace and calm to be found in such a place of pilgrimage?

What draws people to leave their Ema or prayer requests under the divine tree?

Is it really possible to claim that belief in God is on the decline, when people pilgrim from all walks of life, from all stances of belief, to remember those whom they love before the divine?

Could we be doing more to help those who are seeking the light?

Is it possible that such a divine light can be found in many places, if only we were more open to see? In the hands and feet, eyes and ears of one another?

For me, Godly encounters are not in churches, jinjas or temples; though the peaceful, holy presence can be so tangible. Rather, when the rain trickles down my face, and I am amongst something of God’s divine creation – then I feel most alive to the presence of the living God.

Silence

‘…for silence has always been part of the Japanese way. “We Japanese think we can better express our feelings by silence.”‘

Taken from In search of Japan’s hidden Christians by John Dougill.

How often do we make things worse by trying to say the right thing…?

A mile in their shoes…

I finally got to see Arabella Dorman’s Suspended at Leicester Cathedral yesterday; an art installation which is truly overwhelming.

The full title, Suspended – in search of light evokes a powerful image of displaced people fleeing the darkness in search of light. All of these clothes were worn by refugees who arrived at Lesbos cold and wet, as well as exhausted, from traumatic journeys which can barely be imagined. Taking time to really look at these clothes I saw people of all ages and walks of life – displacement had been incredibly inclusive!

Focusing in on the shoes got to the real heart of the matter for me – probably in many cases favourite shoes showing how people left in haste; who would have chosen to wear some of these shoes for such a treacherous journey…? These shoes and items of clothing represent real people with real lives, and real fears which forced them to leave all that they had ever known behind, even to the last items of clothing that they had chosen for themselves….

Take off your shoes

Before standing on her own two feet
practical, not pretty Start-Rite shoes
shielded her; she tentatively walked
endless pavements to school alongside
familiar, reassuring, rhythmic, adult feet.
Soon childlike shoes were gone, replaced;
the landscape was different, new paths,
alternative possibilities, came into focus.
Not letting the grass grow under her feet
she kept moving, step by step – desperate
to escape, to leave well-trodden, mundane,
uniformed pavements and paths, but why?

Thinking on her feet she landed in a
varied town, then county, yet paths were
still littered; countless over-worn feet.
Well-loved Doc Martens of every colour
replaced the once worn Start-Rites –
still practical not pretty, yet beauty lies
in the eye of the beholder! The start of a
new adventure, discovery, exploration of
novel places, original spaces, unique faces.
DMs were powerless to ward off itchy feet.
Before long lovable DMs jumped in feet first
to find warmer climates favoured sandals!

Sandals accompanied bold cumbersome
daredevil enthusiastic feet, then cold feet.
they caught tears of loneliness, defeat;
they tried running, finding a different way;
still she persevered. Sandals grew tired
as did novelty of alternative paths, pastures.
Returning home she’d be back on her feet!
Where was that? Too far to walk or run! Home –
it felt like a moment in time unable to stand still.
Homely paths had changed remarkably….
They took new people to the same places
amongst different faces in nostalgic spaces.

Going back was no mean feet! Before one foot
was in the door she knew this would be raw!
It wasn’t right – she had two left feet!
They explored the lure of being bare along
a distinctive, strange, overgrown path:
hallowed ground. She fell to her knees
at the feet of the One who was, and is
and ever shall be! Awe grasped her,
she gasped as breath left…it returned anew.
Feet now firmly on the ground felt echoes of
creation underfoot urging her home,
finally taking the weight off her feet.

Off Limits…

How often do we see something that seems completely out of reach – or where it is within reach, it is clear that it has not been cared for? These are photographs from a visit to another parish, with a particular focus around a children’s play park. Why is it that in some areas play parks are well-resourced and seem to attract, whereas in other areas they seem to repel those for whom they are intended. Could we do more to be part of the solution…?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Identity

DSC_0006.jpg

Our sense of identity is so important for our mental wellbeing, and yet identity is a complex weave of so many different aspects of self, some of which we can control and some which we cannot. Four weeks ago I was ordained priest, and I think I can honestly say that the weeks which followed that long anticipated and celebrated occasion have been some of the most challenging I have ever had; they have certainly called me to question who I am in this new role. At ordination our Bishop read the ordinal for priests; it was quite an overwhelming moment just before taking my vows to hear all that is expected of a priest. The following is a small extract which summarises quite well the events of my last few weeks:

“…They are to bless the people in God’s name. They are to resist evil, support the weak, defend the poor, and intercede for all in need. They are to minister to the sick and prepare the dying for their death….”

Every aspect of priesthood is a huge privilege, and yet the real and huge life issues I can be dealing with mean that it is easy to lose sight of a sense of self.

DSC_0002.jpg

A number of years ago I took a job with Loughborough University as part of the Widening Participation governmental agenda. This meant that I was no longer a teacher, and it was much more difficult to explain what I did for work. I had not realised how profoundly my identity had been tied up with my profession, and it was a painful shedding of something that had been life-giving for me; I came alive in the classroom, and loved the challenge of helping students to develop a thirst for learning and a passion and enthusiasm for my subject (Religious Studies).

I had thought that after spending a year as a deacon, it perhaps would not feel so different as a priest, but that is not so. Indeed, everything feels very different! It feels like I am revisiting aspects of identity all over again. For one thing the stole we wear as part of our robes when we are taking services is now worn over both shoulders, rather than just the one.

CSC_0185

It is a reminder of the yoke or responsibility that we bear as priests. Every time I put on my stole I am humbled by a feeling of insignificance – in truth I am not now, nor will I ever be ‘good enough’ for this, yet here I am.

Having the responsibility and privilege to bless people is truly wonderful; blessing or anointing people who are sick, or close to death is just beyond words. It is so painful to be alongside people as their loved ones pass on from this life, yet there is something compelling about needing to be there in the darkest moments, as well as those times of joy, in order that no one be forced to face these situations alone.

I have also been stopped on a number of occasions, asked if I am a priest, and whether I would mind praying for the enquirers who were usually people of different faith. It was as though they thought that my prayers may be, somehow, more valued.

DSC_0271.jpg

In addition to all of this the summer holidays began two weeks ago and each day since our church has been a Holiday Hunger hub, seeking to feed any children in our area whose parents cannot afford lunch for them as they usually receive free school meals. The stories that some of these families carry from a western country is truly shocking and leads me to another aspect of the role of priest which feels different as I explore it – that of advocate; helping people to find their voices and stand up against serious injustices.

Within all of this my identity has become more complex to pin down. It is not for shallow reasons that I might tentatively see myself as being what someone needs me to be in that moment, but rather for profound reasons: because God lives and loves us and I am called to be a person of prayer and peace to serve as a reminder of God’s love for us each and every day.

When I was much younger, an art teacher at school described me as a jack of all trades and master of none. That hurt me to my core as a tentative 12 year old, desperate to find that thing that I would excel in. Turns out I  excel in being a jack of all trades….

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Ascribed to Eleanor Roosevelt