Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Sign of Peace

In liturgical traditions, the Rite of Peace or Sign of Peace is performed just before the Eucharist (I have only experienced the Catholic and Episcopalian versions, so don't know how far this reaches into non-liturgical churches). The ostensible purpose is to bring a spirit of fellowship into the meeting before that fellowship is perfected in the Eucharist. In both of the versions I have experienced, after a short exhortation the celebrant asks the congregation to give a Sign of Peace, and basically you go in a circle and shake hands with everyone around you while saying "Peace be with you" or whatever you want.

There is a lot of talk in the bloggernacle about the relative merits of members loudly visiting with each other in the chapel before sacrament meeting begins and after it ends. I tend to come on the side of being for it because of the spirit of fellowship it can bring into the meeting.

But what about the people sitting in front of, behind and on either side who we don't chat with before the meeting? I perceive that we are in a different stage of life or socio-eceonomic class, I have reason to believe we wouldn't get along very well, or I am naturally shy, etc. What if there was a chance to offer a Sign of Peace to everyone around regardless of my own little cliques?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Marriage Amendment

In a few days I, as a member of the church in California, will be officially asked to actively support a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman.

My feelings on this subject are complex. I think there are good arguments on both sides. On balance, though, I think that my idea of good public policy on this issue lines up with my private morals enough to compel me to vote for the marriage amendment. I would really prefer a solution that involves the state disengaging from the concept of marriage, at least while the U.S. birthrate remains relatively high. I don't really want to discuss these arguments directly here.

I do want to highlight a number of concerns about the church taking official action to endorse the amendment. Most of these concerns relate to what I describe as negative externalities, or costs that are not taken into account, in officially asking the members to take action. I can also think of negative externalities of the church not taking official action but, since it is endorsing the amendment, here is a partial list of side-effects. These are generally culled from comments I've heard in GD over the past couple of weeks:

-The state is increasingly seen in church settings as the proper arbiter and enforcer of the morality of private, personal relationships. The problem with this is illustrated by asking why we don't seem to mind that a whole host of immoral behaviors, some which may be more destructive of traditional marriages than same-sex marriage, remain legal;

-The church's endorsement of this amendment is too easily conflated with a blanket endorsement of other conservative or republican-affiliated issues on which the church actually remains neutral (i.e. the smugness level with which certain far right political hotbuttons (i.e. anti-U.N., anti-global warming) are brought up in church increases);

-Since "the brethren have spoken," some members may have less of an interest or motivation in learning about the underlying legal and civic issues going into the proposed amendment, even though we are taught to educate ourselves about important political issues;

-Support for this amendment, and particularly the wording of the letter, is easily confused with the misleading "activist judge" rhetoric that already infects our national discourse;

-Support for this amendment seems to blur the important distinction between private morality and good public policy; and

-Official support for the amendment has already given ill-informed journalists and the like a springboard to publicly rehash the church's own spotty history with the whole concept of marriage.

Certainly I don't think that any or all of these reasons are necessarily sufficient to indicate that the church should not officially endorse the amendment. I trust that there are a great many positive things that could come from the church's involvement in this cause.

But personally, I can't help but feel a little unsettled when the church chooses to cast its pearls into the compromised and decidedly secular political pigpen.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Great Shrine

Bishop Noda lowered his voice as the dishes were cleared one evening in his modest home - he had something important to tell us.

"Have you both been to the great shrine of Izumo?"

Indeed, we both had. He was referring to Izumo Taisha located in the next town over, reputedly the oldest extant Shinto shrine in Japan and the chief tourist attraction in this forgotten corner of the country. I had previously served in the town hosting the shrine and had been there several times.

"You know that inside the shrine are various secret symbols of the deity that few people have ever seen?"

Did I ever. Discovering the contents of the Holy of Holies of Shinto shrines had become a significant diversion for me as a missionary. Occasionally, I had some success at finding smaller roadside shrines with their doors left open, and one time I made my companion press through a crowd with me at a shrine festival to get the best possible view of the head priest heading into the Holy of Holies. Later, I studied Shinto obsessively and learned that the object standing in for the deity in most Shinto shrines was usually an old bronze mirror or, less often, and old sword or curved jade bead.

And I don't call it the Holy of Holies for nothing - similarities between the layout and function of Shinto shrines and the temple, specifically the ancient Hebrew tabernacle and temple, are striking and had a lot of currency among members and missionaries as a shadow of proof that the Japanese people were literally one of the ten lost tribes. (It only helps that anthropologists and linguists still can't offer much in the way of an explanation for the origin of the Japanese race or language.) A member of the 82nd generation of the Senge family, in an unbroken line, serves as the high priest of Izumo Taisha and only enters the Holy of Holies once or twice a year during certain festivals. And apparently, no one else ever does.

A tantalizing possibility appears in the writings of Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish-Greek-American who lived in this town in the 1880s and wrote extensively of what he saw. His slice-of-life portraits of painted geisha jostling with two-sworded samurai as they clickety-clack over curved wooden bridges, sculpted gardens and temples illuminated by rows of paper lanterns, and ghostly spirits rocking the foundations of the town's medieval castle illustrate the possibility that this was once a fully realized foreign world, before the successive waves of globalization took their toll. Hearn wrote a letter to the then-serving high priest of Izumo Taisha and, in return, received an invitation to visit its Holy of Holies. He described this experience in Chapter 8 of his most famous compilation, "Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan," where he noted that he was the first (and undoubtedly last) foreigner to ever be granted such a privilege. Ultimately, it appears that the image of the main deity was further enclosed in a shrine within the shrine which was not opened for him, but he still came fairly close.

"I once heard that the high priest of that shrine gave a talk and let a secret slip about the contents of the shrine...."

My curiosity was piqued.

"The priest said that one of the objects representing the deity is a stone with a Hebrew character inscribed on it. It was said to have been carried from a distant land where the Japanese race came from and enshrined here in Izumo by the clan that settled here. They researched lots of different writing systems and concluded that the character was definitely Hebrew."

And then it all made sense. It may or may not be the case that one of the oldest and largest shrines in Japan really contains an ancient and secret Hebrew inscription. More likely, it meant that the great shrine tangibly connected Bishop Noda and those he served in his small ward to something greater - the Gathering of Israel, the lost Ten Tribes. Who was I to tell him anything different?