Thursday, July 25, 2013

In Life & In Death, We Belong to God

My grandfather, Satoru Nishita, and my mentor Bert Tom died last week. I sent a text to a Korean American pastor friend of mine saying, “All these old guys are leaving us.” 

This, of course, was not meant to be a theological statement.

This was a statement that was perfectly me: a bit dramatic. I am struggling with the passing of a generation of Asian Americans who faced racism and the assorted foibles of their professions with dignity. The generation of my grandparents, born in the U.S. but imprisoned by its own government for being of Japanese descent during World War II, is a generation that left a profound imprint on my generation and my mother’s generation, and it is slipping away before we get a chance to hear all the stories.

Both of these men were Presbyterian. Bert served as the Associate Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of San Francisco, among many other functions of ministry. My grandfather was a long-time member of First Presbyterian Church, Berkeley. They were both Asian American. They were both fans of good liquor and great food. And they both taught me by example to be really good at whatever it is I do, make trouble when it is necessary or maybe just fun, and spend time engaging and encouraging young people.

I met Bert a decade ago, after he had retired from officially working in the PC(USA). He kept working in the church up through this year, when he was diagnosed with acute leukemia. It is my understanding that he came through the ministry of the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown – San Francisco and its neighborhood ministry, Cameron House. Those of us who were younger Asian American ministers and seminarians who got to hang out with Bert found he could be blunt, teased us plenty, and was a softie underneath it all. He knew the church inside and out, and I always had the feeling he had seen more than his fair share of the church’s racism and other ridiculous unchristian behaviors, but he had seen the church be faithful, too.

My grandfather was proud of his five daughters and six grandchildren.  He was a well-regarded landscape architect, accepted as a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1989. He was committed to beautiful design and the natural environment. He was proud of his Japanese American identity and loved the music of Nat King Cole. You can read his extensive biography here:

What is not included in his official biography is his argument with an Italian border guard, who asked him, “Are you American?” My grandfather said, “Japanese American.” The guard asked him, exasperated: “Are you Japanese or American?” My grandfather said, “Japanese American.” It does not include how he tried to take some photos on the sly when his plane was hijacked to Cuba (they all came out blurry). What I remember best about him in his later years was how each time I came to visit, he bought too much Japanese food, and encouraged me to eat it all in total disregard of my actual capacity.

In his book, Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, homiletician and theologian Tom Long distinguishes between Death and death. Death, capital “D” is destructive. It is the ultimate enemy. It is dehumanization (p. 39). Death, lower-case “d” is simply the fact of our human mortality (p. 38). These old guys. While death claimed my grandfather and my mentor, in very different ways their lives taught me to struggle against Death, against powers and principalities, against environmental destruction and racism. They leave us with a legacy of commitment to justice, and a desire that the beauty of the world be revealed.

The poet Janice Mirikitani writes:
Footsteps lead to destiny.
We dance honoring ancestors
who claim our home,
and freedom to pursue our dreams.
Our voices carve a path for justice:
Equal rights for all

Mirikitani poem quoted in Jane Naomi Iwamura’s chapter “Ancestral Returns” in Off the Menu: Asian and Asian North American Women’s Religion & Theology, eds Rita Nakashima Brock, Jung Ha Kim, Kwok Pui-Lan, Seung Ai Yang. Westminster John Knox Press.

Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas Long. Westminster John Knox Press.

My grandfather's obituary was published by the San Francisco Chronicle on July 28th.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Yes, I'm a Minister. No, I Don't Have a Church.

This is the title of my blog because this is a conversation I have on a consistent basis. Any other ordained clergyperson who does not serve in traditional parish ministry probably feels my pain/pride right here.

It’s my own fault. People ask what I do, and depending on my mood, I might say I’m a minister. Earlier in my ministry, I could have said things like “program coordinator” or “young adult leadership development” or “alumni relations” or “development” or “chauffeur/event planner/conference facilitator.” Now I could say “public relations for a church publishing house” and get away with it. It’s just that I really am a minister.

These people who ask me what I do, innocently enough, usually ask the follow-up question: “Where is your church?”

This is a perfectly logical question. In our cultural lexicon, ministry has been primarily associated with the parish. It was my intent to enter parish ministry when I graduated from seminary. Both my parents are in parish ministry. I know the rhythm of the church year by heart. Church life is such a part of my being that I don't understand how people think of Easter as a family holiday; for me it was always one long day at church, complete with multiple services and a hurried brunch with worship leaders and their kids.

My life and call didn’t turn out the way I thought it would. This is probably a good thing.

Instead, I have been in other kinds of ministry for almost eight years. I am good at navigating big, diverse systems. I delight in being present to multiple people in multiple places. I feel called to make connections between individual people of faith, local churches, and the resources of national and international ecumenical and denominational structures. I revel in putting on a good event for diverse people of faith in which something holy might happen. I find that being in multiple churches as a guest preacher or communion celebrant, or other capacity for work, keeps my worship life interesting. I love going to church and having pastors, instead of being the pastor. I won’t lie – I also love having most weekends and major holidays off, after spending those days the first 18 years of my life at churches that employed at least one person in my family.

Yes, I’m a minister. No, I don’t have A church. I’m in ministry in THE church.

For another read on institutional ministry by the Rev. Laura Everett, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, here:

*For the non-Presbyterians among you, or those Presbyterians who are wondering why I use the "minister" term, the PC(USA) is using other terminology than “ministers” and “elders.” Since my conversations are frequently with non-Presbyterians, I use “minister” because it is the most familiar term to the average American. When I was ordained, ordained lay people were called deacons or elders, and ordained ministers were called Ministers of Word and Sacrament. In the current Form of Government, ordained deacons are still called Deacons. Those who used to be known as “elders” are called Ruling Elders. Ministers are called Teaching Elders.

For a helpful interpretation of the Book of Order, including updated information on the new Form of Government, see this Geneva Press book:
Presbyterian Polity for Church Leaders, Fourth Edition

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Business of Interpretation

I started working at Presbyterian Publishing Corporation almost two months ago. PPC houses the imprints of Westminster John Knox, Geneva Press, and The Thoughtful Christian.

I thought I would go through my personal bookshelves and pull out every book that is one of these imprints, or an older imprint that pre-dates the creation of WJK.

The four pictures above are the result of this little exercise.

Are you worried these are all the books I own? Nope. You're missing a nice view of the gajillion other books I have scattered all over the house. It is also true I used to have more books. My household has been through at least five good book purges post-seminary.

I love books. I have them in paper format and in e-book format. I love to check out books from the library. I love receiving books as gifts. I love looking through other people's bookshelves.

In this blog, I will be posting musings, reflections, rants, and general randomness as a part of my ministry. I am doing church relations for PPC, sharing about PPC's products, and listening to the church for what it is that you out there really want to see PPC produce. I am in the business of interpretation. I hope you will read this blog, share it, maybe even check out some of the resources available. But most of all, I hope you will find something to laugh about, roll your eyes over, or ponder.