Struck by the conviction of those around her that Ken Shigematsu’s book God in My Everything should be required reading for the contemporary Christian, Convivium’s Hannah Marazzi set out to have a conversation with the West Coast pastor and author.
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Convivium:You are described as a pastor, author, “global thinker”, and trustee. First and foremost you describe yourself as a person of faith. Can you share with us how you first came to know Jesus?
Ken Shigematsu: When I was a teenager, I was going through a time where I was getting into a lot of trouble. I was shoplifting, joyriding, experimenting with doing and dealing drugs, and getting into fights at school. My parents, who are traditionally Japanese, were concerned about me. My dad ended up taking me to a local prison, saying, "I wanted you to see your future home." He wanted to scare me straight, but that didn't really have much of an effect on me.
My father had recently become a follower of Jesus himself, and so he took me to a Christian youth conference here in Vancouver. I heard the good news about Jesus, and how I could have a new beginning with God. I opened up my heart to Christ, and my life slowly began to change.
C:You are the author of God in My Everything. You mention in the introduction that a sermon you gave on finding a spiritual rhythm resonated to a surprising degree with diverse members of your congregation. What do you think it was about your message that seemed to most resonate with them?
KS: One of my colleagues was slated to preach a message on the Sabbath on an upcoming Sunday. Something came up with his family, so he had to be out of town. I didn't have a lot of time to prepare, and I ended up speaking extemporaneously on the rhythm of life that I had developed from the teaching of the monks. It was a simple message, but I talked about how this rhythm enabled me to experience God, not just when I was praying, but while I was working, spending time with my family, even playing. There was a tremendous response to the message. A lawyer said he listened to the CD nine times and asked me to get together for coffee to talk about it more. Then, an artist in our community approached me and said, "I don't like rules and routines, but tell me more."
People tend to be busy, and yet, many want to have a deeper life with greater connection with God. I think the combination of people feeling, in some cases, overwhelmed with their life, and yet, wanting to have a rich connection with God, struck a chord.
C:One of the most delightful portions of your book examines the role of play in the rhythm of life. You say, “God invites us to play.” Can you share more about the importance of play with our readers?
KS: Last week, I was out fishing with our nine year old son Joey, and we were at one of the rivers in North Vancouver. When Joey's fishing, he just really lights up, he's very excited to catch a fish, full of joy. As a father, I take pleasure in his pleasure.
I think it's the same with God, our father, that when we find ourselves full of joy and overflowing with a sense of life and gratitude for existence, God takes pleasure in that. I think God takes a great deal of delight in our delight. Play can actually be a form of worship, and as Irenaeus said, "The glory of God is a human being, fully alive." One of the best ways to become fully alive is to do the things that make you truly, truly joyful.
C: A significant portion of your book reflects on the need to incorporate rest into our rhythm. You describe Sabbath as “a sanctuary in time.” How has your definition of Sabbath evolved over the years?
KS: It struck me, back when I was in seminar, ironically, I probably should have known this at the time, the Sabbath isn't just a suggestion. It's one of the 10 commandments. I felt convicted to honor that commandment of God, back when I was in graduate school. I tend to be a workaholic by nature. For those of us who tend to be type A, tend to define ourselves by our production, this is a really important commandment to honor. I found that by honoring Sabbath, I could work from a place of rest, rather than desperately needing to rest from work.
For me, the Sabbath is not only an invitation to rest, and to work from rest, but it's also an invitation to trust, to live not just by the sweat of my brow, but by the grace of the manna that falls all around me.
C: You are also the pastor of a church in the vibrant metropolis of Vancouver. How would you describe the contemporary spiritual landscape of the space in which you find yourself?
KS: The Vancouver Foundation sponsored a study on the greatest social needs of our city. To the surprise of a lot of people, the number one social need that was identified was actually loneliness. A lot of people feel isolated and disconnected, even in the midst of a city with people from a lot of different places. I think that that represents an opportunity for the church to provide authentic community for people of all backgrounds.
There's a real hunger for things that are spiritual here in Vancouver. Most people's first instinct is not to attend a church or some religious ceremony, but they might pursue yoga, some kind of form of meditation, or spend time in nature, to feel a sense of connection with the transcendent. I feel the church can provide a community where people can feel social connection, but also the spiritual connection, as well.
C: Prior to entering full-time ministry, you worked for the Sony Corporation in Tokyo. Would you be open to sharing a little with our readers about what led you to make the transition from businessperson to pastor?
KS: I really loved my time in the corporate world, and yet, I also felt a sense of restlessness, that this wasn't going to be my long-term calling. I felt that, given my gifts and temperament I would be serving as a better steward of what I'd been given by serving as a pastor. I found that even though pastoring is just as demanding as working for a Fortune 500 company, for me, it's made me really come alive.
There are very real stresses; I face crises in people's lives. I also feel like I'm doing what I was born to do. There's a sense of life. I will tell people, when they're considering vocational choices, to do what makes them come alive, to follow the path where they feel freest. As they are fully alive, God will use them, whether it's in pastoral ministry, missions, in the business world, education, or medicine, or some other vocation.
C: You enjoy “reading spiritual classics and pursuing most monastic ideals.” What spiritual classics would you put on your “must reads” list?
KS: An important of mentor of mine, in a manner of speaking, historically, has been Ignatius of Loyola. I found that his spiritual exercises, which are more meant to practice than to be just read than transformative for me.
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I'm going to be entering into a sabbatical soon for a couple of months. I'm planning to read some of the works of St. John of the Cross, including Dark Night, and the Ascent of Mount Carmel. A lot of people, and I have gone through this myself, have gone through a dark period, either spiritually or by experiencing depression. I want to find out what this great spiritual father of the church, this poet and mystic, has written about that.
I love the writings of Henry Nouwen. I have a tendency to judge myself and evaluate my worth by what I do, the work I get done. Henry Nouwen's writings remind me that I am valued not because of what I accomplish, but by virtue of the simple fact that I am a beloved son of God. That's really freeing.
C: How would you describe monastic ideals to those who are otherwise unfamiliar with monastic traditions and practices?
KS: Often, the monastic ideal is defined around a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I'm not suggesting that every one of us is called to poverty in a monastic way, where we sell all that we have. I think that we're all called to simplicity. I've made a commitment, along with my wife, to live at a certain income level. That if more money should unexpectedly befall us, we would maintain our lifestyle and give the rest away.
For example, when I wrote God in My Everything, I set up the contract with Harper Collins in such that none of the royalty money would go to me personally, but would go to a fund that would support missions and work with vulnerable children. This coming month, it looks like we're going to be able to give a six-figure gift to our mission partners in Cambodia that work with orphans and with children that are vulnerable to being trafficked into the sex trade or into slavery.
I'm a married guy, so I'm not completely living out the monastic vow of chastity. For me, this is interpreted as faithfulness in my relationship with my wife. Obedience, for me, means whenever I understand something to be the word of God that I will seek to follow, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
John O'Donohue was a mystic and a poet, and a priest, for a time. He said, "The duty of privilege is absolute obedience." Most of us in Canada, by most standards, are really privileged. We have so many gifts. I feel that John O'Donohue is absolutely right. The duty of privilege is absolute obedience. It's going to look different for me, living in a place like Vancouver. Like monks and nuns, I want to have that spirit of, "God, if you say it, I want to do it." As I lose my life through obedience, the paradox is with Jesus that I actually find it.
C: When many people think about the term “monk” they think about the concept of someone withdrawing from the world. Conversely, you use monastic ideals to advocate for sustainable engagement in the world. How do monastic ideals serve as the blueprint for a life of radical, sustainable engagement?
KS: Monasteries historically not only served as places of prayer and worship, but also as emergency shelters, hospitals, even universities and mission-sending bases. I think that sometimes we feel that monks and people who pursue monastic ideals are only concerned about their personal spiritual life, or what happens in their cloistered community. Mission wasn't something that you, or I, or someone in church history invented on a Thursday morning. Mission really springs from the heart of God.
As we spend time with God, we also cultivate a heart for the people on the margins. Pursuing God in prayer and in worship isn't just about the cultivation of our own, personal spiritual lives, but it's going to propel us to bring the justice and beauty of Jesus into our homes, into our neighborhoods, into workplaces, and into the larger world.
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