Practicing Faith Means
To Endure Things You Believed You Could Not.
By Rev. Nobukazu Ikushima
Konko Church of Unebi
(From the August 2018 issue of Konkokyo-ho Ametsuchi)
The State of Our Church Building
After graduating from the Konko Seminary in 1993, I was given a position at the headquarters of the Konko Faith organization which continued for a period of six years. After leaving the position, I spent the next four years serving our Divine Parent of the Universe at my church, the Konko Church of Unebi, under the guidance and leadership of its second Head Minister (Rev. Yoshinori Ikushima, who was also my father). When the second Head Minister passed away in December of 2003, I succeeded him as third Head Minister in January 2004.
A major issue confronting my early tenure as head minister concerned the church building. The worship hall, the rector’s residence and many other areas of our church were fairly old and in need of repair. The current church was built in 1940 after relocating from a previous site and the passing of more than sixty years had taken its toll on the existing structure.
Problems at the worship hall were becoming increasingly evident. A roof tile broke away and fell to the ground, followed by a second adjoining tile that eventually got stuck in the rain gutter. I noticed the broken tile pieces when I went outside to sweep the grounds. Normally, one would have a professional replace the fallen tiles but I thought to myself, “If I should ask a professional to replace all the dilapidated roof tiles, how much would the cost be?” I did not need much time to convince myself that depending upon someone else was not feasible. Instead, I gathered the broken pieces of roof tile and put them together and used wire to hold the pieces in the shape of the original tile, then climbed up the ladder and placed the wired tile in its original location. The embarrassment I felt at that time is something I still cannot forget However, since that day, I have thanked Kami for letting the roof tiles remain in place throughout the day and not having additional tiles fall off at night.
There was another issue concerning the worship hall. The church has one entrance to the hall and three large doorways to conveniently sweep dirt out from the hall. The doorways, however, did not have any wooden storm shutters. Therefore, whenever violent winds from a typhoon approached our city, we had to nail boards across each doorway in an effort to protect the church. During my childhood, I recall helping my father with this effort many, many times. This was tiring work for sure, but I also noticed and realized virtually no one else in our neighborhood nailed boards across their windows and entry ways to protect their homes except us. I was mindful of the noise we made nailing boards across the church windows, but at the same time I was also concerned about the appearance of being privileged to do so, while others could not.
After a typhoon had passed through our area, a church member came. This member had gotten a cost estimate from a carpenter acquaintance for replacing the three large openings with aluminum sash window frames. According to this member, the carpenter’s estimate also included the costs of installing thick wooden storm shutters as well. After reviewing the estimate, I realized the church did not have adequate funds for the window replacement work. I replied to the church member with, “Thank you very much for showing me the cost estimate. I will pray to our Divine Parent so that our church will receive a divine blessing for what is needed for the church building.” I then offered the sheet with the repair estimate to the altar to await Kami’s divine arrangement and receive blessings for the building.
Another concern was the rectors’ residence. When our church moved from its original location to its present site, we also bought an old house that was being used for rent. We dismantled the old house, moved all the parts to its present location and reassembled the house to be used as a rectory. This house had previously been dismantled, relocated and reassembled on two previous occasions, before our church did so a third time in 1940. Quite simply, the rectory was extremely old.
The structure itself had become seriously warped with the indoor pillars leaning in different directions. When I was a boy, I would put a marble on the floor of the residence and it quickly rolled away from me. Had the floor been normally horizontal, the marble would have simply stayed in place. There were numerous other places in the residence building in need of repair and I had this urgent feeling that it needed to be attended to as soon as possible.
During this time, I pondered on what to do with the Worship Hall and rector’s residence. Konko believers from neighboring churches came to my church from time to time for events such as the local league of Konko churches. Some would kindly comment, “Oh, this is a quaint worship hall. Please take good care of this building so it can be well preserved.” People made these kinds of comments on more than one occasion. At first, I was honestly frustrated with the old, beat-up and shabby looking church building. However, now I believed Kami was allowing me to hear such kind comments so I could understand the prayers of the church’s founding minister. To me, it was nothing but a very old building, but to our founding minister, it was literally a treasure of his spiritual life.
I Must Receive Kami’s Blessing
In order to receive blessings from our Divine Parent for the maintenance of our church, I needed to be the first to become single-hearted. In April 2003, KonkoOsakaSenior High School asked me to teach a religion class as a part-time lecturer. I accepted their offer and began to teach at the school once a week. However, this new job became spiritually problematic for me. I already had many occasions wherein I had to be absent from the church to conduct a memorial service at a church member’s home or attending an event of our local league of Konko churches. This new job meant I would spend another day away from my church on a weekly basis, resulting in even fewer days per week, when I would be at the Unebi church to serve members. It occurred to me that there was no limit as to how much money we would want in order to help our church become whole. I simply did not think this was a good situation and honestly said to myself, “I should not be this way. Our church will not be fulfilled unless I receive a grand blessing from our Divine Parent. In order for this to happen, I had to direct my heart to the Divine Parent as much as I can, pray single-heartedly and serve the Divine Parent more earnestly than ever before.” Following my heart, I decided to quit working as a part-time lecturer after two years’ service.
At the time I made the decision, it felt as though I was jumping off a cliff or taking a leap of faith I was never rich so once I was allowed to receive a salary every month, letting it go was extremely difficult. I am one of the least intelligent people on this planet, I can be stupid more often than should be, but I made the jump and leap of faith because I genuinely wanted to receive a blessing from our Divine Parent.
I not only quit the job at the school but also began to be as frugal as possible. I did so in hopes of being granted my wish from the Divine Parent. To save on train transportation costs, I rode my bicycle as often as I could. I rode for more than twenty kilometers one-way to my parent church. I also pedaled to several other Konko churches in the spring and autumn because my church interacts with those churches during the Konko Grand Ceremony season.
At the Unebi church, we steam and cook rice boiled with red beans for our Grand Ceremony. We use an iron plate with a hole in its middle and place it on a globular pot to allow steam to rise to cook the rice. The iron plate was quite worn and needed to be replaced but the nearest available shop was in Osaka Prefecture. My church is located in Nara Prefecture. Asking the shop owners to send a nine millimeter thick, fifty-four-centimeter square iron plate, weighing twenty kilograms would cost quite a bit of money. An occasion arose when I had to go to Osaka and using that opportunity, I visited the shop to purchase the plate, and intended carry the iron plate to the train station for my trip back home. When the shop clerk learned I was planning to carry the iron plate on my own, he was kind enough to put the metal plate on his bike and have it taken to the train station. When someone is kind to you in one of your most difficult times, you naturally feel deeply thankful to that person. I am no exception. I too was grateful for the shopkeeper’s kindness and to this day, I fondly remember this event in Osaka.
I continued to serve at our church every moment possible, totally relying upon and praying to our Divine Parent. By doing so day after day, week after week and month after month, the subject of refurbishing, reconstructing and maintaining our church facilities gradually began to be discussed among the members. As a result, three aluminum sashes were installed for the windows of the church’s worship hall, as were storm shutters. The roof tiles were replaced with new ones. The inner and outer areas of the altar and the worship area of the church were refurbished, and the flooring in all three areas was replaced. In addition, the rector’s residence was also newly reconstructed and in September 2007, we entered our renewed two story rector’s residence.
The Grand Workings of Kami
There was another building next to the church, which had been built in 1955, which had two rooms, each six-tatami in size. This building had been occupied by the founding minister of the church (Rev. Yoshimatsu Ikushima, who was also my grandfather) and his wife, until they passed. These two rooms were perhaps the best of all the rooms belonging to the church and after a discussion with my family it was decided to have my mother occupy these rooms, while my family would move into the renewed rector’s residence. However, when the rectory was completed and we were about move in, I suddenly had second thoughts about our moving into a relatively new residence while my mother would be living next door in a residence that was more than fifty years old. We, therefore, decided to have my mother live in the newly refurbished rector’s residence with all of us.
Due to this arrangement, my wife and I now had the use of two additional rooms next to the church, while my mother had her own space in the renewed rectory. Since my wife and I had much more room than the space provided to my mother, I have had the desire to enable my mother to have easier access to the larger room with the alcove and closet, which is still to be accomplished.
Following the Grand Ceremony for the Founder, Ikigami Konko Daijin, in the autumn of 2012, as I was putting away ceremonial tools and ornaments, my next door neighbor came. The neighbor told me he was relocating to another town due to his work. This neighbor was treasurer for our neighborhood association, and due to his relocating, he was seeking to get the headperson of the ward in our community to take over this task. He wanted me to observe the transfer of duties to the headperson of the ward. My immediate concerns involved how long the home would remain unoccupied and who would eventually move into the vacant house. These concerns arose due to media reports about troublesome neighbors, which was not something I desired. The next morning, although I knew it was not very polite, I called my neighbor and asked what his plans were for the soon to be vacated home. He told me he was planning to sell the home through a real estate agent. At that moment, I felt this was a matter which could not be ignored. I spoke to my elder sister who had come to church and we discussed how we might assemble the needed funds to purchase the home. We were obviously way short of financing as we were pursuing the purchase of a home, not a notebook or an apple and I found myself perplexed on what to do and felt like I was in a maze. After further discussion, however, I came up with a unique idea, wherein my wife’s parents would sell their current home and then purchase the home next to the church. I was aware there was a selfish aspect to my idea and even my sister was a bit shocked and at a loss for words.
However, it would appear that Kami agreed with the idea which became more clear when my mother-in-law came to worship shortly thereafter. I shared with her the discussion I had with my sister. I pointed out that sooner or later, she and her husband would probably be cared for by my wife (and their daughter) and that the current thirty minute drive to their home would no longer be required since they would be next door and more accessible. My mother-in-law agreed and said she would confer with her husband about the matter and asked me to pray to our Divine Parent about this matter as well.
A divine blessing was given to us by Kami and the house next to our church now belongs to my parents-in-law. We tore down the concrete wall in front of the house because the kitchen and doorway face our church. By doing so, we were now able to access their house very conveniently and comfortably almost as if it were additional detached rooms of the church. Today, this house is used by visiting Konko ministers to put on their ceremonial dress for our church’s Grand Ceremony in spring and autumn. In addition, my wife and I were able to store some of our personal belongings in the house, which then created additional space for my mother in the rectory.
For a long time, I had an earnest desire for my mother to have use of a larger room. Perhaps Kami approved of my wish, as it adheres to the teaching which states, “Revere your parents and ancestors, for nothing else is more delightful.” It may also be attributed to my mother’s divine virtue, for Kami knew she had served our founding minister and his wife and supported her husband with sincerity and dedication. In either case, I am deeply thankful that these things have fallen into place in this way.
The Legacy of My Forbearers
About ten years prior to the 100th Anniversary of our church, I had no intention of hosting an elaborate observance, due to the poor condition of the church. However, due to the church being refurbished and reconstructed, it now appeared new and seemingly full of energy. Thus, on November 1, 2015, the Konko Church of Unebi held its 100th Anniversary Celebration of Propagation in the Unebi area in conjunction with our bi-annual Grand Ceremony. Being able to observe the anniversary and Grand Ceremony made me realize that for the past ten years, Kami had been preparing for this event. I was filled with deep awe and respect for Kami’s divine arrangement for our church.
When I reflect on the past one hundred years, I can now confirm what the founding minister and second Head Minister of our church considered important. My grandfather (the late Rev. Yoshimatsu Ikushima and founding minister) spoke to my father (the late Rev. Yoshinori Ikushima and successor) one day and said, “Yoshinori, you must become a minister like yellow pickled radish. Although quickly pickled vegetables may look beautiful and also taste delicious, their color quickly fades and the taste also changes. On the other hand, yellow pickled radish is salted, placed at the bottom of a container and salted again and then covered with a plate. A stone weight is placed on the plate to brine for a number of days. When the radishes are fully brined, they are ready to serve and will never change its color or taste no matter how much time may pass.” Using the analogy of the two kinds of pickled vegetables, my grandfather taught my father the importance of patience over and over again.
Near the end of his life, my grandfather also confessed to my mother, “I have been a bit too tough on Yoshinori. Yet at the same time, I just could not help being so. I have done my very best to make my son into a fine, suitable successor of this church, and for this purpose, I may have been a bit too severe towards him.” Later, my father commented to me about his relationship with his father. “Until I heard this story from your mom, I always thought it was totally me who was being patient and who was being made to endure my strict father. Yet, now I fully realize it was our founding minister who was being patient with me. Now, I am very much thankful to my father, because he trained and guided me and was always being so patient with me.”
In the twilight years of my father’s life, he often said, “If I cannot serve our Divine Parent, I find no meaning in my life.” Carefully monitoring his own health condition on a daily basis, my father performed various sacred tasks for our Divine Parent and fulfilled each to the best of his ability and as his health condition allowed. My father said his life would be meaningless if he could not perform sacred tasks because he had three life-threatening occasions at the age of eight when he was sick with sepsis. He knows this episode in his childhood thanks to the memoir written by his father. As an eight-year-old boy, my father became gravely ill with sepsis and my grandfather, wrote in his memoir, “I thought my son took his last breath, and I had such a moment three separate times.” At that time, my father’s life was literally on the line, and yet his parents gave single-hearted prayers to our Divine Parent for their son. Their earnest prayers were answered as my father did not die and in fact was allowed to live a long life. My father believed his life was extended thanks to a divine blessing, and this very blessing was brought about due to the divine virtue and fervent prayers his parents to our Divine Parent. Before his passing, my father affectionately left the following words to me; “Listen, Nobukazu. Never, ever give up. Once you give up on things, everything will be over.”
When my grandfather passed away at the age of 81 in 1977, I was eleven years old and a fifth grader in elementary school. I only have a handful of teachings from my grandfather, but there is one teaching I have never forgotten. He gave me this teaching when I was about to enter elementary school. He said, “I’ve got something to tell you, Nobukazu. Even if you encounter events in the future that will sadden and torment you, you must fight and overcome them with a spirit of ‘Hang Tough!’” Whenever I have confronted difficult times, I remember the words of my grandfather as well as those of my father and their words have provided powerful support. The attitude of my grandfather at the time of his son’s illness, when he said, “C’mon, I will receive Kami’s blessings at any cost,” and “I will absolutely turn this problem into a blessing,” and focused his attention towards our Divine Parent, has continued to be an important attitude of my faith in Kami to this day.
This is how my grandfather and father realized the Way of Konko Daijin’s faith. Their respective human virtue and divine virtue enabled them to persevere through challenging situations and kept alive the light that shines upon a little corner of the world called Unebi.
Thanks to the abundant virtue of my forbearers, I grew up in total ease and comfort. However, after I began to serve our Divine Parent as a Konko minister, I encountered what I perceived as insurmountable obstacles and felt tremendously desperate, sad and frustrated. My grandfather’s words that lay dormant in my heart were resuscitated and I unconsciously uttered, “C’mon…c’mon…c’mon… To practice faith means to endure unbearable things.” I said these words to myself, probably because I was sure that if I gave up, all I had said to my congregation about faith would be nothing but lies. I thought to myself, “If I were a regular person and did not practice faith in Kami, it might be OK if I give up and threw everything away. However, I am practicing faith in our Divine Parent, and I should know that these events are being brought to me as Kami’s divine arrangements. This means I should be able to endure and overcome such events. When I am able to do so, it confirms that I truly practice faith in Kami. To endure means to withstand what is seems unbearable, and to practice faith means to endure things that appear insurmountable.” Reciting these phrases in my heart over and over again, I was allowed to overcome that enormous hump lying ahead of me. I was allowed to get over that hump and be totally and spiritually present when our church commemorated its 100th anniversary.
What I am thinking about now is that I should never allow the grand blessings I received at the time of the 100th anniversary go down the drain. We may at times minimize that which guards our faith or become distracted especially after we have realized blessings from Kami. We can also become inattentive towards maintaining an earnest faith in our Divine Parent. When we are in a situation where it appears that no divine blessings are in sight, we should always remember that it is an indication that our next blessings are simply being formed and are forthcoming.
We should cherish our spiritual custom of thanking, apologizing and praying to Kami. We should cherish receiving Konko Daijin’s teachings, trying to reform the way we are, and being careful not to overreact to joyful or sad events. We should cherish being able to address the very things that lay ahead of us with Kami, and do so at each passing second of each day and month. If we succeed, we will surely be able to realize Kami’s blessings at every moment without interruptions.
It usually takes me twice or even three times longer to complete whatever I do compared to others and thus I often consider myself a not-so-useful individual. For this reason, I am also fully aware that Kami is incredibly patient with me, and I am apologetic to our Divine Parent for this. Since I cannot make dramatic changes in myself overnight, I seek to perform each task as sincerely and wholeheartedly as possible, as a means to thank Kami, the Divine Parent of the Universe.