Sunday 5 April 2020

Karate... A Way of Love

I wrote the following paper as part of my grading to Shodan (first level black belt) in March of 2017. In response to the question, "What does karate mean to me?" I chose to explore how my faith in Christ and my study of karate intersect. 

Karate - A Way of Love
Benjamin Harapiak - Student of Deo Namwira Sensei
Goju Karate St. Norbert / Karate for Christ North Kildonan Dojo
March 23, 2017

“International Meibukan Gojyu-ryu Karate-do Association (IMGKA) we are more likely to hug you than punch you.” - Sensei Kim Marshall, 6th Dan Renshi

As I have prepared for my Shodan grading, I have taken some time to look back on my karate journey. It all started somewhere in July 2012 when I met with Kelley Ewert, a member of our church family about a crazy idea he had. At the time he worked for a local Christian ministry organization and his coworker happened to run his own karate dojo in south end of Winnipeg. Our subsequent meeting with Sensei Deo Namwira seems like an eternity ago mainly because of the great friend he has become. Here was this Congolese man with a heavy accent sharing with me the peace emphasis of the sport of karate while trying to see if our church would be interested in joining with him in setting up a Christian based dojo.

There were a few things that stood out to me that made me incredibly passionate about the possibility of a karate ministry from the very beginning. One was the fact that it would be open to young and old. Another was the clear peacemaking foundation of this style of karate, Meibukan Gojyu-ryu. Finally, it was Deo Sensei's own clear passion for the sport as a Christ follower and for leading it as a ministry. After checking to see if this was something I could just go ahead with (and it pretty much was) I decided to dive right in and book some rooms in the church, put up a few posters, and give things a try. Here we were, a small group of guys between the ages of eight and forty-something in a room learning karate for the first time in sweat pants. By the third week we had our uniforms, and week by week our community grew. A father and daughter one week, a young couple the next, a wife, a daughter, a friend; and suddenly we had a very neat community coming together.

Our classes were chaotic at first with some of the young boys constantly jumping around doing their best impressions of karate kicks accompanied by loud “hiyaas,” but through Deo Sensei’s incredible patience and calm demeanor we began to learn that karate wasn’t about impressive displays of physical strength at all; but about patience, dedication, perseverance, and above all things, love. Deo Sensei would often share with our class that karate-ka are trained to avoid the fight at all cost, and that it was never about winning an inevitable fight, but of not losing.

“While many people think and believe that Karate is a "fighting art," Okinawan Karate has always been a “self defence art.” While some teachers in some parts of the world teach “how to fight,” we teach “how not to fight.” In case one is faced with an unavoidable fight others teach “how to win,” but we teach “how not to lose.”  - Master Meitatsu Yagi Sensei

I first met Sensei Kim Marshall soon after my grading to 6th Kyu as Matthew Schmidt and I attended a seminar at the Winnipeg dojo with Yagi Akihito Sensei. Any nerves I had walking into this unfamiliar dojo filled with blue, brown, and black belts were quickly assured by his warm handshake and kind welcome. Through the years our visits to his dojo and his visits to ours became more frequent, and the handshake was replaced by a warm and very strong embrace. While overseeing one of our gradings, Sensei Kim stated the following to our group. “Karate is about love.” He went on to explain that our training, honing the physical skills to stop the fight before it happens and protecting those in need of protecting, was an act of love even towards the aggressor by preventing them from hurting others or themselves. As a Christ follower and a vocational minister of His Gospel, I immediately resonated with this as I thought of Jesus’ words in the book of John.

“This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:12-13 New Living Translation

As I have studied the origins of traditional Okinawan karate, I have been struck by the significance of the term “empty hand.” Genkai Nakama, a student of Goju-ryu founder Chojun Miyagi, stated the following about his Sensei. “I still remember his bright face, his sharp eyes, in which I found the true Karate Master’s love and kindness”** The empty hand is an act of kindness, as it can be extended in friendship and love just as much as it can be used to defend against an aggressor. It also signifies to me an act of humility. Once again I turn to the Christian scriptures and the teaching of the Apostle Paul. 

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Philippians 2:3

It has been my great privilege to train with Master Meitatsu Yagi Sensei and Akihito Sensei multiple times over my five years as a student of Meibukan Goju-ryu Karate-Do. They have demonstrated this humility this type of humility to us in very practical ways, from kindness in teaching, to the expression of genuine appreciation for hospitality shown during their visits. Master Meitatsu Yagi’s open door policy for visitors as expressed on the IMGKA website is itself another clear indication of this humility and kindness that we find in our system of karate, and I am thankful for that. I am also thankful beyond words for the friendship with and instruction from Senpai Etienne Leygue and Sensei Joan Elmhurst who have become an integral part of our dojo family in Sensei Deo’s absence pursuing his studies. Their patience and constant encouragement is a huge part of why I am where I am today. 

As a Christ follower, I consider life a journey. My most significant journey began the day that I chose to accept that I was fatally flawed, in need of forgiveness and of a Saviour. I follow with all my heart the following statement:

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me." John 14: 6, NLT 

The journey that began from that point has been a journey of love, doing my best to walk in the way of Jesus, and accepting that I can only do so by His guidance and grace. I am thankful that my journey in the study of karate has walked along the same path. I have been blessed by an incredible community of love and encouragement while striving to love others more and uphold a humble spirit. This community is of all ages, and of many backgrounds and creeds, and it has challenged me to not just preach love, but to do my best to practically live it out from day to day.

I opened this essay with a quote from the late Sensei Kim Marshall. It was taken from his Facebook account where he had posted a photo of an IMGKA t-shirt. A friend had commented asking if IMGKA meant “I’m gonna kick ***?” Sensei’s response was clear, loving, and spoke much of the budo philosophy of love. I miss him dearly.

Expressing our well wishes to Sensei Kim during his illness. Matt Schmidt, Senpai Etienne Leygue, Sensei Deo Namwira, Myself

** Bushi Chojun Miyagi: Originator of All Goju Karate Systems - Don Warrener, 2010 Rising Sun Productions, Location 324 Kindle Edition

Sunday 10 June 2018

Being Acknowledged

Had an interesting experience the other night. It was a beautiful evening, I had a craving for a smokie dog, and there happen to be a couple of quite famous hot dog restaurants around 20 minutes north of the city. Driving past, the first one was full as usual and so I figured I'd check out the other one as which was just a little further. There were only a few customers inside, so I stood at the counter and waited. The young ladies behind the counter barely gave me a glance as they walked around doing various things - grabbing orders that had come up, looking together at the soft serve ice cream machine, and one was just walking slowly around the restaurant slowly sweeping. Minute by minute went by and no one even acknowledged that I was standing there waiting to order. Finally after at least 5 minutes I shrugged my shoulders and left. I drove back to the first restaurant which was still completely packed, and yet was able to immediately place my order.

Acknowledging people personally is something we see Jesus do quite often in the gospels. "Zacchaeus, come down from that tree." "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." "Who touched my garment?" “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Each time Jesus acknowledged someone personally He emphasized that they were important to Him and He affirmed their worth and value as individuals. This has probably become my most important tool in youth ministry - making the effort to acknowledge every youth who walks through the door, whether it be a youth night with 80-100 middle schoolers, or a Sunday School with youth and high schoolers together. Knowing how I personally respond to being acknowledged, I can only imagine how much more it is important to our young people who are going through the most difficult time of life in regards to self-esteem and self-worth.

Back to the restaurants I visited, both are very similar - retro 50's style, fantastic greasy spoon food, and prices that require a loan to eat there regularly; and yet one was jammed full of people on a warm Friday night and the other was almost empty. In the end, I was content to wait for my order, but I certainly was not prepared to wait without even be acknowledged so I could even make my order. It seems judging by the lineups at the first restaurant that I was not alone. In youth ministry we are always tempted with the notion that a bigger and better event will bring out the kids, but the truth is that their greatest desire is to be acknowledged and loved. Yes I do my best to do fun things, and yes I definitely strive to teach the bible well, but it starts with our youth knowing that when they walk in the door they are "home" and will be recognized as such. It's the knowledge that they are known and welcomed that opens the door for the rest. The gospel after all is a story about love.... the greatest love.

Friday 25 March 2016

A Potty Mouthed Artificial Teenager and What Makes Friday Good

This week Microsoft introduced us to Tay, an artificial intelligence based chatbot that would interact with users (aiming for the late teens and early 20's) via Twitter, KIK, and other social media outlets. If everything I just said makes no sense to you, just imagine texting with a robot and receiving an intelligent response. Tay, like other AI bots in the past would learn from her interactions to become more and more human, and sadly that's exactly what happened. Some internet users quickly realized that if they coordinated their conversations with Tay correctly they could influence her responses to others, and soon Tay was using racial slurs and denying the holocaust. It escalated very quickly and Microsoft was forced to pull Tay offline for some important adjustments.

This has happened before, including in 2014 to programmer Anthony Garvan who's own chatbot quickly became a racist after he exposed it to social media. Garvan published a blog post response to the Tay fiasco on Thursday and I found one particular quote absolutely fascinating.
"I believe that Microsoft, and the rest of the machine learning community, has become so swept up in the power and magic of data that they forget that data still comes from the deeply flawed world we live in." Source
Yes, we live in a deeply flawed world and it's not just the internet trolls who set out to make an internet robot say bad words. It's all of us and we need help. We can have the best intentions, we can attempt to cleanse our thoughts, we can do every good deed we can imagine, and still we will never get it right at every moment. Whether we believe in the concept of a god or not we all hold a moral compass of some sort telling us what's right and wrong, and yet our own consciences prove that we can't even live up to our own expectations.

This is where the Good in Good Friday comes in. Our perfect creator saw the path we would take and from the beginning of creation His plan was to show us his grace through Jesus (2 Timothy 1:9). Throughout the entire Old Testament we see God demonstrate His holiness and we see His people turn away time after time from even the simplest of commands (commands that were designed for their own good), and yet even that was part of His plan as the people would see time and time again how much they actually needed God (Romans 5:20). And then, at just the right time in history a baby was born in the town of Bethlehem ...

If the biblical account is true, God stepped down to earth in the form of a human being and lived a life just as we live. He experienced life as a child learning to listen to his parents, as a teenager going through puberty, as an everyday Joe doing his job, as a mentor followed by others, as a friend who would be abandoned by those closest to Him.... but with one difference in that He never went against God's will. We are flawed; He wasn't. When His teaching threatened the religious leaders who relied on fear to rule the people He was arrested and executed as a common criminal... still all according to His perfect plan from the beginning of time itself. The due consequence of our disobedience to God is separation from Him who is all that is Good, and yet we read that Jesus took that punishment upon Himself so we don't have to experience it (2 Corinthians 5:21).

We are deeply flawed, and yet when we accept the forgiveness that Jesus freely offers, we are perfect and clean in His sight. Jesus took the "death" we deserve upon Himself, and then defeated it by rising again as we will celebrate this Easter Sunday. Nothing we can ever do will bring us true peace, and yet Jesus offers it freely.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." John 3:16 NIV

Happy Easter.