17 January 2021
One of the questions I had when I was searching for why one might accept the Christian faith. Why specifically be Christian? How could Christ be claimed as the way, truth and life, wasn't it a little arrogant of us when other faiths were around?
The person who partly answered that question for me was a minister who had been a missionary in Japan just before the second world war. He said it was one day in Aomori where they were based that he told the story of Jesus. An old lady came in tears and said, "I've been waiting to hear this all my life. I've been worshipping this Jesus but not known his name. Thankyou for coming and telling me."
No matter where we are, Jesus goes before us. He goes on the way before you, and me and our task is to be so others find Christ is already waiting for them.
Today we read Jesus's prayer for those who will follow him.
"That they may become completely one so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."
Where there are Christians, the church, there are signs that will point to the Jesus who is the way.
As a visitor to Japan during the last month, I went wondering where Christ might be found as we travelled, and where the connecting points might be between Japanese culture and the Christian faith.
Often when we look at other lands we can see ourselves more clearly.
These are my personal observations - as a visitor, they are not comprehensive- but are a reflection on the people we met and the things we saw and read.
Japan is a land of 130 million people, living in a country the size of New Zealand. A country which is known for its ability to focus and direct its communal energies into single-minded projects.
When it was war it was incredibly destructive, when it is for peace it is effective, when it is producing goods, it is amazing.
Beautiful bridges span huge expanses of water, tunnels go under the water, the trains travel at 275 K/h from one end to the other. Wonderful buildings, very new and very old, are side by side. Transport is easy to use and people always polite and helpful. A phrase book and signs got us through in places where English was unknown and many spoke enough English.
The first question of obviously foreign visitors was "Where are you from?"
"Ah, Rord of the Rings" was often the reply, or "more sheep than people." Or "I was in New Zealand last?" the eight day New Zealand tour was obviously appreciated, Milford Sound being best remembered. We share earthquakes and volcanic activity, similar but we are so different in age of our nations, world view, economic realities and underlying assumptions.
One friend who has dealt for years with Japanese in business said, "It's a soulless land". I got a glimpse of why he said that. The interface of USA and Japan has produced a Westernised feeling, I found it secular at times for although temple and shrines were at every turn, it was pachinko parlours and shops which were most obvious. One shopping arcade in Matsuyama, the sophisticated city on the island of Shikoku went for 1.2 kilometers joining two enormous department stores.
Today we read the story of Paul and Silas and the slave girl. It is a useful story to reflect on where connections may be between Christ and culture in Japan. To ask the questions - Where do we relate to this story and which part of it would Japanese people be most likely to relate to and hear as good news.
The slave girl was set free after pestering Paul to notice her. Paul and Silas end up in prison for a slave girl whom many would have said was worth nothing. The change upset the economics of the area, was disruptive of old customs but really affected takings of the slave owner.
Paul and Silas responded differently from most prisoners to their imprisonment. They sang, and when a demonstration of God's power took place in the form of an earthquake they kept order. As a consequence the jailer and his family became Christians, and the church at Philippi was enriched by a slave girl, a jailer and what the story does not tell us today this was all in the context of Lydia, a well off business woman who had courageously given hospitality to Paul and Silas and was the leader of the new church at Phillippi..
That is was a slave and a girl would be heard as good news for the minority groups
The minority Korean group , although they are third generation are treated as second class citizens. My son had his initial rosy view of Japan shattered when he observed the direct discrimination in law, jobs and access to education etc that the Korean community face. One of his friends is a Japanese Korean and another from Okinawa is also a member of a minority group. The Ainu, the original people of Japan, they might hear that also as good news.. I guess the homeless who inhabit some parks and camp along the river banks in Tokyo, very neatly and properly , might also be glad to know they have value.
The slave girl was freed from that which controlled her. The spirit world is well populated in Japan, despite the seeming Westernisation and ultra modern cities. Buddhism and Shintoism are the main shrines, but underlying for many is a world view which is seen in the Noh plays and in the old tales. There is a world full of many malevolent or at the least neutral spirits. In many of the prayers for victims of the bombs which I read during a festival at Hiroshima, there is a underlying assumption of restless spirits who have not been buried and will worry the living. Constant apology is made to the unborn babies who have been aborted or stillborn and victims of disasters . Even in some of the latest modern Japanese novels, which are curiously passionless, the ancestors wander around if not put properly to rest and I did not discover if there is any means of freedom from this. What good news Christ offers for them to know they can leave the past in peace with God the Creator and their loved ones are in the hands of the one who made them and there is an end.
The gods show no mercy, except maybe the goddess of mercy. A forest god was depicted on one dubbed cartoon we watched. That god needed to be left alone - a good conservation message maybe, but I was chilled by the fact that retribution was sought - this God was dangerous and needed to be placated or eliminated for good. Maybe this land of earthquakes and disasters sees nature as to be tamed so it cannot be feared.
This is a land where the things we often equate with being Christian are there. It is a stable society, you can walk safely in the streets at any time, and carry large sums of money without fear of being robbed. There was almost no graffiti, we constantly used underpasses without fear and the gas bottles for each flat or house was on the street and no-one vandalised them or nicked them.
Morality of this nature is upheld, this is what is mean by public morals, even although corruption is rife in the government. We daily saw news items with yet another Cabinet minister apologising and resigning because they had avoided paying the pension fund. It was like being at home!
Those who equate such peace and order with Christianity need to think again. It reminds us sharply that we are here to teach about God's love not about morals.
I suspect the disruptive nature of the gospel could be difficult for Japanese society. I got the feeling that Japanese like things in order. Any nation whose trains run to time like theirs must have a problem with disorder.
The Christian gospel would upset the economics of the shrines and temples, almost parallel to Paul and Silas. There are gods of everything. I was impressed by the honesty of those who gave worship to the God of money. I personally wouldn't be tempted to part with a yen to the brightly coloured statue promising wealth and happiness.
What idol do you worship? It's bound to have a shrine somewhere in Japan. Every important commodity has its god and its shrine. Rice is of course very important, and the god of Tofu has the inevitable arcade of shops selling tofu leading up to it. I also understood why Santa fits so well into existing culture and christmaas is embraced as another festival.
Those who banned Christianity in 1614 knew how disruptive it could be. A faith which asks for obedience is fine but one which says 'Obedience keeps the rules,' but 'Love knows when to break them.'" is plain messy, I suspect many Japanese would relate to the merchants who had lost their business and reject this messy faith which works by love and not by law.
But in modern Japan surely these gods are irrelevant we may say? Maybe for the young generation, but it is the pervasive culture, and Japan is random in what it emphasises.
One turns the corner from a technological marvel and there are old buildings of charm and exquisite cultural and antiquity and then find a local shrine.
This can be a Buddhist temple or a Shinto shrine with grounds which give shade and peace in the middle of the city or just an animist shrine to the goddess of the bridge or tree that is there, or simply a statue to some local notable. There is peace in those gardens and strangers can wander in. As a traveller I thought that we could learn how to give shelter to strangers.
We would connect with the deep desire for personal and world peace.
Comfort, calm are the words used in this search for spirituality which impinges on people's daily lives. Maybe in the garden we could meet and give thanks for the creator Jesus shows us and the human skills which have designed such places of peace and beauty.
The Christian faith or its perceived rituals are sought - you see wedding churches on the top of hotels. In the middle of Kyoto we looked down on the rooftops to a rustic white weatherboarded chapel with belfry, an anxious groom pacing at the door . You all know about those who come to be married in NZ especially in church. Wedding chapels dotted the country attached to hotels in the most unlikely places. One was like a miniature Notre Dame, others, little white churches out of American story books. Their own ceremonies do not meet the need for intimacy or expression of love. There is a seeking for something more. These are all meeting points at which we can share our faith.
Where did I find evidence of specifically Christian activity?
In most hotel bedrooms the Gideons have a Japanese English bilingual Bible [along with the sayings of Buddha]. In some places it you are invited to ask for "comfort book from the desk". But each region of Japan has a distinctiveness and Bibles did not appear in some of the Japanese style accomodation.
In Nara, guides who spoke English or Japanese were offered to show one round the big complex of Temples shrines and gardens in this old capital city. - Free. The organisation they came from was the YMCA,. a Christian community centre, reaching people in the same way our community centre seeks to do. they would have been making a commection with the large numbers of Japanese tourists in those areas.
In the middle of one shopping arcade there was an Anglican church, looking like a traditional Anglican church, running a kindergarten. Next to it was an information centre run by the church and opportunist shops selling children?s clothes had set up in the arcade around it!
But it was in Nagasaki where a Christian community has been since 1500's where the deepest impact of the church was visible. In a city looking very much like Wellington, the first sight opposite the train station is of a church on the hill with the strangest double spires. On one spire I was surprised to read Veni Spiritus Sanctus. [Come holy Spirit]
From the horror of being the last place where an atomic bomb was dropped something new has come. The spirit is at work in ways we cannot guess in this country of Japan despite everything.
Next week we celebrate the Day of Pentecost as a family service. [ I hope you are good at oragami.doves.] and we will explore the tremendous story of Christian hope coming out of tremendous suffering in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
O Gracious and ever Loving God, make us one with You, as Jesus was.- that the world may know that you have sent Jesus to show your love for the world. Amen
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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