Well, here I am in Chiba-ken, relaxing and seeking what the Lord has for me upon my return to Japan (next year). I’ve wanted to get back to writing about the holiness of God, but with all the moving and such, this is one of the first times in the last couple weeks that I’ve sat down to actually write. My author’s heart weeps because of this.
Yesterday, I went to a retreat with Jesus Community Chapel (a.k.a. Calvary Chapel Kokubunji), and I just got back. It was a marvellous experience.
It was also a tough experience: there were hours and hours of Japanese sermons (Calvary Chapel pastors talk just as long in in Japan), and though there was a translation, I tried to listen in Japanese, and I picked up somewhere around 50%. It was pretty awesome to listen to a sermon in Japanese and actually get something out of it. However, I was short on sleep and so really struggled, especially during some of those sleepy, mid-afternoon messages. However, I really had a good time communicating with a lot of people in Japanese.
The most powerful part was spending time with men. Apart from just being darn-lonely in Kagawa, I was really short on fellowship with men. And I realized just how powerful that fellowship is this weekend. “As iron sharpens iron.”
After all the sessions were done last night, we went to our room (13 guys in one, big room; only me and one other were foreigners) and started donning hotel-provided yukatas (a type of Japanese robe). I knew we were headed for the onsen (Japanese bath).
Now, I’ve done Japanese baths and know the etiquitte, though I’m still afraid that some rule I don’t know will someday stab me in the back. The first and most important part is to walk into the bath labelled “men” (unless you happen to be a woman, of course). Thankfully, I’ve never screwed that one up. Inside, there’s a changing room. The only thing you change into is your birthday suit; welcome to the onsen.
In the actual bath-room, there’s a bath and showers. You’re supposed to shower before you soak in the bath, so as to keep the water clean. That’s another one that would be really rude to screw up. The bath is just for boiling… err… soaking. Anyways, in all this, the one thing you have to cover yourself is a small, white towel (well, till you hop in the bath, at least).
The 4 or 5 times I’ve done a Japanese bath, it’s been alone or with only one or two others. This time, there were about 15 of us. And you know, that’s a whole different experience. Working up the courage to go into a public bath isn’t quite as hard when you’re going in with that many guys, but I still haven’t got used to people carrying on a conversation with me while we’re all naked. One of the guys commented how cool it was that I shaved with a razor (Japanese men aren’t known for their ability to grow beards).
After I was well-boiled, I went out, dried off some, and started putting on my clothes and brushing my teeth. At about 10:00, the official closing time for the onsen, the other foreigner came into the room and took his bath once almost everyone else was out. Somehow, mysteriously, he’d gotten separated from us on the way there. Yeah, foreigners tend to be shy about this sort of thing.
By now, I’m used to the whole onsen concept, but I still get nervous every time I go into one. This time, I realized that it’s not being seen naked that bothers me as much as having to see other guys naked. That’s just one of those things in this life I’d rather pass on. When you’re alone, you can avoid it, but with 15 others in small room… Well, still getting used to that very revealing part of Japanese culture.
After our bath, we went back to the guy’s room and played a card game called Cucco (apparently made in 16th century France or something like that) until late at night. Later than was healthy: I really needed some sleep.
However, sometime in the middle of playing that game, I felt a strong sense of peace and goodness. And I realized how much I have been lacking in male fellowship and how much I’ve been longing for it. Just being a part of that group and having some guys to hang out with, from a couple middle-school-age kids to a man in his 50s, was an experience of sublime contentment for me. And despite everything else, I gotta say that the onsen contributed to it. Some kind of bizarre bonding happens when you’re without clothes.
Men need other men for fellowship. I’ve been on the other side of that (having little fellowship and virtually no time for men to be men). And though I can’t yet prove it from scripture, I gotta say that I now know from experience that men need fellowship with other men in a group of only men. You just can’t escape that part of human nature.
I give glory to God for that night. We’d been praying in one of the earlier sessions for a filling of the Spirit, and it seems that God answered my prayer to Him, but in a totally different way, not with a spectacular experience of a new depth of knowledge of Himself, but with the simple, incredible pleasure of a guy’s night.
I’ll tell you about another fascinating experience I had. I spoke to a woman at lunch today, and she told me about the women’s evening. They stayed in conversation till deep in the night. Each had talked about how they each came to know Jesus. The testimony that really impressed this lady was another woman’s, and it was really a rather simple testimony. She had always felt like there was something wrong in her, so she went to church, and now she’s a Christian. I mean, that was basically it. I was surprised that this was the testimony that had stuck out so much from that night.
Here’s why it stuck out: when a Japanese person hears about something like a yakuza (Japanese mafia) who repents and becomes a Christian, it’s an amazing story, but it doesn’t connect in the sense of, “Oh, this is just like me.” It’s too big, too grand. A yakuza is a real criminal who deserves to go to jail. But most Japanese are very respectible, kind people.
“Tsumi” is the Japanese word we use for sin. It’s not used very often, but I’ve heard it on the news before when they were talking about a criminal. And that’s more how the word comes across when people hear it. Crime. A tsumi-bito (sinner) is like a criminal. So, when they hear one of these testimonies that we Americans would call amazing, the concept of “I’m a sinner” is not understood.
However, when Japanese hear a simple testimony like the above one, it hits home. It’s a normal, ordinary Japanese person telling this, not someone on the fringes of society. Apparently, that has some power to break down the “I’m not a sinners” wall that keeps Japanese people out of the kingdom. They realize that even though they’re normal members of society, they have sin, and some of the emotional repression of Japanese society begins to crack.
People in Japan who have not had a Christian upbringing are all-but terrified of walking into a church for the first time. Often (most of the time?) they have some huge problem. The ladies who heard that testimony were surprised, and I also was surprised to hear that a women with no major crisis in her life saw a church sign and went to church. That just doesn’t happen in Japan. It almost always takes something really, really big (like attempting suicide or something) for a Japanese to come to church.
That woman’s testimony was powerful because it says that you can become a Christian without coming to the brink of your sanity.
My wife is ugly
In America, we play things up. That’s part of our culture. In Japan, you play things down. Japan is a very modest culture. When you give someone a gift, you say something that translates roughly to: “It’s a boring thing, but…” When someone says to you, “Your wife is beautiful,” the proper response is, “No, she’s actually ugly.” And when someone says, “Your son is really good at math,” you should reply, “Not really, he’s rather stupid.” Why?
In Japan, if you say that your wife is beautiful or your child is actually good at math, you sound really boastful. I personally think that it’s best to just say “thank you” rather than scarring your child for life, but that’s not what the culture expects. You always make things seem small. You try not to stick out.
So, the testimony. This is a perfect, Japanese testimony! It’s small. It’s modest. “I felt like something was wrong, so I started going to chuch, and I got saved.” The big testimonies are too loud, too boisterous for Japan. They probably even scare some Japanese off. What self-respecting Japanese wants to go to a church with a bunch of ex-yakuza running around? Most people here manage their lives very well in absolute plainness and don’t want anything big or flashy to happen (unless it’s a promotion at work). They’re really quite like hobbits.
Well, hopefully soon I can return to my meditations on holiness, but I hope you’ve enjoyed my little account of the retreat.