Sacred Treasures

“for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”  Philippians 4:11b

Sacred Treasures

According to ancient tradition, whenever a new Japanese emperor ascends to power, he is entrusted with three sacred items as part of the enthronement ceremony. The presentation of these special objects by the Shinto priests serves to establish the new ruler’s authority and validates his right to reign. Historically, these items are referred to as the “three sacred treasures” (三種の神器) and consist of a mirror (representing wisdom), a sword (symbolizing valor) and a jewel (signifying benevolence).

Following the devastation of World War II, most Japanese were left destitute and longed for a better life. Therefore, members of the media spoke of the “new three sacred treasures” that everyone was seeking to obtain as a symbol of status and improved living conditions. These “treasures” were identified as a washing machine, a refrigerator and a television, since very few Japanese could afford such luxuries at the time. For example, in the early 1950s, a young salaried worker only earned about ¥10,000 per month, but a small fridge cost around ¥85,000 and a black/white TV was generally priced at ¥140,000. Such everyday conveniences were well beyond the reach of the vast majority of Japanese. However, as the economy steadily improved with prices going down and wages going up, many more people were soon able to purchase these once unobtainable “sacred” objects. This trend increased to such an extent that by 1964, almost 90% of all households in Japan owned these items. As to be expected, new luxury items were sought after, so an automobile, an air conditioner and a color TV were soon identified as the “new three sacred treasures” everyone longed to possess. These in turn gave way to newer or bigger “treasures” such as luxury vacations, expensive cameras, computers, designer goods, cell phones and the list goes on and on. Life became increasingly easier in Japan, but did such treasures bring genuine satisfaction?

Obviously, the answer is “no,” as true happiness does not originate from the quantity or quality of our possessions. Rather, genuine contentment and satisfaction stems from something much deeper, beginning with a heart set on the things of God. The Apostle Paul hinted at this truth when he shared part of his testimony in Philippians 4, where he declared he had learned contentment that wasn’t dependent upon his circumstances. In the course of his life, Paul had experienced both abundance and scarcity, but because God was the ultimate “treasure” that he sought, he was able to find contentment in either situation. This is the opposite approach of the world around us, which erroneously pursues a contentment grounded in things or activities rather than the person of God. This is why Jesus advised His followers not to store up treasures on earth, but instead, store up treasures in heaven. Jesus then went on to wisely note that our hearts are closely linked to whatever treasures we value. (Matthew 6:19-21) In reality, there is only one “sacred treasure” worth pursuing, and that is God Himself. Nothing else is deserving of our devotion, time or energy in comparison.

Getting Clean

“Who can say, “I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin”?” Proverbs 20:9

onsen

Japan is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a 2,500-mile geographic arc notorious for destructive volcanic activity and earthquakes, but it is accompanied by a major benefit… a preponderance of onsens. Onsens (温泉) are geothermally heated springs, found throughout Japan, and they are widely used for bathing. Because of the abundance of such naturally heated water, the act of bathing is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and has become a popular form of relaxation, not just a utilitarian exercise in hygiene. The entire economy of some small towns is driven by the availability of onsens in their area, attracting thousands of tourists eager to test the local waters. Large onsen hotels draw customers by offering a variety of baths in an attractive venue and serving a special meal. Almost all of the onsens, whether they are large or small, feature an outdoor portion called a “rotenburo,” which is usually situated in a peaceful, natural setting to enhance relaxation.

Onsens are not to be confused with a sento, which is also a public bath, but the water in a sento is heated artificially and therefore doesn’t contain any local minerals which onsen operators eagerly advertise to attract customers. The universal symbol for hot springs in Japan is the simple mark ♨, but as alternative, the Japanese characters 湯 or more simply ゆ are frequently used. These symbols guide eager patrons searching for a place to unwind from the stress of everyday life while serving the dual purpose of getting clean.

The procedure for using such bathing facilities is universal in Japan and instructions for the inexperienced foreigner are often posted. Bathing stations come equipped with stools, showers, faucets, a portable basin and usually, soap and shampoo, although many customers choose to bring their own, along with a small hand towel for washing. The ritual of bathing MUST be performed before entering the pools shared with others and many bathers discretely use their personal hand towel as a form of modesty. Once a popular practice, mixed bathing has almost disappeared in Japan, but many places still prohibit tattoos in an effort to discourage members of the yakuza (Japanese mafia) from coming. Some older Japanese apartments did not have their own bath or shower, so people who resided in such places routinely used the neighborhood “mom and pop” onsen or sento to get clean. These, too, are rapidly becoming relics of the past as the trend is towards larger venues offering a variety of options, including a restaurant and shops selling local merchandise.

People frequent onsens for a variety of reasons, but the basic objective remains the same: to get clean. However, there is an essential form of cleanliness that is not available at the local hot spring or through any human endeavor. That is a cleansing of the heart. No amount of scrubbing, soap or hot water can rid us of our sinful thoughts, words and actions before a holy, righteous God. Recognizing this conundrum, the author of Proverbs 20:9 wrote in despair: “Who can say, “I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin”?” The obvious, yet unsettling answer to his question is: “no one.” But fortunately, there is one exception to this rule. That is Jesus, the Son of God, who alone lived a sinless life and through His sacrificial death, provided cleansing and forgiveness for all. Therefore, the Apostle John could declare with boldness: “If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify (cleanse) us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9) That is real cleansing.

Firm Foundations

“Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” Matthew 7:24

Foundations4

Due to the frequency of earthquakes in Japan, a lot of attention in building construction is given to the design and materials used for foundations. Even the simplest of houses requires construction techniques that are quite different from what we normally observe in the West. In addition, they are quite labor intensive, which adds to a building’s overall price tag. Several disasters and the subsequent collapse of numerous buildings in the past prompted the government to eventually enact strict anti-seismic structural standards that are constantly upgraded as technology improves. The building codes for skyscrapers are even more stringent, employing specially designed shock absorbers known as isolators embedded throughout the structure. Such modifications are developed through detailed research and placed according to precise calculations. Because of these many innovations, Japan is now considered to be among the world’s leaders in earthquake-resistant technology.

Of course the research behind all of this progress and the special materials and labor used to erect these buildings significantly raises construction costs. This has tempted some unscrupulous companies to take illegal shortcuts. The most famous of these scandals came to light in 2005 when it was discovered that the Aneha Architectural Design Company had falsified earthquake design calculations, violating numerous building codes in order to cut expenses. Hidetsugu Aneha admitted that due to pressure from developers, many of his building designs intentionally concealed potentially catastrophic defects, solely for the purpose of saving investors money. As a result, several newly constructed hotels were abandoned and many condominium owners had to vacate their recently purchased residences due to safety concerns. Many of these empty structures still stand as a dubious testimony to the dishonesty and greed of man.

Foundations are important. Therefore, Jesus used this subject as a powerful illustration at the conclusion of His famous message known as the Sermon on the Mount. After Jesus initially taught the gathered crowd some of God’s kingdom values known as the Beatitudes, He then proceeded to elaborate on these concepts through addressing the subjects of persecution, hypocrisy, reconciliation, retribution, pursuit of wealth, worry, judging others and the importance of prayer. Jesus then concludes His talk by using the analogy of two foundations and two builders. One builder was described as being “wise” and the other was depicted as being “foolish.” The wise builder constructed his house on rock which withstood the destructive elements of nature. However, the foolish builder used sand under his foundation, which ended in disaster under the same climatic elements. The intended lesson was that we must carefully choose what we build our lives upon. To put it simply, a life not built upon God’s values invites destruction. But those who deliberately center their lives around God’s Word and heed His instructions, reap eternal life. To avoid a disaster, choose your foundation carefully.

Souvenirs

“These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.” Joshua 4:7b

omiyageOne of the first words I learned to spell as a child was not “cat,” “hat,” “run” or something similarly simple, but rather, the longer word “souvenirs.” During our long family summer road trips, traveling in an unairconditioned car across the vast expanses of America, the junior members of our family were always hot, desperately bored and hungry. In my childlike mind, the all-encompassing solution to this chronic problem was found in the word “souvenirs.” This mindset was developed after I had been duly instructed by my all-knowing older brother and sister to be on the lookout for souvenirs signs. Once one was spotted, the usual strategy was to launch into an immediate chorus begging our parents to stop and curtail our suffering. From experience, we knew that places that sold souvenirs were always air conditioned, had public restrooms (a selling point to our mother), sold candy and ice cream and, more importantly, stocked lots of toys and trinkets called “souvenirs” to take our minds off of our unending misery. Looking back, I seriously doubt if I could spell the word “souvenirs,” but I knew it began and ended with an “s” and was a long word that represented something I had to have!

Although the Japanese word omiyage (お土産*; more frequently written asおみやげ) is translated as “souvenir,” it serves a very different purpose from what I learned as a child. In the West we generally buy souvenirs for ourselves as memories of special vacations or getaways, but the Japanese are expected to buy them as gifts for their family, friends and colleagues. Stores and shops throughout Japan cater to this tourist tradition by offering a wide variety of local produce, cookies, sweets and other regionally unique culinary creations. Each omiyage comes especially gift wrapped in paper indicating the area, town or special attraction where it was purchased and thus provides evidence of one’s trip. The omiyage is a subtle reminder that you were thinking of the recipient while you were gone and additionally serves as a partial compensation for any inconveniences you may have caused by your absence.

In the Book of Joshua, an interesting event (Joshua 4) is recorded marking the end of a forty-year road trip through the wilderness following the nation’s rebellion against God (Numbers 13-14). According to the instructions by Joshua, a representative was chosen from each of the twelve tribes of Israel to carry a stone from the middle of the dry Jordan river bed after the entire nation had miraculously crossed over to the other side. With these stones, they proceeded to build a memorial in the promised land that served as a type of omiyage of their journey. Its purpose was to provide a standing reminder to both present and future generations of the faithfulness of God. Perhaps this is a good example to keep in mind ourselves when we are called to trust God in new and deeper ways as we cross “rivers” standing between us and the promises of God. These are faith stories worth remembering, worth thanking God for and certainly worth passing on to the next generation as they collect their own omiyage.

*Although the word is usually translated as “souvenir,” it means literally “product of the land.”

Record Keeping

“However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Luke 10:20

construction record3

Japanese seem to have a particular affinity for record keeping. We first noticed this tendency at construction sites, where a worker would routinely pose in front of a project for a picture while holding a chalk board. On that board would be written the date and a brief description of the work they had just completed. The job might involve something as minor as repairing a pothole in the road, but photographic evidence of the completed project was duly recorded. The picture was then probably submitted with a report and filed somewhere with millions of other similar items within the black hole of Japanese archives.

Recording and keeping essential information is a mainstay of modern civilization, but Japan appears to have a particular penchant for this activity. For example, parents are expected to submit regular reports confirming that their children completed assigned homework. During the summer, such reports are expanded to include personal hygiene practices and chores around the house to ensure the maintenance of important routines during school holidays. Zealous new parents can purchase “baby diaries” to record essential information, such as the frequency of diaper changes, bottle feedings, daily temperatures, physical growth, appearance of teeth and the introduction of different foods into the baby’s diet.

Precise record keeping is considered essential for tracking even the most minor lost items. Upon being turned in, the items are routinely tagged, numbered, and documented with the hope of returning them to the rightful owner. Minutes are scrupulously taken at every meeting and there seems to be a form for everything that must be completed and then put on file. As a young church planter, I soon discovered that I was expected to keep a record of everything that took place at the church for future reference. In so doing, I also became a cog in the vast machine storing information for generations to come.

When the seventy-two disciples Jesus sent out returned from their initial ministry experience, they were understandably excited to report the details of what they had seen and experienced (Luke 10). As we constantly engage with life, experiencing its highs and lows, we are naturally inclined to become preoccupied with the details of this world and, consequently, often fail to appreciate the significance of the world to come. This is where Jesus’ reply to His early followers (“do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” Luke 10:20) serves to put such things in perspective and helps us not to lose sight of the forest of eternity as we wander among the trees of daily life. While we may be inclined to get overly excited or overly disappointed with the details of this life, we should never forget that our names are recorded for eternity in heaven. This means that all that we do, all that we value and all that we experience is grounded in an eternal relationship with God that can never be erased. Our lives have meaning and all that we offer up to God in our worship of Him is recorded for eternity. That is certainly a cause for much rejoicing.

Aliens

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,”  Ephesians 2:19

Gaijin

When we arrived in Japan for the first time in 1984, airport immigration officials directed us, along with the other obvious foreigners, to proceed towards the sign marked “ALIENS.” Such was our introduction to Japan. While we were not creatures from another planet, it was abundantly clear to us from the outset that in Japan, we were different. We had expected to stand out in the crowds due to our size, hair color and speech (and my nose!), but we soon realized that we were permanently relegated to a class of non-Japanese known as “gaijin.” Everywhere we went, people typically stared at us, adults wanted to touch our kids’ blond hair and Japanese children excitedly pointed their fingers at us while declaring the obvious, that we were “gaijin.”

The term gaijin (外人) means literally “outside person” and since Japan is an island nation comprised of one predominate ethnic group speaking a uniform language, it is understandable why, historically, all non-Japanese were considered to be outsiders. The Japanese concept of group consciousness also factors into this perception, where one is either “in” or “out” when social and relational lines are routinely drawn within daily interactions.

However, globalization is rapidly changing such attitudes toward the outside world as Japan’s isolation is increasingly penetrated by the onslaught of modern communication and travel. The world has come to Japan. Foreigners are no longer considered a novelty and as a result, we are now rarely singled out as “gaijin.” The finger pointing has largely ceased and the more polite term “gaikokujin” has replaced the somewhat pejorative label of “gaijin.” Foreigners now comprise almost 2% of the population and that percentage will likely continue to increase as Japan becomes steadily more dependent on outside workers to supplement its rapidly shrinking labor force. This is good news for foreigners seeking employment and an improved social status within Japan.

One of the many amazing aspects of the gospel, or the Good News of Jesus Christ, is its power to break down the tribalistic tendencies of mankind that often lead to self-destruction. Our natural inclination is to splinter into warring factions along social, racial, cultural, national, economic and ethnic lines. But the good news is that God took on flesh through His Son and entered into a divided world to offer reconciliation between not only men, but more importantly, between God and men. All of us were gaijin, outside of the presence of God, but now we are offered citizenship in His eternal kingdom and welcomed as family members into His household. Through the cross, the lines that once divided us have been redrawn. We are aliens no more and that is truly Good News!

Business Cards

“You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.” Psalm 139:1

Meishi3

Following a subtle bow of acknowledgement, I pretended to study the information on the card I now held politely with both hands. As the situation demanded, I feigned proper interest in the card and the individual I received it from did the same with mine as we engaged in what I call the “meishi dance”. A meishi (名刺) is a Japanese business card which is routinely exchanged in initial encounters, particularly in business relationships. The work I was currently engaged in involved meeting hundreds of individuals, so over the course of time, I had accumulated quite a stack of meishi along with a jumbled collection of faces those cards represented.

Like many other customs in Japan, there is an established protocol for the exchange of meishi. To fully grasp the subtleties of the meishi dance, it is important to bear in mind that each card serves as an extension of the person whose information is recorded on it. Therefore, the meishi itself should be treated with respect which in turn, has bearing on how the card is received. For example, it is best to stand erect when receiving or presenting a meishi and the information on it must face the recipient, holding the card carefully in the corners so it can be easily read. A respectful bow should precede the passing of the meishi and the card should be received with both hands. The information recorded on the meishi should then be carefully studied, particularly noting titles or status. If you are in a meeting where everyone is seated, the card(s) should be placed in front of you on the table for reference. Upon receiving someone’s meishi, you should never treat it disrespectfully like jamming it into your pocket or writing notes on it. Many businessmen carry around mini cases for protecting their own meishi and for the temporary storage of those they receive.

There is, of course, a limitation as to how much information a person can include on a meishi, even if both sides of the card are used. In brief social or business interactions, our capacity for absorbing details and even caring about the individual standing before us is restricted by our time, energy, mood, circumstances and intellect. But not so with God. The psalmist marvels at the extent that God intimately knows us, not just through observable actions, but from probing our thoughts and intentions from the moment we were conceived up to the minute when we draw our final breath.

This means that I am infinitely more than just a few scraps of information recorded on a card collecting dust in someone’s file. I am a creation of the God of the Universe who knows me far, far more than my most faithful friend, closest relative or intimate love interest and He genuinely and passionately treasures me. Such knowledge and care should provoke me to respond, not in feigned interest, but to bow in adoration and obedience. Perhaps in response, it is best to observe the protocol modeled by the same psalmist in Psalm 139. This is a meishi dance worth emulating:

  • I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful. (14)
  • How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them! (17)
  • Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. (23) 
  • See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (24)