Thursday, March 31, 2011

Hasedera and God`s continuing work in Japan

So we left off with Hisai and Junko leaving my apartment on Wednesday night. Thursday, I taught my English class at the church, and the two new people who came last time came again: Hideki, the son of an older lady who came a few times, and Haruka, one of Miwa`s family friends. (Miwa was the lady who was baptized last year.) We talked about lonliness and how we never have to be lonely, becaue God is always with us. Miwa spontaneously shared her testimony and everyone was very moved, but I sensed they still weren`t ready to accept Christ yet.

Saturday I enjoyed a restful morning, then headed to Hasedera temple in Nara for some sightseeing. What a quaint little town! Here`s a picture of the sloping, narrow streets:

On the way to the temple, I stopped by a little shop for lunch. The obaasan (old lady who ran the shop) told me all about when the local flowers bloomed. I wrote the dates down in my calendar. She gave me free sweets, green herb rice cakes (mochi) filled with red bean paste (anko) and talked to me a good while in Japanese. Country folks are so kind. Here`s a picture of how they make the rice dough:

Unfortunately I was too late for the plum blossoms and too early for the sakura (cherry), but the temple itself was quite beautiful. In contrast to other Japanese ancient monuments, it was quite ornate. Here`s a picture of some of the small, outter buildings housing statues:

Here`s the ceiling of that one:

Here`s one of the smaller, side gardens. At the time all they had were a few year-round tsubaki trees, but I took a picture because I didn`t know you could make a tsubaki bush into a tree. I suppose it`s kind of like a rose tree. The more I think about it, the more I come to consider the Japanese tsubaki to be like the Western rose:

There was a smaller museum I went in and I took a lot of pictures, but I won`t post them because I`m not sure it`s allowed. It was mostly just old statues, scrolls, and paintings, which I don`t find all that interesting anyway. I`ve never been a big fan of art museums unless I`m with someone who can explain the history and significance to me. I like living things and stories.

After that I climbed to the top of the long stairs leading to the main temple. Here`s a picture of the stairs; they`re quite famous:

I met this Shiba there. I`m not sure if he belonged to a priest or a caretaker, but he sure wasn`t a guard dog. What a friendly fellow!

I called him Hachi of course, even though he wasn`t an Akita, but I`m pretty sure Shibas are descendent from Akitas. I didn`t use to like dogs, but since coming to Japan I like them very much. Little dogs are so cute and fun!

I also found these unusual statues, but what a sad story behind them. They represent dead babies. The parents clothe them in red scarves and hats. The idea used to be that it keeps them warm in the next life, but today it`s just a ritual without any belief behind it.

Near the statues you could look out and see a view of all the mountains:

Imagine my surprise as I stood there, gazing out at the bleak but beautiful landscape, when I heard a young man say in clear English, “Beautiful, isn`t it?”

I turned to him, trying to gauge his nationality. He didn`t…look Japanese. Maybe Chinese? Japanese American? There was a certain “ivy league” air about him; I`m not quite sure how to describe it. Maybe his plaid scarf or black leather shoes too worn to belong to a business man.

“Hai, kirei des,” (yes, beautiful) I answered, testing to see if he spoke Japanese.

“Doko kara kimashtaka?” he asked without an accent.

OK, so he probably is Japanese, I reasoned. “America, Oklahoma-shu kara kimashta. What about you?”

“Tokyo,” he said. “I`m a refugee.”

“Ah. Is everything…all right with your home?”

He laughed self-consciously. “Not really. But I still have a job and an apartment, if that`s what you`re asking. But I suppose I`ll be here awhile.”

“Where did you learn English?” I asked. “You`re quite good.”

“No, no,” he of course denied. “I studied at Stanford.”

Turns out, he studied Buddhism. So we spent the rest of the day walking around together, him explaining the various aspects of the temple to me. I was very fortunate that they had also just opened the most ancient statue to the public. No pictures allowed of course, but you`re honestly not missing much in that department. The statue is spectacular to be sure, but if you`ve seen pictures of the big one in Nara, this one didn`t come close to that in size or ornateness.

As we walked, he taught me about the history of Buddhism, how it evolved from its original form in India as it traveled through China and finally Japan. Funny thing, though, it no longer exists in India. It was always a minority, and when the Muslims invaded they destroyed all the temples and slaughtered the worshipers. So it really only exists in Eastern Asian now, very different from its original form. To sum it all up, though, classical Buddhism believes in the cycle of reincarnation which is basically undesirable. They strive to become a Buddha, or someone who is enlightened and cut off from the cycle. This is done through good deeds, prayers, and following the “middle way,” denying the self sometimes but not to extreme. But they never got around to answering the real question: what does that mean? When one of the original Buddha`s disciples asked this, he told them it was an irrelevant question. Reincarnation is bad, so you want to be cut off from it. Period. But what if something worse happens? Some Buddhists believe that when you reach the state of Buddha, your consciousness merges with the universe. Which in some interpretations means you cease to exist. Who could want that? Regardless, Buddhists believe in eternity after death same as Christians. So the most important question is actually the question they never answer. What happens in that eternity? Wait, let me revise that. That`s the second most important question. The most important question is who or what made us (where do we come from) and what is our relationship with those beings/that being. That`s another question they never answer, that the Buddha said had no significance. So the man was right in concluding that Buddhism has absolutely no meaning or significance in the modern world. It`s no wonder the Japanese don`t believe it anymore.

Yes, the man was quite proud in declaring to me that “we Japanese are a scientific people now so we don`t believe such silly superstition.” Yet he stopped and prayed to all the statues during our walk.

I didn`t say anything. I just raised my eyebrows when he finished.

His face turned a little red. “I guess it is a little silly. I just…it`s respectful. It`s part of being a good Japanese person, you understand.”

“I don`t understand. Please explain.”

That launched us into a discussion about being a “Christian” in England. I explained that it was quite a different concept in America. He found that fascinating. He said he`d never met a “real Christian” before. We must have talked for four hours. We had lunch at the little roadside shop I had stopped in before. The obaasan (old lady who owned the shop) asked the man on his earthquake experience. She served us free tea and sweets again. I don`t know how these shops stay in business. Japanese old people are always so kind. You try to give them something in return and they won`t take it.

The young man and I finally ended up in a little teahouse with a lovely garden. Here it is:

And here`s the tea set we ordered, anko jelly on the left, fresh green tea in the middle, and roasted green tea (so it looks brown) on the right.

We talked about travel and books and movies until 5:00, then I caught the train back to Nabari. I was just in time to meet my missionary friend Deborah Ruth at the train station. (She`s from Ibaraki near the nuclear power plant. She escaped and was taking the opportunity to meet her friends all over Japan. She stayed with me two nights.) We made dinner together, talked and prayed late into the night. The following morning, we skyped my mother, then went off to Jesus Life House church together.

I was a little worried that Junko and Hisai wouldn`t show up without me to take them (they were in Kyoto applying to the government for aid, you might recall). Jesus Life House doesn`t have a building, so we all meet at the train station before and walk to that week`s rented venue. The system works really well as outreach in and of itself, because some people see the church sign and a bunch of young, excited kids waiting at the train station and they decide to come on the spur of the moment and eventually join the church! Junko and Hisai weren`t at the train station, but when we got to the venue they were there!

What a service. The “sermon” was actually an interview of two married couples in the church who answered questions members had written on cards the previous week. The questions were everything from “how do I ask out a girl without being rejected” to “how far is too far physically before marriage?” All their answers were very practical and scripturally based. I really liked one of the guy`s advice: Just don`t be alone or in the dark together. You`re going to be far less tempted to be “smooching it up” (must be an Ausi term) in public. If you want some quiet time together where you can talk just the two of you, go to a park in broad day light. You`ll be “alone,” but you`re certainly not going to be taking your clothes off when some granny could walk by with her dog.

After the service, Junko and Hisai stayed for awhile to study and pray, then left for their appointment in Kyoto. I wish they could have stayed for the baptisms! Since Jesus Life House doesn`t have a building, they have to borrow another church`s baptismal font in the afternoon. So the baptisms were around 6:00 as part of a mini service. Here`s the opening with singing:

Here`s a picture of four of the five girls who got baptized. Luke (the pastor) and his Japanese wife Izumi are speaking in the background.

And here`s the only non-Japanese girl getting baptized:

At first I was really shocked that the pastor didn`t do any baptizing. Usually, it`s the Life Group leader who brought that person to Christ. That urked me at first. These weren`t ordained Bible School graduates, they were just ordinary ladies doing the baptizing. (On a side note, they have it so men always baptize men and women always baptize women.) But then I thought about what the Bible says. When Jesus gave the great commission, he said, “Go into all the world and preach my gospel to every nation, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” These three commands: to evangelize, to baptize, and to disciple, are given all together. It doesn`t say, “you preach and then you baptize.” We were all commanded to do all three. And in all the examples of baptism in the Bible, the person who did the preaching also did the baptizing, beginning with John. When Philip met the Ethiopian eunic, there was no ceremony about it. The Ethiopian believed, and he was baptized right there by Philip in a puddle along the side of the road. There may or may not have even been witnesses. There`s also the idea of the “priesthood of believers.”

Now I`m NOT saying that ordained Bible School pastors are pointless. God chooses “some to be teachers” and “some to be apostles” and any group needs a leader. Every group in the Bible had a leader and the Bible encourages all leaders to attain wisdom and knowledge. But we shouldn`t rely on or expect those people to do our work for us. That`s when the church dies, because one person can only do so much. There are some duties that all Christians have. It varies from church to church, and that`s OK. The early churches didn`t all follow the same model in how they did things; that depended on their culture, context, size, and resources, as well as the kinds of spiritual gifts God had blessed them with. All I`m saying is we shouldn`t get lazy with letting our leaders do all the work. We should take on our Biblical, God-given responsibilities whenever and wherever possible and be open to unfamiliar ones even when they might make us uncomfortable at first.

OK, end of sermon. I won`t get into infant baptism versus adult baptism right now. To make a long story short, I basically think both are OK, because the Bible doesn`t specify. There are places where it says “he/she and his/her entire household were baptized.” It doesn`t say “except the babies.” Since Paul compares baptism to infant circumcision, as a mark and sign of God`s grace and claim upon someone`s life, I see no problem with using the same metaphor in modern times. From historical records and art, we know infant baptism was practiced in the early church and none of the apostles ever corrected it. So it seems, from my humble understanding, that both are good and pleasing to God. But I`m always willing to revise my opinions if someone presents me with logical, Biblical evidence.

Afterwards, we had a celebration dinner. There, I learned more about Jesus Life House. I definitely want to work with them too in the future if (perhaps I should say when?) I come back to Japan. Deborah Ruth and I got back to my apartment around 11:00, where we talked and prayed some more, and she left early the next morning.

Nothing of important happened Monday-Wednesday except for Bible study and prayer meetings. Thursday, I taught my class at the church, and three people came: Hedeki, Haruka, and Miwa again. We talked about friendship, including friendship in the Bible, and ended talking about how Jesus wants to be our friend. Both Haruka and Hideki accepted Christ, and they`re coming on Sunday! I`m so happy! That`s four people in less than two weeks! Of course, it`s not about numbers. It`s about the people! Now they know their true purpose in life and will live forever with God in heaven! Yea! The angels are having a party! No earthquakes gonna shake us! It`s a chain reaction! Japan`s reaching out to God! Our prayers are being answered! I can`t think of anything that could make me happier!

This is why I came to Japan. God prepared me for this time, this place. I`m doing what I was created to do. Now if only I could publish my Christian fiction and find a missionary husband to partner with. One thing I know for sure. God`s got plans. And I`m part of them! (By the way, you are too, in case you`re wondering.) Let`s have a party! Actually, we are having a party, on Easter, at my church in Nabari. We got two bands coming in for an earthquake charity concert and an Easter egg hunt and it`s gonna be awesome!

Prayer Requests for this week: Please pray for Junko and Hisai, both that God will provide for their physical needs after the disaster and for their faith to grow. Pray for Hideki and Haruka who were at the Thursday night class to also grow and get plugged into a body of believers. Pray for the five girls who got baptized at Jesus Life House last Sunday. Pray for my planning the JET Christian Fellowship mission trip to the Tohoku area; it`s hard finding a time when everyone can go. (Guidance especially for me in making planning decisions, as well as decisions in how to spend my last few months in Japan, and finding another job.) Please pray for the events around easter; my school band is playing and so is another group and we hope we can be a great witness to them. Please continue to pray for my Thursday night class. Please pray for the chain reaction to grow all through Japan! God`s gonna do amazing things here!

I also want to say thanks to John Knox, my church family in America for all your kind letters and prayers in these trying times. And of course to my family, who`s love transends oceans!

Until next time, keep praying and keep loving, no matter what the cost,
L.J. Popp

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