It began as a simple cultural experience opportunity. A very generous woman from church invited us to attend a tea ceremony (chanoyu 茶の湯) demonstration at a local community tea house and thought it would be an enjoyable experience for some of us from church who were from America. We were able to try several different demonstrations, from making our own tea to having tea made and served to us.
At one point, we were joined by a jovial older man who was surprised to see a group of non-Japanese people participating in the event. As we observed the playful way he interacted with the rest of the people hosting the event, it became clear to us who he was: the head teacher of the tea school. Apart from his love of jokes and teasing, his love of tea ceremony was obvious. He began to wax philosophical: “It would be so wonderful if you could experience tea and kaiseki together…” Kaiseki is a traditional preparation of Japanese cuisine in several small individual dishes. Depending on the complexity of the meal, kaiseki could be 5 simple dishes to over a dozen more complex creations.
We agreed that tea ceremony and kaiseki would be lovely, in that moment forgetting that the act of agreeing with him was already a commitment to the future event. Less than two weeks later, our friend from church was contacting us again: would we be available to experience cha-kaiseki (kaiseki meal followed by tea ceremony) with our friendly host preparing all the details?
As it happened, the timing could not be more perfect. My mother was visiting from the States and this was an experience that not many visitors would have the opportunity to participate in.
What we did not realize was that this was a private event just for us. Five of us from church were the guests with the teacher and one of his students serving us. What was most amazing were his words to us at the end:
“The enjoyment of the event was mostly for my student [the woman who served the meal and tea]. It is her pleasure to have guests to practice serving.”
And this is the truth about the tea ceremony. The idea of tea ceremony is that the pleasure is for the host, even though he or she is seemingly doing all the work. But the entire tea culture is based on serving others not out of obligation but out of pleasure. And here in tea culture we find one of the hidden connections between Japanese culture and the gospel message.
As the host of the tea ceremony serves out of his pleasure, so our Lord Jesus served out of his love for us. And Jesus reminded us that we should serve others in the same way when he said: “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Now, of course, after only two interactions with this tea teacher, we are not yet in a position to explain this connection between tea and the gospel to him. But even as we concluded this past experience, we had already began to lay plans for a future one. This is how we build bridges to people groups in the community that we might not normally have access to, having a sincere interest in their lives while hoping they will express the same interest in ours.