Life in Japan: Shichi-Go-San

Passing by a Shinto shrine of any repute during the week leading up to November 15th and you will see them: tiny people dressed to the nines in equally tiny kimono and hakama. They are Japanese children of the ages of three, five or seven years old. In one hand they clutch a treasure, chitose ame, thousand year candy (not thousand year OLD candy; that would be gross), in a bag decorated with turtles and cranes, animals renowed for long lives. Often they are accompanied by grandparents who also take the occasion to deck out in their finest traditional attire.

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The occasion is Shichi-Go-San, literally translated to “Seven, Five, Three”. Girls aged three and seven and boys aged three and five are given a “rite of passage” of sorts which consists of a visit to the shrine and a blessing by a Shinto priest. Modern times dictate that as long as you went through the trouble and expense of getting the kids dressed up (often in rented clothing), you might as well bring out the camera or hire a photographer for a family portrait at the same time.

Shichigosan - Boy and his Grandmother

Why the years seven, five and three only? Anyone who has traveled through Asia knows numerology is taken very seriously here. The Chinese are especially crazy over the number eight, while the Japanese prefer odd numbers. Except the number 9 of course, which can be pronounced the same as the word for “death” and should naturally be avoided. Are you following me so far? Also, Japanese used to follow the rule that a person was one year old at birth. Take one and nine out of the equation and you are left with three, five and seven as your odd, single-digit numbers. Tada!

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The tradition likely originated from times when common diseases claimed the lives of many children before they could grow to adulthood, thus the focus of the ceremony on long life and health. In many ways, Shichigosan was a response to the fear of losing one’s child prematurely. At the time, it probably made a lot of sense to parents and gave them a sense of peace. Today, of course, it’s mainly a matter of tradition and perhaps an opportunity for a nice photo to put on the New Year’s Card. To be Japanese, it is reasoned, is to observe the religious traditions of Shintoism and Buddhism; whether or not you believe in them is your own business.

Though the gods of Shintoism have no authority over life or death, thousands of children will be taken to a shrine for this beautiful yet empty ceremony. Our hope and prayer is that one day, Japanese parents will dress their children in their finest kimono and hakama and take them to church to have a pastor pray a blessing over them from God our Father and Creator, and not just for health and long life, but for eternal life through Christ Jesus. Or better yet, that the parents themselves pray a blessing over their own children in the name of Jesus, because as children of the one true God, we have the right to approach Him directly and make our requests known!

 

The Evangelical Catholic: Pope Francis

Earlier this week, Pope Francis published a document called the “Apostolic Exhortation”, written to every Catholic in the world. While this document will likely garner most of its attention for its blunt challenge to fiscal policies which have benefited the rich at the cost of the poor, Pope Francis writes an incredibly beautiful yet challenging piece on the topic of evangelism. I am not a Catholic and rarely follow the details of what goes on in the Catholic church, but I was completely drawn in to what Pope Francis had to say. His prose is so moving yet so generous to his audience, it is impossible not to reflect on the wisdom of his words. Let’s put it this way: the full title of the document is “Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of the Holy Father Francis to the Bishops, Clergy, Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World”. And I still read it.

So powerful are Pope Francis’s words in this document that I am simply going to quote some of the passages so you can let the power of the prose move you themselves.

“Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.”

“We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”

“The Gospel offers us the chance to live life on a higher plane, but with no less intensity: “Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort. Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others”.”

“Let us recover and deepen our enthusiasm, that “delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow… And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervour, who have first received the joy of Christ”.”

“In every activity of evangelization, the primacy always belongs to God, who has called us to cooperate with him and who leads us on by by the power of his Spirit. The real newness is the newness which God himself mysteriously brings about and inspires, provokes, guides and accompanies in a thousand ways. The life of the Church should always reveal clearly that God takes the initiative, that “he has loved us first” (1 Jn 4:19) and that he alone “gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7). This conviction enables us to maintain a spirit of joy in the midst of a task so demanding and challenging that it engages our entire life. God asks everything of us, yet at the same time he offers everything to us.”

“Lastly, we cannot forget that evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of them are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition. All of them have a right to receive the Gospel. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone.”

Am I a reformed Protestant heartily agreeing with and even endorsing a vision of evangelism defined by the Pope of the Catholic church? Why yes, I am. In fact, I daresay that the Pope understands global evangelism better than some churches who call themselves “evangelical”. Which just goes to prove that those who get it right don’t always get it right, and those who get it wrong don’t always get it wrong. God has been teaching me a lot about passing judgement on others: individuals and institutions. He is reminding me that if I desire to thrive in the mission field (or even just survive it), a black-and-white view of the world simply will not do. There is good and bad in everyone and everything and I must learn not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Evangelism is a messy business because God allows human beings to play a part in it, and sometimes we start thinking we’re the ones running the show. But in the end, God’s will is done, even in spite of us, and this is what we can take our joy in.

Opportunity = Opposition

Have you been discouraged recently? We face adversity everyday in some form or another. It takes the form of office politics, apathetic professors, or even seemingly well-intentioned acquaintances handing out unsolicited “advice”.

In my Bible study this morning, God lead me to a passage I had not seen before about how the apostle Paul viewed adversity which shocked me back to reality. At the conclusion of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells them this:

“But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.” 1 Corinthians 16:8-9

In the same breath, Paul states that a great opportunity has been opened to him AND there are many in opposition to his work! What appeared initially to be a contradiction started to make sense when I thought about it carefully.

How many times in our lives do we have a great opportunity to do something important or meaningful and discover there are many who oppose us? There are the friends and family members with good intentions who don’t want to see us take a risk and possibly fail. There are others who recognize the opportunity and want to get a piece of it for their own glory. And there are the hopefully few who truly do not want to see us succeed at something great.

This is a constant theme in our lives and especially in the ministry, where we not only contend with human opposition but spiritual opposition as well. If the people of the Tohoku region in Japan are seeking spiritual answers to their lives, doesn’t it make sense that cults and other false religions will spring up to try and take advantage of them? When the door of opportunity is opened wide enough, even the thieves will be able to get in.

But the point for you today is if you are facing adversity in your life right now, stop and look around. Perhaps the adversity is great because the opportunity for you to do something important is even greater. Paul did not shy away from opportunity simply because there were many who opposed him. He jumped right in head first and took them on. What are you being called to do?

Why I Dislike The Book of James

[I thought about titling this post “James? Blunt.” but I thought that was a little too snarky and I don’t even like his music.] 

I never liked the book of James. In fact, I have tried to avoid reading James whenever possible. Unlike Paul, James doesn’t start his letter with praise and encouragement; he just jumps right in and starts telling it like it is. I realized that James is written like a lecture from a stern parent: full of good advice but delivered in a very blunt way. The study notes of my ESV Bible state that of the 108 verses written in James, 50 of them are commands! Wow, that does sound like dinner with your Asian parents!

But hidden beneath the facade of a lecture is James’s deep concern for the readers of his letter. His style indicates his desire for his audience to take real action and not just read it and nod their heads in agreement. If James was so concerned for the early church to take his advice seriously, then it makes sense that we too, should consider the matters he addresses to be critical to the church.

It was in James this week that I learned how to get God to respond positively to my prayers 100% of the time. Often times when we don’t get what we pray for, we feel that God wasn’t listening to us or we failed to pray hard enough. But I learned in James 4:3 that we do not receive what we ask for because we ask wrongly! According to the Scripture, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

And there is the key. Many people take James 4:2 out of context: “You do not have, because you do not ask.” Name-it-and-claim-it based churches use this verse to suggest that prosperity is ours for the asking, just let your request be known to God and like some genie in a bottle, poof, it’s yours! Yet you only have to look one verse beyond to see what a load of garbage this line of thinking is. We don’t receive what we pray for because we pray for blessing, healing and comfort out of our own selfish desires.

Yeah, we don’t see it that way. When we’re sick, we pray “God heal me so I can do Your will.” when we really mean “God heal me so I can get back to the office before my work starts piling up.” The apostles never prayed for prosperity or comfort, not because they didn’t desire it, but because they already knew God did not desire it for them. When they prayed for healing, it was always for the glory of God. Healing was done in the name of Jesus, and  the result of the healing was that someone, often many someones came to believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Even Paul said he would prefer death to be united with Christ, but for the sake of the church, he remained alive to do God’s will even if it meant being persecuted, shipwrecked and imprisoned.

So how then do you get God to respond positively to 100% of your prayers? Pray according to His will, not yours. In other words, understand your motives before the prayer even leaves your lips.

Yes, I am being a bit facetious here. There is no way we will ever completely understand our true motives when we pray. God knows our motives better than we do, which is why He answers our prayers according to His pleasure, not ours. So sometimes we will suffer, even tragically, to bring about an eternal good in our lives or the lives of the people around us.

Still, just the thought of asking for something to spend on my passions makes me think a bit deeper about my prayer life. What am I really praying for? Is it for the glory of the Lord to be revealed or is it for comfort, prosperity, or recognition in my own life? These are all worldly treasures and James continues in chapter 4 to say this:

…whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (v.4)

Ouch. But that’s just James telling it like it is.