Friday, May 30, 2008

Church of Christ

I had a curious sensation this morning, driving to work.

Because of road maintenance projects, my usual exit was closed, and I had to get off the highway at the next exit, one which I used to take years ago when it was first opened. This exit was supposed to be a ‘short cut,’ and it did cut out the segment of the main road that runs through the local business district, but after using it for a few weeks, I went back to using the main exit. There’s just something more ‘human’ about the business district, maybe it’s being able to see ‘signs of life’ there on my way to work, sort of prepping me to have to deal with ‘the world.’ Going the other way, it’s just barren highway walls, or views of the sullenly same suburban clonosphere. ‘Little boxes on the hillside.’

So I got off at the ‘new’ exit, the one just past the big ol’ barn. Wow! The ol’ barn got a new metal roof! The walls of the barn are still a weathered, unpainted brown, but the roof, well, it’s brand spankin’ new. The ramp curves rather sharply to meet the new parkway which then cuts through territory only recently robbed from cultivation and citified. I hadn’t been this way in many months, probably even in a year. I think I stopped using it winter before last, because in the darkness and mist of early morning and late afternoon here in the north, it’s hard for me to see my way.

After rounding the bend, there was what I was expecting to see, the row of identical fog gray two-storey blockhouses behind a low protecting wall paralleling the parkway. A few young trees were starting to be visible through the gangways between the houses. It’s a rather new subdivision. For years, it was a huge, unfenced fallow field coming to the old road. At one corner of the field, at the intersection, had been a large billboard advertising this field as the site of a future church—I never paid attention what kind—with an architect’s rendition of what that new building would look like. Finally, after several years, signs of construction appeared, and in due course the building. What surprised me at the time was that a whole subdivision of residences also sprang up. Those are the houses I saw from the road this morning.

Then I saw it! At the end of the row of drab houses, barren land again appeared, and in the distance a sprawling two-storey building with long, sloping eaves, looking a little like a cross between a hotel and a Pacific Northwest lodge at a campground. And in front of it, in the field between it and me, a big billboard sign with the words ‘Church of Christ.’
“What’s that?” I mumbled to myself. “I wonder what they do in there? Then I noticed, I had just had a ‘curious sensation.’

Somewhere in the back of my mind and even in my emotions, there’s an underlying notion that ‘the church of Christ’ is people. I know I’ve said this and continue to say and write this whenever explaining what the Church is. I know that I know it theoretically, and I accept this idea as true. Yet I’ve never had this experience before… Coming suddenly upon a building that I know from experience is a Christian institution, a ‘church,’ yet being taken aback, being startled, by seeing it called ‘Church of Christ.’ I could feel deeply that I was already ‘in the Church’ and that the Church was present all around me in its fullness and strength. It felt as though I were on the edge of an immense, living organism almost floating through and intersecting with this world, and that I was looking out of it at the world, as we passed through it. And when we passed this thing, this building with the billboard in front, ‘Church of Christ,’ I was startled, almost like a savage is startled to see himself reflected in a pool of water, knowing that the reflection is somehow both himself and not himself. The sensation is very hard to put into words.

All of this takes a whole paragraph to describe, but it happened in an instant, and wordlessly, even thoughtlessly. Only a second later, as I continued driving past, did my rational mind pick up the refrain, “I wonder what they do in there?” and begin realising that I had just witnessed my own spirit being splintered between heaven and earth in bewilderment. The sensation gradually faded, and in five minutes I was bolting out of my car to hop into another driver’s seat at my desk, where I started my day by telling this tale.

This morning I was praying in my car as I drove to work, and so my mind was not in its usual state of worrying about earthly affairs. “Let us who mystically represent the cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life creating Triad, now lay aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of all, who comes invisibly upborne by the angelic hosts.”

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.
John 4:24 NIV

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The meaning of Κοινωνια

The following is an excerpt from the "Glory to God for All Things" blog. It is about the concept of κοινωνια koinonía, a Greek term that is used in the Bible and in the Greek Orthodox Church. The complete article can be read by following the link to Is a Relationship with God What We Want? The original article is well worth reading, especially if you want to get a better understanding about how Orthodoxy views the Church, but this brief excerpt will give any follower of Jesus some food for thought…

I have a concern with a particular word in Scripture that has its own history of translation issues. The Greek is koinonía. The root of the word is the adjective: koínos, meaning common. The noun is one of the great abilities of ancient Greek—the ability to create abstract concepts from adjectives (this is not common in ancient languages). It is this linguistic ability that caused philosophy in Western Civilization to first be practiced by the Greeks. Without abstract nouns there is nothing to discuss.

The word koinonía had a fairly clear religious, even sacramental, meaning by the time of the New Testament. It had a history of usage even in pagan religious settings. Its meaning was fairly clear: communion, participation or sharing. In each of these meanings the strongest sense of the word is meant. To have koinonía is to have communion, to actually participate in the life of another in the sense that your life and the life of the other share a common existence.

In the history of English translation the word receives a mixed treatment. In the King James Bible the word is generally translated either as communion, or, occasionally, by the weaker word fellowship. Interestingly, as time and Protestantism move along, translations have tended to move more often to the weaker rendering fellowship. Thus in the Revised Standard Version we read:

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
(1 John 1:6-7)

What on earth does this mean?

In our modern two-storey world, fellowship is a very weak word. It refers to a relationship between two very discreet individualities. Rotary clubs meet for fellowship. It’s not unlike comradery with the exception that the term comrade sounds as if you actually shared a common experience.

The Greek is clear. If we say we have communion with Christ while we walk in darkness, we lie. We lie because to have communion with Christ is literally to have a share in His life, to dwell in Him and He in you. It is of the very heart of our salvation. By the same token, if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, because we are sharing in one and the same life. And it is this sharing in the life of Jesus that is itself the sharing in His blood that cleanses us from all sin.

In blogging this excerpt I realised that I do have something of my own to add, my own testimony as it were, that somewhat (though not intentionally) disagrees with Fr. Stephen's premise that fellowship means something necessarily different, or at least weaker than,

Although an Orthodox Christian, after receiving holy communion I thank God using the prayer Almighty and ever-living God* from the Book of Common Prayer, in which this petition occurs, "And we most humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in." This part of the prayer, "that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in," I've also offered at other times, as when praying with my co-laborer in the Lord, because we share the same mind, the same life in Jesus Christ, rare among Christians today. For me, then, holy fellowship signifies the same depth of communion, participation and sharing that the article restricts to the term communion. Maybe for most people, that's correct, but not for all, not for me.

* This prayer is also part of the Liturgy of Saint Tikhon, an Orthodox Western rite liturgy composed by the Russian bishop Tikhon of Moscow.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Word and the Way

Thanks to Presbytera Candace for these two gems from the Russian fathers…

The soul must be provided with the word of God, for the word of God, as St. Gregory the Theologian tells us, is the bread of angels--of which souls partake that hunger after God. Most importantly, one must practice reading the New Testament and the Psalter.
By so doing,
the mind is enlightened and undergoes a divine change.
—Seraphim of Sarov

Nothing and no one can snatch out of God's hands a soul dedicated to His service. For God gives to such a soul for the time of its earthly pilgrimage a narrow path paved with diverse sorrows and deprivations, because it is impossible to come to God along a broad way...
—Ignatius Brianchaninov

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Hot summer night

It’s a heat wave right now in Portland, and I spent most of the day in my “cave” (right) and out of the hot sun, reading my bible (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians), and napping on and off. I’m a rain forest kind of guy as a general rule. This post is not going to be about the weather, but it explains why I’m still up at 10:30 p.m. and why I went out to the local supermarket for a cold drink and a salad to bring home.
Too hot to cook.

So… I also had an ulterior motive.
A friend of mine (we’re about the same age) is the night shift green grocer at this supermarket, and I haven’t seen him since before I left for Japan. He’s also an Orthodox brother, and so I wanted to greet him, find out how his Pascha went, and tell him about mine. Both of us would be away from home for Pascha, an unusual thing for us, he would be in California, and I in Japan.

“Christós anésti!” I said as I tapped him on the shoulder from behind. “Alithós anésti,” he responded, as we shook hands and then, almost immediately, “How do you say it in Japanese?” (We like to learn how to say the Pascha greeting “Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!” in as many languages as we can.)
“Haristósu fukkátsu!” I said, and he repeated it, and “Jitsu ni fukkátsu!” and he mimicked me again. My friend is a good linguist, as are most Orthodox who are fluent in Greek as well as English. Learning Greek, I think, somehow grows your ability to learn languages.

I told my friend about Japan, as he sorted Vidalia sweet onions, removing the bad ones as we talked. A life-changing experience for me, I told him. For us, it was liberating to be in a country where almost everything made sense, and where the people seemed happy, contented and secure. My friend told me about his visit to California, where he had a one-on-one visit with our bishop, Metropolitan, Gerásimos.
“Was it a good visit?” I asked.

We talked for awhile about his visit, and then somehow the conversation turned to how my friend became a Christian. I have known this man for almost twenty years, and I had never heard him give his testimony. It’s not like Greek Orthodox go around giving their testimonies, although I have heard quite a few, all of them inspiring. The testimony I heard tonight is one I want to share because it highlights how the faithfulness of a single Christian can help bring an unbeliever to Christ.

My friend was raised an Episcopalian, left the church as an adolescent, went to college as an atheist, and studied a lot of philosophy there, confirming more or less his atheistic conclusions. Our backgrounds are somewhat different, but I too went to college, minoring in Philosophy, and so we read a lot of the same authors.
My drifting was into the “New Age” religions. I thought that Jesus was God, but that church was rot. My friend had come to similar conclusions about church, but as to God—no such thing.

What happened to him was, after he got married to a Greek Orthodox girl (and he could do that, even as an atheist, because he was a baptized Episcopalian, which doesn’t say a lot for our church at the time!), he and his wife had as friends another couple, a young Orthodox priest and presbytera. They visited each other a lot, and did things together. My friend was honest with this priest and they had many discussions as to why he was an atheist, and unable to accept the reality of Christ and the Church. He had all the answers, and the priest knew that. But one day, the priest said, “Okay, so you know better than to believe in God and the whole church thing! Reason cannot convince you. But let me challenge you with this—would you agree to learn how to pray?” Thinking that this was a joke, perhaps, or maybe not thinking it was a serious challenge, my friend responded, “Yes, I will learn how to pray,” and then he simply forgot about it for the rest of the evening.

Next morning, early, he heard a knock at his door. “Who could be bothering me at this hour?” he muttered as he went to see who it was. He opened the door, and there was the priest, dressed in his blacks, carrying a prayer book, some candles, and an icon. “I’m here to teach you how to pray.”

He went into the living room, cleared off a spot on the fireplace mantle, stood up the icon and lit the candles, showing my friend in effect how to build an Orthodox prayer shelf. Then he made him stand next to him, side by side, showed him how to make the sign of the cross, how to bow, and then recite the prayers and readings of the morning prayer. Discussion had been given its chance. Now it was time for doing.

This went on for a very long time, day after day, and my friend, an atheist still, continued following his friend the priest in offering due praise, glory and petition to God—who he didn't believe in.
The young priest kept coming back, day after day, and they prayed together. After a while, my friend began to experience spiritual attacks. The priest had told him to expect this, but he didn’t believe it. Then they started. He didn’t tell me what these attacks consisted of, but well I know what they could have been. So he answered his attacker, “So you do exist after all!” and found himself believing in the existence of the devil before he believed in the existence of God. Strangely like my own conversion, though he knew what was the right thing to do, he seemed to have no power in himself to do it, to force himself to speak to God and personally confess belief in Him. This is how he got over it…

When he found himself stuck in this strange place, he frantically flipped through the prayer book the priest had left him, hoping to find some prayer to read that might make his petition known to the Father. Near the end of the book, he found a prayer for conversion, composed by John Chrysostom. In the prayer was a phrase something like,
“…rescue me, because the ravenous wolf is pursuing me.”
My friend prayed the prayer for his own conversion to happen, but he still felt nothing, and he let it be.

The next morning, when he awoke, he awoke as a Christian. His each and every doubt gone, his rebellion quashed, his arguments defeated, now his only desire was to get out of bed and make it real. Now, when his friend the priest knocked at his door, he would have something important to tell him.

Glory to God for all things.

God loves us so much

“God loves us so much, that He’s done everything He can do to save us, and He doesn’t want it all to be wasted.”

I was trapped in a very strange dream sequence, which I call the “church dream”. This is a recurring dream which I’ve had for more than twenty years, which has as its location—church. Usually, it’s the church I once attended and ministered out of, St. Mark’s, what I once considered my “family” church, a miniature masterpiece, architecturally a basilica with Italianate bell tower, interior based on the famous church in Venice, replete with frescos and icons. The first few scenes in this dream sequence were based on St. Mark’s and had the same themes, me trying to explain to visitors why the great church was no longer what it once was. The last thing I remember out of those scenes was taking an embroidered icon cloth out of the church, rescuing it from oblivion because the “remodel” had no place for it, and unrolling the cloth on my bed, so I could look at it more closely…

Other scenes followed, now not directly connected to a specific church building. The one that I remember as I awoke this morning was something like this.

This time I was in an Orthodox environment, but in no particular church. I was just bidding farewell to an Eastern European new immigrant, a young man, a musician, who had just received some kind of blessing from the church. It seemed like he had been in need of a new musical instrument so he could support himself, and maybe the church had just helped him out in some way.
He was beaming.

Then, he told me of his old dad, who was a farmer with one cow, who was not making it in life, but who thought that if he had two cows, things might go better for him. This problem was keeping him away from church, locked in a mental battle, because of a rule that they had in their church, that a man had the church’s blessing only to have one cow. The priest in his church would not give him a blessing to have two cows. So he was staying away from church. I decided to go and visit him.

I found the old farmer, sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor of a small, furnitureless room, literally a cubbyhole the size of a walk-in closet, drinking a bowl of soup. He was the image of poverty itself, clad in faded old work clothes. He didn’t speak to me at all. I stood in the doorway silently for a moment, as tears started welling up inside me, I’m not sure why. I leaned my head on the doorpost and said to him, “God loves us so much, that He’s done everything He can do to save us, and He doesn’t want it all to be wasted.

“Don’t let this matter of having two cows get in the way of your salvation. If you want another cow and can buy it, go and buy it. Then, go to your priest and ask him for his blessing. If he refuses to give it, thank him, say ‘That’s alright, father, that’s alright,’ pay your respects, and leave. Then, come to the Greek priest. He will give you the blessing, because we don’t have a ‘one cow’ rule.”

At that point, I woke up. Saturday morning is my “sleeping in” morning, you know, “on the seventh day God rested from all His works,” and so do I.

Though dreams can often be quite meaningless and usually are, this one has some meaning. Though in my dreams I often hear or speak verses from the Bible, in this dream it wasn’t an exact Bible verse I cited, but something like a conflation of maybe John 3:16 and Romans 8:32. And that was that. No wordy sermon, just an assurance of God’s love for us, and a practical work-around to get through the toll-gates of the Church.

Yes, though the Kingdom of God is but one country, “on earth as it is in heaven,” it seems that somebody thought this wasn’t good enough. The “inheritance of the saints” has been divided and sub-divided, the “first and greatest commandment, and the second like unto it” multiplied into hundreds of rules and regulations, and the “one Mediator between God and man” replaced by a multitude of gate-keepers.

Dreams, I think, come from a combination of factors—what happened to you the day before, your mental or emotional state, what you’ve been reading or watching on television or PC, even the state of your digestion. This dream is no exception. But God can even use our dreams, sometimes, to speak something in our ears. If He were speaking in this dream, what could He be saying?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Foundational thinking on Scripture

Why do I, as a Greek Orthodox Christian, include non-Orthodox writers in my spiritual library? Because I do not believe that the Church can be or has ever been divided. What then do I make of the "apparent" divisions? To me, they are only testimonies to the sinfulness of man, our arrogance, our thirst for power and self-glorification. True enough, some "churches" espouse very erroneous beliefs. To me, though, these are patently not "of the Church," they prove themselves to be mere human constructs, for sure. As for the rest, what is keeping us apart?

"…simply ignorant, full of self-conceit, with a craze for questioning everything and arguing about words. All that can come of this is jealousy, contention, abuse and wicked mistrust of one another, and unending disputes by people who are neither rational nor informed, and imagine that religion is a way of making money." (1 Timothy 6:4-5 Jerusalem Bible)

Martin Luther (1483-1546) is best known as the reformer who said, "Here I stand," to Pope and Emperor, but he understood his vocation to be a Doctor of Biblical Studies at University, and the majority of the 55 volumes of his works in English are commentaries on Scripture. In Luther's approach to understanding Scripture, the Word and Spirit create an event in which the reader participates. As the Holy Spirit used a human to write it, the Holy Spirit uses the Word and helps the human enter into Scripture. The impression one gets from Luther as he writes about figures and scenes in Scripture is that he is describing an actual landscape that he had visited. Luther would say that interpretation is a Word-event available to all readers through the Holy Spirit.

These thoughts are not only foundational in regard to the Holy Scriptures, but also Orthodox:
1) We participate in scripture. We don't just read it.
2) We enter into scripture. Our lives become enmeshed with it.
3) We are taught by the Word Himself when we enter the scriptural world. All believers, not just specialists, can interpret the Bible.
Whether they do it correctly depends on whether they have in fact entered and participated in it.

Scripture alone is authoritative. No doctrine be taught except the pure Word of God.
Scripture as the sole authority for the rule of the life of the Church can be found in the writings of the earliest church Fathers. Augustine wrote, "For Holy Scripture fixes the rule for our doctrine, lest we dare to be wiser than we ought. Therefore, I should not teach you anything else except to expound to you the words of the Teacher." This is the tradition of the early Fathers and the monastics to pray, meditate, memorize, and copy the sacred text daily.

In the Bible everything has to do with Christ. Furthermore, we see that all the fathers in the Old Testament, together with all the holy prophets, had the same faith and Gospel as we have, as St. Paul says, "For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ." (1 Corinthians 10:4). The sole difference is, they believed in the coming and promised Seed; we believe in the Seed that has been given. The gospel this side of Pascha (Easter) is the promise of God that in Jesus Christ, God has fulfilled the Law of Moses on the cross; Abraham received his version of promise before the law was given to Moses.

Simple is best. One should not say therefore that Scripture has more than one meaning. God is beyond human all-knowing. However, all Scripture can be interpreted, and all Scripture has one simple sense."The Holy Spirit is the simplest writer. His words could have no more than the one simplest meaning which we call the grammatical or the literal meaning." Luther's understanding of "literal" is different from the modern definition of something that which can be verified by facts—rather, "literal" means what the author intends by the words.

Scripture interprets itself. One passage of Scripture must be clarified by other passages.

Luther said that the best method of interpreting the Bible is to put Scripture alongside Scripture allowing plainer texts to illuminate the more obscure. For example, the book of Hebrews and the Gospel of Matthew employ Old Testament so continuously that they are almost running commentary. Luther's commentaries function the same way; for example, to explain the word anathema in his commentary on Gal 1:8, Luther cites Joshua 6:17; Lev 27:28; and Ex 17:14. Luther practices "commentary by concordance."

Related to how Luther experienced no historical gap between God and himself, he referenced Scripture for answers to contemporary questions, he also experienced no gap between historical eras, and seems to be unaware of the ease of his time-traveling, shifting easily from the time and culture of Cicero, to that of Abraham, or the distance between Jesus in Palestine and the desk in his study. In his biblical world-view, the Holy Spirit makes Scripture come alive, and through faith inserted Luther into the stories. The historical gap is bridged by faith when one is lifted out of the present and placed into the Bible. The biblical world and the contemporary world run together.

In Christian Orthodoxy, something similar happens to us in our encounter with the holy icons: The Holy Spirit makes Scripture come alive, and through faith inserts us into the stories we see depicted in the icons. That's one reason why it is said that "icons are written, not painted."

Karl Barth said, "The Holy Scriptures will interpret themselves in spite of all our human limitations." Men and women do not interpret Scripture as much as Scripture interprets each person. This takes place when Scripture is read in the faith which is freely given by grace of God. Though Barth and Luther differ in part in their theology of the Word, they stand shoulder to shoulder against any who would say there is any other way into the landscape of the Bible. And I, as an Orthodox Christian, stand with them.

There is nothing really potentially unorthodox or disruptive in holding these views. By reminding ourselves of the centrality of the Holy Scriptures, we are not devaluing the (Orthodox) Church Fathers. We are giving them their true value, removing them from the possibility of being considered infallible, and restoring them to their proper place—members with us of the Body of Christ.

The Bible's Author is God, the text is alive, it has the power and the freedom through the Spirit to do what it says it is going to do, and the message addresses the reader personally through the action of the Author. There is no passive Scripture in faith.

As Martin Luther said, "Christianity is simple, lying open to the light of day. One must take and accept it as it is." He could say that because he understood that Scripture had an Author whose voice could be heard and verified only through the humility of faith, and then the gift of revelation can be received.

This post consists mainly of excerpts from Andrew Kenny's blog. For his original post, click here.

End Times Revisited

Back in 2006, I posted a quote from my oldest son's blog on the subject of "end times." Just before I left for Japan, I visited him and he spoke about many of the same things, though with wider angle and application. I am always in awe of the intense depth of his understanding of the holy prophets, of the exodus from Egypt, of holy apostle Paul, and of how everything is tied into the first and second comings of Christ, who is the Lord of all. It is reported that Metropolitan Gerasimos has said to him, "Jacob, the church isn't ready for you yet." But I hope it will give him the opportunity to minister and teach soon, because "the time is close." (Revelation 1:3)

In doing a search in my blog for another quote of his, I came upon this one, and I want to post it again. It's worth considering…

The “end times,” then, represent the final prophetic path, the cycle where all representation of the faith of God on earth falls into the mundane, where there is no longer an assembly to appeal to, that is not tainted by the ambitions of humanity. Every hand reaching to God is grabbed by something else. It is the only prophetic path where grace is wholly inaccessible, and all are lost.

Are we there? Are we drawing closer to it?
We may not have to make martyrs of those who are faithful to what they cannot see. In our modern world all we have to do is stop teaching the gospel. Those who know it will die, just as Joseph died, just as the whole generation who knew Joseph died, and the knowledge of God will stop. And we will find ourselves like the Hebrews making bricks for some walking god-man ruler like pharaoh. We will find ourselves awakened from the slumber by a final return of the true God to deliver those, who have been asleep, out of their slumber. And like the Hebrews, some of us will stumble forward, following a God we do not know, to a place we have never heard of. Yet many will opt to stay in Egypt: They’d rather die than change.

It is easy to see how, within this prophetic framework, life and death, location and specific personalities and players fall away into irrelevance. The “end times” are not about these kinds of specifics. They are the ultimate case of a protypical drama that we live out in small portions every day of our lives.

The question is, when all paths end in the same place and the age of freedom is over and done, will we have the wisdom and courage to leave all that we know and rely on behind, to embrace deliverance from beyond our known world in order to attain life? Or will we dwell forever wanting, in pursuit of our own shadow?

Jacob Aaron Gorny

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Korean Greek Orthodoxy

Here are three very short videos of the Greek Orthodox church in Korea. I think these are from the Saint Nicholas church in Seoul. I knew that Orthodox Christianity in Korea originated from Greece, just as in Japan it originated from Russia. The main difference is the style of music and the icons. The church singing in Korea is the same as in other Greek churches. The faith believed and practiced is the same as in all Orthodox churches throughout the world.

For additional information on the Korean Greek Orthodox Church, visit their site in English or Korean.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

添護摩祈祷 Jesus in Japan

From my journal…

Monday, 4-21-08, morning…
Woke up at 4:30 a.m.
Still a little dark, but it got light fast. By 5 a.m. the sky was bright, blue above, and pink to the east.
The room we’re staying in is the second floor of Taka’s house. It’s about 8 feet wide and about 20 feet long. There’s a window in one short wall, and two wide windows in both of the long walls. At the windowless end of the room is the metal stairway that connects us to the rest of the house.
Waking up our first morning in Japan, all I saw was tiled roofs around us, and in the distance industrial buildings and hi-rises. Family memorabilia and some small furniture, a queen-size bed and a wardrobe are all that’s in the room, except for our two futons.

Japan—a country of contrasts, lifestyles almost primitive in counterpoint to almost futuristic.

Where we are staying with Taka is a small neighborhood with rice paddies, vegetable gardens and small orchards interspersed. A cock is crowing in the distance as we walk down the narrow, paved lane between rice paddies to a main road.

The house is one of three around a small courtyard. Laundry (turned inside out) hangs out to dry in the sun and wind. The survivors of Yoko’s garden are clustered in a corner. Taka and his father Akira do their best to keep the little garden alive… roses, wisteria, a jade plant, and many bulb flowers… Luckily the little creatures in the garden don’t need to be fed—they’re statues…

Monday, 4-21-08, evening…
Apostle Paul writes, “For instance, pagans who never heard of the Law but are led by reason to do what the Law commands, may not actually possess the Law, but they can be said to be the Law” (Romans 2:14 Jerusalem Bible).
After our first, very full day in Japan with Taka as our guide, we both came to very much the same conclusions—Japan’s native ways are almost exactly what a society following the gospel would be like—and here is a country without Christ.

I have not seen a single Christian church, nor any sign of Christian symbolism except the Red Cross on medical buildings. Yet this people knows that “it is better to serve than be served” (cf. Mark 10:45).

So much for my journal…
I didn’t write too much in my journal while I was in Japan. Our life there was just too full. Brock shot several hours of video on every leg of our journeys, and Taka took about a thousand photos. Both of them are expert camera men, while I barely know how to take a snapshot. So, aside from manning the camera on occasion so Taka could be in some of the photos, I just absorbed the experiences we had, hoping to remember and recount them later.

This post is to draw your attention to a new blog that I hope to start, Taka’s Japan, where I will try to post as many of the photos we took along with an account of our travels in Japan.

The new blog will focus on the day to day aspects of the trip, while any spiritual musings of mine, such as this one, will appear here on Cost of Discipleship.

The kanji used in the title of this post do not translate to “Jesus in Japan,” but rather something like “May our prayers accompany, protect and refine [the departed souls]”. The on’yomi reading of the kanji is “Ten-go-ma-ki-tou”, but I’m not sure if either my translation or transliteration (based on my ancient Japanese dictionary) is correct. If any Japanese Buddhist visits my blog, please correct me.

This phrase is printed on a wooden votive tablet I bought at Koshouji Temple in Nagoya, where our best friend Taka’s mother’s ashes are interred.

On the first day of our visit to Taka’s Japan, we got up early, had breakfast, kohii, pan and yogurt, at a coffeehouse nearby, and then headed over to pay our respects and visit Yoko’s grave.

Taka tidied up the monument and offered a bundle of incense. After that we witnessed the 8 o’clock service at the temple, where the abbot and about seven or eight monks rhythmically chanted their prayers.

What do I mean by Jesus in Japan

Well, again forgive my impertinence, but I know that Jesus is walking among the Japanese people, He’s in Japan, as alive as He is everywhere else, and looking for His lost sheep.
Chances are, He has as many people walking with Him in Japan as He has in America, a “Christian” country, even though I never saw more than maybe three or four church buildings the whole time I was there.
Maybe that’s a good thing, too.
Jesus has a better chance of being accepted and followed in a land largely unaffected by institutional Christianity.
And if God grants me this, I too want to follow Jesus in Japan.

And many of those who are following Jesus are doing it without even seeing His face!
Let me tell you more…

Taka’s mother, Yoko, reposed (passed away) about 2 years ago. The story of this remarkable woman and the effect she has had on her four sons, especially Taka, is amazing. Without being “Christians,” this family has not only Christian virtue and integrity, but also many signs of God’s providence in their lives.

Though prayers are offered by the Buddhist abbot and monks of Koshouji, the dead are not rescued or liberated from hell by Buddha, but by Jesus Christ. We cannot say for sure what becomes of those virtuous souls that went to the land of the dead without knowing Christ. But neither can we say for sure that they did not know Christ—how else could their lives have been filled with His strength, were they not in some way acknowledging Him?

As I said, there are many things about this remarkable woman, Yoko, that show God’s hand on her life. I only met her briefly when she visited him here in America a few years ago, and she didn’t speak English. But to Whom was she praying when, as Taka related, she prayed for the defeat of Japan in World War II? And for Whom did she suffer imprisonment and abuse by her own people, when she refused to support the war effort? And why did God spare her and her mother and their home when everything around them, including the bomb shelter in their neighborhood was destroyed. (Their neighbors told them to leave their home and come to the shelter, but they refused, saying that their lives were in God’s hands.) That night, their neighborhood was leveled, including the bomb shelter, and their house alone survived. Taka’s mother had severe burns, but she survived the war. We saw the house, which still stands, surrounded by modern buildings. And her spiritual legacy lives on in Taka, in his father and brothers.
May her memory be eternal.

Yes, Jesus is in Japan.
Let’s help Him reveal Himself to His new people.

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Romans 10:14-15 NIV

Kami wa go jibun no hitori ko o ataeru hodoni yo o aisaretakarada. Sore wa, kare o shinjiru mono gamina horobiru kotonaku, eien no inochi o motsutameda.

Hostages in America

Yesterday evening, I noticed that the household was in need of a few grocery items, and so I decided to drive down to the supermarket to buy them. On the way out the back door, I noticed a large plastic trash bag full of empty pop cans and plastic bottles waiting to be taken to the store for recycling. Even though I don’t drink pop or beer, it seems that I’m always the one who takes the bottles in. I don’t mind doing it, since in Oregon it’s 5 cents deposit each that I can use as pocket money or, as in this case, helps me out with the grocery bill.

I got to the store and luckily, the recycling area was nearly deserted—just a young store clerk fiddling around with one of the machines, and an older fellow standing by with a small sack of recyclables, waiting for the machine to be re-set.

I looked into the top of my bag, tearing apart the handles so I could get a better look. Hmm, mostly cans but quite a few plastic bottles on top. The “cans only” machine was available, so I walked over to it and started loading cans, one at a time, into the chute. As I came upon a pop bottle, I carefully laid it down on the sidewalk, using my right foot as a bumper to keep them from rolling down the slight incline to the street.

After I had about five bottles laid out on the ground, I felt a little nudge as I was loading another can into the chute. I looked over my shoulder, and there was the older chap I’d noticed as I walked up, pushing an empty grocery cart to me. He looked at me with a soft stare, and I nodded back and smiled, grabbed the cart and pulled it closer. Then I bent down to pick up the bottles off the sidewalk and drop them into the cart. There was quite a lot of cans and bottles in my bag, as it turned out, about four dollars’ worth, and about a dozen or more were bottles.

After the last can was recycled and I took my receipt, I quickly unloaded the bottles into the machine next one over, and noticed that my benefactor was still patiently waiting for the youth to untangle whatever was wrong with the machine he wanted to use. I took the receipt for the bottles and then turned to him and said, “Thanks for the cart.” With a shy smile he responded, “Don’t mention it.”

My entire time with this fellow lasted only a few seconds in two exchanges. I’ve trained myself to look deeply, and in those brief moments had a “handshake that goes to the heart” experience. He was probably a few years older than me, was dressed in clean, plain clothes and wore a baseball cap. He resembled my old elder Philip Holte a lot, so I guessed he was probably a Scandinavian—he had the same soft, serious look in his eyes, with a hint of a twinkle.

Along with the empty shopping cart, something else was passed to me. It was a furtive acknowledgment that our interaction was something contraband, helping a stranger for no other reason than “if I can lend a hand, I will,” a vestige of a vanished era, when such kindnesses were commonplace, where good deeds were done unselfconsciously and unselfishly. “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”

Forgive me, brothers, but I felt at that moment, and still feel now, as if my friend and I were hostages in America, prisoners of the new age in a land ravaged by lust. These thoughts weighed heavy on me, who had just returned from living in Japan for two weeks. The America where I was born, I experienced it again for a few moments of time… but, where did it go?

“Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 24:12-13 NIV)

Monday, May 5, 2008

Bring me to life

Are you afraid of death?
If you are, you are afraid to confess your faith in Christ the Lord!
It means that your faith is not strong and your prayer is not strong, that your soul has been lulled to sleep by the littleness of your faith, by the half-heartedness of your faith, or by your lack of faith.

Arise, you who are asleep in your soul.
Arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light and eternal justice, and through them eternal life as well.
And then you, like an immortal valiant hero, will turn to battle all the deaths which in this world are storming your soul, and you will utterly vanquish them forever.

Bring Me To Life

How can You see into my eyes like open doors
leading You down into my core
where I’ve become so numb without a soul
my spirit sleeping somewhere cold
until You find it there and lead it back home

(Wake me up)
Wake me up inside
(I can’t wake up)
Wake me up inside
(Save me)
Call my name and save me from the dark
(Wake me up)
Bid my blood to run
(I can’t wake up)
Before I come undone
(Save me)
Save me from the nothing I’ve become

Now that I know what I’m without
You can't just leave me
Breathe into me and make me real
Bring me to life

(Wake me up)
Wake me up inside
(I can’t wake up)
Wake me up inside
(Save me)
Call my name and save me from the dark
(Wake me up)
Bid my blood to run
I can’t wake up)
Before I come undone
(Save me)
Save me from the nothing I’ve become
Bring me to life
(I've been living a lie, there's nothing inside)
Bring me to life

Frozen inside without Your touch
without Your love
Darling only You are the life among the dead
All this time I can't believe I couldn't see
kept in the dark
but You were there in front of me
I’ve been sleeping a thousand years it seems
got to open my eyes to everything
without a thought without a voice without a soul

Don't let me die here
There must be something more
Bring me to life

(Wake me up)
Wake me up inside
(I can’t wake up)
Wake me up inside
(Save me)
Call my name and save me from the dark
(Wake me up)
Bid my blood to run
(I can’t wake up)
Before I come undone
(Save me)
Save me from the nothing I’ve become
(Bring me to life)
I’ve been living a lie, there’s nothing inside
(Bring me to life)

Sunday, May 4, 2008

He opens the tombs

When you hear that at that time the Lord freed the souls from hell and the regions of darkness and that He descended into hell and did an amazing work, do not think that this does not have any personal meaning for you.

Man, indeed, can readily accept the evil one. Death has its grip on the children of Adam and their thoughts are imprisoned in darkness. And when you hear mention made of tombs, do not at once think only of visible ones. For your heart is a tomb and a sepulcher. When the prince of evil and his angels have built their nest there and have built roads and highways on which the powers of satan walk about inside your mind and in your thoughts, then really, are you not a hell and a sepulcher and a tomb dead to God?

... But the Lord descends into the souls of those who seek Him. He goes into the depths of the hellish heart and there He commands death, saying, "Release those captive souls that seek after Me, those that you hold by force in bondage." He breaks through the heavy stones that cover the soul. He opens the tombs. He truly raises to life the dead person and leads that captive soul forth out of the dark prison.