Monday, July 8, 2013

What Are You Resisting, and Who do You Serve?

"It may be the Devil, it may be The Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody." - Bob Dylan

 

In the U.S., it seems like we spend a lot of time and money resisting things. We use air conditioning in our homes to resist the summer heat. Our political process alone accounts for billions of dollars spent resisting this philosophy or that policy. We have an entire industry devoted to resisting paying too much in taxes.

I'm not necessarily saying these things are bad. However, some of them represent a stubborn refusal on our part to acknowledge a Biblical truth: that we are not really in control.

Even writing those words sends chills down my spine. What if something happens to me or my family? What if something happens to derail our plans, or force us to choose between two terrible choices? Playing the "What if?" game can keep you up at night, if you let it. As Christians, it is our privilege (and failing that, our duty) to trust in God's plan for our lives, even if that plan involves our suffering (spoiler alert - it probably does).

What does Biblical resistance look like? We might do better to ask what kinds of resistance are unbiblical, to start.

 

Matthew 5:39

But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

The word Jesus uses for "resist" here is anthistēmi, which literally means "to stand against," or "oppose." The implication is an active resistance, one that is not afraid to throw a few punches. Jesus is literally telling people that if someone hits them, they should not hit back. Don't fight fire with fire. Don't respond to violence with violence.

Here's another form of resistance which the Bible opposes:

 

Acts 7:51

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.

This is a resistance which the whole human race has committed: resistance to God's will. Often, the Holy Spirit will influence our hearts to be more compassionate, less materialistic, more loving, less self-centered, and too often our response (and I know that this has been true of me all too often) is to resist that influence and go our own way.

Just like the examples at the top, this is an issue of control. It's not that we don't want to be more Christ-like in our behavior and do His good work in this world - it's that we want to do it on our own schedule. We don't give money to the homeless man sitting outside Starbucks because we just don't have time. We would like to give our friend a few minutes of our time to hear about their troubles, but we tell ourselves that we've got troubles too, and that we'll listen to theirs after we've taken care of ours. We'd like to forgive the people who make our life difficult, but we're just not ready - we want to hold onto our bitterness just a little longer, like a raccoonll whose arm is stuck in a trap because he's desperately clutching a piece of aluminum and just won't let go.

So, unbiblical resistance takes the form of sinning against others or sinning against God. Both are reactionary sins (we don't want people to push us around and we don't want God telling us what to do), and both are sins of direct disobedience to God's explicit commands.

So what does Biblical resistance look like?

 

James 4:7

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

If there's one spiritual being you are absolutely encouraged to resist, it is the devil. Satan constantly encourages the worst in mankind. He is a skillful foe, one which Martin Luther described in his famous hymn A Mighty Fortress by claiming "on Earth is not his equal." None of us has a chance on Earth of resisting the devil with our own strength. That is why the above verse begins with, "Submit yourselves therefore to God." If you haven't submitted your life to His authority, if you are consciously engaging in the resistance of the Holy Spirit over your life, you will find resisting the devil on your own strength to be completely impossible.

However, if you trust in God and His plans for you, and especially if you are seeking after the influence of the Holy Spirit in your life, God will give you the strength to resist the devil, to the point where the devil will actually avoid you.

 

1 Peter 5:9

Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.

If reliance on God and His Holy Spirit is step 1 of resisting Satan, partnership with fellow believers in the body of Christ is step 2. We would all like to believe that we are capable of "doing" the Christian life alone. The truth is, we are created to live in community, and being alone for too long makes us weak.

There is something to be said for spending time alone with God. Christ Himself often withdrew from the crowds, even from His own friends, to spend time with His Heavenly Father, and since He is our example, we ought to do the same. However, He also returned to the crowds, and the Gospel accounts seem to indicate that He spent more time with people than in solitude with God.

Even in times when you are alone and your thoughts focus on all of your troubles and there is not a fellow believer around to rely on, you should remember that you are part of a global family - you have brothers and sisters all around the world, many of whom may be praying for you in almost any given moment! And if you live in the so-called "First World," you should keep in mind that there are some places in this world where following Christ is a self-invited sentence for torture and death. Then pray for those places, that they might see their sin, repent, and turn to Christ.

Christian resistance does not have the instant gratification of its worldly counterpart. The Kingdom of God is upside-down from this world. We may be tempted to pray for the punishment of people who wrong us, who strike us not with fists, but with vicious gossip, hurtful words, and other hardships. Let us once again look to Christ as our model for personal behavior, and remember that a servant is not above His master.

You cannot control every last aspect of your life, no matter how much you may want to be. But you do have a say in whom you serve, and to whom you will resist. Because Bob Dylan is right; whatever you do in this life, you are serving somebody.

 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

On Bread Alone


"What is the most basic article of faith? That this is not all we are." - Leoben Conroy, Battlestar Galactica (tweet this!)


Painfully hungry and completely alone in the desert wilderness, a man starving to death is reminded that he is surrounded by bread. Satan, the Accuser, told Jesus explicitly that his own painful suffering was unnecessary - that Jesus himself had the power to alleviate his own pain. When you are at your weakest, have you ever neglected to take medicine or some other remedy? Have you ever denied yourself something which you could acquire easily?
And yet, that is exactly what Christ did. Instead of saying, "Oh yeah, I totally forgot I could do that!", he answered simply with this incredible truth: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." Jesus did not come into the desert to feast on stone-bread; he came in obedience to the Holy Spirit so that God would be glorified by his example of reliance.

There is a hunger that goes deeper than food, a thirst that water alone can never quench. Humankind has a myriad of religions, philosophies, causes, and ideas that are meant to imbue its members with a sense of purpose in their lives. It is no coincidence that Rick Warren found such success in his most famous work "The Purpose-Driven Life." Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, our inmost beings long for a reason to exist. The question is, when we are spiritually hungry, what do we fill our spirits with? What will we seek in those times when we feel that hunger so deeply?

It can be all too easy to get "target fixation" on our physical needs. We imagine we would be happier with more money, better gadgets, or the latest fashion. When we get a few minutes to ourselves, we spend them worrying, or planning, trying to get control. We completely fail to recognize that God is in control, and we exchange the spiritual blessing of trust and reliance on God for the comfort of fooling ourselves into thinking that we are in charge of our own lives.

I always imagine that Christ must have remembered this hunger when he fed the 5,000, or when he spoke these words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7):
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied." (5:6)
"Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?" (6:26)

Here is a statement that will either fill you with great comfort or great dread: You are not in control of your own life. You may think you've planned it out perfectly, that there's no way you'd ever lose your job, get buried in debt, need to live off the generosity of relatives, or even lose your family. There is literally no way you could control any of those things completely. You can make the best decisions, live the most upright moral life, vote for all the recommended candidates, and develop good relationships with all the most powerful people in your workplace, and still, you would not be in complete control.


For those in the world, this is cause for great distress. For we who are in Christ, it is great comfort because while we believe that we are not in control, we also believe that God is. If you are currently living a life of abundance, it is not the result of your own effort alone, but the providence of God as well. If you are going through a period of great personal (or physical) suffering, that suffering has a purpose. It is not because God hates you, or because He's indifferent to you any more than He was indifferent to the pains of His own Son starving in the desert.


He wants us to rely on Him for our every need, to count on Him as we would a good friend, and know that whatever happens to us in this life, He is with us. Do you feel His presence as you deal with difficult situations? If not, pray. Reach out to the One who can help you, who has been through suffering on earth himself and knows what it is like to be a human. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Jesus and The Peach Boy

The story of Momotarō begins, as so many Japanese Folktales begin, with an elderly childless couple. One day, while washing their clothes in a nearby river, the wife sees a giant peach floating along, bobbing with the current. She grabs it from the water, and she and her husband prepare to enjoy it for their dinner that night, when suddenly the peach pops open and a small child emerges! Sources do not indicate whether the couple actually proceeded to eat the peach.

 

They name the boy Momotarō (literally Peach-boy), and raise him as their own. Years later, he embarks on a self-appointed quest to tame the demons from the nearby island of Onigashima. The demons have been preying on the coastal villages for years, plundering their stores and killing their people in night raids. As he walks the long road to a coastal town where he will book passage to the island, our hero befriends a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant, who all agree to join him on his quest and take the fight to the demons.

 

Momotarō and his friends make their way to the island where they confront the demons and a terrific battle ensues. Each animal uses its own natural abilities to fight their enemies, and they win. The Peach Boy brings the demon leaders home as captives, and their treasure as plunder, and his family lives in luxury for the rest of their lives.

 

This story is pretty simple, and yet it remains one of the most popular folk tales in Japan. The use of animals makes the story an instant hit with kids, and who doesn't love a good versus evil story? I even narrated the story for my Japanese class's Christmas party. But what does it mean?

 

The Japanese Imperial Government made good use of this story for their own purposes during World War II. Momotarō represented the Japanese Armed Forces, the United States was the collective of demons, and Pearl Harbor was Onigashima, the demon isle. Suddenly this children's story is sending chills up my spine. It's a great example of how even the cute and cuddly can be used for twisted purposes.

 

Given this story's popularity (and the fact that no one interprets it according to 1940's Imperial Propaganda any more), I think it is time to give this story a Christian interpretation.

 

Let's start with the obvious: Momotarō is a Christ-Figure. He was born from a peach, therefore not conceived by human means, and he earnestly desires to help the poor and less fortunate by defending them from the forces of evil, which in this case happen to be manifested physically.

 

What about the animals? Well, you could argue that Momotarō was exercising humility in taking on companions and fellow warriors. Being a supernatural being (many versions of the story indicate that he knew he had been sent to earth to fight the demons of Onigashima), our Peach-boy didn't need the help of animal companions, but took them on anyway so that they could share in his victory and spoils. He even lets them participate in the fighting and they use their natural (dare we say God-given?) abilities to assist in the struggle.

 

Lastly, of course, there is his family. His parents have no real claim over him - he's not their natural son, and being poor they could offer him no material support for his journey. And yet he returns to them with the plunder he took from the demons, and the demons themselves bound as wartime slaves - forced to obey Momotarō and his friends and family. This couple did nothing in particular to deserve any of this, but the forces of heaven chose and blessed them to receive a child who would one day make them proud and alleviate their earthly burdens.

 

Is it a perfect analogy? Of course not. Is it a good potential starting point? I like to think so. As I understand it, everyone in Japan grows up hearing this story, and if it was good enough to profit warmongers and fascists, I think it should be good enough to start a conversation about Jesus.

Momotarō and his friends fighting the demons
Illustration from the 1885 book "Momotarō: the Little Peachling." Image public domain.

 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Tanuki: Japan's Most Awesome Animal

For years, I thought the Tanuki was a mythical creature that was co-opted by the Mario Brothers to help sell video games. Three years ago, I learned that they are real. And they are magnificent.
Two Tanuki
Look at them . . . they're beautiful!
Tanuki have the basic body style of a dog, but the fur pattern and attitude of a raccoon. They are sneaky little guys who get into everything, but they are undeniably cute. And since they only live in the wilderness of Japan and aren't domesticated, it's no wonder I never saw one during my year there.
Tanuki Clan
They even look good in Monochrome!
In Japanese Mythology, the Tanuki usually change shape and hoodwink unsuspecting people, similar to the Coyote trickster of Native American Folklore. In one famous story, however, a peasant realized that the sick young girl he thought he was helping was really a Tanuki named Danzaburō, who had shape-shifted to disguise himself. After he lectured Danzaburō about trying to trick people, that particular Tanuki never tricked people again.

Scientists classify the Tanuki as being a separate species from raccoons, dogs, and badgers, though they are technically a member of the canid family. In fact, the Tanuki who live in the cold northern reaches of Japan like Hokkaidō are the only canids who hibernate. They are not currently endangered, but many prominent authorities like the Atlanta Zoo are concerned about unsustainable hunting practices. They are hunted primarily for their fur, but their bones are also used in "Eastern Medicine." They have exceptionally large testes, which the Japanese artists from the Feudal period really liked to emphasize:
A Tanuki with comically enlarged testes
I have nothing to add to this picture.
Perhaps one day, we can all have pet Tanuki who we can take for walks, scold for pooping on the carpet, and generally enjoy. I think I'll name mine Koga, after a famous Ninja clan. That seems appropriate, given their penchant for trickery and mischief. Until then, though, this will have to do:

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Samurai Weapons: The Gun

"Hereafter, the guns will be the most important arms, therefore decrease the number of spears per unit and have your most capable men carry guns." - Takeda Shingen, Daimyō of Clan Takeda, 1567

 

The Samurai love affair with guns has largely been lost to the mythical vision of the armored warriors swinging swords. Although historically faithful filmmakers like Kurosawa Akira (黒澤明) have been more than happy to show us the gun-loving side of our favorite Feudal swordsmen, certain more recent films have preferred the incorrect vision of the rustic Samurai who loved his sword and bow.

Last Samurai - Tom Cruise and Watanabe Ken
Pictured: a certain more recent film

The first Japanese guns, called Tanegashima (種子島) firearms, were inspired by Portuguese guns that a couple of pirates sold to Daimyō Tanegashima Tokitaka back in 1543. He set his smith to work reverse-engineering them, and after a few snags he had figured them out completely. It wasn't long before this weapon would change Feudal Japanese Warfare forever.

 

From 1543 to 1553, the factory of the Tanegashima Clan manufactured over 300,000 guns, arming their own soldiers and selling them to other clans as well. There were a few false starts - the weapon had a limited range and archers could loose about 15 arrows in the time it took to load the thing. But it was easy enough to train soldiers to use it, which helped with the already rising place of the commoner in the Japanese Feudal Armies. Peasants and Farmers were conscripted and new techniques were utilized to increase the effectiveness of the powerful, easy-to-use weapons.

 

When able, gunners would hide behind hedges and tall grass, rising to fire only when the enemy was within killing range - if they fired from too far away, the bullets would bounce off the considerably dense Samurai armor. Barrels were widened to allow for higher caliber bullets to increase the damage, and little lacquer boxes were fashioned to fit right over the firing mechanism to keep it dry during rainy battles. Lastly, and most impressively, soldiers were trained in volley fire by rank. This allowed Oda Nobunaga, for instance, to use 3,000 gunners in one battle to unleash 1,000 rounds into his opponent's army with each round of fire.

 

When Shōgun Tokuagawa Ieyasu united the country under his dictatorship in 1615, guns continued to be manufactured and used for various purposes, but with the great wars over and a 250+ year period of peace on the horizon, their use in war was largely abandoned. The Samurai would use them for sport shooting and hunting, the Ninja for the occasional assassination, and the farmers would use them to scare away dangerous animals and maybe for a little poaching here and there.

 

Today, the Tanegashima firearm is a collector's item, and they are relatively easy to find because of their mass production for so many years. They can also be seen in Kurosawa Akira's movies Seven Samurai, Ran, and Yojimbo.

 

The following trailer is for the film Ran. WARNING: This trailer (and the rest of the film) contains very graphic and heart-wrenching, but accurate and unflinching depictions of war, violence, and suicide. However, it remains one of the most accurate depictions of Feudal Japanese warfare that has ever been made. If you watch this film, keep in mind that it is a retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear, and like its source is a super-depressing (but beautiful) tragedy. You have been warned.

 

 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

My Bonsai and Me

Bonsai is the art of cultivating "mini-trees." Practitioners use techniques like wire-wrapping, defoliating, and root-restricting to add shape and composition to their trees, while keeping them small and thick-trunked. The end result can be quite beautiful:
"Hiroshima Survivor" Bonsai Tree
This particular tree is over 400 years old and survived the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima!
Slanted Bonsai
A "Slant-style" Juniper
Beautifully-leafed Bonsai
A few years ago I took up Bonsai, buying a baby Japanese Maple from a local nursery. I love Japanese Maples because their leaves grow in red and then turn green as summer progresses. Here's my tree (whom I've named Shintarō) budding in the spring:
A Budding Japanese Maple Bonsai
Awww . . . Look at him!
And here he is fully leafed and changed to green:
A Green-Leafed Japanese Maple
Notice how close the leaves grow together - I picked this plant for that particular quality because it will add to the illusion of it being a miniature tree when his trunk thickens up!
As you can see, his "hair" is a mess. I usually trim this sort of thing, but in this case, I'm going to give him some style instead, carefully wrapping his flexible branches around so that his appearance is leafier and more full.
A Green Japanese Maple with its branches "styled."
The heart-shape was unintentional, but I'll go with it for now.
Some Bonsai practitioners would prefer wire in a case like this, but I'm trying to approach this with baby steps and I'm afraid of damaging my still-young tree with wires that might bite into his flesh or break the xylem. Also, I'm opting for a more natural look, so we'll see if this works.