He is the true God and eternal life
1 John 5.13-21 (New Revised Standard Version)
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.
And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him. If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal.
We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them. We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
A few days ago, my wife, Kate, wrote about her experiences during our time living in Japan as young parents, and in need of support in our Christian lives. We weren’t there as missionaries, but we were conscious of witnessing to living faith in a land of multiple religions, but often only formal and cultural engagement with the faiths they represented.
My experiences were quite different – I was there with a very specific role and purpose, and I was plunged into the business culture of Japan, rather than the domestic and social culture, for much of my day. It was a very hierarchical culture, a very deferential culture, a very formalised culture – quite a rigid culture. It was disapproved of to speak out about things that were wrong in the work context – though it was OK to do so if you were on a departmental night out drinking, and everyone was equally sozzled. It was such a different approach to truth and truth-telling!
So did we experience culture shock? Yes, we did, but to different degrees, and some of our other writers this week have mentioned the experience of culture shock. However, one of our biggest moments of culture shock didn’t come till the end of our first year in Japan.
We lived hours from Tokyo, up in the mountains of Nagano prefecture, and for much of the first year Kate had rarely been out of the valley other than on family day trips. With Christmas approaching, I was asked to travel to Epson’s US headquarters in Los Angeles on business for several weeks – right up to Christmas in fact.
So, craving a bit of Western culture, we decided that Kate and the children would come too, and stay on with friends through Christmas and New Year. It was, we thought, the next best thing to a trip home midway through our sojourn in Japan.
And that’s when, as a family, we felt the culture shock. We’d built ourselves up for a bit of ‘normality’, but that isn’t how we experienced it. The journey from our mountain home via Tokyo and Seoul was long and arduous. The boys were crotchety and tired. And we stepped out of the airport into the heat, and noise and bustle. We were completely disoriented.
Everything in Japan had been compact and cramped. Suddenly everything was huge and spacious. Our hotel room in the Marriott Hotel was almost as big as our flat in Hirooka. We’d been living without a TV, and with a single paraffin heater to battle the cold in the flat, and suddenly we were in the land of unlimited channels, and air conditioning. The boys’ cheeks had been rosy from temperatures of -20C, and suddenly we were going through gallons of sun cream.
We could read the road signs, we could speak the language, but we were just as far from ‘home’ and we needed to learn to read the signs of the culture. It was confusing – not least for Daniel, who, at three and a half was by this time fully bi-lingual. He simply couldn’t understand it when he met second and third-generation Japanese people in California who couldn’t speak Japanese! It didn’t compute.
Like us, he was struggling to read the signs of the culture. Like us, actually he was missing Japan.
I tell that story because for me it was a lesson in seeing and listening, in stupid assumptions, and in subtlety. There was nothing subtle about the culture shock we experienced – it was like a slap in the face. But it woke us up, and made us look around us carefully, instead of making stupid and lazy assumptions about the culture we were suddenly immersed in. And it brought home to me that I needed to be alert to the subtle differences, even when I was surrounded by obvious differences.
Why was that important? Because otherwise I would be culturally clumsy, constantly making gaffes. Careful listening, careful observation – curiosity and interest about other people’s ways of seeing and thinking – those are the keys to making cross-cultural connections, whether at a spiritual level, a social level, a business level, or all three.
In a sense it’s all about hospitality – two-way hospitality. It’s about being a good host, and a good guest. In the eucharist, we see Jesus as ‘hosting’ us at his table, but in the gospels he far more often the guest. And though he sometimes has sharp words for his hosts, he reads the situation carefully, and he’s a great guest – a popular and frequent guest – a sought-after guest. That’s why his message so often found its mark, and never, apparently, got him thrown out of a dinner party.
Kate wrote about our little Lutheran Church in Matsumoto, but she didn’t share with you one of the funniest stories about our time worshipping there. One weekend we had a visit from an American pastor and his wife, who were new to Japan and still feeling the strangeness. Part way through the service, he had to ‘nip to the loo’, and having caught on to some of the cultural nuances he remembered to slip off his own slippers, and put on the ‘toilet slippers’ on the way in. You’re probably already ahead of me – he forgot to to change back on the way out.
He sat through the sermon, blissfully unaware, but then, as we gathered to receive communion, he stood before Earl Berg, our Pastor, held out his hands for the bread, looked downwards, and turned scarlet. There were the toilet slippers on his feet, complete with a little illustration on the toes of each foot – a little boy aiming a stream of pee into the toilet bowl.
Japanese culture being what it is, not a word was said, but the culture of that church being what it was, his little gaffe broke down barriers and opened up communication. But I suspect that he too learned a lesson that day about careful attention to the culture – to looking down, as well as around and forwards!
But I want to end by urging us to pay attention to something in particular – both when we cross cultural boundaries, and perhaps even more importantly when we’re at home in the surrounding culture. I think it is something John would definitely have us pay attention to. That’s the question of what are the idols of the culture? What are the no-go areas that are hard to challenge? What are the deep cultural assumptions that most of us are blind to, and bound by?
“Little children, keep yourselves from idols” writes John. Our ‘idols’ are often the subtle cultural plank in our own eye that we need to pay attention to before we speak of the gospel to others. The plank that we’re so used to, that we can no longer see it. If we want to come bearing good news, and be received, welcomed, and heard, seeing and listening the subtle signs is the starting place.
Hopefully our journey through 1 and 2 Corinthians over the next few weeks will show us where to go next from that starting point.