A Letter from Thomas Goetz, serving in Japan
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Someone recently asked if we have Easter in Japan. I said, “there are churches, and Christianity has been here for over 500 years.” And again. “Do you have Easter in Japan, like, chocolate Easter bunnies, eggs, baskets and jellybeans?” My takeaway was this person’s idea has more to do with European pagan symbols rolled into Easter. What is the most significant theological act after creation itself? The resurrection of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. Easter. But, the question kept coming back.
On the one hand, Japan has its own indigenous religion that may seem exclusive: Shinto, or the “way of the gods.” Shinto deities are chiefly gods of nature and natural forces. At the head is the sun goddess; by her side is a moon god, a star god and then the heavenly bodies. On earth, there are gods of storms, rain, and thunder; gods of the sea, rivers, and waters in general; gods of the soil and its productive powers; a goddess of food-crops; gods of mountains and trees; and a god of fire. Latent in many non-Christian Japanese minds is this pantheon of tutelary gods. But there is freedom of thought and religion within Japanese culture — many are Buddhist, and more than a few are Christian. Christians in Japan celebrate Easter. And some like jellybeans and chocolate bunnies. I’ve seen them for sale.
Interestingly enough, Easter coincides with the start of Japan’s academic year. Many new students at Hokusei University had a stressful year preparing for their college entrance exams. Last year was not only stressful for students, but for many people in Hokkaido. Twice North Korean missiles crested over Hokkaido. They were empty, harmlessly entering the sea. It would be naive, however, to say that nothing happened. Namely, we are now living with a new sense of “normal,” just as we did during the Cold War in America. During that time, we believed the Russians were ready to blow us up. We lived with that fear as normal, not knowing much else. And with the USSR’s collapse, it thankfully ended, until now.
So, what does Easter mean? It means discovering who God is and what God does. Consider Psalm 23. It’s about God and God’s character. In short, God is love. The writer (David, according to tradition) likens God to a keeper of small animals needing protection from predators. Shepherds have to be kind and loving; small animals are trusting and vulnerable. The shepherd, by providing protection, water, and food, wins their trust. The sheep grow into a sense of being worry-free about being thirsty and hungry. But they need guidance. Without a shepherd, the group can’t count on having an abundance of water and protection while passing through dangerous places. This is the shepherd’s job. On the best of days, the teachers in our schools are shepherds for learning. Did your teachers lead you to pastures of knowledge? Could you have found them on your own? Do we who are teachers encourage our students to try and do new activities with new ideas that they could hardly imagine?
I look at my new students and realize that trusted ways of thinking and doing may not be enough for the challenges ahead. We shall have to “walk” through dark valleys and face evil now and in the future. Evil has been a problem in every chapter of human history. Yet, the writer fears no evil.
Sheep and goats have protection because a shepherd has a long stick for walking and for scaring off larger animals of prey. The long stick and rod are just tools: knowing how to use them is a vital part of the job. And what is the shepherd’s job? Protection with care and love.
The shepherd is God, who provides not only care and protection, but also a safe haven. God treats the chosen as important guests by anointing them with oil. Richness and wealth, not of this world, but something of another world. That world is so different that the metaphor of an overflowing cup is as close as the writer gets in showing just how real God’s promise of love and protection is for believers.
Accepting God’s promise of belonging and protection changes our thinking. Even though our world is imperfect, we need not fear. Goodness and mercy abound in the house of the LORD.
Consider the time when God lived and walked upon the earth as Jesus Christ who healed, taught, and died for our sins on the cross. His death was not an end, but a beginning. The resurrection, his return to life on the third day, promises a return of all people to life at the end time. While the writer tells us about plenty in the midst of danger, the resurrection is an invitation to all to believe that there is life beyond the grave, and at a set time, all of our cups shall overflow forever.
Happy Easter from Japan. Christ is risen.
Ubi caritas, et amor, Deus ibi est. Where there is caring and love, God is always there.
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