Friday, August 20, 2010

"The most excellent way"

In April I was visited by some Jehovah witnesses. It wasn't the first visit I've had (they came once when I was living in the old house, and once shortly after I moved into the apartment), but it was the first time I actually spent a fair amount of time listening to them. (I was originally going to say "talking with" but realized that it was a mostly one-sided "conversation".)

Unfortunately I've forgotten the exact references of the verses that they shared with me towards the end of the "conversation", but I do remember that I was fairly appalled by their choices. Both verses were emphasizing dichotomies between believers and non-believers. One was from Psalms talking about how God punishes the "wicked" but rewards the "righteous" (or something along those lines) and the other was from Revelations, so of course it talked about the end times and hell and heaven and how "the wicked will perish".

Listening to them talking about how "The world we live in today is corrupt, but isn't it great that believers in God have the future hope of going to heaven?" I felt really frustrated. I didn't want the conversation to drag on so I just kept smiling and nodding, but really I was thinking "This isn't--can't be the "good news" God wants us to be spreading to the world! Whatever happened to "Love, for the day is near"?"

That feeling really reinforced the thoughts I've been having lately about what it means to be a Christian.

I've been thinking that we run into trouble as Christians when we try to become more like Christ/God. When we try to become perfect--and that's what it boils down to, since God is perfect--I think it's easy lose sight of our own inherently flawed natures; we unconsciously start believing that being Christians makes us "better people;" we grow proud of our "higher morals/values/standards" and turn into self-righteous prigs.

Since leaving my comfortable bubble of Christian community and coming to Japan, I've definitely become aware of such tendencies in my own thoughts and actions. And when I try to compensate by attempting to become as loving and gracious as Jesus, I become superficially nice and fake--not wanting to voice my real thoughts/opinions for fear of offending someone or coming across as judgmental.

Recently, though, I realized that what I should really be doing is trying to become more and more aware of God's love for me. When I realize how much He loves me, I naturally want to reciprocate that love--to Him and to others around me.

I still want to be a "better person," but the difference is I'm not doing it for my own sake or in an attempt to reach God's perfection, but simply out of a desire to not hurt/disappoint the God who loves me unconditionally. (To be more accurate, I suppose what I really want to be is a more loving person.)

When I reflect on God's love, I am humbled.

On my own I can't love others unselfishly. But when I think about how flawed I am and all the wrong things I do/say/think and realize that God loves me all the same, I can draw from that grace and love to try to be kinder and more loving towards others.

One of my all-time favourite manga and anime series is Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya. It's a story about a girl who comes to live with a classmate of hers considered by many to be the school "prince," Yuki Sohma. But the "prince" has a secret: his family has been cursed so that when embraced by members of the opposite sex, they turn into their respective (Chinese/Japanese) zodiac animals!

Anyway, one of my favourite scenes from the manga/anime is when Yuki is talking to one of his younger cousins, Kisa, who has been bullied because of her naturally tawny hair and eye colour (part of the curse since she's the year of the Tiger). As a result of the bullying, she stopped talking and stopped going to school. In the scene, Yuki reads a letter she has received from her teacher asking her to come back to school. The teacher basically says that Kisa simply needs to learn to like herself in order to deal with the bullying. But Yuki disagrees:

Here, it says to "like yourself." What does that mean? Good things- how are you supposed to find them? I only know things that I hate about myself. Because that's all I know, I hate myself. But even if you force yourself to find good things, it feels so empty. It doesn't work that way. People like your teacher just don't get it. I think when you hear someone say they like you, for the first time, then you can begin to like yourself. I think when someone accepts you, for the first time, you feel like you can forgive yourself a little. You can begin to face your fears with courage.

When I first watched/read that and even up to now that scene really resonated with me. "Here is the heart of Christianity," I thought: "We love because he first loved us" 1 John 4:19.

And for me, that's really the key. Christians aren't any better or more moral than non-Christians. Nor are we more beloved by God--God loves everyone equally; we're simply aware of and believe in God's unconditional love for us where others are/do not.

So I find it really sad when churches set themselves up as "voices of moral authority in a corrupt world." To me that kind of stance tends to set Christians up in opposition to people, rather than extending God's love to them.

I think I first really started feeling that way when the whole issue of legalizing same-sex marriages came up in Canada. I felt really uncomfortable with how churches were petitioning against the bill and encouraging people to attend protest rallies, etc. While I understand the general principle of the whole "love the sinner, hate the sin" thing, I think that it's really difficult to make such a distinction in issues such as homosexuality. At that time, I decided that if I was to err, I'd rather err on the side of loving people rather than judging them. (So yes, I think it's entirely possible to be Christian and homosexual, even though "the Church" does make that difficult.)

When I was thinking through that issue, these were some of the Bible verses that led me to that way of thinking:

Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." - Matthew 22:37-40

"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
    Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."
    Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet and then turn and tear you to pieces."- Matthew 7:1-5

And, of course, the classic:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
   Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
   Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary:
              "If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
              if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
              In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."

Do not overcome evil by evil, but overcome evil with good. - Romans 12:9-21

Even up to now these are the words I want to live by.

Of course, to love people I actually need to interact with them. ^^;; I've definitely become more and more hermit-like the longer I've stayed in Japan.

As an introvert I find it tiring to be around people--particularly large groups of people--unless they're really close friends or their personalities just happen to mesh well with mine. Throw lots of alcohol into the mix--I'm pretty much a non-drinker--and the situation's discomfort factor for me is doubly compounded. Unsurprisingly, large JET functions in particular are extremely draining for me.

In my first year I made a significant effort to attend functions--just to be social. In my second year I tried at least a little. This past year I really didn't try at all. With four new ALTs having just arrived in Towada, however, I feel like I should really try to make a bit more of an effort this year.