Understanding Shinto

NOTE: This article was originally published in the Winter 2014 edition of Japan Harvest, the magazine of the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Association. I have edited it slightly for this blog.

In Japan, children grow up hearing ghost stories and attending festivals to honor a world of thousands of kami (spirits), which interacts freely with our own natural world. This mindset is part of everyday culture. So it’s not unusual for sophisticated and materialistic Japanese adults to say they have no religion, and yet at the same time buy omamori (good luck idols) for their car to prevent accidents, or have their land blessed by a Shinto priest before building to avoid upsetting the spirits by their use of the land. How can we become cross-cultural missionaries, and reach into this modern, but heavily Shinto-influenced worldview, with the Gospel?

Shinto purification rope

A ritual Shinto rope used to mark the boundary of a purified area

With origins dating to 500 A.D. and earlier, matsuri (festival worship) and other Shinto practices began as ritual worship of the ujigami, or local clan deity in each area and village. They sprang from a type of shamanism unique to these medieval agricultural communities. Over the centuries ancient Shinto was influenced by and syncretized with Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and other elements from continental East Asia.[1]

Jizo (stone idols) and vending machine

Even in big cities stone idols are a common sight on Japanese roads

Even now in Japan, aspects of syncretized Shinto worship practices are as ubiquitous as the stone idols found on corners across Japan. Surprisingly, most Japanese people do not associate these things with religion at all. Engage a typical Japanese city dweller in conversation about their participation in ceremonies, and worship of idols in shrines, temples, or the family kamidana (household altar) and it will soon become clear that these are seen as essential cultural duties. Shinto worship practices are widely seen as traditions that must be followed to honor family and country.[2]

Even “churched” Japanese are not free from the strong cultural influence of Shinto. Earlier this year a Japanese man came to my office asking for donations for a local matsuri (festival). After a brief conversation I discovered that he attends a Protestant church. I asked him why he was raising funds for the mikoshi (portable shrine for carrying a local idol) when the Bible explicitly forbids worshiping idols. His answer was that it was Japanese culture to do so. I continued to press him, explaining my hope that Japanese culture might someday be transformed so that festivals would be held to honor the true Creator God rather than idols, but he didn’t seem to grasp this idea at all. He left a bit disappointed that I would not give an offering, but undaunted in his efforts to raise money for the local matsuri.

Although Shinto has never been codified in the way that Christianity has, there are four affirmations that seem to be generally agreed upon [3] and it’s good to consider how the Bible helps us to respond to each.

Family and tradition

Tradition and family are supremely important in Shinto practice. This is often expressed through ancestor worship and even “tradition-worship”. Of course family is important to God. The Bible teaches us to honor our parents and to give importance to the family, but in Luke 14:26 Jesus clearly set honoring the Lord above all other relationships, even familial ones. I have found that the best way to approach Japanese culture regarding familial relationships is to emphasize that sincerely obeying God is the way to bless to one’s family, even if it means going against Shinto traditions in some ways.

Festivals

Another affirmation of Shinto is matsuri to honor local deities or ancestral spirits. Almost every shrine in Japan has its own matsuri, originally held to influence things like the harvest or the local fishing. Christians believe all humans were created to worship and enjoy their creator and the beauty of dance, art, music, ceremony and ritual should all be purposed to honor and thank the true God and true source of blessings. As missionaries and ambassadors of our faith we need to identify and affirm the beauty and harmony in Japanese traditions that can serve to honor God, and at the same time clearly explain why animistic and pantheistic practices are contrary to God’s will. Our human artistic expression echoes the ultimate beauty in Christ, which is what the Japanese heart is really searching for.

Love of nature

Shrine festival worship ties in with the third affirmation of Shinto, which is a love of nature. Scriptures tell us that all of creation bears witness to the sovereign power of the Creator. But the Shinto affirmation of nature elevates nature so each unusual rock or tree is given the status of a minor deity. Hence the Japanese saying, there are over eight million gods (yaoyorozu no kami).

Because this spiritual error is deeply ingrained in the Japanese worldview, gospel teachers must clearly preach the words of Christ, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). Without a clear understanding of this Japanese people may believe that Jesus Christ is another one of many gods, but miss that he is the one and only Creator God. Jesus came to affirm the true intended order of the creation by revealing Himself at the pinnacle. This truth about the ultimate authority of Christ will resound with the strong desire in the Japanese heart for harmony and proper order, if they can only see it. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17 NASB).

Physical cleanliness

Shinto purification

Cold water purification at a Shinto shrine

The final affirmation of Shinto is physical cleanliness. Taking baths, washing the hands, and rinsing out the mouth are all encouraged because of Shinto’s emphasis on ritual purity. In the past, believers practiced misogi, ritual bathing in a river near the shrine. In recent years it is more common to merely to wash hands and rinse out the mouth in a washbasin provided within the shrine grounds. Because Jesus came to make us truly clean, there are many ways we can use this affirmation as a “redemptive analogy” for the Gospel. Imagine the impact of a sermon that contrasted ritual Shinto washing in water with Ephesians 5:26 (“washing with water through the word” NASB), or 1 Corinthians 6:11b (“you were washed… in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” NASB).

Water baptism is a big step in a new Japanese believer’s life. Although in some ways it appears similar to Shinto ritual purification rites, the Bible is clear that it represents more than just “washing” but rather a symbolic death and resurrection. Of course baptism also means a public confession of identity as a Christian and to many new believers this is a weighty decision. Because rituals are important in Japanese culture; water baptism strongly brings home the reality of a believer’s commitment to follow Jesus.

Taking the time to understand and prayerfully consider some of the influences of Shinto on Japanese culture can be very beneficial to a Christian who would like to share the Gospel in Japan. If you are interested in learning more about Shinto you can read online a paper I wrote called The Theology of Shinto at:
http://www.raymercer.net/wp/wp-content/uploads/Theology-of-Shinto.pdf.

 


[1] Dr. David K. Clark, Shinto, A religion profile from International Students, Inc., (Colorado Springs, CO: ISI, 2004), [book on-line] available at http://www.isionline.org/pdfs/Shinto%202004.pdf, Internet, accessed November, 2013.

[2] For example notice the following paragraph in the “About” section of The International Shinto Foundation official website – “Those involved in establishing the Foundation shared the belief that without study that takes account of Shinto a true understanding of the Japanese people and Japanese culture will remain inaccessible.”, [website] available at http://www.internationalshinto.org/, Internet, accessed November, 2013.

[3] The definitions of the “Four Affirmations” are a generalization but can generally be observed in Shinto practices and literature. See The Japan Reference, [database on-line] available at http://www.jref.com/glossary/shinto_traditions.shtml, Internet, accessed November, 2013. Also see the website for the book Religion for Dummies, Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002, [website] available at http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/four-affirmations-of-shinto.html, Internet, accessed November, 2013.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Mercers

Mercer-Family-2013

This year marks our 20th Christmas in Japan since we were sent out from City Bible Church in Portland, Oregon as missionaries in 1993. I led my three year-old son James, and my wife Satomi, who was six months pregnant with our daughter Alishea, back to her home town near Nagoya and we started a journey of faith.

In all these years God has been faithful to us. When we recognize our dependence on him and submit humbly to follow him wherever he leads, it opens the door to his blessings in our life. God’s will for us is always to bless us and never to harm us. When He sent his angel to a young Mary and then to young Joseph in a dream, they humbly obeyed and through that God brought the greatest blessing in history – the birth of Jesus Christ.

We are so blessed to be sent as missionaries and now to be supported by wonderful people who give sacrificially as the Holy Spirit leads them. Thank you for partnering with us as we endeavor to do our assignment in fulfilling the Great Commission by reaching Japan with the good news of Jesus Christ. 2014 will mark the 7th anniversary of Yokosuka Grace Bible Church. We believe this will be a year of blessing and growth for the church here and we pray that the blessing of God will overtake you and prosper you and yours in the coming year.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Mercer family!

logo Ray Mercer Pastor, Yokosuka Grace Bible Church

http://www.yokosukachurch.com

You can give online to help our ministry here:
https://admin.everynation.org/giving/?P=010229
(Gifts are tax-deductible in the U.S.A.)

The Real Reason Behind Gmail’s New Default Setting For Pictures

This week Google rolled out a new feature to Gmail. Most email clients, including Gmail, set show images from sender automatically off to protect the user from being tracked by spammers. Since Google runs the largest email system in the world and their informal corporate motto is “Don’t be evil,” they can expect some scrutiny when they change how things have normally been done.  The new Gmail client has changed this setting to on by default. Some say that Google has found a way to protect us from being tracked and the new setting is good. But others disagree.  I have read conflicting articles about it in Wired and elsewhere on the ‘Net. Is Gmail’s new show images by default a good thing or not? Is Google “Blowing up email marketers by caching images now” or not? In fact, this new Gmail roll-out contains a little good and a little bad. Let me explain.

First, take a look at what Google has actually done under the hood of Gmail. To see what I am talking about go to your Gmail settings and look at the general options tab here:

google-mail-settings

If you click “Learn More” you will be presented with the official description of the new functionality in Gmail. Notice this part of the text

Gmail serves all images through Google’s image proxy servers and transcodes them before delivery to protect you in the following ways:

  • Senders can’t use image loading to get information like your IP address or location.
  • Senders can’t set or read cookies in your browser.
  • Gmail checks your images for known viruses or malware.

In some cases, senders may be able to know whether an individual has opened a message with unique image links. As always, Gmail scans every message for suspicious content and if Gmail considers a sender or message potentially suspicious, images won’t be displayed and you’ll be asked whether you want to see the images.

In the first section above we read that Google is protecting us from marketers having certain identifying information about our computer or our browsing habits (through IP address or cookies) and as always Gmail is great at protecting us from malware and viruses. I applaud Google for these things and I seriously love Gmail.  It is the best tool I have ever used to battle the rivers of spam that flow daily and safely communicate with the world.

Unfortunately there is another section below that. Notice these words, “In some cases, senders may be able to know whether an individual has opened a message with unique image links.”  Look, I will be honest. I don’t want people to know when I listen to messages on on my telephone answering machine. After all, I might want to use it to screen calls. For basically the same reason, I don’t think it is “a good thing” if those who send me an email know – without my consent – the exact moment when I read that mail.

After reading their official explanation it dawned on me what their real motivation is. Google wants to be the one who decides who can track me and who cannot because they can then charge for that privilege! Just think of how much Mailchimp and others will be willing to pay so that Google doesn’t consider them “potentially suspiscious.” Yes, think about it – one of the biggest Email clients has gone to showing images by default and now Google has the power to filter which services can track mail with those images and which services cannot – through their own proxies. They have just quietly set themselves up as the gateway for email marketing for a large percentage of the market and they don’t even have to compete.

So for those who, like me, want to make that decision for themselves I recommend turning off “show pictures by default” and using Gmail as a useful tool under your control rather than the other way around.

 

 

 

Weapons against addiction

AddictionsAre you struggling to quit drugs, alcohol, tobacco. porn, video games, anything that masters you and enslaves you? Freedom comes from Jesus and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

I just saw some good advice from a former drug user who is now a Christian on how he quit. “People who have struggled quitting over the years have asked me how did I do it. I always say the same things, first Jesus said that when I pray I am to pray, ‘Lead me not into temptation.’ The second is like it. I ran from it like the plague! I avoided it and places where it can be found at all cost.” If you are struggling with addiction, please remember those words of wisdom.

Another weapon besides prayer is the Word of God. Jesus himself showed us how to have victory over temptations – even those that come directly from the devil. Speak the Word of God. I remember when I quit smoking about 30 years ago and this verse came to me when I “needed” a smoke – “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Cor 12:9)

If you want to keep your way pure, then meditate on the Word of God until it is in your heart. Here are some more verses to start learning if you need some weapons against the devil.
1 John 1:7-9 (memorize vs 9)
1 Corinthians 10:13
Psalm 119:9

If you are at the end of your rope and you’ve never met this Jesus that I always mention in my posts, then please consider talking to Him right now. That is what prayer is really supposed to be, you talking to your Father God who loves you and wants to help you right now. I did this 32 years ago today and I will never regret it!

Watching the debt crisis from afar…

***Warning, this is my rant on the U.S. budget crisis. It is only my personal opinion*** 

My son was recently laid off for a couple of weeks during the budget crisis and I need a place to vent. Since this is my blog – I guess I can do it here. If you don’t care, don’t read it – I won’t be offended. If you disagree, that’s OK too. Leave a comment below. I will read it.

world_currency_ratesPRINCIPLES

My dad ran more than one very large business and was responsible for the bottom line – income vs expenses. His dad (my grandfather) grew up during the Great Depression, took over the family farm as a boy when his dad (my great-grandfather) passed away. Both of them have a lot of practical wisdom about money that came from experience. I know that for a fact because my dad used that practical common sense to successfully run a large national manufacturing company in the 1960s and 70s. He also had experience running two other companies (one an international company) in the 80s and 90s. One day my dad taught me a principle about money that he said he had learned from my grandfather, “You can’t spend more than you make forever.” Now that I have two adult children of my own and seen them off to college, I believe more firmly than ever that if my kids understand simple principles like this they will have less pain in their lives.

THE NUMBERS

Recently my country’s government shut down because of a crisis. Since that time I have seen some numbers floating around the internet in various forms. They are a simplification of the actual budget numbers that congress worked with in 2011 when the national debt was 14 trillion dollars. Now in 2013 we are 17 trillion dollars in debt and going the wrong way fast! These numbers are going viral because they illustrate the simple point that my grandfather taught my dad. Apparently congress has forgotten this very simple principle. Here are the numbers (the citation is below if you want to read the article from 2011).

U.S. Tax revenue: $2,170,000,000,000
Federal budget: $3,820,000,000,000
New debt: $ 1,650,000,000,000
National debt: $14,271,000,000,000
Recent [April] budget cut: $ 38,500,000,000
My U.S. Budget Crisis Rant for 2013

(Remove 8 zeros and it could represent an out of control family budget)

Annual family income: $21,700
Money the family spent: $38,200
New debt on the credit card: $16,500
Outstanding balance on the credit card: $142,710
Budget cuts: $385

These numbers are powerful because they represent how far the U.S. government has strayed from simple budgeting principles. When I read them all I could say was, “Wow.”

BUT YOU SAY THE GOVERNMENT IS DIFFERENT…

Some articles have come out that attempt to point out the differences between the federal budget and my family budget. They basically boil down to things like this; the government can print money, the government can borrow for less interest, the government is more complicated. These are all valid point, but the principle remains the same. If we keep borrowing more than we make (and taxes are the only income of our government) something is going to break. Yes, I agree that the U.S. government can carry more debt than I can and still survive. Maybe they can even carry a much bigger *percentage* of debt, but at some point the principle is going to come into effect – “you can’t spend more than you make forever.”

WHAT I WISH OUR POLITICAL LEADERS COULD DISCUSS (WITH CIVILITY)

The other problem I see with the many articles that have been written about why the government budget is different that my family budget is that none of them talk about the actual numbers. Someone is going to have to start talking about these numbers or they are not going to get fixed. Yes, it is boring and tedious work. No, it is never exciting to trim a budget. But forget all the Liberal vs Conservative politics and don’t let yourself be taken in by hate-mongering. Fact is, we are in 17 trillion dollars of debt and we need to discuss how to reduce that before the whole country goes bankrupt. Raise taxes? Sure, but what percentage of each person’s income should go to the government? Let’s talk about that and raise taxes if necessary. Close loopholes and simplify to reduce waste and cheating? You bet! Let’s simplify the system and talk about making it fair. Cut spending? If we don’t cut spending soon I am pretty sure that reality is going to kick in. The principle that my grandfather learned in the Great Depression is true and I don’t think there is any way to print enough money or raises taxes high enough to get around it. “You can’t spend more than you make forever.”

If I’m wrong about this, no harm done. Things will be fine. If I am right things will be OK anyway. I know that God will still bless those who trust in Him. But I think we will have less pain if we remember my grandfather’s simple principle about money.

Cites from around the internet:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/09/11/what-if-a-typical-family-spent-like-the-federal-government-itd-be-a-very-weird-family/

http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2013/03/19/174762184/how-the-federal-budget-is-just-like-your-family-budget-or-not

http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/277873/bringing-budget-numbers-down-size-carrie-lukas

http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/03/05/the-federal-budget-is-not-a-household-budget

Where your treasure is your heart will be also…

yokosuka-pachinkoWhere are the young men in Yokosuka, Japan at 8:30am on a Sunday morning? Lined up waiting to spend their money on pachinko… But a couple of blocks away we had a great worship service at Yokosuka Grace Bible Church. This afternoon about 10 new members were added to the church. It is more rewarding than a big pachinko payout or winning the lottery to see lives changed and people following Jesus. These are the true riches!

Norenwake church planting

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I am most privileged to be married to a girl from the Aichi prefecture of Japan. Her great uncle started a well-known tonkatsu (pork cutlet) restaurant in Nagoya. He was one of the first to serve this type of food in a Japanese style. He sliced the cutlets and served them up to be eaten with chopsticks. His restaurant specialized in making a great bacon salad with the leftover parts of the pork. And they also used Nagoya’s famous miso to make a sauce for the tonkatsu and served miso tonkatsu or miso-katsu, as it is known now. The restaurant became so successful that several of the employees moved on and started their own shops based on the same menu and style of food. Of course, each branch had their differences and reflected the personality of the individual owners, but they all had the same basic menu and most of them even used the same name.

In Japan, when a new restaurant starts with he cooperation of the existing establishment it is called norenwake - literally a “dividing of the noren”. The noren is the traditional Japanese fabric curtain which is hung in front of the entrance way of the restaurant. It usually has the name and logo of the establishment printed on it. When sending a former employee out to start his own shop, the owner will often make him a new noren to hang in front that shows the same name as the old place so he can build on the brand loyalty for the shop. He will also give him a portion of the restaurant’s sauce to use as starter for a new batch. My wife’s uncle repeated this process several times and through his leadership and guidance many new shops sprung up around the city of Nagoya. When I lived in Nagoya about 20 years ago, I got a chance to eat at one of these norenwake restaurants. The original restaurant that my wife’s uncle had built was long out of business by this time. But I still remember how good my first plate of Nagoya misokatsu was.

Our church in Yokosuka was planted this way and I believe that in the future we will also have the privilege of sending our own “chefs” out to start their own norenwake churches. We are a part of a spiritual family in Japan that has a shared mission and calling. We have the same name, the same basic “recipe” and the same “sauce” for what we serve to the people in our community who need to be fed. In fact the Holy Spirit has been sending out church planters since the first century with the same name and the same mission. Each nation and church has their own cultural distinctive and flavors. But our job is to offer that same “menu” to new believers in Japan so that, even though the churches listed in the New Testament have long since closed their doors, anyone who seeks for truth in Japan can come and “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8; 1 Peter 2:2-3) at our norenwake church.