Monday, August 13, 2012

Superstition & Mission (Part 2)

It turns out dad got it wrong. Money does "grow on trees." Just look at the photo at left as proof! Recently while hiking down a mountain past a buddhist temple, I stumbled across several of these trees with trunks stuck full of coins. I had seen this elsewhere, but not to this degree. It is the Asian equivalent, I suppose, of the "wishing well" or fountain of pennies one might come across in a Stateside mall. No harm done by these innocent superstitions, right?

For Japanese, however, such superstitions have permeated (and control) daily life. Japanese readily admit their Shinto polytheistic belief in "millions of gods" (yaoyorozu no kami) present in creation. Buddhist and Taoist gods were even brought over and absorbed into their belief structure. These gods are given to whimsy and must be sought out for blessing and good luck. Punishment and bad luck are just as likely. A whole ecosystem of superstitions are formed to guide one in how to receive or avoid such.

The people of many gods. I was surprised when I first learned that Japanese even have a god of the toilet (see Wikipedia here). Keeping a clean toilet ensures a pregnant woman of a good-looking child. "G(g)od of the Toilet" even became a hit song here in Japan a couple years back. Apparently the toilet god has been a common belief in eastern cultures for centuries. Suddenly one has new insight on Elijah's teasing of the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (see a paraphrase of 1 Kings 1:18, like this version) when he suggested one possible reason why Baal did not show up. Did belief in a toilet god exist even then?

I certainly do not mean to make fun of my dear host culture. But it grieves me deeply as a missionary (as it does the heart of God) that Japanese have this twisted understanding of their Creator. For missionaries in Japan, this distorted worldview poses a great challenge to our gospel message.

As I wrote in my previous post, I take some clues from a fellow missionary, the apostle Paul. Paul also faced the challenge of addressing a culture (the people of Ephesus) filled to overflowing with superstitious belief. They were keepers of the temple of Artemis. Their city was flooded with images, idols and occult activity. Paul spent three years in this pagan environment.

Paul's letter to the Ephesian Christians saved out of their superstitious beliefs rings with joyous praise for God's eternal purpose. Ultimately a good dose of theology proper is what the Ephesian church needed. Ephesians 1 sets the tone. "Purpose" "Plan" "Promised" "Power" "Will" "Authority" "Creation" are some words Paul uses  frequently in the letter. Ephesians needed to know that there is one authoritative God, Creator of all things, who wills and acts according to his eternal plans.

One wonders, then, why God permitted pagan superstitions and beliefs to exist so long before revealing the gospel to the Ephesians. Did God ignore the sad state of affairs in Ephesus? No. This was all a part of His eternal plan for bringing salvation to man and glory to His Son. Everything is "...according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we [the Ephesian church]...might be for the praise of his glory" (1:11~12).

And so, even in superstitious Japan, God is working out his purposes to bring glory to himself and salvation to the Japanese. Each Japanese soul saved out of this culture of superstition is a foretaste of that day His plan for this nation will culminate in "joyous praise." We keep praying and working toward that day.

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