Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Looney Bin

Some person or other once said that insanity is doing the same things over and over, and expecting different results.

I guess thats pretty good. But I would like to add my own variation. I think insanity is knowing what gives you life and joy and peace, but choosing the opposite anyways. That is insane. Just completely crazy.

And it describes me perfectly.

I know what is good for me. I know that God gives me life and joy and peace and renewal. I know that I am never more joyful than when I am seeking after God, spending time with him, drenching myself in Scripture, and living out my calling. I know that. And yet I choose not to do it. All the time.

That's insane.

I know that neglecting to pray or read or just generally follow the Spirit is bad for me. I know that to choose sin produces death in my mind and soul and life. I know that. And yet I choose death over life all the time.

That's insane.

What is even crazier? I already know all this. I have already had this observation before, I have already made this realization about my spiritual life. It isn't simply that I sometimes choose death over life blindly or ignorantly or what have you. It isn't as if I actually thought death were life, or that seeking other things besides God would bring me life. I know that isn't true, AND I know that I have a tendency to act crazily. But then I still choose the world over God, idols over Yahweh, and lies over truth.

That's insane.

I find it wryly amusing that I always come from times of great spiritual consistency or depth, which I am graced with through constant spiritual discipline in seeking after the Spirit, and then think that it will be a good idea to slack off of seeking Christ because "I feel tired" "I don't feel like reading tonight" "I am so busy" "Taking a break won't hurt, right?" I know all those things aren't good reasons. But I choose to believe them anyways sometimes, because, well, it just feels easier.

Its always easier to choose death over life. Which is backwards, and doesn't make sense. But I think its true. I mean we are full of corruption after all. Even as regenerated Spirit-filled believers we still have to deal with the flesh (Rom 6-8). I think the death/life cycle (or valley/mountain, desert/oasis) of spirituality is unavoidable.

Honestly, I don't ever expect to solve the death/life cycle of my spirituality. Not this side of Resurrection. Oh sure, as I grow and mature more and more the nature of the cycle will change, but I think I will always have the need to repent for choosing the world over Christ to some extent. Always.

To that extent I welcome my cycles of insanity. Its ok to be insane. We all are. I just need to be a repentant looney. The continuing cycle of choosing God and (to some extent or another) not choosing God when accompanied by a continuing ethic of repentance is how we grow. My cycles of insanity move me to repentance and return and even greater depth and love for a God who continually takes me back.

I guess its a good thing we serve an insanely loving God.

~J.L. Smith

Monday, April 25, 2011

That's a whole lot of naked... and other thoughts from Easter.

Easter really was the perfect end to my time in Japan. I went into this trip anticipating a time of refreshment, rest, and spiritual renewal. And, you know, if I saw some Japanese stuff while I was there—that'd be cool too. Easter day turned out to be the perfect capstone.

I went to the house church that the Kornegays and the rest of the crew from Team Expansion put on. It was a small congenial affair, with lots of kids, laughter, and honest worship of a living Lord. There were nine adults, including teenagers, two of which were Japanese. Yuko, a Christian for two years now, had brought her friend Hitomi (I think that is how you spell it) to church this week, making it her second time to ever go to a church.

I think I enjoyed this gathering on Easter more than I have any other in my life. Why? Not because the sermon was awesome (there wasn't one), not because the music was inspiring (it was quite simple), nor because I spent it with my family and did all the traditional things (I didn't). I enjoyed it for the simple fact that this Easter, I was privileged to sit and listen as a curious non-believer said “I don't quite understand-- can you explain what Easter is and why it matters?” Listening as Phil explained the simple message of the gospel, and as Yuko shared in Japanese what the cross and the empty tomb are all about was splendid. I couldn't even understand most of what they were saying. It didn't matter. I could see the earnestness in Yuko as she drew from her still growing knowledge of the faith to share how in Jesus there is Hope.

After church, we ate lunch and then went to a nearby park. Everyone had invited families and kids that they knew to come to the park for crafts and games and an Easter egg hunt. About 20 or so kids showed up, with their parents in tow. We couldn't have asked for a more beautiful afternoon. As Yuko read the kids the story of Easter, the field was aglow with the smiling spring sun. Flowers and buds were popping out from ground and branch as little kids played and laughed and ran and hunted for that ever so precious candy. It was all incredibly simple. I think that's why it was so good.

At night Phil, Christian, Kayla, and I went to a Japanese bathhouse. It was something I wanted to do as both a last hurrah! of Japanese cultural experience, and as a last chance to fully and completely chill before traveling again. Though I guess “chill” is not exactly the right word since the bath house is full of saunas, spas, hot mineral baths, and warm air. For those of you who have never experienced a public bath, heres the basic rundown: you go to your respective side of the bath house (men's or women's), get a locker, strip down buck naked, put everything except a wash cloth in the locker, go to a big open line of faucets and shower heads, sit down with a whole bunch of other people (also naked), clean yourself up and scrub yourself down and rinse yourself off, and then go sit and simmer in a variety of bubbly hot pools with the other naked people. That's a whole lot of naked.

But once you get past the shy little school boy feeling, its pretty stinkin awesome. I could stay there for hours and hours. My favorite pool was the “half-bath” in which you can lie down in this marble enclosure that has hot water for about half your body. You can lie there and look at the stars (its on the roof). As I was there I thought about my day. I thought about my time in Japan. I thought about Easter.

And I thought how Rest is such a glorious thing. I don't use the world “glorious” superfluously. I think that the Resurrection is about bringing Rest, the real and life-giving kind, to this world. It is about God starting his great work of new creation, of which we are the forerunners. Easter is about God bringing his Kingdom--full of glory, light, and life—into the world, and rescuing it from war and violence and grief and agony and despair and conflict. Easter is about God saving us from the exhausting battle to be kings of our own lives and entering into the beautiful rest of his Reign.

All of that means so much more in Japan. My God, has there ever been a message the Japanese people needed more right now?

Yuko basically had a single conclusion to the meaning of Easter, as she explained it. Hope. That monumental simple and solitary thing that seems at times unattainable, but at others seems to burst upon you in waves of joy inexpressible, filling all the incomprehensibilities and chasms of this life with meaning beyond their ken. Easter is Hope. That truth means so much more coming from a Japanese believer. Particularly a Japanese believer explaining Christianity to a curious non-believer.

I think again of playing in the fields with the kids. It feels so poignant now, filled with meaning. After all that has happened in Japan, after the death and struggle and anguish, in the midst of a country still reeling and trying to recover from the inconceivable weight of extinguished humanity-- here we are in the field. Its a field full of light and lark and laughter. Little Japanese kids run and play and laugh and smile. There's life. Right here in the field, life as joyful and precious and full as humanity has ever had stands in the midst of a nation shattered by death.

That's Easter. Easter is the bright little field of life, joyful and triumphant as it stands amidst the pain and hurt of the world. Its triumphant not because one day we will all escape the world and leave it to its own, but because one day the Life I see here in this little field, and the Life that the Resurrection brings, will fill not just one field but all of them. No longer will we be struck at how a field of children in laughter can stand side by side with the devastation of Norther Japan. Life won't stand with death anymore. It will stand alone: beautiful and glorious.

~J.L. Smith

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Japan Park

There was this really cool architectural park not far from Phil and Kim's house. It had relocated buildings from all over Japan, mostly Tokyo, representing different eras of Japanese architecture. It was nestled inside a larger general park, with well manicured landscaping and fabulous trees.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Some thoughts [1]

I basically spent all day today traveling. Taxi to airport. Airport to Airport. Terminal to terminal. Through customs and immigration and then customs and immigration all over again. Train to train, stop to stop, until finally I arrived here at Phil and Kim's house. It was a good day. I am so used to travelling now. Its cool. I don't have the inner worry about stuff like I used to. Korea doesn't feel weird or strange like when I first came to this side of the world. Neither does Japan, so far.

I had a lot of time to casually think today, which was good. My mind was able to just lie fallow.

I also had the chance to read through Matthew. It was amazing. I have been reading through the Bible, straight from Genesis, since I have been here, following the growth of the "Kingdom of God" theme all along the way. After all this time in the Old Testament, reading about the Kingdom, tracing its development, looking at its different facets, and letting the expectation build for when this Davidic King-Priest would come to redeem Israel, restore her from exile, institute true righteous rule, and bring all the world under the glory of God---Matthew reads like a peal of thunder. All my time in the Old Testament has been like sitting on a porch watching the clouds slowly begin to shift and form and darken, creeping into prophetic blobs on the horizon as the air begins the change and a sense of expectation trickles into every little tree branch, grass blade, and wind chime. Now as I read Matthew it is as if I can hear the CRACK as the lightning strikes blast from the sky and flashes of light fill the horizon. Thunder rich and deep ans startling and glorious rolls through the earth, and you know a thunderstorm has come.

>Jesus leaps off the page. He towers over history and stands in conscious fulfillment as the King who was to come. It as if I now speak Matthew's kingdom language, and all his artful twists and flourishes to show Jesus as the Kingdom prophet, priest and King strike me and hold me and make sense to me in ways they never did before. And I begin to feel some of the shock his Jewish readers must have felt when they read it: Messiah has come! Messiah gets crucified? Messiah is resurrected! Now, what?

This is exactly what I hoped would happen when I set off to read through the Bible cover to cover, and studying a key theme as I went: fresh perspective. I look forward to more in the coming days.

~J.L Smith

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Me, Myself, and Japan

I am going to Japan tomorrow. Its a trip I have been planning for a while now. Because my visa for China is quite ridiculous, I have to leave the country every 60 days. I don't have to be gone any particular length of time, or go anywhere special. I just have to leave, and come back. For my first two visa trips I went to Korea, slept in the airport and came directly back. This caused quite a bit of consternation among my travel-fiend international friends. I guess a bit of that is deserved, but the way I saw it 1) I was already spending money I shouldn't of had to spend in the first place, so why would I add to the cost? and 2) My whole reason for being on this side of the world is to be in CHINA. My life and ministry are here. So why waste time in Korea?

Yeah. I'm not practical or anything.

After my second time sleeping on the floor in Seoul however, I kind of didn't want to do that again. Fortuitously, my former youth minister and his family have been living in Japan for the past 10 years, and invited me to come visit them while I was in China. Despite the tsunami they still wanted me to come, so I bought the plan ticket a couple weeks ago and made it official.

Tomorrow I leave for Japan, and won't return till next Monday. That will equal out to a full four days in Japan with a wonderful host family. I can't wait.

One of my well traveled friends asked me what my plans were for my time in Japan. Large amounts of disbelief streamed from her face when I said, "I don't know." She couldn't believe I would go without an idea of what I want to do/see in Tokyo. To be honest I couldn't care less what I see there. Oh I am sure I will get fantastic recommendation from Phil and Kim about where to go and what to see. That will be cool I am sure. That isn't why I am excited to go.

I want to go to Japan, not to see wondrous sights and hear unfamiliar sounds and taste new things, not --even-- to go and lift rubble or join the fight against disaster. I want to go to Japan to Rest. I want to go to Japan to have a Sabbath. I want to go to Japan to be Renewed.

Because really, I just need a break.

I feel like I have been going nearly non-stop for a month now between the play and work and relationships and church-- I am as busy as I have ever been. On top of that, this is my sixth month in China. There is a lot to process. The past: what it has meant, what mistakes I have made, what successes I have had, where I have gone, what I have done, the relationships I have built. The culture: where do I fit, how I understand things, what I could do better. The future: where will I fit in micMAC over the next 1-5 years? How will these next six months go? Who will I build relationships with? How can I make a difference? What will God teach me? Where will he call me?

I need space. I need time to be still. I need prayer and scripture reading. I need to turn my brain off from the immediate and cultivate my soul.

I need to write and think and pray. And then I need to write and think and pray some more. I need to free up the creative energy I will need to be the kind of person I have to be over the next six months.

I am going to Japan tomorrow. And I can't wait.

~J.L. Smith

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Now you see it...

Lets play a game. Its called, "Now you see it, now you don't." For instance, I show you a picture of a magician holding a bunny and say "Now you see it"-- and then in the next picture the bunny is gone and I say "Now you don't."

Its fun I promise.


Now you see the rice ball....

Now you don't....

Now you see a faux hawk...

Now you don't!

Yes our dear friend the mohawk has gone the way of the dodo... at least for now. Did I mean to cut my hair this short? Did I mean to use one of the lowest setting on my beard trimmer to cut my hair? Did I start shaving the middle of my head and immediately realize things might have gone slightly awry?

The world may never know.

~J.L. Smith

Friday, April 15, 2011

Tell Me Tuesday: Double Feature!

Ok, lets be honest. We have all done it. We have all been there. We have all been "that guy" (or gal depending upon your respective gender). "That guy" that says something with the best of intentions... but then can't quite follow through on it.

Yup. I've been "that guy" for the past couple weeks. Here you all have been, sitting on the edges of your seats, biting your nails with anticipation, twitterpatedly awaiting my tell me tuesday blog to appear, only to be disappointed each day that went by without word of my culinary escapades (ok, that might be overstating it... but, hey, lets not burst my bubble). My bad.

In my defense, I have been insanely busy. Yeah, yeah, I know-- who isn't? But between play practice five to six times a week, plus work, plus relationships, plus church, plus [insert more stuff here]-- something had to give. Don't worry, once the play is done in the first week in May, I'll be back to having very little to do and lots of time for internet oriented shenanigans.

I am proud to say, though, that despite my lack of time (and often, motivation) to get the ball rolling, I have successfully completed the first two TMTs!

First up: Non-descript Jiaoze!

As you can see, the bag looks as non-descript as ever.

Welcome to my kitchen. This is where the magic happens people.
The waters-a-boiling and ready for jiaoze.

The Jiaoze being cooked. Usually jiaoze cooking does not look like this. The water is usually relatively clear. That was my first clue something had gone awry.

Most of my jiaoze exploded/ruptured while cooking. So instead of dumplings, I mostly have a puree of carbs and jiaoze filling all mixed together.

This is me saying, "Well, what can you do?/This is disappointing." with my face.

Non Descript Jiaoze puree in a bowl! I put soy sauce all over it, and just went to town. I figured it would pretty much would taste the same as if they didn't explode in my kitchen.

Now you see it...

Now you don't! It ended up tasting ok. I am still not sure what was in it, even with the contents on display. Some sorts of cabbage/lettuce and mushrooms and ... stuff. Can you tell I don't cook? It tasted "green" to me. Leafy even.

The Verdict:

Cooking: FAILish
I cooked them properly, they just had poor structural integrity. But they definitely looked nothing like jiaoze when it was all said and done.

Eating: WIN
I ate the whole bowl, and didn't have to resort to a back up peanut butter sandwich.

Likely hood I will buy it again: LOW.
There are much better, more meaty jiaozes to be had. I like vegetables, but not the green leafiness in this one.

Second: Black Sludge Balls

This is a slightly different package of Black Sludge Balls, but hey, they still look pretty sludgy to me. FYI the proper term for these is "glutinous rice balls". Sounds a little bit better than Black Sludge anyways.

Into the pot!
Incidentally, you cook most frozen things in China the same way: put it into boiling water and then wait for it to float! Nice and simple for a cooking idiot like me.

Hey look! They float!

They kinda look like eggs...

Ok, now they definitely look like eggs.

A couple of them kind of ruptured after the straining of the water, so there is a little bit of black sludge smeared around. I'm still not 100% sure whats inside. I think it is actually a kind of sweet bean paste.

Let's eat some Rice Balls!

You might never guess from the look of them, but these are actually very sweet. The outside is a very mushy/sticky rice concoction, with the inside being sweet.

The Verdict:
Cooking: WIN
Except for a few ruptured balls, everything went off without a hitch and took no more than 10-15mins.

Eating: Semi-Win
I ate enough to be full, but that turned out to be not very many. I ate only about half the plate. Turns out a few go a long way.

Likely-hood I will buy them again: Meh.
They were ok. I might buy them again to share with Sunny and Flight. I guess its possible I might get struck with a craving to eat them again. But that probably won't be soon.

One last piece of business: I am going to Japan next week! I will be in Tokyo for about five days. Expect pictures and perhaps a story or two when I return (or while I am there).

AND, if you have any ideas on things for me to do while in Tokyo, let me know! Sound off in the comments below and Tell Me how to see Tokyo!

~J.L. Smith