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I Bowed Before an Image: Actually, Lots of Them

Sunday, February 15, 2015

From  I took this same bus line 
from the Narita airport to the Haneda airport for a flight to Fukuoka.  The
attendants bow to greet the passengers as the bus arrives.  
Over the last week of January and the first week of February this year I found myself in one of the most engaging, fascinating places and situations.  I was on travel for work to Japan.  The first leg of my flight left a few hours late, so I missed the connecting flight to my first destination (Sasebo).  This forced me to make some on-the-fly changes which included flying out of a different airport than planned and making a couple unplanned bus connections.

And it only got better as the trip progressed.  Because of bus/flight timing, I had to leave Sasebo a day early, make a last minute hotel arrangement, and then fly back to Narita (near Tokyo).  And all of this while fighting off the flu.

I had expected to get sick.  It was the height of the flu season.  The strain common among the Japanese, of course, is not something they worry about when making the vaccine here in the U.S.  And I had never been in Japan before, therefore I had no immunity.  So the middle of the trip was a matter of fighting through the flu while commuting for about two hours each way, each day, from Narita to Yokosuka on their local and express trains.

But it was an absolute joy nonetheless.

A small part of that is just my makeup - I love flying by the seat of my pants and having to just make it up as I go.  Being married with two high school age boys doesn't usually leave one too many opportunities like this, so I was intent on enjoying it while it lasted - flu or no flu.

The much bigger part of what made it so enjoyable was the simple joy that you find in Japan when just watching the people.  That joy permeates relationships.  There is a deeply ingrained interpersonal courtesy among the Japanese.  Of course, this is expressed in how they bow to each other as a way of both greeting and expressing thanks.  Even down to the curbside staff of the bus lines that serve the airports - they actually bow as each bus arrives to greet those riding the bus.

I had left the U.S. on Monday.  Crossing the International Date Line meant I arrived on Wednesday (Japan time).  It wasn't until Sunday - the Lord's Day - that the significance of all of this began to hit me.

I was bowing before images.  Lots of them.

Coming from my Evangelical seminary education, I can tell you that there is a lot of writing and thought out there about what "idolatry" means.  The Ten Commandments tell us not to make any "carved image" (or "idol") of God; to so do is then called "idolatry."  I think it might actually be pretty easy to get our heads wrapped around exactly what this means, but we have to start by asking a simple question:  Why not?

Why not make a statue of what we think God looks like?  Other religions have them.  Why not us as well?

I know the conventional answer: Our images can never capture what God is like in all of the rarified senses that entertain the seminary faculty and their dutiful students.  But I am becoming convinced there is a much simpler answer and that you do not need a seminary degree to understand it:  We are not to make images of God because He has already done that for us.  The creation story tells us we are created in the image of God.  So if you want to know what God is like, you do not make a statue - you go next door and talk to your neighbor.

And in Japan, you actually bow to him or her.

I left Japan thinking there is something very "godly" about their traditions of interpersonal courtesy.  When we use the word "Christian" to describe a country, we usually think of the existence of churches.  South Korea is a "Christian" country in that respect.  (There is a fascinating history there - but that will have to wait for another post.)

You will not find much of that in Japan.  But you can certainly find God - if you just know where to look.  I found Him in their courtesy.  It leads me to wonder if, for looking for Him in church buildings and even among politicians who supposedly share our beliefs we have brought ourselves to a place where we can no longer see Him where He wants first to be seen - in our neighbors.

I didn't go to church that Sunday.  But I was in the presence of God just the same.  I found him in the courtesy of a bow shared between images of Him, created by Him, for just that purpose.

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