I watched them approach the shrine, bow, ring the bell, toss a coin, and clap. Somewhere in there, they made a request—a wish, really—for a good medical test result, getting into the right school, a worry about one of their children. I was struck by how much my Western mind and heart did not connect with how they offered their pleas. I understood the heart behind it—but not the actions.
But I wasn’t raised in Japanese culture.
My host family and I had many conversations about this around the dinner table. I wanted to understand at which point their “faith” held on, tangibly grabbed belief, and grew expectant. Twenty-four years and two degrees in Asian languages and culture later, and I’m still not sure. But I do know that it opened a door to rich conversations and some understanding between us, and I came to learn that rituals and gestures at the shrine were more about respect than faith. Ringing the bell was to get the attention of the god of that shrine.
Why is Jesus not found at a shrine?
Do we not have rituals we must perform, like money and hand gestures, to conjure His attention?
And, what on earth do you mean, ふいつげらるど-さん (Fitzgerald-san, or Miss Fitzgerald, my maiden name) about talking to God in your bath water?
Bath water? In Japan, the lowest-on-the-totem-pole member in the family seniority-wise takes their bath last—same bath water kept very hot all evening. The father gets the first shift. After that, while still kept at high temperatures, it gets progressively more oily as skin flakes off. Since I was the exchange student and youngest person in the household, guess who got to take her bath last?
You got it!
And that was the time of day, so far away from everyone I loved, that they knew I took time to pray. It blew their minds that I could get into that water and approach God.
And isn’t that something, if you think about it?
First of all, I was in bath water that, while very hot, was “soiled” by several members of the family before I got in. So hygienically speaking (the Japanese consider hygiene a high art), it was an interesting place to approach God.
Second, I was approaching God. I would argue that visits to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple (or even putting food out at the house shrine for an ancestor) are one-way conversations. The human expresses something without the expectancy of an immediate answer or, in some cases, any answer at all. The idea that my God and I could have a personal conversation, a back-and-forth, was completely out of context for them.
When my host family would ask what I would tell God, I would say that I ask Him to take care of my little nephew back in the States, to help me make decisions for my future, to heal me when I am not well. We discussed at great length, in Japanese, what it’s like to “hear God,” which I admit, was still something I was growing in at 19 years old. I didn’t have easy ways of explaining the peace of Christ or the guidance of the Holy Spirit, one part of a triune God who lived inside me.
Also, in their minds, I was all the way around the world from my place of worship, so how could I “consult” God from Japan? In the Shinto religion, nature spirits and ancestors are worshiped, but even so, shrines and (Buddhist) temples are set aside as geographical locations where one can speak to the spiritual world.
But for me? I could talk to God in dirty bath water.
Dirty bath water.
You know why? Because God had made what was unclean clean by sending His Son Jesus. When God the Father looks upon me in my human state, He sees me through His Son, Jesus, as white as snow. Imputed righteousness.
He doesn’t see the dead cells discarded from my old self floating in the baptism water. He doesn’t see the sins of those who went ahead of me in the water either.
2 Corinthians 5:16-17, ESV
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
1 John 4:9-10, ESV
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
He is in my heart through the Holy Spirit. I can be sitting on the side of the road all dirtied and dusty by life splashing up against me, but God the Father sees Jesus standing in front of me, declaring me righteous through His righteousness alone.
Dirty bath water.
Ephesians 5:25-27, ESV
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
I am not sure my Japanese host family ever fully grasped the truth of Christ enough to shed their own traditions and security to grab a hold of the truth borne on that cross, but I do know that I told them how to get there.
How about you? Is what is floating around you in circumstances or even your own recent actions intimidating you from approaching your Savior? The more you stare at that water, the more distant you feel, unable to have those conversations with a God who knows and seeks you personally, hour by hour, day by day.
Don’t let the soiled moments of life keep you from:
- Seeking the holiness brought about by repentance and forgiveness of sins by a God who sacrificed His only Son for you
- Seeing a merciful God who wants you to talk to Him, no matter where you are sitting and how muddied by life you are
Do you believe that?
Start the conversation. No clapping. No summoning. No wishing.
If you know Jesus already, just talk. If you want to know Him, tell Him that. Right where you are. He hears you. He can help, listen, forgive, and clean you right where you are. Actually, He already has. You simply need to believe that and own it.
I promise you that whatever floats in your bath water today, it doesn’t scare off a powerful, mighty, loving, holy God who wants to have a very personal relationship with you and have you participate with Him in sanctifying your life and cooperating with His Kingdom purposes.
*This blog was first a featured column at Your Tewksbury Today.
**It has also been shared at any link highlighted here: Mom 2 Mom Monday Link-Up, Make a Difference Mondays, Worshipful Wednesdays, Women With Intention Wednesdays, Grace & Truth, A Little R & R, RaRa Link-Up, Me, Coffee & Jesus, Dance With Jesus, Blessing Counters, Coffee & Conversation, Saturday Soiree, Tell His Story, Find Stability, So Much at Home, Faith-Filled Fridays, Reflect His Love and Glory Link-Up, Bonbon ‘n Coffee Linkup, Sunday Thoughts Link-Up, and Christian Mommy Blogger.
Anecdotal stories about an everyday relationship with God can be found in Not Just on Sundays: Seeking God’s Purpose in Each New Day (includes Book Club Discussion Questions).