Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Should we support Israel or not?

It is of course not at all uncommon to see Israel engaged in warfare and conflict, and this last week has been no different--with the Palestinians and Israelis bombing each other. It happens seemingly every year, and the result is many dead.

Politically, it is a bit predictable how people will respond:  conservatives generally support Israel due to their being the only democracy in the Middle East; liberals will oppose the Jews because the conservatives support them.

Among evangelical Christians, the support is overwhelming: indeed, according to recent polling, evangelicals like Jews better than any other religious group--including, oddly, other Christian groups like Catholics! (The feeling is not mutual, however: Jews give evangelical Christians an even lower rating than they give to Muslims, despite the centuries of battling between the two.)

Indeed, evangelicals tend to support Israel in any conflict, no matter the situation. The mindset goes something like this:

  1. The Jews are God's chosen people.
  2. God set aside the Promised Land for the Jews.
  3. The Jews do not currently have all of their promised land.
  4. Therefore, God would support the Jews to retake their land.
  5. Therefore, we should support Israel as they retake their land.

The first three statements are all undeniably true. But the conclusions do not necessarily follow from the first three points.

Remember that the Jews received their land in return for covenantal promises to God--promises which historically are not always upheld. And when those promises are not upheld, God often brings judgment upon the nation, including the loss of land for generations.

The Bible records several times that the land of Israel was handed over to non-Jews, always for the purpose of bringing the Jews back to God. From 740-722 BC, the Assyrians were in control of Israel. From 586-539 BC, the Babylonian Empire was in control of Judea. From 539-332 BC, it was the Persians. From 332-305, it was the Greeks. Starting in 63 BC, it was the Romans. And Jesus tells us during the Olivet Discourse that the Romans would sack Jerusalem again, for the abandonment of the Messiah.

The point is--sometimes in the Bible, we see God encouraging the Jews and helping them regain their kingdom. Sometimes in the Bible, we see God helping the enemies of the Jews to bring the Jews back to repentance.

And that is why I say we, as Christians, should be awfully cautious in picking sides in Israel's conflicts. The "right" side from God's view might be Israel's, or it may actually be His will to bring enemies to them in an attempt to drive them to Christ. It is in fact entirely possible that the blind support of Israel will lead one to oppose God's will at times!


In general, I don't take political sides: it's hard to say that we know God's side when we have such incomplete views of things. In particular, I REALLY don't think it's wise to take political sides when it comes to war, except in the most extreme of situations.

So what should we as Christians do in regard to Israel?

First, what we should do is pray as the Lord taught us:  "Thy will be done." Whether it is for Israel to retake the promised land or be driven from it, we want God's will done.

Second, I think that we should be praying for peace and for the Gospel to spread, regardless of circumstances.

So be cautious of always supporting Israel, or always opposing it. Our support should be tied to God's Kingdom and New Jerusalem, not any human kingdom here.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Sermon: Money Makes Fools of Us All (Luke 12:13-34)

Below is a sermon I originally preached on 29 December 2013.

Someone in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But He said to him, "Man, who made me a judge or arbiter over you?"

And He said to them, "Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." And He told them a parable, saying: "The land of a rich man produce plentifully, and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?' And he said, 'I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'  But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God."

And He said to His disciples, "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today and tomorrow is thrown in the oven, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Lk 12:13-34)

Good morning, Grace Church.

If I haven't met you before, I'm Michael Belote, one of the Elders here at Grace. Before I start this morning I need to let you know that I am crazy sick right now. My family is incapable of celebrating a holiday without a major sickness breaking out, and I have been under the weather for a few days. To battle the illness I have taken basically ALL of the medicine in my medicine cabinet. Everything in there I just took one of it this morning. So if I start saying something weird today, I'm not speaking in tongue under the Spirit or something...I'm having a bad drug interaction and someone please call a doctor.

OK, so starting today I want to complain. I want to complain about one of your pastors—maybe next time they’ll think twice about giving me the mic, huh? Your associate pastor, Josh Hurlburt, apparently hates me. I say that because three years ago when I volunteered to help with youth group, I asked what topic he wanted me to teach first. He said, “I’d like you to teach about creationism and evolution – what is Biblical, what is maybe Biblical, and what definitely isn’t Biblical – and how to evangelize to evolutionists.” Right. Because THAT isn’t controversial at all.
Then here we are and he asks me to start teaching on Sunday mornings as well. Fine, and my first assignment is to restart our Luke series. OK no problem. But then as I’m studying for the passage a few weeks ago, I realize that he has assigned me to teach about money and materialism. On December 29—the Sunday after Christmas. Look, nobody likes a sermon about money anyway, but doing it the day after Christmas, the time of year where most of you have the biggest credit card bills and smallest cash accounts of the year? That’s just awful!

So to start with, I want to let you all off the hook a bit. You see, when Jesus preached this sermon, you know what He didn’t end with? “Will the ushers come forward and take up the offering, please. Peter needs a new
microphone, and James & John want these nice seats on stage, and Judas wants a new children’s wing added.” There was no local church, and this wasn’t a local church fundraiser—even if that’s how it is normally taught. So I’m not here to try and raise funds okay? Now if you happen to give to Grace later, I won’t track you down in the parking lot and return the check or anything. But that isn’t our primary purpose. Jesus here is teaching about materialism and your personal attitude toward your money. That's what we're focused on.
Okay, so now that we are getting started, let me remind you where we are. If you are new here—or a very unobservant member—you might not know how we normally teach at Grace. We pick a book of the Bible and start in chapter 1 verse 1, then we teach through the end of the book. As a result, you are able to see the context really well…today’s passage is a great example of something that is usually taught as two separate sermons when really it is part of one message.
Now currently we are in the book of Luke, which was written by a guy named….Luke. (That’s the kind of top notch Biblical scholarship you get when the seminarians have the day off.) Luke was a Gentile—like everyone in the crowd. Luke was a doctor—like most of the people in the crowd. Luke was a high IQ convert who was hired by a man named Theophilus to investigate Jesus. Theophilus was having some doubts and wanted to know what was going on, so this book is basically a doctor’s investigative history, talking to the eyewitnesses, putting together an orderly account.
For those who can remember our last lesson—way back before Missions Month and Advent season—as we get into Luke 12, Jesus has become super-popular. He is so popular by this point, on account of all the miracles and teachings, that the Bible tells us people are literally trampling each other to get to the front of the crowd. And that brings us to our passage today.
But before I unpack the passage, I want to make sure you understand a common pattern in Jesus’ teachings, which will help us here. Jesus’ teachings often take this pattern:
1. Someone from the crowd asks a question
2. Jesus answers the question to the crowd in parable form
3. Later, Jesus tells His disciples more info about the same question
That is important because the second half of our passage today—where He talks to the disciples—is usually
 taught as a sermon about worry and the first half about generosity…but in fact, both are part of Jesus’ one single answer. So don't miss that.
Now what is going on here? Well, in Deuteronomy we are told how God set up the inheritance laws of ancient Judaism. The older son received double the portion of the younger sons. So take my family for example: I have two sons, Alex and Ryan. And I have an estate worth literally dozens of dollars. So if I were to divide this vast estate among them, I would divide it into three parts: Alex would get two, Ryan would get one. And Ryan would complain to high heaven about how unfair it is. As an older child, it seems fair to me…and what can I say, it’s God’s word, guys. Older kids deserve more.
Anyway, there were exceptions to this. Maybe the older son had dishonored the family. Maybe the older son had left the faith. Maybe the older son had a mental handicap that precluded him from running the business. Whatever it was, the Sanhedrin would assign local rabbis to serve as arbiters for such lawsuits or disagreements. This guy in our passage today is coming to Jesus and asking Him to serve as arbiter.
And Jesus…basically blows the guy off. He shrugs and says, “Not my problem.” Jesus tells him that He is not
the judge in this case, and the guy should seek the appropriate channels.
But then Jesus turns to the crowd and elaborates on the point of inheritance and money, with what we call the
Parable of the Rich Fool.

So why is this guy a fool? Notice that—unlike most of the rich people Jesus talks about—he didn’t do anything
unethical or illegal here. As far as we know, he owned the land and the harvest came legitimately. There is no
hint that he is shorting wages or anything. So why is he a fool?

He is a fool because of verse 19: the rich fool is seeking what? “RELAX, eat drink and be merry.” The rich man thinks that he will receive peace through his bank account.
Notice that the man has a number in his head—a storehouse size. And then as that storehouse finally gets filled, what does he do? Makes a bigger number. He tears down the storehouse and builds a bigger one, one which holds “many years” worth of grain…basically this is a retirement fund. Do you see that? This is a 401k or an IRA. This is someone with a “magic number” he wants to get to (an always-moving number) that he thinks, “If only I can get HERE, I will have peace.”
I gotta admit something…I am the rich fool. I got a reminder of that as I studied for this sermon. You see, I too have a number. I have a number in my head of how high my savings account needs to be in order for me to relax. But the last few months have been rough. A few months ago, we had a friend who was in a financial place where they were about to be foreclosed on. We were able to help them out, paying for their mortgage and some extra to get them back on their feet.
And the storehouse shrunk a bit.

Then we had Christmas shopping come, and I don’t like to have debt so we pay in cash when possible. And
maybe we were more generous than usual or more frivolous, I don’t know…but it took a big bite of the savings.

And the storehouse shrunk a bit.

Then my wife got kidney stones, as many of you know. And even though Sara and others helped tremendously, that makes it my responsibility to provide food. Some days (as those who follow us on facebook know) that turns into PB&J sandwiches with M&Ms…but usually it is take out. Which is WAY more expensive than Jessica cooking.

And the storehouse shrunk a bit. And now I’m starting to get nervous.

Then, every light on the dashboard goes off on our 4Runner. I read on the internet and it says not to worry—and the internet is never wrong, of course. It’s just an oxygen sensor, $50 and they can reset it. Take in the car and what do we find? A $2500 bill as the entire catalytic converter system was hosed.
So now my storehouse is empty. And I am in a panic. I told Jessica, “It feels like I’m losing control.”

And that’s when it hit me. Money had made a fool of me.

You see, I didn’t lose control…I never had it to start with. Money never had the ability to guarantee me a working car or a healthy wife. Money never had that ability...I just tricked myself into thinking that it did. All that my empty storehouse did was teach me the lesson that was already true: that money was powerless to provide any real peace. Only God can do that.



So money makes the rich fools when they see it as the source of their peace.

But surely that isn’t the case for the disciples, right? These guys were dirt poor! They have to be feeling pretty good at this point of the sermon. I mean, the disciples were poor before they quit their jobs to follow around the homeless preacher. They were so poor that once, to get lunch, they stole some poor kid’s sack lunch of fishes and loaves.

But Jesus has a message for them, too, doesn’t He?

Being poor may mean that you don’t seek your peace through money, but that doesn’t mean you also are not overly obsessing about it. You too may be allowing money to take over your life. Because you think that money is the source of your provision.

Yet see what the Bible is promising here in the text—that God knows what you need and will provide it. That you are His little flock and He will care for you. We see that in Psalm 23 and with the manna in the desert and all throughout Scripture…the Lord will provide. He is our provision and our strength, not something which can be purchased by money.
Yet again, we allow ourselves to be easily made fools by money: for money gives the illusion to the rich that they can buy peace, and to the poor that they can provide security in provision.


I don’t like being made a fool, no more than you do. So how do we avoid it? How do we keep from being made
Jesus gives us two very practical applications we can take away and use this week. Let’s look at how HE comments on the sermon.



First, Jesus says that if your heart is right, your money will follow it. Check out v.31-32. If we seek God’s kingdom—that is, be Gospel-focused—then our money will take care of itself. God will give us “these things”—that is, peace and provision.
So what is the Gospel? Well, to put it as simply as I can: the Gospel is that when you were helpless, God made you the heir to all of creation…and someone else (Jesus) wrote the check. You received something you did not earn. You have inside you something of infinite worth, and someone else had to do the work. You didn’t buy it. Your money didn’t provide it. This eternal peace came freely to you, not due to your own action.
If God gives you eternal peace without you having to pay a dime for it, why do you think you need a giant storehouse to buy temporary peace?
I love what Tim Keller once said, pointing out that in 1 Cor 13 the three Christian virtues naturally lead to generosity. The three Christian virtues are faith, hope, and love, right? 1 Cor 13. If you have these, think about the natural fruit that results:
  • If you have faith, then you trust God's promise that peace and provision will come from Him
  • If you have hope, then  you believe God's promise that He will make you co-heir to all creation
  • If you have love, then you cannot pass by one who is hurting, because when YOU were hurting Jesus didn't pass you by
Faith, hope, and love LEAD NATURALLY to generosity.


But then look what Jesus does, He flips it completely around and says it exactly the other way:

Where your money IS (present tense verb), there your heart WILL BE (future tense verb). Jesus is saying that if you start investing in something, your heart will naturally follow your money.

This goes along with what Doug Mary shared with you guys the other day, that Randy Alcorn once said “Giving is the only antidote to materialism.” That is exactly what Jesus is saying here. Yes, generosity will come naturally from a “right” heart…but if you AREN’T being generous, then give sacrificially! Give up your cable and use Netflix, or downgrade a car…literally sell your possessions so that you can give sacrificially. Your heart WILL become more focused on it.
Don’t have a passion for the orphans like you should? Give to Livada or the James Initiative or the Call…that will change. Don’t have a passion for missionaries? We support like a billion of them, pick one and invest in them. Don’t have a passion for the poor? Give to the Foodbank.

Look, I used to zoom past the beggars on the side of the street…until my six-year old reminded me that we were not giving to take care of the poor like Jesus would want. Now? I’m passionate about helping them, can’t pass one by without feeling horrible and turning around. Where your money is, there your heart will be.

So as we wrap up today, let me remind you of the big idea.

Jesus’ big idea here is that money makes fools of everyone. It makes us fools because we seek in money things that only God can provide—provision and peace.

But Jesus gives us a clear application here: if we want to stop being so materialistic, there are two cures:

1. Get your heart right/focus on the Gospel, and the money will follow

2. Get your money right and the heart will follow

Saturday, July 19, 2014

I'm baaacccckkkkkk

You might have noticed an unofficial hiatus here on Reboot for a while, in which I (Michael Belote) haven't been posting. (Or maybe you didn't notice, because I'm the only one reading...)

Anyway, it's been a busy period for me and some priorities came up that needed several months of serious focus. I'm an Elder at our church and we had some issues arise which required detailed leadership which was quite time-consuming. I am preaching more often, which requires a lot of work. The business I run has grown over 500% since last year, bringing in hundreds of new jobs (yay!) and new headaches (boo!). And we raised money for, and went on, a mission trip to Romania as a family to support Livada Orphan Care. (More on this in a later post.)

Which is all to say...you haven't heard from me in a while.

The good news is that I've kept a very detailed list of things I wanted to post, so you should start seeing a more steady stream of topics that you've become used to. I hope that you haven't all forgotten me in my absence....

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Bible Kickstarter Project

For those of you Reboot readers that like having a good, quality Bible I found a new Kickstarter project that might be right up your alley.

Bibliotheca: Biblical literature designed and crafted for reading

Over the past few months I have been searching for a solidly-built Bible, what some refer to as the "unicorn" Bible. One that is the translation I prefer, with a quality text block (quality paper, and properly bound by sewing) that is also the right size, and has good print quality and font size. I'm sure there are many people that don't have this problem, but since I recently switched to the ESV from the NASB and neither of my favorite publishers (Holman and Foundation) make ESV Bibles I was basically left to shopping the selections at Lifeway and Mardel locally. I just couldn't find anything that fit my needs. I need a Bible that is small enough that it can't be considered a brick, a fair bit of margin space for me to add my own cross-references and notes, with text large enough to read while on the podium in the pulpit as I preach (I'm 6'5," so my eyes are farther away from the podium than most preachers you can think of). Throw all that in with the pesky little fact that I want the binding to last me at least the next 10 years. That cuts out all the "two-tone, tru-tone, bonded-whatever" bibles that make up 90+% of the Bible shelves in bookstores.

After spending some time reading (manymanymany) bible reviews on Amazon and CBD.com I stumbled on one review that talked about how much they loved that particular copy and that they wouldn't have found it if it weren't for some "Bible design blog." So I looked it up. Lo, and behold! A blog devoted entirely to reviewing published copies of God's Word. Bibledesignblog.com turned out to be exactly what I needed to better understand the various qualities and differences of which I was otherwise completely ignorant (I contacted Mark at BDB and he promptly replied and said that he was already in on the project and will be posting about it next week, so keep an eye out for that). It's easy for us to settle for any reference Bible that passes muster, especially if it's one that we're just pulling out once or twice a week. But delving into the world of quality built Bibles brought me back to the point... God's word should be up front and center in our lives. We should at LEAST as much thought into the Bible we get as we would if it were a phone we wanted or computer we were considering. The particular copy of God's Word that you get should fit the way you read and study so that design gets out of the way and lets His words come first.

And that is the point of the Kickstarter project which I am plugging here. The Bible copies they are proposing are high quality copies made by hand that will stand the test of time better than your typical mass-produced, glue bound copy would. But more importantly, they are designed in a way that brings us back to the story of God's magnificent plan for the redemption of mankind and the creation. The only other attempts at this that I have seen, as far as a readability standpoint, have been the ESV Reader's Bible and the Daily Bible (F. LaGard Smith). As of my writing of this article, there are 120 backers where there had been only 69 an hour ago... and the project has only been live for one day! The project starter states that if the goal is not met that the funds will not be charged, but I will be extremely surprised if it makes it to Sunday without the goal being met. I thought I'd share the opportunity! Go check out the video and try not to nerd-out as Adam Greene talks about how he designed his own font specifically for this translation.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Acts 2:38 - The Gift of the Holy Spirit


It can be a four-letter-word to some when you bring in points about context that disprove long-held views. The two most important tools to bring to Bible study are context and harmony, context of the surrounding passage and harmony with the entirety of God's Scripture. Whether its a silly example of violation of harmony like taking Matt. 27:5 "[Judas] went away and hanged himself" and following it with John 13:27 "What you do, do quickly" or a violation of context when the questionable televangelist (quoting Acts 1:8) looks directly into the camera, points, and says to the audience "but YOU will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon YOU!" In a Christian culture full of proof texting it becomes even more important for us to be diligent students of the Word that has been given to us.

Max Dawson in Beaumont, TX ran an hour long webcast last night on the phrase "the gift of the Holy Spirit" from Acts 2:38. It was a great study and its worth your time and consideration.

If you're interested in watching the recording you can Click Here. The talk starts 12:27 in to the video.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Life, and Then Some


It certainly has been a while since I have been able to write for Reboot. It's weird how fast time flies by.

Have you paid much attention to how passions, habits, etc wax and wane over life's seasons? It can be for a thousand different reasons, but as finite creatures there is only so much we can handle at one time. I had the unique positioning over the past few months to know that I would likely be leaving my secular job, after which I would be pursuing my passion: preaching and ministry. As I look back on my life over the past few months my passion has waxed and it has waned, my habits strained. I have been so busy between boxing up my life, preparing my 'job' to be passed on to the next person, (and back and forth and back and forth) that I was hard-pressed just to keep up my daily devotional time and daily 'bible reading/listening' (we do Bible audio every evening, Max McLean is by far the best). My daily thought was: "I can't wait to move, so that I'll actually have the time to read and focus..."

“Who has time? Who has time? But then if we do not ever take time, how can we ever have time?”                                                                                     --The Merovingian, ‘The Matrix Reloaded’

The thing with "I'll do it when's" and "I can't wait until's" are that life doesn't always turn out like you expect it. I can't be sure if it is due to the loss of habit, but when we have a void in our lives it isn't necessarily filled with what we intended. I am convinced (at least in my life) that at least some minimal standard of habit goes a long way, particularly with regard to spiritual life. It has always been the habitual times of devotionals that I have been most resolute, and it has been the lack thereof that I have been the most lazy spiritually. More importantly it is those "stolen" times where we have escaped just to pray, or read God's Spirit-inspired Word, or just dwell on His utter glory and holiness that we have been the most thankful for such time. Thinking about this brought Peter's first epistle to mind:

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls." (1 Peter 1:3-9 NASB)

It's the times where we have to struggle that, I think, we are most passionate and most thankful. Just as gold is refined by fire, we grow in times of trial. This is true whether it is Daniel praying despite it being illegal, first century Christians facing the looming reality of being crucified like their/our savior, or whatever sense we might be tried today or tomorrow. It is the times when we have to resolve to press on in faith even "though [we] do no see Him now", after which or by which we "greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of [our] faith the salvation of [our] souls."

Peter even tells us how we can be fueled to press on:
"Therefore, prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy.'" (1 Peter 1:13-16 NASB)
Actively prepare your mind for action. Actively keep sober in spirit, remaining vigilant spiritually. Continuously fix your hope COMPLETELY on God's grace, the very foundation of our trust and faith. Resolve specifically to not even look upon worldly lusts that afflicted you in the past, and resolve generally not to be drawn toward any other/additional worldly lusts. "For this is the will of God, your Sanctification [...]" (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Sanctification is progressive, a continuous work. We work, though it is not our work that gives the increase but rather God working in/on/through us. We must bear fruit(s) in keeping with our repentance and salvation (Luke 3:8). Paul himself presses this. Paul's own explicit statement of what God's will is is preceded by the direct exhortation to press harder, to work harder, to continue the Christian walk. "...we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more." (1 Thessalonians 4:1)

See, the thing is...
The Christian walk isn't something you get around to. That's why we call it "living for Jesus." We shouldn't do life and then find space here and there for our faith, rather we should live out our faith and THEN find space here and there for life. Lest we forget that "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."(Galatians 2:20)  (Also see: Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12)

"Faith is the deliberate confidence in the character of God whose ways you may not understand at the time."                                                                                 --Oswald Chambers

Friday, April 4, 2014

Christianity In Japan, Part IV: Today

Modern Japan is externally a healthy and stable nation.  Although the country has to deal with its share of political corruption and social issues - particularly in relation to foreign affairs with Korea and China - it is for the most part a peaceful, stable society.  Compared to the United States, crime rates are extremely low, there are few people who are homeless or live in poverty, and most visitors to Japan will quickly observe that Japanese tend to be generous, polite, and hospitable.  By most external measures, Japan seems to be much better off than a country like the United States.

A cultural difference helps to shed light on why this is mistaken: in the US, there are garbage cans almost everywhere, even in public spaces, making it easy to throw out your trash.  Yet in Japan, public garbage cans are a rarity, and even large venues often go without them.  In spite of this, Japan is very clean, without much litter.  The reason is because most people carry their garbage with them, and throw it out at home.

Japan is a country that, collectively, throws its garbage out at home, not in public.  The issues affecting modern Japan are just as subtle - but no less problematic - than those in the US.  Today we'll look at a few of the main challenges.

Fractured Families:  A major factor in Japan's social problems comes from the state of the family.  Most families in Japan have little time to spend together - many, if not most, fathers work late, and children are frequently occupied with after-school clubs, activities, and seasonal events.  In many cases, the wife is the de facto head of the household, managing the money instead of her husband.  Affairs in Japan for both husbands and wives are common, and are facilitated by so-called love hotels, which offer an escape from the virtually nonexistent privacy of many Japanese homes. (Although to be fair, they're also used by non-illicit and even married couples who just want to get away for a night.)  Japan's divorce rate is lower than the United States, but a similar - perhaps higher - proportion of relationships are very unhealthy.

Overwork:  Perhaps at the heart of all of Japan's social issues is the problem of overwork.  A standard white-collar work day in the US typically starts between 8 and 9 AM, and goes until 5 PM or so.  In Japan, a work day usually starts at about the same time, but most Japanese work extreme amounts of overtime on a daily basis, often staying at the office until 9 or 10 PM.  In addition, many Japanese work six days a week.  This places workers themselves under extreme amounts of stress, but also damages families.

As a result of overwork, fathers spend little time with their children and wives.  The frequent absence of a father on a daily basis leads to dysfunction in other inter-familial relationships, as well.  Making matters worse is the fact that many men do not get paid overtime.  Unlike people who work extra hours in Western countries, Japanese are typically motivated not by desire to be successful or earn money, but simply to appear to be a "good employee" by going home late.

Suicide: Relatively well-known outside of Japan is the issue of suicide.  Japan has a very high rate of suicide, often within the top ten countries in the world, on a year-to-year basis.  Japan's view on suicide tends to be more flexible than Western countries, partially because in centuries past, it was viewed as an honorable way to atone for one's failures, particularly amongst samurai.  Suicide was also acceptable as more honorable than being captured, and most recently, is familiar from kamikaze tactics in World War II.

Almost three-quarters of suicides in Japan are male, and in recent years, suicide has particularly increased among people in their twenties and thirties.  The causes of suicide are closely linked to some of the other factors described here, particularly overwork and family breakdown.  In recent years, school bullying is increasingly a contributing factor to suicides in Japan, with schools and authorities able to do little about the problem with corporal punishment a taboo and teachers lacking any real power to enforce discipline or deal with troublesome students.

Hikikomori: A Japanese word meaning "one who withdraws," Hikikomori are mostly young men in their twenties or thirties who retreat from the outside world and isolate themselves, often for months or years at a time.

An issue that has received considerable attention overseas, the Hikikomori phenomenon encapsulates many of the issues afflicting Japanese society.  From childhood, conformity is urged - even mandated - so that children who do not fit in with the prevailing mindset and behavior patterns tend to be ostracized, both directly and indirectly.  Combined with other pressures such as the demand of cram schools attended in preparation for grueling university entrance and other extra-cirricular activities, this means that many Japanese are already burnt out by the time they reach college age.

The underlying cause of hikikomori behavior can be found in pressure to conform, and the crushing realization that one doesn't measure up and can't function in a merciless society.  On top of that, with so little to look forward to - such as punishing work hours, poor labor conditions, high cost of living, and others - is it any wonder that so many young men retreat from everyday life in such a manner?

Herbivore Men:  A closely related issue is the "herbivore man" phenomenon.  These are young men who eschew traditionally masculine pursuits, such as high-income jobs, conspicuous consumption, and status, in favor of a free-wheeling, relaxed lifestyle that avoids responsibility and conventional masculinity in favor of hobbies (and related careers) in areas such as fashion or hair styling.  If the traditional strong-willed Japanese salaryman was a "carnivore," then these young men, predominantly Millennial, are the opposite - hence, "herbivores."

The Herbivore movement is a reaction to the excess of Japan's bubble era, which ended in the early 1990s.  Though most herbivore men were only children at the time, this is when their fathers  established themselves.  Herbivore men resent the indifference of their absent fathers, who they perceive as insensitive and uncaring, and who prioritized work over relationships.  As a result, Herbivore men are more sensitive and emotionally balanced, but are often perceived as weak and feminine, something akin to twenty first century dandies rather than proper men.  Many women are physically unattracted to such men, compounding lack of marriages, the low birthrate, and related issues.

Materialism:  Japan remains an exceedingly materialistic country, far moreso than many Westerners realize.  Luxury imported goods - like BMW automobiles and Louis Vuitton purses - are crucial status symbols to many adult Japanese.  Although the younger generation is changing somewhat, money and high-paying jobs remain a priority for most Japanese.

The biggest difference in Japan compared to the US is that Japanese typically avoid credit card debt (many not owning or using credit cards at all) and have more disposable income by eschewing cars or living with their parents.  This is becoming increasingly common among young men, as well.

Atheism:  Although Japan is a nominally Buddhist/Shintoist society, in practice religion is nearly irrelevant to the majority of Japanese, who only observe religious ceremony at weddings, funerals, New Year's, and perhaps one or two other holidays through the year.  This is much akin to how most Americans are nominally Christian but rarely give much thought to faith outside of Christmas or Easter.

However, Japan's brand of atheism is much different from the belligerent variety frequently encountered in North America and Europe.  While Western atheism tends to be outright hostile toward religious belief,  Japanese are simply indifferent to most types of religious faith, seeing little need for it in their lives.  There is a measure of antipathy toward Japanese new religious movements, which tend to be cult-like groups closely associated with fanatical behavior, such as the Aum Shinrikyo cult responsible for a terrorist attack in Tokyo in 1995.  But established religions like Christianity and Judaism are rarely met with much hostility by Japanese.  The biggest challenge toward evangelism in Japan is simply getting Japanese to care.

Aging Population:  Japan is a rapidly aging country in which the number of deaths outpaces births.  Because Japan has very little immigration, this issue is more clearly seen than in the US or Europe, where an influx of immigrants masks the declining birthrate of the native population.  The result is that more and more resources are dedicated to the elderly.  Occupations such as nursing and caretaking are especially popular amongst young people in Japan, because with the aging population, employment is all but guaranteed.

Many of the aforementioned factors contribute to Japan's low birthrate.  Work conditions make it difficult to start a family, and the high cost of living - particularly in large urban areas like Tokyo or Osaka, where most jobs are found - makes it difficult to support a family.  Young couples are wary to start a family when one or both of the parents work nonstop, and it's becoming increasingly normal for women to not have children until their early or mid-thirties - far past peak fertility, further adding to the difficulty of starting a family. 


The aforementioned social factors would seem to paint a bleak picture for Japan's future.  But on the contrary, I think there's good reason to be optimistic about the future of Christian faith in Japan.   

First, many of the barriers to the Gospel have fallen away.  In previous decades, worries about family pressure and expectations were a major barrier to Christian faith, but today - when so many families are already fractured and many young people seem to act without much regard for their parents' expectations, anyway - there is an unprecedented opportunity for the Gospel to take hold.

Many Japanese, particularly young people, have an inferiority complex about their race and culture.  They've recognized the failure of the Showa-era ideal - extreme overwork, materialist indulgence, and familial detachment - but struggle to find an alternative, instead floating aimlessly through their twenties, discontent with all of the options available to them.

Never before has Japan been so open to the Gospel.  People have awoken to the problems with Japanese society, and they're ready to see the solution and healing that can only come through the saving power of Christ.  Christian families, in particular, have the most potential to make a positive impact in Japan.  By showing their neighbors a loving, Gospel-centered home and gracious relationships between husband and wife, parent and children, they can offer a hope that the aspirations of Japanese society have failed to achieve. 

On top of this, Japanese Christian families often tend to have far more children than normal families, which is crucial for a country with a declining birthrate; and more encouraging is (based on my admittedly anecdotal experience) a far greater proportion of children grow up and follow their parents' faith, rather than abandon it, as is common in the US.  Christians have the opportunity to completely rebuild the smoldering wreck of family in Japanese society.

On top of that, a good church community can offer fellowship and relationships that many people, especially those who are a little older, can't find anywhere else.  Japanese are much slower to make friends and welcome people into their in-group, and for many men, in particular, their workplace is the only place they can forge friendships.  Church communities offer a better way, and a place where people who have been rejected elsewhere in society can find a place where they'll be loved. 

There's still much to be done, but overall, the future for Christianity in Japan is brighter than you might think.