Friday, May 28, 2010

The Swordmaker (Part Four)

"Don't become a sword maker if you want to make money." In a world obsessed with accumulating wealth, these words struck a chord, a big chord. Why would anyone devote themselves to something so impractical and outdated? It's not like we have to cut off someones head or go into battle. The samurai is dead and gone. Pragmatism rules.

Kobayashi sensei defies this shallow utilitarian way of looking at life. He continually makes swords, about two to three each year. Why does he do it? If there is one simple reason, it could be this: He loves it. He loves the art of producing something so rare and perfect in a world of cheap imitations and plastic trinkets; he loves the way of the warrior in a time when people just admire but fail to live it; he loves the process of turning nothing into something; he loves the tradition and skill passed down to him from his ancestors; he loves being a sword maker and could care less about selling his soul for a more lucrative way of life. There may be other reasons, but these are a few that come to mind.

What about the Christian? Are we not outdated? Turning the other cheek, tithing your money, going to church, believing in truth, believing in God, believing in the Bible as the Word of God, purging your life of bad character (detoxing), and walking in love, humility, mercy, kindness, generosity, and patience; are we not foolish to live in such a way? "Hey, if you don't fight for your rights, then you will get stepped on! I don't have time for all that mercy stuff. Why are you giving money away when you can invest it into stocks? You read the Bible?"

Yet people still admire sacrificial love. Take for instance, Mother Theresa, she was loved and respected by all. Why? She lived the life. She was the message. You could say she was a sword of truth that cut through all the lies and coldness of our society. People may have thought, "Wow, there is still goodness in our world."

When people look at Kobayashi sensei's craft, they admire his work. They stand in awe when they look at the beauty and symmetry of his samurai swords. They see him in his swords.

I'm not saying this will happen with everyone (people liking you when you walk like Christ), people will hate you and Christianity despite whatever you do. However, when we become the message of Christ, rather than just talk about it, some of the world will take notice (1 Cor 9:22). I say some because Jesus said, "If they hated me they will hate you." There will be people that will hate you no matter what you do. That's okay. We still need to be light in the midst of darkness (Matthew 5:16). We need to let the light shine out of the sword of our lives. Some will turn and be saved.

Like Kobayashi sensei, God is a master sword maker. He could care less about the world's value system. He will continue to fashion us into his beautiful workmanship in the fiery furnaces of this life (Ephesians 2:20). Creation longs for the arrival of the true sons and daughters of God (Romans 8:19). They long to see something special. They want to see the sword of the Spirit (Ephesian 6:17) in person. They want to see us become the sword.

"And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulation, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character, and proven character, hope."
Romans 5:3-4

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Swordmaker (Part Three)

"I enjoy every part of the process" said a focused Kobayashi Sensei. My mind was fuzzy after stuffing my face with so much sushi, takenoko, cakes, and fruit, but I was determined to pepper him with questions about the amazing art of sword making. So I asked him what step in the twenty step process he enjoyed the most and he gave me the above answer.

He went on to say, "If you don't enjoy all the steps you cannot produce a top quality samurai sword." I sat there in the haze between wanting to take a nice siesta and wanting to listen to Sensei Kobayashi. I was fighting to stay awake because the man was releasing some awesome wisdom and I needed to hear this. Then like a fresh gust of wind, my mind started to clear up. The two o'clock sleepy period passed on and my mind started to kick into gear and pen started to write. "Thank you God for digestion and adrenaline."

As he talked, I could not help but see the clear parallels between what Sensei Kobayashi does with a rough slag of iron ore (tama-hagane) with what God does with the rough slag of our character. They are one and the same.

The sword making process begins with making a tatara (clay furnace) and collecting sandy iron ore from the mountains. Charcoal is also produced from the hard wood trees found in the same vicinity. I thought, "These guys are intense. They make their own charcoal? Wow!" The iron sand is then shoveled into the furnace until a block of rough iron forms on the bottom. They call this rough, impure piece of metal tama hagane. It actually looks like black, hardened lava from the Big Island, but much heavier. This is what they work with to produce a sword of amazing beauty, symmetry , and strength--the best in the world.

They then heat the furnace to about 750 degrees centigrade to burn out impurities and to produce the right carbon to steel ratio. Too little carbon and the metal will be soft, too much and the metal becomes brittle. They use no thermometer, only their eyes and experience to find the right level of heat.

They then fold the heated metal fourteen times which then produces 16,000 layers. How does this happen? I do not know. They heat, fold, hammer, reheat, fold, hammer, reheat until all the impurities are removed. It's an intense process that requires great stamina, strength, patience, and extreme precision from the sword maker. I was in awe.

When he told me he enjoyed every step, even the heating of the furnace, I immediately connected it to God's attitude towards us. He enjoys shaping our character, not in a sadistic way, but with the joy of a sword maker who can see the finished product. God beats and folds in order to produce a sword of pristine beauty. That's what we are to him. He enjoys all the steps in our character development because he loves what it produces in us; he loves looking at a shiny sword. 1 Corinthians 13 states that love (God) bears all things, believes all things, and hopes all things. He never gives up on us. He who began a good work in us will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6).

We might as well have the same attitude as God and consider it all joy when we go through the furnace of trial and tribulation (James 1:2-4). God wants to beat out fear, shame, anger, lust, impatience, and all other character impurities so that we become a signature of his exquisite workmanship (Ephesians 2:10). He wants to change us from rough tama-hagane into a polished katana.

As I sat in the sword museum in Izumo with the rest of the hobbits and Sensei Kobayashi, I gave up a silent prayer of thanksgiving to our great God in heaven. I thanked him for allowing me to come to Japan, my birthplace, to hear these words of wisdom at this juncture in my life. I thanked him for Dean and the rest of the awesome team of servant leaders (everyone) at Unified... and LMI. I thanked him for all our wonderful Christian friends in Japan. I thanked him for enjoying every step of my sword making process. The heat and pounding feels good now. I can see his purposes. We can all rest in his goodness.

The Lord your God is in your midst,
A victorious warrior
He will exult over you with joy
He will be quiet in his love,
He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.
(Zephaniah 3:17)

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Swordmaker (Part Two)

Can a day be filled with so many messages from God that to try to process them in one sitting would be like trying to catch cherry blossoms swirling in the wind? Our Thursday with Sensei Kobayashi was one of those times. Like these delicate spring flowers, one should just experience them first before catching the fluttering petals in your cupped hands. I listened. I savored. I jotted down for future reference. Now it was time to write about the petals.

I woke up at 5:30 AM after going to sleep at 12:00 AM. The valley mountains blocked out some of the sunshine so the room remained darkened a little longer--not for too long though. Everyone soon got up and we all decided to head to the onsen. I usually take a bath in the evening (which we did), but when do you get to stay in a ryokan and bathe alongside Japanese cypress trees with birds chirping their morning song and farmers tending their gardens? Hey, we were one with the rhythm of nature. "Ooooooooooommmmmm."

We entered the baths, sat on on our wooden stools, and washed our bodies yet again before going outside into the rotenburo (outdoor onsen). Paul, Roger, Dean and myself sat completely naked--except for the small bath towels on our head--and soaked in the steaming hot water. We talked and rested in the country atmosphere, complete with newly planted rice fields, weathered tiled roofs, ginko trees, and a fence that needed a few more pieces of wood; if you know what I mean. Did we care? Not really. We were four hobbits enjoying ourselves on the road of life. What did we need to hide? Birthday suit transparency was the order of the day. We created a 'hobbitation' of holiness in that habitation of rest.

Bilbo Baggins favorite bath song
Sing hey! for the bath at close of day
that washes the weary mud away!
A loon is he that will not sing:
O! Water Hot is a noble thing!

O! sweet is the sound of the falling rain,
and the brook that leaps from hill to plain;
but better than rain or rippling streams
is Water Hot that smokes and steams...
(Lord of the Rings, Pg. 115)

I soon felt my next generations boiling away so I quickly got out of the water and headed for the lobby to spend some quiet time with God. "Hey, that water was 'atsui' (hot)." The lobby overlooked a picturesque valley painted with varied shades of green. It was a beautiful spot to pray.

God highlighted a lot of verses, but one stood out from the rest, Psalm 115:13-15, "He will bless those who fear the Lord, The small together with the great. May the Lord give you increase, You and your children. May you be blessed of the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth." It was right after this quiet time that I got word from Jan that our second adoption went through. God was telling me he would give me increase. Little did I know that it would begin that morning.

In the mean time Jan was trying to reach me for two days, but our Ryokan did not have wifi and my phone did not work in Izumo; let alone Japan. Paul graciously let me use his phone card for a few minutes and that's when I found out. When I received word about Zoe, I went numb for a few minutes. I couldn't believe it. The timing of God was perfect. We were picking up the sword that day and then this bit of extraordinary news. "Omedetai!!!!! (good news)" The guys all hugged and congratulated me. It was a day of new beginnings for all of us.

After an amazing breakfast, Sensei Kobayashi met us in the lobby of the Ryokan and led us to his home. When I think about the Japan I truly love, my heart turns toward the rustic, beauty of places like Izumo. The air is cleaner, food tastier, water purer, pace slower, and environment serener. I lived for one and a half years in Shizuoka, Japan amidst vegetable gardens and rice fields. Izumo had the same feel. I love Tokyo and Osaka too, it has it's own charm, but the exquisite nuances of Japan's natural beauty can only be found in places outside the big cities.

As we stepped through the genkan (foyer) and into the house, we were greeted with individual table settings of cakes and tea. Mr. and Mrs. Kobayashi were extremely generous and warm hosts. They served us tea, fruit, cakes, local vegetables, a healthy dose of Japanese history, and sushi--yes, sushi! He even gave all of us a little pairing knife made from carbon steel with his initials on it. I was in samurai heaven.

As I shared earlier, Sensei Kobayashi is a real character. In between playful banter, he would throw out petals of wisdom that I quickly wrote into my Moleskine notebook. One such word was this: "I am not decisive. I'm simple."

Simplicity has taken a bad wrap during these days of efficiency and gross consumerism. As I looked around Kobayashi sensei's tatami room, I saw simplicity. There was no TV, radio, overstuffed book shelves, and piles of newspaper. There was a tatami mat floor, two swords on their stands, some certificates on the wall, a shelf with a few antiques, a painting, and shoji doors. He has pared down his material life to focus on one thing: the forging of the best swords in Japan. Japan has designated him a national treasure and the title of best sword maker in the country. Can you believe we sat down with the best of the best? Wow!

I personally need to simplify in order to focus on my number one calling: knowing God and making him known. In order to be decisively obedient, I must simplify more! I must let go of my penchant for material goods and creature comforts, especially good food. Ouch! If God calls me to up and go, I must go! I can't have the things of this world holding me back. Sensei Kobayashi has become the best because he has chosen to simplify. I must do the same. We must do the same.

I will write more tomorrow. I need to simplify and spend some time with my little Aimee. I love you folks.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Swordmaker (Part One)

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I cannot eat another roll of sushi at this time. I don't care if it's toro (tuna belly). I feel like a beluga whale after swallowing a whole school of krill in the icy cold waters of Greenland (I've been watching Animal Planet). Whatever the case, my stomach experienced the gastronomical wonders of Japan in just five days-yes, five days. We had Wagyu beef, matsutake mushrooms, tempura, unagi. ramen, pork miso soup, pork tonkatsu, various pickled vegetables, the whole pantheon of sushi, fresh sashimi, seasonal fruits, good green tea, Kyoto tofu, prosciutto ham/onion salad, coffee jelly, and we simmered our overstuffed bodies in an onsen--thrice for good measure. We were even massaged like Wagyu beef (Arita, the masseur, had to work extra hard on my tough flank steak body). Our Japanese hosts gave new meaning to the word hospitality. I was blown away. Thank you Tetsuro, Ron, Machiko, Izumi, Kent, and Deni for a 'sugoi' (awesome) time. My taste buds, stomach, body, and spirit will never be the same!

The 'nabes' (Japanese cooking pot) of our bodies have taken a more rounder and more corpulent appearance, but that's okay. My muffin top has turned into a pao duce (Portuguese sweet bread) and I really don't care what people think. We came. We saw. We ate. We ate. We ate. We prayed. We fellowshipped. We got the sword! I don't know if we conquered anything. I do know we were on an amazing journey with God in the mountains of Shimane prefecture and neon lit streets of Tokyo and it's still continuing! We are all on an amazing journey of God's grace and love. He may have conquered something in the spiritual realm over Japan, but all we did was obey. We must leave the results to our Papa in heaven. I like it that way.

Sometimes I personally feel we put God in a box when we prematurely elevate spiritually significant events to penultimate status. This may be just 'one' of the many things God does through his people to usher revival into Japan. It may be 'the thing'. I personally feel it was very, very important. How important? I do not know. Again, I will leave the fruit and results in God's hands. I will not try to second guess God and play God (a past time I used to participate in with great flourish). Whatever the case, I will eat oatmeal and orange slices for breakfast in the days to come. I will have stomach bricks someday, somewhere, somehow--there's a place for us.... (I had to throw the West Side Story theme song into the sentence). It fit. There is a place for muffin tops with bricks in this world. Alas, they cancel each other out. I will settle for one brick then.

After spending a night at the Ryokan (Japanese Inn), we met Sensei Kobayashi. He was a man of sleight build, sharpness of eye, and rascally disposition. You would think that his samurai heritage would predispose him toward seriousness and stoicism. No way! The guy kept cracking jokes, giving historical lectures, teasing his poor wife, telling the interpreter that she talked too much (as she interpreted for him), and stopping the serving of food (with a smile) because it interrupted his train of thought. The guy was a character. He was also very deep.

In between his playful banter he interjected healthy doses of his sword making philosophy. He honestly blew me away. He blew us all away. I asked, "What step in the twenty step process does he enjoy the most?" His reply, "I like them all. You can't make a sword of any quality if you don't enjoy the whole process." He also said, " I never dwell on negative thoughts as I make the sword. I am always hopeful!" Doesn't God treat us in the same way? "He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things", when it comes to our growth in Christ-like love. He never loses hope in us. He enjoys the whole process. He even sings and rejoices over us (Zephaniah 3:17) with shouts of joy. The day was filled with these deep philosophical sayings mixed in with the blunt playfulness of this twentieth century samurai. I will never forget that time. I will never forget Sensei Kobayashi.

As I watched Pastor Dean hold his sword and pray, I saw the deep love of God for His son. God has this man on an amazing adventure of grace and mercy. We all know his background and how far he has come and grown in the Lord. How did this happen? Could it be his Kalihi childhood filled with roosters crowing at 12:00 PM in the afternoon? No. Could it be that God especially likes rascal, perpetually smiling guys (maybe he does)? No. Could it be that there is a special anointing that has come upon him because of all the toro sashimi he has eaten? No. Then what is the answer? He hears and obeys. Let me repeat this to those who have poi (taro) in their ears. He hears and obeys. Do likewise and you will experience the same. It's pretty simple, yet pretty difficult for us distractable types that revel in making things more complicated that it should be.

I will write more in the days to come. I am beat. I went straight to my cousins wedding from the airport and forgot which auntie goes with what uncle and which second cousin got divorced from which guy from Kahului. I was zoning out--maybe more like 'zombieing out'. Experiences seem to wash out into the fuzzy borders of our overly caffeinated minds when sleep deprived. I love you folks. We had a great time. Thank you for praying for us. It's good to be back home!