Conformity and Individuality09.14.11

Two Sundays a month I help with a small Japanese church in Gunma, and the other Sundays I attend a large international church (KBF) with my kids here in Tokyo.  The contrasts are pretty startling: the Japanese church usually has around 15 in attendance, and unless Tim is there, music is fairly nondescript. Programming is simple or nonexistent. The international church always has great music, and usually 2-300 people of all ages in attendance with programs ranging from Alpha to parenting  to human trafficking seminars. In the beginning I felt awkward going back and forth, startled by the disparity of human resources and possibilities. This year I’m feeling more at ease switching worlds and have begun to reflect about what I have to offer and what God offers me through each place.

Last year I team taught the middle school Sunday school at KBF; this year, I’m leading a week day bilingual Bible study, so I was looking for a low key way to connect . After worship I attended a fellowship group  to discuss the English sermon in Japanese, co-led by two Japanese women. I thought it would be a good opportunity to listen in on how Japanese respond to the content of a sermon neither my husband nor I had any stake in. It promised to be both culturally and linguistically intriguing.

It was both.  One take-home-and-enjoy-in-depth-later thought was how culturally conditioned our understanding of Scripture is. Romans 12:2 became a topic of conversation. Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God- what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect. What comes to your mind when you read this? What pressures to conform to this world do you feel, and what direction does the gospel tug you away from that?

Not so very long ago many Christians felt that going to movies and playing card games were evidence of conforming to the world. In some of our families, perhaps fashion, hair style, smoking, alcohol consumption or body piercing were included. A hot topic for many Japanese Christians is how to behave at a Buddhist funeral- whether to light incense for the deceased. (However, I haven’t heard many US Christians struggle with whether or not to lay flowers on the graves of those they love regardless of the deceased’s worldview.) What struck me afresh during this conversation was the intense pressure from Japanese culture and from within to act in a way which preserves harmony with those around. Of course I’ve known it is there and watched it at work. At times I’ve greatly benefited from it and received undeserved grace from others because of this cultural dynamic while at other times I’ve been cavalier about bucking the system when it feels constricting. If I were to look at the parallel dynamic in my own US culture, what would it be?

In the US most of us Christians believe we have the right to order our personal  and public lives as we wish so long as it is not expressly against God’s or the country’s laws. One could say we are under intense pressure from within and without to be individuals, to do whatever we want. But is this actually in line with Scripture? Scripture shows us a Jesus who did not please himself. Instead, while listening carefully to the Father, he acted for the good of those around him even when it was not personally fun or well received. It seems to me that both ends of the continuum- that represented by Japanese group culture on the one hand and US individual culture on the other- as well as our own motives need to be subjected to prayerful scrutiny.  Sometimes the pull of God against our own culture will require us to take action that FEELS awkward or wrong, but if honored will lead us towards being more like Jesus…who knew and lived  the will of God.


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Posted by Andrea Johnson under Uncategorized.

6 Responses to “Conformity and Individuality”

  1. Wow! Great questions. When I think of Jesus’ journey – life, I wonder if behavior is really the concern or are we emanating Light and Love in every moment? Are we dying before we die? Do we see beyond form and know that all form is not real, nor our thoughts and we let go and enjoy the very presence of God like Mary did in the sweet little Martha and Mary story. I’m wondering if when we rate our behavior, we’re just engaging ego? Perhaps to live beyond this world is to cease seeing it as separate and we relaxed into the arms of God in every single second of our lives. I consider the Christian mystics who moved beyond the identification with morality and good works and delved deeper and deeper into the Kingdom of God which is always right here, right now.

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    Posted by Julie on 12/13/09 September 15th, 2011 at 3:15 AMReply

    • “relax into the arms of God” is a wonderful phrase. The post was less on rating behavior than allowing ourselves to see how we are often shaped by forces we are unaware of, and this is true even if we are trying to intentionally walk with Jesus. Thanks for reading and responding.

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      Posted by Andrea Johnson on 12/13/09 September 15th, 2011 at 9:51 AMReply

  2. First. thank you for Ansgar, I have shared it widely. Second, congratulations on successfully completing so many tasks over the Summer.
    Your recent post, Conformity and Individuality got me thinking about personal and public. Last July my sister April was killed in a car accident – no explanation, nothing about it makes sense. She had become a Buddhist and the service for her included the burning of incense. I had never attended a Buddhist rite for the dead so had not though about what I might or might not do in advance. (I was also reeling emotionally). There was an opportunity to do something with incense and as I quickly considered it a smile came to my face and I decided not to. The smile was from my recalling that I was an ill-behaved child that liked to play with fire. (I set an entire field on fire once – fire trucks and everything)! April because she had more responsibility for her younger brother than she should have had endured my stunts more than anyone. So it occurred to me in the moment that approaching my sister’s body with a flame would not be okay. That was the personal and now for the public. All during the service I had the sense that some people were watching me and wondering. I am a professional religious person, a Presbyterian minister, how would I conduct myself at a Buddhist service? I suspect some of them might have seen my smile and lack of participation with the incense and concluded that I was being derisive and mocking not knowing I was having a personal, dare I say intimate moment of remembrance. O, the things that drive us to do and not do things.
    I hope you and yours are all well.

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    Posted by Leonard S on 12/13/09 September 19th, 2011 at 1:45 AMReply

    • I am so sorry to hear about your sister. Tim lost his older sister in a very similar situation two years ago, so can somewhat understand the depth and breadth of your loss. I can also appreciate the layers of complexity of your response at the funeral. Isn’t it wonderful that God understands it all.

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      Posted by Andrea Johnson on 12/13/09 September 19th, 2011 at 10:23 AMReply

  3. Freedom in Christ is what I experienced while growing up. My family always seemed to be going agains the flow! We lived in California, Alaska, and Virginia. The cultures were completely different. We tried to not be a stumbling block, tried to fit in as much as possible up to a point, and kept studying scripture and asking God to guide our steps and to guard our lips. We never had legalistic rules in our family. One high school classmate said to me 40 years after graduation, “I couldn’t figure out why you were nice to everybody!” I always thought of that verse about entertaining angels unaware (Hebrews 13.)

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    Posted by Bobbi on 12/13/09 September 21st, 2011 at 1:18 AMReply

    • Sounds like you grew up in a wonderful family. Mine wasn`t legalistic either for which I am very grateful. I doubt that my classmates thought I was always nice to everyone, however…sanctification is a long slow process, at least in my case.

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      Posted by Andrea Johnson on 12/13/09 September 21st, 2011 at 9:15 PMReply

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