Joy in Structure

From the 28th of June to the 10th of July, I was on a mission trip to Japan.

This mission trip was definitely a significant in my walk with God, and in my life in general. And from what the people over there that I met said, I feel/hope my visiting was encouraging and significant for them too. During this trip God taught me some life changing lessons, and encouraged me and worked through me in ways far beyond my expectations. And so when thinking about what I wanted to specifically write about in this blog, I had a hard time choosing!

However throughout my trip, and through all the stuff I did, there was one theme that stood out the most, and has continued to stand out to me since coming home. And this was the immense joy that the Japanese people seemed to have, and where this joy came from.

Now I understand that I probably got a more ‘rosy’ picture of Japanese life, as they all made an effort for the foreigner, and were all quite excited by my presence, however I have no doubt that this joy still isn't a big part of normal Japanese culture and life. I observed it in every place I went to.

I noticed it in the wonderful host family that I lived with (Though them all being Christians a chunk of their joy was definitely from the Lord), I noticed it in the two schools that I had the amazing pleasure to visit, I noticed it in the restaurants, in the tourist places, in the parks, on TV, in the people I chatted to and had lunch with, the other English classes I visited. There is just something about Japanese people and Japanese culture that ensues joy.

I have never seen such a constant happy, welcoming, loving, high-spirited setting.

And I think that one of the biggest reasons for this is the solid structure of Japanese life. One of the most fascinating things about Japan, is the structure to their culture and society, and the effects that this given structure has on day to day life. Japanese culture has a lot of rules and a lot of just general ‘we do this, we don’t do this’. From the outside looking in on Japan, it’s quite easy to see these rules, and I can tell you from now being there- these rules are true and are important there, and people really do follow them.

And that’s one thing already to notice- We as westerners we look upon such a structured society with all these rules- and we think either 1) ‘Wow that’s so boring and unnecessary that they have all those rules, how constricting and confining they must be!’ and/or 2) ‘Yeah I bet they don’t actually exist in the culture though, people must rebel and break them all the time. It’s probably only old, traditional people who stick to them.’

Here in western life, we’ve come to not take rules seriously, and pity them almost in how silly we think they are. Sometimes we have bouts where we think rules are good, and try and implement them more- but they always end up getting broken or rebelled against or forgotten about. Or people just come up with their own rules and place their identity in them, and then they end up conflicting with other people and their rules. And the result of all of this is in the end, just a hazy, grey culture where we never truly know what to do, or feel confident in what we do because we don’t know what rules (if any that we are trying to align with). We think our defiance against rules is setting us free, but it really isn’t.

We say that anyone can say what they like- all to have freedom of speech. And yet there are constant verbal wars being waged whenever someone expresses a particular political or religious or personal view. We tell each other we can say and do what we like, but really we can’t if the idea of freedom is where you can do things without the risk of persecution or pressure to change. Here, it’s cool to break the rules, and so we look down on such a rule-based society as the Japanese, but really on second thoughts I’m not sure what we’re bragging about in our lack of structure to follow.

Before going to Japan I researched their culture, and found that pretty much all travel advice for Japan included certain rules that are good to be aware of before you go. Rules such as bowing to people when you meet them, using more respectful versions of phrases such as ‘Thank you’, ‘Good morning’, ‘Good night’ etc. when talking to people you are meeting for the first time, or people who are older than you, resting your chopsticks in a specific way on the table (As some positions you can leave them in are thought to represent death) - the list goes on. All of them are quite small everyday rules that Japanese people probably don’t even notice that they do, but they all add up to give a good structure to their lives and their culture.

And I really think that this gives the Japanese people more opportunity for joy, because from this structured culture they know when and where they can have fun, and when they can’t. These little rules about respecting each other mean that everyone in the country feels more free to be themselves, as they know that they will be respected no matter what; the culture is built to protect everyone in that sense.

I had many conversations about this with people I met in Japan, and particularly delve into this subject when chatting with my host mum and the deputy head of the junior school I visited when there. The deputy wanted to know what difference between English and Japanese schools I had observed, and one of the first things that came to mind was how the teachers acted. Both times I visited Japanese schools, I noticed that the teachers always had such a good relationship with the students. They seemed to be so themselves and at home in their role, and were so caring to the students and always up for a laugh with them. And when I said this, both Machiko (my host mum) and the deputy head said that it was because the teachers knew that they were respected by the children no matter what, and so they could quite happily afford to be themselves and be more friendly with the students.

The students would still shout out in class and be funny like any school here in England, but at the start of each hour they would all stand to greet the teacher, and bow to them as they came into the classroom. And the teachers knew that whenever they needed, could also use the authority they knew they had over the class.

All this has made me think about the guidance and rules that Jesus gave us that we read about in the Bible.

It’s getting a lot harder to be a Christian in our western world now, because we are people who believe that there is a certain way to live, and that there are things that we should or shouldn't do, and this goes against the direction of flow that our societies have taken, as I mentioned before. Rules are apparently no longer the done thing. But the Bible values guidelines. God gave Moses the law as a gift, so that we could have ways to enter his presence and spend time with him. And then when Jesus came he fulfilled these, and gave us new guidelines such as the greatest commandment in Matthew 22:34-39.

Sometimes, we do get wrapped up in ‘religion’ and all the extra unnecessary and unhelpful things that we tie up into our relationship with God, and this can become hurtful and make us always feel like we are not good enough. And this is exactly against what Jesus teaches us- he teaches us that we are loved and perfect in his eyes- but this doesn’t all mean that rules are therefore bad. Often rules can help us to feel more free, because we can feel more safe and yet more creative when we know where the lines are drawn. Rules help us understand where our place is, which is something we’re constantly trying to find and always longing for.

It’s like with games- when you’re joining in with a game (be it sports or board games etc.) one of the first questions you ask is ‘What are the rules?’ You ask that because you know that in order for you to enjoy the game, you need to know how to play is properly.

We as humans need structure in order to thrive.

After living in Japan and being surrounded in its structured culture for ten days and feeling the joy that seems to be readily available there, I can’t help but wonder what difference it could make for us if we really let certain teachings in the bible become part of our lives, our cultures, so that they are second nature to us. Because God created us, and he has created us to need structure to thrive- he has given us this guidance through the law, through Jesus’ teachings, and through the Holy Spirit inside of us so that we can make the most of the game of life and build upwards from the strong structure they provide.

If we did really love everyone as our neighbour, how much more joy would that fill us with, and how much easier would it be too, if we knew that that was part of our duty to do so, so we all just did?

People who have an organised routine are often happier because they actually get their jobs done, and so rarely spend precious time worrying about them or feeling behind on them. I have noticed that this year in particular, when I have had time periods where I’ve established a routine, I have been much more cheerful as I was getting all my work done on time, and knew clearly when I had time to relax and made the most of resting. Whereas times that I haven’t had a routine to protect my organization, I have constantly felt flustered and unsure of what I was doing.

But we are always trying to say that we don’t need rules and structure here in western life, and we refuse to think that they can be good for us. We thinks of rules as something we have to serve and become slaves too, rather than things that serve us in order to have an easier, fuller life, which I believe is more on the side that the Japanese society lands on. All of their many little rules about how to relate to others, and how to be respectful to other people and the environment around you etc. are rules that at the end of the day, serve their culture to make it a much more respectful and polite and ordered way of life, that reduces the chance or hurt and chaos, which in turn leaves more room for joy.

August is generally the hazy month that rolls past us. It’s the month where rules go out the window as the routines that school and work gives us disappear. So with these thoughts on what a structured way of life can do for your relationship with God and your joy levels, I want to challenge you all to spend some time reading over the guidance that God gives us on how to live in the bible, and think and pray about what elements of these that you could integrate into your life, through a few small rules, that you could use to serve you in having an easier, happier life that lines closer up with God. What small changes and rules could you incorporate in order to leave more room for God, and less room for hurt, chaos, disorganisation, uncertainty etc.?

It can be a challenge for our western minds to learn that rules don’t always mean something bad or confining, but that they can be used to actually set us free from a lot of things, and allow us to even be more ourselves, like the teachers in the Japanese schools.

So this August, it is my prayer that our church can be a church that follows God’s rules, and that each person is set free through doing this, and receives God’s joy in all of its fullness.

Alex Chesters.

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