I just returned from a trip to Japan, along with 3 fellow professional counselors. The purpose was to encourage relief workers and educate ministers, relief workers and volunteers on the emotional sequelae of trauma and loss, in light of the earthquake and tsunami earlier this year. No less of a purpose was to observe, learn and be challenged ourselves. I’ll post a few reflections on the trip… in random order… in other words not chronologically nor in order of significance.
This first post is about the Japanese onsen, or public baths. I had never been to anything quite like them but, during our time in Sendai, went the first night along with my hosts… and I was immediately “converted” to the baths. We went every night, after a long day of visiting victims of the tsunami further north, as we wound down before bed time. One of my fellow American travelers joined us on the last night, at my urging.
For someone who believes, psychologically, in healthy self-care, and, theologically, in practicing Sabbath, the baths are just awesome. You lounge in warm pools, cold pools, inside pools, outside pools, wet sauna rooms, “dry” steam room, you cool off laying under the stars on a wood platform. You might visit with friends while soaking, or quietly meditate… even snooze. I’ve found few things as therapeutic and renewing.
Oh, and everyone is… naked. Don’t worry, the men and women have totally separate areas. My new friend Joel, a missionary in Mito who leads relief efforts from there, describes the onsen as the “naked fellowship”. In our homophobic society, it’s hard to imagine the onsen becoming very popular… can’t quite picture one in Abilene, Texas! But I really appreciated even that aspect of the Japanese baths.
Community matters to me… it matters a lot. You might say I’m constantly on a quest for healthy, spiritual community. I’ve had glimpses of it, and it’s truly what Jesus said it was:
True, healthy, spiritual fellowship is a taste of God’s reign. It IS a treasure. I’ve known it here and there with small bands of brothers; I’ve tasted it in small groups, most of all our Boston house church the couple years before we moved away; I still treasure it with close Christian friends scattered across the globe. I can’t say I’ve found it in the institutional church much, though.
Anyway, back to the baths… I didn’t make any new close friends at the baths. I didn’t walk up… naked!… to a bunch of strangers… also naked!… and get all chummy, in large part because no one spoke English. But, it DID feel like a community. When you think about it, a lot of our pretenses and barriers are wrapped up in the masks we wear: our education, our job position, our income, our appearance, the clothes we wear, the jewelry adorning us…. in other words by how big a fish we are in our own ponds. When you’re naked… well, all that’s gone. You simply can can’t tell if someone’s rich or poor, smart or dumb, illiterate or educated, if they buy their clothes on Rodeo Drive or at WalMart, etc… In fact, when you’re naked, at least to me, it really doesn’t make a big difference if you’re skinny, fat or in between, tall, short or in the middle… we all look… well, the same! Trust me, the differences between a bunch of naked men are… mmmh, how shall I put it… pretty minute… … Besides, it’s good for us to overcome our insecurities, even our shame, surrounding our bodies; think of it as getting back to Eden before the Fall!
I’m sure someone could tell about some Old Testament passage about “uncovering one’s nakedness” being not so kosher and all. But, to me, from a community perspective, the baths were theologically very right. I’m not saying we should all become nudists, but I do think our fellowship could use a little more “nakedness”. That’s what confession is all about: acknowledging our sinfulness to each other and before each other (and God), stripping away all the pretenses and veneers that separate us to find mutual support, encouragement, exhortation surrounding the very thing that unites us all: our desperate need for acceptance and forgiveness, for charity and mercy, our need to truly be known, as we are. Richard Foster reminds us (in Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth) that confession is one of the corporate spiritual disciplines of Christians, as James, the brother of our Lord, wrote so many years ago:
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.
OK, I’m sure growing up in France has something to do with being comfortable with nudity… ever been to St. Tropez?… but this was for me a genuinely spiritual moment…. really! After all, water + “nakedness”… ring a bell?
People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
LESSON #1 from Japan: let’s get naked… spiritually, that is.