People on the Way
Hints for walking the Way of Christ with Japanese friends
Walking feeds the soul. In the first summer of COVID-19, my husband, Keith, and I rediscovered our passion for hiking. With many of our usual activities on indefinite hold, we turned to Hokkaido’s vast wilderness areas for emotional and spiritual nourishment. God met us as we walked, talked, and enjoyed his creation.
On these expeditions, we also met friendly hikers eager to share their love of mountains with fellow travelers. I enjoyed this sense of community and camaraderie while marveling at their intensity and expensive gear—Japanese hikers’ passion seemed to be on an entirely different level than those in my home country. What is it about Japan, I asked myself, that produces this kind of single-minded devotion?
The Japanese language expresses this ethos with the character 道 (dō), meaning “way”: walking as a metaphor for a way of life. One might walk the way of tea (chadō), swordsmanship (kendō), flowers (kadō), calligraphy (shodō), or any number of disciplines that we in the West would call hobbies. With the ethos of dō, however, the line between professional and amateur seems fuzzier than I am accustomed to, and the purpose loftier than killing time or being refreshed.1 Rather than casual interests pursued on the side, these so-called hobbies provide a sense of identity and meaning.
The spirit of dō permeates other passions and pursuits without dō in their names. In addition to tea ceremony, I would include hiking2 and music as dō that I walk. Today I am writing at my favorite neighborhood spot, Tokumitsu Coffee. Despite its location in an insignificant suburb of Sapporo, the coffee here is the best I’ve ever tasted. Every time I come, I thank God for Mr. Tokumitsu’s single-minded pursuit of coffee-dō.
Walking on the way
What does dō walking look like? The following conversations and others have shaped my understanding of dō while giving me a window into the hearts of my friends.
In conversation with my tea ceremony class—as we enjoyed tea and sweets, beautiful utensils, friendship, and a cozy charcoal fire—our teacher burst out in gratitude. “We are so lucky! Not many people understand how beautiful this is, but they are missing out! We are so blessed to know the value of tea ceremony!”
In conversation with a gifted amateur musician, I put out feelers to see if she might help me with concerts for overworked and burned-out people.
“Your job is stressful, right?” I ventured. “Does music help you recover?”
She shook her head. “You’ve got it backwards. Rather than music supporting my job, I work to support my music activities. Music is what I live for.”
In conversation with fellow performers at a post-concert party, I was asked, as a professional musician, what I thought about this band of amateur Baroque music enthusiasts. I answered that they seemed to be having fun, and that I was surprised and inspired by their skill and passion.
In response, the harpsichordist explained: “Why do we Japanese take our hobbies so seriously? It’s because we are searching for a ‘way,’ and once we have found it, we stick to it tenaciously.”
What is dō? It is a calling, pursued with discipline, curiosity, and passion. It is deeply communal—teachers and disciples, friends and rivals, walking together and spurring one another on to excellence and growth. It is the way we make sense of our lives—finding meaning and a place to belong. It is life lived together for a common purpose. This all sounds very spiritual because it is.
I am the way
The Bible also uses walking as a metaphor. “I am the Way,” said Jesus (John 14:6). Luke used the term “The Way” to refer to the early church in Acts.3 The Gospel records of Jesus’s travels4 around Galilee and journey to Jerusalem embraced both the physical and spiritual aspects of walking as Jesus lived life with his disciples on the road and set his face towards the cross.
What if Japanese are looking for a “way”—a dō—not a religion? Kirisuto-dō (the way of Christ) rather than Kirisuto-kyō (the teachings of Christ)? An everyday, heart-soul-mind-strength, communal way of walking through life? My friend said, “We Japanese are searching for a ‘way’ and once we have found it, we stick to it tenaciously.” But not just any “way” will do. The direction, the traveling companions, and the destination all matter. There is only one way of Christ; the lesser ways that each of us walk may end as meaningless diversions, but when we choose to walk in step with Jesus, these dō will display God’s glory through the diversity of his image-bearing human children.
There is only one Way, but there are many ways to walk in it. God has blessed us with a vast array of spiritual gifts, talents, personalities, physical attributes, interests, and passions; these all influence how each of us walks the multifaceted Way of Christ.
How, then, do we guide our Japanese friends onto the Way of Christ? How do we show them the beauty of this one Way? We walk with them. We join them in the dō they are already walking, delve deep, listen well, find places in which their dō reflects God’s character, and build spiritual bridges that link their dō to the Way of Christ, trusting that God will grant us wisdom to become good traveling companions.
Walking in community
What might this look like in practice? Each person walks differently according to their gifts and interests, and each will find different spiritual bridges, but I offer this glimpse of my own walk.
Mountains were my inheritance as a child of Seattle, and I discovered my calling to play cello at a young age. After I arrived in Japan, tea ceremony became God’s gift to me and my gift to others. My calling and identity as a missionary are deeply intertwined with each of these disciplines, and they give me a unique language of worship and evangelism as I interact with communities of both Christians and not-yet Christians.
While hiking, conversations about the beauty of creation lead to praise of the Creator. Concerts of sacred music declare God’s glory; sacred concerts of wordless music make space to reflect, unburden, and heal. With friends in my tea room, I express the gospel through the rich symbolic language of tea ceremony. All of these interactions take place in the context of being in community and living life together day to day. I show my companions that my ultimate purpose is not excellence or belonging, important as these are; rather, I walk my dō in the service of Christ and for his glory. Jesus is my traveling companion and my goal.
To help us grow as traveling companions for our Japanese friends, here are some questions for reflection:
- How has God gifted you? How is he calling you to walk?
- How does God meet you as you walk this dō? What is it about your dō that is good and beautiful? How does it display God’s character and gifts?
- How can you serve God and others as you walk this dō?
- What common points (spiritual bridges) can you find between this dō and the Way of Christ, and how can you communicate these with your friends?
I have discovered that if I cannot answer these questions about how I walk—if I join a certain dō only to make contacts rather than embracing it as a God-honoring way of life and an expression of worship—then my relationships will be shallow and my motives exposed. What’s more, I will find no spiritual bridges by which to guide my friends onto the Way of Christ. I must be prepared to walk with diligence and respect.
While hiking in Daisetsuzan National Park, Keith noticed a cross-shaped signpost off in the distance, and insisted that I photograph him walking towards it. Seeing the photo, one of my hiking buddies commented, “What mysterious scenery! What could be waiting at the end of the road?”
He couldn’t see the cross, I lamented.
For those of us who walk the Way of Christ, we know where we are going—this is the Way that leads to life—and we know the One who walks with us. Without him, we go nowhere. If only all Japan would join us on the Way of Christ! “Once we find the Way, we stick to it tenaciously.” How beautiful that would be!
1. My tea ceremony teacher likes to remind me that tea classes are not play but training (shugyō).
2. Unfortunately, 登山道 (tozandō) means “trail,” not “Way of Mountain Climbing” as I would prefer it to mean.
3. See Acts 9:2, 19:9, 19:23, 22:4, 24:14, 24:22; the Shinkaiyaku 2017 translation uses the term “この道” (kono michi). See also Acts 16:17 (way of salvation), 18:25 (way of the Lord), 18:26 (way of God).
4. Jesus climbed mountains to be alone with his Father. The hiker in me wants to know which mountains, how tall, and if one can still climb them today.