Japanese Tables: Pursuing A Mysterious God

Photo by Manuel Cosentino on Unsplash

There’s a furniture shop where they make handcrafted tables using traditional Japanese joinery (unfortunately, it was featured in a video I watch a long time ago, and I was unable to track down the name). They don’t use any modern screws or nails or anything like that. They just use perfectly fitted joints in such a way that the table is solid. They also use traditional Japanese tools in the building process. No power tools or special technology; everything is done by hand. Each piece of furniture is a labor of love and art — an expression of a lifetime of passion and focus.

As my dad would say, people who devote their lives to something see things that other people don’t. For example: a baseball pitcher.

Seeing the Unseen

When a pitcher is standing on the mound looking off toward home base, he doesn’t just see the relatively simple task of lobbing a ball from the pitcher’s mound to the catcher. Technically, that’s all that pitching is — just get the ball from point A to point B — but professional pitchers see all kinds of things that average folks don’t. They take into account the wind, the stance of the batter, the positioning of the catcher, the placement of their fingers on the ball, their own body and what their legs do, etc. They sense, and account for in some way, variables that the average person doesn’t even think about let alone know how to interpret.

In a similar way, the Japanese joiners see things that the average person literally can’t see. They can feel imperfections where others perceive nothing — unevenness, roughness, imbalance. They foresee problems that haven’t happened yet because of minute details, or they understand when something is perfect and needs no further adjustment. In ways that may seem mysterious or mystical to others, they, out of habit and practice, commune with the materials. Their mastery is evident in the finished work because they have devoted themselves to a lifetime of focus and passion.

This is true, I think, of all professions or hobbies or anything to which a person devotes oneself. Consider doctors who see things and understand things that the average person doesn’t even know exist. Consider athletes who understand their own movements and their equipment; they feel the rotation of the ball, see it in the air, how it’s going to impact the ground, and what direction it’s going to move afterward. Consider grapplers who feel their body and are aware of their adversary, or consider chess players who see the moves that are coming before they’ve even been made.

Choosing Passions

This got me thinking about my own life. I began to wonder if there was anything that I cared about enough to see it differently. Is there anything that, when I’m older, I’ll look back on and say, “I see this in ways that the average person doesn’t?” Is there anything that I even want to see differently? I decided that there is.

I’ve decided that I want to see God like that. When I think about God, look for God, pray to God, worship God, read scripture and dwell with God — in everything that I do, I want to see things that the average person doesn’t see. I want to have invested myself with such passion and focus for a lifetime that I don’t see with the eyes of an average person.

In the same way that the Japanese joiner understands the wood and tools of the trade, people who devote themselves to the pursuit of God and wisdom perceive the world differently. They see things that other people can’t see. They feel the movement of God and life and perceive the flow of events through wisdom that other people don’t feel. It’s not because they have access to something special or because they’re necessarily gifted in any way. It’s simply because they have devoted themselves to a lifetime of passion and focus.

I want to be one of those people.

Isn’t That What All Christians Do?

You might be thinking to yourself that lots of people have devoted their lives to seeking God. I submit to you that it’s actually far fewer than you might think. I think most people, most Christians, devote themselves to reading scripture or maybe even learning about scripture, but I think very few people really devote themselves to seeking God.

When I talk with American Christians about “seeking God,” they often talk only about reading the Bible. Sometimes they include things like praying or meditating, but even then, they rarely have a developed understanding of prayer or meditation. Prayer often means simply telling God how we feel and asking God for things, while meditation often means only sitting quietly and thinking. Worship, similarly, is often reduced to singing. In almost every way, many American Christians reduce “seeking God” to superficially engaged tasks.

Sometimes, going through the motions is all I can manage, as well. Sometimes, it’s all I can do just to say something got done, but that’s not the goal. I do think Christians are called to a life of pursuing God. I think all people are, because I believe that God is close to creation and desires after all creation. I believe that Christians are called to dig deeper, and I want to do just that.

Digging Deeper

We often take for granted that if we do the basic things then we will, by the end of our lives, be extremely enlightened, wise individuals. We often take for granted that if we pray everyday and read scripture everyday then we will walk in the power of the Holy Spirit — we will have such insight into the world and into God that people would be foolish not to listen to us. That’s like saying that if I go in my backyard and I cut wood everyday with a hand saw then I will become a master joiner. It’s like saying that if I play catch with my friend every day then I will become a master pitcher. It’s like saying that if I simply play chess everyday I will become a master level chess player.

Mastery of anything simply doesn’t work that way. The people who are considered masters in their field or at any task are not the people who simply do the task daily. While that is certainly part of it, they go beyond simple, daily practice. They devote themselves to seeing what is difficult to see.

Master joiners don’t just build furniture. They examine everything they do. They study their mentors, and they critique everything. Their experience leads to understanding, because their actions are mindful rather than mindless. They attend to their craft with reverence; the process itself reveals mysteries that others ignore.

In the same way, pursuing God is more than just Bible study, more than just saying words in prayer, and more than just singing words of worship. Scripture invites us into a dynamic and introspective communion with the living and active Word of God. We’re invited to a relational, conversational, incarnate experience of a living and mysterious God.

Respecting God’s Mystery

We have a tendency in American Christianity to separate things like theology and spiritual discipline from everything else in our lives. We say that God is all in all and permeates our very being, yet we separate God from everything. We put religion, Christianity, and theology, and oftentimes even philosophy, into tiny little boxes that don’t touch any other area of our lives, but it’s no different becoming a master seeker of God than it is becoming a master of anything else.

If we want to be like the Japanese joiner, the pitcher, the athlete, the doctor — if we want to be able to see what others don’t see, hear what they don’t hear, and know God in deeply intimate and passionate ways, then we must do what we do with everything else. We must examine ourselves, examine God, be attentive to the Spirit, to our lives, to the people around us… We must attend to scripture, not as mere text but as something deeply intricate and alive. We must study scripture prayerfully, waiting patiently for the Holy Spirit to heighten our senses so that, like the Japanese joiner, when we run our hands across the surface of it, we feel all the gentle ripples. When we read it, we hear all the different emphases and callings and questions that other people miss. When we speak it, we feel in our hearts and our minds what the Spirit writes in us, and our words question even ourselves. When we pray, we open ourselves to the Spirit who intercedes for us with groans. When we give, when we act, we resign ourselves to the guidance of the Spirit, and we share with Jesus in some visceral way the kingdom work of God.

In short, we have to respect the deep mystery of God as something to be pursued. Rather than taking spiritual maturity for granted, we should approach the Spirit with the same focus, passion, and dedication as a joiner pursuing a masterpiece.

Not Everyone Is a Desert Father

I understand that this probably isn’t for everyone. I think it’s true that most Christians aren’t seeking God this intensely, but I also think that not every Christian is called to. Called to a lifetime of pursuing God, yes, but not maybe not called to the kind of passion and focus as a desert monk or a Japanese joiner. Not everyone is called to be a desert father, but when I ask myself what I want to see with different eyes and hear with different ears, I discover that I want to see and hear God.

Now comes the challenging part: do I have the fortitude and self-discipline to see this desire through a life-long quest for God? Only time will tell.

What do you want to see differently? Where do you pour your passion? I’d love to hear about it, and I’d love if you shared something you’ve learned over the years that others might not know about your field/hobby. Some have even encountered God in those places.

If you’re enjoying the content on Breaking Bread Theology or find it helpful, please consider supporting this work with a donation. I would love to make this a full-time effort and continue to expand the available content, but that will only be possible with enough support from readers like yourself. I hope that together we can continue to create safe spaces for people to explore faith and theology.

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