They create clear lines of demarcation in how we think, feel, relate, and engage - who we were before, who we are after.
Before Christ. After Christ.
Before children. After children.
Before cancer. After cancer.
Before Japan. After Japan.
Two completely different worlds.
So, how am I different, after Japan?
I am still processing, so my answer to that question is not yet fully formed. I do know, however, that I am not the same person I was a month ago. I do not want to be the same person.
While in Japan, my thinking was challenged significantly in two important areas: 1.) hospitality, and 2.) the visible church.
I was born and raised in the South. Hospitality is as much a part of my heritage as grits and cornbread. Everyone's heard of "Southern hospitality," right? We Southerners speak Hospitality fluently - it's our native tongue.
That's what I thought before Japan.
After Japan, I'm not so sure. I'm afraid many of us Southerners have traded true hospitality for a weak impostor: good manners.
Don't get me wrong. I'm all for good manners and polite discourse. We should endeavor to always treat others with courtesy, respect, and kindness.
But good manners - does not equal - hospitality. Let me try to explain with an illustration...
Good manners is greeting the visitor at church on Sunday with a smile and a handshake: "Good morning! Welcome! We are so glad you are here. I hope you enjoyed the service, and that you'll come back again soon."
The young woman invited us to her house for the weekend. "Please! Come and stay! I want you to be my guests!" After the six of us arrived at her tiny abode, the woman confided to my daughter, "I am so glad you are here! But I wonder...where will everyone sleep?"
The houses I visited in Japan were small: a compact kitchen/living area, a bathroom/washroom, a sleeping room. Many single college students in America live in apartments that in Japan would accommodate a family of four.
A well-mannered Southern hostess would know better than to invite overnight guests to her house if she did not have space to accommodate them. Better to just smile, shake hands, say "So nice to meet you!" - and leave it at that. Be polite...but don't get all crazy!
But for my young Japanese friend, love for others trumped everything else. Her great concern was not - Do I have enough beds/bowls/cups for everyone? Rather, her great desire was fellowship, conversation around a common table, shared stories and laughter. She raced past "So nice to meet you" and pressed right on into "Please, come into my world, such as it is. I want to share my life with you!"
I visited many beautiful places while I was in Japan: ancient temples, fabulous gardens, parks and restaurants. Nothing was as beautiful as my young friend's home and the hospitality she and her family extended to us there.
After our visit, my daughter commented that true hospitality requires courage, because it demands that we be vulnerable. True hospitality means inviting others into our world, to commune with us not as visitors, but as family.
Politeness, good manners - those, while good, generally require neither courage nor vulnerability. They also don't require much heart. I can be polite even if I don't feel like it, even if I don't like you.
True hospitality requires a generous heart, and, yes, Martha, it requires courage.
I want to be that big and that brave, after Japan.