Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Listening to Chukka in Japan

I had hoped that my reflections on Japan would be simple, breezy, refreshing, naively liberating -- the feeling of being in a dream that provides absolute freedom while protecting the dreamer from consequences.

You know, like that day you showed up at high school, and the dreaded taskmaster and fussbudget Ol' Lady Tangleware was out with the flu, and in her place a timid, young, small substitute teacher who was perfectly happy to finish Sense and Sensibility while you and your buds dismantled desks, wrote obscenities on the blackboard, and locked Jethro in the storage closet. 
The Daibutsu (Great Buddha) in Kamakura. 

But no. As a wilde man said, "The truth is rarely pure and never simple."

As I noted in my previous post, after the initial rush of having escaped the fishbowl of Christian peer pressure, I fell into another community, this one of forced conformity and bitter hedonism.

One member of our community, Chukka, who lived down the hall from me, was roughly 6'4" and just on this side of obesity. His fatigues fit him a bit too snugly, his trousers were moderate high-waters, he walked with an annoying spring in his step, and his face was frozen with the vacuous glee of someone who has yet to see images from the Holocaust.

Shortly before I arrived in Japan, Chukka had accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. But that wasn't enough: His new-found bliss made him hellbent to bring every pissed off, GAFF* airman on the base into the Flock with him

He trolled the halls of the barracks and the sidewalks of the base and stopped by each table in the chow hall, asking if we had found Jesus (yes, we responded with all the over-used smartass responses to that question), inviting us to bible study, and flipping through his own pocket-sized, heavily underlined and annotated New Testament to find passages -- mostly of miracles and threats -- to move us ever closer to salvation.

When anyone asked him the perfectly innocent question, "How are you doing?" his face lit up, his chubby index finger pointed heavenward and he responded with a rapturous smile, "Saved!"

When in his presence someone shouted out "JESUS CHRIST," Chukka would say, "He is my Savior," and would once more point to the sky, where he believed Glory Land, our true Celestial Home existed, somewhere far, far beyond the farthest star in the firmament.

We responded by assaulting his dense head with every form of insult and obscenity we could conjure. If there were small tangible objects nearby, we bounced those off his head as well.

This, of course, filled Chukka with a masochistic pleasure that infuriated us. We were, he said, fulfilling Scripture: "Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake." That comes from Matthew 5:11. He told us.

(From the perspective of an old man, I think Chukka misread that passage. I think the Big Guy [Jesus, not Chukka] meant "If you are Christlike, that is, if you love other human beings even if you can't profit from them, and you are unselfish and give to the poor instead of exploiting their ignorance, and if you have the vision to see that the Kingdom of God exists in front of your nose -- above and below -- , the wealthy and powerful will think you're a troublesome idiot and a sucker, and, if pushed too far, they will deal with your interfering self!")

But Chukka meant well. He probably had a rough childhood. He was a good, decent, clueless, clumsy human being. Even so, I would walk two blocks out of my way to avoid him. If I saw him walking down the hall in the barracks, I would shut my door and turn up Steppenwolf till the bass throbbed in my chest. I loathed the sight of him.

"Witnessing" is the term some churches give to Chukka's form of harassment, intrusion, meddling and insensitivity. We Baptists were commanded to do it. Refusal meant you were ashamed of Jesus, i.e., as they perceived him from their particular point of view. If you were too embarrassed to talk to people about a man who could walk on water and pass through the birth canal of a virgin, you were not a true Christian.

You could give all you had to charity, spend all your waking hours visiting the sick and incarcerated, and you would still become an eternal crispy critter in the heat hereafter! Days without end, writhing in a place so hot it made the surface of the sun feel like the inside of a beer cooler!  

Chukka's witnessing robbed me of any interest in looking to Christianity for truth, meaning, comfort, hope, wisdom or inspiration for years to come. He polluted my non-epiphany, my sabbatical from fundamentalism, with all his talk, talk, talk, as garrulous and complacent as the comforters of Job.  

All the way across the Pacific, right into Buddha's backyard, Chukka brought with him the repugnant notion of Salvation by Syllables. You can't escape. Say the words. Say them!

A couple of decades after I left Japan, however, I realized that Chukka, nitwit or not, taught me quite a few lessons. Here are a few of them (sure, some are a little redundant, but hey, we learn through repetition):
  • Hindering someone's spiritual growth or quest is a form of murder.
  • You cannot rush the sap up a tree trunk; it gets there on its own time.
  • Everyone's quest -- if they're on one -- is different, born out of a combination of their DNA and their experience.
  • You cannot take people with you on your quest.
  • You cannot become what Frederick Buechner calls a "peddler" and expect others to buy what you find valuable. Your life-changing insights, epiphanies and revelations typically mean nothing to anyone else.
  • You cannot dress in words your idea of God and bring him to someone else. As my next post suggests, you are better off exemplifying your idea of him with actions, not verbiage.
  • Looking for God is a nice gesture, a commendable motive. But if God exists, I'm pretty sure he's not lost. As a famous man once said, "You don't choose him. He chooses you."
What Chukka did was wrong, and I don't feel guilty about disliking him. But I am grateful for his lessons and for his delaying my pondering the "God question" until I was old enough to grapple with the Infinite with some measure of maturity.
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In my next post, I'll still be in Japan, but I'll be joined by my wife and eventually our first born, and the three of us will come precariously close to the very worst thing that can happen.


*GAFF is military speak for "Gives a Flying 'Fuck."

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