It has been nearly a month since I came back from Kōzu-shima. Still, a day doesn’t go by in which I don’t think back to my two weeks there. The time I spent on the island was like a rich spiritual feast. And the thing about feasts is that they require some digesting. That is my excuse for why this post has been so long delayed: I have needed the time to think. My time on Kōzu-shima resulted in 80 pages of notes and I have been processing these notes since coming back, trying to distill the essence of what I learned on my pilgrimage.
The dictionary on my bookshelf offers two definitions for this term “pilgrimage.” The first is “a journey to a sacred place or shrine”—the second is “a long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.” I use the term “pilgrimage” in this second sense. The island’s historical connection with Julia-Otaa is a matter of interest and even inspiration to me. But I don’t think it makes Kōzu-shima any more holy than the room or train car in which you are probably reading this blog. No, Kōzu-shima is not a sacred place. But my journey was a pilgrimage in a different sense: I was traveling to get my heart and mind to a sacred place. And I suppose that might be called an “exalted purpose.”
Even so, I wasn’t confident that I was doing the right thing in leaving Tokyo. And it didn’t help that on the first day of my journey, I arrived at the pier only to learn that the ferry service had been temporarily canceled; the waves were too high for the jetfoil to enter either of Kōzu-shima’s ports. I wondered whether God wasn’t trying to prevent my going on the journey. After all, one of the biggest lessons from DTS had been the necessity of living in community—and here I was trying to spend several weeks in isolation! I questioned whether I wasn’t simply trying to escape my circumstances in Tokyo. But in the end, I decided to go ahead with my trip and I was able to book a passage to Izu Ōshima, an island about half way to Kōzu-shima. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something Jonah-like.
The waves were somewhat choppy but thankfully it never quite reached a point where the crew felt the need to throw me overboard; I arrived safely in Izu Ōshima and began reading through the Bible, starting in the book of Genesis. One verse, in particular, was encouraging to me on this first day of my pilgrimage. In fact, I would say it was this verse which kept me from turning back to Tokyo on the second day:
“I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” (Genesis 21:13)
That might seem like an obscure and irrelevant passage, but please bear with me as I explain its significance to me at the time. You see, Abraham had been promised offspring, but his wife, Sarah, had been unable to conceive. So Abraham decided to take Sarah’s slave, Hagar, as a surrogate wife. This might seem shocking or immoral to us but it was standard fare in the ancient Near East; within his cultural context, there was nothing unusual or shameful about Abraham’s choice. Through her union with Abraham, Hagar bore a son—Ishmael—but after this, God healed Sarah’s barrenness so that she was able to have a son of her own—Isaac. It was in this context—in which the birth of Isaac by Abraham’s true wife, Sarah, would seem to place Ishmael’s privileges in jeopardy—that God made this promise to nevertheless bless Ishmael (“I will make the son of the slave into a nation”). And the basis for this blessing was God’s love for Abraham (“because he is your offspring”).
With the privilege of hindsight, we’re able to see that Abraham’s decision to have a child with Hagar was a misguided attempt to actualize God’s promise according to his own human wisdom. But God was willing to bless this misguided attempt—all for the sake of His love for Abraham. I think the timeless truth to be distilled from this episode is that God blesses the sincere attempts of His beloved people to obey and partner with His will—even when these attempts are misguided.
I now applied this principle to my pilgrimage. I wasn’t entirely sure whether God wanted me to leave Tokyo. But my sincere desire—my motivation—in doing so was to deepen my relationship with God. Was there then any possibility that God would not honor such a desire, a desire clearly in line with His will? It seemed unlikely to me. So through this passage, I was able to discover a fresh freedom to be unsure and possibly mistaken. I had felt like I should go on this pilgrimage—and I may or may not have been right in feeling this way. But either way, I now felt confident that God would meet me on my pilgrimage. I knew that my pilgrimage would be blessed.
The waves had settled down by the next morning so I was able to board the jetfoil bound for Kōzu-shima. The ship came into port two hours later in Takō Bay on the island’s east shore. I now had to trek across the breadth of the island—the one village on the island, as well as my campsite, were located on the island’s west shore. It was no walk in the park. I was carrying 13 kilograms of luggage on my back and a mountainous ridge separated the east side of the island from the west. And to top it all off, it was about twelve o’clock and the day was hot; I couldn’t help but work up quite a sweat. But as I struggled my way up the road, the Holy Spirit spoke to me distinctly: “Aogu, you’re tough.” I felt tempted to dismiss the voice as a figment of my own (vain) imagination but He kept speaking. “Yes, Aogu, you are tough. And I am going to break an identity of weakness off of you while you are on this island.” I don’t know how to describe what He did next except to say that it was as though He spread open the vault of my memories but gave me a new rubric for understanding them. I saw myself being continually bullied in school and later lying sick in bed. Now, for the first time, I could clearly see that all of these memories were tied together by a common thread: they were assaults on God’s original design for me. God had made me to be strong in Him—God had made me to be a man, in the fullest sense of the word. But these attacks had instilled in me a defeatist mentality and made me feel sub-manly. I now chose to receive God’s encouragement and promise—Yes, God, You made me to be tough in You. Please help me to know myself as You know me. I continued on my way feeling strengthened.
I don’t often hear from God in this way, though I suspect that this is more the result of my not listening to Him than it is the result of His not speaking to me. Whatever the case, the Lord spoke to me in this direct, unmediated way only one more time while I was on the island. The rest of what He spoke to me, He spoke through the Bible, as I camped on the beach.
You might recall from my previous post that I went to the island with a sense of spiritual confusion. It is hard for me to explain exactly what I was confused about; I think the best I can do is to say that I was unsure of what flavor the Christian faith is supposed to possess. The Bible actually cleared up my confusion right away. I was still reading through the Torah when it struck me: the Bible is remarkably warlike. This thought was crystallized when I came upon this often quoted text:
“Be strong and courageous.” (Joshua 1:6)
People usually use this verse for therapeutic purposes, in order to ease anxiety. I do think that this might be a legitimate application of the verse, but what I came to realize was that these words don’t in themselves constitute an encouragement; they constitute a command. These words are actually the order given by a commanding officer to his subordinate in the context of battle.
This simple discovery of Joshua 1:6’s original context somehow served as the catalyst for explosive Scripture-wide revelation. I could no longer read a single page of the Bible without seeing war-themes in it. In fact, I now saw the entire Bible as documenting one long cosmic war. Here’s the meta-narrative I saw chronicled in Scripture:
At the dawn of history, the devil, through deceit, usurped the rule of the universe and subjected humanity to the tyranny of sin and death. But King Jesus has come! And through His death and resurrection, He shattered the devil’s scepter, revealing Himself to be the only rightful Ruler of the universe. What’s more, He incited an insurgency of liberated ex-slaves to undermine the devil’s unlawful dictatorship. And finally, He has also promised to return at the twilight of history to vanquish the devil once and for all and to set everything in the universe right again.
This thought of a cosmic war made sense of my experiences—it accounted for both the tragedies and the victories. With this perspective, I didn’t have to brush suffering under the rug and pretend it didn’t exist; the gravity of this perspective allowed me to be serious and even sad, at times. But this worldview also necessitated a deep-rooted joy and hope because it contained within it the promise of an ultimate victory. Finally, it also gave me a renewed sense of purpose and direction, which I can say, has endured long past my return to Tokyo.
The flavor of the Christian life is the flavor of war. Perhaps this doesn’t sound to you like a comforting concept. But it has, at least, been liberating to me—it has broken off the spiritual chains of confusion and ushered me into a season of clarity and vision.
Well, I figure this post is already much longer than it should be. Thank you for your longsuffering in reading this! I hope you feel that it was time well-spent.
I will be writing just one more post about my experiences on Kōzu-shima. Then, we can move on to other topics and issues!
Before I say goodbye, allow me to share a prayer request. I started working on this blog for two reasons: I wanted it to serve as a way of keeping my supporters updated but I also wanted to write as a service to the church. I wanted to put my struggles and my victories on display—to share my experiential life-lessons. And I’m glad to say that from the feedback I’ve received, it seems like I am accomplishing this purpose. But I have a confession to make: I’m an incredibly slow writer! It’s always a grievous struggle for me to put my thoughts into words. But in addition to this, my natural style is tedious and wordy—almost Puritan—so I have to spend ages revising and re-revising my sentences. All of that to say: if my writings have encouraged you at all, could you, from time to time, pray that God would grant me focus and mental clarity when I write? I would greatly appreciate it! Thanks!