So, my sempei invited me to Sensei’s table again on Friday. He was without his car and wanted a ride and an excuse to leave early. I think he also is starting to like me. Or, at least, that’s what I’m telling myself.
When we got in there, my sempei and the Sensei immediately got into a discussion about some guy who used to train with them, but who had become one of those dojo-hopping punks that keeps saying, “I’ve studied this art, and this art, and this art with this teacher, and that teacher and this other teacher over here.” Then Sensei says to us, looking at me, â€œYou know, there’s a difference between drawing close to a teacher and just joining a dojo – or even between drawing close to a teacher and adhering to a religion.”
Without thinking at all, I replied, “Yeah. You know, Jesus didn’t say ‘Do this religious act and say these religious words.’ He said, ‘Follow me. Come live life with me and learn to live your life like I live mine.'”
“Look! There it is,” Sensei said. “All of you, be quiet a minute and pay attention to this. Think about this. He said that Jesus didn’t say to do religious things, but to follow him and to learn how to live your life.” Then, to be sure he had the whole room in on it, he translated his statement into Russian for the Russian-only speakers in the room.
Now, this really couldn’t have gone down any better. Let me tell you why. Ten minutes before that encounter I was talking with a fellow Aikidoka in the locker room. He had asked me if I do namaz (the 5-times-daily ritual prayer), and had said to me the entire morning namaz ritual in Arabic. I had asked him if he understood what he was saying, and he said, “A few words.” I told him how I pray and how I go about it, and I asked him if he did namaz, to which he replied that he wants to, but he can’t because he’s single. I asked after that, a little confused, and he explained how, since he harbors lustful thoughts and feelings as a single guy, he can’t do namaz. You need to be clean before you approach God for grace. Sad times.
Now, in that conversation, he said that what counts is a clean heart, not so much the doing of namaz. At that, my sempei interrupted and told him not to talk about things he has no idea about. If you’re a Muslim, you must do namaz. It’s like an interior dojo where you’re training to become a good person. Even if you don’t understand the words, it works like meditation to quiet your insides. Of course namaz is necessary.
Once we were all dressed and getting our shoes on, my fellow student leaned back into this with me, telling me I shouldn’t do namaz if I’m not a Muslim, and that if I want to do namaz I can always become a muslim. He then started telling me all about Jesus and his life and what he said (none of which was accurate), and I asked him where he heard that, and if he had read it himself, which he firmly deflected. Sempei overheard again and tore into him, asking him why he keeps bringing this up…is he trying to make me a muslim? Sempei continued, explaining how all roads lead up the mountain, where God sits at the top, and that something like that is written in the Quran, and that the New Testament is really interesting. I agreed that it is really interesting, mentioning that I’ve read the Quran a few times and the New Testament hundreds of times, and that I enjoy conversations like these, and added to my fellow student that these conversations are best if the participants actually read the books before they talk, so maybe he could first go a read them, and then talk to me. That would make for a great time.
We walked away from that conversation, heading over to Sensei’s tea room, and I felt like it had gone well, but that I wished I could tell my sempei that religion won’t do it for him in a way that won’t upset the delicate power distance for which his age and rank demand respect. I was wishing that there was a way to tell him that it’s not about religion without having to say it directly to him.
And when we got to Sensei’s table, that’s exactly what happened. How cool is that?
The conversation at Sensei’s table continued around the notion of problems with other dojos or something like that, alternating between Russian and Narnyan at a speed I couldn’t track. At one point Sensei turned to me and said, “Every teacher, every prophet had problems amongst his students. Did Jesus have problems amongst his students? How many did he have?”
“Well, at one point,” I replied, “he had several thousand. They followed him because he healed the sick and raised the dead and did miracles. They thought he was a great prophet. But he would say things like, ‘One day, people will kill you for following me. Are you still ready to be faithful?’ Many left him when he said that. His steady core group was 12 men.”
“Ah, yes, he did many miracles,” my sempei added. “Sensei, have you seen that Mel Gibson movie? It’s beautiful.”
“I have,” Sensei replied. “But the 12 had problems, too?”
“Yeah. Once, they said to him, ‘We know God has chosen you to be the world’s one true king. When you are made High King of the world, can we be kings with you?’ And Jesus responded, ‘If you want to be great, you must be everyone’s slave. Those who are first will be last, and the last will be first.'”
“Aahhh. So wise,” my Sensei smiled.
And from there, everyone in the room set themselves to finding ways to apply Jesus’s teachings in the dojo. Like how someone could choose to line up in ways that honor other students over himself, teachers serving students instead of the other way around, and a few other things that I couldn’t quite understand, and which may have been total misrepresentations of Jesus’ intent. But what’s important is that in this one conversation Jesus’s invitation to follow him had been heard, it had been distinguished from invitations to religion, and my friends had spent their energy seeking to understand and apply the teachings of Jesus to their lives. I was, with little effort, discipling my friends into the kingdom. That’s like crack to me.
Reflecting on the experience, I can see in that encounter the convergence of three non-negotiables – without any one of these, this would not have happened. Years of internalizing the life and teachings of Jesus converged with supernatural help from the Spirit in a situation I was in because I moved toward people when given the opportunity.
If you would, pray for my Aikido friends, and for me, and that the message of King Jesus would run fast and be well received.