59. A Taste of Grace through Mochi

June 3, 2024 - Roger W. Lowther

When you walk out of an airport and enter a country that's foreign to you for the first time, one of the things you might notice is the different smell in the air. And, you know, often these differences come from the food. Food is so closely tied to the identity of a nation which plants you in that place. And cultures are practically defined by their food. Think of spaghetti: Italy. Fish and chips? England. Tacos? Mexico. Curry? India. The list goes on. Obviously, these are only just a few examples.

There are many kinds of foods in each country, and you can find these things in the restaurants as well, right? If you go to an Italian restaurant, you're going to find spaghetti. In fact, it's going to be called an Italian Restaurant. The nation and the food are almost synonymous with each other. Now, in the process of becoming a missionary, we are taught to be attuned to cultural elements that can be used for contextualization, for talking about the gospel. So what does the gospel look like in this culture?

Since food is so closely tied to culture, it makes sense to ask the question, what does the gospel look like in this culture's food? It's the clearest entry into the ways of thinking of a people. And so I wrote a taste of grace to answer this very question. What is the gospel according to Japanese food? And, you know, when you ask that question, you come up with some pretty interesting answers.

Now, we've talked a lot in past episodes about the Japanese aesthetic of finding beauty in brokenness, and I've written quite a bit about this as well. My book The Broken Leaf looks at many examples of this in the traditional Japanese arts. In the tea ceremony, the leaves must be broken for the flavor and the aroma and the color to come out. In kintsugi, broken bowls are repaired with golden cracks, and the bowl is more beautiful and more valuable and stronger for having been broken. In the Japanese incense ceremony, the tree must come under severe distress in order to produce the kind of wood that releases a pleasant aroma when heated.

And we find this same aesthetic, beauty and brokenness, in Japanese food. We find it in natto fermented soybeans, Japanese pickling, tsukurani, and so many others. But in this episode, I want to talk about how we see it in Japanese rice cakes called mochi. Now, mochi nowadays can be bought very cheaply at the supermarket, and it is also made in a lot of household machines. But one of my strongest memories from my early years in Japan is the sound of mochi being pounded the way it historically used to be made, with a big wooden mallet.

And this sound is very much ingrained in the memories of everyone who lives in Japan, which is one reason why we have mochi pounding ceremonies every year. As I meditated on mochi, I was amazed at how it led me in worship of God and Jesus sacrifice on the cross. And so here's a chapter on this from the audio version of my book, A Taste of Grace, released just one week ago on May 27. Have a listen.

The sound of laughter fills the air, along with a distinctly sharp sound of pounding.

Thud. Thud.

The woman next to me turns and smiles. She sports a bright red and white headband and a festive blue, white, and red coat known as a happi, which sounds joyful in English as well as in Japanese. She points to a large wooden mallet the size of a sledgehammer as she encourages me to take a turn.

“I don’t think that . . .” I begin to say, but stop. I can tell by the look on her face that I’m not going to be able to back out of this one. I pick up the mallet, surprised by the weight of it and roughness of the texture, and turn to face the big wooden mortar filled with hot steaming rice.

A man crouches next to the rice, ready to turn it over with his hands between each of my hits.

Don’t hit his hands, Don’t hit his hands, I repeat over and over to myself as I raise the mallet over my head. Or any other part of his body.

Thud. Thud.

I had no idea that mochi-making was such a violent process. In order to make these common Japanese rice squares, the mallet needs to come down hard, hard enough to crush and compress the cooked rice. Every single kernel must be pounded, over and over again.

Hours later, we all suffer from blistered hands and sore backs.

Strangely enough, the source of mochi’s “strength” is in the pounding. The source of its endurance is in its “suffering.” Mochi keeps for a very long time without spoiling. Two little pieces have about the same number of calories as an entire serving of rice. In the cold winter months, this durable food source keeps the body warm.

We often feel like mochi, pounded over and over again by brokenness in this world. Broken relationships. Deceased family members. Unrealized dreams. Sickness. Grief. Our physical bodies naturally pass out to protect ourselves when wounded or in pain or when we hear horrific news. Our emotions and psyche sometimes go numb when faced with an overload of traumatic events. Nothing good can come from pain, we often think. Yet, if perhaps like mochi, pain and suffering can transform us into something stronger, experience shows that the very things which hurt us can actually help us grow.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2–4)

We obviously don’t want to face trials of any kind. We don’t want to suffer. Suffering comes nonetheless, and God brings hope into these times by working through the brokenness to shape us into people who are “mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

It’s a fact: comfort does not change us for the better. Just the opposite. It can ruin us, making us unable to change or grow or empathize with others. We must experience brokenness to be reshaped.

I think of Job, a man in the Bible who lost everything—his children, his health, his property—but came to a place where he knew God better and became a blessing to his friends.

“I had only heard about you before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes.” (Job 42:5)

I think of many men and women in the Bible pounded over and over again with trials of many kinds that gave them their endurance and strength. I think of the persecution of the early church and the growth that came through it.

God wants good things for us. He does not allow the pain and suffering of this world to be meaningless. By his mysterious power and grace the crushing produces endurance; the pounding brings strength. Adversity prepares us for something greater. Trials push us to know God and rely on him more deeply, to rely on his power rather than our power, to look to him rather than look to ourselves.

Jesus trusted God yet died so that we may trust God and live. He received beatings and suffering for our iniquities so that we may be healed. The hands and feet of Jesus were literally pounded onto the cross for our sake, and the sound of it echoes all the way from the cross to the people of every tribe and nation.

“It was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” (Hebrews 2:10 ESV)

This life and even our own hearts may try to pound us into the ground, but in the hands of God, our process of suffering merely transforms us to be more like Jesus. Not only that, but he understands what we face. He empathizes with our trials. He experiences our pain. He shares in our suffering.

Here, on this day, as I pound this mochi and eat the fruits of our labor, I have hope, because I remember how, by God’s grace, my suffering is not my destruction.

Thud. Thud.

May the pounding on Jesus, and the sound of the gospel, reverberate in our hearts and around the world.

You’ve been listening to the Art Life Faith Podcast. If you’d like to hear more examples of how we can taste the grace of God through Japanese food, check out my book A Taste of Grace, just released last week, available in webstores wherever you get your books. Ja, mata ne! We’ll see you next time.


Join mailing list to receive updates on current writing and recording projects.