Haunted by the Beauty of Perfect Sushi

Last week my wife and I finally watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about Jiro Ono, considered by many as the greatest sushi chef in the world. He is recognized by the Japanese government as a national treasure. His restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, is a tiny sushi bar in the cellar of an office building seating no more than 10 people. Despite it’s small size and limited menu (Jiro Ono serves nothing but sushi), Sukiyabashi Jiro has received 3 Michelin Stars. Jiro Dreams of Sushi captures the beauty of Jiro’s sushi with epic cinematic angles and grandiose classical music while telling the story of one man’s unusual drive to perfect his craft. I left the film haunted by the beauty of the perfect sushi I am unlikely to ever taste. I was also haunted by the madness driving Jiro Ono’s genius.

Culinary Perfectionism

Jiro Ono is a perfectionist. His genius comes from an octogenarian’s experience, the work ethic of an orphan with something to prove, a keen sense of smell, and a love for sushi that borders insanity. As the title of the film suggests, he dreams of sushi. He literally wakes up in the middle of the night with visions of sushi.

Jiro Ono’s passion, imagination, and dedication is evident in every stage of his preparation. The small scale of his sushi bar gives him the freedom to pick the most exclusive ingredients every morning. Every day Jiro sets the menu for a 15 course meal based on that day’s catch. Each meal lasts about 20 minutes. Jiro Ono serves each sushi at the perfect moment and temperature. He customizes the size of each morsel to help his patrons eat at his pace.

Just looking at his sushi makes me almost weep. I thought I knew good sushi. Jiro Dreams of Sushi opened up a world of high grade sushi that I never knew existed.

The Cost of Excellence

A meal at Sukiyabashi Jiro starts at ¥30,000 (rougly $300). But there are also intangible costs to enjoying Jiro Ono’s culinary genius. Jiro Ono’s customers consistently say that eating at his sushi bar makes them nervous. Mr. Ono stares at his customers while they eat his food. Some of his regulars are so intimidated by Mr. Ono that they have taken their business to his son’s restaurant on the other side of town, where the food is slightly inferior but the atmosphere is more relaxed.

The customers are not the only ones paying for perfect sushi. Mr. Ono trains his apprentices for free, but he demands that they give him a ten year commitment. One of his apprentices tells the story of how he learned to make egg sushi. It took him four years. After thousands of failed attempts one day Mr. Ono told him that his egg sushi was good. He broke down and cried.

Many of those closest to Mr. Ono believe that he should hand over his business to his eldest son, Yoshikazu, who has been groomed to succeed his father ever since he was a teenager. Yoshikazu wanted to go to college but Mr. Ono convinced his son to work for him at the sushi bar instead. One Japanese food critic believes that Yoshikazu’s sushi will have to be twice as good just to be considered equal to Jiro’s.

As much as I enjoyed watching Jiro Ono at work, I couldn’t help asking myself if the cost of making the world’s best sushi is too high.

How many Michelin Stars is Enough?

In his insightful review of Jiro Dreams of Sushi Roger Ebert expressed how attracted he was to Jiro Ono’s sushi yet repulsed by Jiro Ono’s life. “You realize the tragedy of Jiro Ono’s life is that there are not, and never will be, four stars.”

Beneath the beauty of his amazing sushi Jiro Ono seems to have a hollow life. Abandoned by his parents at the age of 9, he started with nothing. In his pursuit of greatness he sacrificed everything. At the pinnacle of his craft he remains unsatisfied.

Jiro Ono sacrificed everything to reach this point in his life. When they were younger his children did not recognize him. We know that he married when he was young but his wife is completely absent from his story. In one poignant moment Mr. Ono visits his parents’ grave with his eldest son, Yoshikazu, and blurts out, “I don’t know why I’m here. They were never there for me.” Even after everything he has accomplished the sight of his parents’ grave reduces him to the abandoned 9 year old orphan of his past. He thought that greatness would compensate for the hurts of his past but it was not enough.

Even as he pushes 90 Jiro Ono refuses to retire. Sushi is his life. What will he dream of when there is no more sushi? He is pursuing a non-existent fourth Michelin Star.

The Fourth Michelin Star

Greatness did not make Jiro Ono kinder or happier; it made him more critical and unsatisfied. It’s ironic that one of the world’s best chefs would make one of the world’s worst dinner guests. Mr. Ono criticizes his competition, his sons, his apprentices, even his guests. I would love to eat Jiro Ono’s sushi, but I would hate to have him over for supper.

I think the thing that bothers me most about Jiro Ono is that he reminds me of myself. I have not achieved his greatness; nevertheless something inside me whispers that I am only as great as my achievements. I am rarely sadder than when I am disappointed with one of my sermons. I am consistently my worst critic. I also make a terrible parishioner. Sometimes it is hard for me to listen to other people preach. Rather than simply enjoy the Word of God as life-giving nourishment, I can’t help critiquing the pastor’s interpretation, delivery, or tone.

The paradox of the gospel is that the fourth Michelin Star only belongs to guests. Throughout the Bible the happiest people are the ones who have figured out that they have a place at the table of God. The Lord’s Supper is not a meal for chefs; it is a meal for patrons. At the Communion Table Jesus declares that our greatness does not depend on our achievements; it depends on His achievements.

Think about what the Lord’s Supper says about you. No meal is more costly than the Lord’s Supper; but Jesus’ picks up the tab. God thinks so much of you that He sacrificed Himself on the cross. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus declares that you are not defined by your success or failure but by God’s rich and free grace. God fulfills and exceeds all our dreams in Christ.

I need to be haunted by the beauty of the cross. The cross sets me free from dreaming about getting greatness and inspires me to dream about what to do with greatness. What will I do with the greatness Jesus has already given me in the cross? How can I share it? How can I spread joy to others? How can I build others up? How can I use it to glorify Jesus?

Are you haunted by the beauty of perfect sushi? What are the beautiful things that haunt you? How has the cross changed your dreams?

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Clinging to the wrong Jesus

Somehow I consistently find myself clinging to the wrong Jesus. It’s not that my Jesus is the wrong person. I cling to the Jesus of the Bible, truly God and truly man, who lived, died, and rose again to save me. My Jesus is not the wrong person; He lives in the wrong time. I want the Jesus of the past instead of the Jesus who is coming.

The old Jesus dealt with sickness through healing. He dealt with evil by casting it out. He dealt with sinners by eating and drinking with them. He dealt with the poor by sharing with them. But sometimes the sick people in my life don’t get better. Sometimes there seems to be no answer for the evil in this world. Sometimes I feel like I am alone even though I am surrounded with people. I feel like there must be something wrong with me. Maybe I did something wrong. Maybe Jesus is mad at me. Maybe Jesus is pushing me away. My instincts are completely wrong. I’m just clinging to the wrong Jesus.

On Easter Sunday we heard the resurrected Jesus tell Mary, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”

It almost sounds like Jesus is giving Mary the Heisman. Upon closer examination it is clear that Jesus is not pushing Mary away, but drawing her closer in.

Listen to what Jesus is saying. He says “don’t cling to me.” Why? Because he has not yet ascended to the Father. Jesus is saying, you don’t want me down here you want me up there. I am going to my Father and your Father; my God and your God. Jesus is telling Mary that she will also rise from the dead one day. She will also have a glorious resurrected body. She will also ascend to the Father.

Mary just wants to go back to the way things were before. She wants to watch Jesus eat and drink with sinners, heal the sick, cast out demons, oppose the self-righteous, and make sense of the Bible. Jesus is telling Mary that his entire ministry was nothing compared with what He is about to do.

Our lives are fragile. Sooner or later we are going to crush the things that we cling to. When I cling to my marriage as my only source of happiness or I cling to it as my only source of unhappiness I end up crushing my marriage. I camp out in the pit of self-pity and I demand things from my wife that are unfair to expect from her. The answer is not to diversify my stock in happiness either. It’s not enough to just build a man cave for “me time.” It’s not enough to go out every now and then with the fellas. It’s not enough to find happiness in my work or in hobbies. It’s not even enough to find happiness in religious activities that make me feel like a better person. Sooner or later the market is going to crash. We never stay on top forever.

Think of the things in this world that seem like they will last forever. There is music that has lasted for centuries. There is art, architecture, and literature that has lasted millennia. There are mountains and rivers and seas and valleys and stars that have lasted longer than we can count. Jesus is saying that Mary will last forever. Jesus turns sinful people plagued by death into something so glorious that like Him we must rise from the dead (John 20:9).

The only way to stop clinging to my life is by clinging to Jesus – not the Jesus before the cross but the Jesus after the cross. The problem with the old Jesus was that His disciples loved Him but were scared to death of the cross. The Jesus who is coming has turned the cross into a gateway to eternal life and glory.

Clinging to the resurrected Jesus gives me strength not only to endure the cross but to choose the cross in my marriage. Without the resurrection I can be selfless with my wife when she is being selfless with me; but I will not let her crucify me. I will not sacrifice myself completely for her. It is only when I know how glorious my life in Christ is that I can love my wife completely selflessly. Only the resurrection can give me the strength to give my wife true grace.

What are some ways that you cling to the wrong Jesus?

What difference would it make if you clung more to the resurrected Jesus in your life?

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A Brutally Realistic Yet Glorious Vision of Marriage

Few things can impact our quality of life the way marriage can. A healthy marriage can give us a sense of security and joy even when everything else in life seems to be falling apart. A broken marriage can sap the joy out of our greatest life achievements. Marriage is simultaneously glorious and impossibly hard.

This Thursday we are starting a new study in The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy and Kathy Keller. Drawing from the Bible, years of experience ministering to both singles seeking marriage and couples trying to hold their marriage together, and working on their own marriage, Tim and Kathy Keller offer hope without sugar coating the disappointment, frustration, and pain that all married people experience.

It takes a village to build a healthy marriage. Our studies are a safe place to share, learn, ask hard questions, laugh, cry, and pray. We are meeting in alternating weeks:

This Week: 7pm Thursday in Milpitas for Men

Next Week: 7pm Thursday in Fremont for Women

Listen to Tim and Kathy Keller talk about why they wrote this book in the video below.

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Happy International Women’s Day!

If you click today’s Google doodle you are going to find a bunch of links to International Women’s Day. You are going to find people looking back on the political gains women have made over the years. You are going to find people looking forward to the challenges women continue to face all over the globe. You are even going to find some people criticizing the idea of having an International Women’s Day. What is harder to find amidst all the gender politics is an appreciation for womanhood.

It’s not easy being a woman. I don’t speak from experience. I speak as someone who respects and appreciates the women in my life and yet simultaneously has caused them pain. This is why the best I have to offer on International Women’s Day are not my words, but words from the Bible.

When it comes to gender it is easy to dismiss the Bible as archaic and irrelevant. I’d like to suggest that it is far more progressive and relevant than anything else we are going to read today because it transcends culture and politics.

The Proverbs 31 Woman

One of the most well known passages about womanhood in the Bible is an acrostic poem in Proverbs 31:10-31. Each verse of the poem begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, suggesting that this poem pictures the complete woman. She is loved, respected, influential, industrious, courageous, honorable, kind, faithful, and spiritual. She is more beautiful on the inside than she is on the outside. In a word, she is excellent.

The Proverbs 31 Curse

If you are progressive you might think that Proverbs 31 is a curse because it sounds pretty traditional. But if you read it closely you have to recognize that it is just as much a curse for those with traditional values.

Proverbs 31 is not trying to answer the modern debate of traditional versus progressive gender roles. To read it that way is anachronistic. It is speaking to the far more universal struggle of measuring up to an unattainable standard of excellence.

There is a lot for both traditionalists and progressives to admire about the Proverbs 31 woman.

She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong.

She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy.

Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.

She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.

It’s hard to argue with any of these qualities. We all inherently believe there is a standard of womanhood out there; and it is completely unattainable to us all.

There is something about the Proverbs 31 woman that condemns women. This is why women struggle with feeling condemned and with condemning others. This is why men admire the women in their lives, yet get disappointed by them at the same time – wooing them then neglecting or hurting them.

Women, if you try to measure up to the Proverbs 31 woman you are guaranteed to fail. This is not because there is something wrong with the standard. It is because there is something wrong with us all as human beings.

Men, if you are looking for a Proverbs 31 woman you are guaranteed to be disappointed. You are going to demand things from the women in your life that they can not give you. You are going to condemn them and in the process condemn yourself.

The Proverbs 31 Blessing

If Proverbs 31 is nothing more than a picture of a perfect woman, it can only curse us all. But it does not stand alone. Proverbs 31 is part of a larger collection of wisdom called The Book of Proverbs (in Hebrew The Proverbs of Solomon).

In Proverbs 8, wisdom is described as a woman who participated in God’s act of creation (Proverbs 8:22f). Wisdom is described as a relationship. Wisdom is not about what we know, but whom we know. This fits with the larger theme of Proverbs that wisdom is ultimately about knowing God (The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, Proverbs 1:7). Knowing God is more important than knowing what to do.

Proverbs 31 is also part of the larger book called The Bible. In 1 Corinthians 1:30, wisdom is given a name.

He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.

This means that Proverbs 31 is not actually an unattainable standard of excellence but the way God sees you in Christ right now. If Christ is your savior, God says that are excellent. You are far more precious than jewels. Many women have done excellently, but in Christ you surpass them all. In the gates of heaven all Christ’s works praise you.


Being a woman is hard. It is hard not to compare yourself with other women. It is hard not to feel bad about yourself when the men in your life discourage you. Remember who you are in Christ.

Women, God celebrates you in Christ. If you are in Christ, you can do nothing wrong to lose his approval. More importantly, you can do nothing more to enhance his approval. Read Proverbs 31 and listen to God praise you.

Men, celebrate the women in your life by learning to see them as God sees them in Christ. Stop telling the women in your life that they need to be better. Tell them that they are more precious than jewels. Give them grace, not demands.

Husbands, praise your wives when you are with the fellas. Children, rise up and call your mothers blessed.

Happy International Women’s Day!

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The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power

This Saturday we are starting a new small group study in Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power and the Only Hope That Matters by Timothy Keller. Watch this video to hear the author explain why he wrote this book. To learn more, come to our first study this Saturday (leave a comment including your email address to get the details).

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Worship is not a concert or a lecture but a banquet

In their third conversation about worship Kevin Twit, Isaac Wardell, and Mike Cosper discuss the dangers of idolizing youth culture in worship. It’s incredibly helpful to think of worship music as a family event. When we sing songs at my home, everyone gets involved. My wife sways as she sings sweetly to my guitar. My six year old and four year old pick up instruments and play with me. My two year old prances around and sings out of key.

Last Sunday during our “Song of Praise,” which comes after we hear a Bible reading assembling us to worship our Creator and Redeemer, my six year old and four year old were singing with interspersed lip syncing while my two year old occasionally sang single words that she recognized. In the back, one of our three year old members was standing up with an arm raised into the air. All this is happened to music played beautifully without overwhelming or drowning us out. It was a beautiful picture of the family of God enjoying Him together.

Our worship has never been mistaken for being “cool.” In many ways I believe this make us more, not less, relevant and accessible.

The Idolatry of Youth Culture in Worship from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

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Beyond Shazam

Visitors at New Life often tell us that they don’t recognize our worship music. If you used Shazam on a typical Sunday at New Life you would probably get close to zero hits. That’s because we sing a lot of old hymns put to new music (with contemporary worship songs occasionally sprinkled in).

Some of our visitors don’t recognize our music because they are not familiar with hymns. Some of our visitors don’t recognize our music because they like their hymns just the way they are. We have a tendency of alienating both hymn haters and the hymn lovers. This is not a very effective church growth strategy.

So why do we sing so many unfamiliar songs at New Life?

1) The best worship songs last

Franky very little contemporary worship music has lasted. Worship songs that I loved in the 1980s sound cheesy today. Not all hymns have lasted the test of history either, but the ones that have are very good.

2) The best worship songs are richly Biblical

Hymns were written in an age with higher Biblical literacy. Not all hymns are Biblical, but the best hymns tend to use far more of the Bible’s own language than our best contemporary worship songs. In fact, songs from the Scottish Psalter are just Old Testament Psalms put to music.

3) The best worship songs have emotional bandwidth

Contemporary worship music tends to be optimistic, high energy, and sentimental. That’s why I actually love some contemporary worship music. But sometimes we need to be pensive, sad, or reverent when we worship our Creator and Redeemer.

4) The best worship songs are Christ centered

Worship music reflects its environment and right now the Christian landscape is not very Christ-centered. Many contemporary worship songs emphasize the things we want to do for Christ over the great things Christ has done for us. The best hymns focus on God’s faithfulness to us and remind us that our hope rests completely on Jesus.

5) The best worship songs are not culturally bound

Some really great hymns have been forgotten simply because they are too difficult to sing. The gospel is timeless but culture is not. Putting old gospel truth to new music is a natural and powerful way to live out our ancient faith in the present.

To learn more about the Hymn Renewal movement watch these discussions between some of the musicians who have rewritten our favorite hymns.

Old Hymns for Our Day from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

The Bono Effect and Corporate Worship from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

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