He Gives and Takes Away

If I wrote this post just four days ago, it would be about the joy and challenges of welcoming a new furry member into our family. We adopted Aoba from a dog rescue organization on September 16th, just before she turned 3 months old. Having a puppy in the house has been a challenge, but mostly it has been the joy of having a pet who loves you even more than you love them.

But three nights ago, the narrative of this post changed in a way that fills me with sorrow. Chiizu, one of the feral cats living in our neighborhood, was struck and killed. Chiizu was no ordinary feral cat to us. He adopted us as his family, basking in the sun on our doorstep, greeting us in the morning and evening for his meals, eating from our hands. I was convinced it was a matter of weeks before I would have enough of his trust that he would allow me to finally pet him, giving him the physical love that he deserved.

You see, Chiizu was the largest boy in his litter of kittens. Their father was never around and their mother disappeared mysteriously four months ago. Chiizu, for whatever reason, became the caretaker of his siblings. We would often find him cuddled up with one of his sisters, or his little brother Pika, napping around our house. If he was eating and one of his siblings came near, he’d move away and let them eat. While many of the other cats visited our house regularly, it was always “Chiizu and …”. So for six months I regarded him as ours, the same way he regarded us as his.

One of the reasons I resisted pet ownership for so long after our dog Evie passed in 2012 at 14-years-old was because I did not like to deal with the mortality issue of pets. Every time I’ve lost a pet to the inevitable passage of time, I swore I’d never have another. But this is the first time I’ve had to deal with the loss of a pet whose life was cut short.

The loss of Chiizu is still fresh, grating on my emotions, and causing me to give pause during the day to think about the hole his absence leaves in my daily life. But that loss is balanced by the time we spend with Aoba, so young and full of life herself, ready to lick me to death or snuggle up when she’s tired at the end of a long day of playing and exploring. And I feel like God is teaching me about mortality, about not holding on too tightly to things, even life itself. That the cliche that everyday is a gift is cliche because it is true. Aoba won’t live forever and neither will I (at least in this space and time). But God gives us each day richly to enjoy and if we focus on the good gifts He gives us, life is a lot easier to bear. One might even say, life is beautiful when enjoyed the way God intended us to.

Thank you Lord for each of the days we had to enjoy with Chiizu and each special day we have to love and be loved by Aoba.

Reflecting on English Camp, Year Three

Two weeks ago we completed our third English Summer Camp in partnership with Redwood Community Chapel of Castro Valley, California and Rikko Kindergarten here in Nerima. Over 300 children were signed up to come and about 270 participated this year, about 70 more than we had last year. Perhaps most encouraging was the number of children who came for 5 or 6 days of the program rather than 2 or 3, as was frequently the case in the past two years.

As usual, we had our share of obstacles leading up to camp again this year, and while we recognize that as a sign of opposition from the enemy, I am also meekly aware of how little faith I have. Because God has always come through and almost always in ways that are better than we could imagine.

In past years, our team from California stayed on-site at the Kindergarten in the dorms, but we were unable to get rooms this year. And very late in planning, we also learned that our access to the school would be limited to business hours, another major change from prior years. On the surface, both changes seemed like huge inconveniences to the team and I was extremely frustrated. But not only did God work things out so there weren’t any major inconveniences, the living and eating arrangements actually worked out for the better this year.

Another disaster with our camp shirts was narrowly averted when our partners found a company willing and able to print our shirts overnight after our original order from another company was lost in transit.

For the second year in a row, we also had a typhoon on track to hit Tokyo during the week of English Summer Camp, but even the typhoons bow to the Maker of heaven and earth. The typhoon passed in the wee hours of the morning and had little impact on our program schedule except a minor delay.

Beyond that, things went so smoothly it was as if it were on rails. Volunteer signups picked up the few weeks before camp and we had plenty of helpers including an army of people from church helping with the registration rush on the first day. They were so effective, there wasn’t a registration rush at all, and kids were ready to go right on schedule.

But lest we be Marthas instead of Marys, logistics aside, this was an amazing week for us and the children who participated. We were thrilled to teach the children songs reminding them “Our God is a great big God and He holds us in his hands” and “What great love the Father has given us that we should be called His children.” It gives me such joy to think that one day when these children need to know that God is real and He loves them, they will already have these words planted in their hearts.

Most importantly, the children (and by extension, their families) spent a week experiencing the love of Christ through our many Christian staff and volunteers. We continued to build upon the relationships we have with some of our special friends who have now known us for two years. They know who we are and are learning, step by step, WHY we are. That because of God’s mercy through Jesus we can try to love others as God loves us. And we hope the more time they spend with us, the more they can confirm the truth about God’s love for us and for them.

The best news is that plans are already in place to continue this ministry, next year and beyond. As these children grow up with the Word of God planted in their hearts, we will develop ministries to help them deepen their understanding of the gospel. But for now, we are patiently planting, watering, and loving what the Lord has entrusted to us.

The Blessed Little Ones

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the greatest blessings for ministry workers in the field is the gift of expertise: lending your life experience, training and education in an area where it is most needed. This past month, a family from our home church did just that. Pam Y. came with her husband (the associate pastor of the church) and three young girls to serve us in a very unique way: providing her expertise on working with children with special needs. Pam taught a workshop to the elementary school teachers at the school my wife works at and helped my wife teach a seminar for parents of children with special needs at the preschool where our pastor is the chaplain. For the latter, we were hoping a few parents might show up so we wouldn’t be lonely; in reality, almost 20 parents came, underscoring what we believed to be the truth. Resources for Japanese parents with special needs children are so scarce they will make use of any opportunity they can to get help.

Japan lags behind most first world countries in terms of providing resources for children with learning and behavioral challenges. The reasons probably lie in the structure of the Japanese educational system and are reinforced by the expectations of Japanese society. Did you ever wonder why Japanese students are famous for their uniforms? The Japanese educational system stresses uniformity, being part of a group and contributing to the success of the group. Everyone learns at the same pace, so those who cannot keep up are considered a burden to the entire class. It’s no wonder the typical Japanese classroom can seem hostile to a child who is a slower learner or has attention deficit disorder, dyslexia or is on the autism spectrum.

The Japanese “solution” to these types of children is to place them in special schools where they are not hindering the progress of their classmates. Of course, once you have been tracked into one of these schools, the doors slam shut on your chances for a bright future. At best, most students in these types of school may end up in vocational school, if they are able to continue their education beyond secondary level at all.

For this reason, any loving parent will avoid getting any sort of diagnosis for their child that might label them as “special”. In America, special needs children get special attention and help. In Japan, the same children get swept to the side, into the shadows. Therefore, if parents want to try to ensure a future for their children, their main option is to help their children by themselves. Unfortunately, there are few private resources available that can help them.

My wife has a burden to help children and families like this. We have prayed even before we arrived in Japan for a chance to use her skills and experience working with special needs children in ministry. Finally, the doors opened up to us to help the parents of children at the local preschool, and in God’s perfect timing, He brought Pam to us at that exact moment to co-facilitate a seminar for them.

We don’t know exactly where this path leads us. We do know that there is a lot of interest among the parents for help. One mother is working on forming a support group for families with special needs children. Another Japanese man who has training and expertise in this area is anxious to lend his help. There is momentum building, a momentum driven by the Spirit for this time.

Please pray with us as we determine how this ministry will develop and how to best use it to show the love of Christ to families and children who often feel alienated, alone, or frustrated by their situation. The church has always been a place for those who felt cast aside by society, and we want to be here to welcome them to the family of Christ.

Northern Thailand – A Reason to Return

20180305-_DSC3168Among the six children living at Migiwa House, E was a little different than the others. Using a pet analogy, if the other children were like dogs, E was the cat. The other kids reveled in physical play and hugs while E would hang back, occasionally come to grab your hand for a moment or sit on your lap, only to be off again quickly on her own. Though all the children came from lives of varying degrees of difficulty, E’s life was probably one of the most difficult. Her mother was in prison. Her father, when he wanted her around at all, was physically and verbally abusive. One would think E would find refuge in spending 10 months of the year living at Migiwa House, away from her home in the village to attend elementary school, but on the contrary, she often expressed her discontent. She even refused to pay next year’s school fees given to her by her guardians at Migiwa House because she said she wasn’t going to come back.

I have a soft spot in my heart for this little girl, tough on the outside, but broken and hurting inside. The five days we spent with the children at Migiwa House, I tried to make sure E felt like she was a part of the family, to remind her that she was surrounded by people who loved her. Once while we were out walking, E came beside me and grabbed my hand, walking beside me for a few minutes before running off to play. Teru, her Migiwa House “dad” told me later that she never wanted to hold anyone’s hand. Maybe the Lord provided a special connection between us.

Each member of our team lavished a little extra love on E. Kathy talked sweetly with her and gave her extra hugs. Kun-san drew a portrait of her sitting on the chair outside and presented it to her. And on the day before we left, I looked E in the eyes and told her to promise she would be there at Migiwa house when I came back next year. She coyly replied, “I don’t know” with her mischievous smile.

As we said goodbye, there were many tears shed by both the children and our team. We knew only a couple days after we left, the kids would return to their villages for a two month school break. Five of them would happily return to Migiwa House in June. The other…we could only pray for.

A few days later, we received an email from Teru thanking us for ministering to the children, visiting the villages to teach music, and teaching English and photography at New Life Center. I quickly scanned the message for news about E, and was overjoyed when Teru said that he was now confident E would return to Migiwa House in two months. She intended to keep her promise to me.

I always wonder if people think it is strange that as a ministry worker to the Japanese, I take this annual trip to support the hilltribe people of Northern Thailand. But I believe God calls us beyond national borders, beyond people groups and simply to those who need Him the most. People like E, who might slip through the cracks and disappear if not reminded of God’s love for her through our visits. For children with unstable lives, there has to be some consistency from adults in their lives, and in some small way, our little team from Tokyo provides some consistency and comfort to her.

The trip also provided an opportunity for us to have a change of scenery and provide still provide much needed ministry. Later, I will report on the incredible progress we have seen over three years and four visits to New Life Center. And this year, my friend Y who is like a brother-in-law to me, was able to be with us the whole week. Though he is not a Christian yet, he spent the week serving alongside us, using the gifts God gave him the same as us, and gaining a fuller understanding of how God works in our lives and the lives of others. I pray that his understanding of the gospel is much more complete as a result of his experience. Experience can move people’s hearts in a way reasoning and logic cannot.

One day, E will graduate from high school and then from university, and I am looking forward to the day that instead of us going to see her in Chiang Rai, she will come to see us in Tokyo. Until that day, we will continue to nurture and encourage her in the language she best understands from us, just being there for her.

Something Fishy at Ramen Nagi

Last month, a friend sent me a message asking if I had eaten at Ramen Nagi in Golden Gai. He must have realized that I spend a lot of time scouting out the best ramen shops in Tokyo for people who come to visit us. I know, the sacrifices I have to make…

Truthfully, I had never been to Ramen Nagi and I was a bit intimidated about eating in Golden Gai but it turned out to be a good experience. Like many places in Golden Gai, it looked a little sketchy from outside with a hand-scrawled sign in English over the door  (and misspelled at that) and a very steep and narrow stairway up to the restaurant. To be fair, if you can read Japanese, it does say Ramen Nagi, open 24 hours on the sign next to the door.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Once inside, you are seated at a narrow counter with about 12 seats. True to ramen culture, your goal is to eat your ramen as quickly as possible and get out to make room for the people queuing up behind you. Fortunately, I went very early so there were not many people waiting to be seated and I was able to take a few photos.

To be clear, Ramen Nagi is about the fish. The broth is famously made from dried baby sardines and the flavor is, well, sardine-y. If you don’t like sardines, you’ve come to the wrong place. Even the vinegar used to season your ramen is sardine-infused.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But Ramen Nagi has the mysterious Japanese umami flavor in abundance, and the soup never seems overpowered by fishiness, but rather a nice balance of the smoky, salty broth combined with the fish and nori sheets. The ramen itself is very thick and wavy, a technique used by ramen chefs who want you to really experience the flavor of the broth in every bite. Broth clings to wavy noodles and the thickness absorbs some of the liquid.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Given that Ramen Nagi is open 24 hours, it would be a great choice for those who miss the last train, voluntarily or involuntarily, and want a bowl of something delicious to see them through to daybreak.

As for me, it broke through my irrational fear of eating in Golden Gai and added another notch on my “best ramen in Tokyo” belt.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Obi of Love

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

The Bible speaks of the attributes of our character that should be apparent to those transformed by Christ: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness. Above these things, we are to put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:12-14).

In the Japanese translation of this passage, “love” is described as an “obi”, the material wrapped around a kimono to hold the garment on and tied in a variety of beautiful ways. It is a masterful way to describe love in a way that is easy for those familiar with Japanese culture to understand.

Today, I was introduced to a woman who makes clothing and accessories out of recycled materials. Some of her items are made from recycled kimono that are too old to be worn again. She takes these once beautiful garments and makes them new again.

But what touched me the most was when she said she could take old cloth from a person’s history and make it into a new garment. A piece of a blanket once precious to your son when he was a toddler. A scarf from your grandmother who passed away years ago. To do so, she said, was to bring a memory of someone you love close to your heart.

I thought about how our experience informs our personal concept of “love”. Some people experience love from family members, spouses, or friends. But for others, they receive something less pleasant from those same people: ambivalence, neglect, even abuse. Some pour out love into the lives of others, to receive little or nothing in return from them.

Yet when the Bible talks about the obi of love, I believe it describes the state of understanding God’s unconditional love for us. By understanding how God loves us in spite of our imperfections perhaps we can overlook the imperfections in others and love them in a similar way. Without real love for others, our compassion, kindness, and patience toward them is self-serving, designed to make us feel good about ourselves.

We can receive glimpses of God’s love for us through other people, but we can also receive wounds from them. But even those wounds can be bound up and healed by experiencing the amazing love God has for us in Christ.

Colabo: Serving When No One is Watching

 

20180108-_DSC9524At any given moment of the day, Yumeno Nito, founder of Colabo, and her partner Inaba-san may be found quietly doing the work in Japan that few people wish to do. Late at night, they might be patrolling the streets of Shibuya, looking for girls who have run away from abuse or neglect at home, only to find themselves in another vulnerable situation as potential prey for those who would seek to use them for financial gain or more abuse. During the day, they might be teaching girls they have rescued how to cook and take care of themselves, or encouraging them to stay in school so they can get good employment, or counseling them through their many emotional wounds. On top of this, Yumeno spends a great deal of time speaking at various events and venues across Japan, spreading the message that the issues young people, especially girls, are facing are real and growing, though little help is available through the government or even other organizations. She spends countless hours raising money to buy or rent apartments for the rescued girls to live in, money for food and necessities, money for education and counseling sessions.

Once or twice a year, my friend Sheila Cliffe and I, along with others who care deeply about this problem, volunteer to help with events Colabo sponsors. Sheila dresses the girls in kimono or yukata for Coming of Age day or summer festivals respectively, and I take portraits of them. Many of these girls don’t know what it feels like to be treated as someone special, to be dressed like a princess and fawned over. They don’t know how to act in that situation. Most shy away from the camera. Some hide their faces, turning away or hiding behind their hair. But we make them as comfortable as possible and give them photos that can become happy memories of lives that are often filled with only sad or hurtful experiences.

I hesitated for a very long time to write this post because I don’t want this to be about me. What we are doing is a tiny part of what Colabo is doing for these girls as a whole, so insignificant I would hardly mention it if only to explain the connection I have to Colabo. But the fact is, Colabo is doing such important work in Japan, Nito-san and Inaba-san need to be recognized for it.

I’ve known about and worked with Colabo for almost two years, though Yumeno founded the organization years before that. It is only recently that they were able to rent an apartment as a safehouse for a few girls, and very recently they were able to purchase another unit. But the fact of the matter is that there are hundreds if not thousands of young people, girls and boys, in vulnerable situations all over Japan, and nobody is paying attention to the problem. Sure, the government should have a better infrastructure for finding and supporting children like this. And yes, more non-profit organizations should step up to do more where the government is lacking. But we the general public are not innocent in the matter either. When we see these kids hanging out on the streets late at night, in our minds we label them as “hoodlums” or “bad girls”. The reality may very well be that they have nowhere to go. That karaoke rooms or convenience stores might be the only places to keep them from freezing at night. That going to a stranger’s home or hotel room might at least mean a warm bed and a free meal.

It breaks my heart to have to write this, knowing that many of Japan’s children, precious and critical to the survival of the country, are suffering neglect not just at the hands of their parents, but at the hands of society as a whole. Society chooses the easy road: blaming the victims for their circumstances. In this way, they can ignore the problem.

I thank God for organizations like Colabo and selfless individuals like Nito-san and Inaba-san who give their lives for the cause, but the number of resources working on behalf of the children pale in comparison to the number of children who need help.

It would be easy to throw up your hands and say “What can I do as an individual person?” Perhaps you don’t even live in Japan. But if you have a passion to serve the vulnerable here in Japan, you are not powerless.

Pray. The prayers of the selfless person are powerful. When we have nothing to gain for our prayers, I believe God really honors our intentions. Prayers sustain those who have little to hope for, so let’s pray for God to bring hope into the lives of these vulnerable young people, to restrain them from doing the unthinkable.

Learn. Unfortunately, there is only so much you can learn about this topic because it isn’t well recognized as a societal problem in Japan. Yumeno is working hard to change that by speaking on the topic to as many people as possible as often as possible. But there are a few articles online you can research to help you understand the problem. In many ways, this problem isn’t unique to Japan except that the lack of response by the government and other organizations to it is deafening.

http://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20160816/p2a/00m/0na/009000c

https://thelily.com/a-culture-of-dates-in-japan-targets-vulnerable-high-school-girls-2ca321875684

Give. As long as there are so few organizations working against this issue, Colabo will always need as much support as possible to fund new safehouses for girls, pay more staff to help, and make themselves into an organization that the government cannot ignore. As long as they are small scale, the government can pretend they aren’t important. But as they grow, they become a force for change, a voice for the powerless.

You can donate to Colabo by credit card or purchasing Amazon goods here:

Support Colabo

God bless those like Yumeno and Inaba-san who are doing the difficult, thankless work down in the trenches, helping people who would otherwise be ignored or even despised by society. Though they are not “Christians” in the traditional sense of the word, they are doing the work Jesus instructed us to do and demonstrated through his life here on earth.