No Small Miracles

We were warned buying a home in Japan as foreigners staying on a work visa would be difficult. Well, difficult may have been a mild description. The real trouble comes when you go to the bank to apply for a housing loan. Our situation was a little more challenging than just the lack of permanent residency.

  • Half of our income is paid from a source outside of Japan and cannot be used in any calculations for a loan.
  • And, well, we’re ministry workers, so our total income isn’t that high to begin with.
  • Both in our 40’s, giving us less time to work than the standard Japanese 35-year-loan period allows.
  • Can read Japanese at a level equivalent to Japanese 4th grader who “ain’t doing so well.”

Miracle #1: Our Realtor

Our pastor recommended Mr. Shirakawa as a former church member who moved to another area of Tokyo who helped many of our members with real estate transactions. The importance of having a realtor whom you can trust completely, who prays for you, and who works tirelessly when the odds are against you cannot be understated. There were times in the process we were so frustrated we wanted to give up. But Mr. Shirakawa never gave up; he just kept looking for ways for us to get a loan. And from dozens of phone calls to banks and lending companies, he did find us two options for loans. And though we ended up not using either one, without them, we would have given up hope much earlier and missed our opportunity to buy the property we finally did.

Miracle #2: The Right House

It’s no secret that Japanese houses are very different from American houses. A large house in our area is 1,000 square feet, the footprint of which can probably fit in some people’s living/dining room area. Storage is often the trade off to allow people more living space, but storage is a pretty important feature to Americans. We looked at about 20 different houses recommended by our realtor and dozens of others browsing the internet real estate websites almost daily. No house was perfect and we were resigned to “settling” for a decent home. In fact, we had settled on a less than perfect house when the house we really wanted appeared in my Facebook feed as an advertisement! Yes, something wonderful came from a Facebook ad! I had browsed the real estate site every day and somehow this listing had eluded me until God put it right in my feed! The layout of the house is pretty much everything we wanted and the fact that building has only just started means that we get to choose the colors and materials used in the house, making it truly our own.

Miracle #3: The Right Location

One thing our family was not going to compromise on was location. It was quite a tug of war in our house because many of the houses that were larger or had better layouts were less convenient for getting to school or the train station by bike or foot. This is the real reason we settled on the less-than-perfect house. The location was fantastic: a little closer to school and much closer to the main train station and to the road we use to get to church. So when the link appeared in my feed for our house, the thing that caught my eye first was that it was in the same neighborhood as the less-than-perfect house. In fact, the location was slightly better, only a few meters from the river path that could take Jayne and the kids almost all the way to school without worrying about dangerous traffic on narrow streets.

Miracle #4: The Right Price

Our price limit varied based on the interest rate and down payment we would need by tens of thousands of dollars, but there was definitely a limit which we could not afford to go over. Because the seller helped us with the process of getting a loan through their preferred bank, we got a much better interest rate than what would normally be offered to people in our situation, which gave us a little more room in the pricing. As it turned out, the price we paid was right in the middle of our target, but with the lower interest rate and the 33-year term of the loan, the monthly payments came in lower than expected. Perfect timing as we determine how much money Jeremy will need our help with when he goes to college next year.

The whole experience reminds us of two important things that have been a theme since we began this journey. One, if you let the Lord lead (and at times, we did so only because we had no idea what we were doing), He’s going to lead you exactly where you need to go. And second, the Lord’s blessings are better than anything we could imagine. When we arrived in Japan, the idea we could purchase a new home here in an ideal location, basically custom built for us and with a mortgage lower than our current rent would have been laughable. Even six months ago, it seemed like only a dream. Yet today, it’s our reality.

So yes, it is possible for non-permanent residents to buy their dream home in Japan. But we had a Big Guy working on our behalf.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22-23

Reflections on CPI 2017

20171025-_DSC3439

This was our first year at  the CPI (Church Planting Institute) conference and to be honest, I never felt the need or desire to go in the past. After all, we are technically not church planters, but church supporters, working with an existing church and following the vision of the pastors. We went this year because our organization, JEMS, used CPI as an opportunity to bring together all of our JEMS co-workers in Japan for the first time.

Now I have never been one to love this type of event from the start. As a staunch introvert, the idea of spending the whole day with a large group of people and not even having my own room to decompress at the end of the day sounded more like torture than rest. But God always knows what we need and I was one of the lucky few who was able to secure an individual room for the duration of the conference, which put me much more at ease about going.

The time spent with our colleagues was precious. Two summers ago, we were fortunate enough to be in California for the Mt. Hermon conference with a large group of us, but there were still many who were not able to attend. And in the past couple of years, our executive director has worked hard to add to our numbers, so there were many more team members whom I had never met even on social media.

It was great to catch up with old friends and meet new ones. There is a special bond between ministry workers that doesn’t even need to be established; we simply relate to the kinds of trials that are common to our occupation. So it is easy to pray for and with one another and feel the support of those who have and continue to walk in our shoes.

As for the conference itself, the message really struck a chord with me this year. As basic as it seemed, we were simply reminded to take time to experience the love of God, and given ample opportunity to do so in worship and prayer. And for the first time in what seemed like a long time, I really felt I was able to let the Lord draw near to me and be embraced by Him with His unconditional, infinite love.

As ministry workers, we can talk for hours about God’s love and faithfulness. We drill it into our heads and we try to drill it into the heads of those who want to know it. But we don’t always give people the opportunity to experience it, largely because we may not be experiencing it on a daily basis ourselves. This is the challenge of what we do: maintain a respectable level of work for the Kingdom while nurturing a relationship with God so that we truly can understand the importance of the work we are doing for others.

Coming out of the conference, I’ve been prayerfully pondering how to make the love of God real in my own life and how to relate the experience, not just the knowledge, to those who desire to know God more. I feel there are no easy answers, but at the same time, I also feel that God provides answers to those who earnestly seek Him.

Little Voices Magnified

Yesterday, as I watched the mini-bus full of our Redwood team pull out of the preschool on their way back to California, I felt the tears welling up. For a week, we had transformed the rooms and halls of the preschool, normally unused during vacation periods, into places of joy and laughter for over 200 children. They danced like no one was watching, sang at the tops of their lungs, and gave praise to a God they were only just beginning to know, but One who knew and loved them before they were born.

Their little voices echoed in the hallways of my memories, their little footsteps literally running into the chapel excited to sing and dance their hearts out for Jesus. In those moments, it wasn’t difficult to understand the joy God feels for us, His creation, and what He intended our relationship to be with him: children running with joy to spend time with their Father.

Dozens of volunteers spent hundreds of man hours preparing for and participating in English Summer Camp this year. Many people, most who didn’t even attend the event, gave time and resources to support this event: prayer, financial, labor. And many volunteers here in Japan sacrificed their vacation time to spend time with these children.

I’m so thankful for the breadth and depth of our local volunteers this year. Some came from other churches to help, some from other ministries, like a great group of young people from YWAM. Some were local university students who love children. Some were mothers of participating children who wanted to be more actively involved.

Some of our volunteers said that by participating in camp, they came to a fuller knowledge of who Jesus is and what Christianity is about. A parent said that she had never seen her child as full of joy as they were during English Summer Camp. On the last day, there were already requests to do a mini-camp in the Fall, maybe with a few members of the Redwood Team returning to lead it.

This is all we pray and hope for; the opportunity to build deeper friendships and relationships based on the foundation of God’s love. Through our friendship, we hope to help our Japanese friends gain a clearer understanding of God’s great love for them. We want to stand with them in their times of joy and times of sorrow, their triumphs and trials. For Jesus called us to live out his love in the world in action, and not just words.

Sharing some of the beautiful moments of this year’s English Summer Camp: children worshiping their Heavenly Father and being loved with the love of Jesus through our leaders and volunteers.

 

Zig When They Zag

On the first real day of Spring in Tokyo, I decided to take a walk in the city to see the cherry blossoms. Despite living in Japan for almost three years, I still recognize the fact that cherry blossom seasons are brief and at the mercy of the weather (which has turned windy and rainy, so it was wise to take the walk when I could) and need to be fully embraced when they happen. We also had a lot of starts and stops this year, with the weather appearing to warm up, only to be cruelly thrown back into Winter by a cold storm blowing down from the North.

I started my walk in one of Tokyo’s major Japanese gardens, Rikugien, famous for its huge weeping cherry tree just inside the front gate. Whenever I say “famous” in this article, just translate it as “crowded”. That is how cherry blossom season works in Japan. All those beautiful “famous” places you see in photos are usually swarmed by tourists and locals alike.

20170405-_DSC7883

I didn’t spend much time in Rikugien. Well, maybe more time that I would have liked, shuffling slowly behind groups of people looking for a quick exit.

I decided that I would walk from Rikugien to Nezu Shrine and from there, around Yanaka, an old neighborhood of Tokyo that includes a large cemetery which is filled with cherry trees, and obviously, graves. I had no set path to get there; I would use my eyes and Google Maps to find patches of green which indicated parks or temple areas that might have sakura blossoms.

To cut a long story short, Nezu Shrine is famous for azeleas, which bloom later in the month and not for sakura, so it was a bust. Yanaka cemetery was full of cherry blossoms but because of that, it was one of the few days of the year when the living outnumber the dead in that area.

But along the way, I happened to notice a patch of purple flowers down a side street and ended up at Komagome-Fuji Shrine, a small shrine built on a hill about 15 meters above street level. A steep staircase leads up to the shrine, flanked by a few gorgeous cherry trees. I stopped and photographed the shrine for about 30 minutes and found at the end of the day it ended up being my favorite spot to view the Spring foliage.

I can certainly see parallels in my little stroll through Tokyo and my Christian journey. We often have goals that are common with most people in the world, goals that draw the largest crowds. Wealth, fame, popularity, knowledge. We look at the roadmap of our lives and determine the quickest route to reach those goals.

Yet in the times when I was able to abandon my roadmap (usually it was God wrestling the map out of my hands), I found He would lead me to places more wonderful that I could ever dream. Away from the corporate world to a place where I could devote my time and energy to serving Him and others. Away from the hustle to places where I could find rest and regain my bearings. Away from the foolishness of chasing things that ultimately left me empty to a place where I could learn to rely more on being filled up with the Spirit.

Which is not to say that life is perfect and that my plans don’t sometimes get in the way with God’s plan. But I am learning, little by little, that when Scripture tells us not to conform to the patterns of this world, it isn’t a warning, it is a path to Freedom. Learning to trust that just maybe, the twists and turns of the path the Lord leads us on aren’t always trials and tests, but still waters and scenic viewpoints.

Northern Thailand Update – Migiwa Foundation

Last year, we traveled to several villages in Northern Thailand for the purpose of meeting a few of the children who would be coming to live with our ministry workers in Chiang Rai for ten months of the year to attend school. Without a safe place to live in the city, there would be no educational opportunities for many hilltribe children where schools in general are rare and there are no village schools for kids beyond junior high school level.

This year, we were excited to reunite with several of the kids we met in their villages last year, now living at the Migiwa Foundation home. Two of the children are from the Lahu hilltribe and three are Akha. One is the daughter of an Akha pastor who helps take care of the other children but the other four are from broken homes. Last year, one of the boys we met had been basically abandoned to the care of his 13-year-old brother when his mother began living with another man. He was 9-years-old at the time and could barely speak any Thai because he went to school so infrequently. Now he is attending school regularly and doing well.

Our friends were able to rent a large piece of land at a reasonable price, which enabled them to build a separate room (necessary because they are housing boys and girls) and a guest house for visitors which will eventually be used by Thai caretakers for the children.

In the short time they have lived at Migiwa House, several of the kids already have a basic grasp of Japanese (the mother tongue of our friends) as well as becoming fluent in Thai. They also learn a little English, so including their native language, they will eventually be quad-lingual!

But the real language of children is play and that’s what we did whenever we had free time to spend with them. Outdoor sports and games, board games, piggyback rides, you name it, we played it with them. One of the things many children raised in poverty suffer from is lack of attention from adults, so when they can get it, they really soak it up. And they were such sweet-natured, fun children, who wouldn’t want to lavish attention on them? It reminds me of one of my favorite pieces of Scripture: See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! (1 John 3:1) We can only hope that they see the love God the Father has for them through us.

Again, I marveled in the fact that these children experienced such joy in the simple things of life: climbing trees to pick fruit, making stilts and bows and arrows out of bamboo, riding in the back of a pickup truck. Our friend said he’s never taken them to the local mall or to eat at McDonalds. They don’t need those things to be happy and the knowledge of those things would likely just make them unhappy. Isn’t it so true that the greatest temptation we face daily is the temptation to be ungrateful for what the Lord has graciously given us?

Returning to Thailand on this annual ministry trip plays an important role in resetting my perspective on Christian life. It reminds me that contentment can be found in even the most challenging of life’s situations. It burdens me to remember to pray for our brothers and sisters in other countries and humbles me to seek prayers from them. It connects me to the global church and gives me a glimpse of the powerful ways the Lord is moving among His people.

As Christians, we don’t need a vacation from Kingdom work, but I do believe we need a change of perspective once in a while. We returned from Thailand physically exhausted but at the  same time, brimming with spiritual fervor for the work of the Lord. Praise God for the ways He loves and cares for us. We look forward to praying for these children as they grow up in the Lord, supporting their financial needs to live at Migiwa House and attend school, and visiting them regularly to spend quality time with them.

 

 

 

Northern Thailand Update – Abonzo Coffee

A group of people from our church and sister church, including our pastor and I, returned from a whirlwind mission trip to Northern Thailand arriving in Japan a little after 6am. As was the case for our previous two trips, we split our ministry time between our Akha friend running a coffee production business in his hilltribe village and participating in the ministry activities of a missionary family our church conference supports, mainly working with the children of the various hilltribes in the area. Since there is much to process and write about, I am splitting my reflections into two entries. This one will be about Pat, our coffee producing friend and Akha hilltribe member.

In 2015, we stood on a hill overlooking the valley where the Akha village of Doi Chang was nestled among acres of fertile soil and abundant coffee trees. The coffee trees were a gift from the King of Thailand in the 1970s as a way to give the Akha an alternative to opium production. Today, the wisdom of the King is evident in the fact that the Doi Chaang (different spelling for the coffee growing region) region produces an abundance of some of the best coffee in the world and kept many Akha people out of the drug trade.

As we stood on that hill, our friend Pat described his vision for the land, which at this point, he did not own nor did he know how he would be able to purchase it. He pointed out where his Abonzo Coffee cafe would be built, and next to it a roasting facility. Above that, a processing plant for washing and drying beans. And all of his Abonzo Coffee employees would be young people from his tribe who would learn and use skills from his company and earn a fair wage to help support their families. And together we prayed for his vision.

20160205-_DSC4857

Nearly a year later to the day in 2016, we again stood on the land which was now owned by Pat and had a large parcel cleared and flattened, ready to be built on. Again, we prayed together for the Lord’s blessing on Pat and his vision.

And this past week, once again we stood on Pat’s land, where his cafe and roasting building was more than half completed and land was cleared and ready for building a small processing plant. About a kilometer away down the mountain, a larger processing plant was already completed and producing hundreds of kilos of coffee beans every day.

It is here we should note that four years ago, Pat started with not much more than his family’s coffee farm, some basic knowledge of how to process coffee, and a clear vision from the Lord on how to help his people rise out of poverty. Today, he is on the verge of becoming one of the few major producers of coffee in the Doi Chaang region behind only the cash rich competitor bought last year by a major Thai corporation. The Lord’s favor is on Pat and he is moving, often on faith alone, toward the vision the Lord gave him years ago. He started buying land and building structures not knowing if he would have the capital to finish, but God has always provided and Pat has faith that He will continue to provide, so he presses on.

Pat’s parents work full days on the farm alongside other workers, climbing up and down the steep slopes picking coffee cherries by the tens of kilos per day. The day we visited the farm 10 laborers including Pat’s parents, picked 660 kg of coffee cherries in an 8 hour day. The work is hard enough to make young men break down and cry, but there are no tears from the Akha people during the work day, just chatter and laughter and singing traditional songs together.

The taste of Doi Chang coffee is earthy and complex. One could imagine the spirit of the Akha people has somehow been transfused into the crop that at one time saved their tribe and they now count on for survival. But where there is money to be made, there are always those who will come, willing to exploit people and land for profit. So it takes men and women like Pat to defend the rights of the Akha people for an honest wage and fair dealing in land use (technically, the Akha are considered aliens in Thailand and have no legal ownership of land).

We continue to pray for Pat and others like him who have a vision for the Akha people of Thailand, as well as neighboring countries, that aligns with the way God Himself would care for His people. A vision that sets them free from the bondage of drug and human trafficking, substance abuse, and hopelessness in poverty. A vision where the Akha people outside of Thailand can hear and respond to the gospel as strongly as those inside Thailand. A vision where a young man headed down the wrong path can have his life turned around by Christ to be a spiritual and business leader in his community.

“The Holey Church”

Yesterday, Mr. S., a man from our church, left from the local train station on his way to his new home in Osaka. Our pastor was there to see him off and snap a photo together on his phone which he kindly posted to Facebook so we could all wish Mr. S. well on this new season of his life.

I didn’t call Mr. S. a member of the church, because he wasn’t. Mr S., as far as I know, is not yet a Christian. But for the past year, Mr. S. has been faithfully attending church, prayer group meetings, and volunteering his time in different ministries the church is involved in. He was a wonderful helper at our English Summer Camp program last year and we invited him to return from Osaka to help us again this summer.

I don’t know the whole story about Mr. S. except that he lived in the neighborhood near our church for decades, and one day, he decided he wanted to come to church. Unable to come to Sunday service, he joined the weekly prayer meeting instead and faithfully prayed for the people of our church and others. He made friends with our pastor and several others in the prayer group.

When Mr. S. realized the needs the church was helping to address, he didn’t stand by and observe. He jumped right in and began to help. When we were short on helpers last year for our first English Summer Camp, Mr. S. was there every day volunteering.

This past Sunday when it was announced to the congregation that Mr. S. would be moving to Osaka, he was recognized for his generous heart of service with a hearty applause. This quiet, unassuming man who simply stepped into our church building one day had made such an impact on the work the church was doing.

At the risk of sounding boastful, this is how church should be done. I’m grateful that our pastors and staff have promoted the idea the “holey church” where people from the community can come into church not just to attend service but to participate in ministries of the church traditionally considered “Christians only”. The idea is that one doesn’t just need to come to church through the front door directly into worship service, but they can come into the church through any number of doors that lead to different ministries and activities, not only as participants but as volunteers and leaders. After all, rare is the person who answers the altar call who hasn’t first experienced the love of God through relationships with Christians through church ministry.

What if prayer meeting was reserved only for church members? What if volunteering for English Summer Camp was restricted only to Christians? Would Mr. S. have even stuck around at a church that appeared exclusive to its members?

Church isn’t a country club that requires membership to join and participate. In fact, I have heard it explained that “the church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members”. But at times, the church as a whole sometimes forgets this directive, and the result is that we miss out on opportunities to minister to people.

Over 40 ministries and activities use our church facility on a weekly basis. Some are church affiliated and some are independent. Most are meeting some need of a group that is in need: young families, single mothers,  the mentally or physically disabled, students who need a safe place to hang out. About 1,500 people come in and out of the church building during the average week to attend or volunteer with one of these activities. That is the opportunity for 1,500 people, the large majority of whom are not yet Christian, to experience the gospel through interaction with Christians in the church.

Mr. S. is just one recent example of those opportunity people, who came out of curiosity, but stayed because they were loved and accepted by Christians. When we think outside the box and treat non-Christian people not as “projects” but as peers, we make it possible to build honest and genuine relationships with them that reflect the love Christ has for us.

Please pray that this attitude of inclusion would permeate the church in Japan and people would see the Christian church as a safe haven where they can be accepted and loved as well as be free to serve without first having to “become Christian”.