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.

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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.

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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”.

A Little Reunion

This month, we were able to host our first “reunion” of our children from our English Summer Camp program held this past August. Our intention was to rekindle the interest in the program for next year as well as to invite kids and families to our many church events during this holiday season: Children’s blessing day, Kids Festival and Christmas Eve candlelight service.

We kept the program very simple with a few songs from the summer program, a photo slideshow, a short message from a visiting pastor from the Philippines, and a fun game with colorful balls. Our partners at Redwood Chapel also recorded video messages to share with the kids.

Flyers were sent out a couple weeks in advance, but we really had no idea how many children would show up, just like in August. We just knew this was something we had to do and to repeat several times before next summer’s English Camp.

A few days before the event we received some bad news: elementary schools in the area were in session on that day, a Saturday! Once every couple of months, elementary school kids have to go to school on Saturday and unfortunately, we picked that day for our event. That meant up to half of the potential kids who could attend would be unable to.

So the day of the event arrived and our expectations were low. A few kids and their families were there early to greet us including some of our volunteers. It was so good to see them and see the excitement on their faces. Most came with their camp t-shirts and one little girl even came with her original name tag.

As we approached the starting time, more and more kids and families came trickling in. In the end, about 50 children came, most with one or both parents. A few of the children had not even attended English Summer Camp but were invited by children who did. In the end, we had a great turnout and a great time reuniting with our kids, their families and some of our volunteer moms.

Once again, we find when we serve faithfully, God takes care of the details for us. A couple of the families who came also came to our Children’s blessing event the next day and took family portraits (which they can pick up at Christmas Eve service). We were so blessed to see how the seeds sown over the summer have already begun to take root. We envision and pray for a generation of children who will know God as the Creator, God as the loving Father, God as the Savior, and perhaps one day, Jesus as Lord.

The Small Stuff

Most people are used to dealing with distractions and minor inconveniences in life, so much so that we often don’t even take notice of them. We call them “the small stuff”, and while we may become a little irritated for a moment, we roll on, doing what needs to be done.

But because “the small stuff” can be so minor, we may not notice it until it begins to pile on. You rarely notice the dust in your house until you move the filing cabinet and find that huge filthy pile of it on the floor underneath. And in this same way, the enemy finds ways to get to us.

Oh it starts off innocuously enough. Maybe a few days of rain that force you to change your plans with friends. Perhaps a little ache in your back from sitting too long at the computer. But the rain continues, nearly an entire month. Things people do that you would have easily ignored become major issues. Social media becomes a mental and emotional drain as you are bombarded with negative thoughts and articles. The suffering of people around you becomes magnified as you start to think about your own life. The enemy is now inside your head.

Once he gets into your head, he can start telling you things that you have difficulty distinguishing from your own thoughts: “You’re getting old and you’re falling apart.” “The whole world is a mess and there’s nothing you can do about it.” “You aren’t a good parent/child/spouse.”  And you believe these things because they are coming from inside yourself. So you turn inside and reduce your interactions with people and wallow in your own self pity.

That’s the kind of month September has been for me. Distraction upon distraction, but none large enough to fall upon my knees and cry out to the Lord for rescue. Only in retrospect do I realize how cunning the enemy is in keeping me from prayer. These are just little things; why do I need God’s help? Yet these little things are slowly eating away at my peace, my joy and my enthusiasm for the work I am doing.

Today, I finally fully recognized the tactics of the enemy. I have been played. September is a month I can never get back, but I can repent of my lack of faith, my lack of prayer and rush back to the arms of our Heavenly Father. On my hands and knees I can find my place again, at the feet of Jesus, hearing his soothing words which restore my peace and reassure me of my relationships as a father, brother, son, and most importantly child of God.

It’s difficult to write about the ways you have failed, but I feel like we’ve all been there, following the general path the Lord has put us on but needlessly straying to the left and right, influenced by our emotions and not able to keep our bearings due to lack of prayer. That kind of journey is fraught with restlessness and worry instead of the peace that can be found in the love of Christ.

Tomorrow is a new day, a new month, and God’s promises are new every morning. His faithfulness is constant even when ours is not. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

When There Are No Easy Answers

Recently, my pastor participated in a neighborhood festival and was given the honor of helping to carry the mikoshi.

Once you have read and digested that sentence, you will likely fall into one of three groups of people.

The first group thinks: “That’s nice that the pastor of your church is an active and respected member of the community.” and nothing more.

The second group is horrified, and thinks “What kind of a Christian pastor would participate in a religious festival so closely tied to Shintoism and even went so far as to carry the mikoshi, an act that is more than passively approving of worshiping false gods but actively participating in it?”

And the third group is encouraged, thinking “After decades of making Japanese people feel guilty and shameful about their cultural practices with historic ties to religion, it is refreshing to see a Christian pastor who can look beyond the surface appearance of honoring people by participating in a community festival and see the long term goal of building trust and mutual respect with the community the church serves.”

So which of these three groups of people’s beliefs are correct? The answer is more complicated than you probably think.

Before we dive into this question, I want to say that I am well aware of the fact that this is a controversial subject. I may state things in a way you might find offensive, and though I intend no offense, I do not automatically apologize for it either. Perhaps it is you that needs to reconsider your views of Christianity, missions and evangelism and perhaps that truth can range from irritating to painful. If you are not ready to confront your own potential blind spots in these areas, it is best for you to stop reading here.

Here we have a conundrum. Two of the three possible responses to this situation are in direct opposition to one another, and it would not be surprising for well-intentioned Christians to line up on either side of the issue, ready to defend it with strong words for the other side. And that’s where we’d all be wrong.

The answer to the question, in my opinion, is that all three groups are correct and none of the three are correct, and it depends on the situation and the prayerful discernment of the one who must make that choice. That answer is probably completely unsatisfactory to many of you.

But perhaps that is because we as modern Christians have grown lazy in our spirituality. We expect the Bible to spit out an answer in form of chapter and verse that unequivocally answers our questions of morality. Unlike the spiritual giants of the past who spent hours a day locked in a room pleading for God to speak, we believe the Lord will give us an answer to our deepest questions in a 15 minute quiet time over coffee and a piece of toast.

And we fail to remember that the Bible wasn’t written in chapter and verses, neatly divided up for us to cherry-pick our answers from. The Bible is to be taken as a whole to see the character of God through His relationship with His people and that of His Son, Jesus Christ. In high school government, we learned the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. When you divide the Bible into verses and take them out of context, it is far too easy to find the letter of the Law without discerning the Spirit, in this case, the Holy Spirit, who will reveal the character and nature of God through the entire text.

So in that context, the Bible does not speak directly to the participation in a Japanese festival, nor should we expect it to. It does speak about worshiping false gods. It also speaks about how Jesus himself broke perceived religious rules to reach people where they were at. When we cherry-pick from either of these verses, we end up in opposition with our own brethren, sometimes to the point of contention.

Much is left out of the sentence that began this division of Christian opinions. One of the major points is the fact that prior to starting relationship building with community leaders, our church was viewed with suspicion and perhaps even enmity in the community. Certainly, there was a lack of trust in the goodwill of the church toward the people in the neighborhood. After many years of actively participating in the community including attending community meetings and events and rising to a leadership role, our pastor was given the honor of carrying the mikoshi in the annual festival.

Now, let’s put ourselves in his shoes for a moment. After investing years of relationship building and trust creation with the leaders of the community, you are offered one of the highest honors they can bestow on you. To these people, they view carrying the mikoshi as nothing more than a symbol of being a leader in the community; there are no religious overtones tying it to Shintoism. But you are aware that some members of your church and the Christian community in general will not see it that way.

What do you choose to do? Do you turn down the honor, which sends a message to the people that while we say you don’t have to be a Christian to come to church, if you are a Christian you can’t be a part of community events based on Japanese cultural traditions? Such a response can easily snowball into the misconception that you are a hypocrite, that what is good enough for the “pagans” is not good enough for Christians.

Or do you accept the honor, incurring the wrath and judgment (much of it in silence, behind your back) of the Christian community who sees your actions as heretical? Do you accept the possibility that some of your own congregation may leave your church because they so sharply disagree with your actions?

As you can see, there is no easy answer. Even if you believe accepting the honor from the community is the right choice, you will have to deal with the consequences. And in fact, there may be cases where choosing not to participate in such a festival is the correct decision. But one cannot discern either decision without wrestling with the answer in prayer and meditation.

Let me end this with one more analogy. For those of us in full-time ministry, we are fighting a spiritual battle against our enemy, the devil and his demons, for the souls of the lost. This is the front lines and though the battle belongs to the Lord, the enemy is using every trick, every tactic to hold us back. One of the greatest tactics he will use against us is to turn us on ourselves. In the stress of the battlefield, it is actually quite easy for him to do this to us. If we’re too busy killing off each other, we have no time to give life to those who need it.

So pulling back the camera and looking at the big picture, are the decisions being made by people furthering or hindering the communication of the gospel to the people who most need to hear it? And if we’re not willing to support one another in decisions that we don’t agree with, can we at least agree not to tear each other down for those decisions when they are made for the sake of the gospel? Let us not become our own greatest enemy, standing between our brothers and those hungry for the gospel.