Life, Interrupted

Until a few days ago, the coronavirus was just a spectre lurking in the shadows. I knew something was out there and it made me uneasy, but when it came to everyday life, it had little real impact (apart from washing my hands much more often).

That all changed a few days ago, when Japan as a nation went into full panic mode. The Prime Minister “requested” all public schools to close until early April to contain the spread of the virus. Hokkaido in the northern part of Japan announced a state of emergency as new cases of the virus were detected in which they could no longer ascertain where people were contracting the virus from. And the rest of the world became wary of Japan’s situation and tightened controls on travelers from Japan.

Suddenly, the school my wife works at and my daughter attends was moving to a remote classes model, meaning all students and most staff would be staying home for the month of March. A church mission trip to Thailand that I have participated in for 4 years has been postponed until further notice, mainly for fear of being quarantined upon entry by Thailand, Japan or both. Ministry events at church have been temporarily cancelled, in the period leading up to Easter. My Japanese conversation lesson is also cancelled for at least the next two weeks.

Seemingly overnight, the virus became real to us, real to everyone in Japan. Stores are sold out of paper products and many household items (face masks have been unavailable for weeks already). Half of Japan’s major companies have asked employees to work at home, though many people with school-aged children would have to make arrangements anyway because schools were closed abruptly. Even Tokyo Disneyland, along with many major attractions in Japan, has closed down for two weeks, during what would normally be a peak season.

In challenging times like this, discouragement can come easily. All of our plans, even just the everyday events of our lives, have been cast into chaos. Top it off with concerns of the long term effects of the virus on our health, on our local and world economy, and things unrelated to the coronavirus that are in turmoil, and you have the perfect storm for despair, or even disbelief. Why does it feel like there is no good news in the world and no hope in sight? Why do I feel completely helpless? Where is God in all of this?

Things I Notice While Walking the Dog

This past week, while taking our dog for her daily morning walk, it became apparent how warm this winter has actually been. Normally in mid-February, we start to see the blossoming of the plum trees, the earliest of the blossoming fruit trees. But as I walked along our river, I noticed it wasn’t only plum trees that were blossoming, but also some of the cherry trees, which in a normal year, do not blossom until late March.

The cherry tree is revered in Japan, not just for its beauty, but for what it represents. Cherry trees blossom before leaves form on the trees. By the time the cherry blossoms fall, the leaves have sprouted, leaving the once bare trees full and green. It truly represents the transformation from winter to spring, and its no wonder the cherry blossom season has almost every Japanese person in a relaxed, jaunty mood.

In any other year, the early blossoming of the cherry trees might not be seen as a good thing. But this year, when there seems to be nothing but a barrage of bad news and uncertainty, the cherry blossoms seem to hold a greater promise than most years. I see them as a message from God reminding us that although the world now seems locked in the dead of winter with no end in sight, there will be an end to these trials. Spring will come; all things will be made new again.

Of course, we see this promise not only symbolically but in very real ways. The virus will eventually be controlled and life will go back to some semblance of normal. Toilet paper and face masks will once again be in stock at all supermarkets and drugstores (kidding, of course, sort of). And the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus overcame the power of sin and death, restoring our relationship with our loving Heavenly Father. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

As Christians, we need to be reminders to the world that Spring is coming, no, it is already here. We need to tell others that a loving relationship with God is already possible through Jesus Christ, who gave his life as a ransom for ours. And because of his sacrifice, we can live boldly, not in fear, proclaiming this great news to the world through our words and actions.

Finding Gohime: Heroes of the Faith in Japanese History

On a recent writing assignment, I toured Okamoto Castle, “the Shining Crow”, known for its black exterior complemented by a set of gold leafed koi ornaments along the roof, which catch the rays of the setting sun. A display by artist Kimiya Masago depicting the life of the first lord of the castle, Ukita Hideie, caught my attention. A portrait of his wife, Minami no Onkata, nee Maeda Gou was part of the display, in which she sat astride one of the great koi on the roof gaze set on the distant horizon. Around her neck, prominently represented in the image was a gold crucifix.

Illustration of Maeda Gou (Minami no Onkata) by Kimiya Masago

As I have traveled around Japan, my interest has been piqued by the existence of early Christians in Japan, particularly among the ruling class. While there is solid evidence of many Christian daimyos existing prior to the first edict against Christianity made by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1587, much of history after that time has been erased or hidden, as is often the case when the powers-that-be would rather not admit to something they aren’t particularly proud of.

What was extremely interesting in this case, however, was the fact that Minami no Onkata, whom I will from now address as Gohime (Princess Go) was a beloved adopted daughter of none other than Toyotomi himself. If Gohime was a Christian, did she become one in defiance of her father’s edict, or did her father invoke the edict in spite of the fact that his own daughter was a Christian? It didn’t take much searching to find the answer.

Gohime, as it turns out, converted to Christianity nearly 20 years after her father’s edict, around 1606. At that time, her husband Hideie and their two sons had been exiled to a distant island, punishment for Hideie’s loyalty to Toyotomi against Tokugawa Ieyasu, who defeated Toyotomi to become the first Shogun of Japan. Gohime returned to the home of her adopted family in Kyoto. Her father had already passed in 1598, but her adopted mother Kitanomandokoro, a woman of considerable influence and power still remained at the family home with her multitude of servants. Where the story becomes even more interesting is when we examine the household of Kitanomandokoro, the first wife of Toyotomi.

Many texts record Kitanomanodokoro becoming a dedicated Buddhist nun after she was widowed. However, during her reign as basically the First Lady of the Momoyama Period (1573–1600), she wielded great influence both with her husband and on her own, a rarity for a woman in those days. Toyotomi and Kitanomandokoro adopted several children from prominent families, including Gohime and her older sister Mahime, and records show that they truly cared deeply for each of them.

Kitanomandokoro initially strongly opposed the Jesuits and the spread of Christianity, described in Jesuit letters as “cold and unkind”. However, many of her servants and members of her household had become interested in Christianity and more than a few converted, a situation which despite her original feelings, she at least tolerated. Over time, her regard for Christianity changed until she had completely reversed her opinion on Christians and the Jesuits. It has been strongly suggested that when the Jesuit priests and Christian daimyos were unable to get Toyotomi to relax his edict against Christianity, it was Kitamandokoro who successfully petitioned her husband for leniency toward the Jesuits and their disciples.

Later in life, Kitanomandokoro was recorded as saying “…it seems to me that Christianity has great rationale. And it is superior to any other religion, and it is more plausible than many existing Japanese religions.” She continued: “Every Christian agrees on one truth, and claims that to be true. That makes me believe that [Christianity tells] the truth. Japanese religions never agree, and are never the same.” Although it was never recorded that Kitanomandokoro ever officially converted to Christianity, her words suggest a greater understanding of the gospel message than most Japanese had at the time.

Because of Kitanomandokoro’s support of Christians and tolerance for Christians in her own household, Gohime was able to grow up under the influence of several women who were well educated in the gospel and regular attenders of the thriving Osaka church, which they were allowed by Toyotomi to attend. Her husband Ukita Hideie was not a recorded Christian, but his Okayama domain officially permitted Christians to reside and evangelize. His mother, Fuku, like Kitanomandokoro, was a vocal defender of Christians and received appeals from the Jesuits for help. Thus, after her marriage, Gohime continued to live in an environment supportive of Christianity and probably contained Christian servants.

So perhaps it was only natural that later, faced with the trials of being separated from her husband and sons forever, Gohime finally grasped the full understanding of God’s love and mercy. Her sons had been baptized before their exile; she could now be reunited with the family she was forcefully separated from in this life. After her conversion, she returned to her birth home in Kanazawa where she made a substantial donation for the building the church there. Christianity in nearby Kanazawa had thrived under the protection of the Maeda clan, which Gohime was part of. Gohime remained at the estate of her birth family until her death at the age of 61.

I find it very disappointing that few evangelical Christians in Japan have a working knowledge of the roots of Christianity in Japan. I do not know if it because those roots were seeded by the Catholic church and there is still some deep seated mistrust between Protestants and Catholics that has gone unresolved for nearly 500 years now since the Reformation. Perhaps it is because many Japanese Christians were eventually forced underground, becoming the Kakure Kirisutan (Hidden Christians) who worshipped in secret, often using the veil of Buddhism as cover. I’ve even heard Western Evangelicals refer to these Christians as syncretic, a term that shocked and angered me.

Whatever the case, I believe the time has come for Japanese Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, to honor the memories of those who remained in the faith at great cost to themselves and their loved ones. As recently as 2017, Takayama Ukon, the Christian daimyo exiled to the Philippines was beatified, one step closer to sainthood in the Catholic Church. According to the church, it was Takayama’s unwavering faithfulness to the believers in his charge in the face of the wrath of Nobunaga, Toyotomi and Tokugawa Ieyasu that led to his beatification. Like Job of the Bible, Takayama lost everything, eventually even his life, but remained faithful to God and to the followers of Christ in his care. But his is a story for another day.

I believe it is critical for Japanese people to see the depths of Christian faith, Catholic or Protestant, in their own history and heroes. For too long, the evangelical church in Japan has glossed over Catholic church history, even going so far as berating the Kakure Kirisutan as syncretists. If the Japanese are to ever fully understand that Christianity is not a Western religion but one which has been practiced in their country 200 years before America was even established, we must first give them heroes of the faith from that time that they can look to.

References:

The Conversion of Hideyoshi’s Daughter Gōby Tomoko Kitagawa, Japanese Journal of Religions Studies 34/1: 9–25 © 2007 Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture

Kitanomandokoro : a lady samurai behind the shadow of Toyotomi Hideyoshiby Tomoko Kitagawa, UBC Theses and Dissertations

Takayama Ukon — A Candidate for Canonizationby Fr. Johannes Laures, SJ

Reflecting on English Summer Camp 2019

This past August, we wrapped up our 4th year of English Summer Camp. It was significant, in many ways, as from the beginning, we didn’t know if there would be a 4th year. Our partners in California committed to 3 years and after that, it would be up to the Lord to lead us. Well, the Lord led us to continue, and we could tell by this year that where He leads, He leads with great blessings.

About 370 children attended camp this year, about 100 more than last year. From the start, the camp had a different feel to it. Instead of wondering if there would be enough kids to have camp, we started wondering if we could fit all the kids who were coming into the rooms we were using. Instead of the friction we had with various authorities, there was just kindness. Instead of the burden of bearing the cost of sending a huge team put on one church from California, we had team members from three churches (and a special guest from Chicago).

I want to share two stories that really demonstrate what the Lord is doing through this ministry.

Transforming A Family

The M family have been an integral part of our church for many years. A couple with 3 children from elementary to high school age, they are active in several ministries of the church. Last year, while Mr. M was on leave from work recovering from surgery, he used his free time to serve at ESC for the first time and enjoyed the experience. He met many of our partners from California and developed friendships with them.

Last fall, the M family took a trip to the Western US, visiting with many of the friends Mr. M had made during the ESC week. They even had a chance to visit Redwood Chapel, the partnering church that enabled us to start the program here in Tokyo. It was during this trip that the M’s realized the people who came to help at ESC were just regular people like them. They had regular jobs and busy lives and they sacrificed their time and money to spend two weeks every year to put on the ESC program.

So this year, it was the M family who sacrificed their vacation time to serve at ESC. For the entire week, the family served and at the end of it all, Mr. and Mrs. M testified in front of many church members about their wonderful experience, and how they are looking forward to serving again next year. I believe their moving testimony will inspire others in our congregation to give their time sacrificially for this ministry.

Sharing The Load

The first two years of ESC, almost the entire team from California was from Redwood Chapel. The first year they sent 20 people to help us. As you can imagine, that is a huge financial burden for a church to bear year upon year, so over time, we prayed other partner churches would be willing to help share the load by sending team members.

This year, Pathway Community Church of Pleasanton and Lord’s Grace Church of Mountain View sent team members to compliment the Redwood team. This greatly reduced the number of people Redwood needed to send to staff the core leadership roles. Above and beyond that, we got to share the blessing of the ESC experience with two new churches.

We had some wonderful new team members with skills and experiences that complimented the Redwood team. Though all were blessings, I will mention a few specifically. A couple of the Pathway team members had studied Japanese and were able to have good conversations with people, especially the Japanese university students who volunteered as helpers. Building friendships with university students is an important part of our church ministry apart from ESC, so we were grateful for that. The Leong family from Lord’s Grace Church were so versatile and flexible, they served in anyway they were needed and stepped into roles they had not planned to fill.

Of course, we always appreciate the veteran leadership of the Redwood Chapel team and their experience is critical to making the camp run with such precision and ease. And the friendships the long term members have built with people here in Japan is so important and precious. But it is great to see other churches joining up with Redwood to serve under their leadership and make it easier for Redwood to continue to send a team every year.

Looking to the Future: 2020 Olympics and beyond

Next year will be a challenge with the Tokyo Summer Olympics scheduled at exactly the same time as our camp. Though we discussed changing our schedule to avoid the Olympics, there is simply no way to do it based on the Japanese school schedule and the availability of our partners from California. So we are pressing forward, trusting in the Lord to help us navigate the giant obstacle that is the Olympic games.

With the momentum we now have, we know children and their families are already looking forward to next year’s program. With several other programs launched at churches in our community, we realize now hundreds of children and their families are able to hear the gospel message each summer. Every year, new seeds are sown, watered, and soon will be sprouting. At our church, we are strategically planning on how to engage the children and families who want a deeper understanding of the gospel.

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.

Obi of Love

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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.