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.

When Coffee Really Is Life

“Baby diapers.” That’s how my traveling companion Yuji described the smell, as we approached the site. Once you get that image in your mind it’s hard to shake it. But indeed, the smell of coffee cherries going through the process of having their husks removed and the beans washed does have strong olfactory similarities to what goes on in a toddler’s diaper 35 minutes after eating lunch.

The smell of “baby diapers” or coffee processing is noticeable in many parts of the village of Doi Chang, high in the mountains above Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. Doi Chang is an Akha village, a hilltribe living largely in Thailand, but also in neighboring Myanmar, Laos, and even southwest China. They are not Thai; they have their own language, their own culture, and for the most part, the Thai government won’t even grant most of them citizenship. They are stateless in the country they live in, and as such, are one of the poorest people groups in Asia, the average Akha living on less than $2.00 US per day.

But let’s say you come from one of the dozens of neighboring Akha villages to Doi Chang. To you, this modest little village of a few thousand people could look like New York City. Most of the roads are paved and well maintained. There is a school for children up to Jr. high school and a preschool for children younger than that. Nearly every family drives around in an expensive Toyota 4-wheel-drive truck. So what’s the difference here?

The difference, to put it simply, is coffee. Decades ago, this area of the world was known as the Golden Triangle, the meeting point of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. The fertile lands of this region were productive for growing crops and the crop of choice in those days was the opium poppy. The drug trade took a terrible toll on both the countries involved and the hilltribes who were willing and unwilling participants. So the government of Thailand decided to give the hilltribes an alternative and funded a plan to give them a new crop to grow: coffee trees. Today, Thailand ranks 18th in the world in coffee production and coffee grown in the “Doi Chaang” region (note the extra ‘a’), is designated with a geographically protected trademark for its high level of quality.

The farmers of Doi Chang village are the primary producers of Doi Chaang regional coffee. Around the village, there are several smaller processing plants and one large one belonging to the major distributor known as “Doi Chaang Coffee” Company. When you’re the biggest, you get to own the name. Nearly every family in the village is growing, harvesting or processing coffee, most involved in multiple aspects. But only a few are running companies that are able to distribute the finished products: either raw beans ready to be roasted or roasted beans ready to be sold to retailers or consumers.

Our friend Pat is one of the few. His company, Abonzo Coffee, named after his grandfather who helped convince then reluctant Akha villagers to adopt coffee trees over opium poppies, is small by global standards. Even next to local competitor Doi Chaang Coffee, his production is a small fraction of theirs. He grows coffee on family owned land and purchases the rest from 25 local farmers who chose to sell to him. But while other coffee companies primarily exist to make money, Abonzo exists to help raise the Akha people out of their cycle of poverty.

Pat dreams of expanding his business into overseas markets, adding more farmers to his production and building a brand that is as respected for its devotion to social justice as it is to the quality of the coffee it produces. The cycle of poverty among the Akha, as it is among many impoverished people groups, is bonded with the lack of access to higher education. Doi Chang has a public school providing education up to Junior high school level, but getting an education beyond that means  a long daily commute down to the city and paying a tuition that most poor farmers cannot afford. Akha who are particularly well off send their children to live in dormitories in the city so they can go to school daily, but most can’t afford such “luxury”. But Pat doesn’t want the education of his people to be a luxury, but a necessity. He even aims to teach young Akha people business skills by providing them work and training in the coffee business beyond cherry picking and processing. He intends to build a cafe that will employ many young Akha and next to that, a barista training school that will give them means to learn a skill that is transferable to other jobs (Chiang Rai is the de facto coffee capital of Thailand and cafes are springing up all over the city).

The purpose of our trip to Doi Chang was to photograph the coffee production process of Abonzo Coffee along with a friend we brought from Tokyo who is working with several high-end cafes to potentially use Abonzo Coffee as their house brand here in Japan. As the Doi Chaang regional brand becomes more widely known, unscrupulous growers have been claiming to sell “Doi Chaang” regional beans when their beans are of inferior quality grown elsewhere. Our intent was to show Abonzo Coffee is a true Doi Chang village coffee company and that the beans Pat uses are authentically grown in the region. We also hand carried samples back to Japan to share with potential new customers.

So how does all of this tie back to missions? Interestingly enough, when I joined World Christian Fellowship as their Executive Director many years ago, I attended a prayer meeting where one of the participants mentioned the Akha people. They told the story of the Akha people’s plight of poverty, exploitation, and abuse by the countries they have settled in. In that moment, God laid a burden for the Akha on my heart. Though the Lord brought us to Japan to serve the Japanese, at the same time, He created a path for me to serve the Akha people through Pat and Abonzo Coffee, as well as our missionary friends serving in Northern Thailand. It’s amazing how the Lord opens doors for us to serve, and much of what He does goes on beyond what we can see or comprehend.

Join me in lifting up the plight of the Akha people and for young Akha leaders like Pat who desire both spiritual and socio-economic revival for their tribe. Heavenly Father, you know the names and struggles of each of your Akha children, and you desire to give them a life of abundance and not mere survival. Hear every cry and answer them, Lord God, and use others outside the tribe to have compassion and generosity toward them in the love of Christ Jesus. For you work righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed; You show compassion and mercy to all those who love you. Let your will be done among your people, the Akha. Amen.

When Mission Becomes Life

Tomorrow marks 19 months to the day that we arrived in Japan with stars in our eyes, giddy with expectation. Tomorrow is Tuesday, and it will feel like just a normal Tuesday with school and work, a trip to the supermarket and some language study time. Many of the things that fascinated me about Japanese life are no longer quite so fascinating. We are grateful to be able to walk a couple hundred meters (yes, meters, not yards) down the road to pick up some fresh produce from a roadside stand and leave money in a lockbox, but it’s no longer a novelty. I no longer think the world is ending when driving down two way streets that are the width of 1.35 cars and I see another car coming toward me. These are all just part of our life now, the life we have here in suburban Tokyo.

I can’t say for sure when I personally crossed the point where I stopped thinking of myself as a missionary and began to regard our current situation as a season of our lives. But with that shift came some changes in mentality, some good, some bad, some just gray. For those who desire an insight into the mind of a 1.5 year learner in the field, here’s what I have come to understand so far.

Ministry life integrates into the world we live in. Recalling the horror stories from Perspectives class of missionaries who go to third world countries and literally build themselves fortresses to live in and wonder why the local people never trust them, we laughed and said we’d never be like that. But separation happens in subtler ways in the field as well. My weakness is definitely language. If I can get away with speaking English in almost any situation, I will. The other day I asked the cashier at Costco in Japanese if I could speak English. She replied (also in Japanese) either Japanese or English was fine. So of course, I defaulted to English. Seems innocent enough, but that decision draws a line between myself and a local person that doesn’t need to be drawn.

I’ve made a decision to be more intentional about language acquisition this year. It is one barrier between myself and the Japanese people that I don’t want to let languish any longer. But many things can become the “fortresses” we live in. Where we chose to live, where we chose to worship, who we chose to become close friends with. And in order to live in the world we have chosen to live in, we may have to make some uncomfortable choices that draw us closer to the people we have come to share the gospel with.

Boundaries are difficult to identify, but must be set. The more ministry becomes a part of everyday life, the harder it is to identify the boundaries that separate ministry from our personal lives. But wait, that sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t ministry fully integrate into our personal lives?

The answer to that could probably be debated at length, but one thing is certain; nobody is able to do ministry 24/7. There must be Sabbath days, times of refreshing for our souls, times to spend only by ourselves or with our family. Jesus set many examples for us to follow with regards to time alone with God, time fellowshipping with his closest friends, and time being among the needy crowds. He took naps at times which his disciples may have considered inconvenient for him to do so! But Jesus knew how to work, how to play and how to rest.

In a workaholic society like Japan, setting work boundaries is actually a ministry in itself. If we don’t set aside time to refresh ourselves, we are no different from secular Japan that tells people they must work themselves to the point of exhaustion to be productive and therefore, worthy. If our lives in Japan are to be a witness to those watching us, then we need to demonstrate the value of the Sabbath, of time for ourselves and our family. It’s unfortunate that many churches fail because their pastor, in their zealousness for God’s work, forget to set boundaries and forgo rest and refreshment time.

I want to do it all. But there are times when I need to be reminded that I’m not here to do it all. That God has a specific calling for me at this time and I need to stay true to that calling and not wander off following the latest, shiny thing I see. The way I do this is to always know our vision, our church’s vision, and ensure every activity I do is in alignment with those visions. English Summer Camp is one of those programs where it is crystal clear that it aligns with the visions we share with our church pastors on reaching the young families in our community. And so I weigh each of the ministries we are involved in against our personal ministry vision and our church ministry vision and it becomes much easier to know how to prioritize my time and energy.

We are in the world, not of the world. We are truly blessed in having so many people and churches partnering with us in ministry that finances are rarely a concern for us. I don’t say this to boast, because I know God has provided those partnerships for us and given people a heart to reach the people of Japan through our ministry, and that is humbling. It is also a responsibility that I don’t take lightly and thinking about how we spend based on how God has provided is at times stressful.

The worldly man in me sometimes desires to be free of that responsibility. “If we were independently wealthy, we could focus on the things we want to do and not have to worry about financial accountability,” I think. And then I start wondering how I can make that happen.

Now I don’t believe being wealthy is a sin, but when it becomes a distraction from our ministry, then it becomes sin. And when I start to see the blessings of God as a burden because I am too proud to accept His financial blessings on us through others, that is certainly sin.

Where this really hits home is with photography. As I gain in experience and exposure, many well-intentioned people have talked to me about ideas for making my photography more profitable. And I must admit the idea of becoming financially self-sustaining through photography is a seductive idea. But at this season in our lives, it just isn’t in alignment with our vision.

The way I try to bring these impulses under control is to offer my photography services to ministries and ministry workers at pro bono or highly discounted rates. Of course, photography is an expensive business to be in because of the cost of equipment, and the wear-and-tear and technological advances that require equipment to be replaced. But though I have been able to offer free or nearly free services to local ministries, God has still provided financially an amount of money that can be used to cover the cost of repairs or replacement for much of my equipment. This is funded through gifts and donations from ministries or payment for small photography jobs unrelated to ministry.

Believe me, it’s difficult to explain to people that I can offer free or highly discounted photography services to them because of the obedience and generosity of individuals and churches back in America supporting us. But it’s a story I love to tell because it is a concrete image of God’s faithfulness at work and the love of Christ through his body, the church, in action.

No one is an island. One of the most disappointing things I see among fellow ministry workers and organizations is the cowboy mentality that often comes with being raised in the West (western culture, not western US). I believe walls between churches and organizations were crumbled as a result of the cooperation needed to respond to the 2011 Tohoku disaster, but remnants of the walls still remain. As we live here, we see them, though again, more subtly than one might imagine.

But I do realize that many missionaries and organizations want to work alone or within their own context. Working with other individuals, churches, denominations is messy. Feelings get hurt, people get offended, too many opinions on how to do things get thrown around. I’ve been on both sides of that as well, feeling like an outsider being kept out and feeling like an insider needing to exclude others from my work.

The fact is, the work to be done in Japan, in Tokyo even, is too great for one family, one church or even one organization to tackle alone. Our English Summer Camp will likely require 100 or more volunteer helpers, many of which will need to be proficient in Japanese and English. Our church alone won’t have the resources to staff it. We will need members of other churches or organizations to help us. And what will they gain? Perhaps nothing apparently significant. No new church members. Maybe a line item on their annual report.

But the Kingdom of God gains. The reputation of the church in Japan gains, as not-yet-believers see that we can work together as well as we can work separately. New believers are added to the global church who will eventually gather in Heaven, worshiping God together.

The enemy seeks to divide the church. He has done it successfully since the church was founded and he knows it is one of our most glaring weaknesses. For while we argue and offend others with differences in opinion that are insignificant to the gospel message, we are distracted from doing the real work of the Lord together.

Ministry workers, we need thicker skins. We need to not take offense when someone disagrees with something that in the big picture is minor. Political views. How we raise our children. Even minor doctrinal differences that have no bearing on the message of the gospel. And we need to stop feeding the machine that turns us against each other. Stay positive. Focus on the only message that matters: the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Because in the end, we need each other. We need to help one another. We need to deal with one another, warts and all, because that’s what Christ called us to do. That’s life: dirty, messy life. Let’s not forget when we answered the call to join the front line of the battle for people’s souls, we would be living in the trenches.

Stretching Out The Tent Curtains

With over 60 years of experience and tens of thousands of children in participation during that time, Redwood Chapel Community Church knows a few things about Vacation Bible School (VBS). It was only natural, with their focus on ministry in Japan for the next decade or two and our local church with a vision to reach the thousands of young families in our community, that God would bring us together in partnership. What we weren’t prepared for was the depth and breadth of God’s work was going on behind the scenes, long before we even came together as a team.

Redwood Chapel sent a small vision team to meet with the leaders of our church about planning an English Summer Camp (or ESC, the contextualized name of VBS here in Japan) for the summer of 2016. In our minds, 100 kids was a stretch for a first year program in Japan and one which would comfortably fit in our above average sized church.

The Redwood Chapel team brought us 5 essentials of preparing for ESC, all rooted in the Bible. Number 2 on the list was: Dream and Set Goals“Enlarge the site of your tent, and let your tent curtains be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your ropes, and drive your pegs deep. For you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendants will dispossess nations and inhabit the desolate cities.” Isaiah 54:2-3

It was during the course of the meetings that we realized we had not dreamed large enough for God’s plan and He made it very clear to us. Rikko Preschool, a large preschool which our pastors have developed a strong relationship with over the past few years, was one of the sites we visited with the team to attend our pastor’s weekly devotional for the parents of the children. We were surprised when the head of the school showed up to the devotional time, unaware of our special guests from California. When we explained to him why the team was here and what we were planning, he exclaimed very plainly, “You should do the ESC program here at Rikko!”

I should explain the significance of his offer before we go any further. First, Rikko is a large preschool which is currently in expansion from 450 children to 700 children. We would be the first outside group to use the new facilities and obviously if the ESC program were to grow in size over the years, it would take a while for us to reach capacity. Second, though Rikko was founded by Christians over 100 years ago and maintains a religious organization status, the school has been mainly secular in nature. However, the current head of the school has invited our pastor to restart “religious activities” at Rikko, which is basically an invitation to plant a new church service. The ESC program would be a huge jump-start to that service.

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A few of the Rikko children attending the groundbreaking ceremony for the new buildings earlier this summer.

As we spent time together as a team, the threads of God’s handiwork started to become clear. One of the leaders from Redwood Chapel was strongly influenced to become a Christian when our pastor’s father preached at a conference in California decades earlier. Another Redwood Chapel member likely visited the original site of our church on a short term mission trip to Japan in the 1980’s (and possibly met our pastor as a college student). And the whole idea that what we originally envisioned as a typical English outreach for children was becoming the catalyst for a brand new church plant.

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John Chou reunites with Pastor Reiji Oyama, the man who had a great influence over John’s decision to become a Christian many years earlier.

In a nutshell, God transformed our plans, stretched out our vision and made something much greater. Currently, we are planning for 300 children in two tracks: preschool and elementary. The majority of our volunteers will come from the mothers of the children, nearly all not-yet-Christian. Taking our plans from 100 to 300 children in the first year will be a stretch in many ways, but we believe God will be with us each step of the way. You can partner with us as well, in your prayers over the next 10 months as we make this vision a reality for God’s glory here in Tokyo.

Chasing Waterfalls in Saitama

While Tokyo is one of the busiest and most crowded metropolis in the world, travelling out of Tokyo for an hour can take you to a different world. On this day, our destination was the mountainous area outside of Hanno, a  bedroom community in Saitama about an hour by train from Ikebukuro.

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This area is the starting point for many wonderful and fairly leisurely short hikes into the mountains of the Chichibu range. However, our hike would not be a leisurely one, but rather on the path less traveled. Rather than hiking the winding path above the river, we would walk down along and through the river, occasionally requiring us to climb small and medium sized waterfalls.

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Our youth pastor, Keisuke, has been taking adults and children on this hike for several years. An avid outdoorsman, Keisuke often takes his wife and children on outdoor adventures consisting of hiking, climbing, skiing, camping and fishing. But Keisuke combines his love of nature with his compassion and love for children. That’s why he offers these trips several times per year to homeschool children and their parents as well as the children and parents who live in the neighborhood around our church. Most people, especially in urban Tokyo, won’t have the chance to take a waterfall hike which requires a skilled guide to lead.

Keisuke asked Peter and I to come along on this trip to shoot photos and video which could be used to create promotional materials for families who might be interested in future trips. Together with a boy and his mother and another girl from our church and our driver Tanaka-san, we went on the first hike of 2015.

Arriving in Hanno, we were greeted with beautiful weather. The sun was shining but there was a nice cool breeze to keep it from getting too hot. A typhoon would be passing offshore in the evening bringing rain, but for the time we would be hiking, there would only be sunshine and some light clouds. Tanaka-san waited with the van for us but said he enjoyed the wonderful breeze and sunshine while reading a book.

Keisuke had us sit through some basic training at church using the climbing wall in our basement, so after suiting up in our equipment, he gave us a short sermon on taking risks and being courageous, reminded us of the important safety information, and prayed for us. Then we were off into the forest.

Following the river, we encountered no other people, most of whom were walking well above us on the trail. We scrambled over rocks and through the water until we came to our first waterfall, a short one, maybe 3 meters high. Keisuke scrambled up, secured the rope and helped each of us make the short climb. At this point, the adrenaline was pumping and it seemed pretty easy.

As we continued up the river, the terrain became steeper and each progressive waterfall became slightly higher than the ones before it. We ended up climbing 5 waterfalls (the adults anyway; the kids were spent after the fourth). Truth be told, I only climbed the second half of the fifth waterfall. I went around to the path so I could photograph our other members climbing up.

The fifth waterfall was in two parts, a 10 meter section where the easiest part was to climb in the waterfall itself and a 12 meter section where you could climb in the water or off to the side. Peter bravely climbed both parts in the water though he admitted he was freezing cold afterward because the water was pretty chilly. I climbed the second part to the side of the waterfall, but there were few places to put my hands and feet and a lot of moss to keep me slipping.

Halfway up, I honestly wanted to give up. I couldn’t seem to find any place to hold on and move any higher. My arms and legs were growing tired and I was getting frustrated. There were places to hold onto to my right that I could see, but I couldn’t stretch far enough to reach them. Keisuke encouraged me from above. Somehow I managed to wedge my knees into the tiniest ledges and grab onto rough spots on the rock that I didn’t think would support me, slowly making my way to the right. Miraculously, I grabbed a large outcropping and pulled myself up.

I arrived at the top of the falls exhausted but victorious. As I sat there regaining my strength, the message Keisuke had given us to start the day really hit me. At that moment I was afraid, but I needed to be courageous. I wasn’t going to fall because Keisuke had the rope secured, but I still needed to use my own power to find the places to pull myself upward.

Christian life is like that as well. God won’t allow us to fall, but he will allow us to stumble. He encourages us from above, but often, He won’t do the hard work for us. He allows us to struggle to build our character and our confidence because He knows that we are able to accomplish the goals He set for us.

I went along on this trip as a helper for Keisuke’s ministry but came home blessed with a lesson that I could not have learned anywhere else but clinging to a mossy rock, climbing a waterfall.

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The Encouragement of Advocates

Our monthly newsletter is being created a few days late this month, but I’m not sorry for the circumstances behind it. On the contrary, I am grateful for them, for they are two of our dear friends and supporters who came to visit us as part of their trip to Japan.

I have known Haj and Eiko for 30 years, from the time I first started attending church. Eiko is an amazing encourager. She encouraged me as a young writer in my high school years and continues to encourage our family as we serve here in Japan. Haj is a wonderful teacher who has the ability to make anyone, and I mean anyone, laugh. His sense of humor crosses all cultural boundaries and we have had the privilege of serving with him on several short term teams here in Japan.

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We spent a few short days catching up with Haj and Eiko over this past Golden Week weekend. They attended our church and were able to have some good conversations with our pastors and learn about the vision of our church. Pastor Seiji was excited to interview Eiko about her job as part of the dissertation he is working on.

Haj and Eiko serve us back at our home church in a role we call “advocates”. These are special people in our ministry who have passion for the work we are doing and help to spread that information throughout the other members of the congregation. We funnel special prayer requests and other important information through our advocates.

The advocate role is a special one for us because we know that our advocates are making sure we are being supported in prayer and remembered by the churches who support us. In a sense, they are our anchor to the resources of the praying church in America. We are so grateful for each of our advocates like Haj and Eiko.

But a visit from our advocates is special indeed because it enables them to see first-hand the work we are doing and meet some of the people we are serving and serving with. We believe this helps build a stronger connection with our supporting churches and a more tangible understanding of what God is doing through our ministry.

For those serving as advocates of our ministry like Haj and Eiko, we thank you for the special blessing you give to us. And we invite you to visit us and spend some time alongside our ministry, meeting our local partners, and sharing in a part of our lives here in Japan.