Remembering Kenji Goto

It’s taken a while for me to process what the tragic death of Kenji Goto, the Japanese journalist murdered by ISIS, means to me. Here in Japan, it seemed the public stance before his execution was a little cold; that he knew the risks when he traveled to Syria and he put himself in harm’s way. But that stance has seemed to melt away quickly after his death as people begin to realize what a selfless man Goto was, reporting on the plight of the Syrian children, shedding light on conflict and genocide in African nations, and the inequality in education for girls in Afghanistan. He was living out in a very dangerous way God’s heart for the poor and oppressed of this world.

Though the death of Goto is a terrible loss, especially for his family: his parents, his wife and three children, we must take heart that they will be reunited one day. And through his tragic death, his life has become a beacon of light to his country, shining the message of the gospel in the darkness for all to see. For all he has done for the people of Syria and other places where people are being oppressed, what he has done for his own people is even greater.

It is an honor to call you brother, Kenji Goto. May you rest peacefully in the arms of your Savior, Jesus Christ. Otsukare sama deshita.

On Facing My Fears

 

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Luke 12:32

Today, I visited Sayama Park at the eastern shore of Lake Tama, about 11km from my house. I sat in the park feeling an incredible sense of peace and satisfaction. It wasn’t so much because I was at Sayama Park; it was more about how I got there. I drove myself there, navigating the often narrow and confusing streets of suburban Tokyo. It took me over 30 minutes (and yes, that breaks down to about 20km per hour, or for you Americans, 13mph), but I did it.

But that’s not where the story begins. The story begins earlier in the day when I sat on the side of my bed praying for nearly 10 minutes for the courage to get in the car and drive somewhere. You see, I have a fear of driving in Tokyo. Between the narrow streets often wide enough for 1.5 cars, confusing road signage, bikes and pedestrians that seem to dart out of nowhere, driving in Tokyo seems to stress me out. The nearest grocery store is about 2km away and I literally have to make 4 turns to get there including the one out of our driveway, but I still procrastinate driving there. I’d rather ride my bike actually.

While I’m in confession mode, I’m afraid of a lot of things here, actually. I’m afraid of trying to converse with a store clerk or waiter or policeman and not having enough vocabulary to communicate what I want to say. I’m afraid of saying something totally wrong and looking like an idiot, like when I tried to tell a shop clerk “No bag.” and ended up saying “No hat.” I’m afraid to try anything other than the ramen I’ve already ordered at my favorite ramen shop because I don’t know how to read the menu properly and might get something I totally didn’t want to eat.

I know it sounds ridiculous but there are honestly times I’d rather shut myself up inside the house and not have to say a word to anyone in any language except English and not have to think about driving on the left side of the road, and not have to wonder if I should apologize to someone for something that’s not even my fault, because that’s the way Japanese people do things.

I’m not saying these things because I don’t like Japan. I love Japan. I love living here and making new friends and renewing old friendships. I love being able to get in the car and navigate to a new and wonderful place. I love ordering food I’ve never had before and finding out its delicious.

I’m saying these things because I have to admit that I have fears and more often than not, they are irrational and childish. But at the time, they are real to me, hovering over me like monsters, chiding me to stay at home and lock the doors and shut the curtains. Which is why I found myself today sitting on the side of my bed praying for the courage to do something as simple as get in the car and drive somewhere. It was in that prayer that God reminded me when I get in the car, He’s already there with me. Wherever I’m going, He’s already there waiting. Like a father waits with outstretched arms for his baby to take his first steps, He is already there.

Which is why I felt such satisfaction sitting in Sayama Park on this beautiful late summer day. As He promised, God was with me. I might even say the drive was enjoyable, almost relaxing. On the way home, I even went by the grocery store and picked up my suits from the dry cleaners.

If it crosses your mind, pray for me, actually, pray for our whole family, to be courageous and face our fears as we live out our lives in Japan. Our fears of speaking in Japanese. Our fears of making new acquaintances. Our fears of learning to do something in a whole new way.

Getting Into A Groove

With my wife at work and the kids back at school, the house is either a lonely or quiet place, depending on the day. But now that the rest of the family is busy, it has given me inspiration to find a schedule that works for me.

When we were getting ready to come to Japan, we had already decided that I would dedicate the better part of a year to “language and cultural acquisition”. That’s just a fancy way of saying that I would study Japanese and experience as much of living in Japan as I can from a local perspective. This was clearly communicated to our supporters so there would be no question as to why I wasn’t jumping headfirst into ministry opportunities (though in a limited way, I have done that too).

The value of language acquisition is fairly straightforward; if you’re going to get beyond surface conversation with most Japanese people, you have to know how to speak their “heart language”. Japanese is so rich with expressions and nuances that are difficult to express in English. What might take 10 minutes to explain in English can be said in a simple Japanese phrase that will light up a Japanese person’s eyes.

Beyond that, it is frustrating to have to ask for help from a friend to read documents or visit the city office to get something done. Thank God for our friends who have been so helpful in this area. If you ever want to experience your “second childhood”, try moving to a country where you can barely speak, read or write the local language. It is a humbling experience to say the least. I’m looking forward to the day I can carry on a decent conversation and read enough to visit a bank or government office by myself.

That said, I have started finding a groove in language study. Once or twice a week, I study for 4 hours on Rosetta Stone, which is teaching me reading, listening and speaking skills. It’s something I have to do at home because it would be, well, awkward to be out in public doing speaking exercises with my computer. Once a week, I meet my friend Mark to go out to a cafe to study; on these days, I can practice my reading and writing. Also once a week, I meet my wife’s cousin and her husband for lunch and we exchange Japanese and English conversation and instruction for a couple of hours.

Cultural acquisition takes place on a number of levels. The first is simply learning how to live like a local. That means shopping where they shop and eating where they eat. Admittedly, in Japan, none of these things is a huge challenge for us. We love Japanese food. We love shopping in Japanese stores. But we also experience the problems they experience. The incredible bureaucracy involved in any major (and many minor) processes. Having to wait in the doctor’s office waiting room because they don’t take appointments. Getting smooshed into a rush hour train.

But then there are the experiences of doing things the locals enjoy. Attending a summer festival. Going for a hike in the mountains. Cheering on the local baseball team. In a city with a population larger than the population of entire countries, there seems to be endless things to do and see. There is even a monthly magazine, “Tokyo Walker”, packed with information about events, restaurants and neighborhood attractions. 

When we do these things, we don’t want people to get the idea that we’re playing tourist. The exact opposite is actually true; we are trying to live out our lives here like we were born and raised in Japan. Tim Svoboda, President of YWAM San Francisco said this: “The job of the [M] is to fall in love with the place they are in.” The main reason we are exploring our city of Tokyo (and hopefully the country of Japan) is to better understand the people who make up Tokyo and Japan, because to understand them is to grow to love them more deeply. And to adequately share the gospel, we must have that deep love for those whom we serve.

You’ll probably be seeing a lot more posts from now on describing some of the local culture and activities of Tokyoites. Don’t worry; this isn’t becoming a travel blog. It’s simply a way for me to process what I am learning about the local culture and share it with you. I hope you will enjoy these posts as much as the updates about our ministry, because, in fact, they are truly an important part of our ministry!

Ichinomiya: Second Home

We arrived in Ichinomiya yesterday afternoon to overcast skies and a cool ocean breeze which felt so good after the heat of our Saitama summer days (yes, we technically live in Saitama, by way of some bizarre city borders).

We first came to Ichinomiya almost 14 years ago, with a 4 month old baby boy. It was a time when we didn’t even realize we would be involved in ministry in this town 10 years later, let alone move to Japan as full time ministry workers. I remember walking from the house across the busy highway to the beach, dipping my feet in the cool but not cold water and thinking how beautiful and peaceful this place was.

Today, standing in exactly the same place with my feet in the same water, I felt the same feelings. But the beauty and peace this town brings me is no longer just a surface feeling, but a feeling in my heart. We have so many friends here, people we love and have worked shoulder to shoulder with for the sake of the gospel.

In a few days, our California team will arrive and we will begin another year of summer ministry in this area. It will be non-stop, exhausting days, full of the joy of working hard for the Lord. But today was just another sleepy day in Ichinomiya, a meal with friends, a shopping spree at Beisha, a soft creme cone eaten hastily before it melts in the hot summer sun. God’s blessings are on this place and I, for today, have enjoyed soaking up some of that blessing before the days get a little crazy.

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Video: Killer Fish

Our first video from Japan is just a fun video starring the fish that live in the stream that runs in front of our house. Enjoy!

And [Jesus] said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Matt 4:19

Day One: Japan

It’s actually closer to the end of Day Two as I write this, but everything has been a blur since we left California on Tuesday morning. Despite our visa issues and the late night packing and cleaning, once we got to the airport, everything was like it was on rails. All of our bags and boxes weighed in properly, the flight and service were perfect, and a wonderful CAJ employee, Naoko, picked us up at the airport and has been a God-send to us ever since. So far, she has taken us to City Hall to get us through all of the processes of becoming a resident of our city and Japan and taken us through a full morning of opening a bank account where we were seemingly routed through every seating location and employee in the building. All the while, she and her family is prepping for their own move across the city this weekend!

Arriving at our new house, we found a fridge stocked with food and other sundries, and all the necessities we would need plus a few more we thought we were going to have to purchase. This morning while we were at the bank, brand new curtains were installed for us. To say CAJ has treated us well would be an understatement. We feel more like royalty than ministry workers. But we realize it is just the way things are done around here. But I’m not talking about Japan. I mean in the CAJ community, where the love of Christ is evident in the way people treat one another, especially those of us who are new to Japan. We’ve had the privilege of meeting several CAJ staff members who had in some way supported us in getting here or making us comfortable in our home.

So what have we learned so far living here in Japan? Here’s a few things that stick out:

Japanese food is amazing. Yes, we already knew this, but living here and eating from restaurants, conbini (convenience stores, e.g. 7-Eleven) and supermarkets, Japanese food is simply the freshest, tastiest food we’ve ever had. Yesterday, for example, we boiled some corn fresh from the local fields, had fresh baked pastries from a local bakery delivered to our house by new friends, picked up a tray of maguro sushi (tuna) from a little shop on the way home from the station (less than $7 for 12 pieces) and topped it off with crisp potato croquettes, picked up from the prepared food section of a nearby supermarket at half price (5 pieces for $2.50). I didn’t even have room for my Coolish soft ice cream in the freezer! When Americans think of Japanese food, they often think of sushi or ramen, but there is such incredible variety in Japanese foods, one can never grow tired of trying new foods. And yes, we did have a great spicy ramen from Kinkai Ramen, a favorite hangout for CAJ staff and students.

Japan Amazon Prime is the best. In America, we get 2 day shipping with Amazon Prime and it costs $79 per year ($99 starting next year). Of course, Americans also get perks like free movie and music streaming. But then you realize when you get to Japan that those “free” movies and music aren’t actually free. Because in Japan, Amazon Prime costs $39 per year, and you get several choices for shipping. The first choice is 2 day shipping (which can also often be next day shipping in the greater Tokyo area) with a scheduled delivery window of 2 hours. This is best if you want your package delivered to your door but you can’t wait around all day for the delivery person. The second choice is next or same day shipping but you don’t get to choose a delivery window. If someone is going to be around the house, this works great. But another option is to have the delivery made to a local convenience store so you don’t need to be home to receive the package. You can just go to the local store, most of which are open 24 hours, and pick up your package at your convenience. No extra cost. Beat that, America.

Bureaucracy? Yes! Japan has been accused of taking things that have already been invented and perfecting them. The same can be said about bureaucracy. So far, we’ve visited government offices, a banking institution and a mobile phone sales counter. You can be assured that you’d better have at least 2 hours to kill to complete a process at any one of them. And it’s not the fault of the people who work there, who are clearly working diligently at their tasks, all the while being amazingly attentive to you. But the tasks they are working at? Many are mind-boggling. For example, at the bank today, we were asked to fill out a new form that would make it easier for the bank to report our income to the IRS in America. Fair enough, since we’re Americans, and probably will end up saving us the trouble later. However, upon further questioning, we found out this form was required to be filled out in some fashion by every customer of the bank, regardless of whether they were American or not! Can you imagine the look of indignation on a British person’s face if they were asked to fill out a form regarding payment of taxes to the American government?

Also, the rules that are laid out for Japanese workers to follow are seldom never questioned. Whether or not a process actually makes sense is not the concern of the average worker. For example, we were asked to provide a copy of marriage certificate at the City office to prove we were married. It clearly said we were married on our Japanese visas, but the woman insisted that the rules required her to see a copy of the actual certificate. It didn’t matter that the scrutiny put on us by Japanese immigration was a thousand times greater than the city’s. What mattered was the rules. We went back to our house to dig out the copy of our marriage certificate and returned 30 minutes later.

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Garbage sorting requires a Masters Degree (which I do not have). We have a 15 page manual on how to sort garbage in our city. Even with help from the manual, Jayne and I were left scratching our heads over some items in our trash. Today was my first experience with putting out garbage. I went to the curbside and took photos of how our neighbors put out the trash (and got some interesting looks from people riding by on their bikes). Then I came back inside to figure out how to sort our trash. My daughter ended up helping me and even then, I contemplated what to do with a potato chip container for three and a half minutes. Not a good sign.

Japan is easier when you’re connected. We’ve only been without mobile phones for 2 days, and we aren’t completely unconnected. We have a mobile Wi-fi device that lets us use our phones to connect to the Internet while we are out and about. But when we split up, only one person gets the mobile Wi-fi, so the other person is left digitally disconnected. We’ve found this to be a problem in a couple of ways. The most obvious is that we can’t communicate with one another when we’re separated. No asking about picking up dinner on the way home or if you need anything from the store. But we’ve also found it’s not easy to navigate our neighborhood without a map and with no Wi-fi, there aren’t any portable maps to reference. No train schedules either. And no way to call our friends to ask for advice or just say hello. It’s been painful so we’re making progress on getting our own phones hopefully in the next 24 hours.

Tomorrow, the weekend begins for us. Happy Independence Day for our friends back in the States; perhaps we’ll do a few fireworks to celebrate with you. Much, much more to come!

 

 

Aside

On Dealing With Delay

Visa issues potentially threaten our July 1st departure date. We had been under the assumption that we would depart on July 1st with or without the proper visa and get it straightened out upon reaching Japan, but we have been asked not to do that. The issues we are having with our visa are minor, perhaps boiling down to a miscommunication or lost email message.

It is completely within God’s power to overcome these issues and clear the path for us. If our departure is delayed, it would be much more worthwhile to understand the reason God chose to delay our departure than to stew over the inconvenience.

For now, we simply do what is within our power to do: bless the name of the Lord and pray for His will to be done.

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78% – Almost There!

At the beginning of May, we estimated our financial support levels to be around 40% with only 2 months left before our departure date. We went ahead and purchased our one-way tickets anyway. God had already brought us this far along and we certainly had faith He would bring us the rest of the way.

One month later we estimated our financial support again and found we were around 78%, nearly double of where we were only a month earlier! More importantly, we are only 2% shy of where we need to be for our agency to officially release us to go to Japan and we are confident over the next two weeks, God will raise up enough partners to see us through to financial support levels that will sustain us in Japan.

We thank all of you who have committed to partnering with us for giving us the ability to say “Send us!” to the Lord. Though we’ve said it a million times, it never seems to be enough: we could not do this without you. Here are a few of the ways the Lord has already blessed us through your support:

  • A wonderful 3 bedroom home with American amenities like a full-sized oven and clothes dryer, leased to us by another missions agency, SEND.
  • Christian Academy in Japan, a great school for our children to learn in, for conventional education, bi-culturalism and Christian faith.
  • Biblical Church of Tokyo, a church with vision and leadership that aligns with our vision of connecting with the local community based on local community needs.
  • Ongoing opportunities to serve with our friends and ministry partners in Ichinomiya, Chiba, with our short-term team from California and throughout the year.

If you have been wanting to support us but haven’t had the time to set up support or aren’t sure how to do it, please let us know what we can do to help you. I wouldn’t exactly say “Operators are standing by!” but we will certainly be here to answer your questions or walk you through the process. Thank you for bringing us this far and we can’t wait to report in from Japan in a little over 2 weeks from now!

Link: How to support us.

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On Being the Light of the World

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Matthew 5:14-16

As I was praying for people in my circles this morning, this passage of Scripture popped into my head. In particular, I was praying about the Japanese churches and how God might use them to reach the people of Japan.

To give this post a little context, one must keep in mind that evangelism in Japan has a number of barriers that are a little different from the Western world (though we are beginning to see some of these barriers in post-modern Western society as well). To describe them in simple terms:

Corporatism vs. Individualism. In Japan, the unity of the group is of much greater importance than the desires of the individual. The “group” can be defined in many ways and is fluid in nature, but the basic point is that one does not make decisions for his or her own benefit, but for the good of the group. Christian evangelism is frowned upon because the desire of the individual (to share the gospel) is elevated above the harmony of the group. Even if the motivation of the individual is for the benefit of the group, such actions can be seen as disruptive or selfish in nature.

Polytheism vs. Monotheism. In a sense, the default religious view of a Japanese person is Polytheism. That is, there are many gods and none is completely omnipotent or significantly more important than another. The gods you worship depend mainly on your situation. If you want a business deal to come through, you pray to the god who oversees that aspect of our lives. If you want to pass a test, you get an amulet that gives you good fortune in that area. The concept of an all powerful Creator God is difficult for most Japanese to accept, because to accept the idea of one God Almighty, you must by default reject the idea of many lesser gods. This goes against societal values again, causing conflict between individual and group think.

Japanese-centric vs. Human-centric. Japanese people are proud of their heritage, and rightly so. The culture of Japan, like the cultures of many other countries, is unique and beautiful in many ways. But sometimes the Japanese can take this too far and reject other ideas simply on the basis that they are “foreign”. Christianity, due to its inextricable entanglement with history, is seen as a religion of the West, and therefore, not Japanese. Japanese people often have a difficult time conceiving how they can be followers of Christ and maintain a completely “Japanese” identity.

While it’s not hard to understand why evangelism from a purely Western context, like handing out tracts or talking to strangers about Jesus, might not work well in Japan, we must also remember that even sharing faith with people whom they have close relationships with can be difficult or impossible because of these barriers. For example, a child may not want to disrupt the family harmony by sharing his new faith with his parents or siblings, so he keeps it to himself and sneaks off to church every Sunday.

That’s why I found such joy in remembering Matthew 5. Jesus instructs us to let our light shine, because that’s what light is for. Light attracts in the darkness. When a person lives their lives in obedience to Christ, people are naturally drawn to them, and they are curious about what makes this person so different. One of the single men I met at the Equippers Conference last December made an interesting remark which was something like: “All the sisters [Christian women] here are beautiful because I can see Jesus in them.” He wasn’t complementing their physical beauty; he was recognizing that the love of Jesus that was in these women was making them beautiful from the inside.

I realized what wonderful instruction Matthew 5 is especially for the Japanese. Maybe social mores restrict you from sharing about Jesus outright. But living your life in obedience of Christ draws people to you, and they will “give glory to [the] Father who is in heaven” because of what they see in you. People’s lives will be changed because of who you are in Christ Jesus, not because of what you say about him.

 

What Is the Role of Art in Worship?

Somewhere, somehow, we simply lost our way. They understood the power of art as a form of worship in the Renaissance, when Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci were prolific in producing works of art for the glory of God. For centuries it seemed that art and religion could not only co-exist, but magnify the beauty in each other when practiced together.

Yet inevitably, the separation came and the Western world has never again been able to realize the power of combining art and worship as it was done in glorious history.

One only needs to read through the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, to realize that God, the most powerful being in existence, is an incredible artist. Genesis 1 takes us step by step through God’s creative process for creating everything, and the level of detail He used in making the created world. Taking it one step further, you don’t even need to read the Bible, just take a walk in the forest or along the beach. Dive into the depths of the seas or climb the highest mountain. The glory of God’s creation is everywhere as only an Artist-Creator can imagine it.

And then we read that mankind was created in God’s image, which means, among other things, that all that creative capability God used to make everything is also inherent within us. We were made to be creators. We were made to be artists.

Yet the typical church in modern days is sadly lacking in artistry as worship. Church leaders are faced with difficult financial choices these days, yet it seems art generally falls to the bottom of the priority list at most churches. Looking around the typical church, you will find signage and materials derived from Christian clip art. Store bought posters with Christian phrases or Scripture passages. Powerpoint slides with stock image backgrounds. Art in church is no longer something to be created, but something to be consumed, purchased in packages from companies who sell the same stuff to thousands of churches.

Certainly most churches do not have the budget to hire graphic artists, art directors, interior designers and the like. But not all art is produced by professionals and some of the most beautiful pieces of art come from the hearts of children who see their art as an act of worshiping Jesus. Yet somehow, we don’t encourage people to worship God through art. Arts and crafts in most churches are just a fun thing to do to fill time at the end of Sunday School hour or an event to outreach to the community. What if we elevated art back to the level it once held during the Renaissance, art purely as a form of worship?

A few years ago, Crossway took this very idea and did something with it. They commissioned a Japanese Christian artist named Makoto Fujimura to produce a special edition of the Bible called “The Four Holy Gospels”. Basically, it is an edition of the four gospels of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) printed in art book format and illustrated by Fujimura. “Illustrated” is actually a bit misleading because Fujimura is an abstract artist so much of the art happens in the wide margins of the pages of the gospels and is designed to interact with the text on those pages. The product was an incredible work entwining art and the beautiful message of the gospel in a form that would compel you to open and read it daily. You would never use your Bible app if you had a Bible as beautiful as this.

A video made by Crossway further explains their motivation behind this incredible project.

I believe this is one small way that reveals how bringing art and worship together elevates both acts. Art doesn’t have to be a secular activity and worship doesn’t have to lack in creativity.

Ultimately, the question is have we downplayed the role of art in worship too much in the modern church? And if we have, how do we reintegrate art and worship in our churches in ways that engage people and allow them to participate, as artists created in the image of God?