Zig When They Zag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories from Thailand:Blessed By the Poor

The Akha village of Hoiyao is a dusty one-hour drive from central Chiang Rai in northern region of Thailand into the mountains. Like many villages of hilltribe people of the area, getting there requires driving on some poorly maintained dirt roads which turn to mud during rainy periods, perhaps dodging chickens, sleeping dogs, and even the occasional water buffalo. Villagers who venture to and from the city or to their work sites miles away usually have to endure the journey in the back of an open truck, with swirling dust in their eyes, mouths and nostrils and clinging to their skin and clothes. During the rains, these simple little trucks can often become stuck in the mud and have to be pushed or dug out by the passengers.We, however, rode in the comfort of a closed cab truck with 4-wheel-drive.

Arriving at the village, we were greeted by the village leader. It turned out that he and his wife opened their home to us that evening to sleep on comfortable mattresses and extra blankets to keep us warm over the cold nights in the mountains. A group of women in anticipation of our visit had already begun to prepare dinner, a delicious feast of traditional  Akha foods, many of which were made from crops or livestock of the village. As much as we could eat that evening, our gracious hosts kept refilling our plates.

After an impromptu church gathering where we worshiped together, shared a brief message and prayer and played games with the village children, we retired to the village leaders house to sleep. His wife even came in to make sure we were properly covered with enough blankets and tuck us in!

In the morning, the ladies of the village were at it again, preparing us breakfast before we headed out to Myanmar to bring some medicine to the pastor of another Akha village there. It was humbling to receive such generosity and hospitality from people who for the most part subsist on less than a few US dollars per day. In a way, it was almost uncomfortable. But I was reminded of the early church in Phillipi, who having very little still saw it fit to share of their blessings with the apostle Paul.

This is just one example of the blessings we received from our hosts in Northern Thailand. Throughout our travels in Thailand for the week-long trip, we experienced the blessings of hilltribe people. Though they suffer discrimination from the very country that hosts them, those who are believers in Christ are still filled with the joy of the Lord. The way they worship God is so pure and powerful, the movement of the Holy Spirit is easily sensed among them. It is no wonder that the Christian church is growing among the hilltribe people in that region of the world.

And yet, the realities of living in this fallen world are still painfully obvious. The effects of poverty: lack of education, children who are at risk of being trafficked, shortened life expectancy, are all hazards of life for the hilltribe people. The gospel has improved things in each of these areas, but there is still much work to be done to even the odds of hilltribe people sustaining themselves and their families. While our children dream of being rich or famous, their children dream of eating three times a day and not fearing if their father or mother will abandon them or even sell them to a stranger.

The more time I spend among the poor, the more I despair about the disparity between the rich and poor in the world today. And I’m not talking about the filthy rich, those who have more money than they could ever spend in this lifetime. But people like us, who have plenty and spend frivolously, when there are so many people with greater needs which could actually be met. It’s enough to make me ponder how to convert some of our material wealth into something that can be helpful long term to the hilltribe people of Thailand.

When Paul talks about the love of money being the root of all evil, it is often hard for those of us wrapped in our first world lifestyles to comprehend. We don’t feel evil for having warm clothes to wear or buying a new car every five years. It’s only when we begin to weigh the effects of our financial choices that we can see the evil. The monthly car payment can send 5 children to school when they would otherwise have no access to education. The cost of a new winter coat could feed a family of 4 for a month. I’m not trying to guilt trip you here; I just want to open your eyes to reality. If you feel guilty about what I’m saying, that’s the Spirit working on your heart, not me.

If you don’t feel compassion for the world’s poor, it’s probably only because you haven’t spent enough time among them. When you spend time with them and realize how beautiful they are, how they are God’s children, like you and me, and how generous their hearts can be, often more so than our own, you will naturally come to have compassion for them. Though we are ministry workers to the Japanese, we feel it is important for us to connect with the third world and to help our Japanese friends do the same, since years of prosperity in Japan has deeply affected people’s ability to feel compassion here as well.

After being back from spending time with the Akha for almost a week, I’m waiting to feel normal again. But perhaps the way I am feeling now IS normal. It’s normal to have compassion for people who are facing the difficulties in life the Akha people are now facing. It’s normal to feel uneasy about my personal wealth, because wealth was never meant to be accumulated for a “rainy day” when for so many in this world, everyday is a rainy day. It’s normal to feel heartbroken for the dozens of children we encountered  with broken families and little hope for the kind of future we from the first world take for granted.

I ask you to unite your heart in prayer with mine, that the Lord God hears the cry of his people, that he binds up their wounds, that he fills their empty stomachs, and soothes their weary souls. And pray that we do not allow our hearts to be hardened to the plight of the poor and the powerless, but as we are called, that we should serve them and help them in any way we can.

Also, I feel compelled to comment on the various articles I found online about the Akha relating to Christianity, including Wikipedia. It seems there are a few individuals out there working with the Akha (which is wonderful) who are hostile to Christianity and any other concepts they deem come from the Western world and they are vocal in their opposition on the Internet. I can personally attest to the fact that I did not encounter a single Akha person who was hostile to Christians. Moreover, the Akha churches are all led by local pastors, most of whom live in their local village among the people. The conditions they live in are no better than the people they are serving. These are godly, respected men who have a positive influence in their villages and they can only have that influence by living as men of integrity, financially and morally. I also met several young people who are so full of passion for the gospel that they want to become pastors or traveling evangelists to teach their people in more remote areas about the Bible. They are already willing to give up any hope of becoming wealthy or living a comfortable life for the sake of the gospel, even as teenagers or young adults. So the ideas that Christianity is being “forced” on the Akha and their children are being stolen by missionaries are frankly just outright lies. If it were even partially true, I’m certain we would have received a much colder reception from the many villages we visited.

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Under The Weight of Grace

The image in this post may represent the single most important image I have had the privilege of creating since coming to Japan. People who know me understand that I love to dive right into editing my images as soon as I can get them downloaded on my workstation. But I allowed this set of images to sit for a while so I could reflect on the man who is the subject of these photos and his life’s journey that brought him to where he is.

Anyone familiar with Japanese culture knows that when they see the tattoos and the severed pinky finger, they are looking at the image of someone associated with the yakuza, Japan’s organized crime syndicates. It is true that this man was once a member of the yakuza, but it has been decades since he was miraculously released from the service of his crime bosses to do something he had become passionate about while languishing in prison: sharing the love of Christ with others.

Unfortunately, the physical effects of being a part of the yakuza are often impossible to erase. Fingers do not grow back. Body tattoos are not easily removed. And drug abuse as a youth often leads to frail health later in life.

Years of living with the physical reminders of his past and the harsh judgement of certain Christians in his past have transformed his physical scars into emotional ones, scars of shame over his past. Though I have known this man for over a year, this was the first time I ever realized he had tattoos. He kept them carefully hidden under long sleeves and collared shirts.

This past week, during an interview with my friend Paul Nethercott for a short documentary on his life, the topic of his tattoos was brought up. And for the first time on camera, he revealed his tattoos, talked about them, their history, and the shame he associated with them. But rather than agree with him, Paul encouraged him, reminding him that when God redeemed him through Christ, everything about him was transformed, including his tattoos. Rather than being viewed as a source of shame, he should see them as something beautiful. One of the students from the film crew visiting from Huntington University in Indiana presented him with a beautiful image of part of his tattoo she had drawn and attached it to scripture from Psalm 34:5 “Those who look to [the Lord] are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.”

In all of our lives, we carry the tattoos, the scars, the wounds from our sins before we knew the saving power of Christ. When our lives are redeemed, God doesn’t promise to remove those reminders of our past. Sometimes, he uses them to allow us to speak into the lives of others who have the same kinds of scars.

I have titled this image “Under the Weight of Grace” to remind us that God can make the things in our lives we feel ashamed of having done tools for reaching others with the message of grace. I chose to bring a soft, warm light from above to symbolize the grace of God falling on us. I hope the Lord will use this image to inspire the man in the photo and others who are suffering from the weight of their shame when they should be rejoicing in the weight of His grace.

What is Seijin Shiki?

A little while ago, I had the opportunity to take portraits of a young lady from a family who, like us, came to Japan last year to share the hope in Jesus Christ with the people of Japan. The occasion was Seijin Shiki, an event that nearly every Japanese girl (and many boys) look forward to participating in.

Seijin Shiki is the ceremony celebrating the Japanese coming of age, which is 20 years old. Like turning 18 or 21 in many other countries, at 20 years old, a Japanese person is considered an adult and receives all the responsibilities of adulthood. In America, many young adults informally celebrate this time on their 21st birthdays (often with a trip to Las Vegas on the West Coast), but in Japan, any young adult turning 20 before April 2nd of the year of the ceremony celebrates on the same day, the 2nd Monday in January.

On that day, young people can be seen sauntering about town in their finest clothes, or at least the finest clothes they could rent. For women, this usually includes wearing furisode, the most formal and colorful type of kimono for single women, and having their hair and makeup professionally done. For men, it can be either a formal black kimono or a Western style suit.

The Seijin Shiki day is generally comprised of three possible components. First, there is a ceremony that takes place at the city hall of the city where the young person resides. They are formally recognized as adults by the city officials and given a token gift from the city.

Second is a photo session wearing the fantastic outfits that are often so expensive, they can only be rented. These photo sessions often take place at shrines, where young people and their families can also take a minute to pray for a good future. Meiji Shrine in Harajuku is a very popular shrine on this day owing the fact that the area is popular with young people to begin with.

Lastly, but most importantly, the rest of the day is dedicated to friends and family. Some will have lunch at a fancy restaurant with their family and others will meet up with a group of friends and go out on the town, shopping, eating, and possibly taking their first legal drink together.

I was fortunate to be able to photograph our friend decked out in a lovely furisode at a community tea garden not far from our church. Not long ago, I was introduced to a woman who teaches kimono dressing by a mutual friend and she was able to not only provide a lovely kimono to rent but help with the complex dressing process. (Not every kimono is so difficult to put on but this is one of the most formal styles and is usually done with help from a professional or experienced person). We all had a wonderful and enjoyable time.

For some young people, however, this event can be more bitter than sweet. I was recently contacted by our friends in Chiba, asking if I could take portraits of a girl they knew for Seijin Shiki next month. This girl is one of the alumni of the Children’s home we’ve been serving at for the past several years. An organization our friends participate in is putting on a special event for young people from the home celebrating Seijin Shiki. Some of them don’t have families to celebrate with and most don’t have the kind of money it takes to rent the fancy clothing and take photographs of the event, so the organization is helping to facilitate that.

It’s funny how God keeps finding ways to tie my passion for photography in with my passion for sharing the hope of the gospel. When we first came to Japan, I wasn’t sure how useful my photography experience would be to our ministry and now I find so much of my personal ministry is being built on it. Praise God for using what little I have to offer for His glory!

 

The Canopy of Autumn

Growing up in the mild climate of the Bay Area, one thing we definitely missed was the dramatic turn from warm to cold weather signaled by the autumn foliage. It wasn’t until I visited the eastern Sierras in October of 2011 that I realized what I was missing. Needless to say, coming to Japan where both Autumn and Spring bring spectacles of nature that the entire country goes crazy over was an incredible experience for us.

To say that Japan is crazy over the changing autumn leaves is an understatement. Because cherry blossom season is so short in the Spring, popular places to view cherry blossoms tend to be packed with people for a short period of time. But because the autumn colors tend to last longer and experience a week or more at “peak colors”, the crowds don’t seem to be as intense, though the overall numbers probably match their Spring counterparts.

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There are, of course, websites for tracking the changing leaves across the country. And this is a great thing because you wouldn’t want to trek out to a remote location only to find the leaves haven’t changed colors yet.

It just so happens that one of the best places to view autumn colors in the Saitama prefecture is a mere bicycle ride from our house. And a bicycle is perfect because during peak colors, the streets surrounding the location are a gridlock of cars searching in vain for a parking space.

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The location is the grounds of a Buddhist temple called Heirin-ji. The temple itself takes up only a small portion of the forest, but the leaves are best viewed against the classic backdrop of ancient Japanese architecture, as some of the buildings were built in the late 17th century.

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The rest of the space is a woodland preserve of the Musashino Forest, a rarity in such an urban environment. On a quiet day, one can walk seemingly alone through a stretch of forest and maybe catch a glimpse of a raccoon dog or other animal not commonly seen in the surrounding city. But there are no quiet days for walks during the autumn leaves season. Hundreds of people wander the park on weekdays and thousands on weekends.

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Still, every once in a while when the crowds disperse for a few minutes, one can get the sense of standing beneath a tapestry of color only the mind of God could have created, breathing in the cool, earthy air and feeling the fall breeze on your face. And in that moment, a whispered “Hallelujah” might escape your lips because to witness autumn in Japan is a glimpse of God’s glory yet to come.

No words can really describe the beauty so I leave you with a few more photos to savor.

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Falling In Love

The job of the missionary is to fall in love with the place that they are in. – Tim Svoboda, YWAM

If you’ve followed our adventure for this past year, you may notice that among the ministry events we participate in, there are also many cultural events that we take part in as part of our life here in Japan. Summer festivals, tea ceremony, and even pop culture events have all been things we have been blessed to enjoy. Though these events seem unrelated to our core ministry here, they are actually a vital part of our ministry when we look at the big picture and the potential that we may be in Japan for many years.

For the sake of simplicity and because I tend to be a prolific writer once I get going, I’m just going to break this down into a few key points. Over the next few months, I’ll expound in detail on several of these so you get a better understanding of what I mean by them. Ready?

Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Among the many wonderful tidbits of wisdom from YWAM director Tim Svoboda, this is one that I use every day. Japanese culture, as viewed by a person from Western culture, is very difficult to understand. The priorities of the average Japanese person and the group vs. individual mentality are so radically different that one must pause to think in the Japanese mindset before reacting. Full immersion in Japanese culture helps make that transition to the Japanese way of thinking easier, though it is never automatic. Participating in Japanese tea ceremony, for example, teaches us the mentality of serving others in even the smallest of detail. It teaches us to appreciate beauty in seemingly ordinary things. It teaches us the virtue of humility that is held in such high regard in Japanese culture.

Be the salt. Be the light. Because Japanese culture is so relationship based, the concept of evangelism has to be adapted to fit that relational model. It is said that a Japanese person will take 3-5 years to make a commitment to Christ, but not because they don’t understand the gospel on an intellectual level. More likely, it is because they want to take the time to know you as a Christian, literally a “little Christ”, to see how Jesus makes a difference in your life.

Just like Western culture, there are many subcultures of Japanese culture which are by nature more difficult to reach with the gospel. Not necessarily because they are resistant to the gospel, but because Christians lack the desire or courage to become part of those subcultures to be the salt and light to them. Often, the groups that suffer are those with strong adherence to Japanese traditions which was seen by the traditional Protestant church as pagan. We feel that if God opens a door to build a relationship with a specific group of people, we are obliged to take that step. So we make it a point to get involved with as many different subcultures in Tokyo as we can: artisans, musicians, photographers, college students, special-needs children, and even break dancers!

Inspire others to do something. I apologize if this sounds self-serving, but one of the reasons we do these things is for you! As we interact with people from outside of Japan, we find that many people are interested in Japan and its culture but know very little about it. Part of the issue is the language barrier and part is that the Japanese people put a strong value on being separate from the rest of the world. Japan is probably one of the most homogeneous first world nations, with little desire from the government or general public for looser immigration laws. Many things are talked about being “uniquely Japanese”, even things that aren’t really unique to Japan.

As we experience Japanese culture and share these experiences with you, we hope that we are creating sources of information in English for people who are curious about Japanese culture and inspiring people to care about and pray for the people of Japan. If a few of you are inspired so much to become ministry workers here in Japan, we certainly wouldn’t complain about that either!

Falling in love. Another wonderful tidbit from Tim Svoboda, as seen at the top of this post, is that our primary job is to fall in love with the place we are in. We can’t love the people if we hate the culture. We must learn to value the good things that they value. Of course, we weigh those practices against the Word of God and we do what is right according to Scripture. But it is never wrong to develop a deeper understanding of the culture in the place where you live. The Svobodas spent 30 years in India, so Tim knows exactly what he’s talking about when he says this.

Almost every visitor to Japan leaves with a respect for some part of Japanese culture that they encountered: politeness, generosity, cleanliness, humility, aesthetic beauty. Not surprisingly, everything a person could admire about Japanese culture has roots in the character of God. An ability to connect the things Japanese people admire to scriptural references to the character of God helps break down the false idea that Christianity is a Western religion.

As you follow this blog, you will continue to see a mix of both ministry related and culture related posts about our life here in Japan. What I wanted you to see is that the two are intertwined with one another in ways that aren’t always obvious. Though I’ve only given you a brief overview of the importance of studying local culture as an overseas ministry worker, I hope to give you more in-depth essays on these topics in the future.

Bridging The Gap in Tokyo

Walking into The Bridge Live, it’s easy to think you’ve just stumbled upon a hidden gem of an underground jazz club. First the location: Shimokitazawa, an artsy suburb of Tokyo that is a destination for urban 20-somethings due to its lively nightlife, edgy shops and abundance of great restaurants. Half Moon Hall, the venue for The Bridge Live is itself an architectural masterpiece.

Next, the musicians. Four or five bands, mainly people from the neighborhood, come to play their music here. The music ranges from classic jazz to folk rock to Beatles covers, but one thing remains the same: the high quality of the musicians who play here. Only then do you realize you didn’t pay a cover charge to come in the door.

When Joey Zorina takes the stage, you realize why you are here. Joey, a talented guitarist himself, is pastor of The Bridge Fellowship, a weekly home church gathering. The Bridge Live is an event held 4 or 5 times a year as a way to present the gospel message to this crowd of young and artistic people. The message is given in a way that connects with what is typically going on in the lives of this demographic.

Finally, the night closes with a professional Christian band or musician who is able to share a testimony along with a few songs. At the end of the night, everyone chips in with help cleaning up and a few groups might go off together to enjoy a meal together in this lively neighborhood.

I first attended The Bridge Live to cover the testimony of Shinada-san, one of the ex-Yakuza men whom our film “2 Criminals” is based on. I have continued to attend because of the quality of the music and message I experienced there and as a way I could bless the musicians playing there with professional photographs of themselves in concert.

This demographic of young and artistic people is often considered a “fringe” demographic, largely because the values of modern Japan culture place so much value on material wealth, and artists typically aren’t the ones making lots of money. This holds true in the West as well, but committing to the life of an artist in Japan is a real commitment that could have a lasting effect on your relationships with your family and friends. But because of their “outlier” status, this group is also one which are more ready to hear and accept the gospel message. However, they may not feel comfortable attending a more traditional church, so having a place like The Bridge Fellowship to attend is a blessing for them.

The Bridge Fellowship will be going through a transition to a full-fledged church as part of the Redeemer City-to-City Movement. Please pray for this ministry as it serves this specific demographic of Japanese and if you feel inclined to learn more and perhaps support them financially, visit their website to learn more.