Northern Thailand – A Reason to Return

20180305-_DSC3168Among the six children living at Migiwa House, E was a little different than the others. Using a pet analogy, if the other children were like dogs, E was the cat. The other kids reveled in physical play and hugs while E would hang back, occasionally come to grab your hand for a moment or sit on your lap, only to be off again quickly on her own. Though all the children came from lives of varying degrees of difficulty, E’s life was probably one of the most difficult. Her mother was in prison. Her father, when he wanted her around at all, was physically and verbally abusive. One would think E would find refuge in spending 10 months of the year living at Migiwa House, away from her home in the village to attend elementary school, but on the contrary, she often expressed her discontent. She even refused to pay next year’s school fees given to her by her guardians at Migiwa House because she said she wasn’t going to come back.

I have a soft spot in my heart for this little girl, tough on the outside, but broken and hurting inside. The five days we spent with the children at Migiwa House, I tried to make sure E felt like she was a part of the family, to remind her that she was surrounded by people who loved her. Once while we were out walking, E came beside me and grabbed my hand, walking beside me for a few minutes before running off to play. Teru, her Migiwa House “dad” told me later that she never wanted to hold anyone’s hand. Maybe the Lord provided a special connection between us.

Each member of our team lavished a little extra love on E. Kathy talked sweetly with her and gave her extra hugs. Kun-san drew a portrait of her sitting on the chair outside and presented it to her. And on the day before we left, I looked E in the eyes and told her to promise she would be there at Migiwa house when I came back next year. She coyly replied, “I don’t know” with her mischievous smile.

As we said goodbye, there were many tears shed by both the children and our team. We knew only a couple days after we left, the kids would return to their villages for a two month school break. Five of them would happily return to Migiwa House in June. The other…we could only pray for.

A few days later, we received an email from Teru thanking us for ministering to the children, visiting the villages to teach music, and teaching English and photography at New Life Center. I quickly scanned the message for news about E, and was overjoyed when Teru said that he was now confident E would return to Migiwa House in two months. She intended to keep her promise to me.

I always wonder if people think it is strange that as a ministry worker to the Japanese, I take this annual trip to support the hilltribe people of Northern Thailand. But I believe God calls us beyond national borders, beyond people groups and simply to those who need Him the most. People like E, who might slip through the cracks and disappear if not reminded of God’s love for her through our visits. For children with unstable lives, there has to be some consistency from adults in their lives, and in some small way, our little team from Tokyo provides some consistency and comfort to her.

The trip also provided an opportunity for us to have a change of scenery and provide still provide much needed ministry. Later, I will report on the incredible progress we have seen over three years and four visits to New Life Center. And this year, my friend Y who is like a brother-in-law to me, was able to be with us the whole week. Though he is not a Christian yet, he spent the week serving alongside us, using the gifts God gave him the same as us, and gaining a fuller understanding of how God works in our lives and the lives of others. I pray that his understanding of the gospel is much more complete as a result of his experience. Experience can move people’s hearts in a way reasoning and logic cannot.

One day, E will graduate from high school and then from university, and I am looking forward to the day that instead of us going to see her in Chiang Rai, she will come to see us in Tokyo. Until that day, we will continue to nurture and encourage her in the language she best understands from us, just being there for her.

Little Voices Magnified

Yesterday, as I watched the mini-bus full of our Redwood team pull out of the preschool on their way back to California, I felt the tears welling up. For a week, we had transformed the rooms and halls of the preschool, normally unused during vacation periods, into places of joy and laughter for over 200 children. They danced like no one was watching, sang at the tops of their lungs, and gave praise to a God they were only just beginning to know, but One who knew and loved them before they were born.

Their little voices echoed in the hallways of my memories, their little footsteps literally running into the chapel excited to sing and dance their hearts out for Jesus. In those moments, it wasn’t difficult to understand the joy God feels for us, His creation, and what He intended our relationship to be with him: children running with joy to spend time with their Father.

Dozens of volunteers spent hundreds of man hours preparing for and participating in English Summer Camp this year. Many people, most who didn’t even attend the event, gave time and resources to support this event: prayer, financial, labor. And many volunteers here in Japan sacrificed their vacation time to spend time with these children.

I’m so thankful for the breadth and depth of our local volunteers this year. Some came from other churches to help, some from other ministries, like a great group of young people from YWAM. Some were local university students who love children. Some were mothers of participating children who wanted to be more actively involved.

Some of our volunteers said that by participating in camp, they came to a fuller knowledge of who Jesus is and what Christianity is about. A parent said that she had never seen her child as full of joy as they were during English Summer Camp. On the last day, there were already requests to do a mini-camp in the Fall, maybe with a few members of the Redwood Team returning to lead it.

This is all we pray and hope for; the opportunity to build deeper friendships and relationships based on the foundation of God’s love. Through our friendship, we hope to help our Japanese friends gain a clearer understanding of God’s great love for them. We want to stand with them in their times of joy and times of sorrow, their triumphs and trials. For Jesus called us to live out his love in the world in action, and not just words.

Sharing some of the beautiful moments of this year’s English Summer Camp: children worshiping their Heavenly Father and being loved with the love of Jesus through our leaders and volunteers.

 

Northern Thailand Update – Migiwa Foundation

Last year, we traveled to several villages in Northern Thailand for the purpose of meeting a few of the children who would be coming to live with our ministry workers in Chiang Rai for ten months of the year to attend school. Without a safe place to live in the city, there would be no educational opportunities for many hilltribe children where schools in general are rare and there are no village schools for kids beyond junior high school level.

This year, we were excited to reunite with several of the kids we met in their villages last year, now living at the Migiwa Foundation home. Two of the children are from the Lahu hilltribe and three are Akha. One is the daughter of an Akha pastor who helps take care of the other children but the other four are from broken homes. Last year, one of the boys we met had been basically abandoned to the care of his 13-year-old brother when his mother began living with another man. He was 9-years-old at the time and could barely speak any Thai because he went to school so infrequently. Now he is attending school regularly and doing well.

Our friends were able to rent a large piece of land at a reasonable price, which enabled them to build a separate room (necessary because they are housing boys and girls) and a guest house for visitors which will eventually be used by Thai caretakers for the children.

In the short time they have lived at Migiwa House, several of the kids already have a basic grasp of Japanese (the mother tongue of our friends) as well as becoming fluent in Thai. They also learn a little English, so including their native language, they will eventually be quad-lingual!

But the real language of children is play and that’s what we did whenever we had free time to spend with them. Outdoor sports and games, board games, piggyback rides, you name it, we played it with them. One of the things many children raised in poverty suffer from is lack of attention from adults, so when they can get it, they really soak it up. And they were such sweet-natured, fun children, who wouldn’t want to lavish attention on them? It reminds me of one of my favorite pieces of Scripture: See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! (1 John 3:1) We can only hope that they see the love God the Father has for them through us.

Again, I marveled in the fact that these children experienced such joy in the simple things of life: climbing trees to pick fruit, making stilts and bows and arrows out of bamboo, riding in the back of a pickup truck. Our friend said he’s never taken them to the local mall or to eat at McDonalds. They don’t need those things to be happy and the knowledge of those things would likely just make them unhappy. Isn’t it so true that the greatest temptation we face daily is the temptation to be ungrateful for what the Lord has graciously given us?

Returning to Thailand on this annual ministry trip plays an important role in resetting my perspective on Christian life. It reminds me that contentment can be found in even the most challenging of life’s situations. It burdens me to remember to pray for our brothers and sisters in other countries and humbles me to seek prayers from them. It connects me to the global church and gives me a glimpse of the powerful ways the Lord is moving among His people.

As Christians, we don’t need a vacation from Kingdom work, but I do believe we need a change of perspective once in a while. We returned from Thailand physically exhausted but at the  same time, brimming with spiritual fervor for the work of the Lord. Praise God for the ways He loves and cares for us. We look forward to praying for these children as they grow up in the Lord, supporting their financial needs to live at Migiwa House and attend school, and visiting them regularly to spend quality time with them.

 

 

 

Dream Big Dreams

In many ways, today was the culmination of over two years of praying, dreaming and planning with our partners from Redwood Chapel. Over two years ago, God brought us together with Redwood Chapel as they sought a vision for ministry to their newly chosen unreached people group, the Japanese. At that time, we had not even left America and were still forming in our own minds what long term ministry might look like in Tokyo. One of the few things we were sure of was that we felt God prompting us to reach children and young families with the gospel message.

It was with that in mind that we floated the idea of a partnership to do some sort of ministry like Vacation Bible School in Japan. We knew from experience on a smaller scale that children loved it and even parents were able to learn about the gospel through the simple message of children’s ministry. But our dream was for something larger: perhaps more churches or a larger scale event, and for the ability to replicate a program across the nation of Japan.

When we found a wonderful church, Nerima Biblical Church, with a pastor couple who shared our passion for reaching families in the community, we knew it would be possible to host some sort of event at our church. So we went ahead and started high level discussions with Redwood Chapel.

We explored the idea with small steps, leading to a small vision team from Redwood Chapel visiting our church last October. On that visit, the person in charge of the preschool whose facility we are using shocked us by offering the use of their facilities free of charge. Suddenly, the concept of “large scale” grew even larger. Here was a brand new facility with the capacity for over 500 children, much larger than any church in Japan could host on its own.

From that point on, we moved forward with the plan to host such an event in August 2016. We met on numerous Skype calls and on our own in both Japan and California. A “dream team” was formed by Redwood Chapel with experienced leaders who could lead the initial event while teaching a Japanese counterpart how to lead in future years.

On July 1st, we opened registration with barely any marketing other than word of mouth. We had no idea how many children we should expect to be enrolled. We told ourselves that we would be happy if 50 kids came the first year since nobody knew what to expect. 50 kids were enrolled on the first day. And enrollment continued until we hit 230 at the end of the official enrollment period. We were blown away by what God was doing in our community. It had nothing to do with us.

To say there was spiritual opposition to our English Summer Camp program would be to put it mildly. We faced all sorts of problems, from fierce political fighting at the facility we were using, to horrible automobile accidents involving team members, and even mosquito-induced anaphylactic shock. Little issues kept eating away at our time, our enthusiasm, our sense of unity. But we pressed on with prayer and the little faith we had, knowing that the work the Lord had begun He would see through.

As I stood on the stage today looking out over our 240+ children, 50 volunteers and a number of lingering, curious mothers, I was close to tears. For two years we dreamed of this day, of the hundreds of little smiles, the ring of laughter, the enthusiastic dancing. And today, there it all was, as if God had choreographed it all behind the scenes while we struggled with our faith to expect even 50 children.

Today was day one. There are five more days of ESC this year alone, not to mention the years of partnership with Redwood Chapel yet to come. There will be spiritual conversations with children and parents. There will be real and lasting impact on individuals and families. There will be amazing works in people’s hearts that only happen through Christ Jesus. And it all began with a dream, a dream that we allowed to be big even when our faith would have kept it small. And everyday, I want to relish it all, to breathe it in like a refreshing cool antidote to the hot summer days, knowing the Lord is moving in our community and in this nation of Japan.

Another Christmas Season in Japan

If there is any particularly difficult season to be overseas, it would definitely be Christmas. It’s a time of year normally spent with family and friends and there is an excitement in the air that is very different from the rest of the year. Living in Tokyo, Christmas seems very different to us. We are thousands of miles from our families and though the outward signs of Christmas are apparent in decorations and the beautiful winter “illuminations” that many parks and neighborhoods setup for this time of year, the spiritual emptiness of the season is also very real. Most Japanese, knowing little about Jesus and the reason we celebrate Christmas, do not celebrate in the same way we do in America. Christmas day isn’t even a holiday in Japan, so with people going to work or school like any other day, it all seems so, well, normal.

Yet it is during this season that we are most aware of why we are here. We pray for the day when the people of Japan recognize Christmas in the same way we do: the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s greatest gift of hope to mankind. So one of the pleasures of the season is helping to introduce the gospel story to the people of Japan through the message of Christmas.

For our church, the Christmas season means a special Children’s Christmas Festival, where children both from the church and from the community come together to perform skits and music, play games and compete in indoor sports, make crafts and eat food. As most of activities, the idea is to allow people from the community to come into the church and see that we aren’t weird or dangerous. We are just regular people who are willing to admit we need a savior, and that savior can only be Jesus.

My small offering this year was once again taking family portraits. Though I was initially disappointed to find there were less families taking portraits this year, I was later happy to learn that there were more families who were not regular attendees of our church or church events who took photos. I had a team of people helping me and the care they took in helping families get the best possible portraits were hopefully noticed by those new families who came.

We also helped to host a Christmas party for our English Club with help from our pastors and other ministry workers from church. We made Christmas cookies and had a little photo booth to take fun Christmas pictures with the students. University students will go on break for about a month soon, so we wanted to send them off with something fun in the midst of their studying.

 

And no Christmas would be complete without the wonderful Christmas Gospel Choir concert. Choir members are practicing for this amazing concert for months in advance and it shows in their enthusiasm and the beautiful harmonies. The concert plays to a packed house of over 300 people, many of which are friends and families of choir members who are not yet believers (in fact, a number of choir members themselves are not yet believers). As I have previously mentioned, the gospel choir is one of the most effective outreaches to people who wouldn’t normally visit a church and hear the gospel message. Many members of our church became Christians through participating in the choir. As always, even the next generation of gospel choir members, from 3 to 13 years old, also performed and our pastors Seiji and Kathy gave a lighthearted gospel message in the middle of the concert.

And finally, we took a short trip to Kyoto for a little family time. We drove to Kyoto to save some money and it turned out to be an easy drive with very little traffic. We had a great few days of exploring the beautiful city of Kyoto, but we’ll save that for another post.

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We may never become used to the differences in celebrating Christmas in Japan compared to celebrating Christmas in America. And that’s okay, because in the end, it all comes down to a miracle over 2000 years ago, born as a humble King in Bethlehem.

What is a “Free School”?

Every weekday morning around 7:30, the streets are flooded with the uniformed masses of Japanese school children trudging off to school. In many ways, they are like their Western counterparts: dreaming of upcoming vacation days, worried about a pop quiz in math, laughing with their friends about some YouTube video playing on someone’s phone. It’s easy to forget that in one important way, they aren’t the same.

The Japanese education system still stresses the idea of collectivism, that the needs of the many are greater than the needs of the individual. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this idea, some of the ways this teaching manifests itself can be disturbing.

The Japanese proverb that best defines their particular brand of collectivism is this: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” In school, the end result is that nobody wants to stand out from their peers in any way, good or bad. You may be the smartest kid in your class but you’d dare not act like it by asking your teacher for more challenging work. If your peers find out about it, you’ll be put in your place.

The most common manifestation of collectivism is the bullying of the children who refuse to be, or due to mental, emotional or physical issues, cannot be, part of the collective. The bullying problem in Japan is well documented and there are many reasons for it apart from social collectivism, but the point is that the school yard can be a very cruel place for many Japanese children.

So while we witness thousands of children march off to school every day, there are likely hundreds more who can’t or won’t leave their homes. For some, the bullying has become so bad that they cannot deal with it any longer and their weary parents, having exhausted all options, simply allow them to stop attending school. For others, the school administrators themselves have requested that the family stop sending their child to their school. And there are other reasons, often related to one of these two.

Our friend and JEMS affiliate Moto Kimura is passionate about children and families in this situation. Moto is the administrator of a “free school” at a church in Ueno. Free schools are now starting to show up all over Japan, often started by churches who are compassionate toward families with children who cannot or will not attend Japanese public schools.

I’ve had the opportunity to visit Moto’s school twice already and meet the children who attend his school. None of the kids could be legitimately called “bad” kids. Some have short attention spans and need to get up in the middle of a lesson and walk around a bit before resuming their work. Some have learning disorders and need a little more help learning their subjects. And some appear completely normal but perhaps have been bullied so badly at public schools that they refuse to return.

The ability to help children who do not “fit” the Japanese public school system is an area where the government is struggling. Even in the area of treating common learning disorders, Japan lags behind other first world nations. And so it is, where the government is in need, the church can help provide an answer, this time through Free Schools.

Of course, much more can be done, if there were more professional special needs teaching resources coming from overseas to serve Free Schools and their like. Like my wife has come to serve her school as a Speech Therapist (and in many other ways), Japan can benefit from bilingual resources educated in American universities on treating these learning disabilities that are still relatively new to Japan.

As for me, I will be giving a chapel message once per month at Moto’s school and teaching some simple photography concepts to the older students. Please pray for Moto and his school and the many schools like his that churches are using to serve the people of Japan. This is just another tangible way to provide the love of Christ to families who are desperately in need.

Sowing the Seeds

One of the questions we are often asked as ministry workers in Japan is why only 1% of Japanese identify as Christians. While this is a complex question to answer in a single blog post, let me toss you a fact and a theory to consider.

Fact: Most Japanese people have little knowledge of the Christian God or Jesus Christ. Now, if the entire country was evangelized and still only 1% of people made a decision to follow Christ, I would say our work in Japan is finished. Our job is to make the gospel known, not to “convert” or “save” people. Salvation is through Christ alone. The work of communicating the gospel, the job of ministry workers and really every Christian living in Japan, is far from over, however.

Which leads me to my theory about being stuck at the 1% threshold. Imagine yourself as a farmer with a huge field that you wanted to grow a crop of corn in. Now imagine that perhaps once a week, you went into your field and dropped a few kernels of corn, kicked a little dirt over them, and went to paint the barn or milk the cows or some other farm related thing.

If the weather was kind to you and provided you some rain, if birds didn’t pick your corn kernels out of the ground, and if weeds didn’t choke your growing corn stalks, at the harvest, you might have some corn. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, 1% of your field.

So my theory is this: Historically, Japan has not invested enough effort in planting the seeds of the harvest to see a greater harvest. And what do those kernels of corn represent? Investment in ministry to the children.

It is said that less than 50% of Japanese churches TODAY provide any sort of children’s ministry: Sunday School, youth programs, Bible camp, etc. With no children’s ministry going on at church, when children hit the age where secular events like sports or school clubs are an option for them, they simply disappear from the church, many of them forever.

I want to be clear that I am not saying this in criticism of the Japanese church. Most churches barely have the staff to support the adult congregation. But I am offering this idea as an encouragement to the churches in Japan; if you invest in children’s ministry now, you will see the harvest of believers later.

I have had countless conversations with Japanese people (and indeed Americans as well) who made decisions for Christ later in life but have clear memories of being taught about a loving Creator God and the sacrifice of Jesus very early in their lives in Sunday School or at a VBS program. Even I heard the gospel many times in elementary school before I made the decision to give my life to Christ in junior high school.

We had the privilege of serving with Tokyo Shibuya Evangelical Church this past week as they provided an English Camp, or what we would call in America a “VBS” program. A team from the Bay Area comes each year to provide leadership and materials for this event. This is the third year they have put on this camp and this year we had 67 children in attendance.

80% of the children (and their families) have little or no exposure to the gospel except through this event. Some parents might even object to a church camp teaching the gospel in Japanese but because it is bilingual, they feel it’s a good experience for their children. Many of the children are repeat attendees from the previous year or two.

One of the personal joys for me this year was walking one boy through the gospel message and hearing him explain the message to me in his own words! Later, I watched as many of the kids were absolutely engrossed in reading their personal copy of “Manga Mission”, a free resource from Next Manga.

Though the children were all offered opportunities to give their lives to Jesus, it would be difficult to confirm which of them did so in faith. Yet, this isn’t even the important thing, as God knows their hearts and true motivations. I believe the most important thing is that the seeds of the gospel were planted in 67 young and tender hearts this past week. God assures us that the word that goes from His mouth does not return without accomplishing its purpose.

If you are not yet familiar with the 4/14 Window Movement that is going on globally to promote evangelism and empowerment to children, I urge you to learn more about this important movement.

Pray with us for these children but also for the greater vision of ministry to the children to grow in the Japanese church. We are seeing many church leaders embracing this new dynamic and recognizing it as a key to evangelizing the nation.