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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Life in Japan: Shichi-Go-San

Passing by a Shinto shrine of any repute during the week leading up to November 15th and you will see them: tiny people dressed to the nines in equally tiny kimono and hakama. They are Japanese children of the ages of three, five or seven years old. In one hand they clutch a treasure, chitose ame, thousand year candy (not thousand year OLD candy; that would be gross), in a bag decorated with turtles and cranes, animals renowed for long lives. Often they are accompanied by grandparents who also take the occasion to deck out in their finest traditional attire.

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The occasion is Shichi-Go-San, literally translated to “Seven, Five, Three”. Girls aged three and seven and boys aged three and five are given a “rite of passage” of sorts which consists of a visit to the shrine and a blessing by a Shinto priest. Modern times dictate that as long as you went through the trouble and expense of getting the kids dressed up (often in rented clothing), you might as well bring out the camera or hire a photographer for a family portrait at the same time.

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Why the years seven, five and three only? Anyone who has traveled through Asia knows numerology is taken very seriously here. The Chinese are especially crazy over the number eight, while the Japanese prefer odd numbers. Except the number 9 of course, which can be pronounced the same as the word for “death” and should naturally be avoided. Are you following me so far? Also, Japanese used to follow the rule that a person was one year old at birth. Take one and nine out of the equation and you are left with three, five and seven as your odd, single-digit numbers. Tada!

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The tradition likely originated from times when common diseases claimed the lives of many children before they could grow to adulthood, thus the focus of the ceremony on long life and health. In many ways, Shichigosan was a response to the fear of losing one’s child prematurely. At the time, it probably made a lot of sense to parents and gave them a sense of peace. Today, of course, it’s mainly a matter of tradition and perhaps an opportunity for a nice photo to put on the New Year’s Card. To be Japanese, it is reasoned, is to observe the religious traditions of Shintoism and Buddhism; whether or not you believe in them is your own business.

Though the gods of Shintoism have no authority over life or death, thousands of children will be taken to a shrine for this beautiful yet empty ceremony. Our hope and prayer is that one day, Japanese parents will dress their children in their finest kimono and hakama and take them to church to have a pastor pray a blessing over them from God our Father and Creator, and not just for health and long life, but for eternal life through Christ Jesus. Or better yet, that the parents themselves pray a blessing over their own children in the name of Jesus, because as children of the one true God, we have the right to approach Him directly and make our requests known!

 

Everyday Japan – Playground

Today, I rode my bike past this playground made up of a set of swings, a slide, and a few sets of bars. Though fairly well maintained with fresh paint, like 90% of other playgrounds like this around Tokyo, it was completely devoid of kids, even in the middle of Japanese school’s summer vacation.

It occurred to me that if I were a kid, the last thing I would want to do would to be out playing on a metal playground in the middle of summer. Besides the hot sticky summer air, metal play structures capture the heat of the sun and a swing that might be fun in the cool months would probably become a branding iron for your bottom in the summer.

Kids are out playing in the summer heat, but that play often involves sports (perhaps keeping in practice for the school team they participate in) or water play, which is exactly the sort of fun I would love to have in the summer. But for the most part, children are hiding away from the summer heat indoors.

To me, the average Japanese playground seems to be completely disconnected from the audience they are trying to reach: children. How can play areas be restructured to recapture the hearts of children and draw them out to play in the summer? Treehouses built in the protective shade of a grove of trees? Wooden forts with water cannons?

Chiba Summer Mission – Special Needs Children’s Home

Our association with the special needs home was, simply, an answered prayer. There was no reason for the administrator of the home to meet us, let alone welcome us with open arms to the home. We had tried several times to connect with the special needs children through events and their school, but progress was extremely slow. We felt God wanted us to make a connection with these children; every year, we always had at least a couple of team members with experience with and passion for serving these wonderfully made people. So we kept praying, and last year, God answered in an amazing way.

Again, it was an association with a good friend who got a job working at the special needs children’s home who got us through the first barrier. When we met him last year, our hope was to simply introduce ourselves and let him know that our team always had people experienced with special needs children who wanted to learn more about what they were doing. Instead, the administrator treated us to a full tour of the facility including visiting each of the houses and each of the children living in them. As we expected, the kids were incredible. There was a wide range of physical and mental disabilities but nearly every child made some attempt to connect with us; some greeted us with “Konnichiwa!”, some smiled, some grabbed our hands. At the end of the tour, the administrator did what we thought was unimaginable: he gathered all the kids and staff together and we all to a photograph together. Normally, these administrators do not want the children photographed, but he really saw a genuine love from us and trusted us right away. Genuine, of course, because it came from Jesus. Our leader Mike, in a moment of inspiration, told him we would come again next year and have a BBQ for the staff and kids. He accepted Mike’s offer and that would be our ministry at the special needs children’s home this year.

But a couple of weeks before the team came from California, more exciting news came from the administrator. Could they invite the parents of the children to participate in the BBQ? This would mean a lot more food would need to be purchased and cooked, but it would also give us an opportunity to meet and share the love of Christ with the families of the children. God provided one of the men of our church, a professional cook, to serve on that day on a stopover on his way home from a business trip to India. Things could not have been better planned, but of course it was because it was God’s plan all along.

Our program consisted of a huge BBQ lunch which was so massive and so delicious many of the staff members were beside themselves. Why did this group of strangers come all the way from California to donate all this food and cook them a meal? After the meal, we had water games, which turned into a huge water fight. The California team, staff and children from the home all participated in getting each other completely soaked (which was fine on such a hot summer day). The parents watched from the sidelines and enjoyed seeing the interaction between their children and the staff.

After the games, we all came back together to put on programs for one another. The staff and some of the kids from the home put on a magic and skill show, with some funny magic tricks, plate spinning, and Chinese yo-yos. We decided to sing some of the Japanese folk songs that another team from California had learned to sing for the people up in Tohoku (the region affected by the tsunami in 2011) earlier in the year. The people were touched that we learned how to sing Japanese songs and many of the staff and even some of the kids joined in with us. However, we ended our set with “Kimi wa ai sareru tame umareta” which means “You were born to be loved”. So many Japanese don’t understand that their birth was not some kind of cosmic accident, but that God created them because He loved them. The fact that each of these children were made special in other ways underscored this message of love. One of the mothers of the children wept as we sang the song. And if the administrator of the home had any doubt about our love for the children and the helpers at the home, they were erased when he heard that song.

In the end, we exchanged joyful hugs with children and staff, and as we packed up our things, the administrator said very clearly, multiple times, “We are looking forward to seeing you again next year.” The doors that only a few years ago were completely closed to us had been thrown open wide.

I treasure the opportunity to share the love of Christ in this environment because I know if Jesus were in this town, this would be a place he would make time to visit. I also know that though we go for the children, the staff of the home, including the wonderful administrator, are also receiving God’s love. I believe these kinds of people have a greater capacity for understanding the gospel because they themselves give sacrificially to those who cannot fully repay them, just as God has done for us. We look forward to returning to this place and giving further testimony to the love of Jesus to these incredible people.

Please pray we can continue to develop and deepen relationships with individuals at the home and that they might desire to know more about the love of Jesus for them.

 

Chiba Summer Mission – Children’s Home

In 2012, our team visited the local children’s home to play with the kids for a short while and hand out candy we brought from the States. It was the same every year for us; a short visit to let the kids know we were thinking of them, then we were gone for another year. But that year, our team decided we needed to get more involved at the home. So we began to pray for the following year and how we might have a greater impact on the lives of the children.

God answered our prayer in an amazing way when the son of the Japanese pastor of our church got a job at the Children’s home. With his help, we were able to plan five afternoons of programs for the kids consisting of games, crafts and water play. Instead of a 30 minute visit, we spent several hours each afternoon there, building relationships with some of the kids. We brought along a local Christian family with a passion to minister to children in this environment so that they could continue the relationships after we had gone. Though there were some difficulties with some of the kids, God allowed this family to have a positive impact on other kids living at the home.

One such child was A., a girl who had stopped attending middle school and spent most of her time alone in her room, listening to music. Through the relationship, A. began to get involved with this family and started getting help with her school work. Earlier this year, A. passed her high school entrance exam and when we met her this year, the joy in her was obvious. While last year she was a bit withdrawn and shy, this year she was bubbly and full of laughter. A. had also been memorizing Bible verses through AWANA and was reminded of a time in her childhood when she went to church for a short time. We pray for A. to continue to learn more about Jesus and having a growing hope for a positive future after leaving the home when she graduates.

This year, we repeated the five days of craft and games ministry program. We were greeted in the parking lot by a few of the girls we met last year who were anticipating our visit. Soon, nearly 20 kids had come to make rainbow loom bracelets with us, some from the previous year and some new. By the end of the week, 30-40 kids had participated in at least one day of our program, many of them coming to several days.

This year we met H., a girl we had seen last year but had little interaction with because she wasn’t interested in participating in our activities. This year, she came to our craft making activity on the first day and unlike the previous year, her scowl was replaced with a beautiful smile. By the third day, she went to the home of our friends with A. and another girl to participate in a Hip Hop dance class and make and eat gyoza. She was so excited about the gyoza because she told our friends that living at the home, she had never eaten homemade gyoza before. It was a heartbreaking reminder of the kind of life some of these children are living.

Building relationships with the children and reinforcing their self-worth is good ministry, but we realize that such ministry has its limitations. We can minister in a limited way to the kids at the home (we cannot overtly share the gospel there), but that is only a temporary ministry to these children. The reality for many of these children is that when they turn 18, they have to leave the home. The government provides a small stipend but it is barely enough for a month’s food and rent. As a result, many of the children find themselves homeless or forced to take illicit jobs to survive. Though there aren’t any statistics, you can imagine the suicide rate in this demographic would likely be disproportionately high. The staff of the home is aware this is a huge problem but it is a national issue, and not one they can easily change. However, a group of people at this particular home have come together to work on the problem.

The group is called Hajime no Ippo (First Steps) and consists of several of the staff members of the home, including the current administrator, who will be retiring next year, and his successor. This small group of people are passionate about changing the system so that children leaving the home have a greater chance to make it on their own. Through a series of miracles, our Christian friends were invited to participate in the group, and in turn, introduced us and our team leader to the group. The members we met were overjoyed to know that there were other people who shared their heart for the children in the Japanese orphanage system and invited us to participate in future events promoting greater visibility into the extent of the problems.

Our prayer is to find ways to help this group in concrete ways: finding resources to help them become a recognized NPO (a difficult process in Japan), helping them promote and educate the Japanese Christian population about the extent of the problems in the Japanese orphanage system, and of course, serving and loving the children and providing, in a small way, a source of constant love and support to them.

For the protection of the children, we can’t post any photos of the children on the Internet (the image used in this article only shows the faces of our team members). I wish we could though, because if you could look into the eyes of any one of these children, your heart would break for their situation, just as God’s heart is breaking for them. The Bible reminds us dozens of times about the Lord’s compassion for the fatherless and how we ought to have the same. Would you join us in praying for the Lord to provide hope and a future for each of these children?

 

 

Chiba Summer Mission: VBS

We exchanged our goodbye hugs in the driveway of the apartment building a couple of hours ago and waved goodbye to our team from California as they headed to Narita for the flight home. After two weeks of ministry together, each and every one of us was both physically exhausted yet spiritually refreshed. The days were so full, it is really only now, alone with just the family, that I can sit down and write a proper summary of the ministry over the past two weeks.

There is so much to share, I thought it would be best to break things down into three different posts covering each of the major ministry activities we engaged in: VBS, the Ichinomiya Gakuen (Children’s Home) and Makinoki Gakuen (Special Needs Children’s Home). This post will focus on the VBS ministry.

This was our second year of VBS and compared to last year, the planning went extremely smoothly between the core team here in Japan and the team in California. There seemed to be much less stress about the logistics of VBS this year which allowed a greater focus on making sure each child was able to experience the love of Jesus in a real way. From the first day, there was more emphasis on helping the children understand that Jesus loves them. Over the course of the week, the fact that “Jesus loves you” was enforced dozens of times. It was not possible for a child to leave VBS without at least having the head knowledge of the love of Christ.

Yet, the children were also able to experience the love of Jesus in very real ways. With a good ratio of helpers to children, helpers were able to give special attention to each child throughout the week. Though some children were “difficult”, we were able to find ways to reach them in a love language that touched their hearts.

The theme this year was based on the VBS program brought from California, called “Weird Animals”. Using rare and unusual animals as examples, the theme helped communicate how rare and unusual the aspects of the love of Jesus are. Though five different aspects of His love are covered, it always comes back to “Jesus loves you!”. This is such a rare thing for a Japanese person of any age to hear! It was so wonderful to hear the children during the in-between times telling each other “Jesus loves you!” Of course, we taught them the meaning of “Jesus loves you” in Japanese so they really understood what they were saying to each other.

We started and ended each day with a praise and dancing time. This was a time for the children to sing and dance to the VBS songs in English. We repeated the same 5-6 songs during the week so they had a good chance to learn the English words and the dances and hand movements. Early in the week, we explained the songs in Japanese so they would understand what they were singing about. Each day, the joyousness of the praise time grew, along with the volume of the singing. On Friday, parents waiting on the other side of the church could clearly hear their children praising God in song in the VBS room.

The highlight of the week was Thursday, when each child was offered a personal opportunity to respond to the gospel. We prayed that one child would respond to the message (remember, less than 1% of Japanese are Christians and 1 in 40 children would be 2.5%!) but as always, the Lord blessed our efforts in abundance. The Spirit moved the majority of the children to invite Jesus into their hearts! What a praise! While not every child’s faith will blossom immediately, we know that by inviting Jesus into their hearts once will make it much more likely for them to make a serious decision to follow Christ in the future.

One example of how the Spirit works came from a 9-year-old girl who attended last year’s VBS and was there again this year. This past Christmas, she and her mother were baptized into the local church. Her family came to a dinner we hosted at the apartment and after a few hours of fellowship time, the family left to go home. However, a little while later, her mother came back with a photo album from her daughter’s baptism. The daughter wanted the VBS team to write her a message in the back of the album because it was because of the previous VBS that she accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior. It was so important for her to get this message that she sent her mother back with the album to get the team to write in it!

Another praise was that many children who attended this year came from or through the ministries of other churches in the area. Some families drove from an hour away each day for their children to attend VBS. About a quarter of the children came from another local church who had not had any children attend last year. As a result, two additional churches were able to have their children experience VBS and two more pastors will now be very interested in how they might be able to implement a local VBS program.

Of course, while VBS ministry is primarily for reaching the children with the gospel, one of the additional blessings we enjoy is how the VBS program affects the churches and Christian community as a whole. VBS is a special outlet for allowing for church members to serve in ways they may not be able to serve regularly during a normal church service. It is exciting for us to see how VBS unifies local Christians who may attend different churches to serve side by side focused on bringing glory to God. Intra-church activities are a bit of a rarity in Japan, so any opportunity we have to bring different congregations together to serve is an opportunity for God’s glory to shine through.

We also see how a VBS program is an encouragement to churches in how they see evangelism in action. Creating opportunities for church members to interact directly with their community is important for demonstrating how simple evangelism can be and giving individuals a boldness in speaking to their friends and neighbors.

The biggest difference for us this year was the clarity in which the gospel was presented to the children this year. Last year, there seemed to be some hesitation in boldly sharing the gospel message with the children, but this year, there was nothing holding the leaders back. The result was seen in the number of children who individually responded to the invitation to receive Christ!

Please continue to pray for the Misaki and GCI churches, that they would be able to follow up with the children who attended VBS and their families and get them successfully plugged in to other childrens ministries in the area. And pray for each of children who attended VBS that whatever seeds were sown in their hearts this past week will grow to full maturity in the future.

“Let The Children Come To Me.”

These are the words of Jesus when the adults, who saw the kids as a nuisance, tried to keep them away from him. It would be foolish of us to regard this event as insignificant. It’s not a story about Jesus loving children, though he certainly does. It is a story of salvation, of transformation, and the importance of children in the Kingdom of God.

Yesterday, we attended the 4/14 Movement Japan Leadership Conference. Over 100 leaders and influencers in Japanese churches were in attendance, learning about evangelizing the 4 to 14 year old generation: why it is important and what are the challenges to reaching their hearts. 70% of all people who receive Christ make the decision to do so before the age of 15 and 80% before the age of 20. Yet in Japan, people under 30 years old make up only 6% of the population of the church! This is a huge missed opportunity as more and more, young people are finding church is not relevant to them.

Meanwhile in places like Mongolia, churches have chosen to focus on evangelizing the youth and have seen exponential growth in numbers. In less than a decade, Mongolia has gone from less than 2% to nearly 8% Christian because the churches have been ministering to the children. Children readily receive the gospel because they are not burdened by cynicism and they share the gospel because they are not ashamed of it!

It was a joy to see a room full of adults, many of them pastors of Japanese churches, coming together to commit to change in the way the Japanese church addresses youth ministry. Yet we realize this group of people are only the first seeds to be planted. As churches and children’s ministries thrive, other churches and pastors will begin to prioritize children’s ministry and see tremendous growth in the Kingdom of God.

One of the questions that was asked was “What about the older people? Japan has a culture of honor for older people. Is it right to prioritize ministry for the young while sacrificing ministry for older people?”

The answer to this important question is perhaps more simple than anyone imagined. Involve the older people in the church in the ministry for the young. One of the churches showed an AWANA video and I was struck by the fact that many of their AWANA leaders seemed to be the older people of their church. What greater honor can there be for an older Christian than to be responsible for ministry to the young? Creating opportunities for the different generations of a church to interact with one another is critical to growing a healthy thriving church. I pray that more churches will make use of this precious resource, mature Christian people with hearts to serve the Lord by teaching and discipling the young.

I am so thankful to be a part of this movement just as it is beginning to take root in Japan. I can imagine looking back at this time many years into the future and seeing it as a turning point in reaching Japan with the gospel. We hope to continue to be actively involved with the leadership of the 4/14 Window Movement Japan and get others involved as well.