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 – Abonzo Coffee

A group of people from our church and sister church, including our pastor and I, returned from a whirlwind mission trip to Northern Thailand arriving in Japan a little after 6am. As was the case for our previous two trips, we split our ministry time between our Akha friend running a coffee production business in his hilltribe village and participating in the ministry activities of a missionary family our church conference supports, mainly working with the children of the various hilltribes in the area. Since there is much to process and write about, I am splitting my reflections into two entries. This one will be about Pat, our coffee producing friend and Akha hilltribe member.

In 2015, we stood on a hill overlooking the valley where the Akha village of Doi Chang was nestled among acres of fertile soil and abundant coffee trees. The coffee trees were a gift from the King of Thailand in the 1970s as a way to give the Akha an alternative to opium production. Today, the wisdom of the King is evident in the fact that the Doi Chaang (different spelling for the coffee growing region) region produces an abundance of some of the best coffee in the world and kept many Akha people out of the drug trade.

As we stood on that hill, our friend Pat described his vision for the land, which at this point, he did not own nor did he know how he would be able to purchase it. He pointed out where his Abonzo Coffee cafe would be built, and next to it a roasting facility. Above that, a processing plant for washing and drying beans. And all of his Abonzo Coffee employees would be young people from his tribe who would learn and use skills from his company and earn a fair wage to help support their families. And together we prayed for his vision.

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Nearly a year later to the day in 2016, we again stood on the land which was now owned by Pat and had a large parcel cleared and flattened, ready to be built on. Again, we prayed together for the Lord’s blessing on Pat and his vision.

And this past week, once again we stood on Pat’s land, where his cafe and roasting building was more than half completed and land was cleared and ready for building a small processing plant. About a kilometer away down the mountain, a larger processing plant was already completed and producing hundreds of kilos of coffee beans every day.

It is here we should note that four years ago, Pat started with not much more than his family’s coffee farm, some basic knowledge of how to process coffee, and a clear vision from the Lord on how to help his people rise out of poverty. Today, he is on the verge of becoming one of the few major producers of coffee in the Doi Chaang region behind only the cash rich competitor bought last year by a major Thai corporation. The Lord’s favor is on Pat and he is moving, often on faith alone, toward the vision the Lord gave him years ago. He started buying land and building structures not knowing if he would have the capital to finish, but God has always provided and Pat has faith that He will continue to provide, so he presses on.

Pat’s parents work full days on the farm alongside other workers, climbing up and down the steep slopes picking coffee cherries by the tens of kilos per day. The day we visited the farm 10 laborers including Pat’s parents, picked 660 kg of coffee cherries in an 8 hour day. The work is hard enough to make young men break down and cry, but there are no tears from the Akha people during the work day, just chatter and laughter and singing traditional songs together.

The taste of Doi Chang coffee is earthy and complex. One could imagine the spirit of the Akha people has somehow been transfused into the crop that at one time saved their tribe and they now count on for survival. But where there is money to be made, there are always those who will come, willing to exploit people and land for profit. So it takes men and women like Pat to defend the rights of the Akha people for an honest wage and fair dealing in land use (technically, the Akha are considered aliens in Thailand and have no legal ownership of land).

We continue to pray for Pat and others like him who have a vision for the Akha people of Thailand, as well as neighboring countries, that aligns with the way God Himself would care for His people. A vision that sets them free from the bondage of drug and human trafficking, substance abuse, and hopelessness in poverty. A vision where the Akha people outside of Thailand can hear and respond to the gospel as strongly as those inside Thailand. A vision where a young man headed down the wrong path can have his life turned around by Christ to be a spiritual and business leader in his community.

“The Holey Church”

Yesterday, Mr. S., a man from our church, left from the local train station on his way to his new home in Osaka. Our pastor was there to see him off and snap a photo together on his phone which he kindly posted to Facebook so we could all wish Mr. S. well on this new season of his life.

I didn’t call Mr. S. a member of the church, because he wasn’t. Mr S., as far as I know, is not yet a Christian. But for the past year, Mr. S. has been faithfully attending church, prayer group meetings, and volunteering his time in different ministries the church is involved in. He was a wonderful helper at our English Summer Camp program last year and we invited him to return from Osaka to help us again this summer.

I don’t know the whole story about Mr. S. except that he lived in the neighborhood near our church for decades, and one day, he decided he wanted to come to church. Unable to come to Sunday service, he joined the weekly prayer meeting instead and faithfully prayed for the people of our church and others. He made friends with our pastor and several others in the prayer group.

When Mr. S. realized the needs the church was helping to address, he didn’t stand by and observe. He jumped right in and began to help. When we were short on helpers last year for our first English Summer Camp, Mr. S. was there every day volunteering.

This past Sunday when it was announced to the congregation that Mr. S. would be moving to Osaka, he was recognized for his generous heart of service with a hearty applause. This quiet, unassuming man who simply stepped into our church building one day had made such an impact on the work the church was doing.

At the risk of sounding boastful, this is how church should be done. I’m grateful that our pastors and staff have promoted the idea the “holey church” where people from the community can come into church not just to attend service but to participate in ministries of the church traditionally considered “Christians only”. The idea is that one doesn’t just need to come to church through the front door directly into worship service, but they can come into the church through any number of doors that lead to different ministries and activities, not only as participants but as volunteers and leaders. After all, rare is the person who answers the altar call who hasn’t first experienced the love of God through relationships with Christians through church ministry.

What if prayer meeting was reserved only for church members? What if volunteering for English Summer Camp was restricted only to Christians? Would Mr. S. have even stuck around at a church that appeared exclusive to its members?

Church isn’t a country club that requires membership to join and participate. In fact, I have heard it explained that “the church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members”. But at times, the church as a whole sometimes forgets this directive, and the result is that we miss out on opportunities to minister to people.

Over 40 ministries and activities use our church facility on a weekly basis. Some are church affiliated and some are independent. Most are meeting some need of a group that is in need: young families, single mothers,  the mentally or physically disabled, students who need a safe place to hang out. About 1,500 people come in and out of the church building during the average week to attend or volunteer with one of these activities. That is the opportunity for 1,500 people, the large majority of whom are not yet Christian, to experience the gospel through interaction with Christians in the church.

Mr. S. is just one recent example of those opportunity people, who came out of curiosity, but stayed because they were loved and accepted by Christians. When we think outside the box and treat non-Christian people not as “projects” but as peers, we make it possible to build honest and genuine relationships with them that reflect the love Christ has for us.

Please pray that this attitude of inclusion would permeate the church in Japan and people would see the Christian church as a safe haven where they can be accepted and loved as well as be free to serve without first having to “become Christian”.

Free To Be

In a recently published article in the Japan Times, the uncomfortable issue of child suicide stemming from school pressures was brought into the light once again. On the first day of the academic school year in April and again on the first day of school after the long summer break, suicides among students spike, a trend that has gone on for over 40 years.

Though the Japanese education system is a wonder in many ways, it has serious blind spots that put children, especially those who have trouble fitting in, at risk. For students who are socially awkward, terrible and often relentless bullying is common. For students who are not academically gifted, the constant pressures of testing, where your future opportunities can be set for you in the 6th grade is a factor. And for students with learning or behavioral disorders, the rigid structure of public school can be extremely difficult, on top of the bullying and academic performance pressures.

Last year at JEMS Mt. Hermon, I was introduced to a brother who is passionate about giving children who don’t fit into the rigid mold of public education and chance to learn, thrive, and be accepted unconditionally. Moto Kimura is principal of the Keiyu Gakuen free school, a church-based school near Ueno Park in Tokyo. Moto is a co-worker in more ways than one: he is a JEMS affiliated ministry worker.

Moto, his wife, and his two children all serve and attend Keiyu Gakuen along with about a half-dozen other staff members. They serve children from elementary school to high school age. The curriculum is fairly fluid and there is plenty of room for play. Minor behavioral “problems” that wouldn’t be tolerated in public school classrooms, like talking out of turn or getting up and walking around during a lesson, are ignored by the staff. The kids are free to be who they are.

Since last November, I have been serving monthly as a Chapel time speaker and photography teacher, as well as an informal English “coach”. I give a simple message to the children which I usually try to focus on God’s purpose for our lives and our value as His children. Then we eat lunch together and I talk to some of the kids (in English and my broken Japanese) and joke around with them. Every two or three months, we also do a simple photography lesson in the afternoon, which is basically teaching them how to use a camera and taking portraits of each other, which I allow them to print on the spot. The photographs they have taken of each other have become a source of amusement and laughter as we bring them back as slideshow material every month.

I love my time at the free school as I have developed friendships with the staff and kids. The kids may not be perfect students but it is not difficult to see how wonderful they are in the eyes of God. They are full of life and happiness, and being in a safe place where they can be who they are without fear of being disciplined or bullied brings out the best in them.

Sadly, not enough is being done in Japan to help the many children who cannot conform to the strict mold of the public education system. While much lip service is paid to reforming the system, at the heart of the matter, society wants children to be trained to conform, which is the basis of Japanese society being group-oriented, not individualistic. So progress is slow and every year, hundreds of children will needlessly take their own lives in protest of the system they cannot fit into.

Like Keiyu Gakuen, the church can step in fill needs where they are not being met. A free school is a huge resource commitment, but having clubs or making the church a place children can come to feel safe, with adults they can trust and who genuinely care about them can make a big difference. As one director of a Tokyo non-profit said so accurately:

“School shouldn’t be a place requiring children to sacrifice their lives. I want children to know there are places other than school where they can learn and make new friends.”

Please pray for the children of Japan, especially now as they return from summer break, but also every day. Pray they find hope in something greater than academics or social standing. Pray they find their worth in the eyes of the Lord, who gave his life as a sacrifice because of his great love for them and us.

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.

Stop Asking The Wrong Question

The Christian church in Japan is growing, though much of the growth is at the roots, where it is not easily recognized. In this fast-paced, instant access world, it is easy for churches and missions to look at Japan and ask “why are Japanese resistant to the gospel?” This is absolutely the wrong question. The real question we should be asking is “How is the enemy (Satan) interfering with our ability to communicate the gospel to the Japanese?”

The difference is the first question incorrectly assumes that Japanese are not interested in or are opposed to learning about Christianity. The truth is that Japanese people are open to learning about many things, including Christianity. In a recent Pew survey, the majority of Japanese surveyed  had a favorable view of Christianity and of all the major religions, chose Christianity as the most favorable, even above Buddhism. They may not like the idea of organized religion, but then again, Jesus wasn’t a big fan of it either.

The second question rightly assumes that there is spiritual warfare going on between those opposing God and those doing His work. And this is not just between groups of people but in the spiritual realm of angels and demons, which I am not knowledgeable enough to discuss at length, but I know it goes on around us every day, unseen. Satan does not want the Japanese to hear the gospel message. He does not want Japanese to know the facts about Jesus Christ. And he is throwing huge amounts of resources into battle to ensure they are kept in the dark.

So how is the devil working to oppose the message of the gospel to the Japanese? This post would go on for pages if I tried to explain every aspect of spiritual interference Christians face in Japan, but I’d like to highlight some of the major ones and perhaps dive in to the details in future posts.

The god of Work

Japan is known as an industrious nation and solidified that reputation in the post WW2 era, becoming an economic superpower on the back of manufacturing and quality improvement. However, that reputation has become an idol for many Japanese companies who now insist on a work-life imbalance that most Americans would find horrifying. Though a lingering economic malaise has slightly improved the situation for the average Japanese worker, long hours and six day work weeks are often the norm. If a worker has free time, it is often used to catch up on sleep, spend time with family or engage in a hobby. There is simply no room for learning about Christianity in the schedule of most Japanese once they graduate from college.

Ironically, most Japanese, including those in the government, know that overwork is a big problem in Japan. However, nobody seems able to make any major inroads to change. I believe this is because deep down, Japan is proud of its workaholic reputation in the world and employees are rewarded for taking part in that system of overwork.

Christianity as a “Western religion”

Christians should be aware that Christianity is neither western nor religion, with its roots in the Middle East and its emphasis on a personal relationship with God that is unique to Christianity. Yet because of its obvious differences from Buddhism and Shintoism, this reputation is difficult to shake.

Much of Japan’s cultural identity is based on Buddhist and Shinto concepts. The most central concept of collectivism vs. individualism is one of the strongest separators of Christianity from the Japanese. By its nature, you cannot be Christian and Buddhist or Shinto simultaneously. Becoming a Christian requires a person to renounce their belief in Buddhist and Shinto ideals, an act which separates a person from the collective group. This bond to the collective: society, family, work, social group, is what makes it extremely difficult for Japanese to accept Christ, who says “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

The Work of Cults

The existence and popularity of cults in Japan is proof in itself that Japanese are indeed spiritual people. Spiritual, yet not necessarily religious. Unfortunately, many cults, including those who identify themselves with Christianity, are active in Japan, preying on people’s spiritual hunger. Even those who are wise enough to escape the grip of a cult find themselves suspicious of any other “religious” group, and perhaps rightly so.

As Japanese people are not well aware of the facts of Christianity, cults which claim to be Christian can be very dangerous to them. For Japanese people, cults like the Mormon church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Unification Church can be indistinguishable from true Christian churches until it is too late. Even in the best cases, these cults create distractions that keep Japanese people from learning the truth about God. In worse cases, it turns them into deceivers of their own people.

The “Powerless” Church

I bring this up cautiously and without pointing fingers at any organization or church in Japan. However, in Japan, just as anywhere in the world, there are churches that exist that are not demonstrating the power of the gospel in changing people’s lives. Some are merely social groups of people meeting together every week to sing songs and hear an uplifting message. Some are churches that treat new visitors as outsiders who are creating an inconvenience to them. Some refuse to acknowledge that the methods used to share the gospel with others has changed dramatically over the past few decades, or that methods that work in the West do not work nearly as well in Japan.

The worst cancer in the Japanese church is the lack of unity between churches. While more partnerships between churches have been forged recently through disaster relief efforts, there are still too many churches trying to do things on their own without any inclusion of other churches or organizations in their area. When disagreements or battles between Christian groups become public (and Japanese people do love their gossip), it puts a stain on our reputation as people who have been changed by the power of Christ.

When we begin to ask the right question, we understand that the most powerful weapon again Satan is prayer. And prayer is something that can be done by anyone, at any time, from anywhere. Would you consider joining us in regular prayer against the activities of Satan to deceive the people of Japan? Would you ask prayer groups you belong to to include this topic in their prayer times? The war was already won when Jesus pronounced “It is finished” on the cross, but the battles for the souls of God’s people are still being waged, and you are a difference-maker.

Out With the Old, In With the New

This past weekend, Rikko Preschool, the site of our upcoming English Summer Camp, held a ceremony to bid farewell to their old school building which is being demolished this week. Kids and parents alike gleefully wrote, drew or painted on the walls of the buildings and classrooms, everything from “Thank you” messages to piles of poop (Japanese kids love to draw poop).

Though the event was announced only a couple days earlier, hundreds of children and parents came to the event. It was easy to see the love the community has for the preschool and the nostalgia associated with the old building. One of our church members even made a cake in the shape of the old building to commemorate the event. Our pastor presided over the ceremony and it was wonderful to hear him and the president of the school remind people that Rikko is a Christian preschool, a fact that until recently was not well-known or well communicated to the alumni families.

The highlight was being able to tour the brand new building for the first time, and it was so exciting to see how beautiful and spacious it is. With its wood flooring, large windows and open spaces, it has an airy feeling of being connected to the outside space. There are many large, well stocked classrooms and best of all, a chapel that is probably larger than the chapel of our own church. It was not difficult to envision how the space will be used this summer for our English camp, but beyond that, we can imagine that huge chapel being filled every week for worship service with members of the community who have never had the opportunity to attend church before.

A very pleasant surprise was the cross-shaped window above the main entryway, forever a reminder to those who come of Rikko’s roots as a Christian institution. As God has blessed Rikko with such a beautiful new facility, we pray that it can be used for His glory, to share the gospel of Jesus with the families of Rikko and the surrounding neighborhood.