Life, Interrupted

Until a few days ago, the coronavirus was just a spectre lurking in the shadows. I knew something was out there and it made me uneasy, but when it came to everyday life, it had little real impact (apart from washing my hands much more often).

That all changed a few days ago, when Japan as a nation went into full panic mode. The Prime Minister “requested” all public schools to close until early April to contain the spread of the virus. Hokkaido in the northern part of Japan announced a state of emergency as new cases of the virus were detected in which they could no longer ascertain where people were contracting the virus from. And the rest of the world became wary of Japan’s situation and tightened controls on travelers from Japan.

Suddenly, the school my wife works at and my daughter attends was moving to a remote classes model, meaning all students and most staff would be staying home for the month of March. A church mission trip to Thailand that I have participated in for 4 years has been postponed until further notice, mainly for fear of being quarantined upon entry by Thailand, Japan or both. Ministry events at church have been temporarily cancelled, in the period leading up to Easter. My Japanese conversation lesson is also cancelled for at least the next two weeks.

Seemingly overnight, the virus became real to us, real to everyone in Japan. Stores are sold out of paper products and many household items (face masks have been unavailable for weeks already). Half of Japan’s major companies have asked employees to work at home, though many people with school-aged children would have to make arrangements anyway because schools were closed abruptly. Even Tokyo Disneyland, along with many major attractions in Japan, has closed down for two weeks, during what would normally be a peak season.

In challenging times like this, discouragement can come easily. All of our plans, even just the everyday events of our lives, have been cast into chaos. Top it off with concerns of the long term effects of the virus on our health, on our local and world economy, and things unrelated to the coronavirus that are in turmoil, and you have the perfect storm for despair, or even disbelief. Why does it feel like there is no good news in the world and no hope in sight? Why do I feel completely helpless? Where is God in all of this?

Things I Notice While Walking the Dog

This past week, while taking our dog for her daily morning walk, it became apparent how warm this winter has actually been. Normally in mid-February, we start to see the blossoming of the plum trees, the earliest of the blossoming fruit trees. But as I walked along our river, I noticed it wasn’t only plum trees that were blossoming, but also some of the cherry trees, which in a normal year, do not blossom until late March.

The cherry tree is revered in Japan, not just for its beauty, but for what it represents. Cherry trees blossom before leaves form on the trees. By the time the cherry blossoms fall, the leaves have sprouted, leaving the once bare trees full and green. It truly represents the transformation from winter to spring, and its no wonder the cherry blossom season has almost every Japanese person in a relaxed, jaunty mood.

In any other year, the early blossoming of the cherry trees might not be seen as a good thing. But this year, when there seems to be nothing but a barrage of bad news and uncertainty, the cherry blossoms seem to hold a greater promise than most years. I see them as a message from God reminding us that although the world now seems locked in the dead of winter with no end in sight, there will be an end to these trials. Spring will come; all things will be made new again.

Of course, we see this promise not only symbolically but in very real ways. The virus will eventually be controlled and life will go back to some semblance of normal. Toilet paper and face masks will once again be in stock at all supermarkets and drugstores (kidding, of course, sort of). And the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus overcame the power of sin and death, restoring our relationship with our loving Heavenly Father. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

As Christians, we need to be reminders to the world that Spring is coming, no, it is already here. We need to tell others that a loving relationship with God is already possible through Jesus Christ, who gave his life as a ransom for ours. And because of his sacrifice, we can live boldly, not in fear, proclaiming this great news to the world through our words and actions.

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.

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.

For The Love of Sakura

Each year in early March as the cold of Winter begins to thaw and the trees that had been bare for the past three months begin forming tiny buds, the countenance of millions of Japanese begins to change. In Tokyo, where people are notoriously stone-faced in the public eye, you might catch a twinkle in someone’s eye as they gaze out the window of the train over the Spring trees. Or a wide smile as they walk beneath a blossoming cherry tree from the grocery store to their apartment.

Nothing seems to warm the hearts of Japanese people quite like the coming of Spring in the form of cherry blossoms (桜の花). There is even a word specifically for the appreciation of blossoming cherry trees, hanami 花見, which basically breaks down to “flower-watching”. For one or two weekends in March or April and perhaps weekday evenings as well, Japanese travel in hordes to popular locations for hanami: Ueno Park, Meguro River, the Imperial Palace, and what seems like the entire city of Kyoto.

What I love about this season is that it is a reminder to us of what God has in store for his people here in Japan. It reminds me of Isaiah 35, which speaks of those who will be redeemed by Christ:

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
    the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
    it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
they will see the glory of the Lord,
    the splendor of our God.

The crocus, like the cherry blossom, is a flower that signals the end of Winter by blooming into beautiful color. Like the cherry, it is a hardy plant that reliably blossoms every year. That is why the cherry blossom is such a perfect symbol of the redemption coming to Japan. It is inevitable, it signals the end of the dead of Winter, and it bring joy to the people who see “the glory of the Lord, the spendor of our God” through it.

Please pray with us for the coming “end of Winter” for the people of Japan, that they will see the glory of the Lord as beautifully as the blossoming cherry trees spreading over the country.

 

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.

Tea and Gospel

It began as a simple cultural experience opportunity. A very generous woman from church invited us to attend a tea ceremony (chanoyu 茶の湯) demonstration at a local community tea house and thought it would be an enjoyable experience for some of us from church who were from America. We were able to try several different demonstrations, from making our own tea to having tea made and served to us.

At one point, we were joined by a jovial older man who was surprised to see a group of non-Japanese people participating in the event. As we observed the playful way he interacted with the rest of the people hosting the event, it became clear to us who he was: the head teacher of the tea school. Apart from his love of jokes and teasing, his love of tea ceremony was obvious. He began to wax philosophical: “It would be so wonderful if you could experience tea and kaiseki together…” Kaiseki is a traditional preparation of Japanese cuisine in several small individual dishes. Depending on the complexity of the meal, kaiseki could be 5 simple dishes to over a dozen more complex creations.

We agreed that tea ceremony and kaiseki would be lovely, in that moment forgetting that the act of agreeing with him was already a commitment to the future event. Less than two weeks later, our friend from church was contacting us again: would we be available to experience cha-kaiseki (kaiseki meal followed by tea ceremony) with our friendly host preparing all the details?

As it happened, the timing could not be more perfect. My mother was visiting from the States and this was an experience that not many visitors would have the opportunity to participate in.

What we did not realize was that this was a private event just for us. Five of us from church were the guests with the teacher and one of his students serving us. What was most amazing were his words to us at the end:

“The enjoyment of the event was mostly for my student [the woman who served the meal and tea]. It is her pleasure to have guests to practice serving.”

And this is the truth about the tea ceremony. The idea of tea ceremony is that the pleasure is for the host, even though he or she is seemingly doing all the work. But the entire tea culture is based on serving others not out of obligation but out of pleasure. And here in tea culture we find one of the hidden connections between Japanese culture and the gospel message.

As the host of the tea ceremony serves out of his pleasure, so our Lord Jesus served out of his love for us. And Jesus reminded us that we should serve others in the same way when he said: But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Now, of course, after only two interactions with this tea teacher, we are not yet in a position to explain this connection between tea and the gospel to him. But even as we concluded this past experience, we had already began to lay plans for a future one. This is how we build bridges to people groups in the community that we might not normally have access to, having a sincere interest in their lives while hoping they will express the same interest in ours.