Miyabi – A Lesson In Japanese Culture

If Japanese culture can be seen around us every day in the little things, like a meticulously trimmed bonsai in a bank lobby or an omamori (good luck charm) dangling from a cell phone strap, Miyabi lies at the opposite end of the spectrum as a grandiose, in-your-face display of all things beautiful about Japan.

Miyabi is a three-day event hosted at Meguro Gajoen, a large and famous hotel which is itself known for its over-the-top display of Japanese culture. Gajoen is primarily a wedding venue and as such, has built an environment of perfect backgrounds for Japanese wedding photos. One side of the building is almost exclusively a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking a Japanese garden, complete with waterfalls, zen stone garden and koi ponds. As all gardens in Japan, the look changes dramatically from season to season with a little help from both nature and a talented grounds-keeping staff.

But back to Miyabi. This event brings together many of the arts that are collectively known as bunka, Japanese culture. Traditional dance, music, kimono, ikebana (flower arranging), shodou (calligraphy), and other arts are performed for the public in this breathtaking venue, all free of charge. If you were in Tokyo for a week and wanted a crash course on Japanese culture, just spend three days here and you’d be swimming in it.

My friend Paul Nethercott and I went to Miyabi to support Sheila, a woman who attends Paul’s church and whose work a film team we are working with from Huntington University in Indiana will be making a part of a documentary on this month. It is easiest to describe Sheila as a kimono expert and aficionado though officially, she is much more than that. With the depth of her knowledge about kimono, she is a national treasure to Japan.

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On the day we attended, there was an oiran procession which Sheila’s daughter took part in. Oiran were the highest class of courtesan and in their day often attained celebrity status. Paul joked that the oiran’s costume could put Lady Gaga to shame and indeed, the oiran set the standard of haute couture in the same way Lady Gaga affects ours today.

We also viewed a kimono fashion show which Sheila herself was involved in. Though I expected the beautiful traditional kimono, there was a great representation of modern twists on the kimono for the younger generation: shades of punk, goth and good old rock and roll.

After the show we toured a room full of incredible ikebana, plants and flowers representing the New Year arranged in intricate shapes and designs. Ikebana is actually more than just flower arrangement; it’s the art of arranging living flowers.

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Finally, we watched a performance by Yosakoi, a group combining traditional Japanese dance with coordinated flag waving. Several of the flags were on poles 4 to 5 meters longs and were waved gracefully over the heads of the audience. It was an energetic show of skill and stamina.

One might wonder why it is important as a Japanese ministry worker to attend and experience Japanese cultural events. The answer lies in the fact that the culture of a people reveals a lot about the keys to their hearts. If we examine each aspect of Japanese culture individually, one or more facets of the heart of the Japanese is revealed to us. And without a doubt, the very same things that Japanese value in their culture can be found in the gospel. Many Japanese view the Bible as a foreign work of literature and Christianity as a Western religion. But as we better understand Japanese culture, we can relate aspects of the Japanese culture to the Word of God, demonstrating that the Bible is God’s love story for all mankind.

One fine example is the art of tea ceremony. Our friend and co-laborer Matt Burns created a wonderful short called “Serving Through Tradition” that relates the tradition of serving tea to Biblical teachings. Several pastors in Japan are practitioners of tea ceremony as a way of connecting Japanese culture to the gospel.

Serving Through Tradition 茶道:伝統を通して奉仕する from CRASH Japan on Vimeo.

Tim Svoboda, President of YWAM San Francisco, gave us some sage advice in his Perspectives class: “The job of the missionary is to fall in love with the place they are in.” Everyday, God gives us a new and deeper love for the country of Japan, its culture and its people.

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.

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YWAM Tokyo Video – Why Japan?

 

We’ve been asked this same question, “Why Japan?” in many forms and nuances. What blew me away about this video, produced by YWAM Tokyo’s David McDaniel, is how similar the answers this video provides are to our own. Broken families, suicide, and hopelessness among a population of people with less access to Christianity than many people groups in far more remote or impoverished places in the world. A beautiful people, intelligent, hard working, hospitable and generous. Like David, I see an incredible opportunity for Japanese Christians to be bearers of the the good news of the gospel to other parts of the world. But how can they go if we do not first go to them?

A couple of important take-aways from this video:

1. This video could easily have been called “Why Tokyo?” rather than “Why Japan?” Nearly a third of the population of Japan live on the Kanto Plain, which is the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan area along with the people of  nearby prefectures. It is the single most populated metropolitan area in the world. We didn’t choose Tokyo, but God chose Tokyo for us. We believe He did this because of the impact Tokyo can make on the rest of Japan and the world. This is why I have been reading Tim Keller’s “Center Church” and following the Redeemer: City to City movement to better understand how the great city centers of the world will be used to share the gospel to all nations and people. Growing up in a suburban church, urban ministry is a stretch for us, but we are excited to engage the people of the city and share the gospel with them.

2. This video reflects our reasons for serving in Japan nearly word for word, which is amazing because I have never met David McDaniel before and we have no affiliation with YWAM as an organization. This is a huge encouragement to us, however, in that we can see how God has aligned the vision of many church leaders in the Tokyo area. We already know of several others missionaries and Christian leaders serving in the Tokyo area who also strongly agree with the content of this video. Sometimes hashing out differences in vision is what stands in the way of making progress, but being able to go to Tokyo and basically “plug ourselves into the machine” will be a great benefit to our ministry and hopefully a blessing to those whom we will serve alongside.

 

 

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On Being the Light of the World

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Matthew 5:14-16

As I was praying for people in my circles this morning, this passage of Scripture popped into my head. In particular, I was praying about the Japanese churches and how God might use them to reach the people of Japan.

To give this post a little context, one must keep in mind that evangelism in Japan has a number of barriers that are a little different from the Western world (though we are beginning to see some of these barriers in post-modern Western society as well). To describe them in simple terms:

Corporatism vs. Individualism. In Japan, the unity of the group is of much greater importance than the desires of the individual. The “group” can be defined in many ways and is fluid in nature, but the basic point is that one does not make decisions for his or her own benefit, but for the good of the group. Christian evangelism is frowned upon because the desire of the individual (to share the gospel) is elevated above the harmony of the group. Even if the motivation of the individual is for the benefit of the group, such actions can be seen as disruptive or selfish in nature.

Polytheism vs. Monotheism. In a sense, the default religious view of a Japanese person is Polytheism. That is, there are many gods and none is completely omnipotent or significantly more important than another. The gods you worship depend mainly on your situation. If you want a business deal to come through, you pray to the god who oversees that aspect of our lives. If you want to pass a test, you get an amulet that gives you good fortune in that area. The concept of an all powerful Creator God is difficult for most Japanese to accept, because to accept the idea of one God Almighty, you must by default reject the idea of many lesser gods. This goes against societal values again, causing conflict between individual and group think.

Japanese-centric vs. Human-centric. Japanese people are proud of their heritage, and rightly so. The culture of Japan, like the cultures of many other countries, is unique and beautiful in many ways. But sometimes the Japanese can take this too far and reject other ideas simply on the basis that they are “foreign”. Christianity, due to its inextricable entanglement with history, is seen as a religion of the West, and therefore, not Japanese. Japanese people often have a difficult time conceiving how they can be followers of Christ and maintain a completely “Japanese” identity.

While it’s not hard to understand why evangelism from a purely Western context, like handing out tracts or talking to strangers about Jesus, might not work well in Japan, we must also remember that even sharing faith with people whom they have close relationships with can be difficult or impossible because of these barriers. For example, a child may not want to disrupt the family harmony by sharing his new faith with his parents or siblings, so he keeps it to himself and sneaks off to church every Sunday.

That’s why I found such joy in remembering Matthew 5. Jesus instructs us to let our light shine, because that’s what light is for. Light attracts in the darkness. When a person lives their lives in obedience to Christ, people are naturally drawn to them, and they are curious about what makes this person so different. One of the single men I met at the Equippers Conference last December made an interesting remark which was something like: “All the sisters [Christian women] here are beautiful because I can see Jesus in them.” He wasn’t complementing their physical beauty; he was recognizing that the love of Jesus that was in these women was making them beautiful from the inside.

I realized what wonderful instruction Matthew 5 is especially for the Japanese. Maybe social mores restrict you from sharing about Jesus outright. But living your life in obedience of Christ draws people to you, and they will “give glory to [the] Father who is in heaven” because of what they see in you. People’s lives will be changed because of who you are in Christ Jesus, not because of what you say about him.

 

What Is the Role of Art in Worship?

Somewhere, somehow, we simply lost our way. They understood the power of art as a form of worship in the Renaissance, when Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci were prolific in producing works of art for the glory of God. For centuries it seemed that art and religion could not only co-exist, but magnify the beauty in each other when practiced together.

Yet inevitably, the separation came and the Western world has never again been able to realize the power of combining art and worship as it was done in glorious history.

One only needs to read through the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, to realize that God, the most powerful being in existence, is an incredible artist. Genesis 1 takes us step by step through God’s creative process for creating everything, and the level of detail He used in making the created world. Taking it one step further, you don’t even need to read the Bible, just take a walk in the forest or along the beach. Dive into the depths of the seas or climb the highest mountain. The glory of God’s creation is everywhere as only an Artist-Creator can imagine it.

And then we read that mankind was created in God’s image, which means, among other things, that all that creative capability God used to make everything is also inherent within us. We were made to be creators. We were made to be artists.

Yet the typical church in modern days is sadly lacking in artistry as worship. Church leaders are faced with difficult financial choices these days, yet it seems art generally falls to the bottom of the priority list at most churches. Looking around the typical church, you will find signage and materials derived from Christian clip art. Store bought posters with Christian phrases or Scripture passages. Powerpoint slides with stock image backgrounds. Art in church is no longer something to be created, but something to be consumed, purchased in packages from companies who sell the same stuff to thousands of churches.

Certainly most churches do not have the budget to hire graphic artists, art directors, interior designers and the like. But not all art is produced by professionals and some of the most beautiful pieces of art come from the hearts of children who see their art as an act of worshiping Jesus. Yet somehow, we don’t encourage people to worship God through art. Arts and crafts in most churches are just a fun thing to do to fill time at the end of Sunday School hour or an event to outreach to the community. What if we elevated art back to the level it once held during the Renaissance, art purely as a form of worship?

A few years ago, Crossway took this very idea and did something with it. They commissioned a Japanese Christian artist named Makoto Fujimura to produce a special edition of the Bible called “The Four Holy Gospels”. Basically, it is an edition of the four gospels of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) printed in art book format and illustrated by Fujimura. “Illustrated” is actually a bit misleading because Fujimura is an abstract artist so much of the art happens in the wide margins of the pages of the gospels and is designed to interact with the text on those pages. The product was an incredible work entwining art and the beautiful message of the gospel in a form that would compel you to open and read it daily. You would never use your Bible app if you had a Bible as beautiful as this.

A video made by Crossway further explains their motivation behind this incredible project.

I believe this is one small way that reveals how bringing art and worship together elevates both acts. Art doesn’t have to be a secular activity and worship doesn’t have to lack in creativity.

Ultimately, the question is have we downplayed the role of art in worship too much in the modern church? And if we have, how do we reintegrate art and worship in our churches in ways that engage people and allow them to participate, as artists created in the image of God?

 

Sent By the Children

This past weekend our kids (with a little help the parents) shared with their peers about our coming adventure in Japan. It’s rewarding as a parent to hear your own children articulate the importance of sharing the gospel in another country, even at the significant cost of losing their social status at school, the chance to drive a car at 16, and going to Senior prom. As much as we try to teach them about the reasons we are leaving California for Tokyo, I can’t help but think their understanding comes from having wonderful teachers and examples at church who have nurtured a love and understanding of God in them for many years. We have been blessed by the men and women who have taken a personal interest in helping our children grow in faith.

The greatest blessing  was having the other children pray for us. It was moving to hear the simple, straightforward prayers from the mouths of these children and the childlike faith behind those words that gives God such pleasure. We look forward to being included in the prayers of these young prayer warriors from across the ocean.
We just passed the 6 week mark in our countdown to depart for our new adventure. Time is flying by right now with so many things left to do (or so it seems). Praying for the will and discipline to tackle the unpleasant tasks and enjoy the last few weeks of our time in California.
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