“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.

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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A Very Special Visitor

On a cold Tuesday morning in February, an unassuming Toyota Prius pulled into the parking lot outside of our church and a very special guest stepped out. Mrs. Akie Abe, the First Lady of Japan, was there to visit Wheelchairs of Hope, one of the many ministries using our church facilities.

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Mrs. Abe had come to learn about Wheelchairs of Hope because she was delivering some wheelchairs from them on an upcoming trip to Cambodia. She had learned about the ministry from another event and it had piqued her interest. So here she was, spending over an hour with the mostly volunteer staff of the ministry, listening to their passions for the work and seeing how broken wheelchairs were lovingly brought back to life by the staff.

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The low key event was covered by two of her own media people and a few of us representing Wheelchairs of Hope and the church. There was no secret service detail or entourage of helpers waiting on her. It was just her and her aide and her genuine interest in the ministry. One could hardly imagine the same casual level if Mrs. Obama or the First Lady of any other world power were out on her own in public.20150210-D60_6163

When she finished learning about the Wheelchairs of Hope ministry (and graciously taking photos and talking with many of the volunteers), she asked if she could see the church sanctuary. Our pastors were caught a little off guard as they had gone back downstairs to the lobby to see her off. But they rushed back up in the elevator and showed her into the sanctuary.

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Mrs. Abe had attended Sacred Heart Catholic school in Tokyo from middle school through university. She told our pastor that though she was not a Christian, she was interested in the Christian worldview. Fortunately, our pastor was the person who had translated “The Purpose Driven Life” into Japanese for Rick Warren, and he was able to give her a copy of the book.

It was a blessing to have Mrs. Abe visit our church. Not only is she an important and influential person, she is also a warm, caring person with a heart for the less fortunate. In some ways, she already understands God’s heart for the people of the world, that God stands for the poor, oppressed and hungry and asks us to do the same. We pray for her to receive an understanding of Christ through “The Purpose Driven Life” and to know the heart of God more and more.

UPDATE: Paul Nethercott wrote an even more detailed account with an interview from Mary Esther Penner, founder of Wheelchairs of Hope and information about our church as well. Read the article at his blog, JapanCan.

“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.

Father To The Fatherless: Responding To Japan’s Orphaned

A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
    is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families…

Psalm 68:5-6a

Some of our most precious memories serving in Japan come from the time we spent at a “Gakuen” in Chiba, where we have spent 3 summers serving. I put the word “Gakuen” in quotes because it doesn’t quite translate literally to English. In English, gakuen translates to “campus”, as in a school campus. But the “Gakuen” I refer to is not a school at all, but a home for some very special children.

The “Gakuen” I refer to is best described as a government operated home for children who have been separated from their parents, willfully or unwillfully. In America, it’s easy to understand the “unwillful” reference, which generally applies to parents who are deemed unfit for parenthood as a result of addictions, abuse, neglect, etc. However, in Japan, parents can voluntarily turn their children over to government care for a variety of reasons including financial hardship or just finding parenting a particular child too difficult. (Note: I am the first to admit I do not know the full details of how children can be turned over to government care either in Japan or in the US, so feel free to correct me if I make a mistake).

At this particular “Gakuen”, 200-300 children from toddlers to teenagers live together in a group of “houses”. Each house has 40-50 children separated into two groups, each cared for by a single volunteer who lives onsite and acts as a parental figure. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to realize this situation is less than ideal for children. Despite the fact that nearly every adult we have met working at such a facility cares deeply and passionately about children, there is no way one adult caring for 20-25 emotionally fragile children will be able to do an adequate job with all of them. The environment is ripe for bullying and other abuses among the children.

Last summer, we spent a every afternoon for a week at the Gakuen. We brought games, sports equipment and crafts to do with the children. On the first day, very few showed up, except for those rounded up by the house leaders and made to come out and meet us. But each day, more and more children would come to see us out of curiosity and end up staying and playing with our team members. On our final day, dozens of kids waved and ran after our van as we pulled out of their parking lot. There were tears, for sure, but mostly in our own eyes as we remembered what a wonderful week we had getting to know these children just a little while.

The last thing we wanted to do was to make friends with children and then disappear for a year without a trace. Fortunately, one family who attend a local church committed to returning to the Gakuen every week to visit and play with the kids. They had kids of their own, so building friendships with some of the kids was natural and easy. Some of the older kids even rode their bikes to the family’s house to play with kids or get help with their schoolwork.

Did our visit make a huge difference? Yes it did, but not so much in the lives of the children we met, but in our own lives. Since that time, the plight of these children have weighed on our hearts. As I have done research on the Child Welfare system of Japan, the things I have found have been disturbing. The way the system is set up, the government facilities become more like a prison to the children staying there rather than a home.

I must stress that I am in no way criticizing the staff who work at such facilities. As I mentioned, the staff we have met are all people who have hearts of compassion toward the children they serve. And though I am necessarily critical of the system that is doing more harm to these children than good, I am also not simply saying the system has to be changed. Waiting for the system to change can take years, even decades, and meanwhile, the damage to children and society continues.

What has to change is the heart of the Japanese church toward these children. If the church viewed the children with the same eyes as our Heavenly Father, who considers them His own children, we would be more involved in filling the gaps where the government system is lacking. America is not lacking for programs reaching out to children who are at-risk. Programs like Big Brothers / Big Sisters, that give children an adult mentor and friend. Even something as simple as visiting a facility to spend time with the kids, teach them a craft, help with schoolwork, play a game would make a huge difference in the lives of these children, many of which go days or weeks without quality interaction with an adult.

Getting involved in the lives of these children is costly. It costs time. It can costs money. The emotional cost is the largest, as you bear the weight of these children’s worlds on your shoulders. But when we look at the Bible and see how many times God reminds us to serve justice and mercy to orphans (hint: around 40 times), it isn’t hard to understand how important an issue this should be to us as Christians.

We will discuss this issue in more depth in future postings including why the majority of children living in such a system cannot be adopted, the challenges of reforming they Child Welfare system and specific things the Japanese church can do for “the least of these” living in the Child Welfare system.

Note: If you’re wondering why there are no photos in this post, for safety and security reasons, pictures of the children living in the home we visited are not allowed to be posted on the Internet. Personally, I would love for you to see pictures of these kids, for the simple reason that they look just like any other children in Japan who need the love of Jesus in their lives.

The Homestay Experience: Blessing or Being Blessed?

On Wednesday morning we stood in the church parking lot as the van of students pulled away, waving our final farewell as they headed off to the airport and eventually back to Japan. Several families from our church and our sister church hosted 8 students and their 2 leaders for a little over a week.

This would be our third and final year hosting a Japanese student here in the Bay Area; we’re leaving for Japan in just a few months. Each year has been an experience I can only describe as reciprocal, teaching and learning, giving and receiving, blessing and being blessed. Having a Japanese student in your home enables you to appreciate the culture of Japan intertwined with the uniqueness of a person whom God created.

We knew hosting a student would be a little more difficult this year than most. Our house was in a bit of chaos from our weekly purging to rid ourselves of 10 years of material accumulation. Some members of our family would be missing at times due to commitments to other activities we had made months earlier. Yet we felt it was important to host a student, to build a relationship with one more person whom we could reconnect with when we reach Japan this summer.

And God did not disappoint us by providing us with a wonderful student whom we will call J. J is a PK, the son of a Tokyo area pastor. PKs generally have a certain reputation for being a bit on the wild or rebellious side, but J was nothing like that. He was a disciplined young man who started each day before sunrise with a five mile run around the neighborhood. Back home, he was a committed soccer coach (apart from being a full time student at a prestigious university) for a middle school soccer team. He told me that he did not expect his players to do anything he would not do himself, hence his discipline in running every day.

J was also extremely independent. I could tell from his story about growing up as a pastor’s son that expectations were high for him and his siblings and he was expected to contribute in positive ways to being successful and hard working. I felt bad because I never woke early enough to make him breakfast; I only had to show him where everything was and he was content to make his own meal long before I was out of bed.

But for all his independence, one thing J had not had to experience was being humbled, at least, until he came to America for the first time. On one of his morning runs at his homestay before he came to our house, he got lost in the neighborhood. Since it was early in the morning, he couldn’t get in contact with any of his team members. When he encountered people in the neighborhood, he was unable to convey enough information to help them help him. Eventually, the police were called out to help him. By the time the police arrived, he was finally able to get the address of his homestay family’s house, and they drove him back. J admitted it was humbling for him to be in America. To be lost and unable to find a way home. To need help identifying items at the store. To need to rely on other people for transportation. But it was through that humbling that he experienced the love of Christ through other Christians, perhaps for the first time.

From what I gathered, J’s father was a pastor whose style of preaching is more intellectual than emotional. Though his father is an outstanding pastor in his own style, J had never seen a church service different from his father’s church. When he experienced church in an American style, a Japanese-American style, and a Japanese church in America style, he realized the rich diversity in the worship of God. None was more right or wrong than another, only different and beautiful in their own ways. In the same way, J experienced the love of Christ through others in different ways than he had experienced before, and that love fed a need that he had not known he even had.

For me, it was a blessing to be able to see how even among our Christian brothers and sisters in Japan, there is a diversity in the worship of God that needs to be experienced to be appreciated. J’s church is a healthy church where people are being fed from the Word of the Lord, but now he has experienced a different style of worship that will no doubt influence him spiritually in the future. For me, I’m excited to walk with J on this journey and continue to meet with him in Japan to answer his questions about living out his faith in new ways and serving God with the many gifts he has been blessed with.

Please pray for J as he processes all he experienced and learned from his time in America and decides how he can love others with the love of Christ as he was able to receive it from others.