Northern Thailand – A Reason to Return

20180305-_DSC3168Among the six children living at Migiwa House, E was a little different than the others. Using a pet analogy, if the other children were like dogs, E was the cat. The other kids reveled in physical play and hugs while E would hang back, occasionally come to grab your hand for a moment or sit on your lap, only to be off again quickly on her own. Though all the children came from lives of varying degrees of difficulty, E’s life was probably one of the most difficult. Her mother was in prison. Her father, when he wanted her around at all, was physically and verbally abusive. One would think E would find refuge in spending 10 months of the year living at Migiwa House, away from her home in the village to attend elementary school, but on the contrary, she often expressed her discontent. She even refused to pay next year’s school fees given to her by her guardians at Migiwa House because she said she wasn’t going to come back.

I have a soft spot in my heart for this little girl, tough on the outside, but broken and hurting inside. The five days we spent with the children at Migiwa House, I tried to make sure E felt like she was a part of the family, to remind her that she was surrounded by people who loved her. Once while we were out walking, E came beside me and grabbed my hand, walking beside me for a few minutes before running off to play. Teru, her Migiwa House “dad” told me later that she never wanted to hold anyone’s hand. Maybe the Lord provided a special connection between us.

Each member of our team lavished a little extra love on E. Kathy talked sweetly with her and gave her extra hugs. Kun-san drew a portrait of her sitting on the chair outside and presented it to her. And on the day before we left, I looked E in the eyes and told her to promise she would be there at Migiwa house when I came back next year. She coyly replied, “I don’t know” with her mischievous smile.

As we said goodbye, there were many tears shed by both the children and our team. We knew only a couple days after we left, the kids would return to their villages for a two month school break. Five of them would happily return to Migiwa House in June. The other…we could only pray for.

A few days later, we received an email from Teru thanking us for ministering to the children, visiting the villages to teach music, and teaching English and photography at New Life Center. I quickly scanned the message for news about E, and was overjoyed when Teru said that he was now confident E would return to Migiwa House in two months. She intended to keep her promise to me.

I always wonder if people think it is strange that as a ministry worker to the Japanese, I take this annual trip to support the hilltribe people of Northern Thailand. But I believe God calls us beyond national borders, beyond people groups and simply to those who need Him the most. People like E, who might slip through the cracks and disappear if not reminded of God’s love for her through our visits. For children with unstable lives, there has to be some consistency from adults in their lives, and in some small way, our little team from Tokyo provides some consistency and comfort to her.

The trip also provided an opportunity for us to have a change of scenery and provide still provide much needed ministry. Later, I will report on the incredible progress we have seen over three years and four visits to New Life Center. And this year, my friend Y who is like a brother-in-law to me, was able to be with us the whole week. Though he is not a Christian yet, he spent the week serving alongside us, using the gifts God gave him the same as us, and gaining a fuller understanding of how God works in our lives and the lives of others. I pray that his understanding of the gospel is much more complete as a result of his experience. Experience can move people’s hearts in a way reasoning and logic cannot.

One day, E will graduate from high school and then from university, and I am looking forward to the day that instead of us going to see her in Chiang Rai, she will come to see us in Tokyo. Until that day, we will continue to nurture and encourage her in the language she best understands from us, just being there for her.

Something Fishy at Ramen Nagi

Last month, a friend sent me a message asking if I had eaten at Ramen Nagi in Golden Gai. He must have realized that I spend a lot of time scouting out the best ramen shops in Tokyo for people who come to visit us. I know, the sacrifices I have to make…

Truthfully, I had never been to Ramen Nagi and I was a bit intimidated about eating in Golden Gai but it turned out to be a good experience. Like many places in Golden Gai, it looked a little sketchy from outside with a hand-scrawled sign in English over the door  (and misspelled at that) and a very steep and narrow stairway up to the restaurant. To be fair, if you can read Japanese, it does say Ramen Nagi, open 24 hours on the sign next to the door.

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Once inside, you are seated at a narrow counter with about 12 seats. True to ramen culture, your goal is to eat your ramen as quickly as possible and get out to make room for the people queuing up behind you. Fortunately, I went very early so there were not many people waiting to be seated and I was able to take a few photos.

To be clear, Ramen Nagi is about the fish. The broth is famously made from dried baby sardines and the flavor is, well, sardine-y. If you don’t like sardines, you’ve come to the wrong place. Even the vinegar used to season your ramen is sardine-infused.

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But Ramen Nagi has the mysterious Japanese umami flavor in abundance, and the soup never seems overpowered by fishiness, but rather a nice balance of the smoky, salty broth combined with the fish and nori sheets. The ramen itself is very thick and wavy, a technique used by ramen chefs who want you to really experience the flavor of the broth in every bite. Broth clings to wavy noodles and the thickness absorbs some of the liquid.

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Given that Ramen Nagi is open 24 hours, it would be a great choice for those who miss the last train, voluntarily or involuntarily, and want a bowl of something delicious to see them through to daybreak.

As for me, it broke through my irrational fear of eating in Golden Gai and added another notch on my “best ramen in Tokyo” belt.

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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.

 

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.

“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.