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.


10 Questions Missionary Kids Would Love To be Asked

10 Questions Missionary Kids Would Love to be Asked

A former missionary kid (MK) we know posted this link on Facebook and I think it addresses many of the issues we anticipate our own children will face when they return to America to “visit” or attend college. Going on two years in Japan, our kids definitely feel more at home here in Japan and less like foreigners. They speak Japlish, the mixture of Japanese and English and sometimes struggle with finding the right word in English (which is understandable since Japanese has many words with no direct translation to English). They have developed some Japanese mannerisms. And they are still changing and growing.

As a family, we’ve stopped referring to California as “home” for some time now. Home is such a relative term, and right now, our home is here in the Tokyo area. But it’s natural for our friends in California to assume we still consider it our home. We already sense the coming confusion for our kids as they contemplate staying in America after college or returning to Japan (assuming, of course, that we are still here).

I think one of the most difficult aspects of missionary life is the constant change in relationships. People come and go in and out of our lives every year, sometimes temporarily and sometimes permanently (or at least a very long time). Other missionaries go on home leave or leave the field on a regular basis. Friendships are precious because they are fleeting and I think that’s what hits the kids the hardest.

We always ask for special prayer for our children because we know their lives are challenging and they made involuntary sacrifices in the stability of their social lives when they became a missionary family along with us. We are grateful for the grace the Lord has poured out on them in terms of friendships and opportunities to belong. But we also know these friends and opportunities tend to change rapidly. Thank you for supporting our children in this special way as we serve here in Japan.

When Mission Becomes Life

Tomorrow marks 19 months to the day that we arrived in Japan with stars in our eyes, giddy with expectation. Tomorrow is Tuesday, and it will feel like just a normal Tuesday with school and work, a trip to the supermarket and some language study time. Many of the things that fascinated me about Japanese life are no longer quite so fascinating. We are grateful to be able to walk a couple hundred meters (yes, meters, not yards) down the road to pick up some fresh produce from a roadside stand and leave money in a lockbox, but it’s no longer a novelty. I no longer think the world is ending when driving down two way streets that are the width of 1.35 cars and I see another car coming toward me. These are all just part of our life now, the life we have here in suburban Tokyo.

I can’t say for sure when I personally crossed the point where I stopped thinking of myself as a missionary and began to regard our current situation as a season of our lives. But with that shift came some changes in mentality, some good, some bad, some just gray. For those who desire an insight into the mind of a 1.5 year learner in the field, here’s what I have come to understand so far.

Ministry life integrates into the world we live in. Recalling the horror stories from Perspectives class of missionaries who go to third world countries and literally build themselves fortresses to live in and wonder why the local people never trust them, we laughed and said we’d never be like that. But separation happens in subtler ways in the field as well. My weakness is definitely language. If I can get away with speaking English in almost any situation, I will. The other day I asked the cashier at Costco in Japanese if I could speak English. She replied (also in Japanese) either Japanese or English was fine. So of course, I defaulted to English. Seems innocent enough, but that decision draws a line between myself and a local person that doesn’t need to be drawn.

I’ve made a decision to be more intentional about language acquisition this year. It is one barrier between myself and the Japanese people that I don’t want to let languish any longer. But many things can become the “fortresses” we live in. Where we chose to live, where we chose to worship, who we chose to become close friends with. And in order to live in the world we have chosen to live in, we may have to make some uncomfortable choices that draw us closer to the people we have come to share the gospel with.

Boundaries are difficult to identify, but must be set. The more ministry becomes a part of everyday life, the harder it is to identify the boundaries that separate ministry from our personal lives. But wait, that sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t ministry fully integrate into our personal lives?

The answer to that could probably be debated at length, but one thing is certain; nobody is able to do ministry 24/7. There must be Sabbath days, times of refreshing for our souls, times to spend only by ourselves or with our family. Jesus set many examples for us to follow with regards to time alone with God, time fellowshipping with his closest friends, and time being among the needy crowds. He took naps at times which his disciples may have considered inconvenient for him to do so! But Jesus knew how to work, how to play and how to rest.

In a workaholic society like Japan, setting work boundaries is actually a ministry in itself. If we don’t set aside time to refresh ourselves, we are no different from secular Japan that tells people they must work themselves to the point of exhaustion to be productive and therefore, worthy. If our lives in Japan are to be a witness to those watching us, then we need to demonstrate the value of the Sabbath, of time for ourselves and our family. It’s unfortunate that many churches fail because their pastor, in their zealousness for God’s work, forget to set boundaries and forgo rest and refreshment time.

I want to do it all. But there are times when I need to be reminded that I’m not here to do it all. That God has a specific calling for me at this time and I need to stay true to that calling and not wander off following the latest, shiny thing I see. The way I do this is to always know our vision, our church’s vision, and ensure every activity I do is in alignment with those visions. English Summer Camp is one of those programs where it is crystal clear that it aligns with the visions we share with our church pastors on reaching the young families in our community. And so I weigh each of the ministries we are involved in against our personal ministry vision and our church ministry vision and it becomes much easier to know how to prioritize my time and energy.

We are in the world, not of the world. We are truly blessed in having so many people and churches partnering with us in ministry that finances are rarely a concern for us. I don’t say this to boast, because I know God has provided those partnerships for us and given people a heart to reach the people of Japan through our ministry, and that is humbling. It is also a responsibility that I don’t take lightly and thinking about how we spend based on how God has provided is at times stressful.

The worldly man in me sometimes desires to be free of that responsibility. “If we were independently wealthy, we could focus on the things we want to do and not have to worry about financial accountability,” I think. And then I start wondering how I can make that happen.

Now I don’t believe being wealthy is a sin, but when it becomes a distraction from our ministry, then it becomes sin. And when I start to see the blessings of God as a burden because I am too proud to accept His financial blessings on us through others, that is certainly sin.

Where this really hits home is with photography. As I gain in experience and exposure, many well-intentioned people have talked to me about ideas for making my photography more profitable. And I must admit the idea of becoming financially self-sustaining through photography is a seductive idea. But at this season in our lives, it just isn’t in alignment with our vision.

The way I try to bring these impulses under control is to offer my photography services to ministries and ministry workers at pro bono or highly discounted rates. Of course, photography is an expensive business to be in because of the cost of equipment, and the wear-and-tear and technological advances that require equipment to be replaced. But though I have been able to offer free or nearly free services to local ministries, God has still provided financially an amount of money that can be used to cover the cost of repairs or replacement for much of my equipment. This is funded through gifts and donations from ministries or payment for small photography jobs unrelated to ministry.

Believe me, it’s difficult to explain to people that I can offer free or highly discounted photography services to them because of the obedience and generosity of individuals and churches back in America supporting us. But it’s a story I love to tell because it is a concrete image of God’s faithfulness at work and the love of Christ through his body, the church, in action.

No one is an island. One of the most disappointing things I see among fellow ministry workers and organizations is the cowboy mentality that often comes with being raised in the West (western culture, not western US). I believe walls between churches and organizations were crumbled as a result of the cooperation needed to respond to the 2011 Tohoku disaster, but remnants of the walls still remain. As we live here, we see them, though again, more subtly than one might imagine.

But I do realize that many missionaries and organizations want to work alone or within their own context. Working with other individuals, churches, denominations is messy. Feelings get hurt, people get offended, too many opinions on how to do things get thrown around. I’ve been on both sides of that as well, feeling like an outsider being kept out and feeling like an insider needing to exclude others from my work.

The fact is, the work to be done in Japan, in Tokyo even, is too great for one family, one church or even one organization to tackle alone. Our English Summer Camp will likely require 100 or more volunteer helpers, many of which will need to be proficient in Japanese and English. Our church alone won’t have the resources to staff it. We will need members of other churches or organizations to help us. And what will they gain? Perhaps nothing apparently significant. No new church members. Maybe a line item on their annual report.

But the Kingdom of God gains. The reputation of the church in Japan gains, as not-yet-believers see that we can work together as well as we can work separately. New believers are added to the global church who will eventually gather in Heaven, worshiping God together.

The enemy seeks to divide the church. He has done it successfully since the church was founded and he knows it is one of our most glaring weaknesses. For while we argue and offend others with differences in opinion that are insignificant to the gospel message, we are distracted from doing the real work of the Lord together.

Ministry workers, we need thicker skins. We need to not take offense when someone disagrees with something that in the big picture is minor. Political views. How we raise our children. Even minor doctrinal differences that have no bearing on the message of the gospel. And we need to stop feeding the machine that turns us against each other. Stay positive. Focus on the only message that matters: the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Because in the end, we need each other. We need to help one another. We need to deal with one another, warts and all, because that’s what Christ called us to do. That’s life: dirty, messy life. Let’s not forget when we answered the call to join the front line of the battle for people’s souls, we would be living in the trenches.

Day One: Japan

It’s actually closer to the end of Day Two as I write this, but everything has been a blur since we left California on Tuesday morning. Despite our visa issues and the late night packing and cleaning, once we got to the airport, everything was like it was on rails. All of our bags and boxes weighed in properly, the flight and service were perfect, and a wonderful CAJ employee, Naoko, picked us up at the airport and has been a God-send to us ever since. So far, she has taken us to City Hall to get us through all of the processes of becoming a resident of our city and Japan and taken us through a full morning of opening a bank account where we were seemingly routed through every seating location and employee in the building. All the while, she and her family is prepping for their own move across the city this weekend!

Arriving at our new house, we found a fridge stocked with food and other sundries, and all the necessities we would need plus a few more we thought we were going to have to purchase. This morning while we were at the bank, brand new curtains were installed for us. To say CAJ has treated us well would be an understatement. We feel more like royalty than ministry workers. But we realize it is just the way things are done around here. But I’m not talking about Japan. I mean in the CAJ community, where the love of Christ is evident in the way people treat one another, especially those of us who are new to Japan. We’ve had the privilege of meeting several CAJ staff members who had in some way supported us in getting here or making us comfortable in our home.

So what have we learned so far living here in Japan? Here’s a few things that stick out:

Japanese food is amazing. Yes, we already knew this, but living here and eating from restaurants, conbini (convenience stores, e.g. 7-Eleven) and supermarkets, Japanese food is simply the freshest, tastiest food we’ve ever had. Yesterday, for example, we boiled some corn fresh from the local fields, had fresh baked pastries from a local bakery delivered to our house by new friends, picked up a tray of maguro sushi (tuna) from a little shop on the way home from the station (less than $7 for 12 pieces) and topped it off with crisp potato croquettes, picked up from the prepared food section of a nearby supermarket at half price (5 pieces for $2.50). I didn’t even have room for my Coolish soft ice cream in the freezer! When Americans think of Japanese food, they often think of sushi or ramen, but there is such incredible variety in Japanese foods, one can never grow tired of trying new foods. And yes, we did have a great spicy ramen from Kinkai Ramen, a favorite hangout for CAJ staff and students.

Japan Amazon Prime is the best. In America, we get 2 day shipping with Amazon Prime and it costs $79 per year ($99 starting next year). Of course, Americans also get perks like free movie and music streaming. But then you realize when you get to Japan that those “free” movies and music aren’t actually free. Because in Japan, Amazon Prime costs $39 per year, and you get several choices for shipping. The first choice is 2 day shipping (which can also often be next day shipping in the greater Tokyo area) with a scheduled delivery window of 2 hours. This is best if you want your package delivered to your door but you can’t wait around all day for the delivery person. The second choice is next or same day shipping but you don’t get to choose a delivery window. If someone is going to be around the house, this works great. But another option is to have the delivery made to a local convenience store so you don’t need to be home to receive the package. You can just go to the local store, most of which are open 24 hours, and pick up your package at your convenience. No extra cost. Beat that, America.

Bureaucracy? Yes! Japan has been accused of taking things that have already been invented and perfecting them. The same can be said about bureaucracy. So far, we’ve visited government offices, a banking institution and a mobile phone sales counter. You can be assured that you’d better have at least 2 hours to kill to complete a process at any one of them. And it’s not the fault of the people who work there, who are clearly working diligently at their tasks, all the while being amazingly attentive to you. But the tasks they are working at? Many are mind-boggling. For example, at the bank today, we were asked to fill out a new form that would make it easier for the bank to report our income to the IRS in America. Fair enough, since we’re Americans, and probably will end up saving us the trouble later. However, upon further questioning, we found out this form was required to be filled out in some fashion by every customer of the bank, regardless of whether they were American or not! Can you imagine the look of indignation on a British person’s face if they were asked to fill out a form regarding payment of taxes to the American government?

Also, the rules that are laid out for Japanese workers to follow are seldom never questioned. Whether or not a process actually makes sense is not the concern of the average worker. For example, we were asked to provide a copy of marriage certificate at the City office to prove we were married. It clearly said we were married on our Japanese visas, but the woman insisted that the rules required her to see a copy of the actual certificate. It didn’t matter that the scrutiny put on us by Japanese immigration was a thousand times greater than the city’s. What mattered was the rules. We went back to our house to dig out the copy of our marriage certificate and returned 30 minutes later.


Garbage sorting requires a Masters Degree (which I do not have). We have a 15 page manual on how to sort garbage in our city. Even with help from the manual, Jayne and I were left scratching our heads over some items in our trash. Today was my first experience with putting out garbage. I went to the curbside and took photos of how our neighbors put out the trash (and got some interesting looks from people riding by on their bikes). Then I came back inside to figure out how to sort our trash. My daughter ended up helping me and even then, I contemplated what to do with a potato chip container for three and a half minutes. Not a good sign.

Japan is easier when you’re connected. We’ve only been without mobile phones for 2 days, and we aren’t completely unconnected. We have a mobile Wi-fi device that lets us use our phones to connect to the Internet while we are out and about. But when we split up, only one person gets the mobile Wi-fi, so the other person is left digitally disconnected. We’ve found this to be a problem in a couple of ways. The most obvious is that we can’t communicate with one another when we’re separated. No asking about picking up dinner on the way home or if you need anything from the store. But we’ve also found it’s not easy to navigate our neighborhood without a map and with no Wi-fi, there aren’t any portable maps to reference. No train schedules either. And no way to call our friends to ask for advice or just say hello. It’s been painful so we’re making progress on getting our own phones hopefully in the next 24 hours.

Tomorrow, the weekend begins for us. Happy Independence Day for our friends back in the States; perhaps we’ll do a few fireworks to celebrate with you. Much, much more to come!




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.


Escaping the Cubicle Life


defeat - Katie Weilbacher (via Flickr)

I am often asked how I feel working in the ministry differs from my time working in the corporate world. My first answer is always that I am excited to get out of bed for work which is a wonderful change from the times when I would drag myself out of bed to get ready for work. But I suppose people could attribute that to just having a fresh, new job.

After thinking it over for a while now, I think the key difference to me about working in ministry versus working in corporate is the simplicity of the vision when working in ministry. No matter what ministry you are working in and what your short or long term goals are, you can always tie your vision back to the infallible Word of God. And since the Bible does not contradict itself, you may choose to focus on The Great Commission (as you are going, make disciples of all nations), or the New Commandment (that you love one another as Christ has loved you), or caring for the fatherless and the widows. No matter what your ministry vision is. it always comes back to glorifying God above yourself and honoring and respecting your fellow workers in the Lord.

When I think about the corporate life, now as an outsider, I am absolutely amazed that any work gets done in the corporate world at all. A tremendous amount of energy is expended every day in the simple act of getting people aligned behind a single vision. Add to that the fact that nearly every person has a hidden agenda of making themselves look good, making someone else look bad, or covering up past mistakes and you realize why the corporate life is so quick to wear us down.

Christian author Donald Miller hypothesizes that we are a society obsessed with comparing ourselves to others in order to define our worth as human beings. Nowhere is this more apparent than the working world, where cold hard cash is on the line for those who rank higher on the comparison scale and a life of unemployment awaits those in the bottom 10%.

Now keep in mind that I come from an IT background and IT is already considered at many companies to be a necessary evil that exists to insure everyone gets their email. When your department ranks low on the company food chain, the competition to shine becomes that much more critical to your livelihood. I hope not everyone has the same experience where they work, but judging by the success of corporate mockumentaries like The Office, I imagine everyone goes through similar situations to some degree.

The joy of working in ministry is that not only do we not need to puff up ourselves to be successful in the work we do, it is actually detrimental to do so. It is incredibly freeing to realize you don’t have to ace a presentation to impress your boss or criticize your co-worker’s project to make your project look better (and yes, I am not proud to admit to having done both of these things). When you realize your worth is determined solely by the love God has for you, and that He measured your worth high enough to send His son Jesus to die for you, it is easy to give your best for Him.

If you struggle with self image in any area of your life, especially work or school, remember that God sent His son to free you from the destructive cycle of constantly determining your worth by comparing yourself with others. He defined you as precious in His sight, and that is all you ever need to know.

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

Deuteronomy 7:6