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.

Another Christmas Season in Japan

If there is any particularly difficult season to be overseas, it would definitely be Christmas. It’s a time of year normally spent with family and friends and there is an excitement in the air that is very different from the rest of the year. Living in Tokyo, Christmas seems very different to us. We are thousands of miles from our families and though the outward signs of Christmas are apparent in decorations and the beautiful winter “illuminations” that many parks and neighborhoods setup for this time of year, the spiritual emptiness of the season is also very real. Most Japanese, knowing little about Jesus and the reason we celebrate Christmas, do not celebrate in the same way we do in America. Christmas day isn’t even a holiday in Japan, so with people going to work or school like any other day, it all seems so, well, normal.

Yet it is during this season that we are most aware of why we are here. We pray for the day when the people of Japan recognize Christmas in the same way we do: the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s greatest gift of hope to mankind. So one of the pleasures of the season is helping to introduce the gospel story to the people of Japan through the message of Christmas.

For our church, the Christmas season means a special Children’s Christmas Festival, where children both from the church and from the community come together to perform skits and music, play games and compete in indoor sports, make crafts and eat food. As most of activities, the idea is to allow people from the community to come into the church and see that we aren’t weird or dangerous. We are just regular people who are willing to admit we need a savior, and that savior can only be Jesus.

My small offering this year was once again taking family portraits. Though I was initially disappointed to find there were less families taking portraits this year, I was later happy to learn that there were more families who were not regular attendees of our church or church events who took photos. I had a team of people helping me and the care they took in helping families get the best possible portraits were hopefully noticed by those new families who came.

We also helped to host a Christmas party for our English Club with help from our pastors and other ministry workers from church. We made Christmas cookies and had a little photo booth to take fun Christmas pictures with the students. University students will go on break for about a month soon, so we wanted to send them off with something fun in the midst of their studying.

 

And no Christmas would be complete without the wonderful Christmas Gospel Choir concert. Choir members are practicing for this amazing concert for months in advance and it shows in their enthusiasm and the beautiful harmonies. The concert plays to a packed house of over 300 people, many of which are friends and families of choir members who are not yet believers (in fact, a number of choir members themselves are not yet believers). As I have previously mentioned, the gospel choir is one of the most effective outreaches to people who wouldn’t normally visit a church and hear the gospel message. Many members of our church became Christians through participating in the choir. As always, even the next generation of gospel choir members, from 3 to 13 years old, also performed and our pastors Seiji and Kathy gave a lighthearted gospel message in the middle of the concert.

And finally, we took a short trip to Kyoto for a little family time. We drove to Kyoto to save some money and it turned out to be an easy drive with very little traffic. We had a great few days of exploring the beautiful city of Kyoto, but we’ll save that for another post.

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We may never become used to the differences in celebrating Christmas in Japan compared to celebrating Christmas in America. And that’s okay, because in the end, it all comes down to a miracle over 2000 years ago, born as a humble King in Bethlehem.

A Yearful of Blessing

Recently, we compiled a summary of our ministry work for our organization’s annual report. As I went through my calendar entries and photographs from the past year, I was amazed at how easily things unfolded for us. It was as though the plans were already in place, and the only requirement for us was to participate in them. Imagine that.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~ Jeremiah 29:11

I also re-read our annual report summary from last year. One year ago, we were still finding our feet, praying about and for ministry opportunities and getting plugged in with the local Christian community. Today, we’ve found confidence in being able to live in Tokyo as residents, established several new ministries within the context of our new home church and have a diverse network of contacts within the community whom we can serve and be served by.

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Best of all, the work we have been doing has led us down the path of helping to plant a new worship service at a nearby school in the coming year as well as hosting what will likely be a very large scale English Summer Camp this coming August with a new church partner from California. Both of these things align with our overall vision of serving the community around our church and reaching the many children and young families around us.

We have truly been blessed by consistent financial partners this past year and have had full support pretty much continuously since we arrived in Japan 16 months ago. But we are prudent enough to realize that we may not always enjoy this level of support and we will need a reasonable savings in our ministry account to ensure we make it through the more challenging times.

If you are so led, would you consider a one time gift or new financial partnership with us in our ministry here in Tokyo? Instructions for supporting us can be found on this webpage.

By the way, though our annual report will be published by JEMS, our sending organization, and emailed to our church partners, if you are interested in personally receiving a copy of our report, please leave me a note in the comments and if we have your email address, I will send it to you.

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As always, we are grateful for your prayers, your encouragement, your financial support, and your love for us in Christ Jesus. We love you!

What is a “Free School”?

Every weekday morning around 7:30, the streets are flooded with the uniformed masses of Japanese school children trudging off to school. In many ways, they are like their Western counterparts: dreaming of upcoming vacation days, worried about a pop quiz in math, laughing with their friends about some YouTube video playing on someone’s phone. It’s easy to forget that in one important way, they aren’t the same.

The Japanese education system still stresses the idea of collectivism, that the needs of the many are greater than the needs of the individual. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this idea, some of the ways this teaching manifests itself can be disturbing.

The Japanese proverb that best defines their particular brand of collectivism is this: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” In school, the end result is that nobody wants to stand out from their peers in any way, good or bad. You may be the smartest kid in your class but you’d dare not act like it by asking your teacher for more challenging work. If your peers find out about it, you’ll be put in your place.

The most common manifestation of collectivism is the bullying of the children who refuse to be, or due to mental, emotional or physical issues, cannot be, part of the collective. The bullying problem in Japan is well documented and there are many reasons for it apart from social collectivism, but the point is that the school yard can be a very cruel place for many Japanese children.

So while we witness thousands of children march off to school every day, there are likely hundreds more who can’t or won’t leave their homes. For some, the bullying has become so bad that they cannot deal with it any longer and their weary parents, having exhausted all options, simply allow them to stop attending school. For others, the school administrators themselves have requested that the family stop sending their child to their school. And there are other reasons, often related to one of these two.

Our friend and JEMS affiliate Moto Kimura is passionate about children and families in this situation. Moto is the administrator of a “free school” at a church in Ueno. Free schools are now starting to show up all over Japan, often started by churches who are compassionate toward families with children who cannot or will not attend Japanese public schools.

I’ve had the opportunity to visit Moto’s school twice already and meet the children who attend his school. None of the kids could be legitimately called “bad” kids. Some have short attention spans and need to get up in the middle of a lesson and walk around a bit before resuming their work. Some have learning disorders and need a little more help learning their subjects. And some appear completely normal but perhaps have been bullied so badly at public schools that they refuse to return.

The ability to help children who do not “fit” the Japanese public school system is an area where the government is struggling. Even in the area of treating common learning disorders, Japan lags behind other first world nations. And so it is, where the government is in need, the church can help provide an answer, this time through Free Schools.

Of course, much more can be done, if there were more professional special needs teaching resources coming from overseas to serve Free Schools and their like. Like my wife has come to serve her school as a Speech Therapist (and in many other ways), Japan can benefit from bilingual resources educated in American universities on treating these learning disabilities that are still relatively new to Japan.

As for me, I will be giving a chapel message once per month at Moto’s school and teaching some simple photography concepts to the older students. Please pray for Moto and his school and the many schools like his that churches are using to serve the people of Japan. This is just another tangible way to provide the love of Christ to families who are desperately in need.

Falling In Love

The job of the missionary is to fall in love with the place that they are in. – Tim Svoboda, YWAM

If you’ve followed our adventure for this past year, you may notice that among the ministry events we participate in, there are also many cultural events that we take part in as part of our life here in Japan. Summer festivals, tea ceremony, and even pop culture events have all been things we have been blessed to enjoy. Though these events seem unrelated to our core ministry here, they are actually a vital part of our ministry when we look at the big picture and the potential that we may be in Japan for many years.

For the sake of simplicity and because I tend to be a prolific writer once I get going, I’m just going to break this down into a few key points. Over the next few months, I’ll expound in detail on several of these so you get a better understanding of what I mean by them. Ready?

Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Among the many wonderful tidbits of wisdom from YWAM director Tim Svoboda, this is one that I use every day. Japanese culture, as viewed by a person from Western culture, is very difficult to understand. The priorities of the average Japanese person and the group vs. individual mentality are so radically different that one must pause to think in the Japanese mindset before reacting. Full immersion in Japanese culture helps make that transition to the Japanese way of thinking easier, though it is never automatic. Participating in Japanese tea ceremony, for example, teaches us the mentality of serving others in even the smallest of detail. It teaches us to appreciate beauty in seemingly ordinary things. It teaches us the virtue of humility that is held in such high regard in Japanese culture.

Be the salt. Be the light. Because Japanese culture is so relationship based, the concept of evangelism has to be adapted to fit that relational model. It is said that a Japanese person will take 3-5 years to make a commitment to Christ, but not because they don’t understand the gospel on an intellectual level. More likely, it is because they want to take the time to know you as a Christian, literally a “little Christ”, to see how Jesus makes a difference in your life.

Just like Western culture, there are many subcultures of Japanese culture which are by nature more difficult to reach with the gospel. Not necessarily because they are resistant to the gospel, but because Christians lack the desire or courage to become part of those subcultures to be the salt and light to them. Often, the groups that suffer are those with strong adherence to Japanese traditions which was seen by the traditional Protestant church as pagan. We feel that if God opens a door to build a relationship with a specific group of people, we are obliged to take that step. So we make it a point to get involved with as many different subcultures in Tokyo as we can: artisans, musicians, photographers, college students, special-needs children, and even break dancers!

Inspire others to do something. I apologize if this sounds self-serving, but one of the reasons we do these things is for you! As we interact with people from outside of Japan, we find that many people are interested in Japan and its culture but know very little about it. Part of the issue is the language barrier and part is that the Japanese people put a strong value on being separate from the rest of the world. Japan is probably one of the most homogeneous first world nations, with little desire from the government or general public for looser immigration laws. Many things are talked about being “uniquely Japanese”, even things that aren’t really unique to Japan.

As we experience Japanese culture and share these experiences with you, we hope that we are creating sources of information in English for people who are curious about Japanese culture and inspiring people to care about and pray for the people of Japan. If a few of you are inspired so much to become ministry workers here in Japan, we certainly wouldn’t complain about that either!

Falling in love. Another wonderful tidbit from Tim Svoboda, as seen at the top of this post, is that our primary job is to fall in love with the place we are in. We can’t love the people if we hate the culture. We must learn to value the good things that they value. Of course, we weigh those practices against the Word of God and we do what is right according to Scripture. But it is never wrong to develop a deeper understanding of the culture in the place where you live. The Svobodas spent 30 years in India, so Tim knows exactly what he’s talking about when he says this.

Almost every visitor to Japan leaves with a respect for some part of Japanese culture that they encountered: politeness, generosity, cleanliness, humility, aesthetic beauty. Not surprisingly, everything a person could admire about Japanese culture has roots in the character of God. An ability to connect the things Japanese people admire to scriptural references to the character of God helps break down the false idea that Christianity is a Western religion.

As you follow this blog, you will continue to see a mix of both ministry related and culture related posts about our life here in Japan. What I wanted you to see is that the two are intertwined with one another in ways that aren’t always obvious. Though I’ve only given you a brief overview of the importance of studying local culture as an overseas ministry worker, I hope to give you more in-depth essays on these topics in the future.

It’s Not All Fun and Games

We love living in Tokyo. There is no doubt in our mind that God has called us to serve here at this season of our lives. We went through one of the easiest transitions we could have hoped for when we moved here over a year ago. We found a church we could plug right into and hit the ground running with various ministries. We’ve made many wonderful new friends. We eat fantastic food and experience amazing things in one of the greatest cities in the world. And yet, it would be a lie to say things are perfect or easy here.

It’s hard for overseas ministries workers to admit our struggles. Often, we only share the gory details of ministry life among ourselves, with people who can completely relate to what we are going through because they themselves have been there (or are going through the same things). But it would be disingenuous to pretend our lives are good all the time. We go through many of the same struggles Christians have living at home: financial worries, communication breakdowns, self esteem issues, and more. But these struggles are magnified in the field, far away from our normal sources of encouragement and advice.

And spiritual warfare is very real. Whenever you make a priority of sharing the gospel with people who need to hear it, you can bet the enemy will be there to meet you head-to-head, fighting you with every ounce of his strength. And if we make the mistake of trying to take him on with our own strength, he will defeat us.

Without getting into too much detail, this past month has been a tough one for us. We’ve had shouting matches and flaring tempers. We’ve had colds and headaches. There have been days when, for no apparent reason, I feel so useless that I don’t even want to leave the house, even if the day before I was serving the Lord faithfully.

Friends, as often as I express the importance of your prayers in our lives and ministry, I doubt I could ever overstate it. Your prayers are our lifeblood. The Lord hears them and He answers. Conversely, when the prayer coverage gets a bit thin, the enemy sometimes lands a punch and it doesn’t feel good. We don’t want to put all the responsibility for prayer on you because we are also responsible for praying over ourselves and our family, but what we lack in faithfulness, you make the difference.

I tell you this now because the rest of 2015 will be busy ones for our family and our ministry. When we get busy, we often forget to pray. It’s not an excuse; it’s just something we need to get better at prioritizing. But you can help us by praying for us. Pick a day, a time, and just give our family and ministry a few words of mention to God. It makes all the difference in the world to us.

Bridging The Gap in Tokyo

Walking into The Bridge Live, it’s easy to think you’ve just stumbled upon a hidden gem of an underground jazz club. First the location: Shimokitazawa, an artsy suburb of Tokyo that is a destination for urban 20-somethings due to its lively nightlife, edgy shops and abundance of great restaurants. Half Moon Hall, the venue for The Bridge Live is itself an architectural masterpiece.

Next, the musicians. Four or five bands, mainly people from the neighborhood, come to play their music here. The music ranges from classic jazz to folk rock to Beatles covers, but one thing remains the same: the high quality of the musicians who play here. Only then do you realize you didn’t pay a cover charge to come in the door.

When Joey Zorina takes the stage, you realize why you are here. Joey, a talented guitarist himself, is pastor of The Bridge Fellowship, a weekly home church gathering. The Bridge Live is an event held 4 or 5 times a year as a way to present the gospel message to this crowd of young and artistic people. The message is given in a way that connects with what is typically going on in the lives of this demographic.

Finally, the night closes with a professional Christian band or musician who is able to share a testimony along with a few songs. At the end of the night, everyone chips in with help cleaning up and a few groups might go off together to enjoy a meal together in this lively neighborhood.

I first attended The Bridge Live to cover the testimony of Shinada-san, one of the ex-Yakuza men whom our film “2 Criminals” is based on. I have continued to attend because of the quality of the music and message I experienced there and as a way I could bless the musicians playing there with professional photographs of themselves in concert.

This demographic of young and artistic people is often considered a “fringe” demographic, largely because the values of modern Japan culture place so much value on material wealth, and artists typically aren’t the ones making lots of money. This holds true in the West as well, but committing to the life of an artist in Japan is a real commitment that could have a lasting effect on your relationships with your family and friends. But because of their “outlier” status, this group is also one which are more ready to hear and accept the gospel message. However, they may not feel comfortable attending a more traditional church, so having a place like The Bridge Fellowship to attend is a blessing for them.

The Bridge Fellowship will be going through a transition to a full-fledged church as part of the Redeemer City-to-City Movement. Please pray for this ministry as it serves this specific demographic of Japanese and if you feel inclined to learn more and perhaps support them financially, visit their website to learn more.