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.