Under The Weight of Grace

The image in this post may represent the single most important image I have had the privilege of creating since coming to Japan. People who know me understand that I love to dive right into editing my images as soon as I can get them downloaded on my workstation. But I allowed this set of images to sit for a while so I could reflect on the man who is the subject of these photos and his life’s journey that brought him to where he is.

Anyone familiar with Japanese culture knows that when they see the tattoos and the severed pinky finger, they are looking at the image of someone associated with the yakuza, Japan’s organized crime syndicates. It is true that this man was once a member of the yakuza, but it has been decades since he was miraculously released from the service of his crime bosses to do something he had become passionate about while languishing in prison: sharing the love of Christ with others.

Unfortunately, the physical effects of being a part of the yakuza are often impossible to erase. Fingers do not grow back. Body tattoos are not easily removed. And drug abuse as a youth often leads to frail health later in life.

Years of living with the physical reminders of his past and the harsh judgement of certain Christians in his past have transformed his physical scars into emotional ones, scars of shame over his past. Though I have known this man for over a year, this was the first time I ever realized he had tattoos. He kept them carefully hidden under long sleeves and collared shirts.

This past week, during an interview with my friend Paul Nethercott for a short documentary on his life, the topic of his tattoos was brought up. And for the first time on camera, he revealed his tattoos, talked about them, their history, and the shame he associated with them. But rather than agree with him, Paul encouraged him, reminding him that when God redeemed him through Christ, everything about him was transformed, including his tattoos. Rather than being viewed as a source of shame, he should see them as something beautiful. One of the students from the film crew visiting from Huntington University in Indiana presented him with a beautiful image of part of his tattoo she had drawn and attached it to scripture from Psalm 34:5 “Those who look to [the Lord] are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.”

In all of our lives, we carry the tattoos, the scars, the wounds from our sins before we knew the saving power of Christ. When our lives are redeemed, God doesn’t promise to remove those reminders of our past. Sometimes, he uses them to allow us to speak into the lives of others who have the same kinds of scars.

I have titled this image “Under the Weight of Grace” to remind us that God can make the things in our lives we feel ashamed of having done tools for reaching others with the message of grace. I chose to bring a soft, warm light from above to symbolize the grace of God falling on us. I hope the Lord will use this image to inspire the man in the photo and others who are suffering from the weight of their shame when they should be rejoicing in the weight of His grace.

What is Seijin Shiki?

A little while ago, I had the opportunity to take portraits of a young lady from a family who, like us, came to Japan last year to share the hope in Jesus Christ with the people of Japan. The occasion was Seijin Shiki, an event that nearly every Japanese girl (and many boys) look forward to participating in.

Seijin Shiki is the ceremony celebrating the Japanese coming of age, which is 20 years old. Like turning 18 or 21 in many other countries, at 20 years old, a Japanese person is considered an adult and receives all the responsibilities of adulthood. In America, many young adults informally celebrate this time on their 21st birthdays (often with a trip to Las Vegas on the West Coast), but in Japan, any young adult turning 20 before April 2nd of the year of the ceremony celebrates on the same day, the 2nd Monday in January.

On that day, young people can be seen sauntering about town in their finest clothes, or at least the finest clothes they could rent. For women, this usually includes wearing furisode, the most formal and colorful type of kimono for single women, and having their hair and makeup professionally done. For men, it can be either a formal black kimono or a Western style suit.

The Seijin Shiki day is generally comprised of three possible components. First, there is a ceremony that takes place at the city hall of the city where the young person resides. They are formally recognized as adults by the city officials and given a token gift from the city.

Second is a photo session wearing the fantastic outfits that are often so expensive, they can only be rented. These photo sessions often take place at shrines, where young people and their families can also take a minute to pray for a good future. Meiji Shrine in Harajuku is a very popular shrine on this day owing the fact that the area is popular with young people to begin with.

Lastly, but most importantly, the rest of the day is dedicated to friends and family. Some will have lunch at a fancy restaurant with their family and others will meet up with a group of friends and go out on the town, shopping, eating, and possibly taking their first legal drink together.

I was fortunate to be able to photograph our friend decked out in a lovely furisode at a community tea garden not far from our church. Not long ago, I was introduced to a woman who teaches kimono dressing by a mutual friend and she was able to not only provide a lovely kimono to rent but help with the complex dressing process. (Not every kimono is so difficult to put on but this is one of the most formal styles and is usually done with help from a professional or experienced person). We all had a wonderful and enjoyable time.

For some young people, however, this event can be more bitter than sweet. I was recently contacted by our friends in Chiba, asking if I could take portraits of a girl they knew for Seijin Shiki next month. This girl is one of the alumni of the Children’s home we’ve been serving at for the past several years. An organization our friends participate in is putting on a special event for young people from the home celebrating Seijin Shiki. Some of them don’t have families to celebrate with and most don’t have the kind of money it takes to rent the fancy clothing and take photographs of the event, so the organization is helping to facilitate that.

It’s funny how God keeps finding ways to tie my passion for photography in with my passion for sharing the hope of the gospel. When we first came to Japan, I wasn’t sure how useful my photography experience would be to our ministry and now I find so much of my personal ministry is being built on it. Praise God for using what little I have to offer for His glory!


Why I Love “Humans of New York”

"We go to four appointments every week, but I don’t mind. She’s my blood."

“We go to four appointments every week, but I don’t mind. She’s my blood.”

If you’ve never seen the blog, “Humans of New York“, stop reading this immediately and go check it out. Then you will be  able to count yourself among the over 1 million people who get a daily dose of inspiration from this photo blog.

If you grew up on the Left Coast like me, you might have some preconceived ideas about what a typical person from New York City is like, and frankly, that idea may not be so flattering. Brandon Stanton, the man behind the camera of HONY, has taken it upon himself to introduce us to the real citizens of New York City, one face at a time. Stanton claims his idea was to create a photographic census of New York City, and over two years later, he is still going strong and likely not in danger of running out of new subjects anytime soon.

Stanton, in all honesty, does not produce the most stunning portraits you’ll ever see. I’m sure he’d be the first to admit that, having picked up a camera only a few years ago as a hobbyist. But Stanton redefines the idea of “portraiture” by going one step beyond what a typical portrait photographer would do: he engages them in dialogue and quotes them in his work.

In the example above, you can see the love this father has for his daughter in his posture and expression. But through the caption, you hear about how much he loves his daughter and combining the image and the words, the emotional effect is exponential. Now, this relatively unremarkable image becomes burned in your mind as the unconditional love of a father.

It all seems so simple, but I can tell you as a photographer, taking the step to interact with a stranger on the street is very difficult. The act of asking for a photo is daunting enough, but to really engage a subject and ask semi-personal questions about themselves is risky, but Stanton is clearly rewarded with a peek inside the life of his subjects, a gift he passes on to us, his readers.

Stanton also seems to focus on the good in people, asking questions which allow them to reveal something good about themselves. It’s not a contrived kind of good, but a genuine glimpse of the heart of the person, at which point you realize that in every individual, there is something good about them. In age where it seem everything you hear is about the evil that men are capable of, this blog is such a refreshing breath of clean air.

I’m so inspired by HONY that I hope to work on a similar project when we move to Japan. Of course, I face language barriers that I will need to work on first, as well as cultural stigmas of  Japanese people not wanting to interact so intimately with complete strangers. Yet I am convinced that asked in the right way, Japanese people do want to say something important, meaningful, to an invisible audience of millions, and by doing so, maybe we can get to know them a little better.