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.

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.

For The Love of Sakura

Each year in early March as the cold of Winter begins to thaw and the trees that had been bare for the past three months begin forming tiny buds, the countenance of millions of Japanese begins to change. In Tokyo, where people are notoriously stone-faced in the public eye, you might catch a twinkle in someone’s eye as they gaze out the window of the train over the Spring trees. Or a wide smile as they walk beneath a blossoming cherry tree from the grocery store to their apartment.

Nothing seems to warm the hearts of Japanese people quite like the coming of Spring in the form of cherry blossoms (桜の花). There is even a word specifically for the appreciation of blossoming cherry trees, hanami 花見, which basically breaks down to “flower-watching”. For one or two weekends in March or April and perhaps weekday evenings as well, Japanese travel in hordes to popular locations for hanami: Ueno Park, Meguro River, the Imperial Palace, and what seems like the entire city of Kyoto.

What I love about this season is that it is a reminder to us of what God has in store for his people here in Japan. It reminds me of Isaiah 35, which speaks of those who will be redeemed by Christ:

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
    the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
    it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
they will see the glory of the Lord,
    the splendor of our God.

The crocus, like the cherry blossom, is a flower that signals the end of Winter by blooming into beautiful color. Like the cherry, it is a hardy plant that reliably blossoms every year. That is why the cherry blossom is such a perfect symbol of the redemption coming to Japan. It is inevitable, it signals the end of the dead of Winter, and it bring joy to the people who see “the glory of the Lord, the spendor of our God” through it.

Please pray with us for the coming “end of Winter” for the people of Japan, that they will see the glory of the Lord as beautifully as the blossoming cherry trees spreading over the country.

 

The Eternal Hanami

When Spring arrives in Tokyo, the entire city is transformed. I’m not just talking about the obvious transformation of thousands of previously barren trees suddenly bursting with fluffy clouds of cherry blossoms. I’m also talking about the attitudes of the people. I am amazed at the sight of a salaryman rushing off to his job suddenly coming to a dead stop on the sidewalk, gazing up at the beautiful blossoms of the cherry tree, mesmerized. And I too, have found my gaze lingering too long on a lovely cherry tree before suddenly remembering that I’m operating a moving vehicle.

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In the parks, people gather in the evenings and often all day on the weekends, to sit underneath the cherry blossoms enjoying one another’s company and consuming a meal (and often copious amounts of alcohol) and literally breathing in the beauty of Spring. I imagine hanami in Japan has the same effect on the work week of Sweet Sixteen / Final Four week in America; I’m sure if companies could bring cherry trees into the office much like American companies bring in the cable television, they would certainly do so.

So what is it about hanami that is so compelling that it brings productivity in the world’s third largest economy to a near standstill? There have been many theories on this topic (including one which suggests that the DNA of Japanese people has changed to make them more attentive to it, but I’ll skip that one), but I chose a couple of ideas that make sense to me, both based on Buddhism, which has existed in Japan for over a thousand years and is well known to have a strong influence on Japanese culture as a whole.

The first idea is about suffering, a concept that is basically at the center of Buddhism. In fact, the Buddhist view of “heaven”, or nirvana, is the state of mind of being totally without suffering. Christians, of course, share this view though that is only one aspect of heaven. Buddhism encourages exploring human suffering as a means to recognize it and its root causes.

In less modern times, Japanese suffered through brutally cold Winters in shelters that were not designed to keep out the cold (actually, you could say this about most modern Japanese homes as well, but that’s another blog topic altogether). Food had to be stored from harvest and vegetables were mainly the tasteless root veggies that could be foraged. I’m sure many people especially the very young and old did not survive the freezing winter in Japan. The coming of Spring was a huge relief in many ways, and the blossoming cherry trees were a sign that the worst was over. Therefore, Spring was a time to celebrate life, or in some cases, simply survival of the Winter. The harsh suffering of Winter magnified the beauty and promise of Spring.

The second idea is about the impermanence of life, or Mono no aware (物の哀れ) in Japanese Buddhism. Hanami can last a week, maybe two if the winds and rain are gentle. But soon, their lives come to an end. A Japanese tanka, or poem summarizes this idea:

散ればこそ いとど桜は めでたけれ 憂き世になにか 久しかるべき
(散るからこそ桜は美しい この世に永遠なるものはない)

Rough translation: Cherry blossoms are beautiful because they scatter. There is nothing eternal in the world. 

The impermanence of the cherry blossoms is what compels Japanese people to spend their evenings and weekends camped out underneath them, braving crowds of hundreds of thousands of people in some cases. They know that by next week, they may be gone. There is something bittersweet about hanami, a beautiful hope that is quickly gone.

Of course, this all must come back to the gospel. Hanami is beautiful, but lasts only for a short season and is gone. It offers the hope of life, but as the poem reminds us, there is nothing eternal in this world. If we want eternal hope, we must look beyond this world. And when we do, we see Jesus, offering life and hope through believing in Him. For Jesus said in the Bible, referring to those who believe in Him: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:28). Later, the Apostle Paul will also write to his fellow Christians: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope.” (Romans 15:13)

The message of eternal hope is the reason we came to Japan in the first place. We believe there are many Japanese who have never had the chance to hear this message and are literally dying to receive it. The gospel isn’t about us trying to convince people they should become Christians. The gospel is already in itself the most compelling reason for people to believe in Jesus. But it is up to the individual to make that personal choice to accept it or not.

With that, I leave you with some beautiful images of hanami in Tokyo and remind you that this is a mere glimpse of the glory contained within the gospel message, the story of God’s love for the world through His Son, Jesus Christ. This Sunday is Easter, and every Christian church in the world will be focusing on the wonderful gift of Jesus, so if you’ve never heard that story, here are some great places to find out more.

Nerima Biblical Church (Japanese):   〒176-0012 東京都練馬区豊玉北1-12-3 (TEL&FAX) 03-5984-3571

New Hope Tokyo (Japanese / English): Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo Surugadai 2-1 Ochanomizu Christian Center 8F

Grace City Church Tokyo (Japanese / English): See website for location and time

The Bridge Fellowship (Japanese / English): Write to us or call us @ joey@thebridgejapan.com  |  080-5479-1895