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.


Life In Japan: The End of Winter

The end of winter is fast approaching, as evident by this little plum tree that we pass every week on the way to church. Each week, more and more pink buds have appeared and burst into blossoms. This week, I finally captured it in it’s beauty.


Japan Photos: The Last Fall

The last fall IMAGE, that is. At least for this year. With temperatures dropping below freezing for several nights in a row, Winter is definitely ready to make its entrance. Wind and rain have hastened the dropping of the last remaining leaves from the trees around our neighborhood. Goodbye Autumn. You were so lovely.

A few interesting notes on this image (yes, this is a photography post, not a Japan or ministry post).

It is an intentional double exposure. This is literally one of the last photos of Autumn I took this year. After taking thousands of photos Autumn leaves, I have to admit, it gets tiresome. That’s not Autumn’s fault. That’s the fault of a photographer who gets lazy with the creative process and shoots the same image of the same subject over and over. By this time, I realized I needed to try something different, so I began to experiment. Experiment with focus, with camera movement, with new angles. And finally, multiple exposures. Yes, it is nice to let the beauty of nature speak for itself sometimes, but you can also lend some God-given creativity to the process. You might be surprised.

It sat around untouched for nearly two weeks before I noticed it. I had so many beautiful shots from that day, I never even gave this shot a second look. When I had reviewed it quickly in my camera, it had not seemed like anything special to me. It was only when I opened it up and really checked the details that I realized this shot was special. In the creative process, don’t be too hasty with your work. Look closely at the details, post-process the image to its strengths, and see what materializes. And even if you reject an image once, give it a second a chance a week or two later. Perhaps your perspective will have changed.

Of all my Autumn images, this one captures my feelings of the season best. That’s a difficult thing to say because I have taken so many lovely images of Autumn here in Japan. Everywhere you turn, you see the beauty of Autumn, from mountains bursting with fall color to gardens punctuated with strategically planted momiji to the bicycle path on the street outside our front door where autumn leaves fall into a clear stream full of koi. In this image, my intent was to layer the familiar colors and shapes of Fall in an almost abstract way. Like looking through the Autumn leaves at the Autumn leaves. Unlike many of my other images, I also subdued the brashness of the color, deadened it, as a reminder that Autumn, like every season, also must come to an end. Compared to some of my other fall images, it might even seem a bit drab color-wise. But that too is part of Autumn.

With Autumn gone, I can now turn my attention to capturing the feel of Winter here in Japan. What will I find that defines Winter in our city and in the great metropolis of Tokyo? Let’s find out together!


Everyday Japan – Achieving Perfection

This past weekend, I had the most amazing dessert. A cake, made from high quality matcha (green tea) powder, so delicate and light, without the lingering sugary taste of most American desserts. But what intrigued me most was the label on the box it came in, proudly claiming the company has existed since 1753.

1753. 23 years before the United States was even the United States, this company was making tea. And 261 years later, they were still making tea and exquisite desserts containing tea.

This is one of the amazing things about Japan to me. Shops that make simple things like tea, chopsticks, or handmade paper continue to exist after hundreds of years in the same line of business. One can understand that a company that is able to survive for so long has been able to do something right, and if it involves making the same product the entire time, they are drawing from decades or centuries of previous knowledge to improve upon what they know. Craftsmanship is real in Japan, and it makes its way into the simplest of things, even a slice of cake.


Japan Photo: Hana Nobe No Sato

Today Jayne’s uncle took us to Hana Nobe No Sato near Katsuura, Chiba. While we used it as a beautiful place to view Japan’s summer flowers, it apparently is also a camp site with an outdoor onsen that people can camp at year round. They have many gorgeous flowers in the area, but the most abundant is the ajisai, or hydrangea, the symbol of Japanese summers.

Right now is past the prime season and the hydrangea are starting to die off, but the place is still extremely beautiful. The breeze off the nearby ocean helped sooth the 90 degree, 90% humidity weather we are having today.

Hana Nobe No Sato can be visited in all 4 seasons for different experiences. There are winter and spring blossoming cherry trees, ajisai for the summer months and maples for the autumn.


Life in Japan: Ikebukuro

If Higashikurume is our community, Ikebukuro is our ‘hood. The train line that runs through our city drops us off in the northern Tokyo neighborhood of the Toshima ward that has a reputation for being a little on the rough side. Over a century ago, Ikebukuro, or Sugamo as it was known back then (Sugamo is now the name of another neighborhood to the south that was divided by Ikebukuro in hopes of developing Ikebukuro into more of a tourist attraction), was home to foreign laborers, a fact that seems to still live on in the number of Chinese immigrants living in the neighborhood. Our friend John said he has been into shops where the shopkeepers don’t speak any Japanese, only Chinese. Yokohama may be known for its Chinatown, but parts of Ikebukuro makes Yokohama Chinatown look more like Disneyland.

Ikebukuro the train station is the second busiest train station in the world, just behind nearby Shinjuku station. Though I must say while Shinjuku station seems cavernous and confusing, Ikebukuro is easier to navigate. It is also home to the flagship Tobu and Seibu department stores, very upscale stores local to Tokyo.

Ikebukuro has a huge food district on the northwest side of the station and a huge shopping district on the east side. Tokyoites might turn up their noses at Ikebukuro because of its rough exterior and the fact that people who live in neighboring Saitama frequent the area (I suppose one might liken it to San Franciscans attitudes toward those from the East Bay back in Northern California). But we live in Saitama and we’re proud of it!

Ikebukuro has a good number of affordable hotels and is a great alternative to staying around the Shinjuku area as the station is nearly as convenient for using subway and trains to get you throughout the rest of the city. The Yamanote and Oedo lines, the lines that circle the city, both have stops in Ikebukuro.

Anyway, our city has everything we need, but if we want to sample a 7 story electronics store or eat a more upscale meal, Ikebukuro is where we end up. Our most frequent destination is Sunshine City, a huge mall that is also home to Toys R Us, which was, until a few years ago, a must visit shop on our visits to Tokyo.

Much of Ikebukuro’s history and structure I am still learning. To understand a city, you have to understand many different aspects of each neighborhood and since Ikebukuro is the closest major neighborhood to our home (and borders the neighborhood of the church we are attending), it is one of the areas I will be studying.


Everyday Japan: Bank Foyer

One of the wonderful things about Japan is the little attention to detail seen in everyday life. A bank foyer is a pretty drab place, but is livened up by this beautiful potted plant ensemble. Since this is the Summer season, the focus is on the ajisai or hydrangea flowers that bloom all over Japan in the Summer months.


78% – Almost There!

At the beginning of May, we estimated our financial support levels to be around 40% with only 2 months left before our departure date. We went ahead and purchased our one-way tickets anyway. God had already brought us this far along and we certainly had faith He would bring us the rest of the way.

One month later we estimated our financial support again and found we were around 78%, nearly double of where we were only a month earlier! More importantly, we are only 2% shy of where we need to be for our agency to officially release us to go to Japan and we are confident over the next two weeks, God will raise up enough partners to see us through to financial support levels that will sustain us in Japan.

We thank all of you who have committed to partnering with us for giving us the ability to say “Send us!” to the Lord. Though we’ve said it a million times, it never seems to be enough: we could not do this without you. Here are a few of the ways the Lord has already blessed us through your support:

  • A wonderful 3 bedroom home with American amenities like a full-sized oven and clothes dryer, leased to us by another missions agency, SEND.
  • Christian Academy in Japan, a great school for our children to learn in, for conventional education, bi-culturalism and Christian faith.
  • Biblical Church of Tokyo, a church with vision and leadership that aligns with our vision of connecting with the local community based on local community needs.
  • Ongoing opportunities to serve with our friends and ministry partners in Ichinomiya, Chiba, with our short-term team from California and throughout the year.

If you have been wanting to support us but haven’t had the time to set up support or aren’t sure how to do it, please let us know what we can do to help you. I wouldn’t exactly say “Operators are standing by!” but we will certainly be here to answer your questions or walk you through the process. Thank you for bringing us this far and we can’t wait to report in from Japan in a little over 2 weeks from now!

Link: How to support us.


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.



Tokyo Redux – Better Than Paris?

I have heard it said that getting macarons in Tokyo is better than getting them in Paris because you get the same quality without the French snobbery. Whatever the case, macarons are certainly not scarce in the counters of upscale depachika (the basement level of Japanese department stores, known for counters full of prepared foods of all kinds) all over the city.