Rambling Notes from Japan
Here are some blog posts that we hope will make you feel a part of things, and help you understand how to pray better for us and Japan. Please see our external blog in Blogger, if this page does not display correctly.
Last week, what was intended to be a family break along the Yokohama bay, turned into a frightening breakdown under our Kawasaki expressway viaduct. The ol’ “green machine” (our Honda) just up and died right there in the traffic lane. No power to crank the engine and pull out of the way. No power for even emergency blinkers. I WAS POWERLESS!
POWERLESS. Japanese feel this way watching their neighbor North Korea launching missiles into the Sea of Japan, even lobbing one right over their heads in Hokkaido in the early morning hours of 8/29. Throughout the north, Japan’s September earthquake evacuation drills have now been replaced with missile evac- uation drills. But where does one flee an incoming missile?
POWERLESS. That was Kaori after twisting her ankle a few weeks back. The pain made it hard for her to even stand. A missed stair caused all kinds of grief. (Remarkably, the plateware she was carrying survived the trip down.)
Powerlessness. It’s a place we hate to go, but really need to visit often. Powerlessness reminds us of our utter dependence on God for life and work. As missionaries, we can study the language, prepare our lessons and messages, organize outreach, and give a bold witness. We can explain, persuade, counsel and invite. But we are ultimately powerless to change a person’s heart. God must work his power and move them to embrace the gospel. We know we’re powerless. So when someone in our church receives Christ in Japan, we know it was all God. He gets all the glory. We get the joy. The He whispers again:
“My power works best in your powerlessness.” (2 Cor 12:9)
A tow truck resolved our road emergency (for now). And some Epsom salt, an ankle support (I thanked Kaori for getting a new supporter -- but it was the wrong kind!) and family TLC ended Kaori’s pain. But our lessons in our human powerlessness and His divine power through us continue daily in our mission here. ... And that’s just where we need to be to see His work.
The Land Without Christmas
No REAL Christmas, at least. No one around you really knew what the holiday was about. Oh, there were some pretty decorations, tinsel and trees, and colored lights around. Here and there you’d hear jingle bells or see a Santa hat. But that hardly lifts the gloom that hangs about people trudging through daily fears, struggles and regrets. The real Christmas, the one about a Savior born to rescue mankind, bringing hope and joy to this life. That Christmas is unknown. Not ignored, U-N-K-N-O-W-N.
If you can imagine a time when Christmas is wiped clean from your everyday experience, thoughts and memories, you're getting close to understanding…
...this is Japan as it is now.
I’m always dumbfounded when a Japanese asks the sincere question, “Does Christmas have something to do with Jesus Christ?” “Are you kidding?” I think to myself. “How could you not know this?”
But then I realize: how do I know the real Christmas? Wasn’t it from the testimony of my Christian environment, together with family, friends, and church? None of this exists in Japan. So, it’s a land without Christmas.
But we believe in a different future for Japan!
What if someone who knew the real Christmas story brought it to this people? What if they shared how this Baby brought forgiveness, healing and purpose to this life, and hope for life eternal? Get ready for a big change. A truly Merry Christmas for many! Would you send someone to carry this good news, someone whose heart breaks for the people of this land?
Help send us with the message.
We need monthly partners to close our support gap (see amount at bottom). Would you partner with us in 2017 for the cause of Christ, and for the change of Japanese people? So that Japan can know and enjoy a real Christmas!
When it Comes to Christmas, Japan "Takes the Cake"
Relearning Holiday Celebrations
How Do You See the World?
That's what I nearly shouted when I first saw that image on TV many years ago. The popular Japanese cartoon's intro theme had panned out from a Tokyo house, to gradually show the surrounding city, area, country, and then the entire globe...with Japan squarely at the center! My home continent was nowhere in sight.
Doesn't every cartographer know that North America should be around the center? Maps just look balanced that way! Google "world map" images and you'll see that the USA is always center left, while Japan is at the far periphery. But wait! Google "world map" in Japanese (世界図) and a whole new set of "strange" images comes up. Japan is at the center. All continents are at the periphery.
East or West, it seems that wherever you call home, that becomes center of all things for you. The Chinese name for their country literally means "middle kingdom." This name emerged from Chinese philosophy that believed China to be in the center of the earth. Not to be outdone, the Japanese name for their country literally means "origin of the sun." In 607, Prince Shotoko of Japan began a letter to China with the less than politically-correct greeting: "From the sovereign of the land of the rising sun to the sovereign of the land of the setting sun." Diplomatic relations may have yet to recover.
Let's face it. This me-at-the-center-of-things thinking has permeated human history since Adam and Eve. And it's made a real mess the world over. Some call it ethnocentrism. Others call it national or ethnic pride. Still others call it geo-politics or socio-economics. But when this thinking takes over, the Bible calls it sin. Because such thinking takes glory away from the True Center.
"At the center, Christ rules the church." Eph 1:20 MSG
God sees the world differently. Man is not at the center. Nations and kingdoms are not at the center. Christ is at the center. And his kingdom is at the center. He is the absolute middle by which we are to look at our world. What results is this:
"Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilized and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing. From now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone is included in Christ." Eph 3:11 MSG
God does not divide up the world along geographic, cultural, socio-economic, or racial lines. He sees people only in relation to himself and his Son, Jesus. His children are either found or still lost. They are a part of his Son's kingdom or still outside of it. It's that simple.
Looking at the world with God's eyes will drive mission work. When we humbly realize that none of us was or is at the true center, our task becomes clear. We must reach out to people on the spiritual periphery, wherever they are found, and point them toward the true center, Christ.
So how do you see the world?
"Think Destination" Corner
10 Punctual Public transportation
We set our watch to trains that take us comfortably (well, mostly) and quickly anywhere in Tokyo.
9 Amusing etiquette signs in English
Sometimes translation goes a little wrong, strangely, or brashly...and makes me smile.
8 Japanese worship music
Take a listen to a recent contemporary favorite of mine. We also enjoy many western hymns in Japan.
7 Onsen (Hot Springs)
They're all around. If you're not overly shy, onsen can be a great place to relax in God's creation.
I've learned a lot about my neighborhood and people. And gotten hopelessly lost despite GPS.
5 Mountain climbing
We're surrounded by beautiful mountains. Another father-son climb is in the works for summer.
4 Our neighborhood Denny's
Owned by 7-11. With the call buttons on the table.
3 Gas stations (most are full service)
2~3 attendants hop about checking, washing, filling, stopping traffic for our exit and bowing as we leave. Buying gas never felt so special.
2 Cherry blossoms
They'll be blooming near us shortly after we arrive.
1 No snow to clear, grass to mow, or leaves to rake.
Usually. Truthfully, we miss it...sometimes...not lately.
Things I Didn't Know to be Thankful for
Living in a different country and missing something for awhile makes one thankful for little things. Things I didn't know to be thankful for until leaving for Japan. Here's a few things -- in no particular rank or order -- that come to mind since we've returned to the States. These are just trivial sacrifices we gladly (usually) do without to serve God in Japan. They pale in comparison to what other missionaries gave up for the kingdom of God in history past.
But here they are. You won't find these in Japan. So, I'm thankful for:
* The cereal aisle in any grocery store.
* Christian radio. Christian Literature.
* Abundant parking.
* Church steeples all around.
* A western breakfast with pancakes and eggs.
* Corporate worship in English.
* Coupons. Sales. Easy Returns.
* Cheap electricity. Cheap gas.
* Instruction manuals in English.
* Pie and ice cream. Pizza without mayonnaise.
* Central heat. Insulated walls.
* A real shower. Solid deodorant.
* Clothing big enough to fit Americans.
* A chance to rake leaves from real trees on a lawn.
* So many choices. So much abundance.
* Conversation in English.
* Being raised in a Christian environment.
When Garbage Refuses to Die
The problem is a matter of simple physics. An unlimited amount of matter cannot occupy a limited amount of space at the same point in time. And our tiny Japanese home is, well, pretty limited! Like most Japanese houses, we have no basement, no attic, no garage, not even a large hall closet. Sending an unused item to storage limbo is simply not an option. But eventually things get used beyond usefulness. So we need to aggressively (and continually) sell, recycle, and throw away. And herein lies the greater problem. Sometimes things just refuse to leave you.
After my "generous" offers of such gently used items are rejected by friends, I turn to the local recycle shop for hope. Now, my castoffs are generally of such a pathetic nature that the recycle shop only takes on my case pro bono...out of pity...and perhaps a little amusement. I must say, though, that they are very gracious. And I've appreciated their mission of mercy. But I may have exceeded my limit. These days they want original packaging, instruction manuals, dent-free and scratch-free quality, and (of all the nerve) they want for the item to actually work as it was intended! My humble offerings are rarely up to that kind of scrutiny. And the clerks, in the gentlest Japanese way possible, have apologetically asked me to take the item back when I leave.
On the ride home, my thoughts turn to how to throw the unnamed item away. This is easier thought about than done in Japan. I glance at the item riding on the seat next to me. It's now aware of my intentions for its demise. It smirks at me because it knows that the law is on its side. You see, Japan has stringent rules about its garbage. Like flower arranging or tea ceremony, recycling here is a cultural art form in its own right. You can't just kick something to the curb when you're ready to throw it away. If it's any bigger than a breadbox, you'll likely need to get permission first. This involves going to the post office, getting a sticker which costs $5~10, calling the city for an approval number, then placing the verified item outside on a specified day for pickup...maybe.
On the morning of garbage pickup I place one bag of dismantled material out with the quiet satisfaction that comes from sensing freedom. It may take a few days yet, but I will be rid of it. Or will I? Doubts fill my head as the trash collectors approach. They stop and inspect my bag. I hear them discussing it amongst each other. When they drive away the entire bag is left behind.
I try again on a different garbage day. Left again. I take out some things. Left again. Were the metal parts too long? Did I mix in other items unaware? Did it look too much like a bomb? Did I need to wait by the curb to sign something? Should I have been there in person with cups of hot tea or a "clueless foreigner" look? I'll never know. All I know is that this infuriating item of garbage is still mocking me from its dismantled state. It must be dealt with and now! Burial!
I eye my shovel and think of creating my own garbage grave...under the shrub in front of our house...between the sewer line and foundation. This 3-foot-square space is the only patch of dirt we own. I can plant flowers on top and no one would know. Hitchcock himself would be proud of my scheme! Half overcome with sheer madness, I thrust my shovel into the dirt...and strike...metal. Sure enough! Some other hapless recycler reached the point of exasperation, too. The grave plot is already full.
Sometimes garbage just refuses to die. I might need wooden stakes and garlic.
Singing a Sojourner's Song
Buddy Greene said it best in song: "I don't belong. I'm a foreigner here just singing a sojourner's song. I've always known. This place ain't home. And I don't belong."
It didn't used to be that way. Up until we left for Japan in 1999, I was decidedly American in my outlook, cultural identity and sensibilities. But things change when you remove yourself from that cultural milieu for any long stretch of time. Things no longer look the same when you return to them. You're different. People are different. The environment and culture are different. And you sense a lack of fit with a people and places you really were eager to call home again. That's disappointing, surprising and frustrating all at once.
It's not just the big gaps missing for you in the stories of those you know and love. Nor is it just all the little changes in technology, language usage, or pop culture trends all around you. It's not even the myriad of adjustments you need to make all over again. For example, I know by now when I return to the States I will:
1) be surprised at how big things are,
2) forget which side of the road to drive on for brief moments,
3) get into the car on the wrong side, and use the windshield wiper instead of the turning signal,
4) forget I need to tip in a restaurant,
5) find it strange that the stores are so huge and quiet,
6) marvel at the acres of space in front of stores just to park,
7) be overwhelmed with how sweet or salty everything tastes,
8) find the wide open spaces to be almost odd at times,
9) wonder why the daily earthquake never comes,
10) find TV to be even more degraded than last time,
11) be frustrated in finding the right word in English and use Japanese without thinking,
12) be unable to identify with topics of conversation,
13) wonder why our currency looks so foreign,
14) be excited by cheap $4/gallon gas,
...and the list could go on and on with a hundred other things.
But the feeling really is not birthed out of any of those things. Part of it might be the cumulative weight of all those things. But there's more. There's the sense that we CANNOT fit in anymore, even if we were to fill in ALL those gaps and make ALL those changes. Our frame of reference, our cultural perspective in life has fundamentally shifted in such a way that everything will look just a little out of focus around us. Call it the missionary complex. A cultural identity crisis. Cognitive dissonance. Schizophrenia. Call it whatever you like. The feeling is a lack of true belonging. A sense of being a foreigner in places one wouldn't think or desire to sense that.
And so I am thankful to be a missionary because of this. It's brought clarity to my position in this world, and a richness and sweetness to my true home in heaven. It's sped up that part of my spiritual journey by letting me experience firsthand foreignness here, and anticipate even more my belonging there.
"Yes, I belong. And I'm going some day. Home to my own native land.
Where I'll belong. And it seems like I hear the sound of a welcome home band.
Yes I belong. No foreigner there...singing a sojourner's song.
I've always known. I'm going home. Where I'll belong." (lyrics, Buddy Greene)
Trains, Planes and (Smaller) Automobiles
Once again our journey from door-to-door involved trains, planes and automobiles. One Tokyo train, one AA 777 jet, one minivan and one Tokyo cab to be exact. This involves four rounds of shuffling around six large overstuffed suitcases and several smaller carryon items. (We always stock up on cheap and hard-to-get items for life and ministry while back in the States). The "joys" of traveling meet "aches" of muscle strain.
Our last suitcase shuffle was from the airport bus to the taxicab. I probably don't have to tell you that the cabs here come in smaller sizes. The driver took one look at our pile of stuff and let out a low sigh. He declared empathically that it would not be possible to handle our needs. After 16 hours of travel and just 16 minutes from a hot shower and bed at home, I wasn't in the mood to be rejected on this minor space technicality. (Okay, maybe it wasn't really minor.) So, when he opened his trunk to show me how impossible it would be, I promptly moved his trunk stuff to one side and stuffed in four of our smaller suitcases. The other large suitcases and assorted items found a spot in the back seat. The open-jawed driver watched me work in amazement. I kept apologizing the whole time but also kept packing away until every item filled up the cab.
On the drive back home the driver confessed, "I didn't think even I could do that, let alone a foreigner like yourself. Where'd you learn to pack like that?" I told him I've lived in Tokyo now 12 years. What more needs to be said?
When we first arrived in the States in October, I suffered through the opposite syndrome. What to do with all this extra space! I could sit wide, or with legs outstretched. I could wander around large rooms and hear my echo. I could get out on either side of the car. I could always find parking. I could buy large size versions of things and find places to put them away. I COULD THINK BIG! Now I must relearn to think small. Small spaces. Turn, move, sit, park, walk about in a tight axis of centimeters.This will take a few days yet to get used to.
Perhaps the shortcut to relearning Japan spatial limitations is a trip to "Don Quixote," the big discount seller here in Japan. The store is crammed with stuff (and extremely noisy). Things are stacked precariously from floor to ceiling with only tiny aisles in between. It resembles the scene from a Dr. Seuss story. If it wasn't for my tightwad missionary nature, I wouldn't step foot in this place. As it worked out, my visit to the store today created a little extra work for the cleanup crew. I may be over jet lag, but spatial distance lag will take a few days more. And so, at least in Japan, it seems that thinking small is at least as important as thinking big.
All this, but no octopus ice cream
It hits me every time we return home. This time was not unique. Call it part of required re-entry shock. Coming back for 6 weeks of home assignment travel is landing in the land of a million choices.
The day after we arrived here in New Jersey, we needed to stock the refrigerator with some essentials for living. So, off to the supermarket. What's the big deal? The big deal is that EVERYTHING is BIG. And there are a million of them. You name it, the supermarkets here have a million different ones to choose from. But you knew that already. And I thought I did too.
I knew it was going to be tough going. I grabbed a cart, gripped the handle, and steeled myself to focus on the immediate the task. It was no use. The bakery section emitted a siren's cry to my long pie-deprived stomach. Turning the corner, I nearly wept at the selection of cereals. A whole aisle. Incredible! And the boxes could last for days. Steering hurriedly into the next aisle, I hunted for garbage bags. Again, the variety and selection nearly overwhelmed me. JUST GARBAGE BAGS! It took every bit of jet-lagged resolve I had left to not leave the aisle without something. But the ice cream finally did me in. Just a box of vanilla ice cream. A simple thing, or so I thought. There were 17 coolers of ice cream of every size, shape, variety and flavor known to man.
Aaahh...but Japan has one up on the States in this are. My local supermarket in Japan has octopus ice cream. Yes, it's true. Click the photo as proof. It would take a whole post to explain this.
Still, I am again left speechless by the land of many choices and large sizes: my country. It's just that after being gone for a while it all seems so incredible again.