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.
A "Barky" New Year?
Ah, 2018. The year has only begun and it's already going to the dogs!
Today, January 1st (1/1), can be pronounced “wan-wan” in Japanese. “Wan-wan” happens to be the way that dogs bark in Japan. (And all this time you thought they said “woof-woof,” right?)
Perhaps it’s appropriate that the year begins with a couple barks. After all, 2018 is the Year of the Dog in the Chinese (& Japanese) zodiac. Japan knows how to market this idea. Dog-themed ads, products, foods, stamps and greeting cards are everywhere. And our local pet shop has a great discount on Shih Tzus (while supplies last) this first week of the year.
But wait! Is it really THE YEAR OF THE DOG?
The Bible says that it’s actually “THE YEAR OF THE LORD’S FAVOR”
v18 "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed,
v19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Luke 4
Jesus, quoting from Isaiah 61, pointed to the fulfillment of the prophecy in himself. Because of Christmas. Because he came. This would now be a favorable year! Jesus was not referring to a calendar year of 365 days, but an era of time during which man can be redeemed by His work at Calvary’s cross. This year, 2018, and every year until the rapture of the church, is an era and year of God’s favor! It is a year of possible forgiveness in Christ, and hope for this life and eternal life to come!
But how many Japanese will know that 2018 is anything but the year of the dog? Frankly, very few. In fact, 99.5% percent have no idea. We have to tell them the year can very different!
While it is still the year of the Lord’s favor, and before this era of time comes to an end, we are all entrusted with good news to share with our world. Kaori and I believe God would have us to preach this good news and “proclaim the year of God’s favor” in Japan. It is this conviction that moves us forward here in the year ahead of challenges and blessings.
So, thank you for sending and supporting us in this work! Your confidence in God to work through us in Japan is encouraging and humbling!
If you would like to become a support partner with us in 2018, it’s really easy to do, and it’s a really critical time for us in our start of Vision 2020. In 2018, we’d like to be fully supported again for this work. We’re making progress, but still need monthly commitments. Click here to begin, or here for more details. Pass this along.
God bless you in 2018, this year of His favor for the world. Happy New Year!
Kevin & Kaori Laverman
P.S. Cats really rule as pets in Japan. (And wait until you hear what they say in Japanese. Hint: ニャーニャー)
The End of Endings
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” John 11:25-26
This time of year, people all across Japan walk about in awe under giant canopies of soft pink. It’s cherry blossom time!
Many view the blossoms simply as nature’s beautiful spring show. Others view metaphor: cherry blossoms are a boundary marker in the seasons of life. They’re a reminder that our lives, too, are fragile and fleeting. For the samurai, fallen cherry blossom petals symbolized a fallen warrior. Their lives bloomed and fell in glory for their lord.
Regardless of how you view the cherry blossoms, one thing is sure: their brilliance comes to a quick end.
Good Friday and Easter should turn our view upside down. The metaphor is reversed. It is not the samurai who sacrifices his life for his lord. Rather, the lord sacrifices for his servants. On Good Friday, Christ, our Lord, sacrifices for us. At the cross, he throws his life away in sacrifice. He is like the fallen petal. But only a single one need fall to its end. Christ dies in the place of us all.
Now, the clock turns backward. Can you imagine falling cherry blossom petals suddenly reattaching themselves to the tree, their source of life, and going onto full and beautiful existence? This is what Christ has done for us. At the cross, he died. At the grave on Easter, he defeated death. We who believe in him are reattached to the source of true life. God, the Holy Spirit, now dwells inside. Divine, eternal life has fused itself into us.
No longer must “cherry petals” flutter in mass toward the ground. No, for in Christ, our forever end is averted. True spiritual life begins. Our brief lives can be lived in without the pathos of transience and ending. Our lives can be lived with the blessed hope of eternity to come. Why? Because we know that the end of this season on earth, is but a more glorious flowering of life in heaven to come.
Christ’s death has reversed the curse of endings. Glorious life begins. Let’s give thanks to as we celebrate Good Friday and Easter.
On February 14, ladies get the murky duty of judging where they stand in their relationships, and giving accordingly.
First, there's the "giri choco" or "obligation chocolate." This is an inexpensive bag of sweets that you give to the guys around because you must. It's expected. It's a way of "greasing the skids" of the relationships in life. All of them. Well, mostly. Just don't get caught not giving to someone!
Then there's "honmei choco" or "favorite chocolate." These you only give to guys you want to show your affection toward. These sweets tend to be rather expensive, and probably even homemade.
Oh, yes! There's the "tomo choco" or "just friends chocolate" as well. That's a whole other category of relationship to figure out.
With all this chocolate swirling about, you'd think the guys would be thrilled. Not really. Getting chocolates comes with a whole set of obligations. Men must reciprocate on "White Day," a month later on March 14. Each and every chocolate needs to be responded to, often with one worth three times as much as received. Talk about putting on the pressure!
No doubt about it. In spite of all the heartshaped boxes, Valentine's Day in Japan is less about love, and more about duty and obligation.
Japan, if all this makes you yearn for a true unfettered expression of love, forget about the chocolate thing. Look to the cross of Christ instead. Here is a love given out generously to all − without levels, obligations, or payments still owed. John 4:10 says "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins."
Now that's a sweet deal! Obligation chocolate? Nah! I'll take unmerited love.
The Rescue of Love (A Good Friday Meditation)
But you might have missed the rest of their linked story. Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa were bound together far before their joint captivity. Yet the paths that led them to each other could not have been more different. One made a life in the midst of trouble. The other had a troubled life.
In Kenji, we see a glimpse of Christ’s love. Kenji was a Christian. (This in itself is remarkable considering the small number of Japanese believers.) As a journalist, he traveled to war-torn places to highlight the plight of persecuted groups and displaced refugees. He championed the cause of the weak and helpless, people in crisis and conflict who needed rescue from their circumstances. Kenji’s pastor stated that his Christian convictions influenced this selfless work.
Haruna was a very different man. If Kenji was a picture of Christ, Haruna was an apt picture of the world, mankind deformed by sin. Haruna was wounded deeply by life in ways that twisted his personality. A string of setbacks, including bankruptcy and the death of his wife, had damaged his psyche. He supposed himself to be a reincarnated Manchu princess. He became obsessed with right-wing nationalism and weaponry. His unstable behaviors ranged from suicide attempts to high-adrenalin risks. He had entered Syria for the self-motivated purpose of using the instability of the region to sell security services. Haruna clearly needed a rescue from himself.
Haruna’s rescue began when he met Kenji. In Kenji, Haruna found a friend who overlooked his faults and peculiarities, and cared for him even to the point of jeopardizing his own life.
When Haruna was first captured by the Free Syrian Army in March of 2014, Kenji was called by his contacts to help question this Japanese prisoner. Instead, Kenji was able to negotiate his release. The two returned to Japan together. In October 2014, Haruna returned to Syria and stumbled into trouble again. This time he was nabbed by ISIS. Kenji went after his hapless friend in a quest that resulted in his own capture. The rest of their fateful story together played out in media reports worldwide.
If Kenji is a picture of Christ, and Haruna a picture of the world, it’s not hard to see the gospel parallels in this story. Kenji determined to bring his wayward friend home. Christ came to seek and save his wayward people, and bring them safely home. Kenji looked past his twisted friend’s oddities. Christ’s divine love looked past the marred image of God to see the intrinsic worth of the soul. Kenji set aside his personal interests and risked his life to free his friend held hostage by militants. Christ set aside his deity and paid the ultimate price at Calvary to redeem mankind held hostage by Satan and sin.
If Haruna’s life had been spared by the sacrifice of Kenji, the redemptive illustration might have been complete. We wanted a different outcome for both of them. But what transpired in their final days of captivity together we may never know. Perhaps Kenji’s tender faith softened his heartless captors to consider the ways of Christ. Perhaps Kenji’s selfless testimony humbled Haruna to spiritual conviction. Perhaps the two safely returned to their true homeland of eternity in heaven together after all.
Heaven will tell their full story. This side of heaven, we can let their story inspire our own. We can drink in deeply that selfless, pursuing divine love that gives itself for selfish, wayward man. The cross shouts to us that we are loved more than we can know or understand. We can let that love motivate us into selfless ambition for our fellow man. Our own divine rescue of love constrains us.
“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” 1 John 4:10-11
The Blue Light has Come?
The blue light has come? Big deal. The TRUE LIGHT has already come! It's Christ that truly "holds great promise to increase the quality of life for billions of people." Yet the arrival of our Savior was met with so little fanfare. No national awards. No invitation to the palace. No photo opps. No fan letters. No glitzy festivities. The only special invited guests were a stable of animals and some outcast shepherds.
And so it is up to us today, the people of the cross, to CELEBRATE the gift of Light. Just think! The Light of the World has dawned...for you! The illumining work of his Spirit flooded your darkened mind. God rescued you from the kingdom of darkness and made you a citizen of the kingdom of light. Your gloomy tomorrows were swept away by brilliant hope. There's no more need for groping along the dark alleys of life; now divine guidance lights your way. And the ominous shadow of death has been driven off by glorious resurrection hope. The dawn of TRUE LIGHT in our world and your life is cause for great celebration. So enjoy your Christmas!
There's a tinge of irony in Japan becoming a Nobel laureate for illumination. One also wonders why, in this spiritually dark country, the people are increasingly enraptured by massive seasonal light displays. Can it be that the Japanese are searching and fumbling through the darkness for a TRUE LIGHT that the Spirit whispers to them about? Already in the dark corners of Kawasaki, Japan, that True Light has dawned. In 2014, darkness fell just a little bit more in our corner of the world as people responded by faith in Christ to God's call on their heart. Together with you, we push back the darkness inch by inch. We proclaim the "Light of the World" with all the strength and capacity God gives. We claim the promise of Isaiah 51:4 that "nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn."
Blue LEDs? They might change something somewhere perhaps. But the TRUE LIGHT of the world? He'll change everything for sure! Let's celebrate Him. Let's share him. Merry Christmas!
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?
Christmas is all about KFC
The roots of this craze go back four decades. On a Christmas day in the early 1970's, foreigners in Japan flooded the newly-opened KFCs, gobbling up the colonel's best recipe. It was a poor substitute for the visions of golden-brown turkeys that danced in their heads, but it was the only crispy bird to be had around. A shrewd KFC manager watching the foreigner stampede saw yen signs. In 1974, the company presented its first Christmas meal: chicken and wine for $10. It sold well in spite of being costly for its time.
Today, a family bucket will set you back $40. Still, the Christmas fried chicken fad has taken root in a big way in Japan. A quarter million buckets (or boxes) of chicken will be sold on Christmas day alone. A savvy marketing blitz helps. Weeks ahead of time, a flurry of coupons fill mailboxes of urban homes. TV ads feature Japanese children in Santa hats (and with KFC barrels in hand) dancing about to catchy jingles. Even the revered statue of the colonel in front of KFC stores gets dressed up in a Santa suit (somehow it fits his mystique). Stores take orders four weeks in advance. Long lines form early on Christmas eve to pick up the crispy parcels. KFC has become the go-to meal at Christmastime.
became a born-again Christian late in life. He knew the focus of the celebration was Christ. We do, too. Right?
I've missed a few Christmases in America. Christmas 2013 is our first in 10 years. And I've come to a conclusion after spending Christmas in Japan for awhile and now being home on furlough. I don't know whether it's really true that "Nobody does chicken like KFC." But it's definitely true that "Nobody does Christmas like America." The music and concerts, the lights and decorations, the get-togethers and endless food, the TV specials and store sales...the celebration runs the gamut from dreamy and reflective, to bustling and hectic, to grand and breathtaking. We know how to do Christmas! But we also know how to lose our focus in the whole celebration.
It turns out that Christmas really is all about KFC. That is, Keeping the Focus on Christ. Time with family and friends, twinkling decorations, tasty food, thoughtful gifts are all wonderful trimmings. But we lose out on the main course if we miss worshipping the One whose birthday celebration it really is.
Let the things of Christmas amplify and not distract your worship of Him. KFC. Keep the Focus on Christ. And that's what will really make Christmas "so good!" (KFC pun intended)
P.S. — Anyone want some Japanese KFC coupons?
The Cross in the Tragedy
Take two weeks for Japan, spending just 10 minutes a day to read each chapter and pray! This is my best effort to share with you our experiences from the March 11, 2011 triple tragedy in Japan, and to look at them through a spiritual lens to see what God what want us to know.
We ask for a donation of $5 to cover printing and mailing costs. You can use the order page here on our website to pay, or make arrangements with us personally.
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)
New Year House Shopping
His mom followed his finger to the do-it-yourself kit (roughly the size of a loaf of bread), and said, "Oh. Well, that's a house for god." The boy's response was priceless. He wrinkled up his face quizzically and said, "A house for god? Why would god need a house? That's dumb." From the mouths of babes! His mom was completely nonplussed. She darted a sheepish glance at me before scurrying the boy along.
Why limit the divine to a tiny decoration? How have we limited God in convoluted ways within our own faith? Perhaps not in the way of a do-it-yourself kit, but to greater degrees than we recognize and admit. A missionary colleague here in Japan wrote a piece on this subject and the Japanese New Year traditions. The original article is here. I have included it below. Enjoy, think and pray!
For many Japanese, the New Year begins with hatsumode, the year’s initial visit to a Shinto shrine or Buddhist temple. Meiji shrine in Tokyo and Shinsoji temple near the airport in Narita are the most popular sites for hatsumode, each attracting more than 3 million visitors during the first three days of the year.
The typical pilgrim arrives dressed in kimono, then bows, claps, and makes a brief silent prayer to the deity for health and prosperity in the year ahead. Many temple Buddhas and shrine kami (divine spirits) are thought to specialize in answering certain types of request: Some attract struggling businessmen, some draw students facing exams, while others offer help to forlorn lovers.
Japan is home to a multitude of shrines and temples, some boasting a history stretching back over a thousand years. If the Apostle Paul were to visit, he would likely echo the judgment he expressed in Athens, that the citizens of this place must be “very religious” (Acts 17:22).
In this he would be mistaken. In a recent Yomiuri Shinbun poll, 72 percent of respondents claimed no religious affiliation. Except at holidays and other special occasions, Japan’s shrines and temples are frequented more by tourists than by devotees. Yet very few Japanese would be willing to give up these religious sites, and the vital, if vague, link with the transcendent they represent.
Temples and shrines bear witness to the human desire to make contact with the divine, as our hearts are restless apart from the One who made us. On the other hand, perhaps they equally and ironically reflect a desire to contain the divine, as our hearts are rebellious and fearful of giving up control.
Temples are very convenient. If God is in the temple, then we know where to find Him when we need help. But once we leave the temple, He remains behind while we are free to go and do as we please.
Since the temple belongs to God, if I go there, I play by His rules. I take off my shoes, bow, kneel, or whatever protocol requires. I show proper respect, because after all, the temple is God’s territory.
But once I get home, my house is my house, and there I am in charge. My life is my life, and I am the boss. If I need help from God, I’ll let Him know. Otherwise, He can stay in the temple—a kind of cage for God. In the temple, God is safely locked away, no longer at large where He might catch us by surprise.
Of course, we Christians understand, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man” (Acts 17:24). Yet we all too easily fall into the “temple” mindset, assigning God His place in the religious sector of our lives while claiming the rest as our own. We’ll give God one day a week and a tenth of our income, but as for the rest of our time and money, well, we would rather God mind His own business, and leave our stuff alone.
Nearly as ubiquitous in Japan as the shrine or temple is the koban. This is a compact police station housing one or two officers per shift whose job is to keep watch over their block. Mostly they are called upon to give directions, to handle lost and found articles, to take reports of petty crimes, and to offer help in case of emergency.
A temple serves as a kind of divine koban. We want a deity who is always on call to show us the way, help us recover lost items, listen to our complaints, and save us when we’re in danger.
But of course it doesn’t work that way. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). The true God will not submit to our restrictions, or play by our rules. He may show up at any place and any time, upsetting all our plans and laying claim to all our possessions—even our lives. He cannot be caged.
Superstition & Mission (Part 1)
Japan is filled with such superstitions. While some are modern urban legends, many come from the animistic roots of Japan's religious beliefs. The many (millions of) gods and evil spirits in nature are capricious and mischievous. They must be appeased or driven away lest they bring death or misfortune to oneself.
Many superstitions surround the fear of death and suffering. The numbers four and nine are unlucky because they are pronounced in the same way as death (shi) and suffering (ku). Hospitals avoid the use of these numbers for rooms and floors. You'll also never find a set of four dishes in Japan. Plateware comes in sets of three or five.
Japanese are careful to hide their thumbs when they see a funeral hearse. Not doing so will mean an early death for your parents. In Japanese, a thumb is called your parent finger (oyayubi). Protect your parents by protecting your parent finger.
Other actions that invite death include bringing potted flowers on a hospital visit (a play on the word for "root" in Japanese suggests the patient may not recover). Sticking chopsticks in your rice (this is only for funerals). Using a single chopstick in both hands (only done to pick up bones after cremation). Sleeping with your head toward the north (dead bodies are laid out in this direction). Being in the middle of a group of three when your picture is taken (you are in the best focus and the pull of the camera upon your spirit is the strongest).
I know you're asking by this point, "Do Japanese REALLY believe that?" Unfortunately the answer is yes. The culture is saturated with it. The selling of fortunes (uranai) in Japan is a major business. Horoscopes and numerology play a big part in the psyche of the Japanese people. The availability of such with the explosion of smart phones has greatly exacerbated the problem.
And so one of the challenges in our mission work in Japan is speaking to a culture that is filled with superstitious beliefs. How do we respond from the Bible?
The spiritual scene in Japan is not unlike the superstitious city of Ephesus. The people of Ephesus lived in the shadow of the great temple of Artemis (Diana). Priests and "miracle workers" abounded. Occult worship was everywhere. The city was preoccupied with the black arts. The worship of Artemis included prostitution and mutilation rituals. Into this city of magic and witchcraft comes Paul with a message of the true and living God. It is helpful to read the way that Paul speaks to the Ephesian church in this culture of superstition in his letter to them. Recently I read Ephesians afresh with this "addressing-a-culture-of-superstition" lens. Stop and take a few minutes to do the same. I'll share a few insights in a future post.
(TO BE CONTINUED)
The Humbled Tsunami
The school roof had saved them. Or had it? Some residents had a different story: “When the tsunami came near that church, it fell to the ground. That was how Nakano Elementary school was saved. If the tsunami had flooded in as it was, all 600 people would have been swept away.” The Seaside Bible Chapel took the worst of the blow, shielding the school just enough from the full force of the water. The school roof refugees were spared. A resident commented: “God sacrificed His own temple to save the children.”
God sacrificing his own to save many. The story has a familiar gospel ring to it. Hasn’t God done the same for us, his children? He’s held back the full punishment headed our way and let it crush down instead upon His beloved Son. That's real salvation!
What’s more, He now humbles personal tsunamis in our lives daily. Most of the schooltop survivors probably overlooked a destroyed church as God’s way of holding back the full force of the waters so it would not overcome them. How easy it is for us, though, to miss God’s work. The storm obeys him. Waters are permitted only so far in our lives and no further: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you pass through the rivers, they will not flow over you.” Isa 43:2
The end? No, God still has good things for the seaside church. The cross was found among wreckage and placed atop a beam (photo above). There it speaks powerfully to the many people that pass by. In the last 8 months the church has seen more visitors coming to pray in that location than in all its years of existence. The church itself, the members, are meeting in a coffee house. The video clip here tells a little about the effective outreach God has given them already. God has his “Easter Sunday” good purposes in every “Good Friday” disaster!
In the midst of his grief, the man desires that generations to come not endure the pain and sorrow that he is going through. They must be warned of the danger of tsunamis! They must not build homes along the shoreline! The man devises a warning system: a marker stone. The year is 1896. The Meiji-Sanriku tsunami has just killed 22,066 Japanese.
Hundreds of these stones are found along the coastline of Japan. Some are more than 600 years old. "High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants,” one reads. "Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis," another stone warns. "Do not build any homes below this point,” an inscription on another stone advises.
In the bustle of modern Japan, many disregarded such good advice, building communities right along water's edge. Perhaps they took comfort in the sea walls built in the 1960's after a smaller tsunami. But in the town of Aneyoshi, a centuries-old stone saved the day. It was advice that a dozen or so households of Aneyoshi listened to carefully, and on March 11, 2011 their homes and lives were spared from a disaster that flattened low-lying towns all around.
A God that loves us infinitely and knows us completely desires that we be spared from personal disaster in this life. He desires that we be spared not from physical death, but from spiritual, emotional and relational death that poor choices and rejection of His ways can bring. His warnings are left for all generations to know and heed. The warnings in His Word are not raging outbursts from an angry God. His warnings are gracious love calls that say, "I am for you. I want you to enjoy everything I have to give you. Listen to my wisdom for your life."
"Today I am giving you a choice between prosperity and disaster, between life and death...Oh, that you would choose life, that you and your descendants might live." Deut. 30:15, 19 NLT
Brace for Impact?
The hi-tech system was rolled out to much fanfare just a few years back. It's set up to ring, vibrate and flash the 125 million plus cell phones throughout Japan when an earthquake is imminent. Sounds great. Makes me feel more secure. Technology is infallible, right? The problem is that technology, and this system, still depends on a fallible human link.
The biggest failing of the system was with the 3/11 quake. No early warning from cell phones. Several hours later, long after the tsunami had done its worst, the cell phones spewed out their first warning of the day. No doubt the person asleep at the switch with this one paid for the mistake with his job.
Since then the person in charge of pushing the button to alert all cell phones seems to be overcompensating for the 3/11 early warning boondoggle. The alert sounds. The cell phone vibrates off the table, lights flashing. We scatter away from windows. We open doors that might get jammed. We grab something solid and wait. And then...and then...nothing.
It's not that we're disappointed there wasn't another aftershock, it's just that these "cry wolf" false warnings that rattle us out of bed and our days activities are making it harding to trust the early warning technology at all.
Create technology so we needn't depend on God. Find comfort and security in buttons and gizmos and transistors. This is the natural direction of man, full of himself and his desire to master and rule his world. There's nothing wrong with using God-given wisdom to create technology to better our lives. But when dependence on technology moves us away from dependence on God, a problem emerges in our heart. Japan has long had this unhealthy dependence on technology to the exclusion of God. Its spiritual awakening starts with realizing the limits of man's wisdom and abilities. Pray that this disaster will open Japan's eyes to the need for a dependable source of security, the unshakeable ROCK, our God.
Our new pet, our "Christmas ham" is a fun addition to the family. Kaori said, "I need something fuzzy around this house (besides your unshaven face)." Justen said, "I think I need a pet." So, we needed to make this addition to our family. "Chocolat" is fuzzy. Chocolat is cute. But Chocolat is hardly a picture of tranquility.
Chocolat stuffs every possible item in her food bowl into her cheek pouches (until her face is ridiculously huge), then hoards them in her hamster bed.
Chocolat squirms and squeezes through any attempt to gently hold her in the palm of your hand. The safety and comfort of a warm hand is no match for what adventure might be out there.
Chocolat reminds me of myself a bit. Safe in my Lord's hand, yet unable to rest. Foraging instead of trusting. "Chocolat, stop moving about so much. I'll take care of you. Do you think I can't or won't care for your little needs?" Gulp. I hear the whisper of my Father God to me behind my words to my hamster.
"Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom." Luke 12:32
Kevin: "Kaori, look at this great labelmaker I picked up for free."
Kaori: "Where'd you get it?"
Kevin: "It was just laying out on the garbage pile."
Kaori: "Garbage pile?!"
Kevin: "Someone just threw it away. I cleaned it up, put in fresh batteries, and it works fine! It even has a label cartridge in it. I wanted one like this."
Kaori: "You picked it up? In Japan, that's called STEALING."
Kevin: "From the garbage pile? To me that's called RESCUING!"
It's amazing the things that one finds disposed of in Japan. Japan's ultra-consumerism generates a lot of recyclable "garbage." Is something a little dirty, a little broken? Out to the garbage it goes! Japanese by in large don't have a repair-and-reuse mentality. A little cleaning, a little fix here or there, and a lot of money can be saved by the handy finder (it turns out I may have been "stealing").
I was broken and dirtied by sin. God had every right to throw me out onto the garbage pile. I am so glad that He chose to send his Son into this world to search, find, cleanup and re-use me. That was the ultimate RESCUE! (And I suppose in a way it was stealing...from Satan).
At Christmastime, thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming down into the garbage pile of this world to reclaim me for your own!
When I finally got around to assessing our earthquake readiness, I realized how unready we were. Wiping the dust off the backpack in the carport, I unzipped it to find a horror story inside. The batteries had attempted an escape, leaking acid all over the contents of the bag. To make matters worse, the acid had actually bored a hole through one of the canned items, which oozed its contents out and into the bag as well. It was not pretty (and now I know why all those stray cats were hanging around outside for awhile). The remainder of the canned food seemed intact, but the expiration date was 5 years ago. The bottled water also looked a bit suspicious. The short of it is: we weren't ready for an earthquake to come.
As I replaced and organized new gear for us, my thoughts turned toward the "parables of readiness" in Matthew 25. Five bridesmaids wisely carried extra oil. Two servants carefully used their entrusted resources. A wise and faithful servant works to the best of his or her ability to use what he has been given, and prepares himself for the Master's return and inspection. With God's help, I want to be ready in my life and work for my Master to come. How ready are you?
No (Solo) Fishing
Most days I feel a bit like that helpless child fisherman from a few weeks back.
A few weeks back at our Kids English outreach in August each kid was handed a pole with a string attached. A magnet hung from the end of the string. Letter and object cards scattered about in a "pond" had to be snagged by their attached paperclips, then hauled in, brought and repeated to the teacher.
One small girl was clearly trying her best, but the string and magnet simply would not cooperate, twirling about aimlessly. She needed help. Placing my hand over hers I steadied the rod and we cast for fish together. What a haul our teamwork resulted in!
Most days I feel like that child. Small. Aimlessly casting about. Overwhelmed. And just a bit discouraged. The "fish" in Japan simply aren't biting the Gospel message. But have I forgotten that the Master's hand is on the rod with mine? He's steadying, guiding, and supporting each cast. He's smiles down as we work together. Why had I gone about solo fishing in frustration? Instead I surrender to the Master's guidance, instruction and care, and we haul in the catch He had in mind.
Japan in a Panic
After graduating from university, the company he worked for was changing over to a new system. Makoto threw himself into the extra work involved. He worked well into the night, missing the last train home. He would nap at a nearby sauna and be back in the office first thing in the morning. This went on for months.
One day on a train, when his exhaustion was at its peak, an ‘unpleasant feeling' came over him. His breathing quickened, his palms began to sweat, and he felt the urge to use the bathroom. Soon Makoto couldn't ride the subway to work anymore. Today, fearing a panic attack, he will not even go to a barber shop. Instead he has a stylist come to his home - for an additional fee. “My wife says it’s a waste of money,” he says. “A healthy person can't possibly understand. Imagine a person, who seems perfectly normal, and yet can't get on a train, or go to a barber shop.”
Makoto and many others in Japan suffer from a condition known as panic disorder (PD). Panic engulfs them. How many people are affected? Current estimates suggest up to 4 percent of the Japanese population. What is the solution for panicked Japanese people? The power of the Gospel. "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind." (2 Timothy 1:7).
The New Year's Flight
In another time-honored tradition, a minority will celebrate the year’s end in quite a different fashion; they will vanish into thin air. New Year’s eve, when people generally clear their debts, has become the most popular night for yonige, (the midnight flight). People who have fallen into debt, simply disappear in the night to start a fresh life in an anonymous city or country.
So common is the practice that it has spurned an industry of removal companies specializing in midnight dashes, even avoiding burly men with baseball bats, called variously benriyasan, (‘Mr. Convenient for Anything’) or yonigeya (‘Midnight Flight Shop’). These companies are good at disappearing acts. Once a family has dashed, the yonigeya will clear out the contents of the house in 15-30 minutes, storing them in a secret warehouse until they can be reunited with their fleeing clients. Full-service companies offer leased property and untraceable phone lines in a new city and can, for a hefty fee, provide a new identity, which is no mean feat in tightly documented Japan.
Source: Tokyo Financial Times (2006/01/03) & missionary Neil Verwey
For believers we usually advise, not to flee but to face the music. Jesus says to us, "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28) Don't run away from Jesus, run to Him! He will shoulder your burdens and give you rest!
Could Bach bring Revival to Japan?
On the night of Jesus’ birth, an angel appeared to shepherds. Why shepherds? Perhaps they fit with the humble circumstances of His birth; perhaps God wanted to point back to King David, who began as a shepherd; or perhaps He wanted to point forward, to the arrival of the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God. In any case, the shepherds responded to the angel as others had, with both awe and terror. “Do not be afraid,” the angel told them, then he proclaimed “good news of great joy”—the gospel—“that will be for all the people”—universal in scope. “Today in the town of David”—prophecy fulfillment alert!— “a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord”—the Messiah, the Anointed One (vv. 10—12).
Then the skies exploded in praise! The watching hosts of heaven could hold back no longer, appearing suddenly in a blaze of light and belting out, “Gloria in excelsis deo” (Latin), or “Glory to God in the highest”
--from Today in the Word (Moody Bible Institute)
Lost Japanese Parrot Knew His Address
After spending a night at the station, he was transferred to a nearby veterinary clinic, while police searched for clues. “I tried to be friendly and talked to him, but he completely ignored me,” policeman Mr. Uemura said. The parrot kept mum with the cops, but began chatting with the veterinarian. “I'm Mr. Yosuke Nakamura,” the bird told the vet. He also provided his full home address, down to the street number, and even entertained the clinic staff by singing songs. “We checked the address, and what do you know, the Nakamura family really lived there. When we told them we had found Yosuke, they were elated,” Mr. Uemura said.
The Nakamura family had been teaching the bird its name and address for about two years, and they were very happy that it finally paid off!
Source: Internet News, 2008-05-26
Just like that parrot, and just like sheep we have all gone our own way and completely went off course! All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way. (Isaiah 53:6). To us who are more intelligent than parrots and sheep, God has explained how we can find our way back to Him! You will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul (Deut. 4:29).
Bathing Your Way to Purity
One can see here how the Bible speaks to this matter of cleanliness before the God who has made us and loves us. The cleansing God offers has nothing to do with a physical bath. In fact, it is quite useless for a right relationship with our Lord. "Although you wash yourself with soda and use an abundance of soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me" (Jer 2:22). God is into the deep cleansing that man needs, begins at the heart polluted with sin, and uses the agent of the Holy Spirit. "He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit."
Having said that, our family does enjoy a good hot spring bath from time to time for the simple recreation of it. Here's a photo of us last week going to the famous Mt. Zao hot spring. It's an outdoor sulphur spring that leaves one with an unmistakeable smell. Rather ironic that bathing leaves one smelling.
How's it Growing?
But other than being an interesting piece of cultural trivia, of what practical use is this square melon? As it turns out, it is a perfect solution for the space-conscious urban Japanese. A round melon requires a lot of room in one's refrigerator. But these square melons are grown to the exact size of typical shelving in a Japanese refrigerators. Talk about "cornering" the market!
We're reminded in Scripture of something else that grows to the shape of its surroundings unless we're careful: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Rom. 12:2 Our minds, like melons, need to break out of the conforming pattern of this world. How? "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Phil 4:8. That's how we grow the way we were designed to be! So how's it growing with you?
Time Travel Again
The physical adjustment of coming to the States is one real challenge. Still another challenge to this time travel is the mental adjustment. Big and small changes that have occurred in our culture and lives of people may have been easily absorbed if meted out one by one over time, but when you have been gone for a while and suddenly are met with all these changes at once, your brain begins to hiccup. You feel a bit of the Rip Van Winkle syndrome. You wonder if you really belong in this country. When exactly did people begin doing this (i.e., walking around talking to themselves with things stuck in their ear, self-checking their groceries, etc. etc.)? This neighborhood has changed. That person is no longer alive. Those familiar faces have grown older. A thousand and one little changes all around make us feel as though we have time traveled into the future.
This adjustment is perhaps the harder one to make, because there is a sense of loss and estrangement. While we don't expect things to remain the same, we do expect to feel at home when we return. But this feeling of moderate alienation with one's own culture should not be unique to missionaries. Scripture reminds all of us as believers that this world is not our home, that being uncomfortable in the world culture about us should be normal, that we are all sojourners looking toward a heavenly home. That "Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ." Phil 3:20
I will always be a traveler in this world as I look forward to the next. This is a good reminder as we begin our home assignment back in to the States.
Easter Kids Outreach
I preached on John 11:1-45 (story of Lazarus' resurrection) this year at church. I was struck again by what Christ has done for us spiritually. He came from the land of the living, to a land under the curse of death. He stood before the our tomb where we lay spiritually dead (Eph 2:1). Just like Lazarus, we smelled pretty bad! But then Christ called us out and into life united with him (Eph 2:5). "Kevin, come out!" I'm glad I responded to his call to new life in Him. This year's Easter (earlier than usual) dovetailed nicely with the start of cherry bossom seaso. So it really felt like a celebration of new life.
Vending Machines in Japan
Are you in a rush to get to work or school? How about having some soup from a Cup-a-Noodle machine on the way? In less than three minutes you get piping hot soup. What about a bag of fresh hot popcorn from a machine using a microwave oven to pop the corn in seconds? If you like rice like the Japanese do, you might visit the rice dispensing machines. You can purchase ten kilo bags of rice in eight different varieties! An egg machine features farm fresh eggs. The umbrella vending machines are popular when it rains.
We often use automated waitresses in Japan. Just make your meal selection from the machine at the restaurant. Feed your money into the machine then you'll get a ticket which you hand to the cook behind the counter inside.
In some places the entire building is a parking machine. Just drive your car into the bay. Each bay rotates through the building to maximize usage of space. Your parking ticket will retrieve your car back to the bottom bay. You back out your car onto the rotating circle. It will also turn your car so you can drive out straight!
God is the source of everything we need...and you won't need a coin. Just ask!
THEREFORE I SAY TO YOU, WHATEVER THINGS YOU ASK WHEN YOU PRAY, BELIEVE THAT YOU RECEIVE THEM, AND YOU WILL HAVE THEM (Mark 11:24).
Go to God for absolutely everything – small or large!
But sometimes because of the tiny space, one wonders what to do with all one's stuff. The tiny closets certainly don't fit very much. One solution: make a hole in the ceiling and create some tiny attic space. So, hammer and saw in hand, last week Kevin did just that in our home. We created enough new tiny space above our 3rd floor (yes, we have 3 floors, but don't get me started in telling you how tiny each level is) to accommodate about a dozen boxes including Christmas trees and things irregular size for Japan. What a relief to our closets to reclaim this space! (PHOTO: It's just big enough for Justen to squat down in and move around. How will we get stuff down as he grows up?)
Of course, another solution might be throw out and get rid of unneeded things. Our neighbor has been aggressively discarding things to move to smaller housing (PHOTO: the bags of trash she recently placed out on the street). Watching our neighbor getting rid of all these things (everything including, yes, a kitchen sink!), has sobered us to the life cycle of possessions. We really accumulate a lot more than is practical, needful, or healthy for a Kingdom-focused lifestyle. The admonition of Christ rings true:
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Matthew 6:19-21
How Not to Iron Your Clothes
We're sometimes asked by you, "Are the Tokyo trains as bad as we hear?" If you have a Japanese definition of personal space, then no they are not so bad. But for most Americans who are used to a wider circle of empty space about them, it is pretty hard to adjust to this part of the Japanese culture. What you do not see in the photo is what no doubt happened about 10 seconds prior to this: the white-gloved station platform attendant literally pushing, squeezing, and otherwise using force to get this man, and others into the train car.
Our train line (and neighborhood in general) is changing. They are lying new track to expand the capacity from 2 tracks to 4 tracks. In the process a lot of housing and businesses along the existing line have needed to be demolished. It looks like a war zone in our neighborhood on most days. But when it is finished it is supposed to alleviate some transit capacity problems like this. They promise that trains will only need to be packed to 150% capacity. Yikes!
"Mission Impossible" Meeting
Park Stuff Here
It doesn't take long to accumulate stuff in life, but getting rid of it in Japan is not easy. You can't throw it away without paying extra fees, or breaking it down into its component pieces: plastic, glass, metal, etc. And you can rarely sell it. Having a place to park unwanted stuff would be nice.
Wouldn't it be nice to have a place like this to park the stuff of life, the baggage that weighs us down. But wait! That's what Christ came to do! No need to pay extra! "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." Matthew 11:28. In other words, Jesus says to us, "Park your stuff here! On me! Your hurts and pains and sorrow. I'll take them all without cost. Then give you blessed freedom and peace in their place."
A Thorny Refuge
Yet how often God does the same for us. Though he may not spare us from the pain. He builds a place of safety and refuge in the middle of it all. A place we can find refuge and peace. We trust him. He cares for us. It seems too childish. Too simple. Yet God makes that promise to us through his prophet Nahum. While trusting, we wait and watch for Christ's return. That will be joy!