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.
Central Reason & Theme
"What am I doing here again?"
It wasn’t really the ships that brought them in 1859. Just like it wasn’t the jet that brought us in 1999. We’re here in Kawasaki / Yokohama for one simple reason: the love of Christ compels us (2 Cor 5:14).
Christ is both the compelling call upon our lives, and the redemptive thread who weaves through and holds together every random activity we’re about as missionaries -- and there’s a lot. Every meeting I fumble to lead, every worship service we plan, every Bible study I prepare (dictionary in hand), every church event I fret about, every hand in the hospital I hold in prayer, every wedding or funeral I conduct (thankfully, more weddings than funerals lately), every church bazaar flooded with visitors, every note sung in our gospel music workshops, every kids outreach, English Bible Class, prayer times, or church association face times.
I often look back at what we’ve done in the last few months (usually when writing this newsletter), and ask, “What’s the theme? What connected all those dots of activity? WHAT AM I DOING HERE AGAIN? And is it all really moving our mission vision forward?”
Then in quiet reflection, I realize that the central reason and theme is bigger than our tiny mission vision, or even church planting work. The center of it all, when you get down to it, is Christ: “Everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him” Col 1:16b.
So, I repent of having an overly pragmatic eye. Sure, I want it all to move a larger mission vision forward. But more than that, I want it all to move people to the center of it all: Christ. He is the axle and spokes of the wheel of this work. He is the best vision for this country. And the reason we’re here at all.
Yes, all those conversations held in my poor Japanese. All those kanji-filled (Japanese) emails written that Kaori lovingly corrected. All those messages in broken Japanese that make my wife giggle or sigh when I practice. All those prayers I stumbled through in my language inadequacy. All those reports, thank you notes to wonderful supporters, and newsletters. And especially that caramel macchiato I just sipped together with a new Japanese brother in Christ at the edge of the Tama river in view of Mt. Fuji.
It’s all about Christ. I wouldn’t be here without Him. I wouldn’t do it for any less reason than love for Him. He’s the central theme of it all.
Through that lens, I see the last few months of activity more clearly. Not everything moved along our vision as I wanted, but hundreds of people -- many who have never met a Christian in Japan -- were moved along to the center of it all, and pointed to the cross of Christ.
A recent conference we attended here (photo below) brought together missionaries from many different countries. 158 years later, new missionaries are still arriving in Japan. Far less from the west, though. In the thick of language and cultural stress, a flurry of ministry activities and mistakes, they no doubt will sometimes wonder, “What am I doing here again?”
The answer: Christ, the original missionary, came incarnate to earth, sacrificing all, to bring people to God. His model is the one that motivates us still. I am here by Him and for Him alone. Christ is the central reason and theme of it all.
May this truth guide our thoughts toward Christmas 2017!
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.
Toward Clearer Vision
The good news is that my vision will return if I'm careful to take a little pill a couple times a day. If that fails, there's always a long needle or laser waiting (Think I'll try the pills first). How's your vision? Is it 2020?
We've laid out our 2020 Vision toward which we really need your partnership. We want to see God glorified in Japan through the establishment of new churches, and are working with all our might toward this vision in Kawasaki on your and Christ's behalf. Would you take a few minutes to look through the vision pamphlet below. Could you be a part of it with us? [CLICK TO READ]
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!
Bridging the Gospel Gap
Over the years of our Kawasaki church plant, this fumbling missionary (and very competent wife) have been able to share the gospel with many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unbelievers in our outreach activities. Some are just looking. Some will return and connect with the church. Some will soon be interested in a a Christianity for Beginners study. Still others we will never see again. Yet, God ordained that now, in this place, their lives intersect with the gospel and ourselves. The gap of those 99% still needing Christ is bridged just a little bit more.
This situation is repeated across Japan. There are sprawling communities without a church witness. There are countless churches without pastors (nearly a third). There are hundreds of tiny churches struggling to make an impact in their neighborhoods. There are many elderly pastors (like 84-year-old Pastor N. at right) looking for a replacement before they can retire.
Coming from a country of abundant Christian resources (USA), this disparity of the gospel in Japan is troubling to me.
It compels me to share this appeal:
1) Japan remains a mission field where the disparity of the gospel, and the spiritual opportunity, is as great as ever.
2) Our great God has called upon us, his church, to bridge the gospel gap.
Might you also help bridge the gap in Japan? Thanks for your partnership!
Even with limited resources and difficult circumstances (including post- disaster areas like Fukushima & Kumamoto), our Japanese colleagues work tirelessly and passionately for the cause of Christ. Praise God for faithful workers in his harvest fields!
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?
Give Me this Mountain
Jesus Rocks in Aomori, Japan
It seems that a recently discovered rock formation in a hidden alcove along Lake Towada roughly resembles the silhouette of Jesus. Hundreds of tourists are boarding boats to take a closer look. A YouTube video describes the scene.
The name of the lake begins with a Japanese letter that looks like a cross (十和田湖). That coincidental spelling bolsters the idea in the mind of some tourists that this rock is indeed religiously significant. Some have even suggested that this may have been a site of worship for Japan's hidden Christians during the brutal 16th century persecution.
Frankly, I'm not impressed when people discover religious shapes in moldy bread, mildew stains, or the like. My faith is neither built upon, nor deepened by, such nonsense. This "Jesus Rock" discovery fits the same category in my mind. However, if such random encounters can lead a Japanese person to consider Christianity for the first time, I suppose I am glad for it. As Paul put it, "But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way...Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice" (Philippians 1:18). (I would hope that the message of the Gospel would be filled out for that individual by an encounter with a Christian as well.)
While I'm underwhelmed at the "discovery," what does impress me is that Japanese people would think to make a connection with Jesus. Remember that Japan has the least number of Christians (0.5% of population) of any developed nation in the world. So, I could understand if looking at this rock they were to see the shape of a goblin from Japanese folklore (it is approaching Halloween in Japan, too). I could also understand if they were to see a demon-like gargoyle, like the dozens you spot at any shrine or temple in Japan. But Jesus?
Many examples of Japanese making such connections (don't forget about my post on the people in Shingo) with Christianity lead me to an optimistic outlook for missions in this country. Yes, it is regrettable that superstitions and syncretistic beliefs muddy the Gospel water so badly, but I am encouraged that:
1) Regardless of the odd context, at least the conversation on Christ has begun.
2) Regardless of the poor response to Christianity, at least someone has left a witness that led to this connection with Christ.
3) Regardless of the wrong place they are looking, at least they are looking for Christ, and continuing to look.
Naturally, I would hope that such oddball sightings would lead a Japanese to seek out solid truth presented to them by a Christian, in a church, or through a Bible. And perhaps they will. Who am I to say that God can't work that way? Perhaps these odd "discoveries" are small ways that God can find room to crack open the hardened Japanese heart just enough to, as the tourists looks at the rock, gently whisper, "You will look for me and find me when you look for me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29:13).
May God lead many Japanese to the Rock of our Salvation.
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)
It was at the "tender" age of 20 1/2 in the summer of 1990 that I first stepped foot in Japan as a short-term missionary. Getting off the plane to Tokyo, I had little idea as to the crossroads in life I stood at. God was about to change the focus of everything for me. His love for the Japanese people was about to become my own (His love for one in particular--Kaori Fukase--was about to become my own, too).
At 41, my life has been more about Japan, than about anything else short of Him and my family. At 41, my heart aches twice as much as it did at 20 1/2 to see the Japanese return to their Creator. My passion for the revival and harvest in this country is twice as strong. 20 1/2 years...20 1/2 more years from now I will be nearing retirement. "Lord, help me to use the time you have given me to reach many, many Japanese with your Gospel of good news. Use me up for Your glory and name's sake. May I make You famous in this country."
150 Years Later
Altogether around 14,000 believers attended the Protestant Missions 150th events and memorial over the two-day celebration in Yokohama. I wish the first missionaries could have seen the fruit of their work many years later! B&W photos of the 50th anniversary event show mostly foreigners and some Japanese believers gathered at a YMCA. Photos of the 100th anniversary event show a massive group of new post-war Japanese believers gathered in local stadium. And now the 150th events show even more growth.
Still, the fruit is hard to come by in Japan. Japanese pastors speaking at the event unanimously expressed disappointment that 150 years later, still less than 1% of Japanese are believers. They had hoped Japan would have been more responsive given so much time. One pastor mounted the platform and jokingly said "I think perhaps God must prefer kimchi to Japanese food." God has indeed poured out his Holy Spirit on Japan's neighbor of Korea and grown the church there in numbers and ways that Japanese believers could only dream of. "When will this kind of revival come to Japan? We have been waiting these 150 years. Lord, we are ready for it." cried another pastor in prayer.
In explaining the disparity of the way the church has grown in Korea and Japan, one pastor explained the difference to me this way: "Japanese care too much about what other people think. Koreans don't." I've seen this truth borne out in our church planting work. Time and again what others think makes a powerful difference in whether a curious Japanese will enter a church, or make a decision for Christ. And if they are able to overcome this and make a decision, what others think plays a role in whether they choose to be baptized. And after baptism, what others think affects how they grow in their faith. But I digress...
I was encouraged that the Japanese pastors and speakers at the event also unanimously expressed faith that God was and is carefully preparing a powerful foundation upon which he will build a great revival. "He has not discarded us!" singer and songwriter Chu Kosaka said. "He is SURELY at work in our hearts." The church in Japan received a great call and challenge for the next 50 years ahead. Let's expect that revival!
I've just returned from our three-day "Teamwork Meeting" about 7 hours northwest of Kawasaki. The campground it is held at is pictured at right. About 60 pastors, missionaries, and church staff gathered for the meetings.
In spite of the difficulty of the task of reaching their own people for Christ, among the many things that encourage me is the desire of Japanese believers to go outside their country borders, and reach those in other Asian countries with the gospel. Currently we have Japanese missionaries in Turkey, Peru, Congo, and Korea. Short term teams are being sent to Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Mongolia. When a mission field begins to explore what its mission fields are, maturity in Christ is demonstrated in a big way!
I remember the many times we had missionary guests for Sunday dinner! (They had a foreign aftertaste). And of course, I remember needing to sleep on the sofa many Saturday nights because the Sunday missionary guest needed my bedroom. In some ways, I think I sacrificed for missions long before I ever became a missionary. Looking back, I realize now through my mother’s work, that God was really planting seeds in my heart for a future in Japan.
My mother continued “Don’t forget to sign the Christmas cards, everyone. We’ll be sending those with a small gift to all our missionaries.” Missionary Christmas...as a child in the pew, I often wondered why we did this in September. I knew that missionaries were an odd sort, and I supposed that perhaps they didn’t even know the world celebrates on December 25. Some time later I learned that the postal system in those countries could take a few months. “Missionary Christmas” slowly made sense.
These days, I am the recipient of those cards and gifts from supporting churches. But “Missionary Christmas” has taken on a very different meaning. There’s no greater job than being involved in a spiritual work in human lives. As a missionary, I’ve come to see God in new and more meaningful ways through the eyes of Japanese people. “Missionary Christmas” is the feeling that overwhelms me when I see one make a spiritual decision: to place their faith in Christ, to be baptized, to worship Him fervently, to serve Him joyfully.
I feel like a parent watching a child opening an incredible present as I see a Japanese understanding God’s love, worshipping him, or taking communion for the first time. Although I wasn’t the one receiving, I am a part of the joy of the person who has. And it’s Christmas all over again, any time of year.
Missionary service is hard work. Church planting is harder. But among the challenges, I know that God has great things He is waiting to surprise me with. I can’t wait to unwrap these gifts and find out what they might be. Serving the people I love, this is my wonderful gift from God, my “Missionary Christmas.” My next Christmas may be tomorrow. How about yours?!
WANTED: God's Light in the Dark Places
There is great darkness in this country! There is a great need for people "turn on the light," providing hope and direction that points people to the Light of the World. There are no doubt easier countries to serve as a missionary, but each decision for Christ in Japan is that much sweeter. And the light of each witness for Christ is that much brighter against the darkness that surrounds him or her.
As for me: I like a challenge. I am determined to be that light the burns brightly here. And my light is needed much more here than back "home" in the States where believers are blessed with tremendous Christian opportunity, resources and input. I am challenged by the words of Hudson Taylor who said:
"I have but one candle of life to burn and would rather burn it out where people are dying in darkness than in a land that is flooded with light."
By God's grace, I will be that person as well. How about you?
Thanks from Navotas to Denen
"Mission Impossible" Meeting
Guess Who Came to Church on Sunday?
As part of the 60th anniversary celebration, Hans Finzel, president of of our mission, WorldVenture, came to Japan and spoke at several gatherings, including our humble church plant, Denen Grace Chapel. We were privileged to have Hans and his son, Jeremy, spend the day with us. Hans shared a message with us from Luke 5:1-11 and spoke on the "long chain of partnership" (the many missionaries to Japan from our mission since 1947) that has served as a foundation for the harvest work we are part of here. As a living example of this chain of partnership, Betty Duncan (seated next to Hans in photo), who served for many years as a WorldVenture missionary in the Fukushima area, also joined our service along with her son. Our people were thrilled to interact with both Hans and Betty. We really do have a great heritage as a mission here. Kaori and I are honored to be a part of this chain of partnership.
Love Sonata from Korea
As I attended I realized I was witnessing the future of missions. The Western church and its missionaries, while still having a critical role here, are no longer the only players in the mission movement. Actually, long-term Western missionaries are in the decline in the East. The Asian church is beginning to mature and reach itself. There was no Billy Graham in this crusade. In fact, noticeably absent were any white faces on the center platform of the packed arena. Interpretation was done from Korean into Japanese!
I was both inspired and humbled, renewed and challenged in my own role as a messenger of the Gospel here in this country. It is great to see God at work in raising up new leaders in the mission movement.