Stormy Weather

This past Sunday Sayuri and I traveled to Shizuka prefecture to lead special evangelism worship services at two churches. As the weekend approached we kept a constant on watch on the weather reports as typhoon was headed in the direction of those churches. The rain started to fall and off during the morning service at Nanen Church and by the time the afternoon service at Makinohara Church began there was a steady downpour and strong winds were beginning to whirl.

Despite the oncoming tropical storm, turnout at the first service was actually pretty good. However, the worsening conditions resulted in a very sparse gathering. Following the service we had a brief time of drinking tea, eating cake and chatting. And just as I was feeling somewhat depressed about few were there, the lady across the table from introduced herself. She explained she was not a member of the church and she was not a Christian. She shared how listening to the sermon she came away with a feeling that Christianity has message that speaks to her more clearly the Buddhism which she described as a religions that pushes for enlightenment, as if each individual must become their own god. Then unfortunately, with the Typhoon about ready to make landfall our tea time came to a somewhat abrupt end and our discussion was cut short.

 

That woman obviously had a reason to come knowing that the very severe weather was coming right us. There had been a time earlier in the week when I wondered if rescheduling might somehow be possible. For her sake, I am glad that we were there.

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Goatspeak

For the past fifteen years I have been teaching Japanese preschoolers who to sing “Old McDonald had a Farm.” What I never expected was that doing this would lead me to an insight about one of Jesus sayings.

In teaching the song I have come to learn that in Japan animals do not say the same things that they do in America. For example, the cow says “mōh” and not “mooo.” Dogs bark out “wan-wan” instead of “bow-wow.” And pigs grunt “bu-bu” instead of oink-oink.”

Well one day I was singing the song and for some reason I started a verse singing, “and on his farm he had a goat…” Before the kids chimed in with their ee i ee i o I found myself going through an inner panic as I realized I could not remember what sounds goats make in English! So I decided to just go ahead and use what they say in Japanese and said “meh-meh.”

As soon as the class ended I got out my smartphone and googled goat “sounds.” What I found was a huge variety answers. Unlike “cock-a-doodle-doo” or “ribit-ribit,” there seems to be some discrepancy as to what goats say when they talk in America. I found some who said “ma-ma” and others “na-na” and the list goes on.

In Japan there is no uncertainty when it comes to goat-speak. The goat says,”meh-meh.” However, here is the interesting thing. Sheep say the same exact thing. In Japan goats and sheep speak the same language. And you do know what? I think the Japanese are right. When you listen to sheep and goats their voices are almost indistinguishable.

As a young child my family raised goats and they always had a special place in my heart. So I have always wondered why it was Jesus was picking on goats in Matthew 25 when he says:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” (Mt 25:31-33)

Why are the goats the ones that don’t get to go to heaven? Well I now understand why Jesus picked sheep and goats instead of cats and dogs or pigs and cows or any other coupling of species. It is because goats and sheep share the same language. They both talk the same talk. If you look at the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 they both address Jesus as Lord. What distinguishes the sheep from the goats is not what comes out of their mouths but the actions they take with they encounter people in need during their daily lives.

The passage of the separating the sheep from the goats makes a fairly strong statement that the only ones who will be allowed into heaven are those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the sojourner, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned. According to this passage those who don’t do these things will end up going to the other place. To me, this insight into the shared language of the sheep and goats only makes this point more clear that when it comes to what it means to be a Christian it ain’t about what you say but about the things you do.

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Reflections from the 11th Hour Laborer

In Jesus Parable of the workers in the vineyard found in Matthew 20, we get to hear the voices of those who complain that those who were hired at the 11th hour received the same wages as those who worked all day long. Unfortunately, we don’t get to hear the voices of those who were hired at the last minute. Last month, I found myself in the shoes of those who show up in the final hour and get compensated for work which I did not do.

 

In the final days of 2011 a group of nine people from the district we serve in Tokyo went to Sendai to volunteer with the Emmaus Center (a ministry of the Tohoku District of the UCCJ) helping a community which was devastated by the Tsunami of March 11th and our group made up the bulk of the volunteers on the final day before the New Year’s holiday began. Although we are approaching the one year anniversary of the disaster, much work still needs to be done to help in the recovery – there are homes which are still in disrepair, rice paddies which remain inoperable, and clean-up of debris which has yet to be finished. During 2011, over 1,500 volunteers have worked with the Emmaus Center.

 

The people from the community in Sendai where they have been focusing their efforts were so appreciative of the work of the volunteers that they organized a special thank-you celebration on the final day of the year. Japanese Sake, soft-drinks, and a variety of snacks and delicacies filled the table of the community center. About half the people in attendance were members of the community and the other half were the volunteers who worked on that final day – which largely comprised of our group.

 

Toward the end of the gathering the leaders of the community began to give speeches. They shared about the many tragedies that happened in the neighborhood when the waves came crashing in on them. They shared also of their hardships during the first weeks and months which followed. Then they spoke of the volunteers from Emmaus Center. They were grateful for all the hard work and long hours which they put in. However, it was not only the physical labor but the fellowship for which they grateful. The disaster had left them feeling cut-off, isolated and hopeless. The volunteers gave them a sense of connectedness and hope.

 

At the beginning of the event I was feeling somewhat awkward. Our group had shown up at the last minute and had hardly put in as much work as all the other volunteers who had come before us. And we were being given the feast that those others deserved. However, as things progressed I realized that our presence there that day was, in fact, very important. These people wanted to give something back to all who volunteered – they wanted to demonstrate their appreciation. If we had not been there, the room would have been very empty. The volunteers who came before us needed us to be there and the people of the community need us to there as well.

 

The final speech came from the president of the community organization. He began by mentioning that fifty years ago his parent’s sent him to private elementary school which happened to be Christian. For him there was a time long, long ago when he heard the words of the Scripture being read but over time he had forgotten all of it. However, his experience with the volunteers from Emmaus caused him to recall a passage he had learned as a child and he quoted from memory Matthew 5:13-17

 

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

He went on to say that the work of the volunteers gave him an understanding of what Jesus was talking about. And the words which he heard so long ago finally had meaning. His speech was a powerful reminder to me that our words speak loudest when they supported by our acts of kindness and love.

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Dancing with Jesus

Today is my sister Susannah’s birthday. Two years ago she passed away just days before she would have turned 48 and this past September I passed that milestone. I must admit, she has been on my mind. Often when I hear a song beautifully song, I find myself welling up with tears as I remember I will never again hear her voice and am deeply saddened.

Last summer at Beechwood Church in Holland, Michigan Paul Ter Beek, the organist, gave me a hug a encouraged me with the words that the angels in heaven sure got lucky because they had one heck of an organist added to their choir. The thought that the cancer had not silenced her voice was really a comfort.

Two days ago Sayuri and I led a Christmas worship service at a woman’s gathering which was followed by a meal and a presentation we made about church life in America.

As a part of that I showed a video I made showing clips from various worship services along with some still photos with Japanese subtitles added to Chris Rice’s “Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus).

The final verse has a photo which was taken at gathering of retired RCA Missionaries to Japan which was held several years ago because I thought it fit nicely.

And with your final heartbeat,

Kiss the world goodbye,

Then go in peace, and laugh on glory’s side… and

Fly to Jesus,Fly to Jesus,Fly to Jesus and live,

While I was showing it to the group of women this week I found myself getting a little misty eyed as I noticed Evon Laman’s smile and realized just how appropriate it was. This past year after a lengthy battle with diabetes Evon flew to Jesus.

All but a handful of the fifty women who gathered that day know Jesus. They do not know what it means to laugh with Jesus, cry with Jesus, fall on Jesus and be lifted up by Jesus. What I do hope is that they were able to understand that as Christians even our sad songs are songs of hope. We shed tears at the loss of loved ones but we also live with assurance that we will indeed fly to Jesus and be embraced by his love.

I know where both Susannah and Evon are right now. And I know some day we will be joining them.

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Colors of change

It is nearly November and autumn finally seems to be making its way here in Tokyo. This past week Sayuri and I went up to Tohoku both to see the fall colors and to visit the quake/tsunami stricken region in preparation for a work trip we are planning in December.

Since my last time up there to volunteer there has been much progress. However, there is still a long way to go in the recovery. While we were there we heard news of the earthquake in Turkey and our prayers go out to the people in that region. Here in Japan there remain many in need of prayer as well.

We stayed at a hotel in Matsushima a city with beautiful views a collection of small costal islands sandwiched between some of the areas which were hardest hit by the tsunami. They did suffer both property damage and loss of life. However, nothing like the massive numbers in neighboring Ishinomaki.

In a normal year millions of tourists visit Matsushima making it one of the top vacation spots in the country. The tourists have chosen to stay away. The hotels and other establishments that make their money off tourism have been devastated. Ordinarily, this time of year the hotel we stayed at would have been overbooked with guests wanting to see the autumn foliage. The night we stayed there it was very empty and Sayuri and I had a quiet breakfast alone at the buffet served to the guests in the morning.

On the way home we went through Aizuwakamatsu in Fukushima prefecture. Although it is in the same prefecture as the Fukushima Nuclear power facility it is located quite some distance from the troubled reactors. In fact, we were in much closer proximity to the nuclear disaster when we were in Ishinomaki and Matsushima. However, they have suffered quite a bit because of the fact that they are located prefecture of the power plant. We stayed at hotel in fairly well known hot spring resort are which also usually is quite busy this time of year for viewing the changing color of leaves. However, this year they needed to slash their prices in half in order to attract guests to come. From the conversations we had it was clear that people there felt like they were being treated as social pariahs by other Japanese who fear contact with them will be radioactive.

Tomorrow Sayuri and I will be going to Kobe to work with some congregations there this coming weekend. When we first came to work in Japan they were recovering from what had been Japan’s worst earthquake since WWII. I remember what it looked like in the mid-90s and am still amazed by its recovery. I do hope and pray that recovery and new life will come to Tohoku as well.

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A little bit of History

Can you name whose picture is attached to this blog? Here’s a hint – there is an article about him Wikipedia’s Japanese site but not in the English one. His name is James Hamilton Ballagh and he was one of the RCA first missionaries which were sent to Japan and was the co-founder of the Yokohama Kaigan Kokai, the very first Protestant church in Japan. That congregation was a part of the part the denomination which would be known as the Nihon Kirisuto Kyokai – the Church of Christ in Japan which was the denomination with which the RCA partnered prior to WWII.

During the war in order to keep in control of Christianity the Japanese government forced all the protestant denominations to combine into what is now the United Church of Christ Japan. Following the war the RCA partnered with newly formed united church. However, not all of the congregations from the Church of Christ remained in this denomination and eventually a large group of churches including the Yokohama Kaigan Chruch reformed the pre-war Church of Christ in Japan. At the time a strong sense of the importance of being self-supporting and self-sustaining they chose not to have relationships with any foreign missionary organizations.

Throughout the years there has been much contact between members of the Church of Christ in Japan and people from the RCA. People from the CCJ have attended Western Theological Seminary and RCA colleges as well. There have also been several RCA missionaries who have preached in CCJ congregations. However, it has not been until very recently that they have opened up toward having an official relationship with the RCA.

Last week the CCJ had its General Synod here in Tokyo and I was asked to give the official greetings on behalf of the Reformed Church in America. I knew going into the meeting that my role was not a part of the spot light as far as foreign guests were concerned. At this meeting the CCJ established official relationship with the Presbyterian Church of Korea. I cannot express enough how significant this was for both denominations. The 35 years of Japanese imperial rule of Korea in the first half of the 20th century was brutal and the wounds inflicted were deep. Added to this there was complicity of the church leaders in Japan with the oppression of occupied territories.

I was invited to a lunch with the leaders of the CCJ and the foreign guests of the general synod. It was very touching to witness the tears as members of both denominations spoke of the past which had divided them and the future in which they would walk together. It was an historic moment and I was there to see it.

Following lunch I stayed for the afternoon session. The second matter on the agenda was the committee which was addressing the issue of the Yasukuni Shrine which enshrines those who have died who have fought for the emperor. The Yasukuni Shrine demonstrates that the religion of emperor worship in Japan is in no way a closed chapter. Following the report, somebody from the floor asked about my opinion on the matter. Not being an official delegate at the event, a vote needed to be taken to give me the privilege of the floor which was granted without objection. I both answered his specific question about how whether or not the Yasukuni Shrine problem was widely known in the United States and also touched upon the problems that experienced in American congregations when it comes to the matter of patriotism.

Like I said, I thought my role at this meeting was relatively small in light of what was happening. Then a week later I received an email expressing hope for a deepening of the relationship between our denominations and noting that my being given privilege of the floor was a first in the history of the CCJ as that had never before been done for someone who was not a member of the CCJ. The importance of the three or four sentences I uttered on the floor pales in comparison to what happened between the PCK and the CCJ. Just the same, my presence at the meeting was not without its historical significance.

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The Word of Life

This past week Sayuri and I have been leading the Bible Studies for the Yokohama Kyoritsu Girl School Choir camp. It was originally planned to be held in more wooded mountainous retreat center where the students could escape from the hustle and bustle of their urban life and enjoy the cool breezes. However, the facility which they had planned on using is now a temporary shelter for those who displaced by the earthquake/tsunami of last March.

Instead the event was held on campus in Yokohama and the girls had to commute from the homes almost as if it were just another week of school for them. I have to admit that I was a little skeptical of what kind of fellowship and learning could happen at this year’s retreat given that there would not be the same about of time to linger at the Breakfast and Dinner table chatting and getting to know the students or playing games in the Evenings.

However, my initial apprehension proved to be way off the mark. I think having the retreat on campus served as a reminder of what is continuing to happen to those who were most affected by the natural and nuclear disasters. It was a reminder that we live in difficult times.

In some ways they seemed to be more focused and willing to engage in the Bible studies and the topic of spirituality.

Again, I think it is important to remind my readers that the overwhelming majority of these students are not Christian and had not encountered Christianity in anyway prior to entering Yokohama Kyoritsu’s junior high just a few short years ago.

I was nearly brought to tears during one of the worship services. One of the students was giving a testimony after the Scripture passage was read. She shared about many of the hardships she has been facing in her life and how this Bible, which she only first read at all two years ago as a seventh grader, had given her comfort and hope so that she was able not only to endure but also to grow during this difficult passage.

Her tone of voice, body language and facial expressions seemed to make it very clear that she was being sincere in what she was saying. She has yet to come to the point at which she believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. However she has come to the conviction the Holy Bible is, indeed, a powerful book of hope, comfort, guidance and wisdom.

I do hope next year that we will be able to meet again. I also hope that she continues to turn to the pages of the Holy Bible as she continues to use it in this time of need. Because I know that the more seriously one takes serious the Bible the more apt that one is to becoming a believer in the one who’s at the center of the whole faith and its book.

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