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.
new "Reiwa" Era. "Reiwa" means "beautiful harmony." The Japanese have decided that beauty and harmony should define this new era.
Meanwhile, we Lavermans are moving into a new era of church planting, an era with a growing new team of young workers, and new facilities to work out of in Mizonokuchi and soon Musashi Kosugi (MuKo). Praise God! Yet the truth is that the process of discussing, organizing and moving through these changes is a bit more like random chaos at times than beautiful harmony. We hope in the promises of God who makes "all things beautiful in its time." Here are a few recent highlights...
Welcome Robison Family!We're so glad to have this new family join our Cross Project team this April. Jon and Maki, and their four kids (upper right), have moved into the upper residence at Mizonokuchi Grace House (see below). They come with a decade of missions experience in Japan, language skills and servant hearts. They will be of great help in our church planting work together here in Kawasaki/ Yokohama. They join ourselves, the Mitchells and Changs (lower right).
I believe we can reach more Japanese for Christ and plant new churches better together. So we're forming a team of missionaries and Japanese focused on new church work in southwest Greater Tokyo.
We are learning much about each other as a new team. But we've already discovered one very important thing: we are all very good at devouring pizza together! Pray for The Cross Project team.
Mizonokuchi Grace House OpensConstruction began in February, and was finished just 6 weeks later. It was made in modules at the factory, and assembled onsite in a single day on a plot of land here Denen Grace Chapel purchased last fall. There's still a lot of DIY projects on the inside, but bit by bit we are getting set up.
The dedication service was held (lower right). And the sign is now on the wall. Denen Grace Chapel now has a building to use for daily outreach, groups, meetings, and office space. This has been a long journey of much discussion, more prayer, and a lot of generous giving as a church. We're calling this building "Mizonokuchi Grace House." It will be of incredible help to our work of ongoing church planting in Mizonokuchi. It gives us space to do things we've dreamed of for this neighborhood for a long time. All glory to God!
What about that other place we rent on Sundays (burgundy photos below)? That's called Cozy Hall. We've used it for the last 15 years. It's perfect for larger groups and music events. We'll continue to rent Cozy Hall in Mizonokuchi for Sunday morning worship. While Grace House will be great for any group under 25 persons. Grace House and Cozy Hall are just a few minutes apart.
Get ready, people of Mizonokuchi, the gospel train's a'comin! It's making stops in Azamino and MuKo, too. No ticket needed, just get on board.
MuKo Chapel Construction Set to BeginMeanwhile, the planning for our next church plant in MuKo reaches a big step. Our conviction that the 120,000+ of Musashi Kosugi (MuKo) need a church grew into a burden and vision, and moved us to action. You've been following along with us through the provision and purchase of property, and the raising of building funds for the chapel + living space above for us.
We reached our goal for needed Phase 1 construction costs in early April through the generous support of many of you in the States who share this vision. THANK YOU! Phase 2, for equipment and furnishing costs, will begin this summer.
Our final meeting with the architect is this Friday. Construction will then begin later this month. We'll be sending out an update soon with the design and blueprints so you can get an idea of what's ahead. We're excited to finally schedule this next major step in our mission to Muko. Stay tuned!
Kevin's Parents Come. Japan Blessed.Kevin's parents have always been prayer warriors for missions. They prayed for laborers for the harvest fields of Asia. And God answered by calling and sending their own son to Japan. This was bad enough. But taking the daughter-in-law, and little grandson with in 1999 (when our family moved to Japan) was even worse. Now, 20 years later, in the fullness of time, God allowed them to come and see some of the people and places that have been impacted for eternity by this family sacrifice.
Kevin's parents spent two weeks with us in late May~June. They saw the culture and challenges, and the many, MANY people. They gazed over the vision from the 54th floor in MuKo (lower right, with Justen). They fixed our fence (upper right) and church screen box (dad), and enjoyed tea and chats with the church ladies (mom + Kaori, the interpreter).
The local hotel has improved their English immensely. And the local hardware store has gotten some international business. They added to the trade imbalance when they left with suitcases full of presents received, but Japan (and we) rejoiced by their visit here.
Gospel Music Bridges CulturesOf all the things we have done over the years, the one outreach that continues to amaze us is gospel music. Japanese non-Christians are drawn to it. And it has continued to grow in popularity even after many years. Gospel music really is a "beautiful harmony" to the melody of the gospel message, and one that bridges cultures and languages effortlessly.
Last Sunday, Denen Grace Chapel hosted John Lucas, a gospel singer from Jamaica, who has lived here in Japan a number of years. John gave a mini concert during our worship service and held a special gospel workshop in the afternoon. Around 30 from the area attended, most were not Christians. Our concrete rental hall walls echoed with praise.
Japanese are very eclectic, picking out the best of other western cultures and integrating it into their own expression of being Japanese. Because western culture is rich with Christian heritage, these things become bridges for the gospel. God speaks in unique ways to the Japanese heart!
|Musashi-Kosugi, Japan (new church plant location)|
In the thick of church outreach activities, message prep, meetings, people needs, and countless Bible studies, I ignored the growing stack of unfinished work on my desk. “I’ll get around to all that when things settle down after Christmas,” I figured. But the stack grew, until it occupied parts of my floor, too. My digital inboxes were filled with urgencies. And little emergencies kept cropping up.
Come mid-January, I was in deep clutter. “Where did all this work come from?” I muttered. I consider myself pretty neat, but messy stacks were piled precariously around me like a bad Dr. Seuss illustration. I like finished projects, so this was all very stressful!
Even as I still deal with my personal catch up (in time for Easter?), I realize there is a greater unfinished task to be done. I live in the middle of it.
It’s ironic -- or perhaps necessary for my discipleship -- that God would put someone that likes neat, finished things into the middle of the World’s Biggest Unfinished Task in mission history. Yes, I’m talking about Japan. Japan’s 99% without Christ is one BIG unfinished project in missions for the church -- that’s you and me both.
We may never finish the task of evangelizing the 99% of Japan. Even through a multiplication effort of the entire church in Japan, many will choose to live without Christ. But there’s a part of the task we CAN finish:
We CAN plant an evangelical church witness in Tokyo’s growing urban centers -- starting with Musashi Kosugi (photo above). This is finish-able! If the world can add all that infrastructure and all those people to that tiny area, surely God’s people can add a mission outpost and church planter. Or do we think -- like I did with my unfinished tasks -- that “we’ll get around to it when things settle down” ?
We invite you to consider investing in a new church work in Musashi Kosugi, as a church, family, or believer that loves Japan. May we ask that you first help underwrite the monthly financial support of a local church planter (that’s us) for Musashi Kosugi? You may use WorldVenture's online giving here.
You might prefer to give toward our “Musashi Kosugi Project.” In the days ahead, we’ll share more, but you may give any time through WorldVenture and mark it “MK church seed fund.”
By the way, at the end of the day, and in the middle of my unfinished work, I am so glad to rest in the FINISHED work of Christ at Calvary!
We envision a version of this with 1st floor “store-front” space for outreach ministries and new church to gather, and living space above for ourselves/staff.
This vision is so beyond our power. Please pray God will open up a house that can be renovated or cheap land that can be built on, and provide needed financial resources.
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!
Seasons of a Church Planter
Although there's still much finishing work to do at Denen Grace Chapel, we've started to look toward to our next church planting work in the area. It won't be easy. But we're praying as a couple. We're communicating vision to Denen church members. We're trusting our Season Changer's guidance and provision. Would you pray with us, too, for the changes ahead?Even as seasons change for us in church work, sometimes we get a slice of several "seasons of church planting" at once (that happens in weather, too). Here's a snapshot of four seasons in the last few months.
How long and hard we've prayed and agonized over our church plant, Denen Grace Chapel! Yet Japanese Christians have prayed and agonized much longer and harder! I was reminded of this at our "Teamwork Meeting" in northern Japan. That's a gathering of our church association pastors and missionaries.
I was challenged anew by our early morning prayer time together. We prayed for Japan. I sat between a pastor weeping and another prostrate on the floor. For hundreds of years, in spite of the sweat of many workers and the blood of many marytrs, the Japanese have only responded in small numbers to the gospel. But we pray and wait. God is working under the surface.
The gospel plant grows best in native soil. So, over the years we've tried to incorporate Japanese culture into our church activities (while being careful to not compromise the gospel message). In this photo, our group of ladies are practicing the art of Japanese writing using Scripture verses. (see photos)
For many in this group, it's their first interaction with the Bible! Toward the end of class, our church member (standing in photo) shared a familiar Japanese rhyme used in writing exercises. Few Japanese know that it was created by the underground church (see website) during the martyrdom of the 17th century. The last letters of each line form the hidden acrostic: "Jesus died for me." That discovery brought some startled response from the ladies! Keep praying!
Recently while preaching at my wife's home church in Yamagata, I was struck by this photo on display there. It shows a tiny group of early church members (including my circled in-laws) surrounding the planting missionary, Joe Meeko. Fifty years later this church has multiplied many times over. It's won to Christ, discipled and sent out many, some even to foreign mission fields! And my life story intersects here, too. Without that missionary's evangelistic work, I might not be married to a Chrisitian woman named Kaori!
Mr. Meeko's faith and dedication was huge, but ultimately it was the work of God that brought my Yamagata family to Christ. I pray Denen Grace Chapel will be the same kind of dynamic, multiplying church here in Kawasaki in the years to come. If God chooses bring much fruit from this work, it won't be because of my ability. Make no mistake: "God gives the growth." (1 Cor 3:6)
Recently on Easter Sunday 2014, I did again what I sometimes do in church. I got out of my front seat and stood in the back. The view from the back is special. Seeing new Christians standing together and worshipping God draws me into deeper worship and thanks, too.
When the week of church planting has been hard, when setbacks seem to outnumber forward motion, when the cultural stress builds up, I like to remind myself of why I'm here. So I go to the back on a Sunday and take a good look. And God tells me, "Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord [Kevin], because you know that your labor is not in vain." (1 Cor 15:58)
The Forgotten Trawler
Imagine you’re aboard a cruise ship. Together with friends, you’re enjoying a time of refreshment and inspiration. You’ve settled into a comfortable cabin. The boat is full of life and activities. You’ve even been asked to help out with things. Food and laughter fill the air. You’ve been sailing the ocean for quite a while, but not sure just where you’re headed.
One morning as you stroll the deck, you notice a large, strange box alongside the railing. Curiosity gets the best of you. You peek inside. Under a layer of dust, you can see coiled ropes and folded nets. For the first time you notice other such boxes all around you. You can just make out the faded letters stenciled on the side: T-A-C-K-L-E. You ask a fellow passenger what this means. He only shrugs. The cabin steward shrugs. But a ship officer seems to remember a story. Before the cabins and carpeting. Before the pools and deck chairs. Once upon a time this ship had a different purpose.
On my desk I have a boat model to remind me of my task in Japan, which is also the task of the church. It’s a fishing trawler with nets on the side ready to drop into the water. You may not have realized it, but when you placed your faith in Christ and stepped aboard the church, you stepped aboard a boat designed to be a fishing trawler. When Jesus said, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19), that was also your calling to a specific mission of which you are a special part. True, the church could be converted into a cruise ship, but that isn’t the plan of its Builder. Our Builder, Christ, intended us to be about the task of fishing. He’s supplied us with gospel nets of forgiveness, reconciliation, joy, wholeness, and compassion. He’s given us people who know how to this tackle in creative and effective ways. He desires that we work together to go fishing, to draw all kinds of people toward himself.
It’s important that our church sometimes pause and ask the question, “What is it that we’re really doing here?” Very simply, we're casting nets into the ocean of this world and drawing in people toward Christ. We're growing them to be like Him in every way. Christ will steer the fish, but he needs us to let down the nets. As Jesus challenged Peter, he challenges us, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Luke 5:4
Church planting is building another fishing trawler. Let’s face it. The amount of fish in Kawasaki (99.5% of 5.2 million people) alone is far beyond what one boat of fishermen can handle. One boat may never catch some types of fish. And one boat alone could never hold them. If a spiritual awakening comes to Japan, what would we do? We need greater capacity! We need new people trained to fish along with us, using their own unique approach, and catching their own unique catch.
Wouldn’t it be great if the church in Japan faced this dilemma of the disciples: “When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.” Luke 5:6-7
Let’s not forget the purpose we were built. Let’s trust God to bring about a miracle catch. As a missionary family, it is our vision to be sent out from Denen Grace Chapel, to work nearby building another fishing trawler, to be “partners in the other boat” fishing closely in this area together. Would you pray with us? Let’s go fishing!
The Black (Sumo-sized) Box
The latest of the heavy objects made its way to our church location this past Friday. In an effort to upgrade our PA system at church, I purchased a rack enclosure and mounted audio components (audiophiles will know what I mean). It made sense to have it delivered to my home and fiddle with it there, but then came the problem. This cast iron thing is the size of a small refrigerator and easily weighs 500 pounds after equipment is installed. There was no way this was going to be lifted into or fit in my vehicle, even with my sumo buddies helping out. What to do?
It seemed to make the most sense to simply roll this black beast all the way from our home to the church location, a distance of about 1 1/2 miles.
I've long since lost the ambition to completely blend in with Japanese society. I realize I stand out. But I've never felt like I stood out more than this past Friday. I felt the eyes of the community on me as I noisily bumped and rolled this massive black box down the streets. Past bikers and pedestrians, past the local train station, through traffic, down the main shopping street, and in front of the police station. What a spectacle! Although no one was brave enough to ask, the common question I saw written on their faces was, "What is that foreigner doing with that huge metal black box?" Before the journey was done, I had the same question myself. I was drenched in sweat and my back begged for mercy.
Although my sore muscles need more time, my pride has at least recovered. Still, I wonder what strange heavy thing I'll be moving next week. My neighbors are asking the same.
New Year, New Venture
When we started the church we could not have imagined what God would have in store for us these past seven years. Through all the victories and letdowns, the blessings and challenges, we have trusted that God would provide national leadership for the church. And He did. And what a great couple this is to work with in 2010. We look forward to putting hands together in ministry. Take a look at his background and vision. Also, pray for this financial need.
"See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland." Isaiah 43:19
Like Angel Voices
Our concert on Sunday featured handbells and gospel music, with a Christmas message from Kaori and I (bilingual), and Christmas carols sandwiched between. Rather than fussing with tickets and money, we simply made the concert a charity event with all giving going toward Wheelchairs of Hope.
Altogether nearly 100 people filled the tiny rental hall. This is quite a gathering for a church in Japan! We prayed and planned through the many details needed to see the event go smoothly. There were a few glitches, but God was honored and glorified. Many unbelievers heard the Gospel message explained as simply as I could, and given an invitation to respond.
Thank you, Lord Jesus! Your next birthday celebration at Denen Grace is coming up this Sunday, 20th.
Let the Children Come
This affords a unique opportunity for the church in Japan. There is no stronger god than the true, living God; and no greater blessing than that which He gives. Why not ask parents to have the church pray for their children instead?
This past November Sunday, I again had the opportunity to pray for the salvation or spiritual growth of kids gathered at our church, as parents watched and listened. Jesus said, “Let the little children come!” and so we welcome them in His name!
Annually we have a "Family Festa" or joint meeting of all the greater Tokyo area churches as a way of cultivating community and fellowship, and helping us develop a bigger picture of what God is doing in our midst. 150 people might not sound like much with 24 churches involved, but this is quite a large group of Christians by Japanese standards!
This past week, five of us from our church plant, Denen Grace, woke up at the crack of dawn to travel across Tokyo to be a part of this Festa, held at a larger association church. Here's a photo of a few of our church people around the lunch table outdoors. Three are new believers! Pray for even more harvest to come from among our churches spread across the Kanto plain!
Finding Resting in 7-11 24/7 Japan
Sometimes the preacher needs to pay attention to his own message. We have been far too busy as a family in the last two months and scarcely have had a chance to rest. We justify the busyness (or at least I do) by reminding ourselves that it is for God's kingdom purposes. That's good busyness, right? But we need rest. Truth is, most people in Tokyo do. This culture is a 7-11 24/7 365days a year, non-stop culture. People are worn down and worn out. It's obvious just by doing a little people watching. And our church people are equally overstressed and overworked. The biggest obstacle to church planting in Japan (in my humble opinion, at least), is that the hectic lifestyle gives no room for one to consider spiritual things, much less be part of a church community in a consistent way.
Well, I digress. What I really wanted to say is that we finally took 3 days off as a family and went down south to the Mt. Fuji area. The fall colors were wonderful, as was the time together as family. Enjoying our connection with God, with his creation, and with each other. The same components of rest that man experienced in Eden. It's good to take time aside to taste a bit of Eden again!
Baptisms in the Kiddy Pool
D-san has a mother with a business as a Buddhist guide. His father abandoned them. His grandfather that lives with them has a severe drug habit. Not surprisingly, D-san himself has battled depression. But since coming to church for the first time last fall, he has been steadily growing, changing, and healing. He accepted Christ last December, and is looking forward to be baptized this Sunday at 31 years of age.
H-san took a bit longer to come to faith in Christ. She is a middle-aged housewife who visited our home 7 years ago when we first began church planting work in Kawasaki. A pet lover, she was very interested in meeting our "joyful princess" Keekee. But she was some time away from a decision for Christ. During those seven years she maintained a close relationship with a core church member as God led her through some difficult times. This spring she was back in church again, and this time she was very open to the Gospel. She is growing in Christ and already a tremendous asset and encouragement our the church family.
Praise God for these baptism candidates! Would you pray for their continued spiritual growth and witness to their families? And thank God for good rare sunny weather on Sunday. An issue for us as the rainy season continues here and the pool is outdoors.
There are some twenty bulletin boards in a 3 or 4 kilometer radius around our house. I make the rounds and tack up our letter-sized flyer relating to a specific event: English, Gospel, concert, Kids, etc. The church address and telephone number is always listed at the bottom.
I've been saddened, however, to find on numerous occasions that my flyers have been either obviously torn off the board, cut to shreds, or mangled in some other way. In spite of this, I continue to replace the destroyed flyers and go on.
With our Kids English outreach (7/28-8/2) just around the corner, I once again put up flyers this past week. This time at each and every location someone deliberately moved another item tacked on the board to cover mine. Here's a photo (above). I moved my flyer to a new spot, only to have it recovered. Someone is obviously not happy with my flyers.
And so the spiritual battle for the hearts of Japanese continues. It is frustrating at times to lose little fights like this along the way, but we know God will bring the ultimate victory in the war.
Future Partners in Ministry
This is true in our ministry. The church plant has grown over the past several years by God's grace and your prayer, but the time is now right for national leadership for the Denen Grace Chapel. But it is critical that the individual share a common vision with those in our church ministry!
Enter Pastor Kondo. He has a vision to work together with a missionary to reach more Japanese for Christ, and plant more churches. He’s spent 18 years overseas, and 13 years in church planting work (a Japanese church in Connecticut). He’s in his 50’s, but has the heart of a teenager in his energy for Christ. Last month, Denen Grace Chapel called him to begin as senior pastor from January 2010.
We had not anticipated God to work this way even a year ago, but Pastor Kondo’s passion for Japanese saved abroad who return to Japan, dovetailed with the vision for Denen Grace Chapel. We look forward to what God has ahead for us together.
Would you hold us in prayer as we discuss how our teamwork can more effectively reach more Japanese for Christ, and lay the groundwork for future church planting together with Denen?
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!
Prayer for Denen's Future
We'd like to ask you prayer for this Sunday as we make a very important decision as a church. In 2007 we charted a 5-year course for Denen Grace Chapel's future with four dimensions:
VISION 2012: As God blesses and leads us, by faith we will pray for the following become a reality in the next 5 years.
1. Emerge from the basement and establish a semi-permanent location or permanent location as a witness in the community.
2. Call a Japanese part-time or full-time salaried pastor-leader to work in partnership with the current missionaries.
3. Grow weekly Sunday attendance to 50, membership to 35, and weekday small group involvement to 40.
4. Establish dynamic partnerships with other like-minded churches to lay the foundation for a daughter church plant.
This Sunday, May 17, we will be voting on #2, the calling of a national pastor. We have been working with a candidate for the last half year and feel he is the right man for Denen's future. However, as you can imagine, supporting a pastor for the tiny membership of a new church is a tremendous challenge on a number of levels. Would you pray that people would allow their faith to be expressed as they vote concerning him?
For those of you who don't know, yakisoba consists of soba (wheat) noodles that have been fried on a hot grill. Usually the noodles are mixed in with cabbage, bean sprouts, meat, and seasonings. Various garnishes such as onions, cilantro, seaweed, and peppers might also be added. Yummmm!
Many Happy Returns
You might have guessed that about the guy at the far left in the photo (yours truly). But the rest of this bunch? Yes, this is a group of midwest "Returnees." Every year thousands of Japanese travel overseas to live as students, businessmen, and educators. Separated from the entanglements of their home culture, many Japanese become Christians while overseas. And every year, after 1 year or many years abroad, thousands of Japanese return back to their homeland as changed people.
The fact is that MANY MORE Japanese become believers while outside their country, than those who remain in Japan! Nearly 80% of all Japanese who become Christians, became Christians while they were overseas. The difficulty becomes connecting these new believers to a church where they can continue to grow when they eventually return home. Often, Japanese "Returnees" find that they cannot really relate well to a traditional Japanese church. They are not understood, and not accepted. Often shortly after returning they uproot their faith from a local church altogether and blend back into society.
This is a great spiritual tragedy in the evangelization of Japan! If all these new believers were to remain in the church and grow strong in their faith, the Japanese church would be many times it's paltry 1% of the population size.
This past week I attended a conference here in Saitama, Japan that focused on the Returnee challenge. Naturally it was attended by returnees of all ages, including many young returnees, new believers and just back in their homeland. "All Nations Returnee Conference" had some 500 returnees in attendance for three days of sharing, worship, message, and strategy. I was blessed and encouraged, and renewed in my effort and desire to reach out to this unique demographic in Japan.
We want to be a receiving church for Returnees. Our church has at its core Returnees: probably 70% of the church has the experience of living from one to ten years overseas. Would you pray that we would continue to bring in and care for returnees, regardless of whether they have yet made a decision yet for Christ, so that a great harvest of souls result, and the church in Japan would grow strong?
Protestant Christianity turns 150
The evangelistic work in Japan during this time often needed to be done discreetly at the initiation of the Japanese seeker. One English missionary wrote in 1869 of the difficulty of accomplishing this. “I read those words (prohibition of Christian preaching), and I realized at once the excessive difficulty of our task. What were we to do? The only opportunity I had was simply to receive the visits of any inquirers who chose to come to me to my own house; and would Japan venture thus? They did venture. Before a month had passed, day by day, hours by hour, my house would be thronged with Japanese visitors….”
In spite of this prohibition, missionary work in Yokohama resulted in a series of revivals, with many converts coming from samurai families belonging to the Shogunate. The most success, however, was realized only after Christianity was granted freedom in the country. This occurred on February 21, 1873 in part as a utilitarian response to encourage trade with the West. The government removed the prohibition of Christianity notices on public bulletin boards for the first time in over 200 years. Now, Christian missionaries were free to evangelize openly. The scope of the missionary work was greatly expanded with the help of national evangelists and pastors including such men as Shinozaki and Honda, who advanced the church in country areas.
Take a look at this photo of one of the earliest Protestant Churches. Can you find missionary Guido Fridolin Verbeck in the middle of the group of new Japanese believers? We missionaries today owe a great debt of gratitude for the stubborn will and faith in God that established the foundations of Christianity in this country! Thank you, Lord, for advancing your church in Japan!
Why I Needed to be Back in Japan in August
Last Sunday as Mr. Ubukata entered church, I asked how his father's (Kenzo) surgery went. Cancer had forced the doctors to remove a portion of Kenzo's colon. Mr. U replied that things went very well, thanked me for my prayer, and added that there was just his recovery and "he'll be home soon." That Tuesday, however, things took a dramatic turn for the worse: Kenzo fell into a coma. On Wednesday afternoon he died peacefully in his sleep.
This might have been sad and tragic u-turn for the family, except for one very important lifechanging event: Kenzo had placed his faith in Christ as his Savior a few years earlier. He had the hope of eternity. He was home now. He was walking the streets of gold with his Savior. His 88 years of hurts and pains and sadness fell away in an instant as he discovered incomparable joy and life in heaven.
As we sang songs of rejoicing at the funeral, I was reminded of the chain of people God used to bring Kenzo home. We came to Japan. Mr. U and his wife were friends of our core family in the church plant. So they began attending our tiny Sunday gathering. They placed their faith in Christ. Then Mr. U brought his mother to church. The first Sunday tears flowed down her cheeks as she sang hymns. A few months later she placed her faith in Christ. Then she brought the good news back to her other son. He was saved. At his baptism, Kenzo (the father), decided that this is what he wanted for himself as well. He placed his faith in Christ and was baptized soon after. The eldest Christian in his family, his funeral was of great testimony to his relatives.
Now, a new current of faith in flowing in the Ubukata family. Six of them are believers. What if we had not come to Japan? Where would Kenzo and his family be? God is strong enough to save in some other way, I know. But I am thrilled that in his grace He allowed us to be a part of this family's new heritage, to serve as a link in the chain to bring Japanese to Jesus, just like Kenzo. Thank you, Lord, for bringing me back to Japan in time to see and be reminded of this.
In his baptism testimony three years ago Kenzo wrote: "Many things have happened in the 85 years I've lived, but nothing compares to the great joy of knowing Jesus and walking with him everyday."
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.
Bath or Baptism? (Part 2)
Baptisms in Japan, let alone decisions for Christ, are still too few and far between. The challenge of reaching even a small percentage of this country for Christ has been one that deeply discourages many a missionary. Recently I read that 99% of the missionary force serves in countries where at a majority of the population are believers. With Japan's 0.5%, I'm not sure whether that would make us the bottom (or top?) 1%, but it is a challenging field and a challenging work. So, today was a great day of victory.
During the baptism celebration lunch, our "international division" at church sang choruses of a song in Hindi, English, Indonesian, French and Japanese as a reminder that we are different people (and nations) in one body under Christ. It was a taste of heaven, where peoples of all nations will surround the throne of our God and Savior with collective praise. Keeping that image alive in our minds is an inspiration in the challenging field. Click the image (above) to see the whole baptism celebration group.
Bath or Baptism?
Then the thought occurred..."What if we were able to use the local public bathhouse?" Public bathhouses in Japan are still quite common, as many small urban apartments do not have space for a bath tub or shower. Typically a male or female only bathhouse can handle 20 - 30 bathers at a time with individual faucets for each, and a collective tub for everyone (okay, you'll have to see one to understand the idea).
It would be extremely unlikely the owner would agree to something like that. They've no understanding of Christianity, let alone what a baptism is. It would come across as an odd religious thing. With the many radical new religious groups in Japan, Japanese have a heightened adversion to getting involved with religious things period.
Well, God goes ahead and opens impossible doors for us when we knock on them in faith. Amazingly, the owner of our local bathhouse agreed to let us use the facility exclusively on a Sunday morning for a baptism. Of course, he expects to collect 400 yen a head.
Clearly there was some initial confusion about what a baptism was on his part. He wanted to know, "So, will all the people from your church being getting into the bath together?" "No," we assured him. "Just one. And even he will be wearing clothes." "Oh." he replied, "but if you're paying you should take a bath together anyway." Well, that would be a level of Christian fellowship we're not really ready for.
Bowling Japan Style
We discovered that none of us has much of a latent talent in this sport. Breaking 100 was a big deal. But it is refreshing when Japanese get together like this and clap and cheer each other on even when the person has thrown a dozen straight gutters. There is something that Japanese do better in the area of togetherness and community that I have learned much from. The competitiveness is still a part of things, but the emphasis on teamwork is so much greater in just about any Japanese sport.
When asked what fun sport we can do as a church next, someone in our group suggested a marathon run. Hmmm. Not quite sure on that, but I am sure it would be done in a group-oriented Japanese way.
Christmas @ Denen 2007
This past Sunday was our Christmas Service outreach at Denen for which we have spent some time planning. We rented a hall that holds 140 in the faith that God would fill it. Then the invitations, flyers, and emails went out to encourage our friends, acquaintances, and the surrounding neighborhood to come and be part of the day's events. It quite a contrast for a Christmas service; handbells and gospel! We also mixed in some special music by a guest soloist, and several carols. Kevin gave an evangelistic message on the meaning of Christmas according to the Bible.
Merry Christmas 2007! Meanwhile downstairs we ran a separate Kids Christmas Party with Christmas songs, games, a Max Lucado kids video, popcorn, hot chocolate and more. We really stretched our staffing resources as a tiny church.
My faith wavers between two fears when we do an event of this scale. 1) What if no one shows up? What if we've done all the planning, opened the doors, and no one walks in? (We have some of these days). I could personally get over the discouragement quickly enough, but I would feel badly for many others who have done so much to preparing and praying for the day. 2) Or, what if everyone shows up? What if among those who received the one of the 1500 flyers, many invited family, or classmates, or neighbors. After all, it is advertised as a free concert. What if 2500 or more people show up and we have no possible way to accommodate them, turn them away upset, and the reputation of our church plant in the community suffers as a result?
As it turns out, God worked things out for us just right. We had 110 adults, and 19 kids. This is about 4 times the amount of number of people that attend our Sunday Services. They all went away having heard the Gospel message, and given Christian literature to read with the church information on it. We also fed them all cake, and coffee or tea.
We appreciate many of you who were praying us through this day as a church. Now, please remain in prayer as we followup on some of these individuals in the coming days. Merry Christmas!
It was great to share with them the simple story of Christmas. It is also encouraging to see our church continuing to come together in ministry, particularly outside of its comfort zone. Our group of young Christians still has much to understand about its role as light in the darkness of Japan, but at least we are blinking very brightly these days.