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.
The Big 4-0
I used to think that 40 year-olds were wise and seasoned in life. But when I look at myself I realize that assumption was misguided. I’d love to say that after 40 years of wanderings I’m finally ready to enter the promised land. But the truth is that after 40 years I still have a way to go toward spiritual maturity. Weaknesses I see in me haven’t gone away. I’ve made progress, but not as dramatically or as quickly as I’d like. It would be easy to get discouraged, give up and say, “Well, that’s how I’ll always be.” But the Bible holds out a different option. God is always doing something new. So change is always possible. Not because of me, but because of Him.
I'm grateful for a Savior that loves me as I am, and yet moves me toward growth. I'm also grateful for church family that makes the journey fun. As I gave the announcements this past Sunday, the lights suddenly went out. A lighted cake (yep, 40 candles) was wheeled into the room. And the congregation broke into a strain of "Happy Birthday," Japanese style. I suspected something was in the works by the suspicious grins on their faces earlier. Thank you, Lord, for 40 years with you. Thanks for giving Christian friends and family to journey together with.
A couple of things that caught my attention from the day:
1) It seems that Anglo features still fit best with Japanese' perceptions of modern fairy tales. I found it interesting that so many western foreigners were part of the Disney Parade. I suppose it would have been usual to see a Japanese Prince Charming...or would it? And does Mickey have to speak only English. Didn't he get any language training?
2) Japanese are known for their service-orientedness. There were many things that Kaori's father, as a blind man, could not experience in the theme park. But the way that Disney workers fast-tracked us through rides, and bent over backward to accommodate his needs was truly impressive.
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!
A Creamy Drink We Enjoy
I like this picture of Kaori, age 6. There she is sitting along the riverbank in Yamagata, sipping her Calpis (an uncarbonated dairy-based soft drink in Japan around long before Pepsi) with her brother, Ryuji. Never crossed her mind at the time that some 15 years later a foreigner would come along and -- for better or worse -- the adventure as a missionary wife would begin. Thankfully it turned out to be a foreigner who enjoys a cool Calpis with her now and then. We don't do much sitting along the riverbank these days, but at least the world is in color.
My Wife's a Blockhead!
The block group is responsibility for caring for the many somewhat smaller matters that concern these households. For example, policing the garbage pile, cleaning up the street trash, requesting the replacement of burned out street lamps, posting neighborhood announcements, collecting various donations and dues, and so forth. The head of the block group, the blockhead, is rotated amongst the households from year to year. This year it became Kaori's turn.
She's taken to the new responsibility eagerly. The awesome power certainly has not gone to her head. Quite honestly, she the nicest blockhead I've ever met.
Seriously though, it is a nice way to get around to meet the neighbors and get to build relationships. And that is always step one in personal evangelism. So...we are grateful to God for the opportunity. She might just want to stay Mrs. Blockhead for awhile! She quick to remind me, though, that this makes me Mr. Blockhead.
Golden Week Chess
Meanwhile, Kaori, Justen and I were invited to the home of new believers, a church young couple here in our neighborhood for the holiday break. Justen got a chance to hone his "shogi" talent with the young husband. "Shogi" or Japanese chess is fairly easy to learn, but incredibly hard to master. For me as an American, watching my son play "shogi" reminds my of how blended his cultural experience is from a young age. And it definitely fits into the category of "where did he pick this up?" Kaori and I just watched in amazement as he beat his teammate twice.
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?!
Family Issues in Japan
In the corner of a small Japanese restaurant, a dozen dark-suited businessmen gathered at a large table. Smoke hovered over the dinner and beer disappeared as quickly as it was poured. At first glance, it looked like a typical Friday night post-work scene played out all over Tokyo’s taverns. But then your eye stops on a poster-sized sign propped up next to one of the middle-aged men. It reads:
Three Golden Rules of Love:
* Thank you (say it without hesitation)
* I am sorry (say it without fear)
* I love you (say it without embarrassment)
All the men at the table stood up. Equally spaced out and still wearing their stiff black suits, they chanted in unison: "I can’t win! I won’t win! I don’t want to win!" The chant was followed by a deep bow, a straightening of the backs, big smiles and a burst of applause. The meeting of the "National Chauvinistic Husbands Association" was under way.
If you're confused at this point, don't fret. The group is called the National Chauvinistic Husbands Association because it's a club for bossy husbands who need help (a little lost in translation effect here.)
So the title is appropriate for this group of men. In an abrupt about face from traditional Japanese relationships, the men are learning how to give their wives more respect.
More poster signs surrounded the men at this meeting:
Three Golden Rules of Renewing Family:
* Let's Listen
* Let's Write
* Let's Talk
And there's even a system of ranking your husbandry in the club:
Rank 1: Love your wife after three years of marriage
Rank 2: Help with the household work
Rank 3: No extramarital affairs or at least she doesn't know about it
Rank 4: Ladies first
Rank 5: Hold hands with your wife in public
Rank 6: Listen to what your wife has to say carefully and seriously
Rank 7: Solve issues between your wife and your mother
Rank 8: Say thank you without hesitation
Rank 9: Say I'm sorry without fear
Rank 10: Say I love you without embarrassment
After the meeting, we followed a young man named Yohei Takayama home. He'd just been promoted to "Rank 4." He admitted that "Rank 5," holding hands with his wife in public, was not going to be natural or easy. He and his wife have been married for two years. His wife said he’s been a member of the club for a year and a half and it has changed their relationship dramatically.
Namely, she said, he helps more around the house, listens to her more, and understands she also has a career that exhausts her. What they’re growing into, she said, is a partnership. They went grocery shopping, and I noticed he carried the bags and helped her decide what to buy. As they left the store to go home, he took her hand in his. It didn't look like the most natural thing in the world for him, but he was trying. His wife smiled as they walked home.
Bathing Your Way to Purity
One can see here how the Bible speaks to this matter of cleanliness before the God who has made us and loves us. The cleansing God offers has nothing to do with a physical bath. In fact, it is quite useless for a right relationship with our Lord. "Although you wash yourself with soda and use an abundance of soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me" (Jer 2:22). God is into the deep cleansing that man needs, begins at the heart polluted with sin, and uses the agent of the Holy Spirit. "He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit."
Having said that, our family does enjoy a good hot spring bath from time to time for the simple recreation of it. Here's a photo of us last week going to the famous Mt. Zao hot spring. It's an outdoor sulphur spring that leaves one with an unmistakeable smell. Rather ironic that bathing leaves one smelling.
Still, I must admit that several days in the "REAL" Japan (Tokyo is not "really" Japan), I discover parts of me that still stick out in this culture. After a few hours of sitting on the floor, my legs, bottom, and back begin to beg for a comfortable chair. And it's still a challenge to muster up the willpower to eat raw fish and salad for breakfast. Lunch or dinner, okay. But breakfast is still a sacred meal that I try to do more Western style when home. And my Yamagata accent listening skills are also in poor shape. It seems I've been spoiled by the "mainstream" Japanese in the Kanto area.
Well, those and many more things are still areas of growth for me in cultural adaptation. Thankfully I've still some years to work on it.
New School is Cool!
Justen's old church school closed its doors this past summer after 6 years because of personnel and financial struggles. Now Justen is attending "Fountain of Life International School." It is a tiny church-based school (all church-based schools are tiny in Japan) of 10 students ranging from 1st grade to high school. Each student receives a lot of individual attention, tutoring and help. Subjects are taught in English as well as Japanese. And that is "cool" with our bilingual Justen.
The new school is actually a bit closer than the last one, but still requires 3 trains to get to. This time he heads into (instead of away from) Tokyo on the train at the height of the morning rush hour. Or should we say "crush hour." It's a good thing he's still small because It is indeed a very tight squeeze for a good part of the way. Sometime next year a new train line to open near our home should help alleviate part of that congestion, for a while at least.
You can write Justen a note of encouragement at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for praying for his quick adjustment to his new surroundings.
Niagara Falls, or does it?
On our way to a month of visiting with supporting churches on the east coast, we took a little time out to see one of Canada's natural wonders. The last time we visited Niagara Falls, Kaori and I were on our honeymoon and Justen was only a distant thought. The incredible combination of beauty and power still amazes me. We were glad we took the detour to visit. The mist from the falls was a great way to cool down after a hot drive!
Last Day of School
"I never really left school. It's just part of what I've always done. It doesn't seem possible this is really happening!" I heard him repeating. He was well roasted by his fellow teachers. They even sang a special number, a parody of "At the Hop" with the same familiar tune and entitled "At the Shop." But all his colleagues also very sincerely complimented his dedication, faithfulness, sense of organization and neatness, love and care of his students, and skill as a teacher. 40 years of teaching "shop" class, and no lost fingers or blinded eyes. That in itself is an amazing feat! But to have made an impact in the lives of generations of students, to teach even their children's children, that is even more amazing. It was fitting to end the evening with "Amazing Grace." Congratulations, Dad, on your 40 years of ministry.
Meanwhile, another generation of Lavermans was celebrating his last day of school...at least for summer. Kaori and I pulled up to his elementary school today to pick him up. I knew I was in for a great show, so I was careful to park the car in a way that we got an unblocked view of the school exit doors. Then we waited for the last bell.
We weren't disappointed. The kids literally came bounding out of the doors, dancing on air, skipping, leaping and swinging their school bags about them. It was written all over their faces: LAST DAY OF SCHOOL! Oh, what a feeling! Three months to daydream outside, swim in the pool, read a book of your own choosing, play with friends, vacation with family, and the list goes on.
Although Justen's school year was at Lansing Christian was a bit abbreviated (just 6 weeks as we returned to the States in mid-April), he was also thrilled to be finished. But he really enjoyed being with his classmates again (spent 1st and part of 3rd grade with same kids), and he loved his teacher, Mrs. Furlong, pictured here at the left. Mrs. Furlong is another teacher with a long impact as I remember her well from MY school days at Lansing Christian some 30 year ago.
But sometimes because of the tiny space, one wonders what to do with all one's stuff. The tiny closets certainly don't fit very much. One solution: make a hole in the ceiling and create some tiny attic space. So, hammer and saw in hand, last week Kevin did just that in our home. We created enough new tiny space above our 3rd floor (yes, we have 3 floors, but don't get me started in telling you how tiny each level is) to accommodate about a dozen boxes including Christmas trees and things irregular size for Japan. What a relief to our closets to reclaim this space! (PHOTO: It's just big enough for Justen to squat down in and move around. How will we get stuff down as he grows up?)
Of course, another solution might be throw out and get rid of unneeded things. Our neighbor has been aggressively discarding things to move to smaller housing (PHOTO: the bags of trash she recently placed out on the street). Watching our neighbor getting rid of all these things (everything including, yes, a kitchen sink!), has sobered us to the life cycle of possessions. We really accumulate a lot more than is practical, needful, or healthy for a Kingdom-focused lifestyle. The admonition of Christ rings true:
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Matthew 6:19-21
Thanksgiving Plate 2007
"Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits--who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases,who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion,who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's." Psalm 103
Back "Home" Again
It is that last point that bears emphasizing. After two years away from the States, we expect things to be different upon our return. But along with that feeling is a general sense of disconnect with things that is hard to pinpoint exactly. There is the sense of being a foreigner to your own culture that always manages to sneak up and surprise me when we return home after a period of time like this. Slight reverse culture shock is part of that, but there is more. Slowly my point of reference and identification has drifted away from the North American axis, to points east...far east. It's only upon coming back and scraping against my own home culture again that I come to realize how lengths of time in Japan have changed me.
Well, enough with the introspection for now. There are many things to do during our three week stay. Justen is going back to Lansing Christian for a week to reconnect with his school pals. Kaori and I are speaking in four different churches, and connecting with many more people. Phone calls and personal matters. Shopping and family. It all takes a bit of time. But we relish this great fall weather to experience it all in. More later.
Bicycles: the Family Car
I was reminded of how big a role the bicycle plays in Japan's "mass transit" system. In urban Japan where having a place to park a real car would be a luxury for most, the bicycle is not unlike the family car. It hauls groceries, little kids, pets, you name it! I have grown accustomed to seeing the mother taking her kids to school or preschool by bicycle with the baby seated strapped in front of her behind the handlebars, and an older child strapped in back of her in a child seat. This "bicycle-for-three" is a common sight.
What happens when it rains? The mother shelters the baby and herself with an unbrella in one hand, while steering with the other. The child in back holds his own umbrella. Add a few sacks of groceries to this situation--one in the basket in front of the baby, the other in the lap of the child behind--and the bicycle begins to look like part of a travelling caravan. Still, this is not an uncommon sight. But the other day I saw one that surprised even me: on a rainy day a mother and two children each with their own umbrella were mounted on a bicycle with groceries in their laps. Okay so far. But wait! With one hand steering the bike and the other holding an umbrella, the mother was talking on a cell phone cradled under her chin! Remember this is drippy, wet pavement weather! And there are pedestrians, cars, and scooters to contend with as well! Don't believe me? Oh how I wish I had my camera with to show you what it looked like!