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.
Singing a Sojourner's Song
Buddy Greene said it best in song: "I don't belong. I'm a foreigner here just singing a sojourner's song. I've always known. This place ain't home. And I don't belong."
It didn't used to be that way. Up until we left for Japan in 1999, I was decidedly American in my outlook, cultural identity and sensibilities. But things change when you remove yourself from that cultural milieu for any long stretch of time. Things no longer look the same when you return to them. You're different. People are different. The environment and culture are different. And you sense a lack of fit with a people and places you really were eager to call home again. That's disappointing, surprising and frustrating all at once.
It's not just the big gaps missing for you in the stories of those you know and love. Nor is it just all the little changes in technology, language usage, or pop culture trends all around you. It's not even the myriad of adjustments you need to make all over again. For example, I know by now when I return to the States I will:
1) be surprised at how big things are,
2) forget which side of the road to drive on for brief moments,
3) get into the car on the wrong side, and use the windshield wiper instead of the turning signal,
4) forget I need to tip in a restaurant,
5) find it strange that the stores are so huge and quiet,
6) marvel at the acres of space in front of stores just to park,
7) be overwhelmed with how sweet or salty everything tastes,
8) find the wide open spaces to be almost odd at times,
9) wonder why the daily earthquake never comes,
10) find TV to be even more degraded than last time,
11) be frustrated in finding the right word in English and use Japanese without thinking,
12) be unable to identify with topics of conversation,
13) wonder why our currency looks so foreign,
14) be excited by cheap $4/gallon gas,
...and the list could go on and on with a hundred other things.
But the feeling really is not birthed out of any of those things. Part of it might be the cumulative weight of all those things. But there's more. There's the sense that we CANNOT fit in anymore, even if we were to fill in ALL those gaps and make ALL those changes. Our frame of reference, our cultural perspective in life has fundamentally shifted in such a way that everything will look just a little out of focus around us. Call it the missionary complex. A cultural identity crisis. Cognitive dissonance. Schizophrenia. Call it whatever you like. The feeling is a lack of true belonging. A sense of being a foreigner in places one wouldn't think or desire to sense that.
And so I am thankful to be a missionary because of this. It's brought clarity to my position in this world, and a richness and sweetness to my true home in heaven. It's sped up that part of my spiritual journey by letting me experience firsthand foreignness here, and anticipate even more my belonging there.
"Yes, I belong. And I'm going some day. Home to my own native land.
Where I'll belong. And it seems like I hear the sound of a welcome home band.
Yes I belong. No foreigner there...singing a sojourner's song.
I've always known. I'm going home. Where I'll belong." (lyrics, Buddy Greene)
All this, but no octopus ice cream
It hits me every time we return home. This time was not unique. Call it part of required re-entry shock. Coming back for 6 weeks of home assignment travel is landing in the land of a million choices.
The day after we arrived here in New Jersey, we needed to stock the refrigerator with some essentials for living. So, off to the supermarket. What's the big deal? The big deal is that EVERYTHING is BIG. And there are a million of them. You name it, the supermarkets here have a million different ones to choose from. But you knew that already. And I thought I did too.
I knew it was going to be tough going. I grabbed a cart, gripped the handle, and steeled myself to focus on the immediate the task. It was no use. The bakery section emitted a siren's cry to my long pie-deprived stomach. Turning the corner, I nearly wept at the selection of cereals. A whole aisle. Incredible! And the boxes could last for days. Steering hurriedly into the next aisle, I hunted for garbage bags. Again, the variety and selection nearly overwhelmed me. JUST GARBAGE BAGS! It took every bit of jet-lagged resolve I had left to not leave the aisle without something. But the ice cream finally did me in. Just a box of vanilla ice cream. A simple thing, or so I thought. There were 17 coolers of ice cream of every size, shape, variety and flavor known to man.
Aaahh...but Japan has one up on the States in this are. My local supermarket in Japan has octopus ice cream. Yes, it's true. Click the photo as proof. It would take a whole post to explain this.
Still, I am again left speechless by the land of many choices and large sizes: my country. It's just that after being gone for a while it all seems so incredible again.
Welcoming Home the Harvest
In this postwar generation, God has mercifully blessed Japan with great economic wealth. This wealth has empowered many Japanese to be able to work, study, travel, or live overseas. And with advances in technology, communication and transportation, never before in Japan’s history have SO MANY been able to experience life firsthand outside their country. In North America alone, nearly 500,000 Japanese live temporarily. Every year nearly 300,000 move away or return to Japan. In my heart, I wonder why God chooses to enable and move so many Japanese overseas? I have come to believe it is his plan for the harvest of Japan for this generation! God knows that Japanese are less inclined to welcome the gospel message while in their own country. There are many cultural, social, historical and spiritual reasons for this. But when a Japanese goes abroad, they are away from many of those reasons. Living outside Japan, they are able to reflect on their life in Japan more clearly. Many come to the conclusion that there is something more out there, more to life. They come across the strong religious faith of foreigners who befriend them. They are welcomed into a church that cares for them. And many embrace this faith and receive Christ as Savior. In fact, JCFN, an organization in Japan that works with returnees, states that a Japanese is 30 times more likely to accept Christ overseas, than while in Japan. A great harvest of Japanese is occurring overseas! But how well are we welcoming this harvest back home? This is a critical issue for the church in Japan in this era of globalization.
In February and March I had an opportunity to see both sides of the issue. In February I attended the annual Reaching Japanese for Christ (RJC) conference in Seattle. Here, 150 people, organizations and missionaries that work with Japanese in North America, gathered. Many see frequent decisions for Christ and work hard to prepare these new believers for life and faith back to Japan. In March I attended the All Nations Conference in Saitama. Here, many organizations and churches that welcome home returnees, and many returnees gathered, more than 500 altogether. The common reports I heard at these conferences was this: unfortunately, not all returnees feel welcomed or understood by the Japanese church. Many churches don’t know how to accept these slightly different Japanese new believers. Many new returnee believers, in the middle of re-entry shock and adjustment, don’t know how to blend themselves into an unfamiliar Japanese church culture. The result is that many returnees feel rejected, become discouraged, and turn away from the church. A great harvest is lost!
Our church plant, Denen Grace Chapel, is 8 years old this spring. We began with 6 individuals that had the shared the experience of living abroad, and then return to Japan. Over the years God has sent us others that have been saved or lived abroad. This past January, we called a Japanese pastor. Kondo Izumi sensei and his wife, Mikiko, also have an experience of living and serving abroad many years, and then returning to Japan recently. Together with them, we have a vision as missionaries, and as a church to intentionally tap into this great harvest work of God in the lives of his precious Japanese. We want to be a receiving church that understands thoroughly the issues returnees face, how we can welcome, and grow them up in their new faith. How about yourself? Let’s pray that we can be churches and people that better welcome home the harvest.
Chicago Forecast: Snowy with a Chance of Re-entry Shock
We scooted into Chicago on Monday just ahead of the big snowfall on Tuesday. Okay, just a couple inches or so. But coming from comparatively warm Tokyo, it's been awhile since we saw this kind of snow! Justen enjoyed sledding with a home church member -- what a rare and wonderful treat for him!
Re-entry shock is something we always struggle with when out of the States for a long period of time like this. We've written about this experience here and here and here on this blog. In essence, the values, dreams, ideals of our host culture of Japan become the ingrained norm for us. We become surprised by how far apart they are from folks in our own homeland. Although we want to find belonging and yearn to identify ourselves completely with our home culture, we have been changed significantly in ways while we were gone.
And people, places and things have also changed significantly. Absorbing the many changes all at once is quite overwhelming. It all brings about a sense of alienation, confusion, and frustration. The strongest feeling is that I have simply missed out on being a part of the journey and lives of friends and family...as if I've been asleep while they've all moved on. This is part of the missionary complexities that we are learning to deal with as best as possible for our mental health.