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.
A Church Without Doors
"Up until the 311 tragedy, most Japanese didn't even know a Christian. They didn't feel anything toward the church or Christianity period!" says a Miyako Community Church member when I asked her about the impact of the ongoing relief work. "The tsunami changed things. Now, many people around here can say they know a Christian!"
Our team of six from our church plant, Denen Grace Chapel, again worked in the tsunami-struck area for a weekend last month, and can testify to Mrs S's words. Now, through the work of literally hundreds of Christian volunteer relief workers, many understand what Christianity is about: a neighbor there in their time of need with God's words and hands of hope.
Even the local police!My heart skipped a beat when the Japanese police officer approached our vehicle. I was in the driver's seat; our church team rode behind. We had just stopped at a scenic overlook when the patrol car pulled in next to us. "Are you a church?" the officer asked. "Yes," I managed, confused as to why he would ask and not sure whether this admission would lend credibility or suspicion to my case. "Thanks for your work!" he replied. Then added cheerfully, "Say 'hi' to Pastor Iwatsuka." He recognized our borrowed church vehicle and just wanted to say thanks!
This was another reminder of the impact this church has had in the community since 311. Even the police can say they know a Christian, and have a good opinion of the church's work! Pastor I is now an integral part of community networks, involved in ways the church used to be shut out from.
I preached at the church on Sunday AM, giving Pastor Iwatsuka a needed break. Our team brought some special music. Attendance numbered maybe a dozen or so, typical size for a Japanese church. But that's not their real size...
God has thrown away the doors of the church to provide it with perhaps the greatest opportunity for community engagement in Japan in the last 100 years. And this little church has seized it. Of the 60+ temporary housing areas around Miyako, the church has a ongoing presence in 26 of them!
Into the Community
Meanwhile, we set to action. First, we go door to door, distributing the small gifts and Scripture bookmarks we prepared, and inviting the residents to join our "mobile cafe" in the community room. There, our own Mrs. U has prepared a Bible calligraphy lesson. Residents trace simple Scripture verses like "The joy of the Lord is my strength." We serve hot coffee. I share a short message from the Bible. We sing and pray together. Then we serve them lunch: taco rice and salad. The men are reluctant to come out, so we hand deliver this meal to some of those shut-ins.
We say our goodbyes. Everyone steals a hug from the odd American (myself). Then we go to another temporary housing area and do it all again.
New WavesThis is our fifth trip to post-tsunami Japan as a church, and my ninth visit. The long trek up and back (12 hours by car) is exhausting, but the work is exhilarating. And it REALLY matters to the survivors. Some were near tears, reluctant to let us leave, even following us to our vehicle. Pastor I showed us the activity calendar on the community room's wall. The church-sponsored mobile cafes were the only thing they had! Other NPO activity and volunteers have dried up or moved on. But the church remains!
Though we're still careful to honor the community's rules (no overly pushy proselytizing), none really mind us opening the Bible, praying with them, and using creative means (like calligraphy) to bring God's gospel words of hope. And I've never heard a more tear-jerking strain of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" than the one the residents sing together with us. For the first time, parts of northern Japan are learning that they have a friend in the church, and a friend in Jesus. They are seeing a church without doors lovingly engaging their community and lives.
Pastor I takes us to the harbor around sunset. He shows us a tsunami warning tower with markings on the wall that indicate the height of the previous waves [see photo]. Wow! Yet that great wave of destruction on 311 was followed by greater waves of Christian testimony, and, I believe, will in time produce a great wave of spiritual awakening in northern Japan.
Would you pray for this ongoing relief work among the people of northern Japan? Pray that more would want to know what motivates these Christians to keep coming and keep loving them.
I have uploaded more photos for you to view. More info on Taro (the super seawall town) relief work on our blog here, here, and here.
Volunteering Once More in Miyako
Clear blue ocean water laps gently ashore. Sun glints off gorgeous white rock formations and cliffs that enclose the bay. Sightseers laugh aboard the many boats exploring caves and shoreline. This scenic sanctuary is panoramic eye candy. You can easily see why it is the pride of Miyako. In spite of its remote location, the beach attracts many people to an area that is otherwise just another set of fishing towns along the Iwate coastline.
Our volunteer team of 7 from Denen Grace Chapel once again had the joy of spending time among these survivors in the temporary housing areas around Miyako. More than two and a half years later, smiles come more easily and hearts are just a little more open. In two different locations, we first went door to door with a small gift (bookmark with Bible verse, rice cracker and candy) and invited residents to our cafe in the central meeting room. Here we offered a program of food (we made lots of sandwiches), coffee/tea, special music and karaoke, and bingo. I learned that the game of bingo is a serious matter among residents when prizes (daily consumables) are involved.
A time of singing with residents included familiar folk songs and hymns, and -- in an experiment -- Christian lyrics set to well-known Japanese tunes. Residents sang them eagerly. I think we may have created a new stream of contextualized Christian music. <View Photo Gallery>
<View Photo Gallery>
Our team also performed special music on stage for an outdoor community festival in Miyako under threatening skies. Pastor Iwatsuka said that up until a few years ago the church was not allowed to participate in the community festival. But now, after seeing the faithful work of volunteers since 311, the organizers urged the church to contribute to the outdoor program. What a turnaround!
It was a long road trip to Miyako. Ironically, it takes less time to go to Chicago from Kawasaki than it does to go to the temporary housing areas of Iwate. But we'd go back in a heartbeat. God has not left these people alone. He is reaching out to them through the hands and feet of his church volunteering there. And we sensed His love and renewing work in the hearts of people all around us. <View Photo Gallery>
Our family leaves for the States in just a few weeks. But after our return from the States in 2014, we look forward to visiting again. I can't wait to see what things of beauty God will do next in this place of past tragedy! See you again soon, Miyako!
Another Visit in Taro
It's a 12 hour drive to Taro from Kawasaki, farther than an international flight from Tokyo to Chicago (and not any easier on the legs and back). The trip had a few unexpected "slips" and "turns" as we ran into a late-winter snowstorm near the coast. Japan generally does not do a lot of plowing, and no salting. So, the mountain roads were quite an adventure to navigate with "normal" tires. Fortunately, I had tire chains along. Unfortunately I had never had occasion to practice putting them on. The chains claimed to be "NO-PROBLEM-30-seconds-EZ-on-and-off chains." I can tell you, in the cold, dark and snow, it was nowhere near EZ. I finally gave up and crawled slowly, slipping and sliding, to the gas station for help. It took them 30 minutes.
We cooperated again with a local church to do some simple survivor care with these residents. We hosted "mobile cafes" to encourage gathering and sharing with one another. When we arrived in the villages, half the team went to set up the cafe, the other half knocked door-to-door and spread the word that the cafe would open soon. I could tell by the surprised look on some of the residents faces that they had not encountered a big-nose American recently, much less one that spoke Japanese at them. I'm not sure whether this generated more curiosity in the cafe...or more fear.
Without work, residents look for things to keep them busy. One resident shared her newly-acquired talent of basket-weaving. It seems this is a very therapeutic hobby. Her bags and baskets were so well made that we strongly encouraged her to consider selling some. We told her that many people would love to buy a well-made eco-bag for shopping in a desire to support the Tohoku recovery. Of course, true to rural Japanese form, she was very self-deprecating and resisted our praise. We did manage to get her to pose for a photo, though.
I have the sense that God is doing great things in this town and will build His church here in the years to come. The mission potential of historically tough towns like Taro has seen a reboot with the tsunami. Closed networks have cracked open. New networks are being created. A new spiritual openness exists. Community is being reborn. And in that newly forming community, the church will find an opening for its message.
Jesus said, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35). Taro can't deny that it is being gently loved by God's people. In this Christlike love, the church will put down roots in the "swampy soil" of Japan. Toward this end, would you continue to keep Taro and the Miyako area in your prayer?
When I heard the story of Mrs. Matsukawa taking in a desperate young woman, and another neighbor rejecting the woman, I was reminded of the Christmas story. God was acting out of self-sacrifice and love; man was responding out of self-preservation and rejection. Although not a Christian, Mrs. Matsukawa certainly acted in a Christ-like way. Her neighbor, however, acted more like the innkeepers of Bethlehem. And lest we be too hard on the innkeeper, let’s remember that we, too, have more than once failed to give Jesus his rightful space in our lives. We, too, have unintentionally sent him to “the stable” of our lives on many occasions.
Our Savior still seeks room in the hearts of people. And the challenge of making room for Christ in my Bethlehem Inn-like heart is certainly reflected by how I make room for his people. None of those of whom God brings into my life will likely ever come paddling up to my window on a tree limb, but many are equally desperate. Although not a Christian, Mrs. Matsukawa certainly responded to the need around her in a Christ-like way. Her response challenges my heart. How about you?
The Humbled Tsunami
The school roof had saved them. Or had it? Some residents had a different story: “When the tsunami came near that church, it fell to the ground. That was how Nakano Elementary school was saved. If the tsunami had flooded in as it was, all 600 people would have been swept away.” The Seaside Bible Chapel took the worst of the blow, shielding the school just enough from the full force of the water. The school roof refugees were spared. A resident commented: “God sacrificed His own temple to save the children.”
God sacrificing his own to save many. The story has a familiar gospel ring to it. Hasn’t God done the same for us, his children? He’s held back the full punishment headed our way and let it crush down instead upon His beloved Son. That's real salvation!
What’s more, He now humbles personal tsunamis in our lives daily. Most of the schooltop survivors probably overlooked a destroyed church as God’s way of holding back the full force of the waters so it would not overcome them. How easy it is for us, though, to miss God’s work. The storm obeys him. Waters are permitted only so far in our lives and no further: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you pass through the rivers, they will not flow over you.” Isa 43:2
The end? No, God still has good things for the seaside church. The cross was found among wreckage and placed atop a beam (photo above). There it speaks powerfully to the many people that pass by. In the last 8 months the church has seen more visitors coming to pray in that location than in all its years of existence. The church itself, the members, are meeting in a coffee house. The video clip here tells a little about the effective outreach God has given them already. God has his “Easter Sunday” good purposes in every “Good Friday” disaster!
Relief Work in Miyako-Taro
The "Jesus People" in Taro
Six of us from our church plant in Kawasaki drove to Taro. There is no church here, nor any church in most of these fishing towns along the coast. But a church in Morioka (see video of Pastor Kondo), 70 miles inland, is helping coordinate Christian relief and witness in these devastated towns. The suicide rate there has escalated dramatically post 311. So our focus was heart care: talking with residents, delivering food items, offering to pray, doing light cleaning, asking about their needs, and playing with children.
The people who survived the tsunami were amazingly open, breaking cultural norms to open their home, welcome us in, talk and receive the food items we brought. They were also very near to tears and struggling with survivor's guilt. Many of their friends and neighbors were washed away. They only survived because their homes were built higher up on the mountain side, or they were out of town at the time.
After nearly four months of Christian relief activity, there are early signs of God's work in Taro's healing. There has been no high-pressure evangelism, just steady care and intentional serving of local residents. Many are taking interest in the motivation for these volunteers. Some eagerly take Bibles and Christian literature put out at a outdoor cafe a volunteer team has set up. Others have begun calling these Christian volunteers "Kirisutosha" or "the Jesus people," a term of admiration that rings of what Antioch called early believers they couldn't make sense of.
Would you pray for the energy and strength of Christian volunteers entering towns along the coast just like Taro. The opportunities and needs are great, the resources so few. Pray for wisdom to stretch what God has given.
Would you pray that the people would turn away from manmade security, toward the security of the Everlasting Arms, and receive forgiveness in Christ. Now is the time for a great revival in coastal Japan!
In the midst of his grief, the man desires that generations to come not endure the pain and sorrow that he is going through. They must be warned of the danger of tsunamis! They must not build homes along the shoreline! The man devises a warning system: a marker stone. The year is 1896. The Meiji-Sanriku tsunami has just killed 22,066 Japanese.
Hundreds of these stones are found along the coastline of Japan. Some are more than 600 years old. "High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants,” one reads. "Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis," another stone warns. "Do not build any homes below this point,” an inscription on another stone advises.
In the bustle of modern Japan, many disregarded such good advice, building communities right along water's edge. Perhaps they took comfort in the sea walls built in the 1960's after a smaller tsunami. But in the town of Aneyoshi, a centuries-old stone saved the day. It was advice that a dozen or so households of Aneyoshi listened to carefully, and on March 11, 2011 their homes and lives were spared from a disaster that flattened low-lying towns all around.
A God that loves us infinitely and knows us completely desires that we be spared from personal disaster in this life. He desires that we be spared not from physical death, but from spiritual, emotional and relational death that poor choices and rejection of His ways can bring. His warnings are left for all generations to know and heed. The warnings in His Word are not raging outbursts from an angry God. His warnings are gracious love calls that say, "I am for you. I want you to enjoy everything I have to give you. Listen to my wisdom for your life."
"Today I am giving you a choice between prosperity and disaster, between life and death...Oh, that you would choose life, that you and your descendants might live." Deut. 30:15, 19 NLT
Symbols of Hope
A solitary pine tree remains standing on a destroyed beachfront. It withstood the tsunami that destroyed everything around it. The tree has been at the center of an intense rescue effort to preserve its life. Saltwater poisoning in the soil threatens to do it in, and so team of specialists dig around the tree, replace soil, and monitor its health. DNA is extracted to replant the area someday with bits of new hope from this symbol of living hope.
Not far away another tree stands. A cross rises up above the site of a destroyed church building. Although once a symbol of death, the cross is a great symbol of life. No effort needs to be made to preserve the cross. Rather the cross offers to preserve the lives of all around from sin that has poisoned the "soil" of this world, and threatens to do us all in. The vision and prayer of Christians from this church is to replant the area with the love of Christ, the DNA of the cross. A sign nearby proclaims: "We believe in the revival of this land! Special hope is found here."
"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." 1 Peter 1:3
Brace for Impact?
The hi-tech system was rolled out to much fanfare just a few years back. It's set up to ring, vibrate and flash the 125 million plus cell phones throughout Japan when an earthquake is imminent. Sounds great. Makes me feel more secure. Technology is infallible, right? The problem is that technology, and this system, still depends on a fallible human link.
The biggest failing of the system was with the 3/11 quake. No early warning from cell phones. Several hours later, long after the tsunami had done its worst, the cell phones spewed out their first warning of the day. No doubt the person asleep at the switch with this one paid for the mistake with his job.
Since then the person in charge of pushing the button to alert all cell phones seems to be overcompensating for the 3/11 early warning boondoggle. The alert sounds. The cell phone vibrates off the table, lights flashing. We scatter away from windows. We open doors that might get jammed. We grab something solid and wait. And then...and then...nothing.
It's not that we're disappointed there wasn't another aftershock, it's just that these "cry wolf" false warnings that rattle us out of bed and our days activities are making it harding to trust the early warning technology at all.
Create technology so we needn't depend on God. Find comfort and security in buttons and gizmos and transistors. This is the natural direction of man, full of himself and his desire to master and rule his world. There's nothing wrong with using God-given wisdom to create technology to better our lives. But when dependence on technology moves us away from dependence on God, a problem emerges in our heart. Japan has long had this unhealthy dependence on technology to the exclusion of God. Its spiritual awakening starts with realizing the limits of man's wisdom and abilities. Pray that this disaster will open Japan's eyes to the need for a dependable source of security, the unshakeable ROCK, our God.
Rock 'n Roll with the Beetles
Three days, two earthquakes, and one typhoon and tsunami. We've been watching as Tokyo has gotten drenched the last couple days under a barrage of rain and heavy wind pushed ahead of typhoon #6. It's been impressive weather! The usual resulting mudslides have left a lot of people with some major cleanup south of Tokyo. Imagine your house with a foot deep of mud in it!
As if that weren't enough to contend with, this morning a 6.6 magnitude quake struck the Tokyo region. It shook us out of bed, quite literally, around 5am. As is my usual custom, I ran to the TV to see where it was centered and how strong it was in that area. A 2 foot tsunami was also reported to be headed toward the Shizuoka area south of us. Although a hundred people were hurt, no one lost their life. The typhoon was much more deadly, with several dozen killed from the mudslides or swept away in the flash flooding.
Meanwhile the beetles continue to sing, the Japanese beetles (cicadas), that is. The hot steamy weather this time of year seems to be a source of nonstop celebration for them. They provide the background music everywhere you go, every hour of the day (and night). In a week or two they will begin dying, but for now the literally millions of them in our neighborhood make quite a sound! Walking outdoors at night, I've had many fly into me. This is always startles me a bit as they are large bugs and make a pretty big impact. Take a look at the video here to get an idea of what they sound like together.