Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Reunion with Kyaro-chan and FAQ, volume II.

Last month I was able to get up to St. Paul, Minnesota for a few days to see Caroline, who I haven't seen since she visited the Bay Area last May. It was a lovely time catching up, reminiscing about Kumamoto, and enjoying the beautiful Minnesotan nature.

In the beautiful sunken garden in the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory.

Gorgeous Japanese garden in the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory. Really felt like the real thing.

Stopped here for lunch before heading up to the north shore of Lake Superior. Home of the
best grilled cheese sandwich I've ever had. (It had pesto! Genius!)

It was four years ago this summer that we met each other for the first time in Chicago, Illinois for orientation to the J-3 program and the 2012 Summer Missionary Conference. That's where we also first met several of the people we'd be working with--Morgan and Katie and other missionaries in Japan--that (little did we know) would change our lives irrevocably for the better.

The 30 29 months in Japan ended over a year ago, but life did not stop for anyone here or in Japan after April 1, 2015. (The Kumamoto earthquakes in April of this year were an especially vivid reminder of that.) The intervening seventeen months have brought their own joys and challenges. Consequently, it's been a bit of a challenge to figure out how to close out this blog. Even now I encounter kind people who ask me about my time there, and I could ramble on about it all day given the chance.

So here are some frequently asked questions, new for 2016.

How are people doing after the earthquake?
From what I hear, the relief effort is still going, especially in more rural areas. In the city, many are back in their homes and classes resumed at Luther in May, but the psychological effects of the quake still linger. I have heard requests from missionaries in Kumamoto to keep in your prayers those struggling with PTSD symptoms, especially the youngest ones.

How was Japan?
Amazing. Life-changing. Thus far the best decision I've ever made and greatest adventure I've ever had. I am grateful for everything, even the tough stuff. (And there was plenty of that, too.)

Do you miss it?
Every day.

Are you planning to go back?
Not immediately--at least, not for any extended period of time. Given the chance to visit for a few weeks, though, I'd be on the plane in a heartbeat.

This is Nene (pronounced "nehneh").
She is my roommate's cat and
more or less the cutest thing ever.
What are you doing now?
I am in graduate school, pursuing my master's degree in library and information science. I also work as a library tech at a public elementary school, where my daily experience is dramatically (and sometimes hilariously) different from teaching English at Luther. In my spare time I'm enjoying things I couldn't in Japan, like learning to play the folk harp (a new hobby) and keeping a cat in my apartment. I have been blessed by friends, family, and my church. (Oh, and I'm also my Presbyterian church's newest ruling elder.)

Sometimes, though, the future looks downright scary. Being a J-3, for all its ups and downs, was quite stable in a lot of ways. Housing, community, and employment were all more or less guaranteed while I was there. Now, back in America and on my own, there are no such guarantees.

When I taught at Luther, at the end of the year, after grades were due but before classes were over, I'd do movie lessons with my first-years. We'd give the kids a page of the screenplay with some of the words taken out and they'd watch the clip several times, listening carefully, and fill in the blanks. One of the lessons we did was the scene in Finding Nemo near the end where Dory and Marlin are in the whale. One part in particular brought tears to my eyes, every single time: when the whale is about to push Marlin and Dory out of his blowhole and Marlin holds on to the whale's tongue, certain that the whale is going to swallow them.
DORY: He says it's time to let go! Everything's gonna be all right!
MARLIN: How do you know?! How do you know something bad isn't gonna happen?!
DORY: I don't!
Japan did amazing things for my faith, and I know the lessons I learned there will stay with me for the rest of my life. But there's always more room to grow, more things to learn. I've seen the goodness of God here and halfway across the globe in the midst of what seems like despair. We can be assured God will have the final word on everything, even if everything seems hopeless. One day we'll see, but until then we are called to live in peace with one another; to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God; to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn; and to live in the hope of the Gospel. I do these things imperfectly at my best, but God's grace is more than enough to carry me through.

How can I repay the Lord
for all his goodness to me?

Psalm 116:12 (NIV)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

From the archives: a day in the life, literally translated.

Another one I found while going through some old files, drafted but never published. I''m not sure exactly when I wrote it, but it must have been during Katie's maternity leave in 2014, because she's not mentioned in it, and as the J-3s' (unofficial) mentor she was a major positive influence on my experience at Luther. I am indebted to her for many things, including the fact that I understood anything at all about day-to-day goings-on there.

Japanese culture is different from ours. For one thing, it consists almost entirely of Japanese people.
-Dave Barry, Dave Barry Does Japan (Random House, 1992)

Luther, up the hill from the main gate.
As I enter the east gate of Luther Academy in the morning sunlight, I dismount my bike before walking it to the staff parking lot, as per school rules. I pass a boy with his sports bag in his bike basket, walking to his class's bike parking area in the other direction. "Good morning!" I say in English. "It is early," he replies in Japanese, bowing.

I head up to the teachers' office and open the door. "It is early," I say in Japanese to the other teachers, who reply in kind. "'Morning," I say to Morgan and Brent, in English.

At 8:15 it's time for the Morning Ceremony in the main teachers' office. All the teachers stand in a circle around the room as the vice principal greets everyone. "It is early," he says with a bow. "I humbly request announcements."

Then various teachers stand up and give their notifications. "About the test proctoring last week; you have taken care of me..." "Apologies, this is about the girls' basketball team, but..." "Sorry, a humble request from the library..." Almost all of them end with a bow and a "I humbly request that you treat me favorably."

Then it's time for morning worship up in the Worship Hall. The students file in during the prelude (always played by a student musician) and at 8:30 Choi-chaplain walks up to the microphone to start the service. "Everyone, it is early. I think I want to start the morning worship for today. Let us prepare our hearts for worship and hold silence during the prelude." 30 seconds of music later, he announces the hymn for the morning, and we all stand up, hymnals open, and sing the first few verses. Then we sit down and Choi-chaplain announces the page number and passage of the Scripture for that morning before reading it aloud as we follow along in our own Bibles.

Heaven. (Sadly, it was heavily damaged
in the earthquakes this year.)
Then, after a short message, prayer, and postlude, the students file out and I run down to the teachers' office to gather materials for my first-hour class in the No. 2 Audiovisual Room, known among the native English teachers as "Heaven" because it's our best-looking classroom and on the top floor. "Please stand up," I tell them in English as the bell rings. "Good morning."

"Good morning," they reply in unison, and I tell them to sit down. Today's lesson starts with a conversation comprehension warm-up. My Japanese partner teacher and I recite a dialog we've written together about what our favorite colors are as the students answer questions on a handout. Then we check our answers.

"What's Yamada-teacher's* favorite color?" I ask the class. Blank stares, and then a small voice pipes up from the back. "Black?" "What's Laura-teacher's favorite color?" my partner teacher asks. Dead silence. Then I hear one student whisper, "Blue."

Then it's time for them to push their desks together in groups of four to work on five-sentence paragraphs, a writing format we'll visit and revisit all year. My partner teacher and I rove the room checking for concluding sentences, which they often forget. One of the boys has a question. "Teacher! Teacher teacher teacher!" he says in Japanese, raising his hand. "Yes, student," my partner teacher answers in English, tongue-in-cheek. We exchange quick amused smiles.

Later that morning I'm down in the teachers' office, approaching one of the senior math teachers with a request. "Teacher?" I say tentatively as I stand behind her desk. "Yes, yes," she says, taking off her glasses."It's about the eleventh-grade Special Advanced English Course class," I say, "but would it possibly be good if we used the computer lab a little bit next Wednesday during sixth hour?" "Yes, please do," she replies. "Thank you very much. Sorry," I say, bowing. "No, no," she says with a smile and a wave.

During fourth hour I slip out to the cafeteria before the lunch-hour crowd swarms in. "Welcome!" call all the lunch ladies, all wearing the same opaque hairnets and face masks. "I humbly request the fried tofu and a small rice," I tell them, as they happily scoop each onto separate plates for me. I put the plates on my tray and head over to the cash register. "Yes, I'll humbly take 290 yen," says the lady stationed there. "Ah, teacher, you forgot your chopsticks!"

Leaving campus through the main gate.
At 5:00 I'm getting ready to pack up and head out a bit earlier than usual, since I have an appointment at the house of a lady from my church that evening. I load up my bag, lock my desk, tuck in my chair, and head for the door. "I'm committing a rudeness by going before you," I call to my fellow teachers still in the office. "You look tired!" they call back cheerfully. "See you tomorrow, Laura!" says one Japanese English teacher, in English, with a wave. I head down to grab my bike and walk it past the security guard stationed at the main gate. He stands and bows, smiling. "You look tired," he says. "I'm committing a rudeness," I say, returning the smile, and then I hop on my bike and ride home.

Japanese Set Phrase Meaning in Practice Literal Meaning
Konnichiwa Hello Regarding this day
Konbanwa Good evening Regarding this evening
Ohayō gozaimasu Good morning It is early
Yoroshiku onegaishimasu Thank you for doing this favor for me
I look forward to working with you
Nice to meet you
I humbly request that you [treat me] favorably
Otsukaresama desu Good work today
That's all for today
Thanks for your hard work
You look tired
Shitsurei shimasu Goodbye
Sorry to be a bother
Excuse me
I am committing a rudeness

*Names have been changed.

A person finds joy in giving an apt reply--
and how good is a timely word!

Proverbs 15:23 (NIV)

Thursday, July 14, 2016

From the archives: summer in Kumamoto.

One muggy afternoon in the summer of 2014, Caroline and I sat with our laptops at the Starbucks around the corner from the J-3 apartments and commiserated about the subtropical heat and the fact that we hadn't seen the sun for what seemed like months. I drafted this entry but somehow never posted it. Here it is in its entirety.

As someone used to bone-dry California summers and mercifully cool Bay Area nights, the heat and humidity that lays over Kumamoto like a blanket hits me pretty hard. Japan has a term for summer fatigue--natsubaté, and it turns out I'm not immune. We've got more typhoons this year than we did last year, so the vast majority of the time the skies are just gray, and rain can fall in torrents without warning (and lift just as quickly).

In an effort to maintain a good sense of humor about this situation, Caroline and I have compiled a list which I have entitled, "You might be in Kumamoto in summer if:"
  • You drink several liters of water a day and you still get dehydrated.
  • Your clothes always feel like they've come straight out of the dryer, only halfway done.
  • If you leave the lid on the toilet closed, it becomes a mold terrarium.
  • Walking outdoors from an air-conditioned building is like walking into a steam room.
  • Walking into an un-air-conditioned room from an air-conditioned one is like walking into a steam room with a plastic bag thrown over your head.
  • You air out your dirty clothes before throwing them into the hamper so they don't get mildewy.
  • People carry around sweat towels. (I'm not joking; this is a thing. They're actually quite fashionable.)
  • Your bottle of body lotion has sat unused for weeks on your bathroom counter.
  • You don't take off your clothes; you peel them off.
  • Every day is a vinegar- and bleach-scented battle against mold.
  • You go to the drugstore and see entire shelves of full-body deodorant sprays.
  • "It's hot, isn't it?" -every Japanese person, everywhere, every day.
  • Your hair has become a mane of frizz, and you will just have to accept that.
  • Staying in bed is actually less comfortable than getting up (unless you like lying in your own sweat).

Caroline and me, waiting for the typhoon that never came. (Photos by Brent, July 2014.)

For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
Psalm 32:4 (NIV)

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Earthquake updates from Kumamoto.

It's been a week since the Kumamoto Earthquake, and while things are settling down, I'm hearing that there are still many who cannot return home yet and have to continue sleeping in their cars or in public or school gymnasiums. Utilities are slowly being restored but there are still places in desperate need of supplies, especially food, water, and shelter. A couple of the Lutheran churches in Kumamoto are serving as evacuation centers still. Little by little things are stabilizing, and in their various social media and blog updates it seems that church folks are still finding bright spots in the middle of an otherwise rough situation. (In a Kengun Church blog post about the delicate toilet situation there, they called it [the Japanese equivalent of] their "number-two problem.") Still, it's going to be a long and arduous journey to the region's recovery. Please keep the people of Kumamoto in your prayers.

Since the quake I've also been closely following blog of Kuwamizu Church's Pastor Sumimoto. I was struck by an entry from the Sunday after the quakes. Originally Kuwamizu was going to cancel the service for that day, given the tenuous state of the older church building and the aftershocks, but several members still gathered together in the play yard of Kuwamizu Kindergarten next door to worship that morning. "Especially in a time like this," Pastor Sumimoto says, "were were able to deeply, deeply feel the joy of being able to sing hymns, the gratefulness at being able to pray, and the blessing of being able to hear God's word." May they continue to be strengthened.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 15:13 (NIV)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Quakes in Kumamoto.

It's hard to know how to begin this entry.

I was going to make my last post on (or close to) April 1, the Returnniversary, with some reflections on the year since I got back to the States and what my time in Japan meant to me, etc. But that seems trite now, especially in light of the past few days.

If you haven't heard, there was a magnitude-6.5 earthquake centered in Kumamoto on Thursday, followed by a 7.0 earthquake on Friday. The damage is extensive, and the death toll as of this writing is already in the 40s, with more victims possibly buried in collapsed buildings. I've been furiously trying to get in touch with everyone I can. Kuwamizu Church sustained damage in the sanctuary but is thankfully still standing, though church services have been canceled for Sunday. Luther High School suffered some structural damage as well. Members of my church and other missionaries tell me there's no gas service, no water coming out of the faucets, often no electricity, and lines for gas stations going down the street and around the corner. They've had to sleep in cars, out in parks, in school gymnasiums, in covered parking structures. It's been unpleasantly surreal, seeing photos on the news or on people's Facebook timelines of places I know so well with broken glass, cracked walls, collapsed roofs. I'm more thankful than I ever have been in my life for social media so I can know people are safe, though I'm still anxiously waiting on updates from a few dear friends whom I haven't heard from since before the main quake.

Please keep Kumamoto in your prayers. Aftershocks are expected to continue for another week, and rain this weekend has only added to the misery. Please pray for the rescuers and evacuees, that they be kept safe and that the ground quiets beneath them; that they may know God's peace and presence with them; and that God's love for them be clearly shown, even in the midst of this disaster.

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.
Romans 12:15 (NIV)

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Notes from Kumamoto.

I was invited to share this message on August 9, 2015 at one of my dear sponsoring churches, Trinity Lutheran Church in Fresno, California.

With my lovely Fresno hosts. Thank you for everything!

For two-and-a-half years from the fall of 2012 to the spring of this year, I served in Japan as what is called a "J-3." "J-3" stands for "Japan - 3 years," and is one of the ELCA's longest-running short-term global mission programs. Since 1954, the ELCA has been sending young adults to Japan on the J-3 program to teach English and live in Christian community with other missionaries and members of Japanese churches. I am so thankful for the support, prayers, and encouragement from the members of Trinity Lutheran and its Women of the ELCA group during my tenure in Japan.

Densha Street, Kumamoto.
After a couple of months in Tokyo for language and culture orientation, I moved to a city on the southern island of Kyushu called Kumamoto. The capital of Kumamoto Prefecture, it had about the population of San Francisco and the land area of Bakersfield. It was neither too big, nor too small, and had plenty of culture and atmosphere to spare, owing in large part to its legendary cuisine, world-famous prefectural mascot Kumamon, and the castle dating back 700 years towering over downtown.

Me, Morgan, Caroline.
I arrived in Japan with two other female J-3s my age, Caroline and Morgan. The three of us were assigned to Kumamoto, where Morgan and I worked at Luther Junior and Senior High School and Caroline worked at nearby Kyushu Gakuin Senior High School, both Lutheran schools started by American missionaries in the early 20th century. We were all assigned to separate Lutheran churches in Kumamoto for Sunday morning services, but came together every Sunday evening for the Kumamoto International English Service at Kumamoto Lutheran Church. The church I was assigned to for Sunday mornings was the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Kuwamizu Church, who took very good care of me, and where I learned much more than I taught at my monthly English Bible Study.

My days were busy and my weeks tiring, but the things I witnessed and learned while I was in Japan made the whole experience worthwhile, and I'd like to share with you this morning some things that I saw and learned.

Shrine in Suizenji Park, Kumamoto.
When people think of "the mission field," Japan isn't likely to be first on most people's lists. It's wealthy, stable, and peaceful; it has a famously low violent crime rate; and it's well-known mostly for its high technology, cultural aesthetic, and pop culture. Yet its Christian population is miniscule: less than one percent. Now, up until the mid-nineteenth century Christianity was banned, shunned, or persecuted, but even though freedom of religion has been a guaranteed right since 1873, a growing majority of Japanese aren't even religious. On paper, Japan is majority Buddhist and indigenous Shinto, but most religious expression nowadays is in the form of good luck charms and prayers for things like passing exams, traffic safety, and luck in love. Sadly, Japan also has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and satisfaction with life ranks incredibly low relative to other developed countries. Japan's need for the Gospel is as great as anywhere else in the world, but while missionaries in underdeveloped countries have a plethora of other, basic human needs to also fulfill, Japan seems to "have it all."

It was in this context that I learned that mission work—and really any kind of work for God's kingdom—is a team effort, and it's not all at once. Like Paul and Apollos in Corinth, some plant the seed, some water it, but only God makes it grow. One of my favorite things working in Japan was hearing the stories from my predecessors' time serving there. 61 years ago, when the J-3 program started, Japan wasn't doing so well. World War II had just ended less than ten years previously, and Japan was literally and economically in shambles. The Allies had helped rebuild the country during its occupation, but it was a dramatically different Japan than before. No longer was the Emperor worshiped as a god, and under its new constitution Japan was not allowed to have a military. As people sought direction during this uncertain time, Christianity enjoyed great growth. In Christ, many people found peace and purpose, and church membership rose.

Rev. Andy Ellis, 1926-2013.
In Kumamoto, then a rural little town with mostly dirt roads and only one traffic light, missionaries worked mostly in education. Reverend Andy Ellis, who started the J-3 program, drove a bookmobile around town and showed evangelical films depicting the life of Christ. The first J-3s were serving as English teachers at the two Lutheran schools in Kumamoto. The rainy season of 1952 was particularly intense, and caused the Shirakawa River that runs through the city to overflow. The flood killed 300 residents and displaced hundreds more, and in Andy Ellis' neighborhood, the only two-storied building was the missionaries' house. While the floodwaters took out all the other homes, Andy Ellis sheltered his neighbors on the second floor.

It used to be that missionaries were the only ones in Kumamoto who had cars, and by my time we were the only ones who didn't. My only independent mode of transportation besides my own two feet was a bicycle. If the Shirakawa were to flood, which it did in the summer before I got there, I would be the one seeking shelter, since the J-3 apartments are on the floodplain.

My relative lack compared to others around me coupled with the undeniable prosperity of Japan in general, made me often wonder what being a missionary really meant. Of course there were plenty of philanthropic activities to take part in—an annual Christmas toy drive at the local Christian orphanage, feeding the homeless at a park once a month, raising money for relief in the Tohoku region as they continue to recover and rebuild after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. But in my everyday life I felt helpless more often than not. How do I serve God in a country where everyone seemed to have more than me?

I turned out to have been jumping the gun a bit. First of all, none of us, not even missionaries, are capable of saving anyone, even ourselves. That's the whole point of grace, after all. We don't deserve the love God has poured on us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We deserve the death He suffered, but instead we are given eternal life. The first thing I had to learn as a missionary was this: that I'm not a savior; I'm a saved sinner.

It was one night that I was walking home to the J-3 apartments with Caroline, who by then had become a good friend, that I expressed my anxiety at how to respond to a student who had expressed an interest in the Christian faith. I was going on about how I felt like this student's faith was like a tiny baby bird in my hands that I'd crush if I wasn't careful when Caroline stopped me and told me straight up: "Honey, it doesn't have a darned thing to do with you."

She was absolutely right. Jesus tells us in today's Gospel reading: "No one can come to me unless that Father who sent me draws him." It's not up to us to do anything except respond to God's choosing of us.

Does that mean evangelism or mission work is irrelevant? Of course not. Jesus is the Bread of Life, but we're the salt of the earth. In a sermon at the International English Service, our pastor remarked that salt is a seasoning that brings out the flavor of food; it is not in and of itself a food. Any child who has tried licking a dash of salt out of their palm can tell you that. I was thinking I was supposed to be salt trying to be bread inviting people to a feast.

So some months into my first year of teaching, I took a different tack: watching, praying, and listening. And sure enough, suddenly I began to see little sprouts and seedlings everywhere. A student expressing a desire to start reading the Bible every day. Multiple adult baptisms one Easter Sunday. Students showing up at the Sunday night International English Service. Slowly I learned to accept that when I saw other missionaries or Christian teachers reach Japanese people for Christ in a powerful way, it was occasion to rejoice, not to feel like a failure in comparison. I wasn't watching people work; I was watching God work.

Luther High School chapel.
My final morning chapel speech to the students of Luther Junior and Senior High School in March perfectly exemplified everything I learned about missionary work over my 30 months in Japan. Normally, when J-3s give morning chapel speeches, they are situated at one lectern on the right, and a Japanese English teacher stands at a lectern to the left. The J-3 reads their chapel speech one paragraph at a time, pausing after each one so the Japanese English teacher can interpret for the students. Both the J-3 and the Japanese teacher's microphones are connected to the PA system so the message can be broadcast over the whole school. I was expecting this chapel speech to go as every other one had, except that as I began to speak, I discovered that my microphone wasn't working.

The teachers in charge of the sound system started frantically trying to get the microphones working. One even started piling books under the microphone to raise it up to my mouth, thinking I might be too far away for it to pick up the sound of my voice. But the microphone I was speaking into was dead.

I didn't stop, though, and was surprised to find myself unfazed. As long as the microphone in front of my interpreter was working, I knew the students were going to hear the most important thing. Not my English, not even my chapel speech, but the Scripture I most wanted them to know and take to heart: Romans 38:38-39. "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

It didn't matter whether I was getting heard. Few students at my school had the listening comprehension ability to understand a simple English conversation, let alone an entire sermon. There was nothing important about the message getting delivered in my voice, or my language. The important thing was that God was speaking, and I pray that God was in the hearts and minds of the students and teachers listening that day.

God has done so many amazing things in my life and in the lives of the people I worked with in Japan, and I am so blessed to have been a J-3. Thank you for your support during those 29 months and for inviting me here to share these things with you today. May God be glorified and richly bless all of you in your lives and your ministries as you respond to God's call in your lives.

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: "They will all be taught by God." Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.
John 6:44-51 (NIV)

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

What I Learned, By Laura, Age 25⅓.

Originally presented on May 17, 2015 at my home church following my return from Japan.

As many of you know, from November 1, 2012 until April 1, 2015, I was in Japan working as a missionary and English teacher for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on what is called the "J-3 Program." "J-3" means "Japan - 3 years," though the actual time spent working in Japan is closer to two-and-a-half.

Japan isn't usually the first country to come to mind when one thinks of a "mission field," and indeed, the main reason I went with the Lutheran church instead of the Presbyterian one is because the PC(USA) doesn't really have a major presence in Japan. Actually, you could say that there isn't really a strong "church" presence in Japan at all; less than 1% of the population professes to be Christian, and though the majority religions are Buddhism and indigenous Shinto, Japan is so secular now that most "worship" comes in the form of occasionally praying at a shrine for good luck on something.

J-3s are usually young adults a few years out of college, and they're assigned to either teach English at a student center and a Lutheran girls' dormitory in Tokyo; or they're assigned to teach English at a Lutheran junior-and-senior high school in the southern city of Kumamoto. After a 2½-month orientation in Tokyo, two other J-3s my age, Caroline and Morgan, and I were together all sent to Kumamoto. Kumamoto, the capital city of Kumamoto Prefecture, has about the population of San Francisco and the land area of Bakersfield. It was neither too big nor too small, and had lots of history and culture, as well as my favorite, a castle.

I was assigned to Luther Junior and Senior High School, two schools on the sprawling Luther Gakuin (or Academy) campus on the north side of the city that also includes a college and a kindergarten. The vast majority of my students were the equivalent of tenth-graders, though I also taught the Special Advanced English Course track eleventh- and twelfth-graders, as well as a couple rowdy classes of eighth-graders in the junior high.

On Sunday mornings I attended Kuwamizu Lutheran Church, a twenty-minute streetcar or a thirty-minute bicycle ride from my apartment. I "helped"--and mind, "helped" is in heavy quotation marks--with their elementary Sunday School, sang in choir, and held an English Bible study once a month, where I'm pretty sure learned a lot more from my pastor and from members of my church than I ever taught.

Sunday evenings found me together with the whole Kumamoto Lutheran missionary crew, long-termers and short-termers, at Kumamoto Lutheran Church for the weekly International English Service. I helped with the English Sunday School twice a month while Caroline led a Bible study, and during the service I did everything from leading worship to playing piano to sitting at the laptop to advance the PowerPoint.

You know, it's funny--you think you're going out to do God's work, and God ends up working on you, instead. Looking back on two-and-a-half years in Japan, all I can tell you for sure is that I learned a lot. And so, I've decided to title my presentation "What I Learned, By Laura, Age 25⅓."

May contain jellyfish.
During my time as a J-3 I learned lots of little things like that 400 grams of cooked macaroni is a heck of a lot more than it looks uncooked, or that you may not always be able to identify everything in your otherwise delicious lunch box, and that's OK, or how much Japanese church ladies love to play dress-up with you. Lots of good, small lessons like these that make for funny anecdotes to share at parties. Ask me sometime about how I accidentally locked myself out of my apartment building at 6am the morning we left Tokyo for Kumamoto and how my longsuffering boss had to climb a fence for me to let me back in. (I'm eternally indebted to him now, by the way.) But for this presentation, I'd like to focus on five specific "big" lessons that I learned in Japan:
  1. Being a missionary does not automatically make you a better, holier person.

  2. Our most important citizenship is of the Kingdom of God.

  3. Listen and obey even when you don't understand.

  4. God's work doesn't depend on you.

  5. Compassion is realism.
None of these are anything new to most people here, I'm sure, but they're the ones that have stuck the most, so please bear with me as I expound on them.

1. Being a missionary does not automatically make you a better, holier person.
First, let me get this out of the way if anyone's wondering: no, being a missionary does not automatically make you a better, holier person. It actually does the exact opposite. Never in my life have I felt weaker and more despicable than when I became a missionary.

One last bike cruise around Kumamoto.
Being a missionary sure looks holy, though; I did have to forgo things. Of course, I had to leave my homeland, where things were familiar and I was literate, and become an outsider. I also wasn't allowed to have a car, so the only ways I could get anywhere were to walk, ride my bicycle, take public transit, or bum a ride off someone. It seems like a simpler, more spiritual way to live, and I wish I could say that freed from the burden of a motor vehicle I learned to live at peace without one. But many days I sorely missed not having to put on a full-body plastic suit to go anywhere in the rain, or having a vehicle that doesn't tip over when you try to put too many groceries in it.

It turns out, blessedly, that this is a good thing. Coming face-to-face with my weaknesses and pettiness forced me to realize just how weak and petty I am… and how much of a sinner in need of grace I am… and how amazing God is for having the grace to love me, whiny wretch that I often am. It's hard to explain, but it's a rare job that can leave you in tears at your breakfast table over how tired you are and how much work you have and remain the most fulfilling job you've ever had. It was by the grace of God that I can look back at everything, everything over the past 30 months and rejoice in it all.

2. Our most important citizenship is of the Kingdom of God.
Now of course, I'm a citizen of the United States. I was born here and raised here and speak and read the local language. I never realized how much I took these things for granted until I went to Japan.

In Japan, I rather stood out in a crowd. I could never hide the fact that I was different from the vast majority of the people around me, and in Japan, that automatically labels me a foreigner. Back in high school and college I often felt like an outsider because I generally hung out with nerds and geeks, but I didn't know what being an outsider truly meant until going to a restaurant in Kumamoto and watching the wait staff have a minor panic attack upon my entrance.

Eventually, our grocery store, post office, convenience store, and favorite restaurants got used to their new foreign customers, and relaxed when they found out we could conduct our business fairly well in Japanese. Many staff members were downright friendly, going out of their way to help us when we couldn't quite articulate what we needed or weren't sure how to go about doing something. But we'd step into a new restaurant and the cycle would start all over again: the look of terror on the staff's faces and the hesitating inquiry into whether we could speak Japanese. The worst places were when we were actively avoided.

There was only one kind of place in Japan that I never felt that kind of alienation, and that was the churches. Every church we went to welcomed us with open arms. No one panicked about us not being able to speak Japanese; in fact, some members were eager to share their small knowledge of English just to help us feel at home. A grad student and her family at my church in Tokyo, now dear friends of mine, welcomed me into their home on multiple occasions and made sure I had a family to spend my first Christmas in Japan with. At Kuwamizu, my assigned church in Kumamoto, I learned even more about hospitality from my pastor. Pastor Sumimoto and his family took care of me in myriad ways when I was in Kumamoto, heading up the J-3 Care Committee tasked with helping to keep us sane, and in one final act of generosity the night before I left Kumamoto to come back to America, bringing his family minivan around to the J-3 apartments to pick up a box full of things we couldn't take with us to sell at the annual church charity sale.

The language and culture barrier didn't stop at the church door, of course; in two-and-a-half years of Japanese sermons I never came across one I could understand fully that wasn't the children's sermon, and there were many times I wasn't sure what to do or where I was supposed to go for a church event. But none of this ever made me feel truly like an outsider, and I'm pretty sure that's because we were, as the song goes, "one in the Spirit." There's something about this faith of ours, the "Body of Christ" that joins people from places oceans apart and makes us all family. It was a blessing to experience that firsthand in Japan.

3. Listen and obey even when you don't understand.
I'm gonna be honest. Even after studying Japanese for six years, there was a lot of stuff I didn't understand. Everything from restaurant menus to kitchen appliances to street signs always carried an element of mystery. Now, I don't like not understanding things. This is part of the reason I studied Japan and Japanese for so long: when I took a spring break trip to Japan with my high school travel club back in my senior year, I got so interested in understanding Japanese culture that I pretty much majored in it in college, knowing that one day I wanted to go back for a longer period of time.

It was a little disappointing to see how little Japanese I could really use after six years in the classroom, but it forced me to do something I need to do but hate doing: trust. Say yes to requests I don't fully understand. Get on a bus with members of my church to climb a mountain I'd never heard of. Go to a church lady's house one Saturday because she mentioned something about Japanese culture and tea and invited you.

Incidentally, the name for Jesus in Japanese is Iesu, which is identical to the Japanese transliteration of the English word "yes." As the months went by in Japan, I found myself more and more willing to say "iesu" to "Iesu." It's scary going sometimes, especially now when I'm back in the States trying to figure out my next move in life. But now I can remember my 29 months in Japan and know that Jesus was there with me the whole time.

4. God's work doesn't depend on you.
This was a harder one for me to learn. I tend to be a people-pleaser and hyper-responsible, so after my second stuttering, awkward attempt to explain to a student about to study abroad why we were giving her an English Bible and why the Bible is so important, I was feeling pretty down on myself as a missionary. The others had managed to have meaningful, spiritual conversations two weeks into Tokyo orientation; all I'd managed to do was spill spaghetti sauce on my Bible one night over dinner.

I was talking about my anxieties over my missionary abilities to Caroline one night as we walked back to the apartments, and I was going on about how every time a student asked about God or came to church I felt like I had a tiny baby bird in my hands and if I wasn't careful I'd crush it, when Caroline stopped me and told me straight-up: "Honey, it doesn't have a darned thing to do with you."

She was right, of course. I'm not a soul-saver. I'm a saved sinner who God allowed to go to Japan for some reason that's still not entirely clear to me. I gradually learned that the best way to go about my days was to pray, a lot. Whenever a student asked about God in their English journal, I learned to pray for God to give me the words to write and then write what was in my heart. I learned to stop writing tidy conversion stories for people in my head and to trust the Holy Spirit to work through or despite me. I learned to rejoice when my fellow J-3 wrote an amazing chapel speech full of love and truth that had clearly touched the hearts of both students and teachers, and when my Japanese partner teacher used her Bible for an example show-and-tell speech to tell the students about the love of God detailed therein, not take it as a personal failing that I hadn't. Whether or not I had an impact on their decision, a baptism of a student or a new member of church was always cause for celebration.

5. Compassion is realism.
By "compassion is realism" I mean that compassion is the truest, most Christian way of acknowledging the way the world is. Let me give you an example.

The view from Kumamoto Castle in March 2013.
One of my least favorite things about living in Japan was the air quality. The geography of Japan, as well as Korea, means that sandstorms from the Mongolian desert, mixed with industrial pollution and smog from the mostly coal-powered China, plus, according to newer reports, bacteria and viruses all blow directly over the islands every year, visibly. It's called "yellow sand," and some days it gets so bad that cities send out alerts warning people not to hang their laundry on the line, or not to let their asthmatic kids or elderly grandparents outside. The worst was the PM2.5, or particulate matter less than 2.5 micrograms in size. These particles are so small that they get past all the body's natural defenses against airborne pollutants and are linked to pretty much every neurological or respiratory ailment you can think of. The World Health Organization says that there's no "safe" level of PM2.5, but it's considered highly unsafe in concentrations above 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air--that's the point at which municipal governments start issuing alerts.

One morning in early March 2013, during the last few weeks of my Kumamoto orientation, I was walking down to the bank before my Japanese lesson and noticed my throat was getting a little scratchy. I didn't think much of it until I got to my lesson, when my teacher told me that the PM2.5 levels were at an all-time high, 70 micrograms per cubic meter. Twice the WHO limit.

I spent most of the rest of the day fretting about what it was doing to me. How many years did the PM2.5 shave off my life? Was I going to go home with some kind of horrible lung disease as a result of two years in Kumamoto? In the following months, I would check the prefectural government's PM2.5-monitoring website almost obsessively. I was always grumpy and irritable when the PM2.5 was up, trying to think of some strategy to keep myself safe from the toxic miasma outside. One night that December I stubbornly stayed at school until late in the evening, waiting for the PM2.5 levels to drop before I'd walk out the door. Instead, they only climbed, so at 8pm I gave up and rode home, only to have the levels drop soon thereafter.

PM2.5 brought out my worst self. I was always concerned about what effect it would have on me, forgetting that there were millions of other people who didn't have the luxury of working mostly indoors, who were much more vulnerable to the pollution. I myself had close friends that had asthma, or were pregnant. Did I give them as much thought as I gave myself? I'm ashamed to say no. No, I didn't. If, at a time the PM2.5 was high, the Spirit had told me to do something involving going outside, would I have done it? I don't know, but it's doubtful. My ability to be compassionate seemed to disappear in the smog.

Throughout my life, I came to realize, I'd subconsciously subscribed to the belief that doing the "right" thing would somehow lower chances of suffering. Who doesn't want suffering to be preventable, right? But this belief is not only faulty, it's harmful. By this logic, you could say that if someone is suffering, they somehow, directly or indirectly, brought it upon themselves. This renders compassion meaningless.

Had the millions of people affected by the toxic yellow sand brought it upon themselves? The construction workers who had to work outside all day in that stuff? The residents of Beijing, who, at the time Kumamoto's levels were at 70 micrograms per cubic meter, were at seven hundred micrograms per cubic meter? Was the relative health of my lungs more important than theirs?

And this is what led me to realize compassion is true realism: compassion is the acknowledgement that bad stuff happens, and it happens, as far as we know, indiscriminately. It's choosing to share the burden of suffering, instead of patting ourselves on the back for merely being in a situation that allows us to avoid it.

Compassion, by its very nature, is vulnerability. It's weakness, and I don't like feeling weak. But that's what makes compassion compassion. Didn't God stand to lose His only Son when He sent Jesus into the world? And yet Paul encourages us in the letter to Philippians to be like Jesus, who took on the form of a servant, humbling himself even to the point of death on a Cross. Talk about vulnerability and weakness!

All the cards I received while I was in Japan.
In today's Gospel reading, Jesus prayed that his disciples be protected, but not taken out of the world. This world is a smoggy, risky one, filled with uncertain paths and outsiders and people who seem to be doing such better things than you. There will be tribulation, and no holy job title is going to protect you from it--in fact, it may just usher you right up to the front lines. But this is the promise Jesus gave his disciples, and the promise that he gives to us: we are his. He is the Way and the Truth and the Life, and nothing can separate us from his love. This is what I endeavored to preach and learned to take to heart during my 29 months in Japan. Thank you all so much for the prayers, support, encouragement, and love you all sent to me in that time. May you all be filled with joy and peace and be guided by the light of the truth of Jesus Christ. Amen.

My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.
John 17:15-19

Monday, March 28, 2016

The pre-departure message (2012).

The following is a slightly edited version of the message I shared at my home church on September 23, 2012, before I left for Japan. I found it while going through some old files and thought I'd share it with you all.

Good morning. Or, as I will be soon be greeting people, ohayou gozaimasu. Originally, I was going to head out to Japan in two days, but some surprise bureaucracy has put a delay in my work visa approval and I get the feeling I'm about to learn some valuable lessons about patience as I wait for confirmation of my travel dates.

Eventually I'll head to Japan to teach English and work at a church for the next two-and-a-half years as part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's so-called "J-3" program--"J" for Japan, "3" for the approximate 3 years of service. I'll spend about three months in Tokyo, and then fly down to the city of Kumamoto to get acquainted with my school and church placement. I will start teaching at one of the two Lutheran junior/senior high schools in Kumamoto next April.

Some of you might be asking (quite reasonably) why I'm doing a mission program with the largest Lutheran denomination in America and not the Presbyterian Church (USA). I promise I'm still a Presbyterian, and proud to be. The PC(USA) has a solid mission program, and Presbyterian missionaries do a lot of great things. We read about them in bulletin inserts every week. One of my closest friends from summer staff at Westminster Woods just finished up a year teaching in Miami with the PC(USA)'s Young Adult Volunteer program, and had an amazing experience of serving God in intentional community there. But the PC(USA) mission program doesn't have a J-3 program.

It had everything I was looking for--an opportunity to work in Japan and to live in intentional Christian community, which is something I learned to value during my three summers at Westminster Woods. Japan is less than 1% Christian; finding a Christian community with people my age while working at a secular English-teaching job would be next to impossible. With the J-3 program, I'll be living in it.

Ever since I first went to Japan back in high school, I've been hooked on studying its language, history, and culture, and knew that after college I wanted to go back to Japan for a longer time. But the program I'll be on is quite different from the standard English-teaching jobs most college grads get. I'm about to become a missionary.

Protestor at FanimeCon 2012 wearing
handy T-shirt listing who's going to hell.
Photo by Foxtrot1988 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
For many people, including myself, that's a term filled with myriad connotations, ranging from excitement to revulsion. Christian missionaries have done and still do amazing things--Mother Teresa feeding the poor in India, for example. But Christian mission also has a past strongly associated with cultural imperialism, racism, and coercion. Even in this postcolonial era, there are people out there calling themselves Christians and believing that when they stand on street corners, shouting and waving huge signs listing all the kinds of people that are doomed to hell, they're doing God's work. My friends and I attend nerdy conventions every year, the kind where people show up in costume, and have seen these people firsthand. Every Memorial Day Weekend they stand on boxes outside the convention center, holding signs that say "Cry to God" and "Jesus Saves From Hell," shaking their Bibles and shouting that dressing in costume is idolatry and if every costumed attendee doesn't get on their knees now and beg Jesus for forgiveness they will be eternally condemned. Even uglier than their rhetoric are the reactions of some attendees, who mock them and shout abuse. It breaks my heart every year.

The Japan group at the ELCA Summer
Missionary Conference, 2012.
Shouting condemnation from a street corner. Leaving Bible tracts instead of a tip. Making nonbelieving friends targets for conversion. These are things in which I know I don't want to take part. So when I and the other two women going with me to Japan, Morgan and Caroline, were discussing what mission meant with our coordinator in Chicago, we gave mostly mild answers. Performing acts of service and love. Forming deep relationships with people and listening to them in conversation. But then our coordinator said, "Well, anyone can do those things. What makes us different as Christians?"

In the silence that followed, old anxieties from middle and high school suddenly bubbled up in me. If I really believe all these things about Jesus, why aren't I out there handing out tracts and saving souls? Why aren't I taking every opportunity to snatch my friends and neighbors from the jaws of hell? Do I hate them that much? I'm not even comfortable talking to people I don't know about the weather; how could I just go up to them and give 'em the old "Can I tell you about my friend Jesus?" talk? I felt like I had the burden of their eternal fate on my 13-year-old shoulders.

There are plenty of forceful preachers in the Bible. The Old Testament prophets were often taken for crazy by the Israelites themselves. In the New Testament, both John the Baptist and Jesus call certain groups of people "broods of vipers"!

But I'm not any of those people. I've never had any prophetic visions, angels didn't foretell my birth, and I'm certainly not the Son of God! But the Prophets and Jesus and John the Baptist aren't the only preachers in the Bible. That guy we heard about in Acts wasn't any of those things, either. In other places in the New Testament he even calls himself the "worst of sinners," (1 Tim. 1:15) and agonizes over his slavery to the sin living in him (Romans 7). A little more relatable than wearing camel's hair and eating locusts and wild honey like John the Baptist.

When he was in Athens, Paul wasn't looking for notches to add to his witnessing shotgun. He didn't march in and try to dictate the Athenians' individual spiritual needs, wring tearful conversions out of people, or hit 'em with a turn-or-burn ultimatum. He engaged with the people and their culture in a respectful way. He participated in the discussions already going on at the time. And he offered his testimony. That was all he could do. Then he left it up to the people to decide.

Now, a small disclaimer: God can work and has worked through all kinds of evangelical approaches, regardless of our personal feelings about them. I've actually heard of tracts left on windshields changing lives, and several months ago I had a really amazing encounter with a couple of girls walking around UC Berkeley talking to people about Jesus, something I know I don't have the courage to do.

But evangelism is easily reduced to just another way for people to wield power over others and leave people feeling like pet projects—ironically leaving God completely out of the equation. I'm guilty of that—at one point in college I was trying to steer the conversation with a dear friend toward Jesus and she caught me red-handed. She smiled sympathetically and said in the kindest possible way, "I know you're trying to convert me, but..." I immediately backpedaled, but she was right. I was doing what I thought I was supposed to do as a Christian. I confess, I was kind of hoping for an epiphany. But was the epiphany I was wishing for a conversion to God's work in her heart or just a conversion to my beliefs?

Jesus is the True Vine. He chooses us to bear the fruit that can only come from him, and commands us to love one another. I'm not the one that diagnoses spiritual conditions or saves souls. Only God can do that, because only God knows the heart. Like Paul in Athens, my job is to show up where I'm called and be ready to love.

So to Japan. It's not generally thought of as a "mission field" since it's so wealthy, stable, and developed. But it does have its own issues under the surface. The suicide rate is one of the highest in the world, largely attributed to societal pressures and the acceptance of suicide as a morally responsible act in certain cases. The societal emphasis on conformity and lack of anti-discrimination laws leaves ethnic minorities marginalized and virtually unknown outside Japan. Even descendants of a medieval lower caste are still discriminated against in certain areas in employment and marriage, though few even in Japan are aware of it. And the Japanese have recently had the need to coin words for "death from overwork" and "young people who shut themselves up away from society in their houses." So, no, wealth, stability, and technological advancement do not save.

In some ways, Japan's wealth increases the urgency for the Gospel of Christ—the whole "it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" thing. Even the majority religions, Shintō and Buddhism, are on the decline, with much of it practiced through holidays and traditions rather than real, dedicated worship--much like Christianity in some places in America. Christianity, despite a missionary presence dating back to the 16th century, is a minority religion in Japan and still seen as largely foreign and aesthetic. Christmas means date night, strawberry cake, and KFC. (Apparently in Japan KFC has better marketing than Jesus does.) Christian weddings are incredibly popular (and incidentally cheaper than traditional Japanese weddings). One restaurant known as the Christon Café apparently boasts décor pieces from actual European cathedrals. Christian symbols are cool and mysterious, nothing more.

Which in some ways sets the stage for missionaries to come in, Paul-in-Athens-style. Last year the nine-year-old daughter of one missionary couple working at the Lutheran college in Kumamoto was chatting with her non-Christian Japanese friends about Christmas, and asked them "You know it’s not all about presents and Santa Claus, right?" Her friends asked her what it was about, opening the door to telling them the good news about Jesus--and correcting some of their pop-culture-influenced misconceptions. They'd never heard any of it before, and were fascinated, asking questions and eager to know about Jesus. And to this girl, it was the most natural thing.

Were I that young and confident.

I read this for a college class
called The Bible and Salvation.
There is a certain difficulty in preaching the gospel in Japan simply because of the collectivist society. There's a saying, "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down." Individuality is not something to be celebrated. So when conversion and baptism happens for someone in a non-Christian family, it's hard. Often the convert doesn't tell their family, not for fear of retribution but for a desire to maintain the familial harmony that is so integral to Japanese culture. One thing to remember in working in global mission is how culturally influenced even our own religious beliefs are. I once read an account from a minister in Tokyo who lamented that Japan was not "Christianized" enough, that the Japanese language didn't have the right words for certain Christian concepts. With all due respect to this pastor, I think he meant westernized, not Christianized. In a case study of mission in Japan in their book Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker point out that in North America we tend to see justice in terms of forensic guilt, but in Japan they tend to see justice in terms of relationship-destroying shame. The truth of the Cross does not change with these worldviews--Jesus removed our forensic guilt and removed our relationship-destroying shame that results from sin. Jesus transcends culture.

Now I can do all the book research I want, but I know that as soon as I set foot in Japan I'm going to meet people that completely contradict everything I've assumed about Japan. I need to fight that urge to turn evangelism into a one-size-fits-all methodology. God does amazing things. I'm just thrilled to be along for the ride.

I'll close with a reflection from a woman in whose footsteps I'm about to follow, a J-3 missionary who first headed to Japan in 2006 and is now a teacher at a private Christian English school in Fukushima, where tsunami scars and radiation fears are still present:
Every time a Japanese person begins following Jesus, I am amazed at God, because none of the conversations ever make it seem humanly possible. There aren't any working formulas that I know of—every solid convert to Christianity that I know of moves because they've had an encounter with God Himself. So, we keep praying, and keep loving, and keep speaking—and wait for the Spirit to move.
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, "What is this babbler trying to say?" Others remarked, "He seems to be advocating foreign gods." They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean." (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship--and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'

"Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead."

Acts 17:16-31 (NIV)

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Chapel speech: On impending departure.

Originally presented at Luther Junior and Senior High School morning chapel, March 12, 2015.

Downtown Kumamoto, November 2014.
In two weeks, I will leave Kumamoto. In three weeks, I will leave Japan. I have spent 29 months in this country, not once returning to the United States, where I was born.

Leaving your home country is always a scary thing. It was for me, even though I wanted to come to Japan, and I was excited to start teaching at Luther and serve in a Japanese church. But I didn't know anyone in Japan. I had no friends here, and certainly no family.

Happily, in the two years I've been here, that fact has changed. At Luther, God has blessed me with kind fellow teachers, wonderful students, and even some new friends. In many ways, the people in Kumamoto have become my family, and that makes me sad to leave.

One of the most wonderful qualities of God is omnipresence, which means that God is "present everywhere." God promises to never leave us, and to always be close when we call on Him. In the Psalms, the author writes about how amazing God's love is: "If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast," the author says (Psalm 139:8-10).

Why is it wonderful that God is with us everywhere? Because God loves us. That is an unshakable truth. He is our Creator and Heavenly Father; we belong to him and he longs for us to be with him. Unfortunately, we humans don't always believe that this is the case. Have you ever felt unlovable? Have you ever done something or said something that you were so ashamed of, or just felt so ashamed of who you are, that you just wanted to crawl into a big, deep, dark hole and never come out? I have—many times.

Here's the wonderful truth, though: even in those times, when we're so ashamed of what we've done or of who we are, God is right there next to us. He longs for us to be near Him, to show us compassion and love us, and for us to love Him, too. And no amount of shame can erase that love for us. Rather, God's love is more than enough to erase all our shame, no matter how much.

I'm going to try to keep that truth in my heart as I journey back over the Pacific in a few weeks. I pray that you will know and receive God's love in your hearts as well. Thank you for these two years.

Let us pray.

Lord, we thank you that you never stop loving us. Help us to know your love for us, and to respond to it by loving You.

In Jesus' name I pray, amen.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39 (NIV)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Chapel speech: On Jesus' birth.

Originally presented at Luther Junior and Senior High School morning chapel, December 12, 2014.

When I came to Japan two years ago, the 2012 Christmas season was just beginning. There were a few things about Christmas in Japan that surprised me--Kentucky Fried Chicken, for example, which is not a Christmas tradition in America. I was also surprised to hear that many people believe Christmas celebrates the birthday of Santa Claus. It makes sense that people might think that--we see Santa everywhere during the Christmas season--but as you hopefully already know, it's not Santa's birth that we celebrate this month.

Luther's nativity scene, 2013.
In the lobby of Luther High School right now there is what in English is called a nativity scene--figurines depicting the birth of Jesus. About 2,000 years ago Jesus was born in a stable in modern-day Palestine to a very young woman named Mary. In most nativity scenes, which you can find in houses all over the world at Christmas, Jesus' birth looks like a beautiful, peaceful event.

Certainly, the birth of the Saving Lord is something to celebrate. Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the savior that would bring the people of Israel back to God. He was called the Immanuel, which means "God with us." But Jesus was also born in an animal stall. How disgusting is that? It's not a place for humans to even sleep, let alone give birth. It doesn't seem to make sense. Why would God choose a filthy stable for Mary to give birth to the Saving Lord, the Messiah, the Immanuel, "God-with-us"? I wonder if Mary wondered that, too.

But while Jesus was fully God, Jesus was also fully human. God, in Jesus, put Himself not only into the messiness of a stable but also into the messiness of our lives. We are a sinful, fallen humanity and we are not worthy to stand before a holy and perfect God. But God demonstrated His love for us by coming to us in the midst of darkness and filth to be a light not only to the Israelites but all the peoples of the world.

In his time on Earth, Jesus taught and healed, rebuked and forgave, served and loved everyone, and set the stage for salvation to come to all of humanity through his death on the Cross. That's infinitely better than anything we could get from Santa! Now, in this season of Advent we await his coming, knowing that the little baby born in a stable in Bethlehem brings salvation to the whole world.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, we thank you that you came to us as one of us, that you love us and promise salvation to all who believe. Let us follow your light this Advent season.

In Jesus name I pray, amen.

[Christ Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:6-8 (NIV)