Saturday, January 30, 2016

Chapel speech: On busyness.

Originally presented at Luther Junior and Senior High School morning chapel, June 4, 2013.

Two years ago, I was a senior in college. I was in two clubs and had two jobs as a tutor and a homework grader. I was always very busy, but one Thursday, I was having an especially busy day. I had class in the morning, homework to grade and a tutoring session to run in the afternoon, and a club meeting and a play to attend in the evening. I also had lots of homework to do that day. As on most of my busy days, I probably prayed to God that He would help me get through my busy schedule.

The tutoring session that afternoon was held in a tiny room in a building that had just been completely remodeled. The room could only hold three or four people. When the session ended, my tutees got up and turned the door handle. But the door did not open. There was something wrong with the new door latch, and my tutees and I were the first ones to discover it.

At least we had dry erase markers.
(Photo by one of my tutee's friends.)
Fortunately we had our cell phones, and there were windows to the hallway outside, so we could get others' attention. People outside tried to use credit cards and pocketknives to open the door, but nothing worked. Finally, an hour later, a locksmith came carrying an electric saw. He told us to stand back, and then cut out the door handle with the saw and kicked the rest of the door open in a cloud of sawdust, freeing us.

I couldn't stop laughing as I watched the locksmith cut the door down. This was the silliest thing that had ever happened to me. Something as tiny as a door latch was keeping me from all my "perfect" plans. By the time we got out, the club meeting had ended, and the play had already started half an hour ago. I couldn't do anything except walk back to my dorm room.

I'd thought I had my day under control. I'd thought that God would have helped me get things done. But my thinking was wrong. God isn't a good-luck charm, and I think he used a defective door latch to demonstrate that to me.

When we have a mountain of work to do, God can seem pretty small in comparison. But God is bigger than your to-do list, and He's not going to let us just use Him to accomplish our tasks. He loves us too much to let us do that. We don't always know what God has planned for us, but He can definitely think of better things than we can. So next time you feel overwhelmed by work, or even life, remember that God is bigger and sees further beyond our schedules and deadlines, and He guides us the whole way.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank you that you meet us even in the middle of our busy lives. Guide us and help us to see your love clearly, even in times when it seems like we have too much work to do. Help us to focus on you most of all. In Jesus' name we pray.


"For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,"
declares the Lord.
"As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts."

Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIV)

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Good times with Kyaro-chan.

I'm surprised to find how strongly I associate Christmas with Japan. I guess that's what happens when you spend three of them there. Also, I attended a total of six separate Christmas Eve services in that time, which probably cemented it all the harder. Missionary work, what can you do?

I tended to not write in detail about anyone else while I was in Japan, mostly for concerns about privacy and putting words into other people's mouths, but I find myself missing the people I knew in Japan pretty often--my students, the people at my church, my fellow J-3s and missionaries. They so profoundly affected my life and who I am, and being separated from people that came to mean so much to me has been one of the more difficult aspects of returning to the United States. Kumamoto, Japan, and my hometown in California are such separate worlds that sometimes I wonder if this is how Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy felt after tumbling out of the wardrobe back into England after spending a lifetime in Narnia.

J-3s in January 2014. Brent, Patrick, and Katie (15-year J-3) in the back; Morgan, me, and Caroline in the front.

Happily, in May, these worlds were able to meet when Caroline and I were able to visit each other's respective stomping grounds. I visited her first in Omaha, where her family graciously hosted me for a few days. I've had a soft spot for the Midwest ever since going to college in Minnesota, and it was wonderful to be immersed in that culture once more. It was also good to hang out with someone who understood the emotional journey of returning "home." Caroline definitely qualifies as one of the people in Japan who "profoundly affected my life and who I am." We went to Japan not sure if we'd ever be close friends, and now she's pretty much the sister I never had. In Japan she was for me a listening ear, advocate, sounding board, traveling companion, giver of timely (metaphorical) slaps upside the head when necessary, and voice of reason. It was really nice to meet her family (who took such good care of me!) and attend her church, as well as go to the Henry Doorly Zoo, which is legitimately one of the coolest zoos I've ever been to. (Somehow I don't have any photos from there, but trust me when I say it's worth a visit if you're ever in Omaha.)

Nebraska! The center of America, or in Japanese, Amerika no man'naka.

Sculpture at Pioneer Courage Park.

Caroline has Pioneer Courage, too.

Looking toward urban Omaha.

Then, a couple weeks later, Caroline came to visit me in California, where we hit all the necessary Bay Area/Northern California stops--Sacramento, San Francisco, the Napa valley, and the coastal redwoods. I was just entering the "everything about America is terrible in comparison to Japan" phase of reverse culture shock, but our day trips helped me remember the nice things about living here.

Ocean view near the ruins of the Sutro Baths in San Francisco.

Golden Gate Bridge from the Lands End Coastal Trail.

In Chinatown.

At the Castello di Amorosa winery in Calistoga.

Redwood trees at my old summer camp. Can you spot the Caroline?

Almost as soon as these trips had finished it was time for both of us to start looking toward our respective futures--Caroline to prepare to enter seminary in the fall and me to actually find a job. We haven't been able to keep in touch as much as we'd like--it's harder when you don't live just one flight of stairs away from each other--but we still Skype, call, text, and email each other regularly. What a blessing to have such a friend with whom to share an experience like the J-3 program.

Waiting for lunch in Aso during our first-ever Golden Week, May 2013.

Summer vacation 2013. The wait to get in to Tokyo Skytree was three hours, so we took this photo outside instead.

At Freshness Burger in Kumamoto, January 2014. Check out the license plates on the wall behind us!
It was destiny. As soon as we saw them we knew we had to sit at this table.

In kimono for the Girls' Festival, March 2014.

In front of the Sapporo TV tower, Ōdori Park, August 2014.

Reunited in San Francisco, May 2015.

There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
Porverbs 18:24b

Monday, November 2, 2015

Seven months out.

Yesterday, November 1, was the three-year anniversary of my arrival in Japan, and the seven-month anniversary of my return to the States. I wanted to do something to commemorate it (I wasn't planning to abandon this blog forever!), but instead I spent the evening Skyping with Caroline, which honestly was probably better for me.

These seven months back in America have been all right. Since April I've gained a car, an apartment, and a job close to my hometown, which are all great blessings. I've also had the opportunity to speak about my J-3 experiences at a couple of churches, as well as visit friends and family I haven't seen since before I left for Japan. In May Caroline and I had the opportunity to visit each other in our respective hometowns, something we've been talking about since we lived in Tokyo. God's been taking care of me, as always.

There are a few reasons I stopped writing. A big one is that I just plain no longer live in Japan, of course. But another one, one that I didn't expect, was that reverse culture shock hit me harder than I thought. At first it was kind of amusing. The first week back I found myself bewildered by things like fire hydrants and USPS trucks, and it took me a while to re-learn which side of the car has the steering wheel. I had to resist the instinct to eavesdrop on every English conversation in earshot. Sometimes I felt like I'd been in a coma for two-and-a-half years, but other times everything felt so familiar and comfortable that it seemed to only have been a few months before that I was last at my aunt's house, not three years.

Downtown Kumamoto after the last
International English Service I attended.
I remember being surprised to hear a missionary pastor in Kumamoto refer to finishing the J-3 program as a "grieving process" last fall. Back then I felt pretty strongly that I was ready for my J-3 journey to end, that my calling was back in the States. But the "honeymoon phase" of returning wore off soon after I got back. It's been rough, knowing that I can never return to the Kumamoto I knew as a J-3. I'm still working through it.

But I felt it unfair to leave this blog unfinished; I still have stories and photos to share. Back at the end of March, after packing up, shipping out boxes, and sending our suitcases ahead of us to Tokyo, Caroline and I hopped aboard a train to Aso for three days of melting the stress of international moving away in the Kurokawa hot springs.

Taking a break between soaks.
Kurokawa is a town that is almost entirely made up of ryokan, traditional Japanese inns. Each ryokan has its own hot spring, and for only about fifteen dollars you can buy a pass good for a dip in any three ryokan hot springs. We stayed at one of the more affordable ryokan, and during the day ventured out in our ryokan-issued yukata robes to hit the baths. My favorites were one in the middle of a Japanese garden and one that was literally in a cave. The hot spring at our own ryokan we dubbed "rustic beauty"... mostly because we discovered upon exiting that the iron-rich water left rust stains all over our skin. The mountain air was still chilly but the hot water was perfect.

Then it was on to Okinawa, which is almost like the Japanese equivalent of Hawaii--it's a tropical island chain, a popular vacation destination, was formerly a sovereign kingdom, and has its own unique culture. We'd been wanting to visit since even before we arrived in Japan. Okinawa is just beautiful, with bright sunshine, colorful flowers, friendly people, and delicious food. We spent most of our time in and around Ocean Expo Park on the northern part of the main island. The biggest attraction is the Churaumi Aquarium, one of the largest aquariums in the world, which houses some of the few whale sharks in captivity. We also found time to explore a reconstructed historical Okinawan village and the Tropical Dream Center botanical gardens, as well as just hang out on the beach.

View from our hotel room balcony.

At Ocean Expo Park, gorgeous Okinawa ocean in the background.

Exploring Motobu. This bench is a local landmark (really).

At Churaumi Aquarium. It's hard to tell exactly from this photo, but whale sharks are MASSIVE.

Historical Okinawan village.

The Tropical Dream Center.

Fun fact: we decided to head to the beach right after seeing a terrifying exhibit at the aquarium about all the deadly camouflaged animals that live on beaches such as the one we're goofing off at here.

We finished up our J-3 adventures where they'd started: Tokyo. The pastors at Tokyo Lutheran generously let us stay in the guest room behind the kitchen for a couple days while we reconnected one last time with some of the first friends we'd made in Japan. We also stopped for one other thing...

Can't go through the Ōkubo district without getting hotteok!

The Japanese Lutheran missionary association very kindly let Caroline and I book the same flight out of Tokyo (and sit next to each other!), so on April 1 we boarded a flight bound for Vancouver, where we met a friendly Japanese gentleman who gave up his seat so he could sit with his fishing buddies and we could have an entire row to ourselves. It made the flight much more comfortable than it could have been. In Vancouver we went through U.S. customs and said our goodbyes as I found the gate for my connecting flight to San Francisco. Just a few hours later, I was in a car on my way home with my father and brother, eating a turkey sandwich my mother had made for me that morning, and my 30 months in Japan were over.

When I look back on those 30 months, I can see that God was with me the whole time, even when I didn't feel like it. Nowadays it's strangely hard to believe God's with me now, in unexciting old America, with a secular job and relatively mundane responsibilities. But God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, in Japan and in the United States, and I know He'll keep guiding me, even if it's harder to tell.

More to come.

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.
Psalm 139:9-10 (NIV)

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Tea lessons with O-sensei.

I've been back in the United States for about a week now, and am still in the middle of adjusting back to life in my home country and processing the past two-and-a-half years. I'll post more later about this stage of my journey in the coming weeks, but first, I wanted to share this article I wrote in January for the official blog of the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Association, originally published here in Japanese.

As a J-3, in Japan I'm often called sensei, "teacher." I teach English five days a week at Luther Junior and Senior High School, I teach an English Bible study about once a month at Kuwamizu Lutheran Church, and I teach English Sunday School twice a month at Kumamoto Lutheran Church. But even with all this teaching, I feel that throughout my time here in Japan I've learned a lot more than I've taught.

First gifts from O-sensei: a fan (required
equipment for a guest) and a vocabulary list.
The Japanese church particularly inspires me. Every day I learn something new about hospitality, kindness, and patience that I want to take with me back to America. Many of these lessons have been learned in the tea room of Ms. O—, a member of Kuwamizu Church.

For the past year-and-a-half or so, Ms. O— has been teaching me the art of the Japanese tea ceremony. She'd heard that I was interested in Japanese culture and one day in July 2013 invited me to her house for an o-keiko, "practice session."

Page from an instructional photo
album O-sensei assembled for me
from my final lesson.
I'd only ever experienced the tea ceremony once before, as a guest, and although I'd enjoyed it, I'd had no idea what to do. I didn't understand the meaning of a lot of the steps—why turn the chawan (tea cup) before you drink from it? But I held my questions and just followed Ms. O—'s instructions as best I could. A few weeks later she invited me again to her house, and then again, and before long I found myself at her house two or three times a month, her pupil in the Omotesenke school of the Way of Tea.

Once at the end of an o-keiko, I made Ms. O— a cup of tea. After she drank it, she asked, "You didn't wipe the chawan in the shape of the letter ゆ (yu), did you?" I was surprised that she knew that—I didn't think she'd been watching me that closely—but then she showed me the little bits of matcha stuck to the bottom of the chawan. "If you don't wipe it," she explained, "the matcha will clump and won't dissolve."

Wearing kimono for a moon-viewing
party in O-sensei's garden last fall.
Under Ms. O—'s patient teaching over the next several months, I slowly began to realize the deep thought that goes into each step of the ceremony. You put the chawan over here with your right hand so your left kimono sleeve won't drag through the dirty water in the mizusashi. You put the fukusa cloth here after you finish ceremonially cleaning the instruments with it so your hand can immediately move to the shaku to scoop hot water from the kettle (though after you take the shaku you take the fukusa and use it as a potholder to take the lid off the kettle and put it on the futaoki you just freed up). There is a depth to everything in the tea ceremony, even though it might seem arbitrary to an untrained American eye, and it all is rooted in mindfulness for the guest. The tea ceremony is a marvelous exercise in generosity.

I'm getting better at the tea ceremony, though I still bumble and fumble, and evening o-keiko with Ms. O— have become a highlight of my week. I'm so grateful to her and to all the generous people here in Japan that have taught me so much about the depth of God's love and graciousness. You will all be in my heart as I journey back across the Pacific this spring.

Practice hospitality.
Romans 12:13b (NIV)

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Luther and J-3 chronicles.

I love them, too!
Another year of Luther history came to a close as the junior high school held its graduation ceremony this morning (the senior high's was on Monday, March 2). Classes continue through Monday (the Japanese school year calendar is kind of nebulous), but for all intents and purposes, my duties at Luther have come to an end. The final class I taught this year was the senior-high second-year Advanced English Course homeroom. Those kids are a riot. I'm going to miss them.

Martha Akard.
Given that I'm about to become part of it, I thought I'd share some photos from Luther's almost-90-year history. Founded in 1926 as the Kyushu Girls' School, it was funded in large part by American Lutheran women in the United Synod of the South. Apparently some of them even sold their wedding rings to raise money to support women's education in Japan. Land at the foot of Mt. Tatsuda was purchased in 1923, and construction soon began on what was to be called the "Janice James School," in memory of the deceased eight-year-old daughter of one of the biggest contributors. Miss Martha B. Akard was appointed first principal, the school motto (感恩奉仕 kan'on houshi, "Gratitude and Service") and school verse (John 10:10, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full") were chosen, and classes began in 1926.

From the official record.

In the early days.

Staff and students.

First staff.

Prewar winter uniforms--quite similar to today's!
(Katie and I both wish they'd bring back the hat, though.)

Chapel during the "Shimizu" era.
Tougher times came in the years leading up to the Second World War. Nationalism ran so high in Japan that Martha Akard and other foreign staff were sent home, Kyushu Girls' School became Shimizu High School (after the neighborhood it was in; the former name was deemed too "American"), and nearly all vestiges of the school's Christian foundation were covered up. Students even bowed to a picture of the emperor in the chapel. (Katie once told me the story of how in one of the top-floor rooms there used to be a square painted on the floor that students weren't supposed to set foot on, because on the wall on the floor below hung a picture of the emperor. The room has since been remodeled and carpeted, but I may or may not have spent a few spare moments one afternoon peeking under carpet tiles to look for it.)

Maud Powlas.
Maud Powlas was another missionary that was sent home before the war broke out. (I've mentioned Maud Powlas before, when I talked about my church.) She founded the Colony of Love and Mercy social welfare institution in Kumamoto in 1919, and did not spend her time back in the States idly. She visited a Michigan church in 1942 to speak about her work serving Japan's most vulnerable populations, and contrary to the rampant anti-Japanese sentiment in America at the time, proclaimed love and forgiveness for the people of Japan. In attendance that day was a teenager named Andrew Ellis, who was particularly moved by her presentation.

Andy Ellis (far left) in front of the bookmobile
that he and other missionaries used until 1960.
Nine years later, in 1951 Rev. Andrew Ellis arrived in Japan to begin what would become a lifetime of missionary service. He was assigned by the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church to do rural evangelism in a podunk southern town of 220,000 called Kumamoto. (A month after he arrived, the city got its first traffic light.) He helped establish churches and worked with Maud Powlas herself at the Colony of Love and Mercy. He also found himself teaching English at KyuGaku--Caroline's current school.

The missionaries felt stretched a bit too thin with the double-duty of evangelism work and English teaching, so Andrew and other Kumamoto missionaries created a new short-term program for English teachers and called it "J-3," meaning "Japan--3 years." The first J-3 arrived in 1954, and from there the program spread to Kyushu Girls' School in 1956.

To date there have been over 250 J-3s in Japan, not only in Kumamoto but also in cities like Tokyo and Nagoya, and from what I've heard, God has done some amazing things through (and to) the people on this program. I count myself privileged to have been part of it. I'll be departing from Kumamoto soon, but please keep the students, teachers, and missionaries of Luther Junior and Senior High School in your prayers.

The information and photos in this post were gleaned from Luther and JELC archives, Andy Ellis' English memoirs, conversations with former J-3s, and snatches of Luther's staff orientation presentation that I could understand. I also just discovered in the course of researching that Luther has a new English website, so feel free to check it out for more information:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John 10:10 (NIV)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Winter Break highlights and the beginning of the end.

We're already into February, and I'm still not quite able to believe that next month marks the end of my J-3 journey. I'll post more reflections on that later--now it's time to share some overdue stories from the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015.

Chinatown, near our hotel.
The first excursion of winter break was to Nagasaki with Caroline. Kumamoto is only a couple of hours by train from Nagasaki, and we'd been meaning to go for a while, so the afternoon of the last day of school we braved the Emperor's Birthday holiday rush and arrived at our budget hotel in Chinatown just in time to eat chanpon and sara udon, Nagasaki's regional specialty, for dinner. Both of them are noodle dishes with similar ingredients (champon is a soup, while saraudon is sauce spread over crispy noodles), but we figured we'd kill two delicious birds with one stone and order one of each. Both were amazingly delicious--they both contain mushrooms, squid, pork, shrimp, shellfish, bamboo shoots, and a multitude of other ingredients in a creamy, savory sauce or broth--but they proved to be too much food even for two hungry J-3s right off a train. Too bad.

Next time we'll just order one to split.

Most Americans probably know Nagasaki best for being one of the two cities that were hit with an atomic bomb by the U.S. military in World War II, but Nagasaki also has an extensive Christian history. Nagasaki was one of the first ports through which Christian missionaries came to Japan, and it is home to some of the most famous churches and cathedrals in the country.

Ōura Catholic Church, considered the oldest standing church in Japan.

However, as a center of Christian activity in Japan, it also is the site of some of the saddest and cruelest episodes during the government's nearly-300-year ban on Christianity from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Likely the most famous of these incidents is the 1597 crucifixion of the so-called "Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan." 14 Japanese men, six missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits, and three Japanese boys (the youngest was 12) who were publicly executed by order of feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. We visited the Twenty-Six Martyrs Museum, which made for an emotional few hours. The stories of these martyrs--their sermons of forgiveness from their crosses, their persistence in singing praises to God even in the midst of their agony--were incredibly moving.

Monument to the Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan. Below the statues is a
portion of Mark 8:34: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny
themselves and take up their cross and follow me."

The sobering afternoon continued with a visit to the Peace Park, remembering the victims of the atomic bomb, and Urakami Cathedral, which was only 500 meters from the center of the blast and whose toppled belfry remains on the hillside where it fell on August 9, 1945. We walked and talked and reflected all the way back to the station for dinner before getting on the train back to Kumamoto. It hadn't necessarily been a fun trip, but it was certainly one worth taking.

Urakami Cathedral, rebuilt.

The old belfry, unmoved since 1945.

Peace Statue at the north end of the Peace Park.

Nagasaki at night.

A week later, I met up with Caroline and a couple of her friends visiting from the States in Hiroshima, a city that's also probably best known in America for having been hit with an atomic bomb by the U.S. in World War II--and its Peace Park and memorials were a must-stop for us, as well. Though it wasn't necessarily a hotbed of Christianity in the old days like Nagasaki, it certainly has its own unique history and culture. One of its best-known places is the island of Miyajima. Most people probably don't know the name of Miyajima, but it's home of Itsukushima Shrine, which I'll wager most people will recognize when they see it.

The torī of Itsukushima Shrine

To make the day extra-special, we all rented kimono at a shop near the ferry port and toured the island in what Japan would consider our Sunday best. We were stopped and asked to be photographed more times than I can count! Fortunately there were a few kind folks touring the island that took our picture with our cameras, as well.

After landing back at the port and changing back into our regular clothes, we walked around the Peace Park for a while, mostly just reflecting as we took it all in.

Night view of Hiroshima and the Atomic Bomb Dome (currently under renovation).

We grabbed dinner at the station before finally boarding the Shinkansen bound for Kumamoto, where Caroline's friends hung out with us for a few more days. It was good to hang out with Americans from the homeland again! I've forgotten how new and wonderful things in Japan can be.

Back in Kumamoto! Karaoke for New Year's Eve.

Before I knew it, the fun was over and it was time to head back to school to prepare for the final three months. We also welcomed three new J-3s to Kumamoto in January. They'll start teaching at Luther and KyuGaku in April. And I have some packing to do...

Kumamoto J-3s. Back row: me, Morgan, Brent, Caroline, Zach (new).
Front row: Hannah (new), Dean (new).

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it."
Mark 8:34-35 (NIV)