Monday, January 5, 2015

The final Christmas.

I hope you all had a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! It's been a while since I last posted, and there is much I want to share from the past month.

December was, as usual, insanely busy (I attended a record three separate Christmas Eve services on the 24th) but lots of fun. Here are some photos:

Angels under the gingko trees at Luther High School.

The Advent setup at Kuwamizu Lutheran Church.

Star lantern (made from paper!) hanging from the rafters right over the stable at Kuwamizu.

Annual International English Christmas pageant, starring Katie as Mary and Baby Jun as Jesus!

Seniors heading up to campus after having caroled through the neighborhood since 5:30am, looking forward to a breakfast of hot pork soup and rice balls!

The sermon at the 9:30pm International English Christmas Eve service was once again delivered by a former J-3 who still lives and works in Kumamoto (and whose kids come to our International English Sunday School), and he delivered a particularly moving message about how we often use Christmas as a reason to be (or expect others to be) more generous or kinder or more patient than usual--but that's not the point of Christmas at all! Rather, Christmas celebrates the light appearing in the darkness, the light of Jesus Christ our Savior, who gives us hope that we carry all year round.

There are less than three months left in my J-3 tenure, and the future after this spring is still murky for me. But if there's anything I've learned in my time as a J-3, it's that God knows exactly where He's leading us, and our job is to listen, obey, and trust in His perfect love, even when we don't understand--a lesson much more tangibly felt in a land where the language is not your own! May we all walk in His light this year. 

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you."

Isaiah 60:1-2 (NIV)

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tumbling through fall.

Fall foliage on the campus of Luther High School.
For J-3s, fall goes fast. No sooner had Caroline and I gotten back from Sapporo than school started again, and the craziness will continue straight on through till Christmas. We've had a good share of three-day weekends, but fall is also the prime season for both school and church events, so I've been kept quite busy.

Festival decoration by the senior Special
Advanced English kids. (They sold rice balls
wrapped in grilled meat--so popular that the
line went out the door and down the hall!)
October marks the beginning of the second semester at Luther, and to ring it in every year Luther holds its annual Gakuinsai, or school festival, on the first Saturday. The school festival is a major event at any Japanese high school. It's the one time of year that the public is invited on campus (for a non-admissions related event, anyway), and each homeroom class and club plans its own special "thing", whether it's selling school-logo emblazoned towels, holding a mini-carnival, decorating their classroom like a haunted house, or serving up fast food. Some even get corporate sponsorship--we've had classes selling real Baskin Robbins ice cream. The PTA also comes out and takes over the entire parking lot selling used goods, official PTA t-shirts, and every kind of street food imaginable. For the entire duration of the festival there's a "stage presentation" (talent show) in the gym, featuring mostly student bands. Students wander the hallways hawking their Luther notebooks and zipper pouches, using their best sales-English with the J-3 teachers, leading to amusing exchanges such as this:
Students: "Please buy our class t-shirt!"
Me: "I don't even teach your class!"
Students: (Pause, look at each other.) "But... we love you!"
Me: (Shells out 15 bucks.)
I spent most of the day hanging out with the English Speaking Society, who was busy making their school festival staple: s'mores. We have to special-order the graham crackers, hunt for marshmallows at the import grocery store, and spend a minute explaining what they are to most visitors, but the s'mores always end up a huge hit.

Sign outside the ESS tent for the uninitiated.

Getting ready to roast!

Not exactly a real campfire, but it did the job.

On the church side of things, the major fall event for most of the Lutheran churches here is an annual "bazaar", which is like a rummage sale crossed with a street festival. At Kuwamizu's bazaar in early November, the whole thing was held in the sanctuary. Half the room was covered in used articles and handicrafts for sale; the other half was food--and a lot of it. Church bazaars are great places to pick up Japanese housewares and traditional items at garage-sale prices and grab a cheap lunch to boot!

Some of the goodies you could get at the Kuwamizu bazaar in 2013.

The pews are all put in the center of the sanctuary for cafeteria-style seating.

I spent most of this year's bazaar on sauce duty for the mini-okonomiyaki (Osaka-style savory pancake) my pastor's wife served up (and occasionally ketchup duty for the corn dogs, called "American dogs" in Japan).
 
My lunch--or the half that was left by the time I remembered to photograph it. I was so hungry by the time I could go on break! From left to right: sweet red-bean soup, yakisoba, and the paper sleeve for the mini-okonomiyaki I'd just scarfed down.

There's been a million other little things going on, events and get-togethers (fried chicken bento boxes for Kumamoto J-3 Thanksgiving 2014, for example), that it's a bit disorienting to stop, look back, and realize it's already been more than three months since summer vacation ended--and there's plenty more coming up to keep me busy this month, as you may imagine. Happy Advent! More to come in the next few weeks.

Hmm... something's going on in front of the high school building at Luther...
 
Welcoming the Christmas season with songs and Scripture readings at the Luther tree lighting last month.

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.
Romans 15:4 (NIV)

Saturday, November 1, 2014

On the second Japanniversary.

Can I confess something to you all? You can probably already tell, but I'm very, probably overly, conscious of what I think other people think of me.

If you look back at especially the earliest entries on this blog, you'll read stuff about about how much I've studied Japan, how I'm endeavoring not to make assumptions or overgeneralizations about the culture, and how much I want to emphasize that I'm here for God, not myself (even though Japan's been part of my life goals for over eight years now).

Here's an entry that I wrote back in September 2012 (but never posted) that sums up my self-consciousness pretty well:
I won't be in Japan for another two weeks and I've already made all these plans for the blog. (Talk about jumping the gun, right?) Over the past few weeks I've been struggling to write entries that are:
  • meaningful
  • insightful
  • not potential cause for concern
  • not accidentally offensive
But I couldn't bring myself to post them, because I wasn't sure if they conformed to those standards. Did this one make me look unpretentious enough? Did this one adequately express my cultural sensitivity in contrast to many people's conceptions about Christian mission being just another form of cultural imperialism? Did this one make me look good?

I was
completely missing the point. It's not about me, it's about God. All I can do is witness and testify. And then I just need to let go and let God do his thing. God can and will work through or despite me.

So here's another intention for this blog: honesty.

Now let's get me over to Japan before I write anything else.
Praying with the JELC Kyushu parish in
Hakozaki, Fukuoka. (June 2013.)
In various ways, a large part of being a missionary is PR--not necessarily just for God in the field, but for the "folks back home." I want to make good on (what I perceive as) everyone's expectations of me, to earn an A+, a gold star. This is why I don't write about how once when I rode my bike face-first into a giant spider web I shouted words that missionaries probably shouldn't even know. What I want to write about is how I (and my Japanese brothers and sisters and fellow missionaries, because I want to once again emphasize how this is not about me) have reached so many souls for Christ and how the church is flourishing and growing in visible, tangible ways.

A student paper. No idea how much I
had to do with the content of this paragraph.
But, as I've mentioned before in this blog, the truth is not nearly as exciting--at least on the surface. Things are happening, yes, but not crazy exciting inspiring-email-chain-letter kinds of things. And it leaves me wondering--am I doing enough? Shouldn't I be stepping it up? But I don't know how!

If there's anything I've learned here in the past 24 months, it's that it truly--truly--is not about me. This doesn't just mean that this J-3 journey is not my own personal TV drama all about and starring me (though the fact that it is not is very true), but also that I can put down this burden I've been hauling around for two years (or more). It's not mine to bear.

Some days are just like this.
God's glory and power is not diminished by my weakness and failures. If anything, the myriad weaknesses I've found in myself in Japan have only magnified how amazing God is. In the midst of a foul mood I find unexpected grace and blessings, or I catch myself expecting the worst of people only to discover God has been working through them the whole time, and I am once again humbled.

I've been meditating lately on how Christians are called to lead a life of radical sacrifice. I think of the J-3s that came here only six or seven years before I did, before the age of Skype and Google Hangouts, who had to depend only on written emails and IMs to communicate with their families on a regular basis. I think of one former J-3 (now a theology professor in Tokyo) telling us about how, when he was a J-3 in the '70s, a rep from AT&T came to visit and gave everyone a wildly generous three free minutes of international calling. I think of John Manjiro, a Japanese fisherman who in 1841 at the age of 14 was shipwrecked, rescued by an American whaling ship, and taken in by an American family for several years at a time when leaving Japan was a crime punishable by death. And here I am in an apartment with heat and A/C, electricity, and clean running water, living what I openly declare to have been my dream.

But then in the Bible, when it talks of the sacrifices of God:
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
O God, you will not despise.

Psalm 51:17 [NIV]
Psalm 51:10-12 is the offertory response in the Japanese Lutheran church, and it wasn't until I came to Japan and sang these verses every week that they became more and more real to me.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Psalm 51:10-12 [NIV]
My whole life, but these past two years especially, God has continually shown me the true weight of His power, might, love, and wisdom--ultimately made manifest in his Son, that is enough to break through the sin, fear, and death rampant in this world--and in my own life. I can only pray that for the next five months in Japan (as well as the rest of my life) God let me reflect His light wherever I go and whatever I do, regardless of whether I realize it or not. Amen.

Still one of my favorite purikura (photo booth) photos we've ever taken. (February 2013.) Happy Japanniversary, guys!

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.
Romans 8:32-34 (NIV)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Summer travels: Sapporo.

Four hours (and a layover in Tokyo) by plane.
The last adventure of this summer was a trip to Sapporo, the largest city on the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido. Caroline and I were graciously hosted by Pastor Okada of the Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church, who pastors four different congregations in the Sapporo area along with two other pastors.

Sapporo is a relatively new city by Japanese standards, as large-scale migration to Hokkaido from mainland Japan only started in the 19th century. Unlike the strategically defensive spiderweb of streets that make up castle towns like Tokyo or Kumamoto, Sapporo's streets are laid out in a grid that makes navigation much easier. The roads are wider there, too, a necessity during Hokkaido's snowy winters. (There are light poles bordering the road every few meters or so whose only purpose is to mark the road's boundaries when the snow is piled high.)

Pastor Okada, as all pastors usually are, was busy with church things for most of the day, so we hung out with her (and her two cats Raira and Hagar) in the mornings and evenings, and during the day Caroline and I trekked out on our own to explore the city. We didn't do nearly as much sightseeing as we did in Korea; our main goal was to relax--and relax we did. The weather was absolutely perfect the whole time we were there--not too hot, not too cold, and not too humid, either, which, coming from a hot, muggy Kumamoto summer, was especially wonderful.

Sanctuary of North Sapporo Lutheran Church.

Mustard plant in the narthex (to illustrate the Parable of the Mustard Seed).

Sanctuary of New Sapporo Lutheran Church.

Exterior of Sapporo Lutheran Church.

Caroline's and my first "tourist" stop was the Historical Village of Hokkaido, an open-air museum that we originally thought we'd only spend an hour or two at. Turns out the museum is huge, and history is fascinating. We ended up being there for four.

The old train station, built 1908, which now serves as the entrance to the village.

The stationmaster's house, built 1885.

Inside the stationmaster's house. Note the combination of things Japanese (tatami mat floors, the kimono, the sliding paper screen door) and Western (the large glass window, the clock, the electric light, the uniform).

Inside the kitchen of the stationmaster's house.

Bathtub in another home from the same era.

Household altars. Shinto on the left, Buddhist on the right.

Hokkai Middle School, built 1909, the first private junior high in Hokkaido.

Inside a classroom at Hokkai Middle School.

Inside the Aoyama family's residence, built 1919. They were apparently fishing magnates back in the day.

In the same building as the Aoyama family's residence, the sleeping quarters of the migrant fishermen that worked for them. You can see their bedding rolled up against the wall.

A horse-drawn trolley that ran through town. (And yes, we did ride it!)

Firefighting equipment in the early 20th century.

These manikins startled us before we realized they were only manikins.

The Kurumasa Inn, built 1919 and in business until 1984.

Inside the old Otaru Newspaper building, built 1909. This is just one of the racks of metal type sorts used in printing. (Standard Japanese has over 2,000 distinct characters--and that's just the "common-use" ones.)

Close-up of one of the racks.

Inside Dr. Kondo's clinic, built 1919. I know he must have helped a lot of people in his career, but old-timey doctor's offices still kinda give me the creeps. (Not pictured: the even more unsettling operating room, where the operating table was just that--a literal wooden table.)

Inside the Hirose Photo Studio, built 1924. Note the glass roof; it allowed natural light to illuminate the photo.

Inside Urakawa Church, built 1894. Sometimes still used today as a wedding venue.

Vessels for use in Communion inside Urakawa Church.

Our last stop at the museum was the dormitory of the former Sapporo Agricultural College.

Exterior of the dormitory, built 1903.

Inside one of the rooms (each slept 4 people).

This was both Caroline's and my favorite part of the museum, not only because of the often humorous look into mid-20th century Japanese college dorm life...

From a postcard (1937).

More scenes from dorm life (year unknown).

They apparently had some kind of annual event where they went out in as little clothing and made as much noise as possible (photo from 1935).

They also held an annual jump-out-the-window-in-your-skivvies-in-the-dead-of-winter contest (photo from 1975).

Same contest, 1967.

...but also because a major part of Christian history in Japan started here. Dr. William S. Clark was a professor of chemistry who was invited to Japan for a year in 1876 during its rapid Westernization and founded the Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido University)--and he was also a dedicated Christian. Teaching the Bible was technically forbidden in government schools, but Dr. Clark's charisma and popularity led many of his students to Christ. He was also influential in the creation of the "Sapporo Band," a group of Japanese Christian students who gathered together to affirm their commitment to Jesus Christ. Later, a few members of this group would emerge as some of the most prominent Christian leaders in their country.

"Covenant of Believers in Jesus," drafted by Dr. Clark in March of 1877 and signed by over 30 students, pledging to live in Christian fellowship.

That evening, Pastor Okada joined us at the Sapporo Beer Garden for a feast of what in Japanese is called jingisukan ("Genghis Khan"), or mutton and lamb barbecue, a Hokkaido specialty. The name "Genghis Khan" comes from a popular legend that he and his soldiers roasted lamb and mutton on their helmets, so jingisukan is cooked on a convex skillet.

Sapporo Beer Garden.

Delicious jingisukan.

We put our purses in plastic bags and donned aprons, and settled in for what would be a delicious evening full of grilled sheep meat.

Accompanied by frothy mugs of Sapporo beer, of course!

Pastor Okada, our grillmaster for the evening.

The next day Caroline and I headed to Hitsujigaoka Observation Hill, which overlooks Sapporo and is home to a very famous statue of Dr. Clark. "Boys, be ambitious!" were his parting words to his students before he left Japan, and now they're universally known around the country. There is some debate over what his words were exactly--some say they were actually "Boys, be ambitious for Christ," or "Boys, be ambitious! Be ambitious not for money or for selfish aggrandizement, not for that evanescent thing which men call fame. Be ambitious for the attainment of all that a man ought to be," but regardless, the phrase "Boys, be ambitious," has stuck around... and been imprinted on a lot of Hokkaido merchandise.

Not pictured: the couple having their wedding pictures taken underneath it.

Actually, that was one of the disappointing things about Hitsujigaoka Observation Hill. As missionaries, Caroline and I were ready to be inspired by Dr. Clark's work. Instead, what we got were souvenir shops, "wedding chapels" (wedding venues that are designed to look like Christian churches), and an offer to buy a "vow of ambition," a 100-yen piece of paper on which you can write your "dreams or wishes" before depositing it in a box inside the pedestal of Dr. Clark's statue and ringing a special bell. "Dr. Clark will make your wishes come true!!" the pamphlet assured us. Sigh.

Hitsujigaoka Observation Hill.

On our last day, we decided to explore Ōdōri Park, which spans 13 blocks in the center of the city. It made for a nice walk.

There were lots of fountains...

..and interesting topiaries.

This slide, called Black Slide Mantra and designed by Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi, was my favorite thing about the park.

You enter from the back, and the staircase spirals up to the top.

The "sunken garden" at the end of the park, old Sapporo Court of Appeals in the background.

At the end of the day, we met up with Pastor Okada for an evening ride in a "Morris car" (a special kind of cable car) up Mount Moiwa, and were rewarded with some spectacular views of the city before heading down the mountain to grab dinner and take one last soak in a hot spring.

The Morris car before we boarded. It looked like something out of Disneyland... or a spaceship.

Sapporo at night from Mt. Moiwa.

Actually, the hot springs we went to were my favorite parts of the entire trip. Working in Japan can be stressful, and the hours tend to be long, but soaking in a hot spring, the art of which Japan has perfected, are the perfect antidote. You wash yourself first before getting in the hot water, and then commence feeling all the stress melt away. When you're pink as a lobster, you know you're done. It's even more lovely in the winter; nothing warms you up quite like sitting up to your neck in mineral-rich geothermally-heated water for half an hour.

We only had two days between returning from Sapporo and the start of school (and one of them was Sunday), so this account has been sadly delayed. I'm glad to finally be able to share it with all of you. Many, many thanks to Pastor Okada for her warm hospitality, delicious breakfasts, and three days of delightful fellowship.

The heart of man plans his way,
but the Lord establishes his steps.

Proverbs 16:9 (NIV)