Japanese Prayer Wall

Japanese Prayer Wall

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

また 会う 日 まで (Until We Meet Again)

In less than a week I will be leaving Japan, and it’s hard to explain how truly difficult this is for me.  In total, I’ve lived in Japan for 5 years.  I’ve lived in Kumamoto for 4 years, longer than I’ve lived in any other one place since graduating college.  I’ve met so many amazing people in Japan, and they have become like family to me.  I might be an American, but Kumamoto and Japan are truly my home.

When I moved here, I made a very dangerous prayer.  I told God, “I know that I will be here for a short time, but I pray that when I leave, I will be sad to go and other people will be sad to see me leave.”  God definitely answered that prayer.  At times it feels like my heart is being ripped apart: part of my heart staying with the people I care about in Japan and part going back to America with me.  As hard as this is for me, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  This painful separation means that I truly shared my heart with others and them with me.

I know that my transition back to the U.S. will be challenging and difficult at times.  Sometimes I’ll cry because I miss my friends and Japan so much.  Other times I’ll get so frustrated with American culture and manners that I’ll probably scream.  Of course, I’ll have lots of stories to share about my experiences here too.  I apologize in advance to my family and friends in the U.S. for having to watch this emotional roller coaster and for my occasional outbursts, but please be patient with me through this process.

As one chapter of my life comes to an end and another begins, I’m holding on to one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from my time in Japan—to persevere through the challenging times.  One of my favorite Japanese words is 頑張る (がんばる, pronounced ganbaru).  It means to persevere.  Often I hear people using a form of this word to say, “I’ll do my best.” or “I’ll persevere.”  My students, co-workers, and I often say this when we face challenges or difficult situations.  People also use it to say, “Good luck!”  “Fight!”  “You can do it!”  We use it to encourage one another to keep trying, to show our support, or let someone know that we believe in them.  After the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, all of Japan united in telling the survivors, “がんばって!  I’m not entirely sure where the road ahead will take me; in fact, I have lots of questions about my future.  But, I do know that God will be with me every step of the way.  頑張ります!  (I’ll do my best and persevere!)
A picture from my last day at Kyushu Gakuin

Sunday, March 3, 2013

A Reversal of Roles

Imagine giving a speech to over a thousand people.  Everyone is watching your every move and listening intently to each word.  Now imagine doing it in a foreign language.  Soon I will be giving farewell speeches to my students, co-workers, and church members.  To say that I am nervous is an understatement because Japanese has always been very difficult for me. 

I want to do my best because I think of my farewell speeches as goodbye presents to the people who I’ve grown to care about most.  My Japanese teacher helped me prepare the speeches, so I want to give a big “Arigatougozaimasu” to Fukuoka Sensei. 

Recently, I had an idea that could help with the speech-making process.  I had the privilege of coaching two of my students for an English speech recitation contest this year, and they were amazing!  They worked really hard and improved a lot.  English was a foreign language for them, so they understand the difficulties of the task ahead of me.  I laid down my pride and insecurities and asked them to become my speech coaches.
Hanako and Ren, my speech coaches
With our busy schedules, we could only practice together a couple times, but they taught me a lot.  Apparently, in Japan, when people are nervous about giving speeches, they imagine the audience as vegetables.  There’s nothing scary about vegetables, right?  As Ren put it, “We are potatoes.  Relax!”  Every time I remember her advice, it makes me smile.  Thank you for the memories, Ren and Hanako.  I’m so glad that I could teach you and that you could teach me too.

Please pray for peace and ease for me as I give speeches in Japanese.  I pray that I can be a blessing to those listening to my speeches, just like they have been blessings to me.  On a side note, I am trying to avoid thinking about the fact that farewell speeches actually mean that I'm leaving and saying goodbye.  If I think about that part of the situation too much, I might cry during my speeches.  So, I'm also praying for strength during an emotionally difficult time.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Hidden Christians

Imagine a government official or soldier standing before you, demanding that you stand on an engraved, wooden picture of Jesus and Mary.  If you stand on the picture, you will go against your secret, Christian faith.  But, if you refuse and demonstrate your faith, you face the punishment of prison and possibly death.  Many Christians faced this difficult decision between 1614 and 1873, when Christianity was banned in Japan.
a fumi-e, a plaque used to test one's faith
Shusaku Endo wrote a powerful play called The Golden Country, and it’s about the persecution and martyrdom of Christians during this time.  In the introduction, Endo explained what Christians faced if they were captured: "Since the ordinary death penalties by decapitation or crucifixion served but to win admiration for the martyrs, who went to their deaths joyfully, singing hymns and exhorting the crowds, crueler and crueler tortures were devised.  To prolong the agony of victims at the stake, as well as to give additional time for reconsideration, wood was placed at some distance so that the sufferers roasted by the slow fire.  Boiling water from the Japanese hot springs was slowly poured over the victims, a dipperful at a time.  Christians were tied to stakes at the water’s edge at ebb tide and slowly went to their deaths as the tide came in." (Kindle file)**  Endo went on to describe even more graphic and violent techniques used to persuade Christians to deny their faith. I do highly recommend reading this play to learn more about the persecution of Japanese Christians, though it’s not appropriate for children.
During the prohibition of Christianity, many hidden Christians lived double lives.  Outwardly, they observed Buddhism and Shintoism, following the edicts of the law.  Secretly, they worshipped God in their homes and continued practicing their Christian faith.  Some people even had secret rooms for worshipping and Buddhist statues with crosses or other Christian icons hidden on the back.

Last week, I joined 2 Japanese pastors, 2 Japanese students, and 3 American missionaries in learning more.  We visited Amakusa, a city where many hidden Christians lived.  First we visited the Amakusa Christian Museum.  I learned that the root of the persecution came from fear.  Many Japanese leaders worried that Western influences were growing too strong and that the Japanese values, culture, and way of life were suffering.  They thought that stamping out Christianity would prevent the spread of Western influences. 
Amakusa Christian Museum

Group picture (plus one random tourist who joined our picture)

Christian Cemetery in front of the Amakusa Christian Museum

Next, we went to the Amakusa Municipal Rosary Museum.  Once again, we couldn’t take pictures inside though.

Amakusa Municipal Rosary Museum

Oe Catholic Church, behind the AMRM
Last, we went to Sakitsu Catholic Church.  It’s an old church beautifully situated in a small, fishing village.

Sakitsu Catholic Church

2nd Group Picture

In front of Sakitsu Catholic Church

Japanese Fish Pond with Christian Statues in front of the church
Views toward Western culture have dramatically changed during the last century, but only about 1% of Japan is Christian, even now.  I have experienced amazing hospitality during my time as a missionary in Japan, and spending the day with 4 Japanese Christians was just one reminder of that.  Thankfully, Christians are no longer tortured and executed in Japan, but sometimes they do still experience persecution.  Some families think Christianity conflicts with obligations to ancestral shrines or honoring one’s deceased relatives.  Fear of familial conflict or threats of being ostracized from family and friends cause some Japanese Christians to keep their faith a secret from those closest to them.  So, please remember to pray for the hidden Christians that still exist in Japan today, and may God give each of them courage to stay strong in their Christian faith.

**Formatting problems made it impossible to use a correct block quoting format.  Sorry.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Passing the Torch

The time is quickly approaching when I will leave Japan.  As you can imagine, there are a lot of mixed emotions and things to do to prepare for that move.  This period of transitions really started for me last month.

In January, we welcomed 3 new people into the Kumamoto missionary community: Caroline Keenan, Laura Fentress, and Morgan Dixon.  As they participate in orientation activities, they are preparing to work in the Kumamoto Lutheran schools.  As I leave Kyushu Gakuin, Caroline will start working there.  Likewise, Laura and Morgan will start working at Luther Gakuin when Allyson Bedford and Ally Streed leave there.  During the 2 ½ months of overlapping time, I am helping the new missionaries settle in and prepare for their new jobs.    
Laura, Caroline, and Morgan
What happens when you are trying to train the person or people who will fill your position?  I want to make the transition for Caroline as smooth as possible and for her to feel comfortable as she embarks on this new challenge.  Still, there’s that little voice inside of me questioning, “Will people miss me when I’m gone?  Will they recognize just how much I did and how hard I worked?  If someone else just steps in, will it have mattered that I was here?  Will I be remembered?”

The truth is that I am part of a relay race that started more than 50 years ago.  I am in a missionary program where people usually stay for a few years, and then another person steps in to take that position.  I think of the J3 program as one person passing the Olympic torch to another and another and another.  Often we don’t even see the fruits of our labors, but each person is necessary and valuable in this process. Every person that participates is uniquely skilled and gifted for the leg of the race that they run.  Everyone is necessary for completing the race.
2013 J3s and other missionaries
2010 J3 retreat
2006 J3 retreat
2005 J3 retreat
2004 J3 retreat
 So, what relay race are you currently running?  How are you contributing to the efforts that people started before you arrived?  How are you preparing the next generation for the role they will play in that race?
Passing the torch...Give it a try.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

I Have a Big Favor to Ask...

Happy New Year!  What does the arrival of a new year mean to you?  Does it mean moving beyond the challenges and hardships of the previous year?  Does it mean a fresh start and new opportunities to achieve your personal, health, and career goals?  Maybe it means both to you, as it does to me.

2012 had some big challenges for me, but it was also a year that marked a spiritual growth spurt in my life.  I learned the importance of putting on the armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-18) every day, especially as I worked to teach others about Jesus Christ.  The more I stepped out in my faith, the more the enemy tried to stop me.  Also, I remembered how difficult circumstances in life are often beyond our control or ability to change them; what is in our control, though, is how we face those circumstances.  We can become bitter, resentful, and refuse to change when life seems unfair, or we can ask others for support, make a commitment to do our best, and turn to God for the strength to keep moving forward.  Adversity and growth seem to go hand in hand for me, and that was definitely true in 2012.
2013 is going to be full of many major life changes for me.  I want to make the most out of the time remaining for me in Japan since I’m moving back to the U.S. at the end of March.  I’m trying to spend as much time as possible with friends, co-workers, and students.  I know I have many farewell speeches in Japanese and difficult goodbyes ahead of me.  The transition back to America will be full of mixed feelings, moments of reverse culture shock, and challenges.  It’s a bumpy road that I’ve traveled before and will again soon.  In the midst of all of that, I will also tackle finding a new job, moving, and starting over again in a new community.  I don’t really like changes, but they’re an unavoidable part of life and probably a common theme for me this year.

I know that I can’t face 2013 alone; I need strength and support from God, family, and friends.  I am excited to see God’s plans for my life unfold this year.  I’m glad that even though I have so many questions about my future, I can trust God to be with me every step of the way.  Now, I have a big favor to ask: please keep me in your prayers this year as I journey into the unknown and face transitions around every corner.  May God bless you and your family in 2013 too!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Special Gifts of Praise

Sadao Watanabe was an amazing Japanese Christian artist.  He lived from 1913-1996, but his artwork continues to inspire people around the world.  He used a technique called katazome.  A website devoted to Sadao Watanabe explained his technique:

How does Watanabe’s katazome technique work? First of all there must be a design. Sadao Watanabe drew his design on tracing paper and used that to cut out a stencil. The stencil is made of multiple layers of washi paper that are bonded with a persimmon solution to strengthen and waterproof it. The stencil was put on a light box and the printing paper on top of the stencil. As the stencil could be seen through the printing paper the colors were painted. When the colors had dried, the stencil was placed on top of the paper and, after a paste was drawn over the design, the stencil was removed. The effect was that only the painted areas were covered with the paste and not the lines that should be black. After the paste had dried, black paint was brushed over the entire design. The paint just adhered to the lines that were not covered with the paste. Next and last step was to wash the paper in water to dissolve the paste. When dried a new work of art was ready to tell a story of the Bible! (https://sites.google.com/site/sadaohanga/informationaboutwatanabesadao)

Here are some of my favorite prints by Watanabe.  First, in honor of the season of Advent, this is The Annunciation (1982).

When I look at this painting, I image Mary saying, “Who me?!”

Next, The Baptism of Christ (1968).

The Last Supper (1978).
I love how the Japanese culture is reflected here.  The disciples are seated on the floor in Japanese style, and they’re eating fish and sushi.
 The Crucifixion (1980).
There are many ways to praise God.  I’m overjoyed every time I hear my kindergarten class singing “Jesus Loves Me” in both Japanese and English.  I’m relieved when I can pray with friends about our concerns and can thank God for the many blessings in our lives.  I’m happy every time I watch a friend teach Sunday school and show children that God is truly amazing.  Also, I’m filled with hope and peace when I see artwork, like that of Sadao Watanabe, which glorifies God.  Whatever skills or talents you have, use them to praise and bring glory to God.  What special gifts of praise will you give Jesus for his birthday this year?
To learn more about Sadao Watanabe and to see more of his artwork, please visit this website: https://sites.google.com/site/sadaohanga/home

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Lasting Legacy

When I lived in Kumamoto in 2006, I had the privilege of hearing a man give an amazing testimony.  Yasunari Taniguchi spoke at the English service about his experiences during and after World War II.  Mr. Taniguchi taught at Kyushu Gakuin for more than 40 years, but this week he passed away.  He inspired many people, including me.  You can read Mr. Taniguchi’s testimony in this article, which was published in The Lutheran magazine several years ago.  The first part of the article is about the history of Christianity in Japan.  In the second part, Mr. Taniguchi shares the story of his life.  I retyped the article for easier reading, but you will also find the actual article below.

“God Makes the Seeds Grow.”—The Lutheran

Japan has never been fertile ground for Christian mission.  St. Francis Xavier and the Jesuits were first to bring the seed of the Gospel to Japan in the early 1500s.  The seed blossomed, only to be cut back by the bloody persecutions of the isolationist Tokugawa government.  Thousands of believers died.  Those who did not perish or renounce the faith went underground, preserving the faith, but leaving it like the government, isolated and increasingly stagnant.
Two hundred years later Matthew Perry’s black gunships re-opened Japan and missionaries came from nearly every Christian land on the globe to reintroduce the Gospel.  Japan readily took to Western technology and education, but the newly planted churches grew slowly.  As Japan built itself into a world power, mission efforts became more and more difficult.
Total defeat in World War II changed all this –for a while.  Physically and emotionally drained, thousands of people looked for answers in the message of Jesus Christ.  Yet, as the Japanese phoenix rose from the ashes of war and industry, and commerce forged ahead, once again the nation left Christianity behind.  Today, after more than a hundred years of earnest evangelism, barely one percent of the Japanese population is Christian.
The situation in the Japanese Lutheran churches is typical of that in other Protestant missions.  There has only been marginal growth since the “boom” postwar years.  Congregations are heavy with converts from those days.  Youth are few, and with a high percentage of Japanese pastors now approaching retirement, a leadership crisis is on the horizon.  Along with the Japanese Lutherans, nearly 100 missionaries from the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America are working hard to form a more promising future, but, with the high cost of living and the low rate of church growth, spreading the Gospel in Japan remains a very cost inefficient enterprise.
   Is Japan rocky soil?  Thorny soil?  Where is the good soil for which many have worked?  When will the harvest come?
   What follows is the vision of one of Japan’s 10,000 Lutherans, Yasunari Taniguchi, a junior high school English teacher.  It is his testimony and life story and contains the heart of what mission is about in Japan.  Taniguchi gave this message to a group of LCA missionaries at a recent church service in Kumamoto, Japan.
   The other day I happened to meet one of my old junior high classmates for the first time in 30 years.  He asked me what my job was.
   I said, “I’m working at Kyushu Gakuin Junior High School.”
   “Ah, so you’re working in the school office.”
   “Uh, no.  I’m a teacher.”
   “Oh?  Then I guess you’re teaching Japanese.  You were pretty good at Japanese.”
   “I teach English.”
   “What?  You, an English Teacher!  I can’t believe it.  I’ll never believe it until I see you standing in front of a classroom!”
   When I met him I was suddenly reminded of my younger days.
   Can you believe that a man like me became an English teacher?  From my own experience I have to agree that English education in Japan is not reliable.  But, before I became an English teacher, one of my friends told me, “Don’t worry.  In America there are many French teachers who can’t speak French.”  Those words encouraged me to give English teaching a try.
   Perhaps you’re wondering whatever made me decide to become an English teacher in the first place.  I’ll tell you.
   I was born in Kumamoto City in 1931, the youngest of six children.  My father died when I was six years old.  My mother had a hard time bringing up so many children and she had to take special care of me because I had contracted polio at age three and lost the use of my right leg.  You can’t imagine how much I depended on my mother.
   Unfortunately, World War II broke out.  One by one my brothers were conscripted into the army.  We sometimes heard air raid sirens even in the calm city of Kumamoto.  At midnight on the night of July 1, 1945, our city was bombed out.
   The next morning I found my mother’s body lying beside the road.  She had been directly hit by an incendiary bomb.  When I found her dead, I didn’t cry.  I experienced such deep sorrow that I found I could not cry.  Everything just looked pale.  Now that I had lost my most reliable support, I also lost my energy to live.  From that day on I never went into the air raid shelter when I heard the warning siren.  It didn’t matter at all to me whether I lived or died.  I watched the bombing calmly through the window.
   As the days went by we settled into a routine of life.  One of my chores was to boil water for the family bath.  For fuel I used oil from incendiary bombs which hadn’t gone off.  I could find the bombs everywhere around my house.  First I took off the cap to the bomb.  Then from within the bomb I pulled out a type of cloth—perhaps it was a wrapping—that was soaked in thick oil.  I stuck this under our iron bathtub and lit it with a match.  It burned hot enough that we could take a bath in half an hour.
   When I had trouble opening the cap of a bomb, I used to hit its fuse with a hammer.  Of course, I knew that lots of people were losing their lives just by touching unexploded bombs, but that didn’t stop me.  Each day I wondered if it would be my last day on earth.  Once I had battered the fuse apart, I scooped up all the gunpowder from within.  With that gunpowder I made a trail on the ground leading to the oily cloth underneath our bath tub.  Secretly I called my dangerous game “Death Play.”  Strange to say, none of the bombs ever exploded.
   A month and a half after my mother died, the war ended.  At last I was able to cry, because it seemed that my mother had died in vain.  I swore revenge.
   True, the Americans were kind enough to send us food, medicine, and clothes almost from the day the war ended, but the flame of hatred kept burning deep inside me.  The only dream I had in those days was that someday I would go to America, find those Air Force pilots, and stab them to death, one by one.  So, even though I didn’t like it at all, I decided I must learn English.  One day I knocked on the door of a Mr. Sedoris McCartney, who had come to Kumamoto as a Lutheran missionary.  I figured from this American I would learn just enough English to make my dream of revenge come true.
  I was surprised to find there was such an honest man among the American people.  I had thought all Americans were completely evil.  After about three months of study with Mr. McCartney, I started to feel my attitude changing.  I became afraid.  What I was learning was far different than what I had been thinking.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  When I read those words in the Bible, I threw the book down to the floor.  What a foolish teaching for a person like me, who lived on hatred.  I tried to forget this ridiculous saying.  But more and more I felt as if someone was whispering in my ear, “Hate no one.  Love all people.”  I poured out my troubles to Mr. McCartney.  I learned how much he was against warfare.  Attending his Bible class, I found my thoughts of revenge melting away like snow in the spring.
   I was baptized at Suidocho Lutheran Church while Mr. and Mrs. McCartney watched.  Of course, after that I quit playing with incendiary bombs.
   About 30 years later, I had a chance to go to America.  When I took my first steps at San Francisco Airport, I was so happy.  I was excited because this was the place I might have come to stab people, if my feelings of hate had endured.  Instead, I had come to improve my English.  I thanked God for changing my life.
   I cried, “Why is the sky of San Francisco so beautiful!?”
   A gentleman walking beside me replied, “San Francisco is always like this at this time of year.”  Of course, he knew nothing about me.
   Now I feel very strange when I think about my life.  I’m teaching English, which I couldn’t stand.  I deeply love the American people whom I had hated so much.  America has become one of my favorite countries.  I believe none of these changes could have happened without the grace of God.  His ways are indeed mysterious.  No one knows when, where or how God will catch hold of you.  I am very, very happy to be Christian.
   Now I know several of you American missionaries are going home.  I am very thankful for your hard work in Japan.  I believe your work has been successful, even if you think now you can’t see any results.  I am sure you sowed seeds in people’s hearts just like Mr. McCartney did.  It is God who makes the seeds grow. 
   To those of you who are still engaged in mission work in Japan: I know evangelism in Japan is very hard work.  Someone once said that, when it comes to religion, Japan is a barren tract of land.  I believe that’s half true.  Most Japanese people take their children to a Shinto shrine for a blessing shortly after birth.  The same people will then exchange Christmas gifts and enjoy the Christmas season.  On New Year’s Day they will go back to the shrines.  Their child will seek to have his wedding at a Christian church, but will ask to have his funeral at a Buddhist temple.  I can’t even understand it and I’m Japanese.  I think, however proud we are of our technology, we Japanese are primitive when it comes to religion.  We Japanese are very good people.  We constructed a modern nation by accepting new things, while, at the same time, making much of old traditions.  We Japanese find everything new and everything old valuable, but we still don’t know what is the most precious.  Please continue to guide us, teaching what is most important, even though it seems to take so much time.
   Once two merchants went to Africa to sell shoes.  To their surprise none of the natives wore shoes.  One of the two gave up and went home, feeling there would be no buyers for his product.  The other, however, was overjoyed, because he felt certain he could sell shoes to everyone—for nobody had a pair.
   We can choose to look at our situation as optimists or pessimists.  Trust in God.  Possibilities abound.  I know because I was changed by God’s grace.

Post-reading reflection questions
1. Who are your spiritual mentors?
2. Who are you mentoring in their faith journeys?
3. What seeds of faith have you sown recently?
4. What legacy do you want to leave behind when you die?  What are you doing today to make that happen?