Ube city held its annual festival with over 10,000 rockets. Choreographed to music in 6 bouts it was quite the performance.
However as the fireworks (or fire flowers as the Japanese call them) burst over the bay flashes over the oceans horizon occasionally catch your eye. You'd look, but it would be gone and your gaze would be once again captivated by a burst of orange and purple. Then the distant flash would occur again way off to the right. It was heat lightning firing through the clouds over the pacific ocean.
Now there is a choice. To watch the nonstop razzle dazzle of man or wait for the arcing lightning jump through the clouds. It felt weird to think that by watching the fireworks display worth thousands of dollars I was somehow missing out, but I waited patiently staring out at a black horizon missing hundreds of fireworks. I wasn't disappointed. What I saw and most of the crowd missed was two arcs of purple and orange lightning crisscross as they lit up two cumulonimbus clouds.
In a way I think following God can be a lot like this competing display. The world will never cease to strive for our attention with seemingly attractive displays of beauty and desire. However in the end the enjoyment is short lived and all that remains is a lot of smoke and ringing in your ears. Worse, it distracts us from God and what He is doing in the world, which like the heat lightning was infinitely more powerful and more beautiful. But we have to let the desires of the world pass us by sometimes in order to wait on God.
In this way Jesus' use of Isaiah strikes home in Matthew 13:14, "hearing you will hear and not understand, and seeing you will not see and not perceive; for the hearts of this people have grown dull." God is moving and working in the world, but we've become so distracted with daily things that we miss it.
To drive the illustration home, one of the festival displays of fireworks was to remember all the lives lost in the tsunami. The song to which the fireworks had been timed was none other than "Amazing Grace." It was so amazing to worship God in public with music and light that I felt my eyes moisten. But for the unreached people of Japan, many of whom refused hearing the gospel that very week, they listened on in complete oblivion.
Whether in America or Japan we must not miss what God is saying and doing right before us because we've grown accustomed to the distractions of this world (no matter how attractive they may be), for God will not disappoint.
Working in a country in which Christianity is overshadowed by animistic and pantheistic religions has been challenging. Many people simply aren't interested in spiritual things and rebuff any attempts to strike up a conversation (many also have a bad taste in their mouth left by christian cults). So it is discouraging to see people turn down or show no interest in "the good news."
After a while it can produce a longing for America with its "healthy" church. That is until one reads the news back home about Christians being asked leave a public beach because the police have received calls complaining of harassment and private companies being denied business licenses because the CEO happens to have a different opinion than the city major about what is or isn't a sin.
It's enough to remind us that this world is not our home and that no country or land has been or ever will be truly Christian until Christ returns. As for the rejection, God had to remind me that it is Him and His teachings that is being spurned and spat upon, not us. The pain He feels far exceeds any frustration and discouragement we face as a result of following Him.
And the Lord is faithful. That very same night during an English class I was able to share the gospel with a woman named Miharis. After presenting the story of Adam and the Fall, Jesus was introduced as an "intercessor" (a theological term WAY over the heads of these novice English speakers). Thankfully a Japanese christian named Mauoko and I were able to work together to answer her questions about the concept of original sin and how it separates us from the God the Father (Kami-sama in Japanese, literally something like honored emperor God). To try and explain "intercessor" the bridge model suddenly fit perfect to show our separation and how the cross bridges the gap (I used a kanji interpretation app to draw it on my iTouch). As I fumbled around for simple English words and explanations, and Mauoko explained with greater clarity in Japanese, everything took on the proper perspective as understanding and amazement dawned on Miharis's face.
The gospel and it's dissemination to all people truly is the good news and can overcome all discouragements.
In Ishinomaki our team was able to join the local missionaries in suffering alongside the victims of the tsunami. Just by helping them rebuild in the name of Christ has brought many to church and created interest in the gospel.
However, evangelism in Japan is notoriously difficult. One reason is because the Japanese value relationships and things that last. Thus, long term missionaries tend to have success after building relationships over a course of many years.
Down in Ube, which was unaffected by the tsunami, compassion ministries are not as common. Instead, missonaries and churches often rely on tracts, English classes, and gospel choirs.
Our team handed out tracts over several miles of neighborhoods surrounding the church today. Like the sower and the seed we pray that some will fall on good soil. Fortunately, Japanese are more receptive than Americans to tracts since they are avid readers or will read them as an act of reciprocity. However, going door to door has been adopted by others and our team saw Mormons in neighboods his week.
English is poplar in Japan. In fact it's everywhere. You'd be hard pressed to find apparel with kanji on it. Even most. Businesses have James using roman letters since they often desire to do business with America or internationally. So Japanese are usually interested in learning English; however, they want to learn it from native speakers. Most churches tend to have access to if not actual members who speaks English fluently. Thus, churches will use English classes as a form of outreach in which the primary lessons are based on the bible. Our team will help with several English classes this week.
Lastly is the gospel choir. Yes, gospel music is popular in Japan. One missionary told me that it's not uncommon for "Amazing Grace" to be sung at baseball games (they like the tune and know it has something to do with receiving a blessing). All Christian music tends to be considered gospel from hymns to contemporary worship songs, but gospel gospel is the preferred choice. Think "Sister Act" with Whoopie Goldberg. Japanese lives offen revolve around the clubs they join, but this one has robes and a moving beat. Unfortunately, they want to sing the songs as originally written in English. But this allows Christians to explain what the lyrics mean as a form of workessing.
There are no discipleship shortcuts and the culture barriers are immense, but fruit is seen by those who live among the people and take the time to build relationships with them in order to share the love of Christ.
According to missionaries in Japan the average Christian church has 10 to 20 people in it. I found myself asking "why aren't they bigger?"
The answer: profesionals tend to be the most responsive to the gospel, but they often move every four years or so with their company. College students are even more responsive, but they move even more frequently. When these baby believers move there often is no church in their new city, or back home in the more rural parts of Japan, or they fail to find a church they feel comfortable as part of the body. Imagine the pains of "church shopping" with a fraction of the options we have in America. Thus, many of these new believers tend to fade away or try to continue by themselves. Of those who don't move, 25% typically leave on their own accord, become disgruntled, or are led astray. Thus, to maintain a church of about 20, at least 2-3 new believers must be discipled every year, 5+ if the church is to grow.
Sounds easy enough right? Back in America we have families move, people simply leave, disgruntled members, and false teaching and we still see 5 new people on any given Sunday right? But how many of those new people are actually coming from another church? Statistically most if not all of them.
How many "healthy" churches in America can boast of 25% growth from brand new believers? From first zero to baptism?
Annually how many "healthy" American churches can boast of even 5 such believers with a membership 10 times the average Japanese church?
It would appear that the problem isn't with Japan (yes, Japan does have its own unique set of hurdles making evangelism far more challenging than western cultures). The problem seems to be that the universal Church has not been as effective at actually sharing the gospel and then discipling potential followers of Christ. Whether training, motivation, or discipline (or something else) is the problem probably varies. Regardless, it would seem that the problem is simply exacerbated in Japan by the church's size and cultural barriers.
We need to be praying not only for churches in Japan to reach a tipping point of growth, but also for all churches to be effective at following the Great Commision.
Our team has completed several projects and our time in Ishinomaki to perform tsunami relief. We left Saturday morning for Hiroshima where we stayed the night. We met up with old friends of our missionary leaders for dinner after visiting the A-bomb dome (below) and museum to remember the destruction of the nuclear weapon uses in WWII. After a nights rest we were able to see Hiroshima castle (above) and Hiyaijima (temple island with he famous red tori gate) before catching the bullet train (and several other trains) to Ube City. This will begin a week of "regular" Japanese ministry. Pray for boldness and understanding as we face the mighty language barrier!
Despite being a modern and quite secular nation, Japan has quite the paradox of religious views. A mix of Buddhist and Shintoism, many Japanese still follow these religous ways for the sake of tradition. Shinto priests will offer to "bless" just about anything (for a price of course) from cars, boats, houses, and children. (Buddhists provide funerals and longer names to use in heaven for a price).
Often missionaries have complained of feelings of uneasyness or children not sleeping once they move into Japan. Oftentimes there is still a Shinto blessing in the rafters of the house (pictured) and once removed eliminates the oppression. One home we worked on had a blessing in it, so we doubled our prayers before and after we worked in it.
Almost every home we've seen has a shelf for the family altar (a mini shrine). Prayers are said for ancestors along with leaving out food and flowers for the dead. Sadly Japanese Christians have received criticism for not keeping these altars as "not loving their family" even if they provided for their relatives above and beyond the Japanese norm whole they were still living.
Shinto gates are ubiquitous in Japan, a county known for its shrines and temples. Pray for the spiritual atmosphere in Japan make the hold of Shintoism and bhuddism to weaken so that the gospel can shine through these empty traditions.
This week has been one of hard labor helping the Japanese of Ishinomaki try to pick up the pieces over a year later.
We have joined a local Christian group called Be One (affer John 17:13) who started helping even before the government arrived. Through their outreach and constant provision of Christian workers they have acheieved not only unheard of unity between the different Chrisitian denominations in Japan, but also created a sense of community amongst several Japanese neighborhoods that usually keep to themselves.
This week we've helped support that testimony by asissting three different families. A family gutting their home asked us to sort and haul rubble to the dump (an experience all in itself). A pair of widowed sisters needed help cleaning out an old damaged house and sorting their belongings for either storage or disposal (an emotional hurdle they needed someone to help them through). Today we ripped out floors and shoveled out the silt and mud washed into the crawl space at a condo.
All in all the tsunami has created rare soil for the missionaries to work in and an opportunity to show the Japanese of Ishinomaki (who know little to nothing about Christians) the love of the God we serve.
Our team got to see the city of Ishinomaki today and all the tsunami destruction first hand. Most of the rusted cars and debris has been cleared out but the rebuilding of roads, buildings, homes, schools, and broken lives has really only begun.
One sight is a true testament to God's sovereignty. Amongst all the destruction is an old ship that escaped unharmed. Back in 1613 the original ship was built by a powerful samurai of Ishinomaki who was a Christian to sail to Rome and return with "a boatload" of missionaries. However, before the boat could return the famous shogun Tokugawa Ieyesu outlawed Christianity. The commissioning samurai suffered for his faith and the pope forbade any more missionaries from returning to Ishinomaki lest they die needlessly.
Now in the wake of the tsunami the Japanese will testify that the Christians were the first to arrive and have remained long after all others have left. When the locals ask the missionary families why they are moving here they can't help but think of the ship and the Ishinomaki samusai's prayer. (the Japanese Christian author Shusako Endo wrote the historical fiction "the samurai" about this story).
Being here, even as a short term missionary, feels as if we are part of God's answer to this old wish. We pray that we would be bold and faithful to God's mission even more so in light of this amazing revelation.
We spent the day touring Tokyo via the subway system. Wow! It was seas of people with a spider web of trains. The amazing thing was the noise. Or lack of noise that is. The Japanese are so courteous they don't talk on their cellphones or carry on loud coversations on the train! Everybody is very polite but all speak Japanese. We got lost several times but with a little guidance always found our way.
I left Columbia SC at 1:30pm Thursday and have arrived in Japan at 4:30am on Saturday. We had layovers in Atlanta and Las Angeles, but on flying to japan we crossed the international dateline. So we literally flee into the future. The flight was really really long. That was compounded by the fact that I had a middle isle seat in the back of the plane with no leg room do to plane electronics under the seat in front of me. In addition, The armrest fight made me feel like I was part of Bran Regan's standup bit on airplanes. YouTube it. Today we'll try to do some sightseeing on adrenaline before we crash. Then we scheduled to begin working up north. Thanks for all your prayers!
Brett & Beth record their milestones in academia and medicine as they roam far and wide with Jethro, Edessa, and Genevieve in tow.