Even after living in Japan for over 2 years there are still things that absolutely amazes me in ways that I am unable to process. This week Aven and I took a trip to a park that has special eggs that light up in the dark…weird right? You can bounce light onto other eggs by pushing one which creates a cool kind of light ripple effect. Check out the pic!
However, this was not the weirdest part of our trip. We had to park our car in a huge complex called Sakura Town which is across the street from the park. The complex had massive and interesting buildings including an anime hotel and a strange comet shaped museum which we thought was weird but kinda cool.
We then noticed something we have never seen before. A modern and slick looking Shinto shrine. Instead of the traditional wood or concrete torii gate this shrine’s gate was shaped out of wire.
However, the strangest thing was this lantern…
It basically identifies the area as a holy site for Japanese anime. After doing some research online I learnt that there are 88 anime holy sites that form part of a pilgrimage for anime lovers. I think ’88’ was chosen since there is also a famous temple pilgrimage in Shikoku, Japan, which also include 88 holy sites. What makes these sites holy? Well apparently it needs to be recognized by many anime fans as a venue or model of anime work. For example, the scene from this anime takes place by a famous landmark in Kawagoe which is now recognized as one of the 88 holy sites.
Above pictures taken from animetourism88.com
So, what do you do at these sites? Basically, anime lovers can get a special stamp at each venue as they continue on their pilgrimage. These holy sites are also places where people come to do cosplay and where special anime related events take place.
To me, this little learning exercise was interesting for two reasons. Firstly, I was reminded of the huge influence anime and manga has on Japanese culture and tourism. Where else in the world can you find anime manhole covers, theme parks, hotels, robots, cafes, and holy sites!
In addition, Japanese anime is a nearly 20-billion-dollar industry and draws hordes of anime loving tourists into the country. Certainly this was one of the main reasons for setting up the anime88 pilgrimage, to get more tourists into more parts of Japan.
Secondly, I cannot help but notice how much of a spiritual influence anime has on Japanese culture. The fact that there is an 88 holy site anime pilgrimage similar to the temple pilgrimage in Shikoku is proof of this. Apart from this anime pilgrimage, the actual stories and characters in anime influences people. I have watched a number of very popular anime movies which have very strong religious undertones; especially to Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion. I also have Japanese friends who quote famous lines from anime they watched as children when they are facing a particular challenge. Of course, not every person in Japan is an anime fanatic, however anime is very deeply connected to Japanese culture on a number of levels. I remember that before Aven and I got married I used to go to her house regularly to watch anime. I think her mom thought we were quite weird…adults watching cartoons??? Well, I think it is safe to say that it is much more than just cartoons. People who are students of Japanese culture can learn a lot about Japan through anime. What are the underlying desires or hopes that drives someone to visit 88 anime holy sites? Is it just a love for anime or is it something more? A need for community? A desire to escape the unsatisfying normality of life? At the end of the day, everybody is searching for their own slice of happiness, that thing that will bring them fulfilment and satisfaction. My guess is that many people search for it in anime. These anime holy sites are simply external markers which demonstrate the significance of Japanese anime. What do you think about this anime88 pilgrimage? Marketing gimmick? Innocent fun? Some deeper spiritual significance?
When I was in South Africa I preached fairly often, like once a week at once stage. It took me about 10-12 hours to prepare and I got into a good rhythm with regards to planning, writing, and preaching sermons. I knew my way around commentaries and word study. I knew how to explain doctrines and put big ideas into words that could relate to peoples’ lives. Preaching requires a pretty advanced level of language because it includes a lot of abstract ideas and images, knitted together with teaching, exhortation, application, illustration, storytelling, and other advanced levels of language use. Not only that, but there are also are a number of below the surface cultural aspects to be considered as well. For example, the fact that different cultures listen differently, apply ideas differently and respond to criticism or rebuke differently. This has all played a role in the development of different preaching styles which is tailored to specific groups.
When a missionary begins to preach cross-culturally, they are hit with a barrage of language and cultural challenges which can be extremely discouraging. I thought I would share a few of my ideas and lessons learnt as a new cross-cultural preacher in Japan. Hopefully, it can encourage others preaching cross-culturally, as well as help others understand a bit more of what cross-cultural missionaries go through.
- Stick your pride in your pocket and get ready to eat humble pie
I have only preached about 5 times in Japanese but can already tell that it is a very humbling experience. I remember spending hours and hours working on my first sermon and when I finished, I thought…these poor listeners! This is absolutely normal, especially for those who are adept at preaching in their own language. We want to preach at the same intellectual level we used to but sorry; not gonna happen! My first sermon was one I loosely translated from an English one I preached before and I used very basic level Japanese. In spite of sticking to basics, I had to use the dictionary countless times to look up words that I have never heard before such as Water Jug, Torch, a crowd of people etc. It is normal to get frustrated and it is part of the learning process. Just keep going.
When it came to actually preaching the sermon, I was so terribly nervous. I think I went to the toilet like 5 times on that Sunday morning. During the sermon, I forgot how to read one of the kanji characters and I had to stop the sermon to ask someone in the congregation to help me read it. It turned out to be a funny little joke afterwards that the young people enjoyed teasing me with. Overall, it went pretty well but I can tell you, many parts still felt awkward and embarrassing.
- Being humbled pays spiritual dividends
In my struggles with learning to preach cross-culturally, I have been reminded of the need to depend on God’s Spirit. I often lay out my sermon manuscript and pray over the pages, asking God to help me just read it well; never mind delivery style. I often look at those Japanese characters thinking…Oh God help me! More than when I preached in English, I feel a tremendous need for grace and assistance which has helped to deepen my trust in the power of God’s Word and the convicting work of the Spirit. When I receive any positive feedback, I can only but smile and be blown away again by the Spirit’s work in making those feebly crafted sentences into something meaningful. Be encouraged with those feebly crafted words because God multiples it far more than we can imagine! Also, in the struggle to preach better sermons in Japanese, God is working on YOU the preacher. Making you more humble, godly, and ultimately a better disciple.
- You need the help of others
For those of us who preach, we had to learn from lecturers, other preachers, books on preaching etc. As much as these are necessary, it is not enough to preach cross-culturally in Japan. Those books do not teach you how to preach in Japanese, or to Japanese. Learning to preach in Japanese requires lots of…you guessed it…LEARNING. For this reason, I don’t think it is helpful to straight out translate your English sermons into Japanese (I am slowly weening myself off this method). It’s not that simple. We need to think about what unique challenges Japanese face, what moves them, what interests them etc. And for that, we need to have conversations with them about our sermons and sermon ideas. I have a great opportunity to learn from a great evangelical preacher whom I am serving under in a local church. After I finish preparing a sermon, I send it to him to check. We then spend about 2 hours talking about various parts of the sermon and then I get behind the pulpit and preach to him. After this, we sit down and he gives me more advice about my delivery. This has been a great help to me and I would strongly recommend asking people for help when preparing your sermons. If you do not have a Japanese pastor who can help you, make it a point to ask someone to go through the sermon with you BEFORE AND AFTER you preach it. Get critique; we absolutely need it. (Later I include a few lessons I learnt from my Japanese pastor about how I preach)
- Set realistic goals
We need to be realistic and confess that we are preaching with limited language ability, limited cultural understanding, and strange accents. None of this will go away anytime soon. Therefore; please do not attempt to preach complicated texts or deep theological ideas when you are still a beginner. There is a saying in Japanese: シンプルイズベストmeaning: “Simple is best”. When I preach my objective is to preach for 20-25min, from a simple text, explaining what the passage says and giving one focused point of application. There are many, many things I would love to preach but I feel my current language level is not ready for that. That is something we can surrender to the Lord. Thankfully, there are many wonderful and simple passages that we can use to explain the Gospel message. In my experience, I have found the Gospels and Acts to be a good place to start. Plenty in there to keep us busy for a while!
- Learn from you mistakes
Making mistakes is a natural part of language learning but every effort should be made to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. One way that I have found helpful is to ask whoever is helping me correct the Japanese in my sermon to leave the mistakes and add the correction beside it. This way I can see exactly where I have gone wrong so I don’t repeat mistakes. It is also helpful to read previous sermons and review mistakes before starting to prepare a new sermon. That way the mistakes you tend to make are fresh in your mind and thus more difficult to repeat.
LESSONS FROM MY JAPANESE PASTOR
I really enjoy the time I spend speaking about my sermons with our Pastor. These are a few little pointers I have learned which have helped me a lot in preparation.
- Don’t include too many quotes from other parts of the Bible. These often distract from the main message in your text by demanding extra explanations.
- Don’t expect people to take for granted what you take for granted. For example, in one sermon I referred to the Holy Spirit as 聖霊 which simply means “Holy Spirit”. But in a culture of many gods and spirits, this could be understood simply as a good/clean spirit among other spirits. Therefore, we need to say 聖霊なる神様 meaning “God the Holy Spirit”.
- Be precise in the way you reference. When referencing other passages be specific every time you do it. I would often just say something like “Back at the start of this chapter…” or “In verse 10…” (without mentioning the chapter since I assume the listeners will know it’s the same chapter of the chosen text). Japanese people, however, want to know the specifics and should not be left
- Preach simply with lots of concrete examples. When we preach in the West, we tend to give broad ideas and we then leave it up to our listeners to know how to apply it to their lives. Japanese people listen more concretely rather than abstractly and so the preacher needs to give many practical examples and simple explanations. One missionary explained this to me with a helpful picture. The way Japanese listen is seen in the way they like their steak 😊 In the West we like big slabs of steak and we cut it up and eat it the way we like. In Japan, you hardly ever see big slabs of steak. They like their steak already sliced up ready to grill and then immediately eat as bite-sized strips. When we prepare a sermon, we can’t simply cook a delicious steak, we have to cut it up into bite-size portions.
- Don’t apologize. In my first sermon at our church, I wanted to start off by apologizing for my bad Japanese and that I hope people will be patient with me. The pastor told me to erase that since it is God who places me behind the pulpit and therefore there is no need for an apology.
- Don’t speak too casually. After spending some time doing student ministry my Japanese tends to be more on the casual side. This crept into my preaching which the pastor had to correct. Especially when there are older people listening, polite speech should be used in preaching. It is unlikely that anyone will say anything to you if you don’t use polite speech in your preaching, but be sure that it will put certain people off from listening to you.
- Focus on preaching evangelistic sermons. At first, I did not agree with him but after his explanation it made sense. “As a missionary, you will want to invite Japanese friends to come and listen to you preach right? Well then prepare a sermon as if that is the only sermon your Japanese friend will ever hear. What is it you want him to hear that in that sermon? Preach that!”
I’m sure I can think of more to say but those were the freshest batch of memories in my mind. The important thing is that we need to be humble and teachable as cross-cultural preachers.
And finally, …
Here is a very brief summary of how I prepare a sermon in Japanese.
- Choose a passage that is simple to preach evangelistically.
- Read the passage in Japanese at least 5 times and look up any words I don’t know.
- Read some commentaries (In English) and get a good understanding of the passage.
- Write an introduction with 3-4 outline points (In Japanese)
- Slowly start to fill in content under each outline point (Japanese) and make notes about ideas to use for illustrations (English). (This takes about 10-12 hours to complete over the course of 1-2 weeks depending on what else is happening)
- Finish up the document, read about 2-3 times to double-check for any errors.
- Email to the pastor to check.
- Feedback meeting with the pastor
- Apply pastors’ feedback to the sermon and make suggested changes
- Resend to pastor
- Preach sermon in the church to pastor only
- Receive feedback and make final changes
- Practice preaching sermon about 4-5 times
- Go to bed early on Sat before and don’t look at the sermon again before preaching it at church
- Receive final feedback from the pastor the week after
In total it takes about 20 hours to prepare a 25 min sermon in Japanese.
This blogpost has been an encouragement to me as a reminder that it is normal to struggle with preparing and delivering cross-cultural sermons. It takes many hours of hard work, lots of discouragement is part of it too. Also, there are no shortcuts. The only way to get better in preaching is by preaching. If you are a cross-cultural preacher starting out like me, don’t get too discouraged, keep going, keep learning, God is at work in spite of our weaknesses. And if you have read this blog as someone who does not preach cross-culturally, remember to pray for us. Pray that we don’t get too discouraged, and pray that the Holy Spirit will make our feeble efforts useful and glorious.
This pdf copy of my last sermon should give you an idea of what an intermediate-level Japanese learners work looks like.
So, a few days ago I accompanied Aven to the local home & garden store to buy a few things she needed to start growing herbs and vegetables from our garden…um I mean balcony 😊
What kind of sand? What size pot? How do you read that Kanji? We were a bit lost and so ended up asking the cashier for help. Turned out we needed to buy more stuff! A very kind lady gave Aven a quick crash course while I took a load of soil, stones, herbs, plants etc. over to the car. As I was pushing the trolly across a road with lots of foot traffic, disaster struck. My carefully packed mini-mountain of agriculture fell down a small incline and things got scattered everywhere. The heavy sandbags fell and squished some of our precious plant babies. Pots went rolling merrily down the hill. Awkward! Now I don’t know about you but one would expect somebody to stop and help me pick up my things but nope, this is Japan. People carried on walking straight past me pretending not to notice. It reminded me of our time in Hokkaido where I once slipped on the ice and fell. Nobody around checked if I was okay, they just pretended not to notice. If it wasn’t for the fact that I have been living here for 2 years I probably would have gotten upset. But I know now that different cultures have different ways of showing politeness. In some cultures, it would be polite to stop and help someone who had an embarrassing or awkward experience like myself. However, in Japan, you show politeness by not interfering. Jumping in to help someone could make that person feel even more embarrassed or uncomfortable so just carry on and mind your own business. While I had my accident at the home & garden, the friendly assistant was going out of her way in showing politeness in helping Aven understand the different kinds of soil and explaining the Japanese writing. It’s not that the Japanese are impolite; they just have a different way of showing it within different contexts. This is a small example of one of the many ways in which missionaries and other ex-pats need to adapt to living abroad. It is important to look for core values before judging based on exteriors. A lesson we need to learn continuously.
Our world has been turned completely upside down by covid19 hasn’t it? All the plans we had for 2020 have been royally messed up. Then there are the worrisome thoughts that creep into our hearts…will things ever return to normal? What will happen to our economy? Will I still have a job? Is this God’s judgement? Is this the end times!? What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to think about this!?
I think it is safe to say that many of us are feeling nervous and on edge about what is happening right now. I have been feeling edgy myself! Being in a foreign country, and on top of that moving into a new city just as this disaster struck. However, I have also heard many good stories about people who continue to learn and grow in spite of the pandemic chaos. I decided to join in and write down some thoughts about what I have been learning personally these days.
- Be careful how you listen
The pastor of our church in Japan preached a sermon on the parable of the sower, reminding us of Jesus’ words: “Take care then how you hear”. We know that in this parable, the seed (God’s Word) falls on different kinds of soil which each represents how different people respond to God’s Word. The point of the passage is not the importance of God’s Word, but the importance of hearing it properly. I have been challenged because although I believe in the importance of God’s Word, I don’t think I have been hearing the way I should. I have allowed distractions to creep in and affect the way I respond which is not good at all. I have opened my ears too much to social media, news and other forms of noise; riding the waves of worry instead of focusing on the Word of God. After a decision to be more intentional in my Bible reading AND listening, I have been amazed at the ways in which God has spoken to me through Scripture. I am learning that it’s not simply about reading a passage, but reading it and actively listening, actively asking God what He is telling me today.
- My senses are often dull to kingdom matters
Too often I get stuck thinking about my own plans instead of thinking and praying about what God is doing globally through this pandemic. I was very frustrated that I am not able to do the ministry I planned to do. What kind of missionary sits in the house all day!? How am I supposed to share the Gospel if I can’t have gatherings or meet up with people!? I’ve been stuck in my own narrow world instead of thinking more about what God is doing globally. I have been frustrated in my own situation instead of seeking to join God’s kingdom work today through prayer and by changing my plans to suit His. The biggest adventure is to serve where God’s Spirit is moving, not where I selfishly want to serve.
- I suck at resting
I know the importance of rest but realized that I am simply not good at it. Believe me, I am very good at wasting time, but wasting time and rest are two completely different things. We live in a culture where rest is seen as laziness or lack of dedication but its actually essential to our well-being. Now that I have more free time than usual, instead of resting in the Lord and trusting Him to fill my schedule, I run around trying to fill my schedule myself. I panic whenever I have an open diary and get stressed out for not being busy enough. This is not a healthy lifestyle and its an important lesson I am learning in these days. I am far from mastering the discipline of rest but at least I am more aware of its importance in my life.
- The internet gives loads of opportunity for good ministry
Lately, most churches have been forced to move all their ministry online. Our Church has been doing the same thing and so every week we do a streaming service and I upload a children’s message to my YouTube channel. These videos have been watched by hundreds of people in various countries and the reach is by far wider than what I could do preaching at a single venue. It has been encouraging to hear about non-Christians who don’t go to church watch these videos online. Through the internet, an opportunity has been given to reach people we would not normally be able to reach and I wonder how the kingdom is advancing through these means.
What kind of lessons have you been learning in these days? Take time to think about it and write it down. It might be that there are ways you can grow, and things you can learn in these lockdown days that you may not be able to otherwise. Things about yourself. Things about God. Things about the needs of the world. Let’s keep our eyes, ears, and hearts wide open to what God would reveal to us.
Hokkaido Japan is a wonderful place. Breathtaking views, and wonderful people. It will always have a special place in our hearts. After leaving Sapporo and moving to Kawaguchi city, I wanted to remember and give thanks for the good times by compiling my top 50 photos. If you ever have the chance, please visit Hokkaido!
Over the last few months, I have been struggling with how a missionary is supposed to “work”. Ever since I entered life as a working adult, I have always had a schedule, a to-do list, things that engaged my mind, emotions, and muscles. First, I worked in refrigeration and air-conditioning. Every day I had jobs, places to go, people to meet, and problems to solve. I then started interning at a church along with running my business and studying theology. 4 Years later I was called as a youth pastor at a local church. Every week I had to prepare messages, Bible studies, meet people, counsel people etc. etc. This was all incredibly fulfilling and gave me immense joy. Why? The simple answer is: work is good. Work is not a curse, nor the result of the fall. Here are some points to ponder…
Work is good because God works.
And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. Genesis 2:2
for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Philippians 2:13
Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Psalm 111:2
God is the ultimate source of all truth and goodness. Since the creator works, we can be sure that work is good.
God tells us to work
Work is good because our good creator God ordained it and tells us to work.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. Genesis 2:15
Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Ephesians 4:28
For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12
As beings created in the image of the God who works, work is an important element of our existence. Not only do we glorify our creator when we enjoy creation through work; we find blessing, fulfilment and joy as we work while giving thanks to Him.
Work helps us to grow
There are certain skills and disciplines that we can only learn through work. Punctuality, organization, interpersonal skills etc. etc. Work helps us to grow and develop as human beings. It helps build character when we problem solve, protect relationships, serve, and care for others. To put it simply, work stops me from being a sorry bag of bones sitting in front of the TV or behind the PlayStation controller.
Work gives dignity and joy
There is much more to work than earning money. Work provides a sense of dignity within a community. One of the first things we ask new people we meet is “So what do you do?” A big part of our identity and sense of dignity depends on the answer to that question. This is another reason why work is important. Without work, we start to feel like we are not contributing which in turn breeds feelings of despair, fear and discontentment. In contrast, when we are passionate about our work it produces good self-esteem and healthy joy which is all common grace provided by God.
Now that we understand the value and importance of work, how do we relate this to evangelism and missions? Well, there is a danger to think that pastors and missionaries don’t work, therefore they have time to do Bible study, evangelism, and preaching. I see two problems with that kind of thinking. Firstly, it immediately excludes the vast majority of Christians from doing any evangelism. The workplace is where we find the most people in need of hearing the gospel and these are places pastors and missionaries cannot naturally engage. Secondly, Pastors and missionaries who don’t work, actually disobey God and will suffer emotional and spiritual harm because working is an important part of our being. This is where it becomes personal to me. As a missionary, I have been struggling with how to fulfil my God-given desire to work and contribute meaningfully. What is the job of a missionary? Yes, as an OMF missionary we share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its fulness to East Asia’s people, to the glory of God. But what does this look like practically? I have often felt extremely guilty; thinking that I should stand on corners handing out Gospel tracts, I should knock on doors and ask if I can talk to people about Jesus. Is this what a missionary should be doing daily? Honestly, I am quite a shy person when it comes to meeting new people. It takes a lot of guts to walk to my neighbour uninvited and try to make conversation in a language I am still not really comfortable in. Also, when I reflect on my life and ministry over the years, this cold contact method is not how the Lord has used me in the past. Does this mean I can’t be useful to God here? This week has been particularly painful since we just graduated from language school and moved into a new city, where we know nobody. When I look at my schedule for next week, I basically have 3 appointments: Open a bank account, go to our church’s prayer meeting, meet an OMF leader. I’m not thinking wow! look at how much free time I have. I’m thinking oh nooooo! What on earth am I doing here! My God-given impulse to work and contribute has sprung into action and has forced me to think about how I should work as a missionary in Japan. For the next few days, I am planning to think through this idea of work and how it applies to me as a missionary in Japan. What work am I passionate about? What brings me joy? What am I gifted in? What would make a meaningful contribution? Here are my ideas so far,
It is my work as a missionary to teach the Bible
I love the Bible. I love it because it introduces us to God. I love it because it teaches us to live in the most satisfying and joyful way. I have often been told that my Bible teaching is simple and easy to understand. I believe God has used me in this way and I want to work in teaching the Bible in Japan.
It is my work as a missionary to build relationships
Since I am not someone who can easily and naturally communicate the Gospel to cold contacts, I need to invest in deepening relationships which grow naturally. From these relationships, I can begin to look at ways to teach the Bible to my new friends. This is the strategy that has brought me the most joy and success in the past.
It is my work as a missionary to study Japanese
Studying does not particularly give me joy but sometimes work calls for things we don’t particularly like. I know that in order to build relationships and teach the Bible I need to have good Japanese so it should be included in my work schedule.
It is my work to mobilize prayer
Finally, I realize that I have a unique opportunity to help many friends and churches know how to pray for Japan. My communication to churches and supporters is not simply a duty box to check but an essential part of my work.
This is just the start of my thinking process but it has helped to relieve some of the anxiety I have about not feeling like I am working in a meaningful and enriching way. My challenge has been how to see my mission as work, but for most of you, the challenge will be how to see your work as mission. Your workplace is where you spend at least 1/3 of your entire day. How can this large portion of your life be redeemed for the mission of God? Perhaps it will be helpful to like me, take time to think about how you fuse your work with your mission. At the same time, don’t think missionaries don’t struggle with this. The struggle is similar but simply starting from a different point; how do we fuse our mission with our work?
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10
 The Fall is a term in Christian teaching that refers to the first sin recorded in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve (Our first human ancestors) disobeyed God and chose their own way of happiness instead of trusting God’s good way. This resulted in the fall of mankind. Falling from close intimacy with God to separation and misery. This is the sin Jesus came to defeat on the cross. John 3:16
This month I shared my testimony at the Hokkaido Bible Institute and afterwards got to sit in on a lecture on Psalm 96. Obviously, I could not understand everything because it was in Japanese but thankful that there was a lot that I could follow and be challenged by. Firstly, the Psalm is about singing – “Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth!” It directs our hearts to God first and foremost – to see his glory, behold his works, and to praise Him for his holiness. But it does not end there, the Psalm is directed to God but then shoots out to the nations, calling them to praise too. Here are a few phrases: “all the earth” “all the peoples” “families of the peoples” “the nations”. God is not a tribal or regional deity; He is the supreme God of all nations. John Piper taught me well I think in saying: “Missions exists because worship doesn’t”. Because we know God is the supreme God of all nations, we are compelled to go and share the good news of God – who He is, what He has done, how He can be known.
Have you ever really considered that SINGING is an important part of making God known? I don’t think that I have ever really paid serious attention to this. Up until this point, I only thought about TELLING as the vehicle for missions. We need to preach, we need to teach, we need to disciple…yes! yes! yes! BUT ALSO, we need to SING! Check out these Psalms if you don’t agree:
For this I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations,
and sing praises to your name. Psalm 18:49
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations. Psalm 57:9
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations. Psalm 108:3
Does this mean I need to walk downtown and start belting out Amazing Grace? Maybe…but not necessarily! After thinking about this for a while, I have come up with some ways that this idea of singing among the nations could be applied practically.
- Song choice
I am more convinced now that our worship songs should contain words that describe God in a way that non-Christians can also understand. We talk about contextualizing the Gospel, what about contextualizing the songs we sing on Sundays? How do the songs we sing convict the sinner? Humble the proud? Explain God’s works? Invite the unbeliever to trust in Jesus? There are already lots of fantastic songs that do this but worship leaders should be intentional in choosing them.
- Consider singing in other languages
This is a tricky one I know, but if done correctly it could be helpful within the right context. Firstly, there is nothing quite like worshipping God in your mother tongue. I have begun to realize this more now by living in Japan. It is difficult to worship while wondering about the meaning and grammar of the words right! Consider people in your congregation who might be struggling with this. But more than that, consider how singing in a different language displays God as the supreme God who welcomes all nations. If we only sing in one language whilst there are many among us who do not share that same language, is it really showing practically that they are welcome? This is by no means an easy thing to implement, it does not fit every situation, and I am aware of many impracticalities BUT it is one very strong way for a church to actively demonstrate how God welcomes and calls to praise all living creatures.
- Reaching out through music
Singing and music can be powerful tools for evangelism, let me share a few examples.
In Japan, thanks to the movie Sister Act, Gospel Choir music has taken off. These choirs are made up of Christians and non-Christians; through the music and friendships in the group, there are ample opportunities for the good news to be shared.
Last month our church hosted a music outreach event and a number of new people came as a result. The youth band, choir, and a member from Night Delight (Christian band in Sapporo) performed. The pastor then presented the gospel by playing the piano and sharing a children’s story with photos being displayed on the projector. He played scary music, dramatic music, happy music, all according to what was going on in the story. It was beautifully contextualized, included Scripture, and gave clear and understandable teaching on sin, Christ, and the way of salvation. I myself was moved in my own walk with God when I realized – The Gospel story is being sung in Japan!
When I was working in South Africa, we hosted a children’s holiday club every year. For 5 days we play games, share Bible stories, and sing Gospel songs with children. The songs normally have catchy tunes so kids learn them fast and repeat them often! Parents told me that their children come home and sing these songs to their families, some of these families were not believers. The Gospel story was sung by kids!
Next month I will be travelling to a fellow missionaries’ church to lead a music evening along with two young guys from our church in Japan. A number of non-Christians are being invited and we are trusting that God will use our efforts to sing among the nations.
God calls us to be singers as well as preachers. In what ways can you can sing amongst the nations? I would be very interested to hear your stories or ways in which you or your church sings amongst the nations. Please share your thoughts and ideas!
Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth! Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength! Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts! Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth! Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns! Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.” Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness
I don’t know about you but I often feel very frightened about the future. The media seems to love lobbing bad news grenades about wars, religious fights, financial crisis, natural disasters, famous Christians falling away etc. etc. We live in uncertain times where many are most likely edgy and uncertain about the direction of their lives and that of their children. To the Christian person, this should not be surprising. Jesus said that the things we are seeing and experiencing now are simply signs of living in the last days. In Matthew 24 Jesus tells his disciples that in the last days there will be false prophets, wars and rumours of wars, nations rising against nations, natural disasters, persecution, many Christians who stumble and fall spiritually, betrayal, hatred, lack of love and increased lawlessness. A few minutes of listening to the news and you will see ALL of these signs on full display with dazzling neon lights that flicker in the night. We truly are living in dire times.
Why does Jesus tell this to His disciples? Why is it recorded in Scripture for us to know? I think the verses that follow helps bring some clarity “But the one who endures to the end will be saved”. Firstly, I believe Jesus is giving a warning that Christians are not exempt from persecution and troubled times. However, the way we deal with that trouble is key. We can either 1. Give up by renouncing the faith. 2. Lighten the trouble by modifying our faith to bend to the culture of the world. Or 3. Endure to the end. This is the option I am choosing and encouraging you to choose HOWEVER, the answer is not simply to endure in the sense of hiding under your pillow until the danger passes, or gritting your teeth and waiting for a brighter day. We endure more like runners who endure with purpose, heading towards a goal. We endure like soldiers who endure because of an important mission that has to be accomplished. But; what is this purpose or mission?
After giving a sobering truth about troubled times and a warning about enduring, Jesus makes this strong statement: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come”.
Isn’t the placement of this verse interesting? Why the quick transition from trouble and endurance to And this gospel…I think there is something to say here about the context in which world missions operates. Metaphorically speaking there is no convenient, tarred expressway running across every nation on which the Gospel is transported. Missions is (and has been) happening in the midst of war, colonization, natural disaster, setback, slavery and persecution. There is no highway, but thousands of small dangerous walkways made through blood, sweat and tears. Missions is hard, it requires endurance, but it is not meaningless, the end will come and the reward will be sweet. Consider Jesus as our example. His obedience did not lead to a blessed, happy, trouble-free life. His obedience led to a brutal death on the cross. BUT! It was through this act of obedience that light and salvation has gone to the nations, the final result after the resurrection was jubilant joy and victory. The darkest, cruellest act of sin (Nailing the perfect Son of God to a cross) was used as the ultimate blessing to the world. Jesus obeyed, it cost Him his life, but it resulted in lasting, complete, 100% authentic joy. We don’t simply wait; we endure with obedience, confident in the power of the gospel.
Soon I will post again about the gospel of the kingdom and answer some of the what, where, how questions relating to missions in a mad, misery filled world. But for now; here are a few final words of practical encouragement.
- If the injustice does not lift…keep calm and mission on.
- If the economy falls…keep calm and mission on.
- If your favourite pastor/author falls because of some scandal…keep calm and mission on.
- If war should break out…keep calm and mission on.
- If persecution arises…keep calm and mission on.
- When the future looks grim and hopeless…keep calm and mission on.
God knows your situation, He has placed you in this world, at this time, to use you in taking this gospel to the nations. Mission on!
(Please note these are my own cultural observations. I do not dare to think that I have come anywhere close to fully understanding the depth and complexity of Japanese thinking and culture)
Japan is a land of natural disasters. Tsunamis, typhoons, mudslides, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions attack without mercy just about every year and with little warning. 2018 was a particularly bad year, so much so, that the Kanji that was chosen to present the year was 災 (meaning disaster).
The western region of Japan has been struck with devastating floods, killing over a hundred people, displacing millions and causing widespread physical havoc. The major Hokkaido earthquake in September 2018 caused major damage and killed dozens. Disasters are not isolated incidents but occur regularly throughout Japan.
It seems that just after Japan recovers from one, another one strikes. They are people that know all about tragedy and hardship…
What amazes me is their ability to pick themselves up. Rebuild. Start again. Even when the situation is hopeless, where other countries and people might give up, the Japanese find a way to move on with resilience. I find this resilient spirit within the Japanese term: ganbattekudasai. In English countries, we typically say take care or take it easy as a farewell message. The Japanese commonly use ganbattekudasai which means don’t give up, stay strong, persevere. I think there is much that others can learn from the Japanese regarding their unyielding spirit to keep moving forward despite the hardship.
Another common word one hears in Japan is shouganai which means it can’t be helped. It is close to the English expression don’t cry over spilt milk. The Japanese know that nature can be dangerous, they know disaster can strike at any time. For centuries the Japanese have experienced such hardship, but they have come to realize something. It can’t be helped. In a sense, it is as Toyohiko Kagawa writes: “Their defence against these onslaughts lies in their philosophy of resignation”. They have no expectation of deliverance, they shrug their shoulders and resign to the fact that some things just won’t change so just make the best of it.
It is within this tension that the Japanese live their lives. Ganbatte and shouganai. Do your best, don’t give up, even when there is no guarantee of deliverance, even when nothing can be done, find a way to move forward. It amazes me that a country with little natural resources or farm-able land, prone to natural disasters, and torn up by past wars can still stand tall as one of the world superpowers. There sure is a lot that we can learn from the Japanese.
But how to think of this spiritually? I remember one morning where I was praying for the people affected by disasters. It just did not make sense. Why would a loving God allow people to suffer like this? How are the Japanese supposed to know the God of redemptive love if all they experience is hardship and loss? As I was praying, sin was creeping up in my heart. I found myself getting angry, I did not understand why. Why must the Japanese face hardship after hardship? But then God lovingly put truth in my mind as I prayed. I thought about the cross and the suffering of Jesus. I thought about the passage in Isaiah 53: “A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”. Jesus came to endure the suffering caused by human sin. He drank the bitter cup of a Holy God’s judgement against sin. We do not live in a neutral and independent world. We live in a world that is directed by God and suffering is a megaphone that ought to draw us to Jesus who suffered so that we can have life everlasting. Suffering and our awareness of it should help us realize that something is wrong in the world. And the solution is found in the blood-stained saviour who died on a cross and then rose up in victory. Jesus died on the cross to save sinners, nothing says “I love you” more than that.
Oh, Japan, it is good to work hard and never give up, but it is better to remove your burdens and hardships, placing them on the shoulders of Jesus’ who can carry them for you. It is good to forget about things that can’t be helped, but it is not good to give up on hope. Jesus is that hope, He is coming again and will make all things new. His redemptive love is our hope in life and death.
May the words of Toyohiko Kagawa continue to ring true:
“O Japan! Eternal love keeps calling! Petulant Japan! Isolated Japan! Abandon your sulky mood and kneel before the God of infinite love. In your effort to rid yourself of sin and to sanctify your soul you, too, must go by the way of the cross. Christ opened a way of salvation even for Japan. Yes! Though the whole wide world forsakes her, Christ, the revealer of eternal love, will never cease to woo Japan until he wins”.
As part of our Japanese learning course, we are occasionally required to do practical tasks like speeches, oral tests, sharing our testimony etc. As I am able I will try to put these up on our blog. My speech is basically about the day I got diarrhoea at school, unfortunately, the phone used to record failed and only part of the speech was recorded. Aven spoke about baking cake and along with her speech, she brought along a whole bunch of cakes that she baked for everyone. It was a happy time 🙂 We are grateful for the time of focus study and for the teachers, supervisors and friends who encourage us along the way.