Sing among the nations

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.

 

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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

 

Keep calm and mission on…

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!

Disaster and the love of God

(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).

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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”.

 

Speeches!

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.

 

 

 

 

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What it looks like written out.

We are His Workmanship

This month I was able to go and see the famous Sapporo snow festival with a Japanese friend. The festival first started 70 years ago and it has gotten bigger and better ever since. This year there was projection mapping on 3 of the major sculptures, an amazing mix of craftsmanship and technology. In addition, international teams competed against each other in creating smaller but wonderfully detailed works of art using nothing but snow. Hordes of international visitors wrapped in down coats, arm themselves with selfie sticks and charge Sapporo’s Odori Park for a good time.

Looking at the sculptures, I thought about the passage in Ephesians, that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. It’s encouraging to remember that God has prepared work for us to do in Japan. Works that will bring Him glory, works that will spiritually bless others, and have an eternal impact. Right now, we don’t really see it. Our ministry is still mainly about learning. Right now, there are PILES of snow mushed together in some awkward shapes i.e. Awkward conversations, language mistakes, cultural misunderstandings, occasional frustration etc. This is the experience of every new missionary who enters into cross-cultural ministry. But I know that God has a plan and as time goes on, as long as we do not give up, we will start to see the shape of God’s design, the work that He has planned for us to do in Japan. The “mush” will become a beautiful work of grace. As one Christian friend reminded me recently – although it is still winter, seeds waiting for spring’s blooming is already in the ground.

Thank you, God, for the beautiful snow falling on Japan. For the many beautiful things, we can see, the wonderful things we can do, and the Japanese people we get to meet, all because of your grace. Help us to see your hand in all of creation, and may we respond with faith and thanksgiving.

 

 

 

Grammar and Theology

One of my favourite places in the world is the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Taking a safari drive through Kruger is an amazing experience and those who have some knowledge for spotting animals will tell you that the trick is to DRIVE SLOW. It’s much easier to see through the trees and bush when driving slowly. Not only do you see better and hear better, but you don’t spook the animals when speeding through like a maniac. Another trick is to stay in the park for a couple of days. Take early drives, late drives, again and again. This will give you the best chance of spotting some amazing animals and birds. When you simply drive as fast as the speed limit allows you, trying to check all the “spot this animal” boxes you might see a thing or two but you will never actually see. One example is when we drove past a family of hyenas. We spotted a mom nursing her cubs in an empty concrete water pipe under the road. For about 20 minutes we just looked in amazement. The family was pretty well hidden from the road and if we sped past like many others we would never have spotted this happy little hyena family. Word of advice if you ever get to go to Kruger…drive slowly!

Now, why this story? Well, I have been studying Japanese for about 5 months now and just worked out that after coming to Japan I have spent over 600 hours learning the language, that excludes learning through daily life conversations. With all that learning, I still feel like I have only scratched the surface, barely made a dent in the armour. Many things I learned I have already forgotten and so I need to constantly relearn and review while filling my head with new information.

Since I am here as a supported Christian missionary there is often the temptation to think of my language learning as some kind of hurdle I have to get over quickly so I can get into the real stuff like preaching, teaching, disciplining, etc. Sometimes people have offered to pray for a miraculous acquisition of the language, something like the gift of tongues perhaps. I have prayed many times for a miraculous understanding of the language which God is, of course, able to do. However, I think there are many things God wants me to learn in the process of language learning. A hurried approach is wrong because it would be taking a shortcut, it would be like racing through Kruger without noticing all the special little things that make it a great place. I have come to realize that language learning takes time, but it is not time wasted, in fact, it is necessary.

Recently, a colleague told me about an incident that happened between Hudson Taylor and some new missionaries which encouraged me to do some further research.

“Seeking a special baptism of power, the celebrated Cambridge Seven of athletic fame in England arrived in China in 1885 to serve with the China Inland Mission. While sailing up the Han River with J. Hudson Taylor, three of them, C. T. Studd and Cecil and Arthur Polhill, put their Chinese grammar books aside and prayed for the Pentecostal gift of Mandarin and supernatural power according to Mark 16:17. Exasperated, Taylor told his starry-eyed novices: “How many and subtle are the devices of Satan to keep the Chinese ignorant of the gospel. If I could put the Chinese language into your brains by one wave of the hand I would not do it.”17 Taylor emphasized not only that such presumption would delay their mastery of the language and keep the Chinese from hearing the Gospel even longer but also that effective communication in Mandarin required more than just an ability to speak the words. Criticized as an idle fanatic, Studd wrote home that he and his companions finally returned to their books”.

Full article available here: http://www.internationalbulletin.org/issues/2001-03/2001-03-118-mcgee.pdf

Taylor understood that learning a language is so much more than simply knowing the words. You must know the heart of the people. This has encouraged me to reflect upon my own language learning and develop some reasons why language learning for missionaries SHOULD take time. Here’s my list!

It is good to be humbled

I came to Japan with a little bit of pride. I did not know it at the time but it was there. I have a Masters degree in theology, I have experience as a preacher and a pastor. Surely, I will lead a successful ministry in Japan. Well…5 months down the line and I am still sucking at Japanese. I realize that I’m not so great after all. Not being able to read my post, not being able to have significant conversations in Japanese, and panicking every time I have to go to the dentist or ask for something at the bank is all very humbling. It is through this humbling experience that I have renewed my thoughts about depending on God for everything.

Jesus did it

Jesus was not in a hurry to start his earthly ministry. It is good to be reminded of that because often missionaries think learning the language and culture is simply a hurdle to quickly get over so I can get to more important things. There is the temptation to drive fast or take shortcuts when it comes to learning. Or perhaps the temptation to learn the bare minimum and jump into ministry from there. Missionaries with those ideas should reflect on the fact that Jesus only started his public ministry around age 30. What did he do before then? According to Luke 2:40, 51-52 Jesus grew…He grew in wisdom, stature and in favour with men. In his humanity, Jesus studied the Scriptures and learned about carpentry. From childhood, he had to learn how to use language and interact with the culture of his day. Although Jesus was and is fully God he became human to identify with us and take our place on the cross. For 30 years Jesus grew in wisdom, statue and favour before the time was right for him to begin his public ministry. Since Jesus spent 30 years humbling himself and learning is it not ludicrous for missionaries to think that they can get by with only a couple of months of training?

Learning Japanese is more than just learning words

Language is merely the skin of a culture that covers their worldview, values, beliefs, and customs. Language is the flower that is seen above the surface but it is the root of culture that gives this language flower life. Learning this takes a lifetime of immersion into a new culture. Japanese, for example, is a difficult language not simply because of kanji or grammar but because of the culture that influences so much of the language. Polite vs Casual speech needs to be considered. Silence vs Speaking must be considered. There are certain phrases that are appropriate for some situations but not for others. All of these are important to remember.

It sends a message to those you minister to

New OMF missionaries typically spend 4 years in training during their first term on the field. It sends a message to the Japanese that we love their culture, we love their language, we want to understand them, we want to hear their heartbeat. Of course, our desire is to share the good news of Jesus Christ in all its fullness but we want them to see that it is THEIR good news, not OUR news imposed on them. It takes patience, time and wisdom to teach the Bible in a way that the Japanese can see and understand that this message is for them, in their language, meeting their needs.

Learning a language IS ministry

Language learning is not a stepping stone to ministry, it IS ministry. I hope the 4 points above makes that clear. Before, I prayed and hoped that our supporters will be patient with us as we learn in order to minister later. Now I pray and hope our supporters will understand that our learning IS ministry. It is part of God’s overall plan for us being here and should be done with zeal and enthusiasm. Language learning also opens up opportunities for us to talk to Japanese and have conversations that would not otherwise be possible. Moreover, there is some ministry that we can do in Japanese, without even using Japanese. For example, we attend a bi-weekly calligraphy class attended by elderly Japanese. Last week we baked a cake for them…well, Aven did😊. The cake was a hit and we could feel how we were drawn closer into the group after that small gesture. In Japan, groups are formed over time and newcomers need to break into the group slowly. Gift giving is the most natural way to do this, we learnt this through immersion in the culture. We make many mistakes, we are corrected, laughed at, but also appreciated by the Japanese who still look at us as oddballs but accept us anyway. Praise God for that.

So, maybe you in a place where you are frustrated with learning or preparation for something that you want to do. Remember, God is in the process, not just the result. Also, thank you to our prayer and financial partners who see the grand purpose of God’s mission in Japan. You encourage us greatly.

 

 

3 Months In…is AJ getting culture shock????

Its been 3 months since we arrived in Sapporo Japan to start our journey into long term missions. I feel we have adjusted well overall but I would be wrong to say that it’s always been easy. I wanted to share what has been the hardest aspect to deal with during this transition phase but first, a word about culture shock.

We’ve been told that culture shock usually kicks in 3 months after arriving in a new country. Culture shock is a natural sense of anxiety or confusion caused by adjusting to life in a foreign country. Before then there is the initial arrival stage called the honeymoon phase where you will typically hear phrases like: “I love snow” “Japanese people are so polite!” “The sushi is amazing!” “Look! A device that instantly wraps plastic around your wet umbrella!” “The streets are so clean!” This phase is soon followed by a period of frustration where you will typically hear: “I hate snow” “Why is owning a car in Japan so expensive?”. “Why does KFC and Coke taste different?”. “What’s the point of going to church if I can barely understand a word?”. “What’s up with this old-fashioned banking system?”. “Why do high school kids stare at me and shout hero, hero!” Hello culture shock!

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Language learning, not fitting in, being stared at, not having many friends, are all things that I’ve been able to cope with pretty well. I like to think of myself as being fairly adventurous and adaptable. The hardest thing for me however is perhaps not something that people commonly think about. If I’m to be completely open, the toughest thing has been the feeling of status loss. Maybe a bit of a weird struggle but culture shock hits in different ways…right? In South Africa I was a pastor at a church. I preached often, led worship, I led Bible studies, I spoke at youth meetings, I took them on mission trips, I taught at camps and events…I had a fantastic time and felt energized by all I could do to serve God. I enjoyed the feeling of being appreciated, being wanted, being needed; I enjoyed having a leadership role. I enjoyed the need to get up early, work late, and that feeling of actually contributing towards something and seeing the effects.

Since coming to Japan it feels like I have lost those privileges. Right now, my role with OMF International is to be a learner. I don’t have the language capabilities to preach, lead Bible studies, or lead anything. I can’t even read the letters in my post-box! This has been a difficult reality to come to grips with. I have lost my own notion of status and my ego does not like it one bit. Is this part of culture shock? Am I a bad missionary? Am I just whining? Should I just build a bridge and get over it?

The amazing thing though has been to see God’s hand in the midst of these feelings. A senior missionary encouraged me by saying I should focus on leading myself and my wife well, the rest will come over time. I should find joy in my current situation because God knows all about it and will use me regardless. Other missionaries shared stories of how God used them in spite of their language handicap. God has also been gracious in giving me small glimpses of what could come in the future. Being able to read 2 verses from the Japanese Bible in front of an audience, being able to introduce myself in Japanese to our new church in Japan, spending time with Japanese university students and being able to communicate somewhat, talking to my barber about the weather and about his work in Japanese. In all these moments I can sense the good hand of God upon us, He has not left us!

Last week I believe God encouraged me from 2 Corinthians 3:4-6:

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Cross cultural ministry in Japan has revealed to me how insufficient I really am. I have come to a place where I can accept that fact. But I also rejoice that my sufficiency comes from Christ. He equips, He enables, He makes me a sufficient minister of the new covenant which is all about grace in the Lord Jesus and life through His Spirit. I’ve lost no real status, I’m still God’s child, I’m still a privileged minister of His grace, I’ve simply been reassigned.

So, if you feeling like ministry is tough and overwhelming, remember that God will always be your loving Father and will grant you everything you need to do His will and fulfil His purpose for your life.

If I can keep learning these lessons because of culture shock then shock me more! 😊

Purification and Wa 和 ‘Harmony’

(This is an excerpt from my Masters thesis on a Contextualized Theology of Purification in and for the Japanese)

Promoting harmony is a key idea in Japanese culture and observable in many areas of their social life. (i) The concept of uchi to soto 内と外 ‘inside and outside’[1]. (ii) Shinto festivals and its focus on community building. (iii) Ancestor veneration. (iv) Favoring ambiguity over making direct statements[2]. (v) Japanese tea ceremony[3]. (vi) Strong emphasis on hierarchy and family based off Confucian principles[4]. The general understanding of harmony based off these examples is that it seeks to keep a tranquil balance and order in all things. This desire for harmony should not be despised since we can find evidence for the value of harmony in the Scripture. This theme of harmony can be traced all the way back to Genesis and be used to further develop a theology of purification.

In Genesis 1-2 we read how God established order at creation. He created cycles, seasons, day and night, animals, birds, and creeping things all according to their kind. The text gives the impression of complete order, peace and tranquility, a mist going up from the ground (Gen 2:6), a river flowing through the garden (Gen 2:10), these natural scenes were all very good. God also created man in His own image (Gen 1:27). He made them male and female, two creatures who would complement each other in their respective functions, producing offspring by means of a harmonious, unifying and intimate act. God also established a hierarchy in creation, giving human beings the responsibility to be stewards over His creation (Gen 1:28). However, God still maintained His divine authority as Lord over all that He has made. To demonstrate His loving rule, He gave His creatures only 1 command, not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17). After everything was established by God it was declared very good (Gen 1:31). All creation enjoyed a pure existence where everything had an ordered place and existed in complete harmony.

Genesis 3 tells the tragic story of how this beautiful harmony was ruined. The tempter tempted Eve to step out of her place of purity, to challenge the legitimate rule of her Creator. Soon Adam followed her in this rebellion and from there the curse of sin entered their hearts to defile them. As God’s appointed stewards, the consequences of their sin spread to every part of creation. It spread to their descendants, it corrupted their relationships, and to this day all creation groans under the weight of this curse (Rom 8:22). The harmony of life was ruined. Their bright fellowship with God was turned into a dreadful sense of fear and shame as they hid from their Creator in the garden (Gen 3:8). They died a spiritual (Gen 2:17) and physical (Gen 5:5) death because of their disobedience. The woman would have pain in child bearing (Gen 3:16) and the ground became cursed (Gen 3:17). The complementary relationship between husband and wife became damaged, husbands will now seek to rule their wives instead of leading them in love. Wives will now try to fight against their husband’s God given headship (Gen 3:16). They were driven out of the garden (Gen 3:24). Their descendants demonstrated jealousy that led to murder (Gen 4:8). The rest of the Bible echoes the tragic events of Genesis 3 as all the whole world was thrown into chaos.

But the Creator God did not simply stand by, allowing His good creation to be thrown into chaos forever. Genesis 3:21 gives us a tiny glimpse into the gracious provision of God. He clothes his naked and shamed creatures with the skin of an animal. The very first sacrifice recorded in the Bible. In spite of their sin, God was still gracious and although sin continues to echo throughout man’s history, another story began with Genesis 3:21 which would also echo forth. The story of God’s provision of a Savior. This Savior has been revealed in the person of Jesus who came to restore the purity of man and creation. He came to restore the harmony that was lost. His harmony restoring works are well described in Colossians 1:19-22,

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.

The above Scripture details how Christ reconciles to himself, all things in heaven and on earth. It especially highlights the vertical reconciliation. Man was alienated from God but has been reconciled through the incarnation and death of Jesus who is the agent of God’s purifying work.

Ephesians 2:14 is another important Scripture that explains the horizontal aspect of reconciliation. Jesus in His body on the cross, broke down the wall of hostility that separated Jew and Gentile, making them one people. Jesus also declared, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

As a Christian I want to live in the harmony God has achieved through the death of His Son. Harmony with God, and harmony with my fellow human beings. The Christian’s purpose: Love God, love people.  Mark 12:30-31

 

[1] Controls the way a Japanese person relates to those inside and outside their group. It is employed to produce a sense of balance and harmony.

[2] Davies (2002:11) writes that ambiguity, aimai is essential for Japanese social interactions. People learn to become aware of how others think and feel and ambiguity maintains harmony by working as a lubricant in communication.

[3] Sen no Rikyuu 千利休 was a famous Japanese tea master who taught 4 important spiritual values for the Japanese tea ceremony, wa 和 ‘harmony’, kei 敬 ‘respect’, sei 聖 ‘purity’ and jaku 寂 ‘tranquility’ (Nesbitt, 2017:198).

[4] From an Asian perspective, harmony is the measure of all things. It is maintained through hierarchy where relationships are built on the inferior person’s respect rather the superior’s domination (Wu, 2012:82).

 

Citations

Davies RJ and Ikeno O (eds) 2002. The Japanese Mind Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture. Tokyo: Tuttle.

Nesbitt M 2017. Jesus for Japan Bridging the Cultural Gap to Christianity. © 2017 by Mariana Nesbitt.

Wu J 2012. Saving God’s Face. A Chinese Contextualization of Salvation through Honor and Shame. Pasadena CA: WCIU Press.

Beware, sensuality leaves a lasting legacy

I’ve been reading a book “Disciplines of a Godly man” by R Kent Hughes. If you are guy, you need to read this. If you are married to, or dating a guy, buy your man this book as a late Christmas present. There is so much hard hitting truth in this book, I read chapter 2 yesterday and was so convicted that I decided to write about it.

The chapter is about sexual purity and the statistics are alarming. According to a survey done by Christianity Today 25% of Christian men confessed to have committed adultery, 50% of Christian men surveyed confessed they had done something sexually inappropriate. The writer explains that this leads to an inescapable conclusion: “The contemporary evangelical church, broadly considered is Corinthian to the core. It is being stewed in the molten juices of its own sensuality”. OUCH!!!

The Corinthian church struggled with holiness in the midst of a pagan, sensually charged culture. The church today is not so different. Consider the shows we watch, the music we listen to, the jokes we make and you will quickly see how subtly Corinthian we still are. We have not separated ourselves from many Corinthian ties. There are at least 3 reasons for this lack of separation. The first 2 are “palatable” but the third one is frightening and requires much humility to accept.

  1. We live in a thoroughly Corinthian environment

Through the media (TV, Magazines, Music, Comedy) we are constantly exposed to sensuality. It has become normal to make sexual jokes, flirt around, use foul language, and get a little “tipsy” with friends. These cultural delights are laughed off and we use excuses to rationalize our lack of holiness – “It’s just innocent fun”.  “I’m not hurting anyone”. “Surely God wants me to be happy”. “At least I go to church on Sunday”. We “rationalize” while a lot of this behaviour flies in the face of New Testament commands on holiness. 

  1. We believe purity is old and Victorian

Christians do from time to time toss out holiness in an attempt to be with it. The idea of modesty, purity, and self-control has become synonymous with being out of touch, or Victorian.  Maybe you tempted to think that now while reading this blog. “Here’s another one of those legalistic Christians”. “Here’s a guy taking the FUN out of Fundamentalism”.  Please continue reading. Honestly, I wrestle with these issues too. I don’t want to be Victorian and out of it. I want to be cool and in. I want to contribute to conversations and have people like me. But at the same time I must fight to believe that God doesn’t want to deprive me of joy and fun, rather, God wants to give me authentic, lasting joy, even if it means not being culturally with it. Yet, like you, I too sometimes get this wrong and I need to repent for my lack of holiness and satisfaction in God.

  1. We suffer from forgetfulness

Like I said, this one takes humility to accept…are you ready? …When we ignore holiness, we forget God. Bonhoeffer observed that when lust takes control, “At this moment…God loses all reality…Satan does not fill us with hatred for God, but forgetfulness of God”. God disappears to lust-glazed eyes.

Whenever we succumb to sensuality, we forget the holiness of God. We forget about the consequences of sin. We forget about our witness to others. We forget about the commands of Scripture. Kent Hughes uses the fall of King David to drive this point home. Staring at a naked beauty from his rooftop, David lost all awareness of God. In that moment, David who was once called a man after God’s own heart became a dirty, leering old man. He could never have imagined the destruction that would follow this one act of indulgence. “David’s progressive desensitization, relaxation, fixation, and rationalization set him up for one of the greatest falls in history”.

He broke the 10th commandment in coveting his neighbour’s wife which led him to break the 7th commandment; committing adultery.

Then in order to steal his neighbour’s wife (breaking the 8th commandment) he committed murder and broke the 6th commandment.

He then broke the 9th commandment by bearing false witness against his brother.

This all brought dishonour to his parents, breaking the 5th commandment.

In violating these commands he transgressed the first 2 commandments; not honouring God and choosing to worship the idol of self.

David forgot His God and he fell…he fell hard. Sadly, his life went downhill from there:

His baby died. His daughter Tamar was raped by her half-brother Amnon. Amnon was murdered by Tamar’s full-brother Absalom. Absalom hated his father for his moral depravity and led a rebellion under the tutelage of Bathsheba’s resentful grandfather, Ahithophel. David’s reign lost the smile of God and his throne never really recovered.

Do you think David would have given Bathsheba a second look if he knew all this disaster would result from that one night of passion? 

My intention for writing this is not to sound self-righteous. I struggle with sin as much as anyone else. But in reading this chapter I have been challenged to look at my life through a fresh set of lenses. In what ways am I entertaining impurity? In what ways are you entertaining impurity? Let’s be quick to repent and with God’s help, strain towards the holiness that we are called to.

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God;
that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

1 Thessalonians 4:3-8

Does Prayer Work?

In 2 weeks time I will be preaching at my home church about prayer from James 5:13-20. I have been thinking about the effectiveness of prayer a lot these days as we prepare for missions in Japan. Today is Wednesday the 15th of November and in order to have clearance to go to Japan in February 2018 we must have our support raised by Monday the 20th of November (6 Days!). We have already sold our stuff, I quit my job, and we moved in with friends. We have trusted God for our support but we are still only at 60% So, if we miss this deadline will it mean that our prayers, and those of others on our behalf did not work?

Now this is where theology meets practice. I am sure you have been in a similar situation. Praying for healing, protection, or any other need. What do we do “if” those prayers are not answered? Does it mean I did not have enough faith? Does it mean we are not really “called”? Does it mean I made a mistake? Is there perhaps sin in my life preventing an answer? Is God even hearing me?

Listen to this touching story. One of my friends went to a massive Christian prayer meeting this year where the speaker declared that God was going to do miracles. My friend was there to pray for healing over his mom…how can God not hear his prayer? All these people praying, surely God will notice, surely his prayers will be answered, even the main organizer and spiritual leader of this event said so! Well, my friend returned to Pretoria encouraged and filled with hope, first thing he heard from his sister – “Mom has died”. The timing of her death was the biggest blow of all – it happened during the prayer meeting. What does this mean? He was broken as you can imagine. As his friend what could I say to help? Questions started running though my own mind…does prayer even work?

One of the saddest prayers in the Bible is in Psalm 13:1 – How long o LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? In light of these questions, how do we make sense of James 5:16, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working”.

In light of seeming unanswered prayer, some have come to sad conclusions. (i) There is no God, (ii) God is absent, or (iii) God is not all powerful. I can’t fall into any of these options. I feel the urge to fight the good fight of faith. I believe that God is there, God is involved, and God is able. Bear with me a short little while as I try to harmonize this with the apparent lack of answered prayer for the believer. Bear in mind, this is me trying to make sense of it in my own heart and mind.

(i) God is not a pawn. If prayer was simply a tool to be used for our human ends, then God would simply be a pawn that moves according to our will. Take this to the logical, frightening conclusion. If God ultimately bends to do the will of people, it will couple human sinfulness with God’s power; and this will lead to disaster.

(ii) God is all sovereign, wise, and good. I remember a talk from a Church camp where a friend of mine spoke about suffering. He said something that stuck with me, “If we had God’s power, we would probably want to change everything in this world. But, if we had God’s wisdom along with that power, everything will continue exactly as it is.” God is working out his own purposes that will ultimately bring glory to Him, and God glorifying His name is our ultimate good. I have to believe by faith, that God’s purposes will end for good and that He has the power to achieve it.

(iii) Prayer by itself should be a blessing. I remember another incident where I lead a prayer group and as an introduction asked “Why do you pray?” There were the usual answers, “I believe in the power of prayer”, “We are commanded to pray”, but one answer stuck out and touches me to this day “I enjoy it”. This seems to be something we forget about prayer. Consider that through prayer we get to commune with God, we get to enter His throne room and actually speak to Him. That by itself should be awesome! Too often we act like brats before a father, thinking we can manipulate him to give us stuff and we get angry when he doesn’t. This is not prayer that pleases God, nor is it good for us. Prayer should be practiced out of our sheer enjoyment of God. 

(iv) Remember Jesus’ model prayer. It started with what? “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done”. This must be the Christian’s attitude in every prayer. We don’t come to God with a sense of entitlement, we come with a sense of awe and humility.

(v) God sees from an eternal perspective. We might see a page or two from the book called “my life”, but God sees all of it. We are often occupied with our here and now needs. I want relief now! I want an answer now! I want healing now! But God is not only concerned over your here and now, nor is he concerned about answering all your selfish needs. He is concerned about your sanctification, your character, your eternity. Think of any “unanswered prayer” as God teaching you a lesson, God is working for your good in all things. Our own hearts desire to be serving in Japan next year February, but we must trust that God is working for our good in ALL THINGS, even delayed departures. Rom 8:8

(vi) Consider all God has already done. If you are reading this blog that means you have access to the internet, probably from your phone or computer. I am sure you can think of many more blessings that you enjoy so stop and consider these right now. For my friend who lost his mom he could remember her faith, he could remember her example, he could remember her love and this was a beautiful thing. We seem to focus on our “have nots” instead of focusing on all our “haves”. 

In the case of our personal situation in raising support, I can get discouraged about the 40% of support we are still short, OR praise God for the 60% we have raised. We have 58 individuals and 5 churches on board with supporting us, we should praise God for that. 

(vii) Prayer is exciting, powerful, yet mysterious. I’ll end on this one. None of us can say that we know exactly how prayer works, especially in light of the sovereignty of God. This is why prayer must be accompanied by faith. Not necessarily BIG faith to ensure we get our prayers answered, but HUMBLE faith to ensure we trust in the loving purposes of God. I can’t explain why God allows certain things to happen, I cant understand why He should listen to any of us at all, I cant explain why some people have their prayers quickly answered and for others it takes longer, if at all. All I can say is that prayer DOES work, because it draws me into relationship with God, what a tremendous privilege.

 

P.S. Whenever I blog it is actually to help me work through my own trials, disappointments or lessons. Pray with us as we continue to trust God to get us to Japan and that we will be seeking His kingdom first during the process.