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.
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.
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.