Sunday, December 28, 2008

Holy Days (holidays) in Japan

Hello again. I apologize for taking so long to write. It seems I started writing this blog and then one thing after another came up and I never finished it. Well this lapse in time has proved useful because I am now able to share my experience celebrating Christmas and New Year's in Japan. This is a lengthy blog, but hopefully you'll find it interesting.

The Christmas celebration was kicked off by a class speech day. Every year the missionaries taking Japanese lessons at the local Lutheran Learning Center have to give speeches. All of us new students shuddered in fear when we were first told we'd have to stand up in front of friends and speak Japanese. It turned out all of our fretting was for naught. We all spoke confidently about ourselves, our experience in Japan, and the things we enjoy. It was a great day. Cindy came, along with my pastor Saitou sensei, and another woman from my church Umeda-san.

* I'll pause for a second and give just a little note about the use of the suffix 'san.' In the US we tend to think 'san' means 'mister'--it sounds like 'son' so it must be a masculine term. Actually 'san' is an honorific term, it shows respect to the person being talked to or about. Everyone at my church calls me "Jenifah-san."

The following Sunday (speech day was the Friday before Christmas), I performed my speech at the Christmas lunch. Everyone got to hear me talk about my 8 siblings, 4 nephews and 8 nieces. They all understood me (which above all things is the goal). Even weeks after, people talk to me in reference to the things I said in my speech. They all came to me saying "Jenifah-san, yokata desu ne. Wakarimashita"--Jenifer good job. I understood what you were saying. Unfortunately, I fell sick that day and couldn't enjoy the feast that had been prepared. I was so sick I also missed some of the great stories other people shared, because I needed to go home and rest. Usually the Sunday before Christmas Ichigaya church has a huge lunch after service. Everyone who can brings some delicious food, tells stories about the year or shares a talent, and gifts are exchanged. I was so surprised to receive gifts from people at the church, some of whom I've never talked to. Even as I write this I am overcome with gratefulness for the way people at Ichigaya church have surrounded me. They are my Japanese family.

All of the Christmas services were beautifully decorated, including the Sunday worship before Christmas. There were candles everywhere. I especially liked the two candelabra on the alter each holding maybe twelve red candles--gorgeous.

Christmas Eve services are big celebrations for the churches here. Ichigaya celebrated with a packed night: two services, caroling, and a charity opera concert. I was still sick, but I was not going to miss Christmas Eve service and I'm glad I didn't. The first service was similar to the Sunday prior, a regular worship service with two selections from the choir. However, all of our hymns during that service were Christmas carols. Singing carols during service was perfect for me because it gave me time to practice the songs we would sing as we walked the neighborhood after the first worship service. Between caroling and the charity concert we were served a sweet bean soup with mochi (a chewy rice treat that has no strong flavor, but tastes great in all the ways I've had it so far). This sweet soup was great and perfect for warming us on that cold Christmas eve. The charity concert was amazing. The singers were great. Unfortunately my cold brought with it a furious cough so I had to step out from time to time in order to cough without disturbing the performance. The last event of the evening was a Christmas morning service, that is, a midnight candlelight service. The exciting thing about this service is that it was the first time my friend Maho, a seminary student, got to preach at a worship service. I was so excited to hear her and so proud of her--if only I could understand what her message was about. As you can imagine, I was completely exhausted by the end of the Christmas Eve/morning events. I slept all of Christmas day.

Apparently the Japanese celebrate Christmas, not as a Christian holy day, but as a Western holiday. So they usually eat fried chicken and cake, and go out with their romantic partners. Christmas turns out to be one of the major romantic holidays of the year. Jewelry shops were sold out of many items after Christmas, and not just women's jewelry.

I was glad to have a visitor from the states during my winter break. The two of us had a great time celebrating the new year here in Japan. This visit brought with it personal changes for myself which I will talk about in later posts. For now I'll just tell you about Japanese New Year's festivities.

The coming of a new year is sacred in Japan. It is a time of renewal; a casting off of the ills of the previous year and starting fresh in the new. Although many Japanese claim no allegience to any particular faith or religion, the beginning of the year proves to be a time when all of Japan goes to worship.

In November I'd been told that most people go to a shrine or temple to pray and give offerings on New Year's Day. One woman told me that some people go to the (Buddhist) temple on New Year's Eve and then to the (Shinto) shrine on New Year's Day. Wherever one goes the purpose is to offer up prayers for the new year. So I decided I would also go to one of these places of worship to see what goes on. So on New Year's day I joined the masses heading to the Meiji-Jingu shrine. Now when I say masses, I mean MASSES. It felt like half of Tokyo was at or in the neighborhood surrounding Meiji-Jingu when I got there. It only took us an hour to get up to the front of the shrine where we were sectioned off into groups to go up pray and give an offering. Now this can be very dangerous. I was given a tour of the shrine with the other new missionaries at the begining of December when the place was empty. At that time we were able to walk up to the inner most court yard, where we could see the gashes on the huge wooden doors from people throwing their coin offerings on New Year's Eve/Day. Thankfully I was not hit by any coins during my New Year's visit, but you better believe I covered my head just in case.

Now I said that we only waited an hour as if that was a short wait, because one of our Japanese teachers told us she had tried to visit the Meiji shrine one New Year's Eve one year, and after waiting three hours in line with little progress she decided to leave. So I was pretty happy that it didn't take long to get in and out of the Meiji. After visiting Meiji-Jingu I thought we'd make it over to another shrine Yushima-Tenjin and then head over to a temple in Asakusa (I was very ambitious). Yushima-Tenjin was suggested to us by some members at church. They said it would be particularly interesting because January is the time when students either begin taking or prepare to take entrance exams for universities. Because Yushima-Tenjin was dedicated to a great Japanese scholar, many students go there to pray for academic success. Well, we traveled down there, but were too hungry and tired to stand in the long line (at least three blocks long). Needless to say we also did not make it to the Asakusa temple. One of Japan's most famous temples, both in and outside of the country itself, this temple has a huge lantern at the entrance. It often comes up when searching for images from Japan. I'd been told that people go to the Buddhist temple to ring 108 bells as a symbol of emptying one's self of the 108 human desires (sorry I can't name them all). Having taken a class on Buddhism my last year of seminary I was really anxious to witness this, but my stomach was calling me home.

New Year's is also a family holiday. In Tokyo there are restaurants everywhere, Pachinko slot machine shops are found open night and day, anywhere you go on a normal day there will be some form of entertainment in Tokyo. But the first three to four days of the year the entire country shuts down. Except around shrines and temples Tokyo looked like a ghost town. I've walked my neighborhood after midnight and seen more lights and more people than I saw the entire first week of the new year. This is because everyone was home with their families.

I was blessed to spend January 2 with a family from my church. They were excited to share their celebration of the New Year with me. Our time began with sado Japanese tea ceremony. During the ceremony we drink a powdered green tea that is prepared a special way and drank from what looks like a bowl. The drink is mixed with a bamboo whisk. Before drinking we partake in sweets to off set the bitterness of the tea. Then the tea master (usually if not always a woman) brings out the first serving of tea and hands it to one person. That person must first say thank you to the person who has served them, then turn to the person on his/her left and say something to the effect that they are going to drink this first or "is it alright if I drink before you." After receiving their approval the drinker then raises the dish in a form of thanksgiving to God, brings it back down, turns the dish clockwise and then drinks. When that person has finished the ceremony continues with each person until everyone has drank their own dish of tea. This is a sacred ceremony in Japan and some scholars suggest that it may be connected to the Christian communion ceremony, brought by the first Christians who came to Japan in the 1500's. This notion comes from the cleansing and purification actions taken before the drink is poured; some of the cloths used are folded the same way a celebrant or presider might fold a purification cloth used for similar purposes in communion, for example.

After tea ceremony we had lunch. New Year's lunch (and all food eaten during the New Year celebration) is supposed to symbolize long life and or renewal. For example, New Year's Eve we eat soba noodles because they are long and serve to symbolize long life. So of course during our New Year lunch there were eggs, both for their birth symbolism and because the way they are cooked here the center is an orange color that makes the eggs look red and white. These colors are significant for the Japanese (note the Japanese flag) so New Year's food is put together to display these colors. There was also every kind of meat there is and mochi. I have mostly had mochi as a sweet treat with sweet red beans in the middle, and as described above as a sweet soup, but for New Year's it is served in a chicken soup. I think it is served this way at New Year's for the same reason soba is eaten, when mochi is inside hot liquid it becomes maliable and stretchy. I recall once during a New Year's meal having mochi stretching from the soup bowl to nearly half-way down my throat (this may be a disgusting image to some I apologize). It's that kind of long stretching that one wants from New Year's food set to symbolize long life.

After lunch we wrote out our hopes for the new year. The picture above shows my New Year wish (we in the U.S. call it a resolution) to laugh more this year, especially at myself, to not take things so seriously. I had to practice writing this kanji with brush and ink about 5 or 6 times before the family picked their favorite one. If you look closely and then not so closely you'll notice it sort of looks like a face. I was told to make dramatic strokes so that the kanji looked like a happy laughing face. The lettering down the side of the picture is my name written in katakana. After drawing our wishes we made origami and then I braided the daughters hair. It was the best time I've had in Japan thus far.

This was a very long post so thank you for patiently reading. I hope it was an interesting read. In the next month we will receive our teaching assignments. I am excited and at the same time longing to know my placement.

Prayer Requests:

1) Health: I have had both physical pain and constant battles with colds over the past couple months and even as I write this am suffering from a lingering cough that sometimes causes me to gag. Please pray especially for the irritation in my throat to be removed and for my body to be restored to health.

2) Sleep: I have also over the past month had many disturbing violent dreams that interrupt my sleep. Please pray for my sleep to be sweet (Psalm 4:8) and for whatever is racking my subconscious to come to light and be resolved while I am awake so that I can sleep.

Happy New Year

May the Peace of Christ fill you, the Grace of God keep you, and the Love of Holy Spirit surround and flow out of you to all you meet in this new year.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Giving Thanks

This has been a very busy month. Since I last wrote we have helped lead an English language Bible camp and visited another island. We have also been amazed and excited about our progress in the Japanese language. Though we have so much more to learn about the culture, and language of Japan I thought I'd take this blog to share some of the joys of the past month.

In the last post I complained about the difficulty of the Japanese language. Well a couple days after posting that blog, I was given a gift that has since helped me get through my Sunday worship services. This next story tells of the hospitality I've received here through the people of Ichigaya Lutheran Church.

After  a couple weeks of sitting by myself in church I finally picked a seat next to another person late in October. This woman speaks no English, but every Sunday she arrives about 20 minutes before service and sitting always in the same seat she begins her worship in silent prayer. Well it seems the seat I had chosen that Sunday was right next to her usual seat. I thought for a moment that I may have stolen her seat, but she made no complaint. Instead she helped me through the service, pointing out where we were in the order of service and constantly checking to make sure I was on the right page--ever try following a service that's spoken and written in another language? 

Well, as we sang hymns and read prayers my neighbor noticed that I was skipping all the kanji characters in the liturgy. I may have mentioned before that Japanese uses three scripts all of the time: hiragana for Japanese words, katakana for non-Japanese words (for example my name is written using katakana), and kanji (Chinese characters) also used for Japanese words. While we learned hiragana and katakana our first week of Japanese lessons, we did not start learning kanji until this month. So I have been reading what I can of the liturgy each Sunday, always skipping over the kanji.  After service my neighbor asked me, by pointing to the different characters if I could read kanji. I told her no and because neither of us could speak the other's language we went our separate ways.

The next week (the Sunday after I posted my last blog) as I prepared for service she called to me with a folder in her hand. Taking me to Megumi, the pastor's wife, she explained through Megumi that the folder in her hand was for me and I should not take the regular worship booklet. Because service was about to begin there was no time to explain what was in the folder, so I took it back to my seat. I immediately opened the folder when I got to my seat. When I saw what was in the folder I cried right there in my seat. I was overwhelmed by the gracious love of God. What I held in my hands was a copy of the worship booklet, but written over all the kanji was hiragana so that I could read through the liturgy without stopping. She later brought me a copy of the prayer of the day with hiragana written over the kanji. Now every week she comes early to copy the prayer and translate it for me.

Over and over again the people of Ichigaya church have gone above and beyond what I expect in order to take care of me. The same can be said of Cindy Otomori and the Japanese Evangelical Lutheran Church who continue to provide what new missionaries need before the missionaries themselves know they need them. This Thanksgiving I give thanks for the people of Ichigaya Church, and the JELC. I give thanks to God for placing me in a beautiful country with beautiful, gentle, hospitable people. I also give thanks for my colleagues who have ministered to me with words of encouragement, laughter, and hugs in my time of need. I give thanks for time away from Tokyo with trips to the mountains outside of Nagano and to the island of Kyushu. In Nagano I saw trees of every shade of autumn--the brightest red, crisp gold, earthy brown, and green. On the island of Kyushu I was given a taste of home with palm tree lined streets and beautiful beaches in Miyazaki prefecture. Also in Kyushu we were surrounded by the colors of fall while visiting the Lutheran schools in Kumamoto where two of us will be placed.

This has been a great month. It seems I have crossed the initial threshold that comes with being in a new place and am beginning to see Japan as my home. 

Thank you so much for your continued prayers. I am grateful especially for the encouraging emails you are sending. Your emails and letters guard against feelings of loneliness and isolation. 

Please continue to pray that my friendships here go deeper and that I am able to reach out to new friends. Pray also for discernment for Carolyn, Matt, and myself as we have been asked to submit our placement preferences to the JELC. Pray that we are able to see which position would best fit our needs, and gifts. As you are praying for us in this matter please also pray for Pastor Naoki Asano and the other pastors of the JELC who will determine where each of us is placed. Although the JELC's decision is far off, there's no reason we can't begin to pray now for God's will to be done.

I pray that your time of giving thanks and preparing for the celebration of the birth of our Saviour is filled with joy.


Please use the following link to view pictures of my trip to Kyushu (you'll have to cut and paste it into your browser):

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Crossing the Threshold

This week marks the completion of one month in Japan. It's funny because while on the one hand it feels like I have been here so much longer, on the other it feels like I left the US just last week. Of course I'm way more adjusted now than I was one week after leaving the US. My first week in Japan was filled with anxiety (as well as excitement). I wondered every day whether I had made the right decision. Now my excitement and love for my host country grows more and more each day and my anxiety has left.
I used to think that the Japanese custom of taking off one's shoes when entering a home was not just for the home but for entering any building. It turns out that one only takes off ones shoes when crossing a threshold. When entering a home or office, if there's a change in flooring, a raised entry, or slippers waiting these are all indicators that shoes must be removed before entering; different footwear is required beyond the threshold. This month has been about living life beyond the threshold: learning a new language, new customs, a whole other way of being in the world. We began our language classes and have already had our first test. We're only in our third week of language study and I must confess that I don't always feel motivated to go to class or to speak Japanese. My third Sunday at Ichigaya church I remember being exhausted from having to be so polite. The Japanese are very polite. It makes them very hospitable, but it also means that for someone from the US who is used to being direct, I have to now gently enter conversations and constantly say "thank you" for everything. Now this doesn't sound all that bad, but I have to say thank you here in Japan far more than is normal or even standard politeness in the US. But I feel like I'm getting used to it all.
I am starting to understand the way the language works and I'm not bad at speaking it. I am also getting used to my routine, my neighborhood, and my prefecture Tokyo. I have only traveled outside of Tokyo prefecture once and it was to a bordering area called Yokohama. I look forward to getting further outside of Tokyo. In November we will have a J-3 retreat in Kyushu, the southernmost island off the main body of Japan, where we will also get to visit the Kumamoto site. We have had the joy of attending Bible study and English Coffee hour at the Hongo Student Center, another J-3 site that one of us will be assigned to. 
Thanks so much for all of your prayers. I am enjoying the Japanese language more and more, so I am speaking more and more. It is so exciting to go to church every week and be able to communicate and understand more than the previous week. I can now understand what the announcer is saying on the trains and can sound out words (although I often don't know what they mean). These are exciting times. Our neighbors are also becoming more familiar with us. Earlier this week we went out to eat at a restaurant across the street from our apartment. After dinner our server asked us (in Japanese) if we lived across the street because she sees us every day. This was very exciting for us to be known by someone in the neighborhood. Of course this restaurant has become our favorite place--because sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. We like to think that we are becoming familiar within the larger neighborhood. One example is a story about Carolyn's walk home from church this Sunday: 
We all go to different churches. Matt and I have to take the train to get to our churches, but Carolyn is able to walk to hers. Well this Sunday on her usual route Carolyn spotted some Sumo wrestlers sitting outside an apartment building (did I mention our town Ryogoku is known for Sumo wrestlers--it is literally the Sumo Wrestling capital of the world). Seeing Sumo wrestlers is normal for us, but this Sunday was different. She said that as she walked by one of them pointed at her and the other two all turned to look at her and talk about her. This was unusual since Sumo wrestlers have never made a single nod in our direction or any semblance  of acknowledging our presence, not even when we smile at them in passing. We like to think they were probably saying, that's the gaikokujin (foreigner) who lives in our neighborhood.

That said thanks for your prayers and email messages encouraging me to hang in there and speak. I have seen a huge turn around from my first week. Now that the newness is wearing off please pray that we continue to get along (Carolyn, Matt, and I) and that we become even more of an encouragement to one another. Pray especially for our language learning, it is frustrating not being able to communicate with people. Also pray that we start to make friends with people our own age. Right now we are all we've got so we feel kind of isolated.
Many Blessings

By the way the video is from Ichigaya church's annual Festa 10/19/2008

Friday, October 3, 2008


Well I've been in Japan a whole week now and I'm sure you've all been waiting to hear how I like it so far. So the following is a recounting of my initial feelings and a top 10 of things I like about Japan after 1 week. I hope you are all doing well in the US and have registered to vote. Please email me some time I'd love to hear from you. Also I hope to start a picture blog soon, unfortunately I can't do one here on this site, but I can add a link. In the mean time I hope you'll enjoy the pictures on this page.


Having made my final call from inside the US I boarded the air bus headed for Tokyo's Narita airport. The ride was 10 hours from San Francisco. I sat next to a woman headed fro Taiwan, she seemed to speak limited English and slept the majority of the time. I on the other hand having stayed up late the night before so that I too would sleep the majority of the flight slept only in two hour increments. The lights remained low throughout the flight, probably because our ride across the Pacific would not bring anything but sunshine; we were following the sun rather than flying away from it.

We landed at Narita around 4:30pm Tokyo time. I could feel the humid Tokyo air as I walked from the plane into the terminal. I followed the signs for international passengers staying in Japan. When I arrived at Customs I saw a sign with the word "immigration" on it and it hit me: for the first time in my life I am an immigrant, a foreigner. I would later learn the word for foreigner, gaikoku--I am gaikoku. From that point on I became speechless. All of the words and phrases I'd learned over the summer left me. More than that my brain had locked my tongue to the roof of my mouth and I simply could not speak. I could literally feel a knot in my throat.

Thankfully my supervisor, Pastor Naoki Asano was there with his assistant Cindy and my colleagues Carolyn and Matt. I scrambled through my bags for clothes to wear over the weekend until we moved into our temporary apartments. That night while the majority of our bags were moved to a storage facility to be held until our apartments were ready, Pastor Asano and Cindy took us to the JELC (Japan Evangelical Lutheran Church) offices in Ichigaya where we would stay in the church's inn located in the same building. After dropping off our things we had dinner at Denny's (yes Denny's) and went back to our rooms to sleep. I tried to stay up until 10pm so that I wouldn't wake up in the middle of the night. While I waited for 10 to approach I sat in my room thinking, "What am I doing here? What am I doing?"

As exciting as it is, being in another country is also difficult. I have, since that first day, gone in and out of speechlessness. Some days I practice all the Japanese I know and other days, like when someone else is around to translate, I hardly speak. On those speechless days I find myself closing inward unwilling to interact with others. Please pray that I open up and engage with people more.

The Japanese people are great. The day before we moved into our apartments (they are called mansions--without regard to the size) we wandered around Ryogoku (the name of our neighborhood) trying to catch a glimpse of the place we'd be living, but could not find it. We stopped a gentleman, "Sumi masen...23...doko desu ku?" (excuse me, where is 23). This was as much Japanese as we could manage between the three of us. Addresses are broken up into blocks. We live in Midori Chome 1, block 23, building 3. We were standing at the 13th block between Midori 1 and Midori 2. The man did not speak ego (English), but he was trying to understand us when a woman rode up on her bike asking "Can I help you?" Yes, she spoke English. She went inside her house, grabbed a map of the neighborhood and pointed us in the right direction. The gentleman we'd first asked for directions stood there the whole time waiting to see that we got the information we needed.

I don't think I can imagine a better place to live. So here are 10 things I'm grateful for after my first week in Japan. Thank you so much for your prayers. Please continue to pray for my transition, I've been having nightmares that I now realize are a result of my anxiety over the move. Also pray for a loosening of my tongue to speak Japanese. Many Blessings.

Top 10

1. Carolyn, Matt, and Cindy
2. The Ichigaya Church and choir for welcoming me
3. The Japanese Evangelical Lutheran Church
4. The kindness and hospitality of the Japanese people
5. Maho a seminary student and new friend
6. J-3's already here and the welcome of other missionaries
7. Sliced bread, pasta sauce and other familiar items in the grocery store
8. Brand new mansions
9. Japanese lessons
10. Living in the Sumo Wrestling Capitol of the WORLD!!!!!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Good Bye USA

Hello again. Well I leave on Wednesday that's less than 6 days away if you don't count the hours left in today and the hours before I leave Wednesday morning. How do I feel, you ask? Excited, anxious, sad, excited. The summer months have gone by quickly. WHat am I looking forward to? Other than the adventure of being in another country and all of the things layed out in the last blog, I'm looking forward to having my own apartment for the first time in my life. What am I nervous about? Being a horrible English teacher...okay I probably won't be horrible, but if I don't connect with my students I will most certainly feel like I'm doing a bad job. I do have a temporary address (remember the first six months will be language learning after that I get my "permanent" address and assignment). Please email me if you'd like to know that address.

This summer I had the privilege of worshiping at a wonderful church in Riverside, California called Eden Lutheran Church. On Sunday, September 7 I was invited to preach during all three of their services. Eden has chosen to be in covenant with me while I am in Japan by giving to ELCA Global Mission. They are just one among others who have chosen to do the same if you would like to know more about being in covenant with me in Japan please email me. The following is the sermon I preached that day.

In peace,


God's Mission, Our Responsibility: Sermon on Ezekiel 33: 7-11; Romans 13: 8-14; Matthew 18: 15-20

I want to start by saying thank you Eden for your hospitality toward me this summer.

I am a member of Advent Lutheran Church in New York City where I attended seminary. While my home church is in New York I am not from there, I am native to California and hoped that when I moved back after attending seminary that I would find a Lutheran church here at home. So it is with sincere gratitude to this congregation that I say thank you for welcoming me and I thank God for leading me here.

I also want to extend my gratitude and excitement that you all have decided to join me as I participate in God’s mission in the country of Japan. This is such an exciting move for me and even more of a delight to know that Eden Lutheran Church in Riverside, California will be praying for me across the ocean.

I am excited to journey with you, to share stories, and for us to encourage one another over the next couple of years and beyond. I have just a couple more weeks before heading out and though I’m not sure whether visiting family and friends will allow me much more time here I hope to meet as many of you as I can. Again I thank you for choosing to join me in God’s mission.
Now I ask you to take a second to think about your own spiritual journey. How did you come to know Christ? What were your “ah ha!” moments? What made you curious about the faith? How did you get introduced to Christianity?

As I’ve been attending this church this summer it seems that many of you, like me, were raised in the church. In fact it seems many of you were actually raised in THIS church. Is that true?

As I said I was raised in a Christian home. My mother had become a believer through a friend and subsequently raised my brother and I in the church. If the doors of the church were open we were in it: midweek prayer meetings, Friday night bible studies, Sunday school, special services, church conferences…you understand me.

Although Christ was a second parent in my home it wasn’t until college that I was really introduced to Jesus through scripture study. Up to that point I knew what I had been taught. But in college I began to interpret scripture without the influence of my pastor or parents. In a community of friends and fellow believers I devoted myself to studying the scripture and heard the call of God on my life for ministry.

What strikes me about my personal story and the scripture texts read today is that God uses people to draw people into the fold and continues to use people to sustain that initial work.

Everyone of us in this room are here because of the prayers and witness of someone else who had also been brought to Christ through someone else.
How awesome to think that God trusts us enough to entrust us with one another.

Being responsible for one another is an honor: To know that God for whom nothing is impossible bestows the greatest responsibility upon we who are limited by time, space, and even our physical bodies.
This makes me think of when parents first give their children a new responsibility. My mother likes to tell the story of when she first sent me to the store on my own. I was 7 years old and, well you have to understand that I have always been small, I’m my mother’s only daughter and her baby. So at age 7 my mother finally released me to have the responsibility I’d coveted from my older brother for years (or at least one year…my brother and I aren’t that far apart in years).

Well I went to the store around the corner only to find that they did not sell the item my mother sent me to get. However, I knew that further down the road there was a store that did sell it and I was determined to get what I’d been sent out for. So I headed maybe a mile down the road and returned successfully probably half an hour later than expected. As you can imagine my mother was a wreck. I don’t know how long it took for her to send me on another errand after that.

Yet despite our methods, or failures God has sent us on a major errand: to go after those whom God loves.

Our scripture texts seem to go from very overwhelming responsibility, to an urgent call, and finally a step by step method of drawing someone out of sin.
The Ezekiel passage starts off with God’s call upon the prophet Ezekiel to be a sentinel. The challenge is to warn the wicked of their ways so that they do not die in their sin. If Ezekiel doesn’t tell them their death will be his fault. Their souls’ agony his own. Talk about scare tactics. When read in the context of evangelism this passage can inspire an urgency provoked by fear. Yet the reasoning behind the strong call of God is found in verse 11 “says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live…” The motivation for evangelism is not blood or death, but the love and concern of God, the call away from death into life.

I’ve grown so tired of discussions about hell and eternal damnation. In the same conversation I’ve heard Christians speak of God as both a loving father and a wrathful destroyer of the earth. Yet our texts for today show that the wrath of God is not the final story. No, it is the love of God that is to be our inspiration. It is the love of God that draws us and the love of God that sends us to one another. Our Ezekiel text shows that the issue is not about God sending people to eternal damnation, but about God sending people to call the wicked out of death into life.

In Ezekiel we get an image of God recognizing the cry of a people whose transgressions weigh so heavily upon them that death seems to be the only option. But God is says no there is life. I [God] have sent my messenger to tell you to throw off those things that weigh you down and turn toward me so that you can live.”

Just as God sends us in love to our friends, family members, co-workers, the people of Japan so also our witness must be motivated by love. This is emphasized in the Romans text.

Paul’s teaching, “owe no one anything but the debt of love” is a strong follow up to God’s command to warn the wicked.

Being a person with massive student loans I understand a little about debt. I spend my days, budgeting and re-budgeting hoping to pay off non-student loans quickly and still survive. With every pay check I reassess my plan to reduce my debt and am never satisfied because I cannot reduce it quickly enough. Can any of you relate?

Now what if I spent my days thinking about the debt of love that I owe those with whom I come in contact? What if I spent my morning planning out how to better love and serve my coworkers? Or how to make things easier on my parents? Now I’m not all bad. I clean the kitchen from time to time and cook dinner for them every now and then. But if I thought about loving others in the same way that I think about my finances perhaps I’d be spending more time doing things with people and doing things for people than I do now. Who knows maybe I could start to look forward to seeing that person at work who gets on my nerves. Perhaps.

Still Christian witness does not end with the ever elusive call to love, but Paul also lays out what the Christian lifestyle looks like. His description of Christian living as “living honorably” leads into the Matthew passage which gives a step by step plan for going after Christians who struggle to live up to the standard Paul outlines.

Our Matthew passage takes place in the middle of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God. Chapter 18 begins with Jesus proclaiming that humility is the greatest virtue saying, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” He then warns his disciples against straying from the path by sinning. He tells them to cut off all stumbling blocks within themselves including removing their own body parts.

Right before our passage is the parable of the lost sheep. We all know this one right the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to find the one who is lost. We are told that God is like this shepherd. Well if this is how God responds when one of us goes astray so too we must go after the church member who is heading down the wrong path.

And so Jesus lays out a way of going after the Christian who stumbles. What’s interesting is the translator’s decision to make the subject a personal matter saying “if a member of the church sins against you,” but considering the context with Jesus talking about God and the angels seeking those who turn away from God I don’t think that Jesus is talking about a personal offense.

Instead I think the church member has not betrayed another member, but is turning away from prior commitments to God. She or he has decided to go her own way or has been tempted by another to abandon the life she once lived in Christ. In this instance the steps outlined for bringing them back into the fold make sense.

It’s important to remember that this passage is not about kicking people out of the church, but about bringing back the one whose strayed. Unfortunately the history of the church proves that Christians have been more prone to splitting rather than coming together. The Church has been splitting up for nearly 500 years now over disagreements in doctrine, practice, and mission.

It seems that we have been quick to cut people off, leave and start up something new. This is how Protestant Christianity was born, by splits from the Universal Church which was centered in Rome at one time. We Lutherans were one of the first to split. Yet for all of Luther’s disagreement with the teachings of the Roman church he never saw himself outside of it, never intended to start a separate church. Luther always believed in one Church.

So then what happened why the split, and why has the history of the One Church, the one body of Christ, tended toward faction rather than unity? Somehow our different ideas have led us to weigh one another’s Christianity—this one is more Christian this one is less. So we’d rather turn our backs on one another than work through our differences.

Yet isn’t this the story of humankind? Do we not tend toward those like ourselves rather than work through conflict and the natural rub involved whenever one interacts with another?

But God calls us to be one not many. Being one does not mean that we are all the same, but it does mean that we work together in spite of differences to fulfill the mission of God. Our unity is our witness.

Now we might ask but what about the whole “they shall be like a gentile or tax collector to you.” Doesn’t that imperative give us the right to cut people off? NO. It means that we are to struggle all the more to bring back the one who has gone astray.
Gentiles and tax collectors were not ignored by the church community, but sought after for the sake of bringing all into the unity of the kingdom of God.

The last few verses of our text in Matthew tell us that how we treat our neighbor, Christian or not, has spiritual ramifications. If we bind ourselves to one another here on earth we bind ourselves spiritually, but if we cut one another off then we remain spiritually divided.

But Jesus promises that the power of his presence is known only in our coming together.

So let us pray the presence of Christ on earth through our actions, in the way we love one another. Let us participate in God’s life giving mission by stepping up to our responsibility for one another. For when we separate our selves from one another we say, “God I don’t want the responsibility you’ve given me.” Even more we are denying the presence of Jesus.

Sister’s and brothers I go to Japan because the Church in Japan has decided to partner with the Church here in the US to usher the presence of Christ into these two countries. As an English teacher I will be chipping away at my debt of love by providing access to jobs, education, and in many ways access to the world for those wanting to learn the language.

In this global world the English language is becoming the key to success as medical equipment instructions are written in English, some of the best schools teach using the English language and interaction with people of other cultures is becoming more and more of a daily reality. Because of these things teaching English is in effect offering the world to people in Japan.

By teaching English I am also witnessing the gospel of Jesus Christ which says, “if you have two cloaks and your brother or sister has none share with that one.” I am witnessing through my presence as a teacher and through my presence as a friend. For some I will be the only Jesus they’ve ever known. God has seen fit to entrust me with the people of Japan not because I am worthy, but because God is gracious.

While my term in Japan is only 2 ½ years the call to fulfill my debt of love remains for the rest of my life. There will be people I encounter on this side of the ocean or another who need Christ and I pray that I am able to present Christ to them.

As we prepare our hearts to come to the Lord’s table let us pray for the unity of the Church, for unity and reconciliation within our own lives, and to all who are ready to accept the responsibility God has given let us pray simply “here I am, Lord, send me.”

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Why Japan?

People always ask me: Why Japan? What made you want to go to Japan?
So here's my answer.

I first wanted to go to Japan when I saw the opportunity on the ELCA website in January (2008). There were no bells, no deep longing for the people across the Pacific, just an opportunity. 

I've always had a strong desire to travel. I remember as a child wanting to have a job that would send me to distant lands. As a freshman my desire to be a minister of my Christian faith and my desire for travel seemed to come together as I heard the call of God to mission work. When I graduated from college I considered serving abroad, but after praying about it and considering my financial situation I knew it was not the right time for me to go. This past year as I was finishing up my time in Seminary the time seemed right. I had almost decided to enter an ordination process to become a pastor when I found myself tired of my experiences in the US. I knew I needed to get out of the country to examine life and faith from another perspective.

Although I had no previous desire to go to Japan my need and my skills matched the ELCA's J-3 program (3 years of service in Japan). While I wanted to go abroad I felt I needed to be in a stable country because this would be my first trip out of the country. I also really needed to pay off student loans which meant I could only go abroad if I had a paying job (my work is supported  through the funds of the church and others who wish to give toward this ministry). The largest hurdle was that I only speak English fluently so I needed to be placed somewhere that would either teach me the language or where no language was required. Well, J-3's teach English conversation so there are no special degrees or language requirements other than being able to speak American English fluently.

I am so grateful to God for this opportunity and am very excited to go. Just under 6 weeks left before I go. What am I looking forward to most? Being in a country where Christianity is not part of the culture. Christians make up 1% of Japan's population. Although some older generations practice Buddhism, and the Shinto tradition is ingrained in much of the Japanese culture, Japan is by and large an atheistic/non-religious country. It'll be interesting to see what I discover about God and about the Gospel in this setting.

Well that's the how and why I chose to go to Japan. I haven't figured out how to check comments yet so if you're leaving them I'm not ignoring you. If you do have more questions email anytime.

If you're in a praying mood:

Please pray for me this last month at home. I've got some ends to tie up and people I'd like to see and a garage full of stuff (thank you mom and dad for letting me store my stuff) I should probably sell. Please pray wisdom, energy, and sanity for me. Thanks.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

What's next

After 3 years in New York I graduated from Union Theological Seminary with my Master's in Divinity on May 16 of this year. It was a challenging journey, but one that produced in me all the things I needed, just as God had promised. 

While the first year was full of wonder and exploration, the second was emotionally difficult, but the third and final year was a year of celebration with its culmination in actually graduating. Yet each year brought with its own benefit and challenge. 

The first year was a year of opening up to a new way of being Christian. Being at a school with people of varying Christian traditions as well as faith traditions I was able to see that the way I had been taught to worship, think about my faith, and think about God was not the only way. That year I realized I'd unknowingly placed God in a box. It may sound strange, but I was actually glad to destroy the box and embrace God as mystery to be discovered not claimed. 

At the end of the first year I experienced great heartache that left me emotionally wrecked. As I prayed through that experience I began to recognize my value as God's own, and I gained a sense of empowerment for my life. For years I had allowed life to make decisions for me, never fully being able to make decisions for myself based on my own desires. Seeking God for direction is absolutely necessary for one seeking to be the hands of God in the world, but too often I was crippled by the waiting for a word from God when sometimes all I needed to do was use God given wisdom. The second year I grew more confident as a person and as a leader. That year I learned to be myself.

Although the third year had its own challenges it was the year to walk in all that God had done the previous years and in that way to celebrate growth.

Now I am headed off to Japan through Lutheran Global Mission. I've been drawn to mission since my first year of college so I'm excited to have my first overseas mission assignment. In Japan I will be teaching english, assisting with leadership in a local church, and building relationships with my neighbors. Japan was ideal for me because although I was ready to go abroad I didn't feel emotionally ready to handle the challenges of an unstable country. 

I leave for Japan in September. In the mean time I'll be at home in California. If you're in Cal and would like to meet up let me know.  Until next time I leave you in the hands of the one who is able to keep you from falling.