Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Adventure in China Part II

My second day in China we went to the Beijing zoo. Just before we went in, some young people with a video camera grabbed me and asked me to do a video with them. It was supposed to be about China sending a letter to Vancouver, in a sense handing over the Olympics. I guess because I was white and spoke English, they had me play the part of the Canadian receiving the letter. I opened it up and got really excited, shouting, "Hi Vancouver!" That was my part. We did three takes. So maybe I`ll be on Chinese TV? And I thought those years of training as a TV comercial actress had been wasted. Crazy!

First we saw the brand new panda exhibit that they revamped for all the tourism surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I'd never seen a panda before; they're so cute! Why do we call them "giant pandas" in English? They're so small! About half the size of a person and so gentle and funny. Here's a picture of a really shy panda. Doesn’t he look like a little man wearing a suit?

And here's a video. Pandas really like carrots! They also like bamboo leaves, not just the "bark."

After that, we visited some other rare Chinese animals. This is a really cute Sichuan golden snub-nosed monkey:

And a bear who liked to sit like a person and stare up at us:

Some people say that "if you've seen one zoo, you've seen them all," but I definitely disagree. Every zoo has a "specialty" I think, and other than the large number of pandas and their huge exhibit, I really liked the Beijing zoo's nocturnal animal building. I had no idea China had so many night creatures. Here's the cutest one:

My favorite one was a monkey with eyes that took up over half its head. It looked like an alien! But I couldn't get a good picture because it was dark and the flash bounced off the glass, plus the little guy wouldn’t stop moving. Sorry.
Next we visited the big cats. I felt really sorry for them because they were all in tiny cages, pacing back and forth, probably bored out of their minds. My favorites were the white tiger cubs. Here's a cute picture:

And here's them when they're alert:

In the summer time, you can take a boat ride around Beijing zoo in the canal. In the winter it’s all frozen over, three inches thick. Here’s me on the ice:

It started cracking so I got off as quick as I could!

Then we went to the aquarium. I'm typically not as enthusiastic about fish as I am about other animals, but this was a really good aquarium. Here’s some Siamese kissing fish in action:

Here's the biggest tank with lots of beautiful fish:

We got to see a diver lady feeding the fish, which was interesting, and she even grabbed onto a sea turtle’s shell and "rode" it. Here’s a video:

They had a really amazing sea lion and dolphin show. I actually preferred the sea lions. I'd never seen them dance, synchronized to music before! That was really cool. But my camera ran out of batteries. Bummer!

After that we rendezvoused with Lu's friend Haidan (another Chinese student from TU) and she joined us for the rest of the zoo and dinner. Lu kept saying he wanted to see the "long necked deer" and I couldn't figure out what he meant until he said it was in the African exhibit.

"Oh, you mean a giraffe!"

"A giraffe?" he asked. "Why do you call it that?"

"I think it's based on the original African word."

"Oh. Why is English so complicated? Chinese names just describe what the animal looks like."

He has a point. Chinese names are like Japanese names in that they're usually words. Lu's name means "jade" in Chinese, as in the green stone. That's why it sounds so weird when you try to translate an Asian person's name or the name of the place they were born. It comes out sounding like, "I am Dream Flower from Northern Capital." (Beijing literally means "Northern capital.") So most of the time, translators just keep Asian names in the original language. Some English names are like that, (Hope Johnson from Springfield) but I can see how most English names, especially animal names, could be confusing for a non-native speaker.

So let me pause a minute and explain something that confuses a lot of people. Is it Peking or Beijing? It's neither, actually, as the Chinese word sounds like Pay-cheeng and is of course written in Chinese characters. The first European explorers heard this as "Peking," and so that's how they spelled it. In 1949, the New Chinese government adopted a romanization of Chinese words (called pinyin) to include on signs for foreigners. They spelled it "Beijing." It took a few decades for this to catch on in the west, but slowly it has. Some people still call it Peking because it's easier to say than Beijing. It doesn’t matter; you won't offend anyone if you call it Peking. On a nuance level, I've noticed that things that are part of old Chinese culture tend to be called "Peking" (Peking Opera or Peking duck for example), where things that are newer, especially after the communist party took over in 1949, tend to be called "Beijing" (like the Beijing zoo).

Anyway, we didn't get to see the giraffes because they weren't out. (Probably too cold for them), but we did see the penguins. They were African penguins just like at the Tulsa zoo, but the exhibit was much bigger and they were all pretty active. One came right up to the glass and tried to eat my ticket I waved in front of it. Very cute! Pictures from behind the glass are not good, so here's a picture of an African penguin that I took at Nagasaki Bio Park:

The zoo was amazing and we only saw half of it! If you plan on going there, give yourself the whole day, or maybe even two days!

After that, Lu, Haidan and I had dinner at the famous Quanjude Peking Duck Restaurant. Talk about fancy! We ordered Peking duck, of course, which was amazing! I love duck, but this was the best duck I ever had. They brought it right to our table and carved it in front of us. Here's me with our cook. Lu took this one on his I-Phone; thanks Lu!

We dipped it in sauce, added spicy vegetables, and put it in a thin flour tortilla. Lu also ordered jelly fish, but I definitely do not recommend it. I can stomach almost anything, but not that. Haidan also offered me the duck head, which included the eyes and the brain, but I wasn't brave enough to try it, and neither was she or Lu. At the end, they gave us the bones in a bag. Lu said his mother would make a soup out of them. They had given us a little bit of "duck bone soup" to go with the meal, and it was OK. I tried to pay, but Lu insisted on buying it all. I quickly learned that the custom in China is that if you invite someone somewhere, you pay for everything. Since Lu had invited me to China, he was intent on paying for almost everything! That was very kind of him; I hope I get the chance to show my gratitude when he comes to visit me in Japan.

Then Lu and I went to the Peking opera! Before the show, I got to look at all the beautiful costumes and learn the history. Opera actually began in China before European opera, and many of the older styles still exist today or are incorporated into newer forms of drama. But the style we saw (known as Peking Opera) solidified in 1790 when a number of Anhui (a region in China) theater troops came to Beijing to perform for Emperor Qianlong's birthday. They were so successful that their new form, incorporating singing, speaking, dancing, martial arts, and acrobatics, largely replaced the old styles. In case you're wondering, women sometimes play men and men sometimes play women, but both genders are present. Just like in European opera, there is usually a central "diva" who does most of the singing, dancing, and acting. It was very similar to European opera, actually, and it surprises me that two different cultures, separated by an ocean, could come up with something so similar, totally independent of each other. Then again, who knows? Maybe somewhere along the line they did influence each other. Is it a coincidence that during the same time Peking opera was so popular, Russian opera took off too? I need to do more research on that.

Just before it started, I got to watch the actors put their makeup on. This is another pictures from Lu's I-Phone; thanks Lu!

A full Peking opera is veeeery long, (think Motzart's Magic Flute), so we only saw two short segments of a comedy and a drama, each about forty-five minutes long. The first was called "dropping the jade bracelet" and is about a young girl (a rather air-headed girl) who while feeding the chickens meets a young man who wants to buy one. The spark between them is obvious. They flirt, but she ends up telling him her mother is away and to come back later. He secretly returns to deposit a jade bracelet, a token of his love, near the chicken coup. The girl finds it, and when she thinks no one is looking, she uses her handkerchief to pick it up. But the old match maker saw! She comes to the girl's house and, after teasing her almost to tears, promises to make a match between the two of them.

I could understand what was going on because there was an English translation (though a little poor), along the side. The singing was very nasal and cat-sounding, but the dancing and costumes were beautiful. The musical instruments (a Chinese three-stringed violin, a banjo-like instrument, drums, gong, clarinet-like thing, and flute) played pentatonically, not atonally, so they were pleasant to listen to. (Pentatonic music is based on a five note scale instead of eight. Think folk music like "Oh Danny Boy" or "Greensleeves." It has a more open feel. Atonal means that the music doesn't have a melody.)

Of course, video taping was illegal, so here's a link to a video on youtube. It's kind of long and the instruments are too loud, but other than that it’s identical to part of the performance I saw:


The next one was called "Stealing Silver from the National Bank" and was about a cunning snake that could turn itself into a woman. She steals silver from the "corrupt officials" and gives it to the poor in her town so they can start a shop and make a living for themselves. Sort of like Robin Hood! This is a very popular opera, especially in recent years, because it goes along well with the communist party’s ideals of bringing down the rich corrupt, raising up the poor, sharing resources, self-sacrifice, and women’s liberation. It included a lot of acrobatics as the “diva” character fought against the mighty general and his minions. These videos are not as good, but a lot shorter:



Notice that after every stunt, they freeze and look at the audience. Very interesting.

After the show while we were waiting for Lu's dad to pick us up, a pianist played in the lobby and Lu took me around to the four indoor bronze pillars and explained the ancient Chinese stories they told. Lu's a very good story teller! What a lovely evening. And what a wonderful day! I can’t think of a better way to spend it.
We left the theater pretty late, and I slept at Lu's friend's house again. That was my second day in China!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My Adventure in China Part I

Just got back from six days in China! Wow, what a trip!

But before I get into that, I wanted to talk a little bit about what happened just before I left. Sunday afternoon and evening I went shopping for China with my Chinese friend Lee. He showed me a lot of new stores I hadn`t been to in Nabari. I got new boots, warm underclothes, and a hat. And boy am I glad I did! Beijing was 20 degrees Fahrenheit some days (-6.5 degrees Celsius).

One store we visited sold pets! I grew up in a house with ten cats, two dogs, a snake, turtles and fifty fish. We also had rabbits, guinea pigs and ducks at various times. Not being allowed pets in my apartment is maddening! So I got my kitten holding fix. This is me and a Scottish fold. You can`t really see the fold in it`s ears at this angle, plus it`s a little fuzzy, but don`t you think it`s the cutest little kitten you ever did see?

Tuesday I had dinner with the nurse and her daughter Asahi who took care of me when I had swine flu. We`re getting to be good friends! And I just love their little dog Sora.

On Wednesday I went to a Christmas party thrown by my adult students. We were hoping more English teachers would show up, but it was just me, Jonathan, and Patrick. Here`s a picture of everyone:

We met at Mr. Toshi`s (not Pastor Toshi from my church) huge house and ate lots of traditional Japanese food! I am getting addicted to Japanese cakes. They`re so cute and delicious! Because they`re so small, it`s very easy to say to yourself, “just one more.” One of my New Years Resolutions is to cut down on my sweets intake.

Also, I wanted to take a picture of Mr. Toshi`s house shrine. It was the first one I`ve seen. It`s to his dead wife and has her picture over the top and her name plate on the side. Every morning, he told me, he prays to her spirit in front of the shrine, along with all her ancestors. I`d heard about, but never seen ancestor worship in Japan. It`s a little disconcerting:

Thursday morning, I heard the music class practicing “Silent Night” with chimes. Curious, I walked in and watched them practice, and they invited me to sing with them! Before Christmas every year, one of my favorite traditions is going Christmas caroling, and I was missing that. So their invitation really made my pre-Christmas. This is our performance for the teachers. Notice how the Japanese totally freak out when they mess up and bow far more times than necessary. As for myself, I don`t sound great; my voice broke on a high note. But here it is:

Thursday evening we had my free English class at the church, and lots of people came! I wrote the word “Christmas” on the board and circled the world “Christ” and the word “mas.” “Christmas literally means `Jesus worship.` ” I explained. They were shocked! No one had ever taught them the meaning of the word. I went on to explain the story of Christmas and it`s significance in the grand scheme of things. In short, I explained “Christmas is the day Christians all over the world celebrate God coming down to Earth to fix this mess we`ve made for ourselves. Jesus lived the perfect life we should live but can`t, and died the death in punishment that we should have died. But then he rose from the dead, conquering death. In heaven, God is throwing a party. But because God is perfect and just, He dosn`t want to hang out with people like us who are always hurting each other and destroying the planet He gave us. Has anyone here never hurt anyone else in action or thought, or acted irresponsibly? Of course not. Besides, would you want to let someone into your party who`s constantly ignoring you and then expects to be let in? So the only way to get into the party is if you know the person throwing it, the only perfect person who ever lived. If we know Jesus, if he`s our friend, then he`ll say to his father, “It`s OK, they`re with me.”

Of course, that`s a very rough, perhaps poor illustration, but it`s a starting point. Sin, its infecting the world and how we become friends with Jesus can be saved for later lessons. The point is, what I said made sense to them. They listened, they nodded, they asked questions and I could answer them. Now does that mean they`ll become Christians? Maybe yes, maybe no. That`s up to them and the Holy Spirit.

Thursday night after class as I was going to the post office to send off my family`s Christmas presents, it started snowing. How lovely! It was a perfect going away present. I got to bed around midnight and woke the next morning just before 5:00am, grabbed my things, and caught my train to Osaka at 5:23. I was in a bit of a panic because that was the first train out, and if everything went smoothly (which it rarely does), I wouldn`t arrive at the airport until 7:45 and boarding for the plane quit at 9:15, so I`d have only an hour and a half to get through security and find everything, and that`s if everything went smoothly! But I had no reason to worry. I`m very thankful for Pastor Toshi for helping me find the best way to the airport from Osaka. The bus, not the train! Everything was extremely well labeled, so with only three minutes transfer time, I was able to catch the first bus to the airport from Osaka Tsurahashi station just as it was leaving. And due to the fact that it was early morning, there was no traffic, so we arrived at 7:20, even earlier than expected! From there everyone was very helpful; I was able to check in and get through security in less than an hour. So if you`re ever flying to or from southern or mid Japan, KIX (Kansai International Airport), is a great way to go!

I would not recommend Air China, however. While it was extremely cheap and had excellent service (we even got a meal for an only three hour flight), the vents weren`t working. I got extremely air sick. On the way back, they worked a little, but my seat wouldn`t recline, and neither would the one beside me. So it was pretty uncomfortable both ways.

Going through customs and immigration was pretty easy and when I finished, Lu was right there to meet me with his dad at the exit. Oh, I should probably step back and say that the whole reason for me going to China was to visit my friend Lu that I met when I was in college at the University of Tulsa. We met through a mutual friend named Richard. I mentioned to Lu in an email about three months ago that I would like to visit China someday, and he invited me to stay with his family and said he would guide me around Beijing! I could hardly believe it!

I didn`t take this picture until much later, but you`re probably wondering what Lu looks like. Here he is with me at the Great Wall:

I was exhausted, but Lu wanted to take me straight to Forbidden City, so off we went! It sounds like a scary place, but it`s just called that because it was where the Emperor, his family, and all his concubines lived from about 1420 to 1912. It was “forbidden” because no one could enter or leave without the emperor’s permission. Structures in the Forbidden City have names like Gate of Divine Might, Hall of Supreme Harmony, Palace of Tranquil Longevity, and so on. The city, supposedly the copy of a divine dwelling, reflects what the ancient Chinese believed to be the heavenly attributes of power, peace, and beauty. Recently restored, it achieves this virtues very well. Here`s some pictures: This is me in front of where we entered the Forbidden City (which we found out later is actually it`s back side):

This is the throne in the Hall of Preserving Harmony. This hall was used for rehearsing ceremonies and the final stage of Imperial examinations.

China was the first country in the world to employ examinations in 605 AD. These were used to test if someone was fit to be a state official. So technically even a peasant could become a high-ranking politician, and it did happen more often than you might think. (That`s quite a bit ahead of Europe in those days, you might note.) However, the majority of those who passed came from the gentry, because they could afford tutors and time to study, while most peasants could not.) China, not Europe, also invented the sundial, paper, gun powder, triangular sails, printing, and my all-time favorite, bureaucracy (sorry, that was a joke, stolen from Orson Scott Card).

This is a gilded ceiling. Notice the dragon at the pinnacle. The dragon symbolized the emperor, and only he was allowed to wear a dragon on his robes. For anyone else, it was a crime punishable by death.

This is another cool throne room, in the Palace of Heavenly Purity (I think). This was where the emperor usually lived. (By the way, a lot of people marvel that I can remember all these facts after a week-long trip, but to be honest, I cheat. If I can`t remember something and forgot to write it down, I try to look it up online using travel/history websites.)

This is a lion statue representing the empress. It symbolizes her bringing up the new generation of emperor, and symbolically, all of China. At first I thought she was crushing the cub, but according to Lu and a passerby, she`s tickling it! I wouldn`t want her to be my mom.

There was a similar statue on the other side of the stairs, representing the emperor. Only instead of a cub, he has a ball representing the world under his paw. By the way, for each emperor there was only one empress unless she died. The rest of his wives were just “concubines.” The empress did have some civil authority, more or less, depending on the dynasty. In one case, Empress Wu actually ruled China single-handedly after her husband died, beginning in the mid 7th century, five hundred years before such a thing could ever happen in Europe. She had a fairly long and very successful rule.

This is a colorful building on top of some sculpted rocks. I think Lu said it took about two years to carve them like that:

From the highest point in Forbidden City, you can see the Beijing skyline. Notice the skyscraper amongst the ancient temples and palaces. The old and the new. A a perfect description of Chinese life, spirit, and their illustrious capital. Very interesting.

This was my favorite building because it`s so beautiful, though I can`t remember what it was used for and can`t find a match online. Oh, well, it`s still pretty.

And this is coming out of Forbidden City, from the side facing Tiananmen Square. You can see the portrait of Chairman Mao still plastered on the front side of Forbidden City.

I lost my new purple hat at the airport, and it was below freezing, so I really wanted to get a new one. Lu suggested we go to a mall, but there was a man just outside of Forbidden City who was selling panda hats for just two dollars. He was mute so he communicated in really strong gestures, and I felt a bit sorry for him, so I bought one. Of course, you get what you pay for; the ends are constantly getting tangled, but it's a really cute souvenir. The picture at the beginning of this post shows me wearing it. I also found a Chinese flag just outside the gate. So I already had two nice souvenirs!

I wanted to go to Tiananmen square where so many famous events have taken place (including the bloody student protests of 1989), but Lu said there`s not much there to see. I asked him how he felt about the protests, and he said most people of his generation feel the police were wrong to attack the students. The government seems to have realized that too, or at least noticed the strong distaste of the whole matter from the public, so nothing like that has happened since.

Me being exhausted, we went home to Lu`s house early. As soon as we arived, his mother gave us the most delicious traditional Chinese hawthorn berry desert. They were on a stick, with a honey glaze with a papery, sugar film attached. I forgot to take a picture while I was there, so here`s one from a vendor online:

Before dinner I watched some Chinese TV with Lu and his dad. It was a comedy show with a traditional Chinese comedian wearing the ancient dress and everything. Even though I couldn`t understand what they were saying, it was still really funny! It kind of reminded me of old American vaudville, with the main comedian making grandios claims and then failing every time in funny ways. It was a lot funnier than Japanese humor anyway, which tends to focus on puns, outrageous emotion, and really annoying characters.

Lu`s mother made us a delicious dinner of traditional Chinese vegetables. The family dog Burbur was not terribly fond of me and barked constantly. But she did like treats, and would dance for me if I offered her one. Here`s a video:

The word I'm saying is "sheh-sheh" which is Mandarin Chinese for "thank you," but I think it has another meaning for Burbur, like "beg."

Then we went over to Lu's family friend's house. Lu and his parents stayed and talked until about 9:30, but I couldn't understand a word of it, and I was so tired I fell asleep listening to them. The daughter was about my age and spoke pretty good English. That night I slept in her room and she slept on the couch. I totally wasn't expecting that; such hospitality! I told her I would be happy to sleep on the couch but she insisted on me having my own room.

And that was my first day in China! This post is getting kind of long, so I`ll post about the next few days later.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My Faith Story

OK, since I`m leaving for China on Friday morning and won`t have internet access for the next week, I decided to do an early blog post. But I haven`t had a weekend yet since I last wrote, so I haven’t done anything particularly “exciting,” except write to a publisher and two agents (no responses yet), and go to two Christmas parties, make a new Chinese friend, go shopping and frantically get ready to leave the country. … OK, so I guess that`s not “nothing.” But what I`m trying to get at is that this post is a perfect time to talk about something I`ve wanted to write for a long time. My testimony. That`s a very intimidating word to most folks, but that`s why I titled this entry “my faith story,” because that`s all a testimony really is. The original word means “evidence in support of a fact or statement.” I don`t think my story proves that Jesus is the savior of the world or even that God exists; in this case the “fact or statement” is simply “I am a Christian.” This story tells why.

I come from a fairly small family. Just me, my mom, my dad, and three brothers. We were all raised in the church. I was baptized as an infant in the Episcopal church with God parents and the works, but when my mom got a job at a Presbyterian church, we moved there. She was an organist, so when I say I grew up in the church, I mean I literally grew up there. Often when she went in to practice, Mom took my younger brother Benjamin and me with her. The hallways and basement became our playrooms, and the massive (it seemed at the time) gardens, glens, and playgrounds our backyard. But my favorite place was behind the organ pipes. I loved to hear their deep, bright voices and dance to the music, or climb up inside the chamber and feel the floor vibrate beneath me. That was my heavy metal, my head banging music. To me, nothing could compare to the blast of a Bach or Motzart power cord.

Those were probably my first “encounters” with God. I can`t really point to a time when I started believing in Jesus. My mother claims that I was proudly proclaiming my faith at the age of four, and when my older brother hit me, I`d say, “Stop it Tony or you`ll knock Jesus out of my heart.” But it was through music that I first felt God was real; there, with me, in the room. One Christmas when I was about eight I burst into tears after the partial performance of a mass, and my dad kept asking me what was wrong, if the music was too loud. All I could say was, “God is here.”

I should probably also pause and say that just a few years before that, when I was six, I started telling stories. They began as imaginary games I played with friends, visiting distant worlds with my “super sisters” that each had a special power. By the time I was eight, the character that had been me was someone else entirely, a “Zeptarian” creature of light from another world, and I began creating the universe with all its planets and races and cultures that I obsessively write about in my fiction today.

But when I was nine, the beautiful world of my childhood shattered. My youngest brother Daniel died suddenly. He drowned in our above ground pool- he was almost two years old. I blamed myself, because I had been the one who left the ladder down, allowing him to climb up and fall in. Nobody else blamed me; in fact, everyone seemed to find a reason to blame themselves and no one else. But guilt can be a crippling burden, and no one knew how to address it.

After the funeral, we were expected to go right back to our normal lives as if nothing had happened, as if my brother Daniel never even existed. My peers laughed when they saw me crying, and teachers just ignored their mockery.

I became very sick and had to go to the hospital several times. As the doctors gave me more and more antibiotics, I kept getting sicker and sicker, my white blood cell count as low as someone with AIDs. I had a number of chronic conditions. I won`t list them all, but a few were mononucleosis, lyme disease, and a disease similar to lupis (the doctors never did find out what it really was) that made my limbs and sometimes my lungs swell up at random times, making movement and breathing difficult or almost impossible. My mother took me to at least a dozen specialists but nothing helped.

I longed to escape the horrible world I lived in, so when I was ten, I began writing down the stories that had been swirling around my head for years. Not that the universe I created was a very pleasant one. In my first novel, which I finished at the age of twelve, the main character lost her entire family, was forced to flee her home and marry a man she wasn`t sure she wanted, and by the end of the book, hated her new home and husband. After reading it and several of my short stories, my mother exclaimed, “Why can`t you write something happy for a change?” Now that I think about it, she still says that.

I became very angry and bitter toward God. During my illness from the time I was ten to about twelve, I read a lot and started exploring other religions and even atheism. If God is real, I reasoned, than He must not be a loving God, in which case, why should it matter whether I believe in Him or not? When I read the Bible, I couldn`t find any answers. All I saw were the stories of God's wrath and anger, and it didn`t help that a few of my Christian friends at school told me that God was punishing my family, or that maybe Daniel would have grown up to be a serial killer. In one last, desperate attempt to hang on to my faith, I cried out to God. “If you`re real and you care, then do something. Heal me. Fix this.”

And that`s exactly what God did. Almost the next day, my mother found a Christian homeopathic doctor who was able to cure me and take away all my physical pain. A Christian counselor began meeting with my parents, and helped repair their broken marriage. Another Christian counselor from our church called and asked if I wanted to hang out, just hang out, and through our time together all the hurt and bitterness came pouring out, and she helped me wade through it. She and a number of very faithful Christians in my church and school looked after me and prayed for me, read the Bible with me and tried to answer my questions. “Nobody has all the answers, they said, “Just trust in God.”

I hated that answer. I called it the “great Christian cop-out.” Like Job, I wanted God to answer for what I thought He`d done, and to know for certain that something horrible like Daniel's death and my sickness wouldn't happen again. Mostly, I wanted to be in control of my own life and to know everything.

That`s when I started hearing God speaking to me. I know it sounds crazy, but sometimes I can hear His voice, still and small, assuring me and guiding me, or very loudly if I`m about to do something really stupid.

So total atheism became impossible for me. From there I examined various religions and theologies. I kept coming back to what I knew to be true in my heart: that something was wrong with the world and things weren`t meant to be this way. Most people know this instinctively and voice it all the time, but fail to realize the full implications of such a statement.

That`s when the Christian view that God created the world perfect- but it became tainted thanks to humans- started to make perfect sense. God hadn`t “killed” Daniel. My brother died and I was sick as a result of this taintedness- what the Bible calls Sin- in the world. Sin dosn`t just mean to do something bad; that`s where people get confused. Sin with a capital S refers to the taintedness of the world. The world WASN`T made this way and ISN`T meant to be this way. The world is broken. The whole story of the Bible is one that describes this brokenness and how God is going about fixing it through Jesus. I couldn`t find this sort of explanation for what I felt in my heart and knew in my head in any other religion, so I concluded that Christianity must be closest to the truth.

Once I realized this, all my suffering became much easier to bare. Not only was God working to redeem the world, but he was not satisfied to let us endure alone in the mean time. God Himself knew what it was like to suffer and lose a family member- his own son who died on the cross for our sins. And through his Spirit, He is with us every day.

But I still held on tightly to the reigns of control in my life. I was able to give some of my pain and grief to Him, but not all. I believed in Christianity intellectually and studied the Bible with all the fervor of a student studying for an entrance exam, but I couldn`t accept God`s love and grace. I still felt I had to earn it, to try harder, do better. Then God would love me. The fact that the Creator of the Universe would love me simply because that is His nature, not something I could earn, and want me to have the fullest, most abundant life possible, was too big for my heart to grasp.

My faith went through ups and downs, or valleys and mountains, as I like to say. I went to a number of churches, ranging from super evangelistic and contemporary to the somber, sit down/stand up liturgy of my childhood. Some days I felt really passionate about God and was excited about reading my Bible and worshiping, other days I found the whole affair tedious and annoying. Praise songs sounded like noise; I felt empty and alone.

In one particularly long “valley” when I was a senior in high school, I met a man named Darren. He was handsome, smart, funny, and a genuinely caring person. But he wasn't a Christian. I didn't think this was a problem because he was interested in Christianity and I thought he would sort of “grow into it.”

Things started getting tough when we went to college. He attended Oklahoma State and I went to the University of Tulsa. I honestly have no idea why I went there. I had wanted to go to England (preferably Oxford) or California (USC or UCLA), but last minute I settled on the university just twenty minutes from home. It was a good school (top 4% in the nation), I got some descent scholarships, and I liked the Presbyterian Leaders and Scholars program, but it felt like settling for fourth best. I didn't know it at the time, but coming to The University of Tulsa was really a great example of God's providence in my life, of Him shaping and molding me into the person He wanted me to be. But after only a few months, I was miserable. OSU and TU were about one hundred miles from each other. I didn't know anyone at TU. I lived at home with my parents but I wanted nothing more than to get out of the house and be close to Darren. 

As our relationship progressed, it became clearer that he was not becoming a Christian. He started hanging out with some drug users and not-so-nice people, began using foul language, and refused to go to church or pray or read the Bible. And he really started pressuring me about sexual things. I was determined to stay pure until marriage. Of course, his logic was “we`re going to get married anyway,” but I knew it was too early. It was a constant battle to keep my morals- I felt like I had to fight him every time I saw him and I felt myself slipping further and further. I stopped reading my Bible and praying as much, and went to church less. After our first year in college, he officially proposed to me, and against the voice that had been screaming "NO!" in the back of my head for the past six months and was now almost deafening, I said "yes."

That`s when I heard about a mission trip to Malawi, Africa sponsored by the Presbyterian Leaders and Scholars at TU. During high school I had gone on several mission trips and really loved them. There were several members in my church who were very active in Malawi missions, so I had told myself since I was a little girl that if the opportunity ever arose for me to go, I would go. But when I told Darren about it, he said no, and refused to discuss it. He very rarely put his foot down on anything, typically being of a gentle and sweet demeanor, but he was livid about this. And so was his family. They said it was too dangerous, that I had no business going to Africa and that I wouldn`t be able to do any good there. Torn and depressed, I let it go.

About the second semester of my freshman year, I had met a really wonderful Christian girl named Nicole. I confessed a little bit of what was happening with Darren. She was very supportive and understanding, and active in a group called Reformed University Fellowship (RUF). They held worship, Bible studies, and fellowship every week, and she encouraged me to come. I always made an excuse not to, usually that I was busy and didn`t have access to the car in the evenings. Knowing I really wanted to live on campus, she suggested we room together. I agreed, and the fall semester of 2007, my junior year, we became apartment mates.

Now that I didn't have an excuse anymore, I started going to worship with Nicole and her friends during the week and attending Bible Study that met in our apartment. I realized how much I missed being in a community of faith and that I wasn`t the only one who felt deep inside that the things Darren wanted me to do were wrong. He and his family and friends always acted like I was crazy for thinking that. I was "too conservative and sheltered." He also started mocking my beliefs, making them sound silly, and I had begun to wonder if they were. But the Christians I met through Nicole, RUF, and the Presbyterian Leaders and Scholars were very intelligent people who thought and felt as I did. They introduced me to a number of books on Christian apologetics (defense of Christianity) that reassured me I held a perfectly valid, logical view. Among my favorites were C.S. Lewis`s Mere Christianity, Timothy Keller`s A Reason for God, and various pamphlets discussing the origins, validity and trustworthiness of the Bible.

That`s when what I knew in my head became clear to my heart. Before I only knew intellectually just how foolish it was to think I could earn the love of an all powerful, all knowing, all perfect Creator. It would be like a bacterium trying to earn the love of the scientist who cultured it and continually watches over it. What can it do, wave its meager flagella and try to help the other bacteria? Is that really going to earn the scientist`s love? The only way the scientist would ever love such a small, unimportant creature is if he simply decided to do so.

And now I knew, so it is with us and God. He has decided, in accordance with His loving nature, to make us His children. Who would do that, after we were so disobedient and mocked Him and even tortured Him to death? Would a robot maker, if the robot were to start smashing things and killing other robots and attacking the maker, allow the robot to continue running, let alone love and adopt it? What an amazing God! Many people ask the question, “Why does God send people to hell?” But when you think about it, God has absolutely no moral obligation to us, and we`ve made this planet and each other miserable and disobeyed Him over and over, so why shouldn`t He eternally separate us from Him? It would make sense for Him just to wipe out all of this tainted creation and start from scratch, for real this time, not just with a flood. But no, the true mystery and wonder of Christianity is this: How can a perfect God love screw ups like us? But He does. Once I realized that with my heart, not just my head, my whole outlook changed.

Early that semester, I also went on a Presbyterian Leaders and Scholars retreat. One of the pastors, Michael Holman, gave a sermon about a relationship he had during his youth that was a lot like Darren and mine and how he broke it off. I went to him afterwards crying and he prayed with me and encouraged me to be open to God's call. A few days later I heard another sermon about the same thing that made me cry. The very next day I went to RUF worship for the first time, and the RUF pastor gave a similar sermon. I`ll never forget that. “The Bible tells us that if we become a Christian after we`re married, we should stay married to our non-Christian spouse, working and praying for their salvation. But you should not, under any circumstances, when you are already a Christian, YOKE YOURSELF TO AN UNBELIEVER!”

He looked straight at me. Direct eye contact. It felt as if he locked his gaze for a full thirty seconds, but I`m sure it was only half an instant. After the service, I approached him hesitantly.

“I guess the other girls in Bible study have been talking about me, huh?” I asked.

He turned to me, his brow furrowed in confusion. “I don`t believe we`ve met.”

“I`m Laura, Laura Popp.”

He smiled. “Nice name, though I can`t say I`ve heard it before.”

How silly of me! I thought. I know those girls aren`t gossips. “But then, how did you know to look at me right when you said, `Do not yoke yourself to an unbeliever?` ”

He shrugged. “God told me to look at you then. And you should have seen the way you squirmed! So, you wanna talk about it?”

The next day we had coffee, and I explained everything that was going on with Darren. He listened intently and patiently, saying nothing, his eyes closed and nodding. Finally when I finished my story, he opened his eyes, looked straight at me again and said, “What does the Bible say about this?”

I swallowed. I knew what it said. And from the look on my face, he knew I knew what it said.

“Do you believe that the Bible is the Word of God?”

I cringed. “Well…”

“Or maybe just sometimes, when it`s convenient? It either is or it isn`t, Laura. You can`t pick out the parts you don`t like and call the rest Good.”

I sighed and nodded.

“Then you know what you should do.”

Yes, I did. And at that moment, even as the tears spilled over my cheeks, I felt the Holy Spirit fill me with courage and I knew God would give me the strength to see it through.

That weekend I called Darren and he came over to my apartment. I gave him back the engagement ring and told him I couldn't marry him. He cried and argued and fought with me for six hours and there were moments when I thought I couldn't go through with it. At those moments I left my room and cried in Nicole's arms. She told me everything would be all right, that God would be with me. Then I'd go back into my room and talk to Darren again. Finally he came to understand that I was serious, that we weren`t compatible, and that Christ and the church were far more important to me than he was. He left, and I never saw him again.

That was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I won't pretend it's been easy since. But God gave me a lot of encouragement when I needed it most. Shortly after I broke up with Darren, my dear friend Amy, while on an RUF ski trip, had a horrible accident on a remote slope. She literally busted her head open. The paramedics said she wouldn’t even make it to the hospital. She made it to the hospital, but they said she wouldn`t live through the night. She lived through the night, but the doctors said she would never wake up. The next day, she was surrounded by the other RUF members, who were praying for her constantly. While they were singing her favorite hymn, Amy squeezed someone`s hand. She could hear them, she was conscious, but the doctors said she would never open her eyes. The next day, Amy opened her eyes and smiled, but she couldn`t see. The doctors said she would never see. Very soon, Amy could see all the smiling, supportive faces of her Christian friends at her bedside. Then she was able to mouth words, and to talk, and to walk, and go back to school, and six months later, she could play her favorite sports again. Other than a slight cross in her eyes and a few scars, you would never know she had the accident.

Amy is such a testament to me. Throughout her rehabilitation, people were praying for her all the time. She was always a happy person, but after the accident, I never saw her without a smile or laughing. She`s always praising God and telling others what He`s done for her. Her life is a testimony to His saving power. I don`t know why God chooses to help some people and not others, why He healed Amy and not Daniel. But I truly believe that in the end it dosn`t matter, because I will see him in heaven.

As for breaking up with Darren, that was one of best decisions I ever made. In the summer of 2008, I went to Malawi, Africa for three weeks. I made a documentary about it which has been shown all over the world to raise money and awareness for Malawi`s AIDs orphans. I have it up on youtube, so if you want to see it, here`s a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ApdQpfi4i7E.

And now I`m living and working in Japan, doing ministry with the most loving, gracious people in the world. None of this would have happened if I`d married Darren. I can look back at the times in my life when I thought God was being cruel, arbitrary, and unfair, and see that He was actually picking up the pieces of my shattered life and making them into a beautiful mosaic.

That is my testimony, my faith journey. It`s my prayer that it will be of use to someone. But it`s certainly not over. Every day God adds new pages. I prayed fervently on Friday for God to give me more opportunities to tell others the Gospel, and on Saturday at a Christmas party, I was talking about my church with another ALT, and a Chinese man approached me.

“You`re talking about church?” he asked. “I`m not a Christian, but my brother is, and I`m curious to learn about it. Do you know the Bible? Could you teach me?”

Wow! And then at the Wednesday night “Forget the Year” party thrown by my adult students, one of them randomly opened up to me, telling me about the “hole in his heart” caused by so much grief, and that he wanted to know what he could do to fill it. I told him about Jesus, and he said he had read the Bible, so I explained the scriptures to him, highlighting God`s love and the fullness we can experience through faith in Jesus Christ. He seemed deeply touched, and became a little teary eyed. “I want that hope,” he said.

Many people tell me they don`t witness because it`s too hard, they don`t know what to say, and they don`t want to be obtrusive. Really, all it takes is prayer and love. Pray for opportunities to witness, and they will arise. Pray for those you know who aren`t Christians; that`s how my pastor became a Christian. No one pressed him, but there were many faithful Christian praying for him. Pray to know when to speak, and when to just listen.

Speaking of Prayer: In addition to the above mentioned things, please pray for my safe travel to China and in China this coming week! Also, on December 25th, the church is having a special candle light service and many non-Christians are planning to attend. May God do great things!

I`d like to end with my favorite scripture, Hebrews 12:1-3. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” I 'd just like to encourage any Christian reading this to stay emerced in a body of believers, to surround yourself with strong Christians who will root for you to keep running the race and fighting the fight until the day we see our Lord Jesus Christ face to face, and he can say “Well done, good and faithful servant.” For those who aren`t Christians, just give it some thought. It may not seem so important compared to the many problems and troubles facing you in the present, but your eternal destiny is the most significant decision you will ever make, effecting your life now and forever.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Week From Swine Flu

Now for the story of how I caught the swine flu and the miserable week it impressed upon me! OK, it wasn`t that bad…most of the time. First, I want to show you this group shot of all the English teachers we took that week. Even though I wasn`t feeling great, I still looked “genki.” (Genki is the catch-all Japanese word for healthy, energetic, happy, etc. They use it all the time.)

I will list the teachers, starting from the front row on your right with the pregnant teacher. “Year” refers to the grade they teach. Hayashi (head of English club who is currently on maternity leave), Fujio (1st year teacher I teach with every week) Horinouchi (3urd year teacher I help with correcting college English entrance practice exams), temporary teacher I don`t know, Ota (3rd year teacher I teach with occasionally), Ikuta, and a temporary teacher I don`t know. On the second row is me, my supervisor (1st year teacher I teach with every week), the nurse’s assistant, Morikawa (3rd year teacher I teach with sometimes), Ozawa sensei (1st year teacher I teach with every week), and Atsuta sensei (3rd year teacher I grade papers for).

So, the whole swine flu business started with that darn business trip to Tsu…

That`s what did me in. If I had been able to take the whole day off after that crazy, long, busy weekend and just rest, I would have been fine. But after getting home at 8:30am, I left at 11:00am for a totally pointless, stressful business trip to Tsu, walking a lot on almost no sleep (thanks to the night bus) and found out that I was to be the moderator for a session at the mid year conference in January. That was the whole point. Just to tell us who would be a speaker and who would be a moderator. They could have emailed us that information.

I started feeling sick about halfway through the meeting. Stuffy nose, headache, soar throat, a little dizzy and queasy. The others wanted to go out for dinner and drinks, but I just slunk back home. I went to bed, and in the morning took an Excedrin and went to school. I didn`t feel great, but I was OK. I did the same thing the next day, but about noon I felt really weak. I broke out in a really weird sweat, but couldn`t stop shivering. My first instinct was just to tough it out, then sleep it off, but I remembered when I did that last time, and then couldn`t find anyone to take me to the doctor. About 3:30, I went to my supervisor.

“I`m not feeling well. I think I need to go to the doctor.”

She gave me one of her tight smiles. “Well, you know where it is.”

“Yes, but…the doctor dosn`t speak English.”

“When the doctor asks to see you, call me and I will translate.”

“O…kay.” I glanced outside. It was very, very cold that day, close to freezing with a dizzily rain and harsh wind. “How do I get there?”

“You have a bike, right?” And she promptly went back to her work.

Well, that`s not going to happen, I thought. Maybe I can just go to the school nurse and she can give me some over the counter stuff, or some herbs.

When I came into her office, she wasn`t terribly concerned; like I said, I`m a pretty “genki” person even when I`m not feeling great. But then she took my temperature. She gasped, dropped the thermometer, shouted something in Japanese, and ran out the door.

I turned to the nurse`s assistant who speaks English pretty well (in fact, I think she`s an English teacher who also helps out the nurse). “Mind translating that for me?”

She glanced at the thermometer and her eyes bugged out. “You have a temperature of 39.2.”

Not being a person who uses Celsius, that meant absolutely nothing to me. I stared at her blankly.

“You need to go to the hospital,” she explained.

“Hospital? Isn`t that a bit…drastic? Besides, I don`t have any way to get there.”

“The nurse just went to find someone to take you.”

“Oh. I should probably tell my supervisor.”

“That`s okay! I`ll tell her.”

She left, and I felt a little weird just sitting there, so I went back to the teacher`s room and looked up a Celsius/Fahrenheit converter and found out my temperature was 103. That may not seem too bad, but I can count the number of times I`ve had a fever on one hand, and a fever of more than 101 on maybe three fingers. My natural body temperature rests around 98.0 or a hair lower, colder than most folks, but I suppose that`s why people always tell me I have such a cold face and hands and everything else. I`ve always had a hard time retaining body heat.

So all that to say my condition was pretty bad. I went back to the nurse`s room and laid down for an hour. The only person who could take me to the doctor was my supervisor, and she took her sweet time in getting back to me. On the way there, she insisted on keeping the windows down so I wouldn`t infect her and that I keep my face pointed toward the window (despite the fact that I was wearing a mask). It was freezing cold, and by the time we arrived at the doctor`s, I was shivering like a rattle-snake`s tail.

“You know, I think you could have done this yourself,” she kept saying. “Next time maybe you could avoid bothering the nurse or anyone else. After all, I gave you the address of this clinic last week.” Then we found out that the clinic was closed.

“Boy, am I glad you`re with me,” I said in as Japanese-a-fashion as I could. “I don`t know what I would have done if I`d come all this way on my bike only to find out the clinic was closed.”

She didn`t reply to that. I was trying to sound sincerely grateful, but I think she thought I was being sarcastic.

We went to another clinic. It too was closed. “Most clinics are closed on Thursdays,” she admitted reluctantly.

Geeze, I wish you had told me that before! I thought. How else would I know? To think you would have just left me to go wandering around the city myself!

But aloud, I tried to thank her again. “Thanks so much for helping me with this. I don`t know what I would have done without you.”

“You know, maybe you could have told me you weren`t feeling well yesterday,” she replied. “Or maybe waited until Friday. I am very busy, you know, and can`t do everything for you. Next time, please do this yourself.”

While she says all this in the soft, hesitant voice only the Japanese have mastered, she`s the most un-Japanese Japanese person I`ve ever met. I think she spent too much time in America. Or maybe she`s irritated because she just got married, just moved, has to drive an hour to school everyday and she`s head of the department and didn`t ask to be my supervisor. Maybe I`m just one thing too many. She`s always comparing me to the Assistant Language Teacher she worked with in America, how organized she was and how good her Japanese was and how helpful she was. It`s all very subtle, but I get the idea. Why can`t I be more like HER. At least she dosn`t compare me to Lauren, my predecessor. I get called by her name on accident enough times, but I can understand that. She worked here three years, we look kind of similar and our names are almost the same.

Anyway, she finally took me a stomach clinic, the only doctor`s office open in all of Nabari. They saw me pretty quickly, and much to my relief, the doctor did speak a small amount of English, and his Japanese was slow and clear enough that I could understand him when he wasn`t speaking English. I wrote down all his information for the future, which seemed to please my supervisor, but honestly it`s pretty far from my house. I do plan on going there if I get sick again, but I`m calling a friend to give me a ride.

The doctor did a “nose swab” instead of the American throat swab, which is about equal in discomfort but still effective. When the test results came back in a few minutes, he frowned, shock his head, and said, “Eh…toe…you have enfluenza. New kind. From pig.”

He showed me the indicator line, which was barely showing up. Apparently that meant I just got it. There were more dark lines too, indicating other kinds of flu, but I couldn`t find out from him or my supervisor if that meant I had more than one kind of flu, but, after further evidence, I`m assuming I did. (More on that later.) He gave me some medicine and told me to take five days off.

“Is that nenque or sick days?” I asked my supervisor.

“Ninque,” she said. (Ninque is vacation days; I only have twenty for the year.)

“Sick days,” a nurse replied, and added something in Japanese. The doctor nodded, and handed my supervisor a note that I`m assuming was a “doctor`s note” ordering the rest.

My supervisor looked sulky. “Sick days,” she muttered.

When we got back out to the car, my supervisor got a call from the school nurse. “She wants you to come back to school. She`s worried that you might not be able to take care of yourself while you`re sick. She wants to take you to her house.”

“Oh, I don`t think that`s necessary,” I assured her. “I don`t want to be a burden on anyone.”

“That`s what I told her, but she was insistent. Don`t worry, we`ll explain the situation and she`ll let you go. Then everyone will feel better. The principle and vice principle are worried too. There was an ALT who got swine flu last year. Very healthy, no sickness before that. They let her go home but after her sick days she didn`t go to school. They called her home, but no answer. They finally went there and found her dead.”

“Oh.” Well, that`s not going to happen to me, I thought. I have to prove to my supervisor that I can take care of myself. I`ll refuse her help, no matter what.

“The school is very concerned for you,” my supervisor continued. “You are an American. You are new to this country. If something happened to you, we could be in trouble. You are our…our…”

“Responsibility?” I asked, and wanted to kick myself as soon as I said it.

“Yes, that`s right, responsibility. We are responsible for you. Even though you are an adult, you are like a child. We have to be extra careful with you.”

Oh, great, now I`m a child, I thought. Though, honestly, I feel like one at times. Everything is new. I have to learn to talk, read, and write all over again. And it`s not just verbal communication. I have to learn a whole new way of interacting with people, customs, culture, unspoken taboos, body language, how to read people`s minds (the Japanese are notorious for leaving things unsaid and expecting you to read between the lines; just check any cultural guide and they`ll tell you this). I thought after five months I would be a pro, but I`m not. It really is like being on another planet. These people think differently and have a different upbringing and a whole different way of expressing themselves and looking at the world. Not to mention this is my first time living on my own. Even in college, I had a roommate, and my parents were only twenty miles away. If I got sick or needed something, I could always go to them. It would be foolish to say I have “no one” in Japan, for I do have a lot of friends and my church family and many people I can call on if I need to, but it`s not quite the same as being close to family.

Which is why I honestly didn`t need much pressing from the nurse when I got to school. When my supervisor and I arrived, we were immediately surrounded by the principle and vice principle and other teachers who were worried about me. As soon as they found out I had swine flu, they took me straight to the nurse. They all insisted I had to go into quarantine at her house, both to protect myself and others. Even my supervisor changed her mind and said it would be for the best, repeating the story of the ALT who died. By this time I was feeling quite miserable (physically speaking), and it really touched me that the nurse would care so much, and I really did want someone to look after me (and figured I might regret it later if I didn`t), so I accepted her offer.

I spent the next two days shut up in her house. It was wonderful. I stayed in a warm room with a humidifier, had my meals and medicine brought to me, and slept the days away. In the middle of the day when the virus was at its weakest, I did a little writing on my laptop and read Lord of the Rings. The nurse had a daughter who spoke fluent English, so in the evenings and mornings she would talk to me. And there was a little Shih Tzu dog to keep me company while they were gone. His name was Sora. Here`s a picture:

Though honestly, they warned me not to let him in the room with me, but I did anyway. He went crazy, rifling through the trash can and tearing a hole in the rice-paper wall. Oops. Though honestly, the tear may have been there before. When I showed it to the nurse and apologized profusely, she didn`t seem concerned. People have been asking me what a “rice paper wall” looks like, so here`s a picture…with a tear in it:

They were very kind and sweet, and they even went grocery shopping for me. The daughter, Asahi, is now in my Thursday night English class. It is way below her level, but I think she is enjoying it anyway.

On Sunday I called my Mom and stayed home from church. I tried to sleep most of that day and Monday, eating food that a friend brought me. But sleeping, especially in the evening, was nearly impossible. A deep, racking chest cough kept me up through the night, and no amount of cough drops of tea with honey and lemon could make it go away. I was getting more and more exhausted, worse, not better. Monday evening I coughed up blood. Afraid that I`d gotten pneumonia, I decided it was time to go back to the doctor.

Tuesday morning I called a friend and he took me to the same clinic I had gone to before. It was a different doctor this time, and he said I had gotten an “opportunistic” infection on top of the flu. He didn`t even test me to see what it was. He just prescribed a bunch of wide-spectrum antibiotics. I bought them at the pharmacy there so as not to cause a fuss, but at home I refused to take them. The last thing I need is to go through what I did as a kid, weakening my immune system with nuclear ballistic missiles that destroy my digestion by obliterating all the bad AND good bacteria. (That story is all part of my testimony; I`ll include more details next week.) Instead I drank lots of Echinacea and vitamin rich tea with honey and lemon and ate lots of raw garlic and ginger. I healed on my own in a few more days, but the important thing was that I got another doctor`s note. He ordered me to stay home until Saturday, and honestly, my supervisor was pretty understanding when I called her. Yea.

For the rest of the day I ran much-needed errands with my friend. He suggested that maybe one reason I was coughing so bad was because of allergies. I performed an experiment, moving a mat into the living room and sleeping on that. I slept much better. So on Wednesday thanks to regained rest my condition began to improve, and I called Pastor Toshi to ask about the Thanksgiving dinner we were planning for Friday.

“Eh…toe…several members have gotten sick with the flu,” he said. “And one of the members has died, the lady who had cancer.” This was not a terrible shock; she had been very sick for a long time. He said she died exactly one year after she was baptized, so I told him she died on her birthday. They had already had the funeral. I was sad that they hadn`t invited me, but I realized that in my condition, I would have coughed through the whole service, and that would have been disrespectful. Japanese funerals are very somber, and last about two days. There are many ancient customs, such as passing the bones of the departed from person to person with chop sticks (one reason why you NEVER pass food to someone using your chopsticks), in addition to the Christian rituals the church performed. There were many people there who were not Christian. The lady`s husband is Christian, but her two daughters are not. It is our prayer that as the church seeks to reach out to them in their grief, they will want to find meaning, hope, and be moved to faith.

So, suffice it to say, the Friday Thanksgiving dinner was canceled, and I suppose that`s for the best. I was planning on doing most of the cooking, and I don`t think I could have managed it. And Pastor Toshi hadn`t been able to find a turkey. But he has now! So we`re going to have a Christmas dinner instead on December 25th. I hope it goes well!

As Wednesday wore on so did the illness, and I canceled my adult class for both that night and the next night. Many folks in the Wednesday class are elderly and I knew I shouldn`t expose them to so many germs, but still, I felt really guilty about it; we only meets twice a month and I`ve already canceled once on them. Even though they don`t really pay me, they have to pay a monthly fee to use the community center and its resources. I will try to make it up to them by scheduling a make-up class.

Thursday, after finishing the second Lord of the Rings book and Orsen Scott Card`s Shadow Puppets, I was bored out of my mind but still feeling too sick to really do anything productive. I had taken my broken PlayStation disks to the repair shop on Tuesday when I did my errands, but they hadn`t been able to fix them. So I finally gave into the temptation and downloaded several Super Nintendo games from the internet, and played them for the rest of the day and Friday. I don`t know what it is with video games, but they always make me feel better when I`m sick. They give me a sense of forward movement, adventure, and false power. Whatever. Mostly they`re just a waste of time, so I tucked them away somewhere on my computer where I can`t have easy access to them, only to be brought out at the next severe illness. Hopefully, that won`t be happening any time soon.

Oh, about the above mentioned books, I don`t know if I`ve said this before, but I inherited an excellent library from my predecessor, at least one hundred volumes. And most of them are right up my alley; lots of science fiction, fantasy, and historical stuff. I`ve already plowed my way through about a dozen of them.

When I consider my lifestyle here, it really can`t be beat. I have a really good job that pays me good money for doing very little, so I spend my days writing, my evenings reading, and my weekends traveling. I`ve published more things here in the last five months than I have in my entire life (newspaper articles and other short things). I have almost everything I need within biking distance of my apartment (and everything else I can get to by train), lots of wonderful international friends, and a loving, supportive church family. I have a writers` critique group and everything I need to advance my career here in Japan. So what am I griping about? I`m going to stay another year, I think.

Now all I need to do is learn Japanese. That would make life so much easier! I study thirty minutes a day, but perhaps I should crank it up to an hour. But there`s so much else I want to do, and honestly, I don`t see how or when I will ever use Japanese when I leave. That`s no excuse! Either spend the extra time studying or quit complaining! Most of all, I should just be patient with myself and others.

On Saturday, I went to the store with a friend and bought an air filter for my apartment. Wow, what a difference! The room smells so much better, and I can breathe without coughing. I think my apartment had a mold problem, but that got rid of it. I think another big problem was that my apartment was so cold. There are two walls made entirely of glass facing the outside, and the rest are made of rice paper. There is no central heat, just a small air conditioning unit in the living room. Another reason for moving into the living room was so I could sleep directly underneath it. But with the air filter, I figured out how to circulate the heat into my room, so I moved from the hard mattress back to my nice, soft, comfy Western style bed (that I also inherited from my predecessor for a small fee). My dad asked me why I didn`t just move my bed into the living room. You can`t side stuff on tatami (straw mat flooring). You would destroy it. That is why Japanese furniture is usually light, capable of being moved by simply lifting and setting down again. I don`t know where the bed came from, but it definitely wasn`t made in Japan.

One lesson God is teaching me in Japan, as I`ve said before, is patience. Rather than being an obnoxious American and feeling I have to adapt everything to suit my own whims or plow through obstacles, I`m learning to adapt to what I`m given or what I have to work with. The ridged structure of society and daily life is not so much inflexible as…a way of promoting harmony and opportunities for creative solutions. I give the Japanese a lot of credit, in that they seem to be able to do this without thought. It`s so engrained in their nature.

Saturday afternoon, I tried to get my Chinese visa in Osaka, but the office was closed. How silly of me; of course it`s closed on a weekend! Turns out they`re only open 9-12 and 1:30-2:30 on weekdays. And won`t received mailed applications and won`t mail the finished visa.

Fortunately, that wasn`t the only reason I went to Osaka. While I was there, I got to go to my critique group meeting. We discussed the revisions to my story “Tapestry of Time.” They were very pleased with the corrections I`d made, especially to the characters, and only found a few small errors. Carl, who submitted to the Writers of the Future Contest before, said it looked like something custom-fit for them. That was extremely encouraging, so I hope to send it off before the January 1st deadline, after I return from China.

Sunday, after three week`s absence, (two being due to conferences), I was finally able to go back to church. I just love being with them! I love singing to God with other voices and hearing the Word preached. Afterward, we had lunch together, and decorated the church for Christmas. I`m so glad, because that`s one of my favorite traditions of the season, and I was already missing the fact that I couldn`t do it with my family. The man who`s wife passed away was there, and far from being sad, he kept saying his wife was in heaven, that she was in no more pain, and that in another ten years or so, he would see her again. That was really encouraging to see.

I was still pretty tired on Sunday from the illness, but I knew it was my last chance to see the autumn leaves at Akame taki (waterfalls), and I`d been making plans to see them for weeks and they had always fallen through. So, stubborn goat that I am, I went. I was just in time to catch the bus. I flagged it down as it was driving off, and spent an hour walking along the river and falls. Unfortunately, most of the leaves were already spent, but it was still beautiful. Here are some pictures:

And here`s a pair of "shrine guardians" leading up to the inner sanctuary of a Shinto/Buddhist Shrine. They looked pretty cool and scary, so I took a pic:

This is probably the strangest one. Someone wrapped all the Buddha statues in red sweaters. I assume this is an ancient tradition, because I`ve seen it in other places too, some remnant of thinking the statue houses a real spirit. No one believes that anymore, yet they still do it. They probably just consider it a “festive decoration.” Interesting.

I think that about covers the whole week. I`m feeling much better now, though I`m still sneezing and coughing a little and tire easily. I think I`ll stay home this weekend, get some work done around the house, and get ready for my trip to China! I was able to apply for my visa in Osaka just fine, thankfully, after taking a half day off of work. I`ll have to take another half day off to go down and fetch it. Oh, well. At least I got it. I only found out I needed one last week, and was worried I wouldn`t be able to make it in time!

Prayer Requests for this week: Praise that there were four people at my English class yesterday (Thursday)! It`s growing. After the English lesson and during tea time, I was able to share the Christian story of Creation, and compare it to the Japanese story of creation found in their oldest document, the Kojiki. (In that account there are three gods, one ultimate creator and two others that pour from his essence, one with characteristics of Christ, and one with characteristics of the Holy Spirit. Coincidence, or was God speaking to the writer?) They were very surprised to hear this, and equally shocked to hear the similarities between communion and the tea ceremony, how the latter’s greatest innovations were created shortly after the coming of Christianity, by Christian Japanese. Many of the gestures and symbols are exactly the same, such as the movements used to clean the utensils before and after, the lifting of the cup, and a small wafer eaten after the drink. When Christianity was banned from Japan, many secret Christians continued to celebrate communion, disguised as the tea ceremony. That got the class thinking. One lady said, “Ah, I see. Christianity is not foreign to Japan.” Yes, bingo! That was the whole point of the lesson. Just to open them up to the idea that they can be Christian and still be Japanese. So praise God for that revelation. Next week we are covering Christmas. I hope there will be more “Aha!” moments, and that each one leads them closer to salvation.

Also, praise for healing! Thank you all for praying for that. Please pray for the family and friends of the woman who died, especially her husband and two daughters.

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,

Sunday, December 6, 2009

JET Christian Fellowship Conference near Mt. Fuji!

I`m back! Sorry for the long leave of absence. That was one nasty flu! I`ve heard some folks say, “Swine flu`s no worse than the regular flu” but that wasn`t my experience! I never get a fever, but it was 103 degrees! (39.2 Celsius). Then I got an “opportunistic infection” on top of that! Ug. But on the bright side, I`ve had pneumonia and bronchitis in the past, and it wasn`t as bad as them. And I`m better now! Mostly. I`m still tired and have a lingering cough, but I`m back at school and business as usual!

I plan to talk more about my sick days later, but I like to do things “decently and in order.” Sorry, that`s my Presbyterian upbringing for you. Before I got sick, I went to a Christian conference in Yamanakako near Mt. Fuji. Let me give you the scoop on that first.

The Japanese Exchange Teaching Program (JET) Christian Fellowship (JCF- how do you like that, an acronym inside an acronym) is a pretty vibrant group of Christian JETs from all over the English-speaking world. Most of our members are from the U.S. and Canada, but there`s folks from Hong Kong, Singapore, the U.K, Australia, New Zealand, and places I didn`t even know spoke English, like French Quebec (sorry, that was a joke). They hold a bi-annual conference in the fall and spring; this time about fifty people came.

Anyway, I volunteered to be the JCF librarian, mostly out of the selfish desire to have access to lots and lots of Christian books, something I miss from back in the U.S. Unfortunately, my favorite subject, the Great Awakening of the 1700s, is not included in the collection. What, no Jonathan Edwards? Oh, well, there`s a lot of other good stuff in there. So just a few days before the conference started, I received sixteen boxes of books. Wow. It was difficult just finding a space for them, (right now they`re in my living room where I trip over them in the middle of the night when I get up to use the bathroom) and I still need to sort and catalogue quite a few. It`s a work in progress.

So one thing I hadn`t counted on was being part of the leadership team. I guess that went along with the librarian position. I don`t mind, but it also meant leading a small group. Also not terribly difficult, but with the books and leadership and small group stuff, I was kept running around for the whole conference, and with only twelve hours of sleep in four and a half days, (thanks to the night bus), it`s no wonder I got sick.

Oh, yes, the lovely night bus. It has it`s good point and it`s…not so good points, and not all night buses are created equal. The previous week when I went to Yokohama it was no problem. I didn`t have to think. I just got on the bus across the street from my apartment and arrived very close to the place I needed to be. But when I tried to book the same bus to take me and my friend Kayoko to Tokyo one week in advance, it was already full. I hadn`t counted on the three day weekend making a difference. I`ll know better for next time.

So I had to book a bus out of Osaka. Everything was running smoothly, the price was still nice and cheap, but then I made a mistake. I booked the wrong day. I can`t blame it on an all-Japanese website because the dates and times and places were also in English. I had to call them, with the help of one of my supervisor, cancel, and get a different bus. A more expensive, less comfortable bus. Oops. Not to mention that, but as the librarian, I had promised to bring fifty books to the conference with me, so I had a whole suitcase full of them I had to lug with me.

But Kayoko, bless her heart, is such a good sport. She met me at the train station in Nabari at 10:00pm and throughout the ensuing fourteen and a half hour journey helped me haul my suitcase full of books, no complaints. (For those of you who are wondering who Kayoko is, she`s the Japanese friend I met through this blog who wanted to come to church with me. She`s been attending regularly, and so I invited her to the conference, and she was really excited, especially to have the chance to meet other Christians in Japan. She became a Christian while she was attending university in the U.S.)

First we caught the train to Tsurahashi, and from Tsurahashi we had to transfer to the Osaka loopline. Then we waited at Osaka station half an hour for our bus and started to worry, only to realize we were waiting in the wrong place. We jumped on the right bus just in time. I couldn`t believe that a bus would leave early, but it did. It was scheduled to leave at 12:30, but left at 12:15. They would have just left us behind! And this bus had no bathroom, so we stopped every three hours or so and they`d turn on the lights and people would push past us. So no real sleep.

We arrived at Shinjuku in Tokyo around 7:30am. Our next bus to Yamanakako didn`t leave until 10:40, so we stumbled around trying to find a little café where we could have breakfast. Nothing opened until 8:00am, but it was a nice little diner, and we spent a good hour chatting. Then we found our next bus (after wandering around in circles for awhile) and had a nearly three hour bus ride to Yamanakako. We ate our packed lunches on the bus, so we didn`t have to worry about food when we got there. We arrived around 1:30pm. We had a few hours before the conference, so we walked around a very beautiful lake, one of the largest in Japan.

I really liked feeding the ducks; they were small and cute and squeaked instead of quacked.  But the fish were scary! Here`s a video of them getting fed:

Then we took a cruise in a beautiful swan boat. Here`s a picture of the boat on the lake:

And here`s a picture of Mt. Fuji in the distance, enshrouded by clouds:

When we were finally finished with our frolicking, we called someone from Torchbearers (the camp that was hosting our conference) to please come pick us up. They were more than happy to, since it was a fifteen minute hike uphill and I had my suitcase full of books. We arrived about 4:30, just in time for the opening remarks. All the leaders, including me, introduced ourselves, and we played some icebreaker games. Our group, selected randomly, was “the world.” Whenever we wanted to answer a quiz question, we shouted “world!” at the top of our lungs. We won, of course. I never realized how competitive I was until I came to Japan.

After icebreakers and inros came dinner. Because I put that I was allergic to MSG and sodium nitrate on my application form, I sat at the “special table” with the vegetarians and vegans. That was interesting. Conversations hovered around health talk. Several people were sick, coughing or had the sniffles, so I can almost guarantee I got one or more of my illnesses from someone there. Better that than my students, I guess.

After dinner came worship. Yea! Never, ever take for granted your opportunity to worship God in your own language. I really love my little church in Nabari, but all the songs are in Japanese, and half the time I don`t know what I`m singing. So worship was really refreshing. Here`s a picture:

The speaker was Elmer Inafuku, a Hawaiian pastor ministering in Japan. He started a church in Shinjuku about thirty years ago and now has daughter churches all over Asia. The theme of the conference was “discover your calling.” In the first sermon he talked about how he became a Christian at nineteen and discovered his calling was to be a missionary. Because of his Japanese decent, he felt particularly drawn to them. He also talked about how God had used hardship in his life to help him relate to other people. (He used the example of his name, having always been called “Elmer Fudd” as a kid and how that allowed him to sympathize with a new member of the congregation named Charlie Brown.) He was very compelling and inspiring, making my job as a small group leader easy. Here`s a picture of Elmer giving his first message:

Due to lack of space, we ended up combining two small groups. I joined up with another American girl named Bethany, who is also a fellow writer! I hope we can get a manuscript exchange going. I also met a nice, interesting guy from Canada named Jean Mark who wanted to read my books, so I sent him Dargon. Anyway, all we had to do was ask questions and facilitate discussion. I was the only one in the group who actually knew my calling. I`m a writer. I was predestined to write. I`ve known that since I was ten years old. Anytime I can do service or mission work too is great and I take those opportunities. It surprised me that no one else knew their calling, me being the youngest one in the group. I can`t imagine how frustrating it must be going through life, not knowing what you`re supposed to do. I`ve always had a dream: to be a best selling fantasy and sci-fi author. And I`m slowly getting there.

Of course, I can sympathize with the others because I don`t always know how to reach my goal. Should I try getting my stories into the TV and film industry too or focus my efforts on just books and expand from there? Which story should I write next, which magazines, contests, publishers and agents should I submit to, is this query letter perfect? Should I get a full-time day job until I make it, part-time, or just trust that I`ll start making enough through my writing before I starve? (This topic was covered in my last blog; obviously the last choice is not smart, as it typically takes six months for me to get pay checks for my writing.) There are many roads to get to where I want to be, and none of them are easy, but at least I know the name of my destination. Not to even have that…wow, that must be tough.

So we talked about ways of discerning our calling. Through prayer and bible reading and talking with other Christians. Ultimately, everyone was really relieved when they remembered that they may not have a detailed map, but they do have a compass. The compass tells us when we are going in the wrong direction, and can often point us in the right one. I remembered the Christian conference I went to in Florida just before I left for Japan, and what they had to say about calling. I tried to emphasize that maybe some people don`t have a specific “calling” in the sense that God wants them to do this specific job. But God gives us freewill to do what we love to do, as long as it does not conflict with His plan for reconciling the world. Obviously God hasn`t called you to be a stripper or a mafia man. But if you find something that is morally uplifting, benefits others, and makes you happy, then God will bless you in that work.

And by the end of the conference, that was Elmer`s conclusion too. You don`t have to be a missionary or a doctor or a writer to be fulfilling God`s plan for you. God put you where you are so you can do the most good. If you’re a housewife, that`s being a Christian witness to the other housewives. If it`s being a plumber, it`s providing an essential service for others and witnessing to other plumbers. Wherever we are, we are to be witnesses for Christ. Missionaries can`t always reach the housewives and plumbers and other “ordinary folk.” That`s why we need strong Christians in every profession, in every place, in every situation.

In the evening, I took a nice, hot shower and bath. I had a pleasant conversation with the other two girls I shared it with, then went to my room. There were five of us on bunk beds and the floor mattresses: me, Kayoko, a lady from Jamaica, an Asian Australian, and Sunny from New Zealand. Sunny and I stayed up until 2:00am sharing our testimonies. Sunny wasn`t raised in a Christian home, but all her life had felt something “missing.” She kept searching for that something through a number of experiences and religions, and even went to church a few times. But it wasn`t until she was in high school…or maybe even college, I can`t remember, she went to a worship service and she was so moved by the message and the prayers that she said, “OK, Jesus, I`m going to give you a chance. I think I want to know you.” And she felt so…filled, she said. She woke up the next morning and everything was so much more beautiful and had so much more meaning, and when she read the Bible it just all made sense. I told her about loosing my brother and how I was engaged to a non-Christian and all that. I think most folks know my story…but maybe not. That needs to be a whole blog post in and of itself. “Why I am a Christian: How God Always Picks up the Broken Pieces of My Life and Makes a Beautiful Mosaic.” That could be a very long post indeed.

The next morning I got up around 7:30 for breakfast and prayer. Then we had worship and another sermon. This one was about how God speaks to us about our calling. He emphasized the importance of daily devotions, or prayer and Bible reading. He talked about various ways of staying faithful, of really engaging the word through keeping a journal. His method was SOAP. Reading Scripture, then writing down Observations or anything that sticks out at you from the verses and how they Apply to your life, and, of course, Prayer. In small groups, we talked about our own devotions, how they help us discern what we should do, and how we can improve on them. Here`s our small group:

Sorry I can’t remember everyone’s name. I’ve tried to look them up online, but to no avail. The girl in the front row with the white jacket went with Kayoko and me to Mt. Fuji (more on that later). Kayoko is the Japanese girl on the second row from the front, wearing glasses. Bethany is the only blond, I`m behind her, and next to me is a Japanese English teacher Yuko, and behind her is Michael, the only guy in our group (one of only eight that attended, including the pastor).

I admitted that I`m much better about Bible reading than praying. I`m the kind of person who loves to read and study, but I have a hard time believing that the Creator of the Universe actually cares what I have to say. So I read and I listen, but I don`t talk much. I`ve always been embarrassed or ashamed to go before God with my confessions, problems, and concerns. I often say thank you for stuff, but when I`m really worried about something, rather than praying about it and giving it to God, I just continue to worry.

And there are certain things I just don`t want to talk to Him about, as if He didn`t know already. Often because I already know the answer, but I don`t want to hear it. When I do finally pray about something that`s bothering me, the answer is almost always difficult. “I`m lonely, God.” So, go out there and be a friend. Invite someone to go with you on your next trip. “But then I`ll have to accommodate them too and maybe I won`t get to do all the things I want or stay as long as I want.” Well, do you want to be a selfish jerk or do you want to have friends? I made you to be happiest if you learn to give up your selfish desires and serve others, but by all means, continue to be miserable if you want.

That`s when I go off and pout and refuse to talk to Him for a few days. I`m still surprised He talks to me at all.

After lunch, we had free time until worship. So Kayoko, another American girl, and I decided to try to climb Mt. Fuji! I had the maps and directions, but the walking trails were blocked. So we decided to drive up as far as we could. On the way, we found this beautiful forest shrine. Here is the approach:

And this was a pavilion, covered in gorgeous yellow leaves:

We drove up until we came to this overlook. Mt. Fuji is a volcanic anomaly; there are other mountains around, but it towers over them, seeming to come out of nowhere. It also has a very broad base and gradual slope to a certain point, so here’s what the surrounding mountains look like when seen from there. It felt like we were standing on the edge of the world:

Looking at islands in the sky:

We got as far as we could, about station four I think, before we had to head back. Here`s me in front of Mt. Fuji.

And here`s the best picture I got:

Just after we finished taking pictures, it started to snow, so we headed back down before dark and snow could overtake us. But I can honestly say that I had my first snow in Japan on Mt. Fuji! I’ll have to wait to actually climb beyond the base until July when Mom comes.

Then came lunch, more worship, and testimonies. I wasn’t going to say anything, but Sunny nudged me, and gave me a smile, so I stood up and gave mine. Fortunately, I’ve said it a few times, so I didn’t stumble and bumble through it.

Elmer spoke again, this time about set backs in our calling. His message was based on the story of Joseph, who was destined to be a great ruler and save his people, but got sold into slavery by his brothers. Talk about a setback! That was probably the most encouraging message to me. Because I know my calling, but still haven’t reached it yet, and after making a Microsoft Excel document and realizing I’ve gotten over one hundred rejection letters, I’m a little discouraged. But I will fulfill my calling, in God’s time. And because of my setbacks, it will be all the more victorious, give glory to God, and I will be able to say, “This happened because God made it happen.”

The next morning we had worship with communion and our final sermon, which made the conclusion about how God will use us wherever we are and that our primary calling is to be witnesses for Christ. He distinguished between our primary calling (to be a witness), and our secondary calling (profession). We must use our secondary calling to fulfill our primary calling, and as long as we’re doing that, we are fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives. Then we said our thank yous, played a few more games, including the chicken dance, took our last pictures, exchanged emails, and cleaned up. Everything was done by 2:00pm. Here`s a large group photo:

Again, sorry I don`t know everyone`s names. Here`s a list, not in order, from Samantha Lees` picture I got off facebook: Diana Sakata, Sam Tong, Yuko Shigesawa, Mya Theriault, Janice Davis, Christine Cruell, Andrew Morrison, Darcy Petersen, Sundeia Bonda, Rubina Chuang, Janelle Hatch, Marianna Rankin, Erin Morioka, Deborah Ruth Trotter, Michael Eastwood, Kristin Hanaoka, Laura Popp, Eno Chen, Sarah Addy, Rachel South, Minako Onda, Hideki Miyamoto, Andrew Ritsema, Sunny Park, David Caulkins, Keli Borba.

Kayoko had to be at work by 8:00 the next morning and the earliest bus I could get didn’t arrive in Osaka until 7:00 (it would take her about two hours to get to Iga from there), so she took the shinkansen, or bullet train home. That’s what I should have done. But no, stubborn me was going to save money again and take the night bus. I had three hours to kill, so I went to an onsen (hot spring). It was supposed to overlook Mt. Fuji, but I found out that they don`t open that part until December 1st. Oh, well. I relaxed in the steam baths and (I think) natural springs. It was quite a shocker to walk through the freezing outdoor air, naked, to the 105 degree water and then back out to the lockers again. Far from helping my health, I`m sure that little side trip only encouraged the virus already brooding inside me.

I had time for a little souvenir shopping, then caught my bus back to Shinjuku. I grabbed dinner at a combi (convenience store) and got another bus from Shinjuku to Osaka. And of course, the train back home. I left Yamanakako at 5:40pm and arrived back in Nabari at 8:07. If I had just stayed on the train, I could have gone on to work and been on time. Yeah, right. I had a huge suitcase full of books with me. Plus I was exhausted. So I went home, unpacked what I needed, took the morning off, and slept two hours until 11:00. Then I had to go to a business trip in Tsu.

But now I`m getting into a whole different week and course of events. So I shall leave you here with happy thoughts. It was an excellent conference, very uplifting, and I made a lot of great friends. I was hoping to meet a guy, I mean I met several but...you know. Then again, something might spark later...or not. That`s in God`s hands. Anyway, I`m really glad I went, even though I got sick.

Prayer Requests for this week: In the leadership meetings, we prayed a lot that more Christians would come to Japan, especially in places like my area, Mie, where there aren`t very many. (I am the only Christian JET registered with JCF.) Also, one of the leaders, Keli, is loosing her Dad to illness, cancer, I think. Please pray for him and his healing. And of course, please pray for health! I`m still not feeling great, and I don`t want to get sick again, plus I`m not the only one who got sick after the conference. One final request: I`m going to China next week and I just found out I need a visa. I have to take part of the day off tomorrow to go into Osaka and get it, but of course processing and all that takes awhile. Pray that it all works out and I get it in time!

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,