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 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,

1 comment:

Charlie said...

Wow, your conference sounded amazing. I'm not sure if I'd follow you on the whole,

"After lunch, we had free time until worship. So Kayoko, another American girl, and I decided to try to climb Mt. Fuji!" (12,388 ft)

LOL, Oh Laura, that's what makes you Hammy (from "Over the Hedge").