Since Monday, October 11th was a national holiday (Health and Sports Day) in Japan, the Japanese Exchange Teacher Christian Fellowship decided to hold their biannual retreat that three-day weekend! But first, what is Health and Sports Day? It`s called "Taiiku no hi" in Japanese, and I think a more direct translation is “physical education day.” It was first celebrated in 1966, commemorating the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and is always held on the second Monday of October because statistically, that week has the best weather. Students, companies and families get together to play sports all day. Actually, most schools don`t compete on that actual day, but during the week preceding it. Our sports tournament was on Tuesday and Wednesday, Tuesday for games not involving balls (like relay races, tug-a-war, and track and field events), and Wednesday for ball games like badminton, volleyball, basketball, baseball, etc. On Wednesday afternoon, we had a big ceremony awarding those who placed in their sport.
My school actually has this event twice a year, and then, after the winter semester, we have a half marathon. All students must participate, unless they`re really sick, but they get to choose what sport or sports to play in. They only have to do one. This, combined with the cultural festival and annual school trip for each class, makes Japanese schools a lot better rounded than American schools, I think. Students are a lot more fit and all of them can at least read music, though I don`t know about being more cultured. I think I already told you about the somewhat disastrous cultural festival this year. Not that drag queens aren`t amusing, but considering how most students spent all their time at that stage, completely ignoring the koto and band and other events, I think we have problems.
And alas, despite the holiday, I had to work at the school open house on Saturday, making it not quite a three-day weekend for me. At least I got the afternoon off. I taught an English class to third-year middle school students interested in attending our high school next year. It went really well. The theme was traveling abroad and we pretended to visit a restaurant and doctor in Dallas, Texas with dialogues for ordering food and explaining how we felt. The members of English Speaking Society helped, and everyone got candy at the end. I think it was a good first impression.
I got a ride to the station and caught the 11:55 train to Nagoya, and from there the shinkansen (bullet train) to Fukushima, limited express to Iwawashiro and a taxi to the conference site. I had to change transportation six times, though it was only about an eight-hour journey, but so expensive! The shinkansen is a very comfortable way to travel when you have to get somewhere fast and I prefer it over a plane, but that`s about all I can say for it. Highway buses, when they fit with your schedule, are a much more economical option, or sometimes simply renting a car. Unfortunately, my Internatinoal driver`s license expired and the only highway buses to Fukushima wouldn`t get me there until the conference was halfway over, (not leaving until evening and taking twice as long), so the shinkansen was my only option. If I were to stay in Japan another year, I would definitely invest in a Japanese driver`s license and car. K car`s (with small, slower engines and very fuel efficient) go for only $1,000 for a nice one, and though the shaken (insurance) is expensive, I think I would end up saving money (and a lot of time) in the long run, and I could sell the car in the end.
At least I got to split the taxi cost with a girl name Karen I met at the station from Trinidad and Tobago who was also going to the conference. We arrived at Bandai Seinen no Ie (Mount Bandai Friendship Center) at 8:00pm, just in time to hear the speaker`s message. Her name was Pastor Toyomi Sanga; she and her husband serve at Grace Garden Assemblies of God Chapel in Koriyama. She said she never studied English much, but her English was pretty good! A few times she stopped to ask for a word, but someone was always able to supply it for her quickly. Here she is:
That`s actually a picture of session four. The theme of the retreat was “Being the light of the world” and the first message was “What is the light of the world?” She told a lot of stories about her church and her Christian life, mostly about the hopelessness many Japanese feel and how easy it is to reach out to them amidst that. For example, when she was in middle school, she asked her teacher why she should study so hard when all she really wanted was to be a punk rocker. The teacher said that she should study hard so she could get into a good high school.
“And then what?” she asked.
“Well, then you can study hard to get into a good college.”
“You study hard in college to get a good job or marry a rich husband!”
“What do you mean `that`s it?` That means you can have a good life!”
“But what if those things don`t make me happy? And even if they do, what about after that, if I lose my job or my husband dies or none of those things happen in the first place no matter how hard I try? Or even if against all odds I get them all and I become happy and stay happy, what happens then?”
“Well, I guess you die.”
And there it was. The way most Japanese people feel. This story inspired me. I had a conversation with my supervisor just the other day during lunch. I`ve been praying for her a lot lately, for reasons I`ll explain later. She asked me what my “purpose in life” is. I felt a little surprised, but rather timidly told her that my purpose was to bring glory to God and to serve His children.
“I don`t think you can support yourself doing that,” she commented.
I laughed, feeling a little emboldened. “No, I can do that in any job, wherever God puts me. In this job, as an English teacher, I can organize food and clothing drives to serve needy people. During the vacations I can go on mission and humanitarian trips. I can be a light to the students and teachers at this school. As long as I am serving God and others, I am fulfilling my purpose, no matter where I am or what job I have."
She seemed very contemplative. “I…don`t have so important a purpose. Right now I am just working so my daughters can get a good education. But after that…I don`t know. Maybe I will have no purpose.”
“That doesn`t have to be true,” I assured her. “You can learn what your ultimate purpose is. But in order to do that, I think you have to know the One who created you and gave you that purpose.” I took the tea cup I was drinking from and rotated it in my hands. “This cup was made with a very special purpose, to commemorate a festival and historical event. Everyone who looks at it will learn about that history and also be able to enjoy a refreshing cold or hot drink. Its purpose is distinct, but also pretty obvious. Humans are far more complicated. We don`t always know what our purpose is, so we must get to know the Potter, the one who made us. God.”
She thought about this very carefully. “I see why you believe this. I want to know my purpose too.” Then she abruptly changed the subject. I don`t know if I made an headway or not, but I will continue praying for her.
Anyway, after the first session, we got in our small groups and discussed some questions. We only had a short time, so we really only got through introductions. Here is my small group:
From the left is me, Rachel from the U.S., Abidemi (the JCF national coordinator) from Canada, Ying-Ying from Singapore, and Solveig from Canada.
Then we had communal shower and bath time (there is no other kind in Japan), and talked late until lights out at 11:00. I slept in a tatami (a mat made of rice straw) room on a floor futon with five other girls, what I like to call “Japanese dormitory style.” I`m used to that; the hard part was waking up at 6:00 in the morning to clean the public hallway, washroom, and bathroom! Because the place was really cheap, all who stay there must do “cleaning time” in the morning, and they designate a special place each group must clean. The place was full of bugs. But then, I`m used to that too. I clean a bathroom everyday at school along with a few students. I think that should also be a requirement in American schools. Maybe then kids won`t trash the school or write graffiti, and they could lay off the janitor instead of the teachers. Japanese schools don`t seem to be under budget, and they would never even think about going to a four day school week or anything like that, (some public schools also hold classes on Saturday too), and they always have plenty of paper. They just use resources a whole lot better than American schools. For example, the school buildings are a lot smaller, without central air or heating, so they are a lot cheaper to maintain. It`s not comfortable, but it used to be the same in American schools, and it keeps them from going bankrupt. Why do Americans always overspend tax dollars? In Oklahoma where I`m from, all the substitute teachers have to be volunteers. Then again, in Japan, they`ve never even heard of substitute teachers because teachers are only absent from class if they are deathly ill or injured, which hasn`t happened the entire time I`ve been here. Though there are such things as “relief teachers” that are hired if such a thing happens. I don`t really like that system either, since it makes the teachers so overworked that they can hardly take sick leave and I`m starting to realize why they get so frustrated with me when I ask for it, even when I had swine flu and it`s in my contract. There must be a happy medium.
Anyway, that was a rather long tangent. I`m just so impressed with how the Japanese conserve and budget so well in comparison to wasteful American culture.
After cleaning time, we had mandatory radio exercises, another aspect of Japanese culture that at first seemed ridiculous, but I have slowly learned its practical purposes. All over Japan, companies, schools, and basically anywhere people must wake early and gather, require that these ten minutes of exercises be done together. They are probably the reason why Japanese people stay so fit and limber up into their 80s. The only dumb thing is that they`ve been using the same record/tape/CD, every morning, since the 1950s. They could shake it up a bit with a few extra songs in their repertoire. But it`s quite a sight to see several hundred people doing these together. Here`s a picture:
The girl wearing black pants and a white shirt smiling really big in front is Sunny from New Zealand, one of my roommates at the retreat. We were roommates at the last fall retreat too and we became instant friends. I don`t think anyone who meets her can help but become her instant friend. Her real name is Sundia, but Sunny just suits her so well, because that`s how she always is! She just got married and her husband, Kevin, is kind of like the moon. Always shining and smiling too, but quieter and perhaps more shy than Sunny. So if she`s like the sun and he`s like the moon, then their children will be like the stars! They are both great examples of how to be a light in a dark world.
After that and breakfast, the leadership team had prayer. Here`s everyone on leadership who could make it to the retreat:
Top left: Jean-Marc, (webmaster) Hideki (retreat co-ordinator), Abidemi (natinoal co-ordinator), Kristin Hanoka (Prayer and Encouragement co-ordinator), Deborah Ruth (missionary liason) and me, the librarian/Nara and Mie representative.
Then I took some pictures of the mountains, forests and lake from the veranda just outside the worship space:
Then we had worship again and I helped serve communion. I always find it half amusing/half disturbing getting the blood and body of Christ from Welch`s grape juice and wonder bread. I think Protestants have lost much of the reverence that the Catholic Church has for the sacrament. I don`t believe in transfiguration, but it`s still a very powerful symbol. We do pray over the elements first, of course, but I still feel strange about getting it out of an ordinary Welch`s juice bottle, especially since Jesus wouldn`t have had one of those. But then, maybe I`m too much of a traditionalist. Jesus didn`t use projectors or a Japanese translator either, and besides, it is the memory of Christ and his sacrifice that makes the communion meal holy, not some special “chalice.” Still, I like the word “chalice.” It`s a really cool word.
For Sunday morning service Pastor Toyomi spoke about “What is the light?” She talked about the properties of light, such as how fast it is and how it cannot be stopped. This was very interesting to me, since I`m writing a Christian fantasy about beings made from light. But more interesting was the story she told about her daughter`s kindergarden. The daughter did not want to go to kindergarden because the teacher was very mean, never smiled and used a scary mask to get the children to sit down and shut up. The school felt like a very dark place and the students cried everyday. So the little girl didn`t want to go to school. Toyomi asked her daughter what they should do. The daughter said,
“Mommy, I want to march around the school for seven days, just like Jericho, and maybe then the walls will fall down!”
At first Toyomi laughed, thinking her daughter simply wanted to destroy the school, but the daughter was serious. “No, Mommy, the walls of Satan! If we pray, those walls will fall down.”
So Toyomi and her daughter marched around the school every evening, praying for the students, for the teachers, for the principles and parents. At the end of the seventh day, the mean teacher saw them and asked what they were doing. They told her they were praying for her and the school. The teacher was surprised and said, “Thank you, thank you very much for doing that.” This woman wasn`t a Christian, but she was still touched by the gesture. After that, she stopped using the mask and began to smile. Toyomi said to her daughter,“Well, the seven days are over and God worked.”
But the daughter insisted they continue marching everyday. So they did. A few weeks later, it was time for the school trip. The students could go anywhere they wanted in town: the police station, the fire department, the zoo, the park, the museum, anywhere. But one little boy raised his hand, pointed to Toyomi`s daughter and said, “I want to go to her church!” And all the other children agreed. Even some of the students in the other classes wanted to come. So, about thirty kids and ten parents/teachers walked down the street to the little church. Toyomi sensei was there, and answered all their questions. At the end, one little boy raised his hand and asked,
“Pastor Toyomi, can I become a Christian?”
“Well, yes, you may!”
And after that, the little boy`s mother came up to Toyomi and said, “Thank you for inviting us to the church. I was always curious to come inside but I thought it was just a place for people who were already Christian. Now I`m not afraid to come anymore.”
That story really moved me. God is teaching me many things in Japan, but one of the most profound is the power of prayer. Words are very powerful things. The Bible says God created the world through words. He said, “Let there be light” and “let the dry land appear” and it was. Oaths and vows bind people together in spiritual ways, when we form covenants, join churches, marry, baptize our children or make our own baptismal vows, promise to be God parents, give our lives to Christ, and in all kinds of other ways. In this day when words are so easy to come by, I think people tend to forget their power. Even conversations with ordinary people can have consequences we never imagined. Then how much more powerful are our conversations with God? He is the creator of the universe, after all. I am beginning to wonder…can God use our words to create? He doesn`t have to, of course. Christ himself is Logos, the Word; He doesn`t need us in order to do anything. But what if God enjoys using our words to create? What if that is the true power of prayer? By requesting something of God, He actually uses those words woven from a pure heart and mind to make the good thing a reality? Perhaps that`s why prayer is so important, even though God already knows what we`re going to say. Perhaps through prayer, we become participants in God`s creative work. Maybe that`s what it means to be "created in the image of God." We alone amoung living things on Earth can truely create. Maybe it`s a crazy idea, but it`s been plaguing me for a long time.
One thing`s for certain: Prayer isn`t just for the one who is prayed about, but also the one who prays. Through prayer, God can slowly transform our own hearts toward the person we are praying for. It`s like C.S. Lewis said: If you want to love someone, pretend that you love them. I think he was right, and one way we do that is by praying for them, sincerely, not just wanting them to change so they`ll be easier for us to live with, but because we really care about them.
It also explains why things like vudoo and black magic can be so powerful too. When you have extremely negative thoughts and ill intent toward someone, you bet Satan can take advantage of that. Maybe he can`t use them to actually destroy, the opposite of the creator (I love Orsen Scott Card`s term: the “unmaker”), but I think he can certainly twist and intensify them and cause things far worse than we ever imagined to happen. It doesn`t take a spiritual guru or geneticist to tell you that positive and healthy begets positive and healthy and negative and sick begets negative and sick, one way or another. Not always, but most of the time.
So I decided to give it a try. I often walk around my school at lunch time, but now I pray while I do it, quietly, under my breath. One day, on my third time around, the baseball students stopped me to ask what I was doing. I told them I was praying. They didn`t understand that word, so I told them I was talking to my friend, to God. “Eh?” They thought that was a bit strange. I kept walking but the next time around one of the kids started following me. He asked in Japanese what I was praying for.
“Anata ni,” I replied. For you.
“Bokuwa?” For me? He looked shocked.
“Mina gaksei tachi to sensei tachi.” For all the students and teachers.
“Nani?” What for?
I answered partly in English, partly in Japanese:“For your heath, for your study, and for your bright future.” (I was particularly excited about this last phrase because I had just learned it that morning: kagayaku mirai.) “And for your…faith,” I finished.
“Faith? Faith wa nani?” He asked one of his peers, who supplied the word, "shinpou." That surprised him even further. But before he could ask me anything else, another teacher walked by, and all the students ran to him. To my surprise, he started reading their palms! Now I`m not one to think that stuff is automatically “of the devil,” and mostly the teacher was just looking at their hands saying, “you should study more” “you should spend less time goofing off” etc. But I do think it`s a testament to how quick the Japanese are to run off to the newest spiritual fad or novelty. There`s a big thing now with stones; you see them in all the big department stores. They think the stones can give them power or something. Christianity has been in Japan a long time. It`s no longer a novelty, so many have lost interest.
But not all. I am convinced that God is not finished with Japan. I refuse to believe He would just abandon these people. So as long as I am here, I will be working. And I`m not alone. There are thousands of Christians, both Japanese and foreign, laboring for Japan. And I met many of them at the conference!
One of them was a Singaporean girl named Ying-ying. We really hit it off in the discussion time after Sunday morning worship. We were telling our testimonies and we realized just how much we had in common. She`s new to Japan and is looking for ways to serve in her local church and do evangelism. That`s one thing I really love about the Body of Christ/Family of God. I have brothers and sisters all over the world! I get so excited when I meet them. Deborah Ruth, another missionary working really hard in Japan, calls non-Christians “pre-Christians.” I love her outlook. They`re not “outside the family.” They just haven`t been adopted yet!
I was particularily excited to meet another Japanese Christian group there. They were huge! On Sunday evening, we actually shared a session with them entitled “How Japanese churches and ALTs can work together.” It was really exciting! Mostly I learned about a lot of useful resources like manga (comic books) and the Alpha course, available in both Japanese and English, which is basically a Christianity 101 class. Deborah gave me the textbooks. Afterwards, we had a meeting about upcoming mission trips. My friend Nate is organizing one to the Philippines, and I`m doing one to Pakistan in March! Nate asked me what dates would be best for the Philippines. I`m torn between Christmas and Golden Week in May. I really want to go home for Christmas! I think it will help me make a better informed decision about going home or staying in Japan for another year. Other people might feel the same, but they also might want to do both trips, and March and May back to back would be tough for most people, I think. Decisions, decisions!
I think that about sums everything up. There were two more sessions with worship and message. Here`s a picture of the worship team:
I don`t remember everyone`s names, but Sunny is playing the flute and her husband Kevin is playing the guitar. Janice is the girl on the far left facing the viewer.
And everyone worshiping together:
For the last two messages, Pastor Toyomi talked about how and where we can best be lights for Christ. We all took a “spiritual gifts” survey to discover what we`re good at. I lost mine before I finished, but I can pretty much already tell what mine are. My strongest one is probably expressing my faith. My second is probably teaching. Third is probably listening and counseling, and my lowest or six or eight is probably spiritual discernment. I always have a hard time discerning what path I should take or whether someone means ill or good. I just assume everyone wants to help me and be my friend and that I should help everyone who asks me to! But coming to Japan has taught me that this is not always true…there are some people I should avoid. I don`t think there are very many truly bad people out there or that most people lie out of a desire to hurt others, or even on purpose. But I am learning that people are very good at deceiving themselves.
Just before we left, I enjoyed a nice walk with one of my new friends through the forest, and I was blessed to get a ride back home straight to Nabari from Nate, so I didn`t have to pay for the shinkansen again! Five of us rode in his van, so we had some great discussions on the way back. I`m so glad I went!
Prayer Requests for this week: I organized a food drive, something completely foreign to most Japanese, at my school that`s running from October 15th-November 15th. The kids don`t seem very enthusiastic about it; I hope they participate! I gave them a goal: 100 kilograms, or about 220 pounds. I told them that if each student brings one item, we will reach our goal! Also, November 27th, my church is hosting an international Thanksgiving night and we hope many people come. Most importantly, we`ve invited Japanese evangelist Arthur Hollands to speak on Sunday, December 5th, so please pray that many people`s lives will be changed by his powerful gospel message! Other than that, please pray for good health as the weather is changing and getting colder. I`m feeling really tired and am sneezing and coughing more than usual. About this time last year, I had swine flu, and I don`t want something like that happening again! Please pray for my school, that God will do great things here, and in Japan in general! Pray for revival!
One last thing, which isn`t really a prayer request. A friend of mine asked me why I write “keep loving and praying” at the end of my posts. I think I already explained the praying part in this entry. But as for the “loving,” God has taught me since coming to Japan that loving other people is more important than anything else. But sometimes it`s hard. Sometimes love requires us to do difficult things, like give up our time, admit when we are wrong, and change the way we think and behave. If we really love other people the way God wants us to, that love transforms us into the kind of poeple He longs for us to be. We become Christians in the true sense that we are imitators of Christ. And he loved so much that he died for his enemies. How many of us, if we were honest with ourselves, could do that? That`s what I mean when I remind people to "keep loving." Perhaps I should add the phrase "no matter what the cost."
So, with that said, until next time, keep praying and loving, no matter what the cost.
Laura Popp (L. J. Popp)