Now to talk about my far more enjoyable trip to Kurizawa in Nagano Prefecture! I went for the bi-annual (or in the case of this year, tri-annual) Japanese Exchange Teacher`s (JET) Christian Fellowship conference! Since I`m the librarian, I packed a huge suitcase full of books on the morning of Friday, February 11th, (a national holiday) and began the long haul to Kurizawa. I ended up taking two local trains to Nagoya, a special tokkuu (limited express) train to Nagano city, a shinkansen (bullet train) to Kurizawa and a taxi to the retreat site, Megumi Chalet (Grace house). I started around 9:30 and got there about 4:00.
First, we played games to get to know each other. It was a pretty small group, only about thirty, but it was great to be with people, both Japanese and non-Japanese, passionate about missions in Japan, not to mention worship in English for a change. The songs are always so beautiful. I did wish we sang some verses in Japanese too, for the benefit of the Japanese who attended, but we only sang one in both languages, You Are My All in All. One guy was saying how he came to serve in Japan and had never heard it before, so he thought, “Man, what a great song. I wish we had it in English!”
Here`s a picture of the worship team, Adrianna Avery`s, not mine. Like I said last post, I lost my camera skiing so all these pictures are from my I-phone or someone else`s camera:
Our guest speaker, Jon Junker, had been raised as a missionary kid in Japan and had been serving as a missionary himself for at least twenty years. His theme was “what`s in your hand,” taking the story of Moses and using it as an illustration of how God can use the most unlikely people and things to make miracles. When God called Moses, he asked him, “What`s in your hand?” All Moses had was a shepherd’s staff. But God used that staff to perform amazing miracles that showed God`s power to the Egyptians and freed the Jewish people from slavery. Wow. So we should never underestimate what`s “in our hand,” or the small, seemingly insignificant resources available to us. We also talked about the importance of preaching the whole Gospel. Too often missionaries just tell people about Jesus, but the Japanese have to know WHY we need a Savior. We should start in the beginning, with Genesis, the Fall, and sin, our need to be put right with God. Otherwise Jesus`s death and resurrection doesn`t make sense, and people are likely to write it off as impossible, let alone necessary. I never thought about it that way before, but he`s absolutely right.
Then we had small group. There were only three in ours, me (the supposed leader), Lana (the REAL leader, a missionary who came to Japan at twenty-four, married a Japanese man, and spent the last forty years of her life serving here), and Junko (a Japanese seeker). We basically ditched all the discussion questions and focused on giving Junko a rundown of the gospel and answering all her questions. Or rather, Lana did that and I listened and learned, throwing in my two cents every now and then. I was so impressed with Lana! She knows the Bible backwards and forewards, can quote hundreds of scripture verses right out of her head and knows exactly where they are. She`s so patient, yet very persistent. She`s gentle but bold. She started from the very beginning of the Bible and explained everything so clearly and so well, in both Japanese and English. Junko was so blown away by the Gospel message that she wanted to go on learning. We must have talked an hour after small group was supposed to be done. She never put up a wall like I`ve seen so many others do. She was very engaged, asking all kinds of questions, and she didn`t get frustrated when she realized how much there was to learn. That evening after dinner, I saw her pouring over Matthew 13 that Lana had asked her to read, the parable about the seeds and which ones grew and which ones didn`t. The next day when Lana asked her about it, what soil Junko thought she was, Junko responded with something totally unexpected. She pointed to the end of the chapter. “Let him who has ears listen, and he who has eyes see.”
“I think God is trying to tell me something,” she said. “And I must pay attention.”
Wow! I`ve never heard a Japanese person say that before. I was really impressed by how open she was.
The next morning we woke up early for prayer, and after breakfast, I took a long walk around the retreat site. There`s a reason Nagano is called the “Japanese alps.”
That last picture is Michael Eastwood`s. Thanks, Michael!
We had worship again, and this time our speaker Jon talked about one of the things “in our hand” that God can use but we rarely think about. Our testimony. He talked about good and bad testimonies, how to make it short but specific, not use churchy language, how to put the focus on God, etc. I`ve written extensively about this subject myself and have given my own on numerous occasions, so instead of spending time writing during small group as he instructed, Lana and I talked to Junko again. We told her our stories, and she told us hers, how she came to be interested in God in the first place. Turns out, she studied/worked abroad in Australia and really liked it. But ever since coming back to Japan, she`s been in reverse culture shock. She`s disillusioned with Japanese society, finding it somewhat cold and impersonal. (It`s interesting when I go back to the states, I sometimes have the opposite feeling. I find people too open, too frank, and sometimes I just want to be left alone. I don`t want every stranger I meet acting friendly to me. I want to say, I don`t know you, why are you talking to me?) Most Japanese seekers turn out to be people who traveled extensively or lived abroad. I`ve met very few Japanese Christians who have never left Japan. And in most of those cases, their initial interest was in foreign culture, such as Gospel music. Our speaker talked a lot about that too in a later session. Christianity in Japan is still largely seen as “foreign.” Most Japanese categorize it under “possibly interesting foreign thing I might want to learn about later, but for now it does not concern me and I don`t have time for it.” What many don`t realize is that it`s not about “religion,” a purely cultural thing. It`s about having a relationship with God, loving other people, and having hope for the future. That`s not something that can be put off until we`re retired. It`s what we were made for.
After Saturday morning worship, small group, lunch, and group picture, we had free time to explore the surrounding area. Abidemi Bankhole (the group`s National Coordinator from Nigeria), Kristen Hanoka (the Japanese American prayer and encouragement coordinator), Rebecca Barns (from England), a Japanese English teacher (who`s name I can`t remember), and myself decided to go skiing. It`s funny how I thought it would be easy. We rode the chair lift to the top of the slope and I announced, “by the way, this is my first time. Is that a problem?”
They all gave me horrified stares.
“Oh, um, I`m sure it will be fine,” Abidemi assured me. “We`ll go slow, and we`ll help you.”
“Who knows?” Rebecca asked. “Maybe you`ll discover you have a natural talent and were born for skiing.”
I sometimes pride myself with the fact that I was born with a few rather nice talents. I like to think I`m a pretty good writer, a decent musician, and fairly intelligent, having graduated magna cum laude from a reasonably prestigious university. Apparently none of these make a lick of difference when balancing on two narrow slats of wood while speeding down a thirty degree incline at forty miles per hour.
I couldn’t go more than ten feet (3 meters) without falling, lost my camera, ended up sliding down half the mountain on my backside, and got snow all up my pants and underwear. I also didn`t realize how hard it is to get up after falling. Imagine your feet are no wider, but five times as long as they currently are. And why did I think this would be easy? I think my reasoning went something like, “Oh, church youth groups go on week-long ski trips all the time. No sweat!” I think I forgot that it`s also an Olympic sport. I might as well say, “Oh, the shot put, that`s easy! You just throw a giant disk through the air that weighs as much as you do and try not to break anything. A simple cake walk!”
Add to this the fact that I had chronic ear infections as a child, which has forever warped my sense of balance. (I`m the girl in the back row of the belly dance class who is still trying to figure out her left and right foot when everyone else has already finished the dance.) The other girls were wonderfully kind and patient with me. They told me I was doing a great job when it was obvious I`m the most ungraceful person on the face of the planet, ear infections or not.
About 3/4ths of the way down, they told me that if I bent my knees together, it would be a lot easier. Wow! That was a light bulb moment. I could use me knees to speed up, slow down, and steer! “It`s like riding a horse!” I cried, and promptly flew down the mountain and fell kurplop in a pile of snow. After that I was able to go down a fifteen degree incline without falling at all. Wahoo, accomplishment! The weather was absolutely gorgeous too. It snowed the whole four hours, crystalline, white fluffy stuff like falling glitter against pure blue skies.
Here`s some pictures that Rebecca took. Three of our group skiing:
Abidemi with a view from the top of the slope:
And the gorgeous sunset:
All in all I`d label it like my mother labeled most of her time in Japan: “an experience.” One of those things that are not necessarily enjoyable, but not terrible either. A fundamental error has been corrected and I now share something with millions of other people across the world. When church youth groups return from their ski trips, I can understand their exhilaration, exhaustion, and bruises. I can add it to an ever growing pallet of experiences that can be drawn upon for personal growth and artistic expression. I`ve been skiing. Yea.
We got back to the retreat center around 6:00. I jumped in the giant hot bath, then ran to worship. We talked about some specific issues facing Japan, including suicide and hikikomori, or social withdrawal. For those who don`t know, 1-2% of the Japanese population “doesn`t exist.” They are locked inside their rooms and never come out. Their parents or other family members feed them, but they are dead to the world. Physically, they are perfectly healthy individuals. Another huge percentage are called “covert” hikikomori, meaning that they go to school or work, but they just sit behind their desk, do their job, go home, lock the door, and never speak to anyone. After hearing about it, I thought of some of my students who are like that. They seem to be able to write sometimes, but if I ask them a question, even in Japanese, they freeze up. They won`t even look at me. They are always staring at their desks, and when they`re supposed to be doing pair work, they continue to just sit there, hands in their lap, totally impassive. It makes classroom management difficult, because if there are three of those students in a class, that makes six students who don`t want to do anything. Nothing I, the Japanese teacher, or any student can do or say will make hikikomori people snap out of their silence. On the contrary, it usually just pushes them deeper into their shell. They do nothing, and nothing is expected of them. At least ten of my three hundred students are like that. According to the Japanese Ministry of Education`s mandates, no student is ever held back a class and they always graduate on time even if they aren`t ready. I had never seen anything like it before I came to Japan, even though I taught in the U.S. for six months.
We saw an interview put out by a Japanese Christian broadcasting network about hikikomori. They interviewed a psychologist who had spent his whole life studying this subject. He believes that Japanese society is falling apart at the seams. Japan needs to reinvent itself, just as it reinvented itself after World War II. His prayer is that Japan will reinvent itself as a Christian nation.
We also saw a Japanese fictional video that addressed this. It was called “Jitensha” or “Bicycle” and was about a Japanese guy who never stood up for himself and hated the world because he was always being bullied. Throughout the film, parts of his bicycle were stolen, one by one, and there was nothing he could do to stop the thief. When the entire bicycle was gone, he got a letter that said, “This is your life.” It was signed “God.” It also included instructions for finding the missing bicycle parts and putting them back together. The guy was able to use the map and instructions to do just that. At first I thought it was cheesy and obscure in it`s message, but Junko reacted very strongly to it. She saw immediately how the bicycle represented the guy`s life and it was only through God`s help that he was able to put it back together. Just goes to show you what is strange for one culture really resonates with another. I often think about how bonkers my Japanese Christian friends go for the genealogies in the Bible. They think they`re really cool for some reason, and that`s what makes the Bible “real” to them. Here are the records, these people actually lived, and these are their descendents.
In small group, Junko also expressed her concern for Japanese society and asked us how a Christian society might be different. We weren`t shy about admitting Christianity`s historical faults, but also outlined the model given for a perfect society in scripture. Lana explained what it meant to receive Jesus as our friend and Savior. By now, Junko seemed to understand very well. Lana asked if Junko wanted to accept Jesus now or if she would rather wait. Junko said she would rather wait. I was so impressed with Lana`s patience! She wasn`t pushy at all. She didn`t try to press Junko like I would have been tempted to do. It is a really important decision that shouldn`t be taken lightly. But Lana`s also doing another very important thing. She`s following up. She`s staying in close touch with Junko and continuing to encourage, instruct, and answer her questions. Thank God for Lana! I want to be a missionary like her.
That evening, I talked to a wonderful lady named Pearl from the Philippines. What a story she has! She is so strong to have gone through so much. It`s very encouraging to me to hear other Christians share their trials. And now, she`s a part of my Monday night skype Bible study! Junko too stayed up late into the night talking to Deborah Ruth (another life-long Japanese missionary and good friend of mine), about the Gospel. I love how Deborah Ruth really knows how to be a friend to people. It`s obvious she doesn`t see them as a “target” for evangelism. She dressed Junko up in one of the kimonos she brought. Junko had said she had never worn a kimono before, but wanted to try. Here they are together:
They were still talking, laughing, and sharing life stories as well as the Gospel, when I fell asleep around midnight.
The morning of the final day when I woke at sunrise, there were icicles all over the window. It was like a postcard:
We had prayer early again, I took another walk through the woods, and attended our last worship session, with communion. Michael reminded us about what that special meal means, talking about the three most important meals in the Bible. At the first, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit (which Michael joked must have been a world-famous Aomori apple from his prefecture), and broke the union between God and humans. The second meal foreshadowed the restoration of that relationship, Jesus`s Last Super with the disciples, when he talked about giving his blood and body as a sacrifice for our sins. The third meal is still to come, foretold in the book of Revelation, the marriage supper of Jesus and the Church, when God will make a new creation to replace the old one that human beings broke. I never thought of it that way before!
During the sermon, Jon talked about general issues and strategies with Japanese evangelism. That was the session we talked about the whole “foreignness” of Christianity, how to break that concept, and the importance of bringing in YOUNG MEN, specifically with families. The majority of Japanese Christians tend to me old women. There`s nothing wrong with those people, but they are not typically the one`s shaping Japanese society. More importantly, if they`re all we have, the Japanese church will die out in another ten years. If a Japanese woman becomes Christian, usually she is persecuted by her family, ostracized, and often no change or other conversions beside herself occur. If a man becomes Christian, his whole family becomes Christian, and it often spreads from there. That`s the way the society works. It`s not fair, but it would be stupid to try to work against the culture without first changing people`s hearts. As I`ve said time and again, all too often Christianity is used simply as a means to promote feminism, capitalism, and other “isms,” when in reality these things should take backseat to the far more important Truth. Once a people group becomes Christian, then and only then can they truly understand equality, freedom, and peace as a whole.
After that, we had our final small group. Junko had to leave early to catch the bus, but we got to meet another Taiwanese American living in Nagano, who only got to make it for Sunday because she has to work on Saturday. Following small group, we took our last pictures, said our good byes, and danced the chicken dance!
You see, at the beginning of the retreat, someone was given a “pig” as Sunny says in her New Zealand accent (or peg, for those of us from normal places), and they had to clip it to someone else in secret. If that person found the peg, they had to clip it to another person, and so on. Well, the guy in the middle is the unfortunate fellow who didn`t realize someone hid the peg in his bag until the end.
We also had “angels,” people we were supposed to be nice to. I won`t reveal who I was supposed to be an angel to, because I`m rather embarrassed by how little I did for her. (I basically just followed her around trying to help but was actually quite annoying, left her some sweets on her pillow and a poorly-spelled, most likely illegible note), but my angel was very nice to me. She gave me a small box of chocolate almonds and a cute little box of truffles! I ate them for the following Valentines Day. Yea! I wonder who she was…
To top it all off, we had warm fuzzies, notes to stick in people`s envelopes that they could read later and feel good about. Here`s Junko working on hers:
I really didn`t want to take the bullet train back to Nabari because it`s really expensive, and thankfully Hideki was there. Hideki is our Japanese retreat coordinator from Nagoya, which is the fourth largest city in Japan, (after Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka), about two hours north of my town by train. He helped me reserve a bus to Nagoya and I got a ride with him and some other folks to Motsumoto to catch the bus. We stopped by a really nice ramen (Chinese noodle) shop for lunch. Here are some pictures from the two-hour road trip:
Along the way, I accidentally bumped a Japanese car when I opened my door. It was just a tap and there wasn`t even a scratch, but I acted way too American. I should have gotten out, bowed to them and apologized profusely. Instead, I simply told them quite bluntly that there was no scratch and we drove away. They were shouting after us, “Shinjirarenai!” (Which literally translates to “I don`t believe this,” but the nuance is more “outrageous, unthinkable!”) Oops. I lose points in the “good ambassador to Japan” department.
But anyway, I caught the bus (just barely), got into Nagoya at 8:30 and got back to Nabari around 11:00pm. And I went to work the next day, Valentines Day, with all the proper presents for my co-workers. (In Japan, Valentines Day is a holiday mostly celebrated by families and companies, not lovers.)
This is what greeted me on my way home from work. Not quite as beautiful as Nagano, but still nice:
I taught double my normal class load Monday-Wednesday, had Bible study Monday night, had grocery shopping and lesson planning on Tuesday night, and Wednesday night went out for a three-hour karaoke English lesson with my adult students Saki and Miwa. We sang Carpenters, Beatles, and Gospel songs with nomihodai (all you can drink soda/juice/tea/soup and ice cream). It was absolutely amazing, but exhausting. After that, they come over to my place and helped me look up buses to go to a conference next weekend/week in Yokohama for life after JET and job hunting. There was no place for them to sit because I`m currently in the middle of cataloging and organizing the massive JET Christian Fellowship library. I have books stacked alphabetically by author and subject all over my apartment and you have to climb on my sliding door just to get from my bedroom to the kitchen. Sometimes I wonder about my sanity.
Prayer Requests for this Week: My sanity (just joking). Seriously, though, I have to take a night bus to Yokohama for the conference this weekend and I know I`m going to be spent when I get back. I would definitely appreciate prayers for the Eiken and Evangelism class on Thursday nights. Four weeks now we`ve had to cancel due to a lack of (in other words absolutely no) students. On top of that, Pastor Toshi`s entire family is sick with the flu. Please pray for Junko from the conference, that she will accept Christ in time. Also, my friend Katelyn from Bible study is getting married. Most importantly, as the Christian Japanese hikikomori psychologist said, please pray that Japan will reinvent itself as Christian nation. Christianity used to have a strong influence in this country before the ban. If you don`t believe me, look it up in the history books. It`s not from lack of trying that the Japanese are the second most un-reached people group in the world. But it might be from lack of prayer.
Until next time, keep praying and loving, no matter what the cost,
L. J. Popp