Tuesday, December 18, 2012

And Heaven and Nature Sing!

The gospel music boom in Japan just keeps on growing and growing. We've tried to redeem this cultural phenomenon for outreach. This past week, 300 hundred filled the stage of Aoyama University near us for a Christmas Gospel Concert. Twelve of our choir members are in this massive group, 98% of whom are not Christian.

Many interested in singing gospel music come to understand Christianity through our gospel workshops at church on Sunday afternoons. These always include a Bible time, in addition to the rehearsal and singing techniques taught. This outreach definitely hits the cognitive and affective dimensions of man: while they learn with their head about the true Gospel message, their heart is being powerfully stirred as they sing.

But you have to listen to understand. So listen to the group in this video above sing, "He has done marvelous things! Praise the Lord!"

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Now is the Time


"How are things going in Japan since 311?" Glad you asked. While the physical recovery is still a long way off, the spiritual harvest is here now. A missionary colleague put this video together of interviews from our church association pastors in the north. As you can see, the kingdom of God grows VERY slowly in Japan. In fact, the Christian population here actually shrank the last few years due to deaths and low conversion rate. But...

Now is the time for a great spiritual ingathering of Japanese. As Pastor Kishinami shares in the video, seven or eight out of ten people will respond positively to the gospel message when shared. Five out of every ten will trust Christ. This spiritual window will not remain open forever. And the Christian workers in the north are so few and overworked. Northern Japan's greatest need right now is more Christian workers. Please "ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field" (Luke 10:2).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Joy to the World

It was right there on our mall store window. For most Japanese passers by, it was meaningless decorative lettering. But in a world where the sacred and secular rarely meet, the presence of these words spun me in my steps. What's more, this is Japan! You won't find talk or sight of the Lord Jesus ANYWHERE at Christmas time. My unofficial poll numbers show a 99% ignorance level concerning Christmas day. If pressed, Japanese kids will adamantly insist that December 25th is the day that Santa was born (or died).

But then I spotted it. On another sign immediately below "the Lord is come" on a rack of winter clothing styles was posted "New Arrival" (see yellow arrow above; click to enlarge). The juxtaposition of these signs made me grin. "This storefront could start another cult," I laughed. But after reflecting a moment, I decided to take the words as a bit of prophetic hope for Japan. Some 2000 years this side of the first arrival of Christ, the Spirit of Christ does come again and again to Japan, convicting this nation of sin, righteousness and judgement. And every heart that opens to him from stylish Tokyo to 311-struck Tohoku experiences a brand "new arrival" from the Ancient of Days. We missionaries dream of the day Jesus will be the new style in Japan.

Our prayer this Christmas is that many Japanese will experience the "new arrival" of Christ into their hearts and lives! Please pray along with us and for us. 

Monday, November 12, 2012


"I see the world as a shipwreck. God has given me a lifeboat and said, "Save all you can." D.L. Moody

There once was a dangerous seacoast where many sailing ships were wrecked and many lives were lost. Volunteers from a nearby fishing village again and again braved the storm and rescued many from drowning, and those who were saved often joined the rescue team.

One day a volunteer suggested that with practice they could do an even better job. So in summer the rescue crews practiced rowing and throwing life preservers and were later able to save more lives. Another volunteer thought they should build a boat house near the coast to keep the rescue boats. That way they would not waste time bringing their boats from the village. After a time, a third volunteer suggested that they build a shelter for the people they rescued, for they often died of the cold. And another recommended adding a kitchen to make soup to warm the storm victims. All these innovations added to the effectiveness of their work.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


In his book "The Great Omission" (1984), Robert McQuilkin, former missionary to Japan and president of Columbia International University for many years, gave an illustration that recently stirred my imagination and missional convictions again. I include it here in its entirely:

"In a dream I found myself on an island—Sheep Island. Across the island, sheep were scattered and lost. Soon I learned that a forest fire was sweeping across from the opposite side. All were doomed to destruction unless there were some way of escape. Although there were many unofficial maps, I had a copy of the official map, and there discovered that indeed there was a bridge to the mainland, a narrow bridge, built, it was said, at incredible cost.

My job, I was told, would be to get the sheep across that bridge. I discovered many shepherds herding the sheep which were found, and seeking to corral those which were within easy access to the bridge. But most of the sheep were far off and the shepherds seeking them few. The sheep near the fire knew they were in trouble and were frightened; those at a distance were peacefully grazing, enjoying life.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Jesus Rocks in Aomori, Japan

Many people in northern Aomori, Japan have discovered that Jesus really is a rock (not the Rock, unfortunately).

It seems that a recently discovered rock formation in a hidden alcove along Lake Towada roughly resembles the silhouette of Jesus. Hundreds of tourists are boarding boats to take a closer look. A YouTube video describes the scene.

The name of the lake begins with a Japanese letter that looks like a cross (十和田湖). That coincidental spelling bolsters the idea in the mind of some tourists that this rock is indeed religiously significant. Some have even suggested that this may have been a site of worship for Japan's hidden Christians during the brutal 16th century persecution.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Feudal Christian "Rebel"

Juan Goto (1586?) was born Matagoro Iwabuchi, the son of the lord of Fujisawa Castle in northern Higashi-Iwai, Iwate prefecture. He lived during a time of great political instability. His own family was caught up in a power struggle when Great Lord Kasai was accused of not rallying troops for the Battle of Odawara. During this battle, Juan's older brother was killed. This loss, in addition to the political struggles about him, may have contributed to Matagoro's next actions.

Something seems to have snapped in Matagoro that caused him to want to "get away from it all." He fled across country to the far southern city of Nagasaki. This cross-country journey of some 1200 miles was a remarkable feat in itself in his day. From Nagasaki he boarded a vessel that landed him in Ukujima Island of the Goto Islands chain (map). This was as far away as he could get from his homeland and still be in Japan. It reveals, perhaps, a bit of his despair and desperation.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Man vs. Mountain: The Fuji Climb

According to an old Japanese saying, "A man is a fool who never climbs Mt. Fuji, and he is a bigger fool for climbing it more than once." So, last week, together with missionary colleague, Greg Swenson and boys, Justen and I set out to undo our foolishness, finally getting around to a Japan "bucket-list" dream. We set out as the "Fuji Five" (a bit of that zest was lost along the way).

The weather was perfect for the climb. We started out at station 5 in early afternoon under clear blue skies and puffy white clouds, making it up to a mountain lodge at station 7 around 6pm or so in time for dinner. The view was breath-taking (and it wasn't just the thin atmosphere). Looking down through some scattered clouds, the entire Fuji five lakes area was visible, and far in the distance a glint of Pacific Ocean. During a curry rice dinner, lightning flashed down below us, though we ourselves were well above whatever was brewing below. Looking at a storm from above is a fascinating angle.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Superstition & Mission (Part 2)

It turns out dad got it wrong. Money does "grow on trees." Just look at the photo at left as proof! Recently while hiking down a mountain past a buddhist temple, I stumbled across several of these trees with trunks stuck full of coins. I had seen this elsewhere, but not to this degree. It is the Asian equivalent, I suppose, of the "wishing well" or fountain of pennies one might come across in a Stateside mall. No harm done by these innocent superstitions, right?

For Japanese, however, such superstitions have permeated (and control) daily life. Japanese readily admit their Shinto polytheistic belief in "millions of gods" (yaoyorozu no kami) present in creation. Buddhist and Taoist gods were even brought over and absorbed into their belief structure. These gods are given to whimsy and must be sought out for blessing and good luck. Punishment and bad luck are just as likely. A whole ecosystem of superstitions are formed to guide one in how to receive or avoid such.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Superstition & Mission (Part 1)

Put a broiled fishhead in your entryway. Pile salt just outside your front door. Avoid cutting your fingernails after dark. Paint your house neon yellow. Do not whistle at night. What do all these odd actions/non-actions have in common? They are ways to ward off bad luck in Japan.

Japan is filled with such superstitions. While some are modern urban legends, many come from the animistic roots of Japan's religious beliefs. The many (millions of) gods and evil spirits in nature are capricious and mischievous. They must be appeased or driven away lest they bring death or misfortune to oneself.

Many superstitions surround the fear of death and suffering. The numbers four and nine are unlucky because they are pronounced in the same way as death (shi) and suffering (ku). Hospitals avoid the use of these numbers for rooms and floors. You'll also never find a set of four dishes in Japan. Plateware comes in sets of three or five.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Signs of the Times?

A drive through Japan's rural towns throughout the north might lead the casual observer to assume these places are staunchly Christian. Why else would signs everywhere proclaim such things as "The blood of Christ purifies sin," "God is watching your heart," and "The wages of sin is death"? But the truth is quite the opposite. In many of these rural areas one would be hard-pressed to find more than a solitary Christian, much less any church presence.

The signs are lettered in white and yellow calligraphy against a black background. Once they are up, they can remain for decades on end until the structure they are attached to literally begins to crumble. These signs, called "Kirisuto Kanban" (Christ signs), are the work of Christian group called the Bible Distribution Society, founded by a missionary in the 50's and now active only as a loose network of a few people.

Friday, June 8, 2012

All the Way

Here's a poem by Agnes Ruth Nydam (1921-2012), my grandmother, who passed into the presence of her beloved Savior on May 31st. She nurtured me in my walk with the Lord and encouraged me in my passion for missions work. I was comforted to attend the funeral and conduct the committal on June 6, 2012 in Schererville, Indiana.

I last saw grandma in February 2012 when we returned to the States briefly for the extension of Kaori's permanent residence. We were invited to share concerning our work in Japan in the chapel service of her retirement home.

I will not forget the expression of pride and joy on her face as I entered the chapel. She had seated herself in the front row, center, surrounded by her friends to whom she announced proudly, "That's Kevin. That's my grandson!" Though confined to a wheelchair, she seemed to sit on the edge of her seat and crane her neck forward as I shared. Every so often she'd announce again (though there was no reason for anyone to forget), "That's my grandson!"

I felt the love of Father God expressed to me in her loving pride. The same Father God who declared to the world concerning Jesus, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (Mt. 3:17) was now also speaking through my grandmother similar words of affirmation and joy. I will miss you, grandma! (Her poem is below. Keep reading!)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

No Higher Calling?

Back in my Moody Bible Institute days, the text for the freshman Introduction to Missions class was entitled "No Higher Calling." Some students thought this smacked of missionary "snobbery" and that any life calling should be considered a high calling. I, too, was one of those disgruntled students that resented the mission textbook title's premise. So God called me into missions. That settled that.

In one sense, though, there is NO "HIGHER" CALLING than one in Tokyo this May 2012. The man placing the last girder at the top of the open-air Sky Tree...now THAT is a HIGH CALLING! I really have to look up to (everyone HAS to look up to) the workers finishing the tower. At 2080ft. tall, it is the tallest tower in the world. Between the Sky Tree and the new Shinjuku tunnel, I have a great respect for the HEIGHTS and DEPTHS of Japanese engineering. It's not just about tiny electronics anymore. Japanese are really good with massive structures.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Life Worth Little in Wealthy Japan

Sobering news out of Tokyo today. The Cabinet Office reported results of a survey that 1 out of 4 Japanese has considered suicide. Yes, 25% of Japanese think of killing themselves. For the last dozen years, Japan has trended toward a higher and higher rate of suicide, surpassing 30,000 cases every year. That's one person every 15 minutes! Many are group suicides. Japan's suicide rate is nearly triple that of the USA! Countless cases go unreported because of the family shame factor involved.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Jesus Buried in Japan?

Absolutely not! But the rumor, as outrageous as it seems, has become the center of a local attraction in the village of Shingo, Aomori Prefecture. The legend here is that Jesus traveled to Japan when he was a youth and learned Japanese ways and customs. He later returned to Israel in his 30's where his teaching was rejected. Before the Romans could crucify him, his identical twin brother Isukiri snuk in and "casually took his place on the cross" [so says the sign at the location]. Afterwards, Jesus returned to Japan and spent his life in Shingo as a rice farmer. He lived until 106, raising a family and doing good deeds locally. He was buried in the Shingo village where a mound with a cross marks his grave.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Another Visit in Taro

I've just returned from a relief trip with a couple others members from our church plant in Kawasaki. I've written elsewhere on this blog about the coastal village of Taro and its great seawall broken and humbled on 311. It generates much emotion to visit an area so obviously devastated by the loss of so much. It will be many years before this place comes back. 

It's a 12 hour drive to Taro from Kawasaki, farther than an international flight from Tokyo to Chicago (and not any easier on the legs and back). The trip had a few unexpected "slips" and "turns" as we ran into a late-winter snowstorm near the coast. Japan generally does not do a lot of plowing, and no salting. So, the mountain roads were quite an adventure to navigate with "normal" tires. Fortunately, I had tire chains along. Unfortunately I had never had occasion to practice putting them on. The chains claimed to be "NO-PROBLEM-30-seconds-EZ-on-and-off chains." I can tell you, in the cold, dark and snow, it was nowhere near EZ. I finally gave up and crawled slowly, slipping and sliding, to the gas station for help. It took them 30 minutes. 

This trip was to a different demographic of people. The survivors who lost their homes in the tsunami have either moved out of the area, rebuilt elsewhere, or are living in temporary housing units. There are several such temporary housing villages within a short distance of Miyako/Taro. During our time in Taro we visited two of these. Nearly 1000 people were clustered together in each village in what resembles army barracks. Space is tight and living is cramped and uncomfortable.

We cooperated again with a local church to do some simple survivor care with these residents. We hosted "mobile cafes" to encourage gathering and sharing with one another. When we arrived in the villages, half the team went to set up the cafe, the other half knocked door-to-door and spread the word that the cafe would open soon. I could tell by the surprised look on some of the residents faces that they had not encountered a big-nose American recently, much less one that spoke Japanese at them. I'm not sure whether this generated more curiosity in the cafe...or more fear. 

We used a common room with rows of tables for our cafe. Off to one side, a table of Christian resources was set up. People looked through and took Christian literature as they pleased. Although we brewed some great coffee, these cafes were hardly quiet coffeehouse experiences. They were times of loud interaction as residents had a chance to share freely and process the events with relief workers. 

Restoring the social fabric of connectedness that was torn by the tsunami is probably the most difficult part of the recovery, but the most needed. One participant of such a cafe said to me, “If we didn’t have this cafe, I don’t think we’d be able to put up with this place (temporary housing communities)...I think I’d lose the fight with loneliness.” I had a particularly interesting discussion with one resident which I will share in a later post.

Unemployment in the tsunami areas is a real problem. Residents try to do their best with a little bit of government assistance and help from family. It will take a long time for the economy to come back. I noted, however, that the town now had a new gas station and convenience store to give people some options for essential things. Ironically, new vending machines were also in place alongside the otherwise barren area next to the sea wall. I suppose a can of hot coffee in the cold winter months is indeed a kind of emotional relief needed.

Without work, residents look for things to keep them busy. One resident shared her newly-acquired talent of basket-weaving. It seems this is a very therapeutic hobby. Her bags and baskets were so well made that we strongly encouraged her to consider selling some. We told her that many people would love to buy a well-made eco-bag for shopping in a desire to support the Tohoku recovery. Of course, true to rural Japanese form, she was very self-deprecating and resisted our praise. We did manage to get her to pose for a photo, though.

I have the sense that God is doing great things in this town and will build His church here in the years to come. The mission potential of historically tough towns like Taro has seen a reboot with the tsunami. Closed networks have cracked open. New networks are being created. A new spiritual openness exists. Community is being reborn. And in that newly forming community, the church will find an opening for its message.

Jesus said, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35). Taro can't deny that it is being gently loved by God's people. In this Christlike love, the church will put down roots in the "swampy soil" of Japan. Toward this end, would you continue to keep Taro and the Miyako area in your prayer?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Wheel Work

Last Sunday afternoon a group of 30 of us at Denen Grace worked together to clean and refurbish four used wheelchairs. Wheelchairs of Hope will  deliver these to physically handicapped people in third world countries that could not otherwise afford the luxury of a wheelchair.

We have these wheelchair cleaning days once or twice a year at our church location. It always impresses me to see how ambitious and energetic people are about working together, and how careful and detailed they are with the cleaning work. Every inch of the chairs practically glows when we are finished. Thanks, Denen Grace and Wheelchairs of Hope for your great effort for the Lord. We pray these chairs will show the love of Christ to needy people.

For more information on Wheelchairs of Hope, future cleaning days and giving opportunities, take a look at their website (click here). 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Trains, Planes and (Smaller) Automobiles

Some of you are aware of our short trip to the States over the last few weeks. We are back in Japan now, and readjusting once again to the smaller dimensions of things here. Let me explain.

Once again our journey from door-to-door involved trains, planes and automobiles. One Tokyo train, one AA 777 jet, one minivan and one Tokyo cab to be exact. This involves four rounds of shuffling around six large overstuffed suitcases and several smaller carryon items. (We always stock up on cheap and hard-to-get items for life and ministry while back in the States). The "joys" of traveling meet "aches" of muscle strain.

Our last suitcase shuffle was from the airport bus to the taxicab. I probably don't have to tell you that the cabs here come in smaller sizes. The driver took one look at our pile of stuff and let out a low sigh. He declared empathically that it would not be possible to handle our needs. After 16 hours of travel and just 16 minutes from a hot shower and bed at home, I wasn't in the mood to be rejected on this minor space technicality. (Okay, maybe it wasn't really minor.) So, when he opened his trunk to show me how impossible it would be, I promptly moved his trunk stuff to one side and stuffed in four of our smaller suitcases. The other large suitcases and assorted items found a spot in the back seat. The open-jawed driver watched me work in amazement. I kept apologizing the whole time but also kept packing away until every item filled up the cab.

On the drive back home the driver confessed, "I didn't think even I could do that, let alone a foreigner like yourself. Where'd you learn to pack like that?" I told him I've lived in Tokyo now 12 years. What more needs to be said?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Where to run?

Once again, the hi-tech earthquake warning system that rings every cell phone in Japan was just a bit trigger happy. While riding aboard a Yokohama-bound train this past Wednesday, Kaori and I both jumped a bit when hundreds of cell phones around us began wailing simultaneously. This is the "RUN! You-have-a-matter-of-seconds-to-take-cover!" warning sound that is supposedly meant to be of help. To be honest, I'm not sure where I might run or how well I could really take cover in that amount of time.

Once again, the person making the decision to push thebutton was just a bit overeager in his analysis of the computer data. Yet who could blame his "Better to err on the side of safety" way of thinking? So as, once again, alarms went off, passengers aboard the train looked about nervously and tightened their grip on things around them. (And yet the train did not slow down. Did the conductor know of the warning?) After a long minute of nothing happening, conversations, dozing, and book reading resumed.

Meanwhile a fairly large earthquake on New Years Day had no early warning at all. Early warnings without the real thing. The real thing without an early warning. All this tells me that technology for earthquake prediction still has a long way to go. And it tells me that the only place of true safety is in the arms of God, a good place to RUN!

"I've already run for dear life straight to the arms of God." Psalm 11:1 Message