Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"I'm sorry about your grandmother." I say it in careful, clear English before the smirking girl across the desk. She smells of incense and has cheeks painted pink from tears, and her smirk vanishes into a curt nod that pulls at my heart. That's the closest to admitting weakness I've ever seen her get.

Most of our interactions involve me saying, "Give me your cellphone please...your ipod please...your game system please..." This is one student well-versed in the art of disruption and, I think, one who is surprised that I continue to push at her. She is quieter with her cellphone in hand...but I want more than just her physical body sitting slouched in my classroom for an hour a week. I want her see glimpses of her personality and heart, her opinions, likes and dislikes, hopes and fears.

She is the student who inevitably makes me walk home from class thinking, "I am a horrible else can I try to make this class work?" And she is the one that gives me the strongest urge to just throw my arms around my students in a confused and frustrated and pressured and tired and taught to not question or ask why or express concern or ask for help.

One of my adult students today came in and shared a recent news story: a high school boy committed suicide, and his father went on public TV to request that the bullies who had tormented his son receive punishment for their ways. I kind of gingerly asked some questions about the situation...the final conclusion of the class was that it was too bad, but bullies will always exist...and the bullied boy should have just been mentally and physically stronger. Was it my American culture, or my faith, or some weak part of me that made me want to cry inside when I heard that? Someone is going to jump off a building because of bullying, and the best counsel to give is, "Be stronger"?!?!

Another high school student recently came into class fuming and talked non-stop about a bully at her school. She talked about being afraid, about just saying what the bully would accept, about never disagreeing... She talked about tears, and feeling helpless to stop the abuse. She talked about the senpai-cohai concept in Japan, and how the upper classmates feel entitled to bully the lower classes and sometimes take full advantage of such things. I didn't know what to say. I couldn't tell her to ask for help. Couldn't tell her to take it to those in authority. Couldn't tell her to switch schools or hop a plane and switch countries even. In some respects, my adult class was right--there will always be bullies in this world. There will always be difficulty in this world. There will be enough pain that it'll make you want to quit sometimes. 

This week during English Bible study we studied Psalm 125 and talked about the theme of security that runs through the psalm. "God surrounds His people--just like the mountains surround the city of Jerusalem." This is the answer that I want to give, what I wish I could share deep along with a hug for my kids: God enfolds us, defends us, protects us...and brings us to eternal safety.

I've been praying for the last few months about another student, who sits with a dazed expression and rarely speaks unless spoken to. In the time I've been here, I have seen her make the transition from being a girl to a young woman...watched her change from an exuberant child to pained adolescent...watched something wipe that eagerness to learn off her face and replace it with a listless, meaningless blank. Watched her body get smaller even as it has grown...bit my lip over her loss of weight and wondered if I should say or do something. I have 10 minutes between each English class in the evenings, and in the confusing inward and outward flow of bodies at the front door, I try to catch her eye, smile, offer some encouragement. I ask the Japanese leadership, adults, if they have advice...ideas for what to do. We pray.

Tonight after class, I heard that she is quitting classes. Something about not being able to get a ride. She didn't catch my eye on the way out the door or say goodbye.

I want to rail against the evilness of the Japanese system. Want to lash out at the the suffering. Want to say that if they had any sense at all of an individual's value, the suicide rate would lower immensely. Want to cry... To shake some of the adults...parents, tell them to stop giving empty, useless words of advice and stop looking the other direction when the bullies throw punches or hiss a low command.

I know this is bigger than a Japanese thing. I know it because of my own sinful response to it.

Tomorrow I'll go back to my smirking girl and wonder for the 100th time how to connect with her and draw her out. For probably the 40th time, I'll demand her cellphone, or something like that, so that she can pay attention in class. And I'll pray as I go to class and as I return...maybe the chance to give that hug or speak of the God who enfolds and protects His people will come sooner than I think. I'd like that.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Relief Work?

It was the beginning of April, 2011. I (Haidee) had just stepped off the plane into Narita airport and used a pay phone to alert my roommate in Fukushima that I wouldn't be making it back that night--with aftershocks, the trains were an unreliable method of transportation for such a distance. "Well, can you make it back by 1pm or so?" my roommate said. "A meeting with a local English company came up, and it'd be good if you could make it." I said I'd try, hung up the phone, and (about 18 hours later) stumbled (with my luggage still in hand) into the church for the meeting.

So began (for me) the season of relief work and rebuilding after the March 11th earthquake. I'm not sure what relief work looks like in other places of the world, but for me, it's been a season of immense change (some good, some bad), pressure to serve, and what feels like a constant flow of "crisis situations" that can only be reacted to or stumbled into, rather than planned for.

Take yesterday, for example. I was cleaning the kitchen stove-top and had spent the last hour brainstorming with Eric and typing up an adult English curriculum when my cellphone rang. I picked it up too late, but called the pastor's wife back and chatted with her regarding some English school plans and concerns. While I was talking to her...and cleaning the stove...and still had my document unsaved, open on my laptop to finish typing out the English school curriculum...there was a knock on my door. It was my pastor, who had just gotten a call from a non-profit organization who was going to pass out socks at the government housing area and was asking for more meet in 2 hours. And we needed to turn in some forms for the upcoming Kids' Camp (another relief program) by that afternoon, he said, so he and I needed to have a meeting and complete that paperwork.

After a year of these kinds of situations, I have a hard time reacting graciously. What I'd like to do is just yell, "One at a time! Take a number! And if I don't have time to get to you today, you'll just have to come back tomorrow. And no, don't try to guilt me into doing anything."

In the end, I saved my unfinished English school curriculum, went to an English school meeting, finished the necessary Kids' Camp paperwork, and said that Eric and I would pass things out at the government housing area the next day. Eric spent the afternoon prepping Easter baskets for the Kids' Camp. Today we went and spent time with the elderly people living in the government housing area, passing out socks and engaging them in conversation.

What is relief work? Is it doing as much as possible for as many people as possible all the time? Is it physical--handing out socks, making Easter baskets? Emotional and relational--conversations, time spent together? Spiritual--prayer-walking, worship? Is it more economical--helping the city and society get back up on its feet, helping the students get back into routines of learning? Is it distant--do we need to go to the government housing area? Is it nearby--does it count as relief work if we simply talk to our neighbors, who are separated from their families because of radiation?

We want to help the people of this city. We want to share God's love and light. We also want to make decisions as adults and be better at saying yes or no to things...not just living in a state of reaction, guilt, and stress. What is important? What is not important? How do we decide? There is so much that can be done...

A blessing is that in moments when it is all just too much, and we feel pulled and twisted and disfigured by the needs and demands, I can look across at Eric and know love...receive love...feel it.

A short summary: relief work, in all of its ambiguity and busyness, is just plain difficult. Please pray for wisdom, strength, and peace as we round the bend for year number two since the earthquake! And perhaps...some relief.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Culture and kids' books

Even though I teach at a conversationally-focused English school, I'm a firm believer in the use of books for pronunciation practice, natural grammar and sentence flow, new vocabulary, and tidbits of cultural lessons. I use books for all ages and am often surprised by what catches the attention of my adults, who reflect and discuss more than my kids. Here are just a few topics that get comments and responses from students and the books that generated them...

Family Relationships:
I wasn't so stuck on the Berenstain Bears series as a kid, but Cindy's students especially have loved them because of the family relationships and dynamics displayed in the tales. In Japan, most of the moral teaching of a child is done at school, rather than at home. I have heard again and again, "My job as a parent is simply to encourage my child." Encourage...not teach. So the little life-lessons, disciplinary actions of parents, and development of Brother and Sister Bear in these children's books surprise some of our students immensely.

Compare and Contrast:
The most recent book I used that could be classified in this category is I am a Seed, a simple science-reader comparing a marigold and a pumpkin. The students were surprised that the author spent a whole book pointing out the differences between the two plants, rather than the similarities. A collective society versus individualistic society, anyone?

Navigating Society:
Yesterday I read a simple book called Tom and Sam, which told the story of two friends who allowed competition and jealousy to ruin their friendship for a bit. The whole story outlines how each of the two men would do things so that the other townspeople would notice and praise them. My students responded to the book by saying, "Well, the other people around them should not have praised them!" I responded by saying, "Interesting. I always thought that the moral of this story is to not listen to or be controlled by others' praise or admiration." This was met with dumbfounded looks, as my students tried to consider what I meant by not listening to those around them...
I think I've mentioned before that in Japan, it is considered highly inappropriate to praise a family member in the presence of other people, because the praise will make other people around them feel bad. I always find it fascinating that the responsibility of good communication and harmony is placed mostly on the speaker, rather than on the listeners, who (in my opinion, of course) have the freedom to choose how to respond to the speaker. In my opinion, Sam and Tom could have chosen not to listen to the townspeople and focus instead on their friendship. In my students' opinions, the townspeople should simply have kept their admiring mouths shut!

These cultural discussions are always interesting, and they usually generate a lot of laughter in the classroom, where things are intentionally kept fairly light. I confess that I usually do a lot more wrestling with the cultural differences in the safety of our apartment. These discussions always raise a lot of questions for me...especially when I put them in the context of Christian learning and life. For example, I've always thought that parental instruction and raising kids up in the faith is a very Biblical concept...but is that just my culture coming through? How do I respond in a Christian way to the hands-off parenting method?

Or dealing with the topic of receiving other people's is my belief that my identity as a child of God trumps all other identities people might try to give me. They could call me amazing or call me horrible...but what matters most is God's gift of salvation and the new identity given in Christ. How do I share that message in a culture that seems always first and foremost concerned with what those around them are saying/thinking/feeling?

These are little issues, compared to some others...but always food for thought! And great motivations for prayer.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


I'm often given the job of asking an "icebreaker question" at the beginning of our weekly Japanese Bible study, and I generally try to ask something that will lead people to share life stories or recent events or thoughts about God's recent acts. Yesterday, however, I fished about mentally for a question that would lead to discussions of the people in our lives we can share the Gospel with.

(Short mental aside: I really have been trained as a DCO, and Phil Johnson's words, "A DCO is an advocate for those not in the church yet" have stuck in my mind. Trying to figure out what such an advocate does as a foreigner in Japan has been the search of four years or more of my life. Sigh. Call me a slow learner. Some days I'm still quite at my wits' end.)

Finally, the question that came out was something like, "Let's share stories of a recent new relationship we've made or discovered, or a connection with another person. It doesn't have to be a deep connection, but just time together with a new person."

As an example, I shared about some recent conversations I've had with a girl about my age who works at a fabric and hobby shop. After I visited the shop several times we began to share stories of sewing projects, and our conversations have been the highlights of my last several weeks.

I ended my story with a chuckle at my memory of the conversations, but the chuckle quickly died as I looked at the faces around me. Maybe...I should have thought twice before asking this question? Sure enough, one by one, around the table, the stories sounded the same: "I don't have any new relationships."

As we stopped chatting and started the Bible reading for the day, my eyes were filled with tears, and I must have looked very focused on trying to read the kanji. Part of my tears, I confess, were tears of pure jealousy. I wanted to say strongly, "Do you know how many new relationships I get each week? You guys can stay with your families...can hang out with friends you don't have the need to find new people, because you're comfortable, but it's my JOB to stay uncomfortable, to reach out, to be constantly thinking of the new people around me. It's my job to evaluate and get to know and care for each new student, each church visitor. In the last week I've neglected family emails, missed sending birthday wishes, haven't helped my brother move into his new apartment, and more...because I've been busy caring for the new people..."

By the time I'd stumbled through the kanji and engaged in this mental rant, I was a bit more in my right mind. Yeah, it was a bad question for people who'd lived 2/3rds of their lives in the same community. I shouldn't have moved them cold-turkey into the sphere of new relationships. And I should realize that my life will always probably be a bit incomprehensible...and that's not anyone's fault.

But the goal of my question remains a question: How do I encourage the Christians around me and myself to see faces and God's creations in the people around them?

It is a sacrifice to lay down comfortable relationships and pick up the new. A part of me often feels like quoting Bilbo from Lord of the Rings, "I feel butter spread over too much bread."

But...there is also deep joy, watching new people experience with wide eyes and amazement the warmth and forgiveness of the Gospel.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Ps. 136...kind of

I have spent quite a bit of time today preparing and planning for different worship times that will occur over the next week. One of the simple Japanese worship songs I discovered today has the repeating phrase, "The Lord's grace endures forever" (in my loose translation) in it, and tonight I had Psalm 136 running through my head because of it. Therefore, without further ado, I present to you "Psalm 136" based on today's any order. Here goes:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His love endures forever.
He brings relief from heat and humidity and blesses us with cool temperatures.
His love endures forever.
He provides a roommate who doesn't mind cleaning mold inside the top of the toilet.
His love endures forever.
He opens a "new way"* (like youtube) and streams in the desert...
His love endures forever.
He gathers Christians together for moments of prayer and causes praise to be brought to him from many tongues, cultures, places, and people.
His love endures forever.
He pours down rain and water to bring life. And we are blessed with the beginning of nashi* season!
His love endures forever.
He draws students into conversations about himself, to show his love...
His love endures forever.
He helps in the learning of kanji.*
His love endures forever.
He created and loves these people, in Fukushima.
His love endures forever.
His forgiveness goes further than I could ever deserve or imagine.
His love endures forever.
He's faithful for the future...even when it involves meetings and confusion and illogical plans.
His love endures forever.
His gifts are abundant and good, for he is good.
His love endures forever.

It may sound glib...but it's real in my heart. :)
And here's a link to the actual song which had me thinking of this in the first place: Shu no megumi wa tokoshie made, by Daisuki Yokoyama.

Explanations regarding vocabulary:
*"New way" - I am partly responsible for worship music at the'd be surprised at how useful youtube is for learning a new melody/lyrics :)
*Nashi - Asian pear
*Kanji - Chinese characters with multiple readings in the Japanese language

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Summer fellowship

Fall 2006...I'd spent the last four weeks muttering the mantra "I live here. I live here. I live here. I live here..." under my breath. When I jumped away from bicycles on the crazy sidewalks near Kawasaki station...when I ran for the train...when I was overwhelmed by Tokyo's ever-moving sea of people...I would remind myself that there was no going back--this wasn't vacation. I was living in Japan.

The VYM program that I served in from 2006-2009 had business meetings and retreats that happened in the fall and spring of each year, and it was fall retreat of 2006 when I first met the whole VYM group in Japan. I remember sitting in the back corner on the floor during one of our group worship times, lips pressed tightly together because I couldn't honestly sing the lyrics to the song the group was singing:
"We delight ourselves at your table, O God.
You do all things well; just look at our lives."

Look at my life, with my silly mantra to get me through day after day that seemed overwhelming?! Yeah, right. (Note: I know that God is good. Sometimes, I just like to pout about my life for a moment. :))

As I got to know my fellow-missionaries better, the song's lyrics took on special meaning. Not one of the missionaries "had it all together." No one was feeling necessarily competent or efficient. When we got together, we definitely did talk about exciting things God was doing...but we also talked about the darker things, like loneliness and doubts and culture questions and clashes. We talked about the ugliness that comes out when we are stressed, about the disappointment we feel toward ourselves and those around us.

And I realized that when we were singing, we hadn't been singing necessarily about gifts of wisdom, beauty, language skills, respectability, peace, goodness, etc. We had been mostly singing about grace. Yes, look at our lives--look straight at the realness of our pain and questions and struggles--and praise God whole-heartedly for His grace.

Summer 2011. This last weekend in Fukushima, we gathered together again. Many of us have left Japan and then returned. Several of us have gotten married and came with spouses. We have new ministries and new homes in new parts of memories and stories of earthquakes and aftershocks and culture shocks and life. New experiences of grace and God's "doing all things well."

With this group of people, I can talk about both the elusiveness of hope and the miraculous doors God has opened...all in one breath. We mourn, cry, comfort, laugh, pray, praise...and love each other with a loyalty grown in honest difficulty, desperation, and experiences of grace. We end with hugs and talk about next time we'll meet...America? Japan? Only God knows...

And today, the first day of our fall semester, I was thinking of my dear friends, and of experienced grace...present grace...and the promise of grace to come. What a blessing! The lyrics ran through my head:

"We delight ourselves at your table, O God.
You do all things well; just look at our lives..."

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Summer conversations

"Why do you ask God for help?" my friend, visiting from Tokyo, asked as we leisurely stood outside my apartment swatting mosquitoes and watching the sunset. "God can't be everywhere at once. If he is helping you, then it takes him away from other people who need his help. So you are just being selfish."

We talked about God creating everything, knowing each sparrow that falls, and each hair on our heads.

"Do you really believe that?"

Yeah. Yes, I do, and I don't know how to communicate to you that God knows you. Loves you.

"I think that God sits up in heaven. Sometimes he sends angels, if you are in trouble. But mostly, he is just saying 'ganbatte'--do your best. So I should do my best."

No. Your best...isn't good enough.

"You really believe that God is one, but that God is everywhere? That's illogical."

Yeah. Yes, I do. Yes, maybe it is.

We say goodbye, finally--friends who have spent the last 5 years conversing about religion and God's character...and I sigh as I give a last wave. We've covered topics (generally brought up by my friend) like Jesus' death and salvation, praying to Mary, pain in the world, living good lives, certain biblical parables...but conversations always end in illogical places to eyes without faith. I wish that I had CS Lewis' ability to reason...with that I could know Japanese culture better, so I had better ideas of the presuppositions the people I talk to are holding...

One thing I do feel keenly--that my friend wants to be known and loved by God. Heading back to the apartment, I send up a prayer for God's presence to be real to those who feel Him far away...and for His truth to be revealed.