Monday, February 24, 2014

An Excuse: Part 2

When I was a kid, I was terrified of becoming a missionary. I shuddered at the thought of, and prayed fervently against, being sent by God to a place like Africa. Hot, humid, full of dirt and dust. No Nintendo. No T.V. Just miles of bushes, trees, and self-sacrifice. I was resolute that I would stay in America, where things were familiar and easy. As I grew, the future seemed set and my anxiety faded.
Then I was walking through my house one day. I was twenty-seven years old, married, and working with my mother. My sister had contacted me about a possible job teaching English in Japan. My wife and I talked about it for a while and decided that if God wants us to go, He'll make it happen. If He doesn't, He won't. So, we sent in our applications and within a week we were hired to teach in small cram school in a small town on the western coast. Liz and I talked about what we would do there. We were excited about getting involved with a church, ministering and witnessing the best that we could. Our jobs were simply a means of support. 
I was thinking about all these things when I suddenly stopped cold (I can see the spot vividly in my mind) as a dreadful realization clenched my throat. I'm a missionary!
Needless to say, it hasn't been that bad. In fact, I have been struggling with whether I am a missionary or not - and will write at length about it someday. It's been much simpler than I thought it would be. We have every modern amenity, access to everything we had in America, jobs that pay well, and plenty of people around to hang out with.
Now here am I, four years, three jobs, and two cities later, teaching English and working with a close friend to support a local church by using what limited talents and skills I have. It's not much though. I don't have the Japanese language skill to help with ministering or evangelizing. I can't preach or sing. So, what's the point of me being here?
There's only one thing that I can do that might be of help - and that is writing this blog. I can stand in between the Japanese and American churches and share the insights of one with the other. This offers a unique perspective on both. Comparing the two, one can see just how much American culture the Church has truly absorbed, and just how Japanese the Japanese Church is. In the past few years, I have come to realize that some things I held to be universal to the Christian is really rather provincial, a quirk, an idiosyncrasy of Christian Americans. And it's on these topics that I'll be writing about.
But, I have one other reason for writing.
About one percent of the population of Japan, or 1,276,000 people, claim to be Christian. Remarkably, our neighbors to the West (China) boast between 40,000,000 to 100,000,000 Christians. There is almost no modern persecution in Japan, missionaries can come and go, there is no totalitarian government and yet there are at least four times as many Christians in China. Is that not staggering?
I'll write about why I think this is the case later on, but as to how that relates to me reasons for writing this blog , it is simply that we need more long-term missionaries here. It's that simple.
So, my reasons for blogging is so that the American Church can benefit from an outside perspective and, maybe, more people will come to Japan to stay, for that's the most effective way to do missions here. It not as straightforward as it would be in Mexico or Africa, where you can talk to a complete stranger and lead them to Christ. Here, it takes investment, tenacity, and such a level of sensitivity that I have yet to reach. It is hard, tiring, and (at least in this life) not very rewarding. Yet, it must be done. This is a country wherein I have experienced two or three train delays in the past two years alone due to someone committing suicide on the tracks. Young men sequester themselves in their houses out of fear and young women eschew romantic relationships because they're too difficult. This is a nation in deep, severe pain and it needs people to come and show them there's hope, there's light, and there's love.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

An Excuse: Part 1

All authors are demanding. When we write something, we expect it to be read, which means we are expecting people to take a part of their day and give it to us. Therefore, when we write something, it should be worth reading.
Unfortunately, that is really hard to do. I don't know you personally. I don't know you at all. So, my first post to this blog will be an argument for you wasting some of your time on me.
Like all children, I was born with that annoying habit of asking 'why.' Why does the sun come up? Why do I have to clean my room? Why do I have to stop hitting my sister? As I grew up, that question became a rebellious battlecry. Why should I go to bed early? Why should I wake up early? Why should I listen to you at all? Now, as an adult, that battlecry has changed back into what it was when I was a child, a sincere search for answers.
College was when I first started experiencing the reversion. I was an art major striving hard in my classes and doing poorly. During my sophomore year, my life was thrown into a bit of a crisis. I had had it with my art major. I was stressed and had lost all enjoyment in it. I simply could not relate to my fellow classmates, or my teachers. The classes I excelled at were Psychology and Scriptwriting. I wanted to be an animator, so I was glad my scripts were compelling, but my understanding of art was so infantile, that everything I produced was sub par. During that time I was taking an Introduction to Philosophy class. 
I loved that class. It was eye-opening and challenging. We covered Western philosophical thought and the professor exposed us to so many new ideas. It was then that I began to feel the pull towards philosophy. However, the college I was attending didn't have a philosophy major, only a minor. So, I took the next best thing; theology. I studied Christian thought, contemporary religious movements, and a host of biblical passages. I took Greek, biblical exposition classes, and a fair amount of Bible study classes. I graduated with a degree in Biblical and Theological Studies, a few credits shy of a Philosophy minor.
So, I figured what my life was leading to. I'd work for a bit, get used to being married, and then start in on my Masters, probably in Theology. Then I would do my doctorate in either Philosophy or Theology. I hadn't decided on which.
And then we moved to Japan. So, there went that plan.
I had always wanted to see Japan, not as a tourist, but as a resident. I didn't want to see the things everyone sees. I wanted to understand the culture, the people, the language. After college, however, getting a house, a car, and a good, steady job shoved all those thoughts aside. That is, until my sister heard about a position opening up in a small Japanese town. She said my wife and I should at least send in our applications. We thought about it for a bit and decided it couldn't hurt. We sent in our application and two months later we were experiencing a sweltering Japanese summer.
There were a lot of surprises in store for us. We've all heard of "cultural shock," but we don't really know it until we've experienced it. I'll give you an example of it with something I still struggle with to this day and probably will for years to come.
I am not a stupid person. I am actually gifted. I read about quantum mechanics and relativity when I was 12, long before it was cool. I was reading at a high school level in the third grade. Once I could wrap my head around math, I rocketed from the back of the class to the front. Concepts, even difficult ones, weren't just easy, but enoyable for me.
I tell you all this so that when I say I'm  stupid and illiterate in Japan, you understand my full meaning. Because, here in Japan I can neither read nor write. Beyond counting, colors, and saying which fruits I like, I could not communicate anything else. Now, at least, I can get basic concepts across, but not like I could in America.
I used to be able to speak with adults on an equal footing. Now children laugh when I open my mouth.
However, the biggest surprise about Japanese life for me is also the most painful one; no one really cares about philosophy (from here after used to refer both itself and it's twin sister, Theology). The Japanese people are not highly philosophical. Oh, I know we have the image of an Asian aesthetic sitting atop a mountain doling out wisdom to anyone who is able to brave the climb up to his cave, but that's not it at all.
The Japanese people are surprisingly, and sometimes frustratingly, pragmatic. To give as stark a contrast to it as I can, they would rather lie to your face than disagree with you. I'm not kidding. There are two words for it. "Tatamae" translates to "facade" or "public stance." For example, if you're with a group of Japanese people at a restaurant everyone will say the food is "Oishii," that is, "delicious," regardless of their true feelings ("honne") about it. They do this to keep the group happy. Arguments are completely out of the question. Engage the average Japanese person in an argument and they will agree with you entirely, no matter what they really think about the topic. Oh, they may disagree with you for a bit, but if you are a part of their group, it will not be for long.
So, here I am, having a passion for truth and a longing for spirited debate, in a country that looks away from it. I used to think that my degree was barely useful in America. In Japan, it's completely useless! There's always the missionaries, I suppose, but I imagine missionaries who care about soteriological topics are in the minority. They're more interested in effective witnessing tools than debates on the topic of God's exhaustive knowledge viz-a-viz the future. So, what the heck am I doing here?!
That's what I'll talk about in the second part of this post.