Coming and Going

So last week I touched a little on the difficulties Tony and I had trying to learn the Japanese language back in 1979.

Most of us missionaries could fill volumes about our mistakes in the language, many of them unrepeatable in mixed company. Any of you who have ever had to deal with a language that you were not born with know what I’m talking about. The traps are everywhere; and it’s not just the words. Things like syntax, intonation, spelling, and that huge grey area full of euphemisms are lurking everywhere, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting, reducing him or her in an instant from the status of respected peer to that of village idiot.

Having said that, I simply have to pause in honor of our beloved Japanese people and their eternal patience.  I’ve realized after many years, that the Christians we worked with in the northern town of Sendai, were particularly gracious with us.   Maybe they’re just more ‘godly’, or perhaps it’s because they’d known a couple of generations of missionaries before we got there.

One of our more saintly mentors, Bob Boatwright of Atlanta, Georgia, had very early on dispensed with those difficult object particles in the language, known as “Wa”, “Ga” and ‘O”.  The mystery around them lies deep, but we have been assured by our teachers and our friends that the proper use of them is absolutely essential to speaking proper Japanese. So you can understand our horror when we first moved to Sendai straight out of language school and heard Bob Boatwright preach a sermon in Japanese.

We listened in confused silence for awhile, then turned to each other and whispered, “Is he….?”

“Yep, the rumors are true; he doesn’t use object particles.”

When the service was over, I turned to my new Japanese friend and asked, “Do you understand what he says?”

“Oh yes,” my friend insisted, even as she was correcting my own grammar. “When Boatwright Sensei speaks, we can feel the pain he has suffered to learn our language. We forgive, and we love him.”

Let me add that this man was no slouch in the language. He read the Japanese newspaper every morning, preached sometimes 6 or 7 times a week, and was always there to help us when we simply could not understand the salesman at the door. In fact he was the only one among all the missionaries in town who understood the obscene caller when we passed along Bob’s phone number, apologizing for not being able to understand the poor person, no matter how many times he repeated himself.

We were blessed with a sweet couple, Kumiko and Shinkichi Ito, who not only became good friends, but our priceless language checkers over a period of about 20 years.  I learned years later that Kumiko’s major in college was English, but I would have never known that as she never spoke it.

One day we decided on the phone to meet up.  We talked about our house and their house, and we decided (at least I thought) that the meeting would take place at 4:00 PM at their house, so I said,  (In Japanese)  “OK, we’ll come to your house at 4:00!”

Well, that works in English.  You begin a visit by “coming”, no matter whether it’s at my place or yours.  “I’m coming to your house, you’re coming to my house”……..makes sense.

So we loaded up the kids and went to their house, where I’d said we were coming…….and we waited about 30 minutes, wrote a note and went home.

That’s where we found their note, saying that they had ‘come’ to our house.

“kimas” (come) and “Ikimas” (go).  Two little words, big difference in understanding.  We always laugh about that.  Kumiko told me, “Next time we speak English!”

But as I think about it, I’m not sure switching languages would have solved the problem. As I said before, even in English we talk about “coming” to your house, even if we’re not there at the moment. The problem lies not in the word “come” but in where you happen to be situated. I can be halfway around the world and still talk about “coming” to see you, because in my mind I’m already there.

Well, this could become a lot more complicated than it ought to be, so let me just close with a spiritual application. Jesus said, “Come to Me”, and in those three words, I understand all I need to know. He is there. I am here. I want to be where He is.

As we move into Thanksgiving, I would love to be where you are. This is a time of family and friends, of gathering together and sharing the joy of our blessings. But even if I can’t “come” to you, be assured that I will be “going” to the Father in my prayers, and by His love and mercy, we will be together in His Spirit, bound by His love.

Happy Thanksgiving,


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