Fire and Ice

These last few weeks before leaving Japan, I promised you some vignettes from 40 years of ministry. One thing I’ve noticed, even vignettes often come with built-in life lessons. Case in point:

Nearly two of our years in Japan were spent in a thin-walled cabin deep in the mountains above Nagano. No, we weren’t on the run; the 1998 Winter Olympics were coming, and we were assigned the task of preparing for and coordinating all the Christian volunteer groups that would be arriving to take part. That meant arranging accommodation, transportation and jobs, a task that would take more than a year of preparation, mostly onsite.

Back in the 80s, we had bought for $13,000, a small summer cabin near Nagano in a place called “Norijiko”. Situated on a beautiful little lake, the Nojiri Lake Association was started by some missionaries back in the early 1920s as a place where folks could come for an affordable time away from the big cities where they lived and worked. The house was already 6o yrs old when we bought it, built Japanese style without a nail in it.  It was a two-story affair with an outhouse connected to the cabin by an enclosed breezeway, giving us the sense of real city living, even though it was still a pit toilet. Whenever anyone walked, the whole house shook, but my kids (and us) called it ‘home’ for a few weeks every summer for almost 20 years.

Missionaries at the lake included Americans of course, but also British, Australian, German and a whole pack of Scandinavian groups who may or may not speak English. It was so funny watching our kids play with Swedes, Finns and Norwegians using the only language they had in common: Japanese.  If you asked any of these kids where their hometown was, they’d say “Nojiriko” and most of them keep up with each other even today.

Nojiriko was a real paradise in the summer, with lots of clean air, freedom to run loose, breathtaking scenery and Christian fellowship. Wintertime was a different story, and only the bold dared venture in. The snow would reach to the second floor of the cabins and the thin walls made it feel like you were camping outdoors. That’s not to say we didn’t brave the elements once in awhile, and the experience always guaranteed some great man-against-the-elements survival stories. One of our friends spent the first day AXING the ice off the front door so he could open it!

Although there was an available mission house about 50 miles from the Olympic site, we decided to save time driving and just live in our cabin while getting ready for the volunteers. Some people thought we were crazy (what else is new?) but it was convenient to our work and while Nathan would be in a dormitory in Tokyo for the 10th grade anyway, Nicki could go to first grade at the local school in the village nearby.

In the summer of 1997 we set out to winterize the cabin. Insulation, three different heating systems (propane stove, kerosene heater and a wood burning fireplace) and some duct tape to cover the cracks seemed to help.

Water would be a problem, since it usually came from a garden hose run up the hill to a faucet until late September when the system was closed down for the winter.  No worries, because this particular cabin had a well someone had dug back in the 30s.  We found it, hauled in a 100-gallon plastic tank, set it in a bedroom on the second floor, primed the pump until water was running and we felt like royalty. The well would be buried in ice and snow, completely unreachable very soon, but we were ready.   Of course we couldn’t do anything about the pit toilet, but Tony laid out the ‘equipment’ needed to ladle it out if it got too full over the long winter.  (It did…… but I guess that’d be another story).

Winter came, and by late October we were already shoveling snow and trying to keep up with the demand for firewood and kerosene. One night we drove down the mountain to Nagano city and enjoyed having dinner with our friends.  While we were eating, a snowstorm came out of nowhere.  We understood the situation  so we hurried home.  Alas, in just those few hours of time, the house had grown cold and  the water in our makeshift piping system had frozen solid, breaking the pcv pipe in several places and insuring we wouldn’t be enjoying running water until spring.

The fireplace was a major source of warmth, and we kept it running 24/7 until the night the chimney caught fire. The Olympics were in full swing and we had a house full of volunteers.  Tony for some reason was running a high fever that evening, but not wanting to miss the action, was propped up in the only easy chair in the middle of the room.  He was a bit glazed over and watched with fascinating abandon as the rest of us ran around, hauling burning logs through the living room and tossing them in the snow. I stopped to be a bit worried when I passed him and noticed he was looking out the window at the sparks that were drifting down from the roof, smiling and mumbling, “Oh! Look!  Fireworks!”.

We finally got things under control thanks to a handy fire extinguisher we had picked up that was made for just such an occasion. Directing it into the fireplace, it released a huge load of carbon dioxide, eliminating the oxygen in the fireplace and giving the flames nothing to burn.

Okay, you’re asking; where’s the lesson here? Bear with me…

First the frozen water pipes. I think that the same lesson for life in a winter cabin can apply to human relationships: protect the warmth of your environment and never let the cold creep in……..it may come faster than you think! The Japanese understand this lesson well, and as a result have sometimes gotten the image of always smiling and bowing, even when things aren’t going so well. Once the ‘pipes’ are broken, it takes a lot of work to get the water running again, and without that easy flow, your life is compromised.  Keep in mind that without the light of Christ, there’s no real warmth either. As you’re trying to shine your light in a dark world, try to remember that without it, this world can be awfully cold. Broken pipes, broken relationships, end of water, end of life. Make your own sermon.

The chimney fire is a no brainer. The only way to extinguish the flames was to take away what they needed: oxygen. Now please don’t take this lesson to places it was never intended to go. I’m not suggesting you strangle the people you can’t abide. But look at it this way: James the brother of Jesus reminds us that the tongue is “a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3: 6).

Have you ever been in a situation where a difference of opinion grows to a disagreement, then to the point where all control is lost and there are “fireworks”?    Throwing water on the situation won’t solve the problem until you get rid of the source of the flame.

Nojiriko was a truly magical experience, marked by hard work, tests of our mettle and rewards in ministry that couldn’t be measured. As we packed up to leave after the Olympics had finished, I told Tony, “This has been the best year of my life; please don’t make me do it again.”

Love you guys. Keep your pipes warm, but keep your chimney clean and the fires under control.

Marsha

Close Tolerances

When we were young missionaries we were….young.  We were Americans, we were naive.

We have supervised short term missionaries like we were, for years and years, and I must tell you, if they’d acted like we did, they’d be in trouble! But we were ‘free spirits’, good but rather loosely supervised, so it should come as no surprise that one day we found ourselves sorta lost in a game park way out in the middle of nowhere in east Zambia. When I think back, I really wonder why we thought we could just go wandering off like that in a war torn country.  Not a soul knew where we were, including us.

Finally we reached an encampment of sorts, and lo and behold there was a young British guy working there.  He asked for a ride back to the highway, where he planned to hitchhike on into the capitol city, about 100 miles away.

No problem; we adjusted the luggage and trinkets (including two huge grass mats) we’d picked up in our little VW bug and he squeezed into the back seat.  We were on our way.

“If you go right here thru these bushes, there’s an old airstrip you can cut across and it’ll save you 10 miles”, he muffled from the pile of luggage.

We did, and thought we were pretty smart till a armed soldier stepped out of nowhere, waving us to stop.

“Just ignore him” came the advice from the back.  They’re just mucking about, probably want a ride too”

Tony stepped on the gas and we picked up speed.

Then I just happened to catch a glimpse in the side mirror of another soldier, and another, kneeling down to steady their rifles.  I had only seen that in the movies, but I had the sense to know that it was bad.  I yelled for Tony to STOP! Fortunately he did.

Immediately, guns at the ready, several soldiers materialized around our car.

We were shaken, they were shaken, even the guy in the backseat was a bit worried.

After they saw we were no threat and visa versa, they lowered their guns and explained that Kenneth Kaunda, the president of Zambia, was flying in any minute for a secret meeting with some of the rebels in the area.  The soldiers had been placed all around the airstrip with orders to look for “anything out of the ordinary.” A VW bug racing down the runway? Maybe so. I’m glad we didn’t ignore them.

Going to Africa at 22 years old taught me a lot about what I call ‘close tolerances’.

A few weeks before we arrived, two Canadians had been shot dead for ignoring the ’no entry’ signs and deciding to take a swim at the base of Victoria Falls.  Who cared that it represented the very tense border between Zambia and what was then Rhodesia. No one knew if they were innocent of the danger or just dumb and thought they could laugh their way out of the situation. This was enlightening to me, raised where freedom usually won out.

After our stint in Africa, we moved to Japan, where we are ’squeezed’ every day, physically, mentally and spiritually. I was laughing last night at a restaurant where I had to physically just to fit into the booth!

I’m going to try to enclose some of the parking situations we see daily.  I know of no other place where you buy your car by the size of the alcove you can park it in.  Further more, you must get a certificate of proof from the local police that you have that space before you’re even allowed to buy.

Another picture I hope you’re seeing is of a middle class family’s house.  You can see the mini-van (literally) sticking out of the carport, with the several bicycles blocking the front door.

Next door, literally, the neighbor’s shrubbery grows in happy contentment, and the whole place is just a step from the freeway where we are sitting still in traffic.

Room to move, freedom to just let it all hang out……these are luxuries sometimes. I told someone recently that I’m approaching retirement with much the feeling I had when I was getting married or having kids.  It’s sort of a ‘point of no return’ moment.  Things will never be the same.

With just 4 more weeks to go, we’re really starting to feel the confines of reality…..the ‘close tolerances’ we need to accomplish to finish with grace and style

So as you remember your ‘rules for living’ remember that age-old phrase in the Bible, “Narrow is the way that leads to righteousness”.

We are confident that God has every minute ordained for us, back from when we were 22 until now 45 years later.  Pray for us that we can keep it all in the prescribed lines.

Have a great week, Marsha

Car Bikes

Close tolerances

Freed By Slavery

Today I want to talk to you about a guy, not from the memories of our time on the field as I’ve been doing lately, but from the 5th century.  But I suspect that this fellow might remind you of someone you know.

From what I can gather, he was born into an average middle class family in Britain.  His father was a deacon and further up the family tree there were priests.  However, he was a querulous young lad, and refused to embrace either Christianity or authority.

Then one day everything changed. He was about 16 and was out on some adventure, when he was captured by Irish Pirates and introduced to life as a slave (I know, you wouldn’t wish this on your children……or?…..uh,  never mind).

Now the happy ending.  During the 6 years of his slavery, mostly watching sheep, he came to himself, and more importantly, came to God. In later writings, it was said that,  “The Lord had mercy on his youth and ignorance, and afforded him the opportunity to be forgiven of his sins and converted to Christianity”.

By now you’ve probably figured out I’m talking about a kid named Patrick, who’s day we’ll be ‘celebrating’ (if you remember) this next week.

But now the story gets better.

After about six years, Patrick managed to escape his captors and work his way back to England. But, as it sometimes works, it wasn’t long before his new life in Christ compelled him to return to pagan Irish…….to share the Good News with them!

Records indicate that he had some great successes in Ireland.  He was living, mind you, about 1000 years before Martin Luther nailed his 99 “complaints” to the door of the church and started the Protestant Reformation. But Patrick was way ahead of the game, already doing away with some of the vices he saw in the church, paving the way for more changes to come.

He was also creative in ministry, as he used the indigenous Shamrock leaf to explain the Trinity.

Wherever he was, Patrick was an indefatigable evangelist.  According to another story, it was said, “He thrust his walking stick into the ground wherever he was evangelizing and in one place now known as Aspatria (ash of Patrick) the message of the dogma took so long to get through to the people there that the stick had taken root by the time he was ready to move on”.

Somehow, I can totally relate to that.

But here’s a story that I can guarantee is not legend but fact, since I saw the result myself. A missionary here in Japan right after the war, homesick for the American South, planted a pecan nut in his yard.  This missionary’s name was Worth Grant.  After he retired, his successor, Bob Boatwright, took over the old house, raised a family and then razed the house and built a little one for just the two of them.  That pecan seed took root and grew into a tree, but never produced a single nut. One of our converts remembered playing in the tree with the Boatwright kids, and subsequently came to know Christ as his Savior. Ministries changed, and years later, the newer missionaries had moved on to points north. Tony and I settled in the suburb called Taitomi.

About the time the Boatwrights retired, 40 years after it was first planted, that pecan tree produced a nut.  ONE NUT.  The property was sold the next year, and the land was earmarked to become a parking lot, assuring that the tree was doomed to be cut down.

Back to St Patrick.  It is a historical fact that he brought the Christian faith to Ireland.  Of course, like many places, what we see in Ireland now might not be exactly what he envisioned, but the point is that he (St Patrick) was faithful to his faith and trusted God to convert a nation. Further research tells us that he made ‘monasteries’ that, unlike the traditional model of the priests secluding themselves from the world, these were more like seminaries, training priests to go out and evangelize and reproduce.  Legend speaks of graduates being given boats with no oars and told to start a church wherever the ocean delivered them (??)

I believe this particular pecan tree was an appropriate ‘symbol’ for the evangelism of Japan.  It took 40 years and more than two faithful families their whole lives to begin to see the Gospel produce ongoing fruit in Sendai, the city where we also invested more than 20 years, raising three kids and burying one.

When the Boatwright property was sold, on the day before it was to bulldozed, we ran down and cut that pecan tree down, salvaging enough logs to make a cross. Today that pecan tree cross hangs in the wonderful church God planted in  Taitomi.  It hangs in the center of the sanctuary as a beacon to “Trust God and know his ways and timing are not always ours’.

Perhaps you have some “pecan trees” that are growing in your lives.  Tell us about them, will you?

Love and thoughts,

Marsha

Cross

Neither Rain nor Snow nor Gloom…

Good Morning,

Well, I hope it’s a ‘good morning’ for at least half of you readers, since hopefully you’ve remembered to set your clock forward an hour. Of course if you take the time to read this, you may be late to church, so don’t push your luck!

As some of you know, we’ve been trying to buy a house.  We’ve chosen to live in Australia for our upcoming “Golden Years”, because of course that’s where the kids and the grandkids are.  We also hope that’s where our ministry will continue.  There’s a Japanese saying that you need to live close enough to your kids so that the soup you’re delivering doesn’t get cold, but no closer than that.  To that end we’ve been able to find a place about half way between the kids, close to both the Gold Coast and Brisbane, where we might be working.

Mailing the signed contract for the house to the bank to ‘seal the deal’ was a nail-biting experience which (while we waited) led me to remember some of our unfortunate ‘history’ of sending things to and from the mission field.  Maybe it’s bad luck or maybe we’ve just pushed the envelope, so to speak, but we have stories!

I remember heading off to Africa with a two-year-old.   When we arrived in Monrovia Liberia, we were greeted by two badly beaten up suitcases with no sight of the other two.  Obviously the two that arrived had been pilfered and filched thru several times, proved by the fact that many things were missing…..or were they in the other suitcases?  It would be almost a year before we had our answer when the other two finally turned up, covered with labels from Moldovia, Mongolia, and other destinations that started with “Mo”, plus one from Paris (who can resist Paris?).  Opening them up, even as we were in the process of packing for our return to the States, we found two whole wheels for Trevor’s ‘big wheel’… too bad about the third one, which never rolled in.

And then there were the other short-term posts…..

We were delighted to get our box we’d sent from Hong Kong.  But as we opened it, we noticed a glass mason jar full of paint.  Buddy, my father-in-law, ranted on incessantly about how it’s ILLEGAL to send paint thru the mail (How he knew this, I can only imagine).  “But Dad, we didn’t send the paint!”

“But you can’t do that!”…. “But we didn’t!” We were all finally distracted by the discovery, next to the jar, of my favorite pair of shoes. No wait, only one shoe.

Or how about the box we sent from Ethiopia?  It contained, among other never-to-arrive things, a wool sport coat of Tony’s.  While it had served him well in the frozen north of Japan, we realized that in the refugee camp I talked about last week, in 100+ degree heat, the coat was a bit superfluous, and so we sent it along to where we would be furloughing.   The box arrived in the US several months later, favorite sport coat included but somehow the sleeves had shrunk to be about 18 inches long!  All we can imagine is that the box had been submerged in water at some point, either before or after it had been picked thru.

Another box arrived in Zambia from a dear friend.  It contained several items I couldn’t buy there like nylon stockings (what was I thinking?) and a complete colony of ants, tunnels and all. I don’t believe my friend realized that the package of jet puffed marshmallows she threw in was such an open invitation to hitchhikers..

And speaking of living things, our ‘starting off household goods’ crate arrived almost 40 years ago in Japan without too much drama.  However we were surprised to note that it included, happily nested amongst my new towels in a file cabinet, a thriving family of field mice, who had carried in enough dog food lifted from my sisters garage before the departure to endure the long voyage.  Opening the drawer, I’m sure I heard one of them say, “Habla Espanol?” before scattering all over the countryside, never to be seen again. I wonder how they managed? I wonder if Japan’s a different place because of them! ha

But back to the house contract.  The “overnight express” mail from Japan did indeed arrive in Australia in just under two days as promised, but that’s where the tracking service ended.   The last 30 miles from airport to bank took well over two weeks and two bank extensions before they finally had it in their hands. I’m sure there are stories to tell, but the contract was all buttoned up with (I’m imagining) the smug smile of a recalcitrant teenager who’s missed her curfew but isn’t planning on fessing as to why…..

When will we learn? The things we think we need to keep and to send are just things, after all, and are at the mercy of the “moth and rust” of the world.  I think of the verse in Matthew 6:19-21 says it all.

And while we’re speaking of ‘losing things’, lets talk about YOU.

In just a few weeks, we’ll be leaving Japan and ‘hitting the trail’, so to speak.

So since we’ll be more ‘travelers’ that ‘missionaries’ we can’t in good conscience keep using some of your church prayer chains to get our word out.

We’re thinking of doing the, “IF WE DON”T HEAR FROM YOU BY MIDNIGHT TONIGHT”………thing and just continuing to mail you our blog.  It might get a little sketchy, since the first stop on our trip to the States is Kathmandu.  We figure we need to do a few ‘bucket list’ things before we’re too stove up to move.

Whether or not we’ll have internet in some of the places we plan to visit is questionable (Nepal, Maldives, Qatar and beyond), but we’ll do our best…..if you’re interested.

If you don’t do anything, you’ll probably stay on our blog list. Just mark it as junk and live on without us! (We’ll miss you, but there’ll be no hard feelings).

And as we enter into a whole new chapter of sending and receiving, may the really important things, like our love for you and the history we share, never get lost in transit.

And we pray for the day when we all arrive safely at the feet of Jesus, covered in baggage tags from the trip and ready to share stories of the journey that brought us there.

Keep on truckin,

Marsha

The Good Lie

Last night I watched a new movie that quite literally, brought tears to my eyes. It’s called “The Good Lie”.

Watching it, I was transported back to 1996. Nicki was 6, Nathan was 14, and Tony & I decided that they needed to experience a bit of life outside the megapolis of Japan. They had begun to think that clean water and a color TV were their “divine right.”  We set about to help adjust their world view.

Little did I know it would change mine as well.

We arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia all set to work for a few months in a refugee camp which seemed to be about a million miles from nowhere, set up for survivors of the war in Sudan. No sooner did we step off the plane than all four of us were struck sick. I mean graphically sick.  I’m talking Biblical proportions.  I finally understood what ‘dehydration’ looked like as I cast my fever crazed gaze on an old woman standing by my bedside and realized it was my 6-year-old Nicki. She had lost so much fluid in just 4 hours that her skin literally stuck to her bones.  By God’s good grace, we were being cared for by some wonderful missionary friends who had the good sense to ply us with electrolyte fluids and calm our panic by saying, “Oh, you just have “Addis-itus”.

Ten nightmarish days later, we hobbled onto a single engine plane headed for the refugee encampment called“Bonga”, 500 miles from the nearest tarmac. The pilot found it by looking out the window to the river and following it.   Landing near the only tree for miles around, we discovered it was in fact the airport terminal. I remember everyone, including the pilot, clapping.  We were so late arriving, the missionary had decided we weren’t coming and left. The only other passengers on the plane were several UN workers who were met by an Ethiopian man in a four-wheel drive. He offered us a ride into Gambella, the nearest village, but we politely deferred, “No thanks, we’ll wait for our friends.” The man looked at our family and said, rather sternly, “Listen, the only ones coming for you tonight are the hyenas. Get in.” We didn’t need any further encouragement.

We did finally make it to the refugee camp and settled into our new home, a collection of grass huts. We looked a little more like refugees ourselves, having jettisoned most of the gifts and clothes we had brought along in exchange for three months supply of food. Tony’s job was to teach the entire Old Testament to a group of village elders. They were familiar with the New Testament, but had no access to the Old. They came to our hut every day and sat patiently for hours while Tony gave them “Old Testament 101” through an interpreter. He was a little concerned when he noticed no one was taking notes, but then discovered that these elders, brought up by oral tradition, (as you’ll see in the movie) didn’t need them. After three months, they recited back everything he had taught them, verbatim!

Besides the daily lessons, Tony also led a two-hour worship service every day for about 1000 people. I still get goosebumps remembering it, the FAITH of these people astounded me as they sang heartily of the goodness of God, even though I knew that every one of them had suffered horribly the ravages of war.

Nathan, our typical teenaged son, was initially less than excited to be there, until one day when he discovered a pair of basketball goals the UN had dropped off. When he asked about them, the interpreter said, “No one knows what they are.”

I know,” he said with a grin, then set about marking off an area to set them up. In a few days, he opened a basketball camp and was surprised to find 600 boys show up, some carrying rag balls.   Let’s just say his plate was full for the rest of our time there.

Nicki made friends with a little girl named Rahab, and it wasn’t long before the two of them were firmly bonded, with no common language but friendship.  They could be found hauling water, grinding corn, and if we weren’t careful to remind her she was of a different culture, going topless all around the camp together.

My job was to try and make a home out of our grass huts. It was a constant battle with rats the size of small dogs, exhausting heat and the occasional venomous snakes who liked to hang around the pit toilet. My cooking prowess involved making anything and everything out of hard cheese, the occasional egg and some flour.  My tools were a kerosene burner and water hauled from the village well.

Every night, as soon as the sun went down, we’d climb as a family onto the top of the cook shack. It had the only metal roof in the village, and while during the day it was hot enough to fry an egg on, at night it was pleasantly cool and a great place to watch the stars. Some of the village boys would join us to practice English and hear stories about life “outside”. We’d listen to the sounds of evening in the village, as mothers sang hymns to their babies, compliments of the hard work of two saintly single women missionaries who had led the headman and the witchdoctor to the Lord years before.

I could go on and on about the events and the things I learned, but just watch the movie.   The Uduks were 98% Christian, having come through the fires of persecution to get there, (over ½ of them died on the way). And yet they held on fiercely to a faith that still shames me when I think of it.

If there was a theme of what I learned that summer, and again, I think this is relevant in the movie, was that I needed to TRUST GOD.  I remember some candid conversations I had with God back then, particularly when things happened that I had no way of dealing with mentally or emotionally. Like when the boy next door, a father of two, was eating with his family at lunch and was dead with Malaria by dinner.  My comments went along this line, “Lord, I don’t remember me saying specifically that I wanted to be two days from a telephone or medical help, cut off from all things I rely on with things going on I have no ability to process”

His answer was always the same, as if written by a plane across the empty sky.  TRUST ME ………. and so we did and received life changing experiences in return.

Be sure and grab the tissues and watch the movie.  I have no idea if there is a story that actually happened that way, but hey………maybe it did!  Everything in the movie we either saw first hand or heard actual accounts of. Makes you wonder what the human soul can survive.

PRAY for Africa, and about the tribal warring that’s been going on for generations, not only in Sudan but many other countries as well.  We know Angolan refugee children who swam the river with crocodiles and snipers; we were in church this morning with Cameroonian refugees……and they all have STRONG unfettered faith in Jesus as the only answer.   Ask God for the kind of faith that they have, and if it’s possible to receive it without having to go through what they did. It’s really true: God does give us what we need when we need it. Let’s thank Him for that assurance.

Stay strong and Trust Him

Marsha

We’ve Been Blessed

Last week I wrote about being my desire to be a blessing to others.  This week I want to share just a glimpse from the other side of the road … to be on the receiving end of so many blessings.

I sat in a meeting last week as we missionaries were discussing where to go from here, ministry-wise.  The gist of the meeting was, “How can we use the resources we have to bring this great nation to Christ?”  It was an exciting time and it made me think back…..

Thanks to so many of you, your prayers and support, and a gracious God, Southern Baptists have been doing missions in Japan since 1890.  That’s what…. 125 years?   Of that, Tony and I been associated with them for almost 40.  What a tiny ripple…….. and yet for us, it’s been a lifetime, one that has blessed us over and over. But there was a time when we thought it’d never happen.

Our career began as short term missionaries just out of college in the 70’s. We were sent to Zambia (in south-central Africa) to work for two years teaching school and leading youth groups.  What a fun adventure it was for us, just newlyweds in a land of Livingstone and all the associated adventures!

Besides the work, we enjoyed the tropical climate, and I set out to get the very best suntan ever. Well, now we know that there’s something about blondes (besides the obvious…come on!) and sunshine. It wasn’t long before I had, along with a great tan, a very impressive and malignant melanoma.  Of course being 24, I had no idea of the gravity of this particularly deadly skin cancer, which can, I’m told can hide in the body for over 30 years before springing out again to get you.

Now fast forward three years later. Tony’s graduated from seminary, we have a son, and we’re ready to be appointed as career missionaries.  We are full of ourselves, confidence, and sure that it’s just a formality for them to appoint us. To our dismay, the Mission Board says I have to wait another year to be ‘cleared’ medically. Long story short, we end up accepting an invitation to go Monrovia, Liberia, where we’ll serve as dorm parents for missionary kids coming in from the bush to go to school.

A year passes, and FINALLY we waltz into the Mission offices, ready to be appointed.  Yeah, it had been an eventful year … just getting there was a whole set of miraculous and hair-raising experiences I’ll have to share with you later…. But while in Liberia, I’d survived a rather dramatic miscarriage and consequent emergency surgery in a bush hospital, but hey! If they were worried about my cancer risk, now I was coming to them with one less set of organs to worry about, so c’mon folks, give us medical clearance and let us go!

But no.  The wizened old mission doctor raises his bony hand and stops our appointment process.  Seems he does not want to appoint me.  We later found out from one of our ‘moles’ on the inside, that he was concerned, saying that to appoint me would represent  ’poor stewardship’.

I was crushed.  I was 27 so I could cry……… The doctor ordered more and more tests.  I cried some more.

Then came the morning of the last specialist appointment, and the result of this final test would tell all, including whether they would appoint us as missionaries or not. I woke up and immediately started to worry, when suddenly, I felt more than heard the words, like in a dream, “The glass door”.

“That’s a bit random,” I thought.  I’ve always been a ditz, but what’s a glass door anyway? (Remember I’d been in Africa for three years, no glass doors there……. what’s the connection?). I didn’t mention it to Tony, and bumbled along, worrying, as I got ready for the last scan.

A few hours later as we walked up to the medical building, there it was, gleaming up at me, the most beautiful solid piece of glass, creating a door with a big chrome handle somehow floating in the middle.  I laughed and told Tony about my nonsensical dream.  He pulled me to a stop and we thanked God then and there for what He was going to do.  And He did. From that day forward, I’ve always been healthy as an ox, thus passing the criteria for being healthy enough that our work has never been compromised.

But let’s go back. I passed the test with flying colors, and later that afternoon we had a chance to meet with the “mole” I mentioned earlier.  “The very idea!” I said to him. “The mission board didn’t want to appoint me because they thought I might cost them money.”

“Wait just a minute,” he corrected. “They weren’t worried about themselves when they said that; it was you they were concerned about.  They thought it would be poor stewardship for YOU, to put you far away from the doctors here, in case your cancer was going to come back. It wasn’t the money they were worried about; it was your life!”

The Mission, both back in the States and here in Japan has blessed us and then blessed us again.  And they’ve been able to do that because YOU support them and bless them!  Their work here as a mission has been a life changing institution for 125 years, with schools and hospitals, seminaries, hundreds of churches, and thousands of believers.  People have been blessed because of what God has given us, allowing us to bless others.

A couple of days ago I received a sweet letter from someone who’s highly respected in my eyes as well as many others, one of those premier ’saints’ in current Baptist history. His story can best be told through his book “Servant on the Edge of History” (here’s the link: http://www.amazon.com/Servant-Edge-History-Sam-James-ebook/dp/B0074XKJTS/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1424588831&sr=1-1&keywords=sam+james). I would encourage you to read this book.  The story is the stuff of high action adventure and the insights he garnered will create theology for generations to come.

….I could go on and on about this man.  I’m still shocked that he even reads my humble blog. But I have to mention him because he’s another example  of those “heaped over blessings”we’ve been getting lately. In his letter, he called us ‘good missionaries’……….and then took the time to outline why.  I think I’ll cross-stitch his praise to hang on my wall for those times when I’m feeling helpless…..like recently when I spent several hours explaining (in Japanese of course) the Gospel to a friend to have her reply, “So are you going to teach an English class?”

Seriously, these last many blogs are supposed to be about our reflections, and all I can say is a big “Thank you!”  Both to God for allowing me to be a blessing in some little insignificant ways, and for using people like him, and you, to bless us in such unbelievable ways thru life.

We’re edging toward the end of the diving board of retirement.  I realize the dive may be a belly flop but I know we’ll be OK, because whatever happens, we can say, “We’ve been blessed.”

I would love to hear about some of your blessings,

Marsha

Make Me a Blessing

When I was a little girl, our family attended church twice on Sundays, once on Wednesday night, and about two Thursdays a month.  I think you don’t find that so much anymore, but as a result of our frequent participation, the church felt like my second home.  I remember so well those times of special closeness when I laid my head on my mother’s lap.  She would play with my hair while she sang those old hymns, and even though I didn’t understand all the fancy words, I could tell that she was singing from the heart, and she meant what she sang. Somehow, that was a comfort to me, as if to say, here was something solid… something I could depend on even when I couldn’t understand everything.  If I remember right, my mother was pretty rigid about what she called ‘church behavior’, so I guess it must have been the Sunday nights when I was allowed to relax my spine a bit and take a rest in that lap.  It’s hard to put words to what I was feeling, but “innocence” comes to mind.

Anyway, one of the hymns that drifted through my ears during those times was “Make Me a Blessing”.  I’ve always loved it. Years ago as an adult, we were asked in a Bible study what we had wanted to be when we grew up.  There were all the usual responses: “fireman”, “airline hostess”, “Cedrick’s girlfriend”… but all I could think of was the hymn that must have been fresh on my mind. “I wanted to be a blessing,” I said. That pretty much brought the lively discussion to a stop, especially when the leader was stumped for a response.

A few more years later, I got to put it to a test.

You’ll have to realize that the story I’m going to share with you happened way back in the 90’s when we had a lot of what we might call “supernatural” stuff going on in our town of Sendai. Even now, Tony and I refer to it as the “signs and wonders 101” time in our lives. I don’t know why, but God seemed to be showing Himself in very overt ways then. Maybe God, knowing that the next year our son would die, knew that we were going to need an arsenal of memories of His power if we were to survive the valley coming up. I don’t know.

So here I was, in the prime of my life, and so much amazing stuff happening all around I couldn’t help but feel a little like “God’s little helper” or something. Life was good. Life was exciting. Each day brought with it a whole new world of experiences that pointed to the Holy Spirit and His Power.

And here I was, driving our 8 passenger van down a Japanese-sized one way street at a lickety split speed with about 4 or 5 cars right on my bumper.  Now you need to remember this is Japan, so a street is just that… no sidewalk, no margin for error, and an occasional telephone pole to maneuver around. Maybe 12 feet wide if you’re lucky.  No place to pull over because then you’d be inside somebody’s shop.  Towns like this just can’t afford the luxury of space; it’s just people people people.

As I was zinging along, I suddenly spotted a man just ahead STAGGERING along with the flow of the traffic.

“Yup, probably drunk,” my cynic nature clucked as I made the micro adjustment to avoid hitting him.  Then it happened: I heard what might have been an audible voice because it was so loud from my empty van saying, “Stop and help that man!”

Instantly a VERY audible voice escaped my lips as I shouted “NO!”  I mean, if I even tapped the brakes, there’d be a pile-up. What was God thinking?  In the split second as I sailed past, I had a chance to look at the face of the man, and no, he wasn’t drunk. He was (for lack of a better word) devastated.  Pain wracked his face, and tears were flowing down his cheeks.

“No, God!” I said again, out loud.  “I’m a housewife; I don’t stop and pick up MEN, even if they need help.  I WILL NOT HELP him!”

Instantly I felt chagrined by my outburst, and added softly, “But You, Lord, would you please help him?”

And there He was……. I’ll never forget the words that came so clearly right into the depths of my heart. “Of course I’ll help him. But you’ll never know.  I just wanted you to share in the blessing!”

Makes me wonder what else I’ve missed because I was thinking of myself first.  How would it affect my comfort? My safety? My dignity? Could I have been more of a blessing?

Sing it with me, will you?

Out of the highways and byways of life,

Many are weary and sad.

Carry the sunshine where darkness is rife

Making the sorrowing glad

Make me a blessing, make me a blessing

Out of my life, may Jesus shine

Make me a blessing, O Savior I pray

Make me a blessing, to someone I pray

Love ya,

Marsha

Who’s Watching?

Many years ago Tony and I taught English classes in the one of the Japanese Imperial Universities.  (Don’t be too impressed; there are about 13 of these ‘invitation only’ schools in Japan). Nevertheless, these guys were sharp and became a big part of our lively student ministry, which was our reason for teaching.

One day as an assignment, I told everyone to write an essay explaining why they were studying advanced English.

I got all the ‘normal answers’ such as, “I want to have a better business career”, “I want to meet foreigners”, etc.  These kids were the creme de la creme from everywhere in the nation back in the day when spoken English was as scarce as hens teeth.  All of my students were real go getters!

But one essay stood out.  It described a young boy, standing by the road in his po-dunk village back up in the mountains somewhere.  Be assured I didn’t use all these euphemisms like “po-dunk” or “creme de la crème” with the students. Back then, these kids were lucky to put together a sentence that made sense. Some of their better assignments were something like,  ”I want be happy doing,” or “Study English make better coincidence” ….. things like that.

But back to this essay. He continued, “One day my friends and I were hanging out beside the road, kicking dirt and looking for something interesting.  Then it happened; we saw a gaijin (foreigner) woman walking by.  That was unheard of in our village, so we got all our courage together and shouted out the only foreign word we knew, a big “HARROW!”

“She turned to us, smiled kindly and then kept walking.  I have no idea who she was or why she was in my village, but from that moment, because of her kindness, I wanted to speak English, so I’ve given all my strength to that goal.  I want to be a diplomat.”

Fortunately for me, I was grading this paper in private, because my jaw dropped to the floor. Who could have imagined?

I have to tell you about one day when I was the foreigner walking by.

Yes, I was the foreigner, but I was not walking by, I was crab-stepping my way up a ski slope (I think the proper term is ‘herron-boning’ ?). For those of you who’ve ever had to actually LEARN to ski, you can feel my pain just now.

I grew up in Colorado, but my folks didn’t have money or time, so we had to be content with sledding and the occasional trip to the lake to ice skate.  Skiing was for Texans who rolled up from the south with money and guts.  (We Coloradans may still hold a few prejudices to this day, but I have to admit my Texan husband has helped me recover somewhat).

Anyway, when Tony and I got to Japan as adults, we finally had the time, money and some patient friends to teach us to ‘take up the sport’. Plus, since our assignment was ’student ministry’ we thought this would be a great way to interface with them.

We bought all the equipment and stashed the kids somewhere (school maybe?) and tore off one sunny morning to a local hill. We wanted to put in some practice time so that we wouldn’t appear too pathetic when we went next time with a group of college kids.  We geared up with all our new stuff and stumbled off, out of the warming hut and onto the slope, bolstered with courage.

There was the hill looming up in front of us but the lift wasn’t running.  My spirits plummeted; Not Tony, he took off in a blaze of adrenaline and so did I, even though I was already trailing far behind.

I was doing this awkward walk up the hill with skis on, well, you can just imagine the sight.  One step forward and two back, hip joints already aching.  I knew I was looking pretty foolish when I noticed a group of what I called my “prime irritants”, a group of little boys, maybe 3rd or 4th grade, all lined up waiting for the lift to open.  I ignored them, hoping they wouldn’t notice under the coat, ski pants, hat, gloves, goggles that I was a foreigner.  No such luck. It wasn’t long before the chorus began.  ”HARROW! HARROW!” (that’s ‘hello’, by the way, as it’s said in a nation that understands no differentiation between “R” and “L”)

Now I don’t know about you, but when I’m frustrated, I’m not proud to say I can tend to be a bit……..uhm, ugly.  And I was irritated.  ……..so I found myself calling back to them loudly in Japanese, ”Hey! You silly boys, I don’t speak English, I’m FRENCH!”

The whole ski slope fell silent as they took this information in.  Then almost instantly, there was a response I wasn’t expecting.  At that time in my life, I didn’t know either the Japanese or little boys very well, so I was surprised when they absolutely TURNED on the leader of the gang, shouting “You IDIOT! She’s FRENCH!! How did you make such a STUPID mistake? You’re SO STUPID!!! ”

I felt so sorry for him and for my meanness, but just as they were about to go fisty-cuffs with each other, the lift opened and they were off, completely forgetting that they believed their leader was a fool.

When I got back to the warming hut a few tremulous runs later I met Tony who seemed to have settled in before me. I think the steaming mug of cocoa gave him away.

As I confessed my terrible deed, his lip started twitching, then moved to a smirk as he said, “Yeah, I bet they mistook you for a French Olympian.” Then I saw where he was looking, pulled off my goggles and noticed the huge “SALE” price tag dangling down one side. We both rolled over laughing!  Now who’s the “idiot?”

I’ll have to say, when we collected ourselves, I told Tony I was at least a little bit glad they that thought I was French……..

But then reading my student’s essay some years later, it came home to me and I need to remember daily that we are AMBASSADORS for Christ (II Corinthians 5:20) and no matter HOW we feel or what’s happening to us…….people are watching and reading our lives.

Have a good week and try to stay sweet!  (even when it’s hard)

Marsha

Til We Meet

I’m happy to report that yesterday we had a “most excellent” all-day seminar to kick off the Anagion Bible Study course that Tony’s been working on for the last couple of years.  We were excited to see 7 churches represented and about 25 lay leaders and pastors.  As I’m writing this, Tony’s at his computer whipping off a “Where do we go from here?” letter to send out to all the participants.

The day before, Tony also celebrated his 67th birthday, accompanied by Tokyo’s first real snowfall of winter.  This made the Texan happy……..what can I say?

But I have to add that the euphoria of yesterday was subdued by this morning’s news announcement that Kenji Goto may have been beheaded by ISIS.  I know many of you may have been following this story.

What the news agencies fail to mention is that Kenji was a native of our beloved town of Sendai, and a devoted Christian, along with his whole family.  He was over there in part to “change the world for Christ”, forming his own NGO and ministering where he could to children and victims.  His martyrdom has rocked the Christian Community here and we spent the morning’s Sunday school time trying to see the good in this tragedy.

I was reminded of the funeral last week of Tsubasa, age 13, who drowned in the bath.  Keep praying, will you? Especially for his mother who is struggling with feelings of guilt.  When Minoru, (the husband and father) got up to speak, he quoted from John, Chapter 1, where Jesus was asked if it was the sins of the parents that resulted in the man being born blind and lame. “No,” Jesus answered, “it was so that God’s power might be seen at work in him.”

Then Minoru said through tears, “God has been manifested in Tsubasa’s life”.

There was not a dry eye in the room and it’s good to hear already of some of the fruit coming out from the death of this boy.

As with all tragedy, we look for redemption, and I believe Tsubasa’s death will have that, but it’s still hard on all of us.

One of the songs at Tsubasa’s funeral was the old familiar and emotive, “God Be With You Till We Meet Again”.

And I can never sing that song without thinking back to a story that came to me through an older missionary who is now with the Lord. In fact, all those  involved are now rejoicing in Heaven, so I think I can share the story with you now.

At the missionary’s church one evening, they were saying good bye to a fellow member and his family. They were being transferred far away, and everyone was looking for the redemption at losing such a faithful family from their tiny congregation.

At the close of the service, they all sang, “God Be With You Till We Meet Again”.  Only a few people noticed an elderly gentleman who had come in and sat at the back.  By the time the prayer was finished, he was gone.  No one could imagine who he was or what he’d wanted.

But the next week he was back.  Still arriving after the service started and leaving before it ended. This continued weekly until finally after about a month, he stood, and in a very quiet voice, asked if he could address the audience.

After years in the ministry, I’m familiar with the nervousness in the pit of your stomach as you give the pulpit to a stranger, but something in the old man persuaded the pastor to say yes. It was 1983, about 40 years after World War II.

No one was prepared for what the gentleman had to say.

“I was walking by your church one night and I heard a familiar song.  I hadn’t heard it for a long time, but it’s a tune that has haunted me for most of my life.”  The stranger stopped for a long time and then cleared his throat before he continued.

“You see, 40 years ago, I was in a small church in Korea. There were several people gathered around an organ at the front. They were holding hands in a circle and asked me if they could sing this song.”

He paused again, this time for longer, while he seemed far away, gathering his thoughts.

“I gave them permission and when they finished, the leader nodded at me … and I shot them all”.

An audible gasp went thru the congregation as he took a long breath, wiped a tear and continued.

“They were so calm and confident as they sang …. it impressed me, even tho I couldn’t understand their words. Then the other night, I heard you sing, and for the first time, I understand what they were saying.”

And then he added slowly, in a barely audible voice with his head hung low,  ”I don’t know if God would even let me but … if it’s possible… I want to be a part of that circle.”

People rushed to him, openly crying now, as he prayed to his new found Savior.  The ‘redemption’ of the tragedy had come and he was able to live in sweet fellowship with those forgiving folks for many years before going on to meet those he’d killed.

God be with you till we meet again,

By His counsels guide, uphold you,

With His sheep securely fold you,

God be with you till we meet again.

Refrain:

Till we meet, till we meet,

Till we meet at Jesus’ feet;

Till we meet, till we meet,

God be with you till we meet again.

Even non-Christian Japanese have been commenting all week that Kenji had a ‘look of peace’ in all the videos. It is our prayer that his life and death will somehow be redeemed in the manifestation of God’s love to the nation of Japan.

On a somewhat related note, so many of you who are reading this will be especially remembering our friend Jan, who’s undergoing some dramatic and unusual treatment. We pray and yearn that God will heal her, and even though she’s isolated these next few weeks, that she won’t feel alone.   We KNOW God will be there for her, “With His arms unfailing round her”; but we still pray for her, along with Minoru and his wife and the Goto family as these folks walk thru deep valleys.

Till we meet again…..Marsha

Passages

A few months ago my grandson Isaac graduated……..from Preschool!

Now a lot of you who are reading this are around my age, and you’re thinking, “seriously?”  I mean, our generation didn’t even know what preschool was!  And you younger folks are thinking, “Yep, and it shows, too!”  But be that as it may, we were positively “over the moon” with Isaac’s achievement, and believe me, it was a big deal!

Now this next week, he’ll be moving on into Big Boy 5-day-a-week Grade School.  He’s been sporting his school uniform the last several times we’ve Skyped, and you can just see the joy and anticipation in his eyes!  In some ways, I guess, his graduation from preschool was a passage of no return. After all, he’s moved on from being a baby to being a young boy, with all the rights and responsibilities that go with it.

As you know, we’re looking down the barrel of our own “passage” soon, as every day brings us closer to retirement. I confess that I’m experiencing both the joys and the terrors appropriate with what seems like such a final season of life.  I’m just a little bit worried that it may be time for me to ‘grow up’…….but I’m glad to say my brain has accepted it enough so that I’ve quit accidentally referring to it as “graduation”!

BUT… sadly, today I want to tell you about another ‘passage’ we had this week.

We were awakened to a pre dawn phone call, and as we fumbled with the phone, we heard a garbled message that left us in tears.

Our Japanese partner in the Tokyo mission office is a wonderful guy who left a career in law to help us blumbering foreigners muddle thru the bureaucratic nightmares of life in Japan. He and his wife and children are key members in a church we work in. Minoru-san always has a smile on his face, even though he recently had a tough but successful battle with Cancer.

Monday night, Minoru returned home from a long trip out to do some legal work regarding one of the mission’s properties.  After he greeted his wife and daughter, he headed into the bath to say hello to his son.

Tsubasa was born with some sort of severe Autism, but his folks, along with the extended family and church, had gone the extra miles required to love and support him.  Now, at 13, he was a happy fixture every Sunday on the front row, singing from the heart and showing by his expressions that he was finally coming “in tune” with the world. The last time I saw him, he obviously recognized me and we shared a “high five” together.

When Minoru opened the door to the bath, Tsubasa was face down in the water.  Mom had been taking care of the younger sister who was sick with the flu, but since bath time was sort of Tsubasa’s “my time”, she didn’t think the silence was odd.

They say he probably had a cerebral aneurysm and went instantly.

Graduation – Retirement – Death.  When you think of it, for the children of God, it’s all just another passage in life.  I’ve teared up several times this week, thinking that now, Tsubasa is finally communicating, finally truly FREE and enjoying the Savior he’s always loved.  The Japanese word for “autism”, “jiheishou”, is spelled by a pictograph that shows the concept of “personally trapped sickness”. Well, now he’s trapped no longer, and I praise God for that assurance.

Please pray with us for the Hayakawa family.  They will be feeling lost without him, even knowing he’s in a better place.  When our son died, I knew he was safe and happy and cancer free, but I didn’t feel at all safe or free and certainly not happy.  Now 20 years later, I still ache for his presence but I’m comforted to know we’ll all meet him again one day.

The funeral today was a blessing to all.  There were no less than 500 people, crammed into every space, with many of us standing to watch from video screens in anterooms.   A lot of the attendees were from Tsubasa’s “special” school and I whispered to Tony as we were heading outside after passing by the casket that the ’students’ were easy to spot because they were the only ones who weren’t crying.

But it was a good funeral. Our hearts swelled to see what a witness both the church and the family were able to share. We sang songs that Tsubasa particularly loved like, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”.    The pastor did the funeral, carefully explaining every custom of a Christian funeral and why we do it that way.  He mentioned the irony that in the Japanese culture, the number of flowers, the amount of food and the depth of the inebriation are the marks of a ‘good funeral’; but for the Christian, it’s different. Instead for us, a funeral is a celebration of the life and HOPE that we have that makes us able to get thru the sadness.

Then at the end, Minoru got up to talk about the simple faith little Tsubasa enjoyed, and how he’d just started praying together with the family.  He went on to share a few things about all the joys they had known together, and that on the morning of the death, he was as happy and healthy as ever, looking forward to another week at school.  It seemed, and we all agreed, that the young man had simply been enjoying his bath when the lights went out and he woke up in the arms of Jesus. With just a slight tremor in his voice betraying the grief in his heart, Minoru finished by challenging us all to make sure we could face tomorrow with that kind of assurance.

I hope we will. I know I am, and I pray that everyone at the funeral today as well as everyone at the other end of this blog will know the kind of peace and joy Minoru and his family have tonight.

With a tear in my eye, Marsha