Being Good Neighbors in Japan

In the late ’80s, Peter and Wendi Thomson were called to serve as missionaries in Japan. Sent out by BelPres, other congregations, and believers who understand the value of incarnational ministry (living out Christ in front of others), they are passionate about seeing lives transformed by the love of Jesus Christ. God’s modus operandi, as seen in John 1:14, talks of Christ coming to Earth to provide salvation and restitution: “Jesus became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” How incredible! Likewise, the Thomson’s have “moved into the neighborhood” in Japan and here are two stories of loving where they are.

Recently, while working through the gospel of Mark, their church fellowship discussed repentance. Recognizing that neither the Japanese nor the English word for repentance adequately conveys the Biblical meaning (which is to turn and face God), Peter stood and physically demonstrated turning 180 degrees in order to come face-to-face with God. Only by looking at God and acknowledging that salvation is fully His work, do we receive both recognition of sin and forgiveness. This resonated strongly with Mrs. F, a young mother with children in their English program, recently coming to the fellowship. Wendi meets with her regularly to read the Bible and pray. The day after the discussion of repentance, Mrs. F was researching the meaning of her first name. By breaking down the characters, she discovered the meaning to be a person holding out their hand to receive help from God! Mrs. F shared that, throughout her life, she has found it difficult to rely on people for help, and this has been a barrier for her faith in God. Learning the concept of turning toward God, coupled with discovering that God ordained her name when she was born, has warmed her heart to receive Jesus more.

The Thomson’s vision in Sanda is to create kingdom communities among existing communities. What does this mean? Simply, taking the Church to people and seeing society transformed. Though they have been in Japan for over 30 years, God always surprises with what He does. This school year, Peter was approached by the PTA of their son’s high school to become the PTA president. “What! Are you crazy?! You want a foreigner to head up the PTA of a Japanese high school?” Peter was honored to be nominated but knew it was a very time-consuming position. While wishing to serve the students, parents, and teachers, Peter felt he should decline. However, every couple of weeks, there were persistent phone calls asking him to reconsider. After further declines and much-continued prayer, the Thomson’s finally realized that Jesus himself was the one asking! Amazing doors have opened! They meet regularly with the principal and administration, are connecting with other school leaders and have a whole new relationship with students and families at the school. Serving in this capacity has allowed deeper influence for Christ in previously untouched communities and to love where they are.

Thank you for praying for the people of Japan!

A Position of Grace

 

The scene plays out daily across the landscape of Japan. From the urban metropolis to the rural countryside, it always looks the same. When people meet for the first time on business, they begin with a greeting, and then bow to one another and exchange business cards. Greet, bow, exchange. Greet, bow, exchange.

The exchanging of business cards in Japan is not an afterthought at the end of the meeting, as in “here’s the way to reach me.” It comes at the beginning of every meeting because it presents one’s position in the relationship. Americans value a “we all are equals, flat” worldview, and society is structured horizontally. Japan is stacked vertically, and everything from the depth of a bow to the words used in conversation is based on a person’s rung on the ladder.

The exchange of business cards is less about exchanging contact information and more about determining the hierarchy of position. If the individual works for a prestigious company that commands respect because the best companies only hire the best employees. If they are a manager, then they must be a hard worker and well-connected, and their position will determine where we sit on the ladder in relation to one another.  Not knowing one’s position in relation to others brings communication to a standstill and makes it is virtually impossible to conduct business in Japan.

Living in Japan as a missionary has taught me so much. As Easter approaches, I’ve been thinking about what is on my business card. Not the one that I carry with me every day, but the one I use with God which includes a list of labels which establish my position. You don’t know what card I am talking about? Sure you do! It’s the card we pull out to measure our value and worth. It’s the card we use to present ourselves to God that says things such as, “God, I’m working hard to be more righteous.””God, I’m a failure at obeying you.” “God, I can never live up to the expectations of others.” “I am a loser. I am a winner. I am a missionary. I am a….”

There is usually a long list of titles on our card, labels we set ourselves and those ascribed to us by others. Each one determines our position and shapes our relationship with God. These labels influence how we love God and love others.  But is our position in Christ based on our accomplishments and performance, set in place by our own doing? I believe not.

We fall into a precarious place when we allow human standards to define us. We put our identity in the hands of humanity’s fickle heart and mind. We are stuck with a life of untrue observations of how good (or bad) we are, an endless pursuit of justification and acceptance based on performance, and a self-worth rooted in ourselves. So what should be on our cards?

Recently, our church in Japan has been looking to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians for answers. The believers in Ephesus were holding cards that read ‘second class citizen of heaven,’ a label ascribed by some Jewish believers. They were feeling looked down upon as non-Jews.  Paul corrects their thinking by appealing to two crucial points. First, everything flows from who God is. To understand ourselves, we must start with a right understanding of God. Paul tells us that we have a loving Father that blesses us with every blessing (1:3), purposefully chooses us (1:4), lavishes grace on us (1:6), gives us access to himself (1:18), and is our foundation for living (2:20).  Second, what this God says about us is infinitely greater than what we might say about ourselves. The Father says that we are his ‘workmanship’ (2:10), we are his children (2:19), and have his seal of approval in us, in the form of the Holy Spirit (1:13).

Our loving, grace-giving, foundation-giving and accessible God states that we have value beyond comprehension as His children and we are worthy of His Holy Spirit living inside us. Paul urges the Ephesians to use these words when describing themselves and these words give them their position in the world. Remembering that everything flows from God’s grace (2:8), their position is not based on what they did, but solely on who God is and who God says they are, which brings us back to you and me. By grace, we have been given new life in Jesus through his miraculous death and resurrection. It is the full and complete work of a loving God. It is in no way dependent on us. So why are we trying to move from living in the position of grace to that of performance? Why are we trying to add more to our cards? Is there anything we can do to increase the love of God for us? Expand his grace? Alter how he defines us? No! Never!

We are invited to live in a position of grace because it is the only True Place in which to live. This Easter, let’s shred the cards that measure us by performance and instead, introduce ourselves to the world based on our position in grace. This is the Good News that we will be proclaiming here in Japan, to those of us already living as believers and to those still on the journey. As for me, I’m going to stop thinking that if I am a good enough missionary, the Father will love me more. Instead, I will accept that by his grace, my position as his beloved is secure for eternity.  Now that’s a business card I am glad to share with others.

To better understand Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Peter recommends spending two weeks reading the entire letter, start to finish, once a day. It’s short, and doing so will only take about 20 minutes. This is the way the letter was meant to be read; all at once and in one sitting. Take the two-week challenge and watch how Scripture will come to life!

Thomsons are back in Japan

We had the Thomson family with us for much of July and August. What a delight it was to see their children participating in VBA and youth events this summer, and to see the family in worship with us so much.

End of summer means back to school, though, and for Peter, Wendi, and the kids, that means heading back to Japan.  Along these lines, Peter recently posted a difficult to read, but very important story, about kids heading back to school in Japan.  He says: “Why we are here. And as a parent with children in the Japanese school system, the amount of pressure on kids as they head into the second semester after summer break is brutal. I would even say shameful. Sure, high tests scores on standardized testing, but at what price?”  Read the story HERE.

What else do the Thomsons do in Japan?  I looked on their website, which is very worth visiting, and found this description of their work:

“We work alongside visionary Japanese pastors and congregations to help plant new churches throughout Japan. Our vision is to see already existing communities transformed into Christ-communities.

The disciples sent out by Jesus were to bring transformation. People already belonged to naturally occurring communities. A new disciple of Christ stayed in the community, seeking its transformation into a Christ-centered community through their presence.

With this same model, our ministry seeks to concretely support the transformation of new believers’ families, workplaces, human relationships, schools, cities, any venue where ‘community already exists’ into ‘Christ communities’ functioning on the principles of the Kingdom of God.

Additionally, we are constructing new Kingdom-based business and education models to see Kingdom expansion through being salt and light in our communities.

We do this on both the micro and macro levels. On the micro level, we are working to plant new, reproducing churches in regions of Japan. For example, from 1999-2003, we planted a church in Yamagata, a city six hours north of Tokyo. We are now planting a church in western Japan.

On the macro level, we are developing leaders and helping to foster a church planting movement. Our passion is not just for one church to be planted, but for a movement to spread that results in exponential church growth.”

There is real beauty in the Thomson’s work.  Japan is not an easy mission field, and any work done there must be done carefully, and with great patience. Peter and Wendi represent incarnational ministry so very well.  I’m reminded of Eugene Petersen’s A Long Obedience in a Single Direction when I think of Peter and Wendi’s work.  They are faithful, as we are faithful to pray for and support them.