Sunday, January 30, 2011

The ache of separation

I'm overwhelmed.

It's easy to do. Life gets a little bumpy or busy, and suddenly I find myself shutting down, trying to find a hole to run to, and something that can distract me from reality until it's safe to come out again.

I'm a wuss.

Lately, I find myself in yo-yo land. One minute I'm marveling at all the blessings God has seen fit to bestow on me. The next I'm so frustrated with people and the human condition, and completely disgusted with the nastiness that wells up in my heart when I encounter it. Probably because anytime I encounter undesirable things in others, it serves as an accusing mirror, laughing and taunting me for my own ugliness. Then I spend time with children, and find all manner of peace and joy has wormed it's way into my heart, and I'm thankful for the chance to be with them. Then I try to have "adult" relationships and I'm right back into "I'm sorry, I'm an introvert and I can't deal with you right now" mode.

These ups and downs make me tired.

Really tired.

And in my tiredness, I find myself once again in a place where the aching in my heart envelops me and becomes my entire reality. The ache that screams my separation from God. The ache that accuses me, and increases the gravitational pull on the chains that are torturing my poor, blistered, starved heart.

From my prison, I watch those around me. People who are diligent, and seek God with all their strength. And I feel my strength fail. How far I am from that. I feel... fake.

And I cry. I cry for God to chase after me. I cry for Him to meet me in my chains. I cry for Him to gently heal the pressure sores that fester all over my soul. I cry to hear His voice. I long to hear Him tell me I am loved, and valued, and accepted. I ache to be wooed, and invested in. And I cry, because I know this is also the ache in His heart.

So why are we still separated?

My sin cannot be great enough to keep us apart. Is it the fault of my heart which cannot accept love? I am helpless to close the distance even a little.

So I cry.

And pray.

And then, mercifully, the ache goes back into hiding, and I'm able to move around within the confines of my hollow life once more. I go to work, eat, sleep. I eventually fight the urge to shut down and shut everyone out. I reach out to try to maintain the relationships as best I can, praying that they become real, life-giving relationships, and not just another obligation. I remind myself when my ugly negative reactions come up, that I don't have to live that way. I go up, and I go down. And little by little, I learn new Truths about who I am, and Who my God is. I remind myself that relationships are about Honor, and not obligation. It's not all about me.

And I forget.

And the cycle repeats.

And I remember...

And I cry out for My God to close the gap between us, take me in His arms, and teach me the ways of His love...

And I trust, that these tears born of pain will be renewed into tears of joy and understanding.

And I wait. Feeling just a little stronger than before.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Overflow of blessings

It's very humbling to be the recipient of many blessings. Once again, I find myself being blessed, in more ways than I can count.

God is good.

Recently, it's easy to think of my near future and be a little apprehensive. There's a lot of change coming. All kinds of new relationships to build (and maintain! yuck! maintaining is the hard part!), lots of responsibility, work, a new area to get used to... plus trying to keep up with old relationships and maintain a healthy sense of balance (healthy being a relative concept.)

But God has been gracious to me, and has seen fit to encourage me and bless me greatly still. There are so many little things that He speaks to me from, soothing my fears, and confirming my place here. It's easy for me to get overwhelmed and just shut down when I think about things too much. But there has been an almost constant flow of encouragement for me, right when I need it.

I'm naturally a negative person, but right now, I almost feel like I've got little positive "floaty thingies" on. (imagine the little floaties that you put on your arms when you are a kid)

God is good.

I've mentioned it before, but another thing that never ceases to amaze me is the encouragement I receive from writing this blog. Seriously, it's weird. As of today, I have 30 followers. I have no idea how that even happened. (Hello followers! *waves*) I get comments from people who are searching for missionaries in Japan. How do you find my blog??? I've searched for my blog before, and I never have the patience to ever find my blog. I usually give up after about 20 or 30 pages of search results. The only thing I can think of is that God is bringing people here to this place.

I just got a comment from someone who had found my blog and wanted to contact me. I now have a couple (man and wife) who are committed to praying for me daily. Wow. That just blows me away. I know several other followers are also praying for me.

I can't even put into words what that means to me. People who I have never met, are praying for me.


It's funny, because I get the funny impression that people think I'm working really hard for God over here or something. I think people get excited by the word "missionary." I'm not complaining, really, I'm not. I'm just observing how very far I feel from that word and all the connotations it brings. Granted, I'm about to start working as a "special church worker" again, but I've been kinda "on break" for almost 2 years now. But that's when the prayer supporters started showing up. It's funny how that works.

I don't want to give the impression that I'm not doing anything at all. But I'm actually not doing anything special either. Right now, I'm just living as a Christian in Japan. That takes a lot right there I think. But, I think, in essence, that is what a "missionary" is. Living as a Christian where you are. Being as much of a light to the people around you as possible.

Even when I was an official missionary, the biggest results I ever "produced" (not the best term out there) came from outside my jobs as a church worker. It came from where I lived. It came from inside the people I loved with my whole heart.

Ah, maybe that's the key. Loving with our whole hearts. (this thought just occurred to me while writing this blog, this is a bit of a tangent, so you'll have to bear with me as I process it out. ) When we love, truly love, from the deepest part of our hearts, that is the place we will see "fruit", is it not? Personally, I'm not good at love. Actually, I'm quite bad at it. But it has been my prayer for a long time that I learn what love really is. Not the selfish emotional things that we often associate with love. But the real kind, that overflows from a heart that deeply loves God above all else. I'm far from that place. I often feel far from God. But even when I'm far from Him, He's still showering me with blessings.

Have I mentioned that God is good? I didn't think so.

In any case, tonight I'm thankful for all the blessings God is giving me. Every now and then, I stop, step back, and become slightly frightened from the abundance of it all. (seriously, when God starts dropping prayer supporters in your lap, it can only mean you are going to need them, and probably soon! That's a thought that can keep me worried. Until I remember God doesn't want me to worry or live in fear, which is why He's giving me people who are supporting me with prayer.) When I look at the blessings, it's easy for me to look at myself, and think of how much I don't deserve these blessings. It's easy to shut down.

But that's just silly. Because after all, God is giving me such wonderful gifts. Wouldn't He be more pleased if I took them, gratefully and thankfully? That's how I like people to receive gifts from me.

So, here is my random processing of accepting the blessings, and challenges set before me. I pray I continue to receive joyfully, and I pray for wisdom to use them wisely. I pray for soft cushioning as I fall, and maybe a trampoline to help me jump right back up again. I pray for perseverance, and I pray that I never fail to be thankful for all I have been given. Amen.

Friday, January 07, 2011

The winds of change...

Today was really windy. Yesterday was windy too. Change is in the air. ;-)

Well, maybe that's a bit melodramatic, but a little drama can be a good thing. :-)

But there is certainly lot's of change going on around here. After two years of working as an ALT, I'm going back to working for a church. In April I'll start working for one of the churches in Tokyo that doesn't want to close down it's English school. What? Close down you say? What do I mean? Oops, I guess there's part of the story missing.

This April will also be the end of the missionary program that I came to Japan with. It's a two and a half year commitment with the option of extending for a year at a time. I spent 4 and a half years in the program. But there aren't enough volunteers, and other issues, so after decades of missionary volunteer work, the program is closing. So many of the church English schools are also closing down. But one of the churches in Tokyo decided they wanted to continue. So I was called to see if I wanted the job.

The return to Church work.

Just that is enough to completely change my life around. But wait! There's more!

Last fall I met a friend of a friend who was living in Japan. She came to visit us, and through random conversations, we invited her to live with us. After much pondering and weighing of pros and cons, she agreed! So in April she's moving from her current place in Nagoya, to here in Saitama. Since the house we are in now is nice for two, but not so great for three, we went apartment hunting yesterday. (me and my current roommate that is.)

It's a bit intimidating to go looking for an apartment on your own in a foreign country.

OK, make that a lot.

But we braved it and today we made arrangements for a cute little three room place not terribly far from here. We looked at the apartment today, and I fell in love with it. It's really cute. Mostly convenient. Lot's of shopping area's near by!

This means lots of money up front (scary!) and lots of work to be done. And lots of things I won't be able to do for a while thanks to no extra money. :-( We'll have to pay double rent for about two months, but hopefully we'll be able to recover quickly. These next few months are doing to be crazy with no extra money, lots of packing/cleaning/organizing/decision making thrown in. But there's the excitement of a new place, new things to explore, new shopping centers, new students... And there's the sadness of leaving your old neighborhood behind, and having to start again in a new area.

I'll have to see if all of my stuff can fit into a tiny room! Ah the challenges of organizing three people's stuff in one small apartment!

So this coming year is going to be full of new things! Things are getting exciting again!

Monday, January 03, 2011

Every Now and Then...

Generally I'm in love with Japan. I love life here. I love living here as a foreigner. I love the people I meet.

But sometimes... Every now and then... I just get frustrated.

I think holidays show it the worst. The complete hollowness of this country.

There's no life here. Just empty actions by empty people. There's no meaning to anything. Even deeply ingrained religious activities, have no meaning to the people who follow them. It's ok to follow whatever, because there's no meaning.

Just blind following, with no understanding. Apathy and ignorance abound, eating people away from the inside, until only empty shells remain. Then they try to fill themselves with equally empty things, and excuse it by claiming it's "Japanese culture."

I get frustrated with the way Japanese people idolize people like John Lennon and Michael Jackson, but have no understanding of what kind of people they were or the meaning of their lives. I get frustrated with people who live in their comfortable, safe country, complaining about how terrible war is, and then bully someone to death.

I get frustrated with my own lack of understanding. I still spend most of my time guessing about what people are saying, or what is written, or if my answer was understood. I get frustrated with my lack of knowledge or experience of Japanese culture and traditions.

I get frustrated with the lack of ability to think logically. I hate the lack of consequences here. I hate the way they go through the actions of cleaning, without really cleaning anything at all.

I hate the way I react sometimes... Maybe it's the hollowness of the people, resonating with the hollowness of my own broken, sinful heart. It's the loneliest sound ever.

Every now and then.... the frustrations rise to the surface, and all the little irritations join together and have a big ol' party.

Japanese like parties...

I know that some of my frustrations are universal. And I am often frustrated with America. And I know that given enough time, the little irritations will go back to their dark little caves until the next time they feel like coming out and having a party.

But today... I'm frustrated.

Father... Be present in this country. Expose the hollowness, the shallowness and the emptiness. And provide healing and guidance. Father, only You can save. Only You can love. Only You can heal. Be present here. Don't turn your face away. Let your heart break with compassion for these empty people chasing after empty things. Pour out your Spirit upon this land. And Fill it with Yourself.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Hatsu "Live"

Well, right after November comes the season I like to call "Insanely Crazy Busy Season." This is at least my excuse for not getting things done. I'm good at excuses.

Between all the Holiday's (American and Japanese) there's only a little time to actually do things like blog. I thought it would be easier since I wasn't working for a church anymore, but I was wrong. Things always pop up. Birthdays, friends moving, cleaning (actually managed a clean living room this year) parties, job interviews, preparing for a big move... There's a lot going on!

In the midst of all that, one of the English teachers I work with asked me prepare a special lesson for the 3 year students for the last day of class. She wanted a Christmas themed activity. I like it when the public school teachers give the former missionary a chance to teach about Christmas! When the 2nd year English teacher found out I was doing something special, she asked me to do it for her classes too. This gives me access to 6 classes of captive kids, each class having 35-38 students. Very nice.

Recently I have been improving in my guitar skills. You can actually tell I'm playing music now. So I decided to challenge some Christmas carols. I found some carols with chords I could play, and started practicing them. I decided I wanted to sing with the kids. I was originally going to play 3 or 4, but the teacher decided that might be a bit much, so we narrowed it down to one song and a game. In the end I chose "the Little Drummer Boy." (it's my favorite. The runner up was "Away in a Manger" because no one in Japan has heard this song!)

The idea of a song was nice for me, because we had to go over the English and I had a chance to explain it and the meaning of the song. At least one kid per class knew that Christmas was about Jesus' birth. Most knew that Mary was His mother. And now and again a kid would know that he was born in a stable. After that details get a little... interesting. I asked them where Jesus was born and the first answer was "England!" Not quite. I don't think anyone got that question right. The 3rd year teacher liked to try to help out with some of the story. She told the kids about the star and about the people who came to visit Jesus... Like Paul and Peter and the 12 disciples... I think the details were just a little off. But she tried.

After the song, I gave a short talk about the "real" Santa Claus, St. Nick. My friend sent me a nice simple story about the legend of St. Nick, and I was able to use very simple English to tell the story, and the teachers helped translate what the kids couldn't understand. I was really impressed, because even some of the kids who hate English class, were listening and really trying to understand the story. The point of the story was to let the kids know that Christmas is not about getting presents, but rather about giving to others. This is a new concept for Japanese.

It's really interesting seeing Christmas in Japan. In America, there is a big fight most years to keep Christ in Christmas. I mean Christmas is very secularized, but most people know what it is and what it's about. And people have the idea culturally that Christmas is about giving and helping others. Not so in Japan. Japan has this habit of importing things and loosing the meaning. Japan loves Christmas, but in Japan it's a day for lovers to go out, you eat cake (Christmas cake is huge in Japan) and fried chicken. I don't even know where they get some of these traditions.

Many teachers would have conversations about Christmas etc at the lunch table. It's interesting listening to them and what they think. Most people are like "it's a festival, it's just fun to celebrate, it doesn't really matter what it means." This is frustrating for me, but it's not surprising, because Japanese treat their own religions with the same kind of thinking. You just do it. It's not because you really believe it or that it has deep meaning. It's Japanese culture. It's a festival. That's it. It's all so amazingly empty.

We were talking in the 1st year class about Christmas and where it came from etc. The 1st year teacher actually went to Sunday School when he was young. But, it's all hollow. So one of the kids asked if it was ok for Japanese people to celebrate Christmas, since it was a Christian holiday. The teacher's response was "sure it's ok, after all it's just another festival." Then he looks at me for my approval. I of course couldn't give it to him and replied "well, actually it is a little strange." That wasn't the answer he was looking for and turned to the kid and said very firmly "it's fine, it's a festival."


Anyway, after the talk about St. Nick, we played a card game I "invented" for the activity, which was a kind of reverse Go Fish. You still wanted pairs, but the rule was that you could only give away cards. It was a little difficult at first for the kids to get the point, because it kinda looked like the Japanese version of Old Maid, and they had trouble keeping the pairs. But eventually we got things sorted out and they were able to play. The person with the most pairs in each group got a small present from me, mainly stuff from my house that I wanted to get rid of but didn't want to throw away.

I was really worried that the song and activity would be too stupid for Jr High kids to like, but they really got into it. Even the class that is hard to control was very well behaved and enjoyed it. I am always surprised at how even the simplest of ideas can work well. It kinda reminded me of when I worked in the church and had to do monthly events. This was a little shorter, so it was like a mini-event, only with 10 times as many students!!! (and I had to repeat it 6 times) (we actually played the card game with the first years too, which I thought was a little silly since I didn't have presents for them and it was supposed to re-enforce the St. Nick talk, but the kids still seemed to enjoy it. Or at least they enjoyed not having a regular English class.)

I mentioned that this was going to be my first time playing guitar in front of a lot of people, so the head teacher came to the first class and took pictures for me. He even put it up on the school web site and titled it "Anbaa Sensei no Hatsu Live" (aka Amber's First Concert)

It was a lot of fun to take my guitar to school and play. I did better than I thought I would, and it was apparently interesting enough for the kids too. It helps that they sing old English songs in class too (think the Carpenters, and the Beatles. Although I think Queen might have shown up once.) All in all it was a lot of fun, and a good chance to tell a little about Jesus to the kids. Not a lot and I'm not sure if they really get the meaning of anything, since meaning isn't so important here... But, they heard. That's my job. The rest is up to God and the Holy Spirit.

They are good kids. I really like them. Here's some pictures of the first performance: My Hatsu Live!