Category Archives: grit and grace

Jesus is risen so there is hope for Japan (and for me)

As a Christian Easter Sunday is obviously a significant day for me, but this year it has more weight for me than usual, probably more than ever before.

It was on Easter Sunday a year ago that I It was I said goodbye to my family and set out from the UK to begin my life and work in Japan.  And thought I couldn’t have guessed it at the time, it was on Easter Sunday a year ago that I hugged my Dad for the last time in my life.

It’s been over eight months now since my Dad died. Somedays I don’t think about that at all, but other times the wound feels as raw now as it ever did. The healing powers of time, it would seem, have been somewhat overplayed. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, “You never ‘get over’ losing a limb.”

And it’s not just that grief I have to deal with. This last year has in many ways demonstrated to me not only the fragility of life, but the frailties of my own heart. My weaknesses and limitations have become much more apparently to me. It turns out I’m actually not all that. Any hopes I have of seeing change in Japan, well they can’t rest with me.

But today is Easter Sunday. A day that allows me to look the mess of this world and the mess in my heart and say, “There is hope.”

Sorry, did I say ‘say’? I meant sing. Songs like this one.

(Thanks to ‘That Happy Certainty’ for that link. Check out his latest post for a few others.)

Now if you’ve ever had the displeasure of hearing me sing, you’ll know that I don’t really share my Dad’s gift in that area. But I do enjoy singing, and because of Easter Sunday I look forward to the day when I’ll be able to sing with him again (who knows, maybe after 10,000 years of practice I’ll even be able to sing in tune with him).

Now you have chocolate to eat, and it’s time for me to sleep, so I’ll leave prolonged reflections for another time/person. Just to say that the bloody cross and empty tomb of Jesus demonstrates that God is willing and able to rescue this messed up world. There is hope for me. And if there’s hope for me, then there is hope for Japan.

Happy Easter!

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Do I Love Japan? Lust subverts our calling. Love fulfills our calling.

In my last post I opened the question of whether I love Japan or just lust after it. And I was surprised by the response. Not that my post went viral (or anything remotely close), but I had a fair few people message me to say that it struck a chord with them. So I’ve decided that I will unpack those points on the love/lust difference, trying to think about them in a wider sense.

So here we go,

Love for Japan

Courtesy of ku.sagi on Flickr. Original.

Lust subverts our calling. Love fulfills our calling.

Why? Because our calling is love.

We are designed to be in community. We were made to cultivate and care: for each other, for this planet, for culture. We are wired so that we get most fulfillment when we give, not when we get. And the world is wired so that it flourishes most when we live from love, not lust.

Now, look there are lots of things that I really enjoy in Japan. If you’ve been around here for any length of time you’ll be able to join me in reciting the list: onsens, soup curry, snowboarding, canned coffee . . . it goes on.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying those things. In fact I think I’m meant to. But love insists that such things are to be enjoyed in a way that befits a love for God and for people. Love recognizes that good things are to be enjoyed in such a way that others enjoy them too.

Lust differs from that because lust is about me. Lust doesn’t share. Lust is selfish, greedy, and uncaring. That’s why sexual lust is so devastating. It turns people into objects–literally–and then simply uses them. Lust takes something good and twists it to meet our self-centered desires.

Love serves others, but lust serves ourselves. And the results are really ugly.

But our lusts can be insidious. We can lust in a way that looks quite respectable, even admirable, to those on the outside. Lust truly does subvert, to the point that we might not even notice it ourselves.

A lust for fame or success can be just as subversive to our calling of love.

To quote from that apparently-soon-to-be-revisited classic Zoolander,

“Do you understand that the world does not revolve around you and your do whatever it takes, ruin as many people’s lives, so long as you can make a name for yourself as an investigatory journalist, no matter how many friends you lose or people you leave dead and bloodied along the way, just so long so you can make a name for yourself as an investigatory journalist, no matter how many friends you lose or people you leave dead and bloodied and dying along the way?”

OK, once you’ve stopped quoting the rest of Zoolander let’s continue. (I should also point out using that quote doesn’t mean I agree with the definition of love from that film.)

But in all seriousness, that kind of “I’ll make it whatever it takes” attitude can very easily lead to a lustful attitude where people who get in the way of our ‘success’ become obstacles to be avoided, pushed aside, or manipulated to meet our end. In other words, they become objects to used rather than people to be loved.

And the thing is that our original intention may have been noble. We might have drawn up our agenda with people in mind. But as D.A. Carson puts it,

“People don’t set the agenda. People are the agenda!”

Lust, in whatever form it takes, distracts us from both our specific callings, whatever they might be, as well as our general calling to love God and love our neighbour. You can’t build both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of self. Trust me, I’ve tried. Like, really, really tried. It doesn’t work.

Thoughts, questions, stories?

Do I love Japan, or is it just lust?

Chase After Love

I mentioned in my last post the question of whether I genuinely love Japan or whether I simply lust after Japan. I get that’s a slightly strange statement so let me explain what I mean.

This is something I’ve been thinking about ever since a conversation I had with a Scottish friend last Summer. He’s lived in Japan for about nine years, so he’s seen a fair bit of life here.

We were hanging out in Starbucks (don’t judge me, it’s a convenient meeting spot) and on the table near us was another Westerner, chatting with a Japanese girl. My friend overheard him whilst he was waiting in line and afterwards told me that the guy had been boasting about how much he made teaching, and how he had lots of money for ‘play.’ The guy’s tone made it clear that he was talking more ‘playboy’ than ‘playmobile.’

Anywho, afterwards we were talking about that whole subject. Not so much the sex-industry in Japan, but more the fact that some people come to Japan with the sole purpose of getting what they can and then leaving when they’ve had their fill. In other words, they come to Japan driven by lust, not love.

And that made me remember this post my friend wrote, based on teaching by Benjamin Nolot (one of the folk who head up Exodus Cry) on the difference between love and lust.

You should definitely read the whole post, but here’s the main points:

  • Lust subverts our calling. Love fulfills our calling.
  • Lust exploits. Love protects.
  • Lust consumes. Love pursues.
  • Lust seeks instant gratification. Love waits.

When it comes to human relationships these differences are devastating. And I think the principles apply more broadly as well.  I can be tempted to view Japan with lust, rather than love. I can be tempted to join the ranks of those who come to get their fill of Japan, when I’m meant to be here to pour myself out for Japan.

And so these last few months I’ve been wondering about my motives for being in here. Do I love Japan, or is it just lust?

Because I have to be honest here: I’m no better than that guy in Starbucks. As they say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” And that’s a grace that I need to have continually pouring into my life. And a grace that I need to be continually working out in my life.

And so I think this is an important question to ask. And not just for me, but for all of us, wherever we are. Are our actions, our words, our plans driven by love for the people around us, or are we motivated by a desire to get what we can?

So in my next few posts I will go through those points, thinking through how loving Japan looks different to lusting after Japan, and hopefully also helping you think through how you can better love those around you.

How snowboarding, soup curry, dog sledging, and onsens help me love the Japanese more

These last few weeks have been pretty packed. Mostly with fun stuff. I’ve relaxed in onsens, added a few more notches on my snowboard, eaten a whole lot of outrageously tasty food, and tried my hand at dog sledging.

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I spent a lot of the time with two of my friends, Richard and Peta. If you want to here more about the adventures I got up to and see some photos, you should check out this blog post: http://beautifulsilliness.com/2015/02/14/hunger-is-the-greatest-source/

And if you want to watch a video of us dancing like idiots:

So yeah, I have had a whole lot of fun recently. Now maybe I’m just trying to justify my regular onsen trips here, but I’ve been reflected a bit lately and think that all this fun really does have a purpose:

Snowboarding, soup curry, and onsens help me to love the Japanese people.

I don’t simply mean that all the fun stuff in Japan makes me love Japan. In fact I think that all the awesome stuff here could simply make you lust after Japan rather than love it (but more of that in my next post).

No, I mean that onsens and soup curry help me to love the people of Japan. They help to make me desire to do good here, to be generous, to share the good news, and to do it out of joy not duty.

They do so by becoming reminders for me–tangible, tasty, enjoyable reminders–of God’s love for me.

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I recently learned a great new Japanese phrase: 太っ腹 (futo’para). It literally means ‘fat bellied’ but it actually means ‘very generous’ or ‘big hearted.’ I use it now to refer to God’s grace, God’s ‘fat bellied’ grace.

All the stuff I’ve been j in the past few week, and all the fun and food that I will continue to enjoy whilst I’m here in Sapporo, they are all means of me enjoying God’s grace. Because I don’t deserve onsens, I deserve hell. The fact that I can enjoy chilling in a hot spring whilst soaking up the views of Hokkaido winter is an overflow of the amazing grace of God. It’s a concrete example of His undeserved and steadfast kindness. Because God gave His own son for me, to set me free from the weight of my sin, I can enjoy creation and culture, natural hot springs and unnaturally hot curry , without guilt, fear, or shame.

Richard Foster in ‘Celebration of Discipline’ notes that we often claim we’d love others better if only we had enough faith when the reality is,

‘Frequently our lack is not faith but compassion.’

I can only speak for myself, but those words wring devastatingly true for me. I need to be more compassionate. But I can’t create compassion just out of a sense of feeling guilty for lacking in compassion. It is only when I feel the weight of God’s compassion for me that my heart is changed.

‘We love because he first loved us.’

So as I allow God to care for me, it creates in me the kind of heart that wants to share that care with others.

As I warm my body in onsens I allow God’s love to warm – to melt – my heart to love others with that same love.

As I feed on God’s grace I become, in a small measure, like Him. I become ‘fat bellied.’ Filled up on God’s love for me so that I am then able to joyfully share that love with the people of Japan.

(And just in case you were wondering how well I did at dog sledging . . .)

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How Beautiful are the Teeth of those who Bring Good News?

Of all the well-known verses in the Bible, this is possibly the most random one:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news!

I’ve read a few people share how they’ve been spurred on by this. After all, not many people have feet worthy of a toe-ring catalogue at the best of times. The idea that your feet would be considered beautiful when you’ve just finished a mountain trek–well, no. Knowing that your attractiveness as a messenger comes from your message and not your toenails is pretty encouraging.

Now I can’t claim that my feet are even mildly ‘beautiful,’ but recently I’ve been thinking about this passage from a different angle. That of my teeth.

You see my teeth really are not beautiful. Not even close. They are, to be honest, grim. Recently I had to visit the dentist and I become aware just how bad my teeth are. They are not even close to white. I can’t even claim they’re ‘magnolia,’ ‘cream,’ ‘classic,’ or any of those three dozen variations on ‘white’ that people paint their walls. They’re yellow. A few are border-line orange.

How beautiful are the teeth that bring good news? In my case, not at all.

Now I’ve never felt super confident about my teeth, but until recently it didn’t bother me hugely. I would happily go about smiling at most everyone I met, oblivious to the row of miniature sand castles I was putting on display.

But now . . . well, I’ve ended up becoming friends with lots of folk who really do have beautiful teeth. I feel pretty self-conscious around them. Especially when it becomes selfie time.

I’m not sure if it’s a Japan thing, or just a recent thing. I’m sure back in the UK I was able to go for dinner with people without desert being preceded by a group photo. Now it seems that waiting to cross the road is cause for a close-up.

Yup, I’ve come to dread selfies. Selfies mean the ancient ruins that are my teeth being uploaded to Facebook for all to see.

I’ve been rebuked by one of my teachers on Facebook a few times for not smiling in such photos. It’s a fair point. Recently I’ve taken to trying to smile without showing my teeth. The problem is that such smiles just make me look sarcastic and/or smug and/or constipated.

How beautiful are the teeth that bring good news? Trust me, you don’t want to know.

But here’s the kicker: smiling is really important. It shows that you’re friendly. That you’re happy to be with the people you’re with.

If you don’t smile, you end up with awkward photos, like this classic:

From Straitstimes.com (hopefully I haven’t broken copyright here)

Nope, I’m not really feeling the love there.

As I was putting these thoughts together a couple of days ago I happened upon a stand where you could have your photo taken and then stick it into a mosaic of happy smiling faces. The motto of the event was ‘Smiling is a universal language.’ Of course with these thoughts in my head I had to take part.

Smiling is a means of universal communication

Yup, a smile transcends linguistic barriers. So with my still-limited Japanese non-verbal cues such as smiling become more important still. How can I claim to be bringing good news if I frown when I tell it? And how can I claim to be living in the light of good news if I don’t ever smile? But how can I get over the fact that I don’t like my smile–that I don’t want to show my teeth?

I think the answer actually lies in the good news that I came here to share.

I was talking to a friend the other day about the idea of being real with people. Making yourself vulnerable so that others can see the grace of God working through you. Rather than pretending that you have it all together, that you are problem free.

Because I’m not problem free. Not at all. I’m a straight-up mess. My issues have issues.

I have to confess that I googled teeth whitening solutions once. It turns out that the best solution, and of course the most expensive, is to have little plates of fresh white enamel attached to the front of your teeth. The stains will remain underneath but people can’t see them. The perfect solution if you have a few hundred pound going spare.

Let me be clear. That is not a parallel for the good news I believe in. The good news of Jesus Christ is that I don’t have to hide my sins from people because Jesus has taken them all upon Himself at the cross. And yes, now I still struggle and fail to live out a life worthy of such a Saviour. But one day He will come back and make all things new. From the depths of my heart to the front of my teeth I will be made totally pure-white sparkling clean.

Which brings us right back to where we started. And the Bible verse I rephrased, which is not a question at all, but an exclamation of overwhelmed joy.

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who publish peace, who bring news of happiness, who publish salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (Isaiah 52:7)

That news of happiness breaks my desire to be affirmed and frees me to focus on serving others.  It reminds me that the good news of Jesus is news for everyone. Salvation based not on our attractiveness or attainments, but on simple acceptance of God’s grace.

That is a message worth smiling about. And so I am committing today, right now, to smile more. Even for selfies. Because my teeth aren’t anything to shout about, but the message I have to share certainly is.

How beautiful (on the mountains) are the teeth of those that bring good news!

Me and my not so beautiful teeth