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

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Turns out my greatest weakness in Japanese is listening . . . to my teachers

An ivory monkey covering its ears, 'hear no evil' style

Photo by Black Country Museums on Creative Commons (original)

In three weeks I will graduate from my Japanese language school. I don’t have any exams to take as such, but a bit before Christmas I did a ‘Stimulated Oral Proficiency Interview’ test thing. Basically it involved recording myself having a forty five minute conversation with a CD player. It was weird.

Anyway, I then submitted that for evaluation, and yesterday the results came back. It was mainly positive, but there were a few weaknesses that all of the teachers marking my recording highlighted. There are two main points that I especially need to work on:

  • Speaking politely
  • Speaking clearly

But as I have reflected on these two points I have become convinced that my main weakness in Japanese is not my inability to speak clearly, but my inability to listen humbly.

The thing I need to work on most in these final three weeks is listening to my teachers.

I know this because when I read the comments on my interview I was not in the slightest bit taken by surprise. I had heard all of those comments before. I just hadn’t taken them seriously enough.

“You need to open your mouth more!” was said to me pretty much every time I practised giving a speech. And I had nodded, and said, “Hai!” and then gone on and focussed on learning the next grammar point and vocab.

Amongst the many sayings of my dad was this,

“There’s a difference between hearing someone and listening to them.”

A distinction that, I’m sorry to say, I have been blurring somewhat. I had heard my teachers, but I have to confess that I hadn’t really listened to them all that well.

Why? Well I recently read somewhere that it’s a human tendency that the level of our ability in a given area directly correlates to our ability to self-assess our ability in that area. In other words, the more we suck at something, the less we realise how much we suck at it.

Or in other other words, it’s a problem of pride. That and folly, pride’s faithful sidekick.

‘The way of a fool is right in his own eyes,
but a wise man listens to advice.’
(Proverbs 12:15)

That’s one of the key reasons why we need teachers. And it’s one of the reasons why we need to listen–not just hear–those teachers.

So now I am being drilled in how to enunciate in Japanese properly. (The geek part of me is loving learning about Japanese phonology.)

And I’m praying for a wise–that is, a listening–heart. If you pray, then you could add that of things to pray for me (and maybe for yourself too: just sayin’!)

Should I only write to missionaries? Are they a special category or something?

After my last blog post (on writing to missionaries) a friend messaged me with some questions about what I wrote.

By-the-by, I really appreciate it when folk do that. That’s pretty much the point of this blog: conversations that cause us (i.e. me included) to think about how we can do genuine partnerships and the like. Dialogue, not monologue. All that jazz.

They were some really good questions, and articulated well thoughts I’ve been grappling with, even as I wrote my previous post. Possibly these are thoughts you had as well. So (with permission) I’m going to post some snippets from the e-mail.

Letter writing to ‘missionaries’ is … Well… Something I’m questioning… Not because we shouldn’t write to ‘missionaries.’ Heck, of course we should… because we should actually be writing to, communicating with and encouraging each other ALL the time! Because we all partake in God’s mission….

So… I guess my question from your blog is why missionaries? Isn’t this just how we should live our lives? With Christians and non Christians? I get that it’s tough being away from home… But how is that different for you than me? Actually, maybe christians working secular jobs have less Christian support because they’re not in a missions agency? But I’ve known students who were called to uni who would have dropped out if people didn’t write, and mums on the verge of breakdown with support, and people called to business who stay because of fellowship… Are they not the same as missionaries? Or are missionaries a special category?

Like I said, good questions! The short answer is, I agree. The longer answer is below.

I actually deliberated for a while about the title of that previous post, from the more specific ‘write to the missionaries I support,’ to the slightly more general, ‘write to folk I know living overseas.’ I even considered simply, ‘write to people.’

But there’s a couple of reasons why I went with ‘write to missionaries’:

1. A missionary is what I am: it’s what I know.

(Although I’m thinking through what a ‘missionary’ is and whether it’s a title I should use: thoughts appreciated!).

I totally agree that writing to each other–using our capacity for communication to encourage, exhort, etc one another–is something that we should all be generally doing more. Those examples above show the importance of communication. I don’t question that at all. But taking upon myself the burden of reinvigorating a spirit of writing in contemporary society at large feels a bit grandiose and presumptuous.  I have neither the experience to make such a claim, nor the influence to make such a change. Well, not yet anyway!

2. Starting with a focus on ‘missionaries’ feels like a SMART goal.

You know about SMART goals, right? Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound. Like they say, the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. And so I presume the way to encourage someone else to eat an elephant is likewise to start small. Hence why I chose to focus on writing to ’missionaries.’ I reckon it’s a SMART goal. Maybe I’m just a wimp, but I find goals/resolutions/etc get too imposing when they’re not specific, and then I don’t do them. My hope is that a focused resolution is more likely to get you on board.

3. I think it’s an area that gets overlooked in missionary support

Like I said, I almost titled the post, ‘write to missionaries you support.’ The reason being that, in my experience at least, it’s an area of support that gets overlooked. Finances and prayers: that’s what I think comes to most people’s minds when they think of supporting missionaries. Now, I’m supported financially by people’s generosity, and I am incredible grateful for that. I praise God for the work that is going on around the world, because people make sacrifices and give money. And I totally believe in the power and importance of prayer. I just think if folk have come that far, maybe I can convince them/you to go a bit further.

I guess I’m just not sure that everyone shares the opinion of ‘heck, of course we should write to missionaries!’ I’m not trying to judge, I’m just saying it’s not on people’s minds as a critical part of the way you support missionaries. Hence, why I’m planning on doing some posts giving ideas on how to write.

So are ‘missionaries’ a special category? No. But they are a separate category, and one I’m happy to focus on specially (I know, I’m super smooth, eh!).

Still need a new years resolution for 2015? How about ‘Write to the missionaries I know’?

Still need a new years resolution for 2015? How about ‘Write to the missionaries I know’?

IMG_0516

As you’re probably aware, 2015 has started. And if you’re like me, you’ve been left a little bit in its wake. Maybe you had some resolutions planned for the new year and you’re now trying to catch up on five days of not practicing the piano. Or maybe you’re still trying to think of some resolutions that are possible and worthwhile. Or possibly you gave up on the whole resolution thing a few years back.

Whatever the case, I humbly suggest something to add to your list:

‘Write to the missionaries I know.’

I’m going to be writing about this a bit more in the coming weeks/months (in fact, I have the sense that it’s going to become one of the main topics I focus my writing on this year) so stay tuned for more ideas on the who, why, how, what, etc of writing to missionary folk.

But for now here’s a few reasons (there’s certainly more than these!) why you should make ‘write to the missionaries I know’ a resolution for 2015.

  1. We really love it when we get mail that is written in a language we can read and by an actual person we know.
  2. You can do it in 20 minutes and tick it off your list. Bosh, the year is off to a great start!
  3. I’m pretty certain that are some folk who gave up on their mission who would have kept going if people had written to them.
  4. It’ll be fun. Honestly. Did you ever have a pen-friend when you were at school? Remember how cool that was? You can relive that experience! And if you missed out on writing to some kid that you didn’t really know living in a country that you knew nothing about when you were eight . . . well, then this is your chance.
  5. This way you’ll have at least one resolution that doesn’t terminate on just making your life better, which, if we’re honest, is what most resolutions are about (not that I’m opposed to enriching our own lives, but I do believe the way we most enrich our lives is by enriching the lives of others).
  6. If you write actual letters, rather than e-mail, then you get the bonus point of improving your handwriting.

So there you go, a resolution for 2015 that you can do today.

And yes, since you ask, my resolution for this year is to write to the folk that support me.

In Japan Christmas is over, and for me so is cynicism

Poster from outside a Japanese store

As I write this, the clock is about to strike midnight. Here in Japan, Christmas day is all but over. But from my Facebook feed I can see that UK folk are just sitting down to roast dinner.  In the States… I don’t know, I guess you’re watching the Super Bowl?

Anyway, my point is that in Japan Christmas has come and gone. Here everyone is moving onwards to New Years now. And I’m moving on too. But not away from Christmas. No, I’m moving away from cynicism.

I think I’ve alluded a few times in recent posts to the grip that cynicism has had on me recently. It’s always came fairly easy to me, but in the build up to Japan it kinda took over my thinking a bit. (And by ‘a bit’ I mean ‘a lot.’) I was cynical about people’s interest in what I was going to be doing in Japan, doubting whether folk cared about me.

I allowed feelings of bitterness to come into my heart. Bitterness towards God and towards others. I guess most people couldn’t tell, but others bore the brunt of that bitterness. I was, to be truthful, kinda a jerk a lot of the time.

Shortly after I arrived in Japan I really felt God call me out on that through a number of means. One of them was a blog post entitled ‘Starting Now? The End to the Cynicism’ It’s full of quotable lines like this,

The thing is: The cynics, they can only speak of the dark, of the obvious, and this is not hard. For all it’s supposed sophistication, it’s cynicism that’s simplistic. In a fallen world, how profound is it to see the cracks?

It really challenged me, made me see how lame being cynical and critical was and made me want to indeed put an end to the cynicism in my life.

The thing is that somehow I wasn’t ready. I wanted to change, but I couldn’t see exactly how. Just how do you lay cynicism aside?

And anyway, this year has given me plenty of reasons to be cynical. The sudden death of my father and the unanswered prayers that came with that tops the list for sure. But also I’ve seen more clearly the brokenness of this world, and the depths of my own sinfulness––and how my tendency to selfishness and foolishness contributes to that brokenness. Cynicism seems more reasonable than hopefulness.

Except it’s Christmas. And this Christmas I’ve been digging deep. I’ve had to, because the general festivities haven’t felt very fun. And so this year I’ve also seen more clearly the power of the good news of Christmas to break through my cynical heart––to change me . . . to change Japan.

This advent I’ve been reading John Piper’s ‘The Dawning of Indestructible Joy.’ It ends with a Christmas sermon on that famous angelic announcement, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people on whom His favor rests.” Piper’s point is that it is the wonder of God’s plan to restore us to a place of peace with Him leads us to be peace makers with others.

‘Continually cultivate a sense of amazement that in spite of all your sins, God has forgiven you through Christ. Be amazed that you have peace with God. It’s this sense of amazement, that I, a sinner, have peace with God, that makes the heart tender, kind, and forgiving.’

So here it is now December 26th. Japan is moving on from Christmas, and I’m moving on from cynicism. Because the coming of Jesus was the advent of indestructible joy. For me, this year, the birth of Christ was the death of cynicism.

Merry Christmas!

(Yes that post was a bit messy. But come on, it’s Christmas! Or at least it was!)

This year I’m focussing on the real meaning of Christmas (food)

There are now only nine sleeps till Christmas, and you know what that means, right? Yup, Kentucky Friend Chicken! At least in Japan it does.

A KFC Christmas Bucket

Now as a Brit this is one aspect of Japanese culture that I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to. I mean, come on . . . KFC? Seriously? That’s not what Christmas is about. Christmas is about a proper roast dinner: roast turkey, roast potatoes, pigs-in-blankets, stuffing, and of course literal pints of gravy. Followed up with some Christmas pudding with custard, and then mince pies.

But not in Japan. KFC have pulled off a move of evil marketing genius and somehow convinced the entire Japanese nation that a Family Bucket with a side of strawberry cream cake is the traditional food to eat at Christmas. I am impressed and appalled in equal measure.

So this year I’m seeking to address the issue of Christmas food in Japan.

Kinda . . .

Because here’s the thing: the thing I want most this Christmas is my dad’s Christmas dinner. See that was his meal. He did the whole thing, pretty much single-handed. And it was always insanely good. I guess maybe those years in the army helped, because the Christmas roast operation was a sight to behold and a delight for the belly.

But I won’t get to eat my dad’s Christmas roast this year. Or any year for that matter.

I was talking to a friend about this and she suggested that I use this as an opportunity to go deeper into the real meaning of Christmas. So that’s what I’m doing this year. I’m thinking through the Christmas stuff I’m missing this year, thinking through to the meaning beneath.

Starting with food. Partly because the KFC thing has weirded me out again, and partly because I’ve realized that food is one part of Christmas that I have never really thought about.

I mean, just what is the meaning of Christmas food? What does eating until you can’t move have to do with the birth of Jesus Christ? Does it?

I think it does. I just think that I’ve tended to not notice the meaning of Christmas food because Christmas has always been a really fun time for me. A fun, festive holiday season to finish off the year. In the UK that means chicken covered in gravy, in Japan it’s the colonel’s secret recipe. And if I’m honest, I’m actually a fan of both (and in Japan you can get your chicken wings with earl grey tea, which is a win in my book). So if I really tried, I probably could get through Christmas day on a high of chicken and cake.

But what about after that? What about New Year’s Day… Without my Dad. Easter…without my Dad. My Dad’s birthday… Without. My. Dad. It doesn’t matter how much fun I have this Christmas––and everything ‘fun’ will doubtless be tinged with sorrow––I still have to face 2015… Without my Dad.

No, I need something more substantial than turkey. I need something more satisfying than mince pies. I need a saviour. I need God. And the overwhelming good news of Christmas––the meaning of Christmas (and Christmas food)––is that the birth of Jesus Christ was God giving Himself for us to feed our souls on.

This then is the message I want to focus on this Christmas, when the Christmas music is stopped and KFC takes away the Colonel’s Christmas hat:

Christmas doesn’t mean we get to feed on fried chicken and strawberry cream cake. And it doesn’t mean we get to feed on roast turkey and Christmas pudding. Christmas means we get to feast on Christ.

“Whoever feeds on me will never go hungry.”

That’s Jesus: the guy who turned a snack into a feast, and water into wine. Miracles pointing to the deeper truth that He is the bread of life. If we go to Him, we never go hungry.

Never.

No. Matter. What.

Because unlike KFC in Japan, Jesus ‘the bread of life’ Christ is indeed for life, not just for Christmas.

“We need to feed our souls, too.” Why I’m super-pleased with the painting a friend send me.

The other day I got a surprise in the post. A big chunky brown envelope. When I opened it up this is what I found:

IMG_7548

Amazing eh? I love it. Just straight-up love it!

It was from my friend Tim in the UK. We’re actually yet to meet in person, but he’s a super-passionate, super-creative, super-generous dude. Hence the painting. I asked Tim about it and this is what he said,

“As I prayed about the painting, God gave me the images. The Lion, with His roar warring on behalf of the people, alongside the Lamb bringing redemption, and hope arising!”

That’s what the Japanese means: ‘hope.’ So appropriate in so many ways. I feel like at the moment hope is what my soul is feeding on, and this painting helps me do that. A weird phrase perhaps, so let me explain.

I recently read a short book (well technically an excerpt from an upcoming book) by Makoto Fujimura called ‘On Becoming Generative.’ In it he relates a time when his wife bought some flowers, and he got angry at her because they were living pretty close to the bread line and they couldn’t afford to buy flowers. Her response floored him, and to be honest it fairly floored me too.

“We need to feed our souls, too.”

It floored me, because it’s a truth that’s been pressing in on me over the past few months. But I haven’t been able to really pin it down. That phrase summed it all up, “We need to feed our souls, too.”

I mean I knew that it was important to keep my soul joyful. After 31 years of life I’ve picked that much up. That was the main reason for starting up this blog. I wanted to make sure I stayed in touch with folk like you. And I wanted to encourage people to stay in touch–like really in touch–with the other missionary folk they know around the world.

But the practicalities of keeping my soul well fed in this strange and wonderful country of Japan . . . I hadn’t really nailed that down.

Which is odd, because ‘feeding souls’ – well, you could say that’s what I came to Japan to do. Teaching people to feed their souls on Jesus. That is after all what Jesus calls people to do,

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”

Now it’s not often that I forget to feed my belly (and for ‘often’ read ‘ever’). But I’m a bit of a muppet, and I can easily forget to feed my own soul. I need near-constant reminding to keep feeding on the bread of life. I need pointers . . . I need paintings.

Paintings that speak of redemption. Paintings that stir my heart to hope afresh. Paintings that show that ancient promise: ‘Immanuel,’ God with us.

Yes, I need paintings. Because I need to feed my soul, too.

So, basically what I’m trying to say is, thanks for the painting Tim. I love it!