Tag Archives: matters of the heart

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!)

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“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!

Why I (kinda) did the Ice Bucket Challenge. And also why I came to Japan.

I thought being in Japan I was safe. I was wrong. About a week ago I was nominated for the Ice Bucket Challenge.

This of course put me in a moral dilemma: do I accept the challenge, and enter the messy world of debates about the ethics of fund-raising, water wasting, charity spending, and self publicising? Or do I reject the challenge, and post a link to explain my thoughts on the aforementioned subjects?

It was a pretty tough choice – either way someone somewhere is going to think I’m a total punk.

But as it turns out I have another difficult decision to make at the moment. I need to decide what I’m going to do once I graduate from language school (in February). I just spent ten days travelling around parts of Japan (well mainly Tokyo), meeting up with different folk and talking about the kinds of opportunities there are for wannabe missionaries like me in Japan.

So now I’m in the process of writing up my thoughts on what I think I should be doing where . . . another tough choice to make.

And I realised that these two decisions kinda overlap . . . In so far as I’ve approached them the same way.

So back to the Ice Challenge, and firstly here’s what I haven’t done.

I haven’t given to charity as part of this.

I haven’t nominated anyone else to do it.

Why? Because I’m personally not comfortable with doing that. If you’ve done either/both of those things then I’m not about to hate on you.

 

But here’s what I have done

Me getting ice water poured all over me.So why did I do that? Really for the same reason that I’ve come to Japan: 

To make sacrifices for the sake of other people’s joy.

You see the decision about where to go and what to do long-term in Japan is tough for a couple of reasons. First because it’s hard for me to know where I could best be of use. Second because it’s hard for me to think selflessly–that is, sacrificially.

Because I’m wired to want to make the choice that will lead to the path of least resistance. I want to go wherever I will be most comfortable, or most ‘successful,’ most likely to find a good wife, or great food (hopefully those could come together).

In short I don’t naturally want to make any sacrifices.

The problem is that the call to follow Jesus is a call to make sacrifices.

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”

But the call to follow Jesus is also a call towards exceptional joy.

In fact it was joy that motivated Jesus to make His ultimate sacrifice.

‘And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honour beside God’s throne.’

Joy.

That’s my reason for having a bunch of cold water poured on my head. And my reason for moving to Japan.

Getting joy.

Giving joy.

You see, it seemed to me my choice with the ice bucket challenge came down to choosing between joy and cynicism. Make a small sacrifice in order to bring happiness to others (i.e. I get cold and wet, you laugh), or judge people for making that choice themselves.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying that everyone who refused the challenge was being judgemental (although, I think some folk were). I’m just saying that for me it would have been cynicism, not conscience, that prevented me for taking part.

I have to be honest, I am naturally much better at the later than the former. In fact I kinda get a twisted sort of joy from judging people. It feels good to look down on people doesn’t it? Except it also hardens your heart. Whereas true joy makes our hearts tender. And I want to be tender-hearted. Actually scratch that, I need to be tender-hearted. Otherwise I cannot make decisions as I should: based not on feeding my own selfish desires, but on finding the sacrifices that will be of most benefit to others. Which is much easier said than done.

And so first I have to make the daily decision to keep my eyes on Jesus. Because I know that I can not truly accept the challenge to pour out my life with joy, unless I’ve embraced the one who joyfully poured out Himself to give me true life.

 

So with that introduction out-of-the-way, here’s the video of me getting a bucket of ice water poured over my head. Hope you enjoy it. I kinda did!

Skype is amazing, but at the same time it sucks (and why the same is true for prayer)

This past week I have been using Skype a lot. And I have decided two things:

  • Skype is amazing
  • Skype sucks

I’ve also decided that the same is true for prayer.

But first let me talk about Skype.

 

Skype is Amazing

It really is. I can speak to my family in the UK pretty much wherever I am. For free. That’s amazing. I don’t even have to be at my laptop, my phone can get Skype.

Yes, if I’m not connected to wi-fi then the signal can be poor, and the time difference means that in practise the times when we can speak are limited . . . but still, I’m in Japan and I can talk to my family in the UK. So Skype connects me with those I care about most. And for that I say, Skype is amazing.

 

Skype Sucks

It really does. Not because of the time-difference or internet connections. No, Skype sucks because of  the physical connection – the lack of it, that is.

I don’t just mean that you can’t touch people. Although, clearly you can’t. It’s just the fact that you’re not present, because that makes a huge difference, especially if you’re trying to interact with a group. Now I am clearly a big fan of words – they rock my world, probably more than they should – but even I know that sometimes words are not enough, or even appropriate. Sometimes you just want to be with people. And at those times Skype can only make you appreciate the distance that separates you. And for that I say, Skype sucks.

 

The reality

But let’s be fair to Skype (and the clever folk who created it): it is obviously going to be limited. Distance is distance is distance. Location matters. And other such truisms. Technology can’t change that.

I mean, if Skype was anywhere near the same as being in the same country as people, then I wouldn’t have needed to go to Japan.

Last week highlighted that truth for me (yes, I sometimes need really obvious things highlighting). I went down to Sendai to visit some friends there. It was a great week. We went for drives together, ate food together, and generally hung out together. Now we’d stayed in touch via Skype, Line, etc and we’ll continue to do so. But without doubt, that didn’t make my long trip down to Sendai (I went via local trains to save money, meaning it took me about sixteen hours each way) redundant. Because there’s no substitute for being with folk.

 

Skyping God

OK I mentioned at the start that I think the same is true for prayer. I should probably explain that.

So at the risk of being irreverent, I think that you could liken prayer to having converstion with God via Skype. On one hand it’s awesome. But at the same time it kinda sucks.

It’s awesome because I can talk to Him about anything, at any time, wherever I am.

It sucks because I’m not with him. And the more I get to know him, the more I want to be.

And that’s the reality. I don’t get to be with him. At least not yet.

See one of my favourite passages in the Bible talks about this very subject,

“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)

Which I think means that it’s normal to feel about prayer the way I feel about Skype: it isn’t quite enough. It’s awesome, sure. But we’re made to have relationships with people where we are present with them, and the same is true for God.

 

OK, I’m getting tired, but I don’t want to delay posting by another day. So that’s all I have for now. I know it’s a bit rambling, but then sometimes I like to ramble. But do let me know your thoughts – on Skype, prayer, or anything else that comes to mind.

How a handful of words gave me the joy to keep on track in Japan

Yesterday I read a blog post by my friend Peta that reminded me of two things that are critical for me as I seek to live for Jesus here in Japan:

The power of joy

The power of words

You see I’ve been in Japan for just over a month now, and the long-termness of my stay here has sunk in. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not on the edge or anything, but life here can be tough. The Japanese language . . . goodbyes  . . . natto. It’d be easy to be cynical. Especially if you’re me (but more on that some other time).

So the words of Peta’s blog struck me something mighty. Actually the title by itself struck me,

Today I Choose joy

Starbucks cup with "Have a nice day" written on it

 

This was the reminder I needed. That the fight for joy involves a choice. A choice to rejoice (sorry I didn’t intend that terrible rhyme!).

It was a simple message. After all it was only a blog post. About 500 words. I doubt it took Peta more than an hour to write. And yet there was power in those words to keep me going in the fight against cynicism.

And this is not the only experience I’ve had of the power of a few words. These last few weeks I’ve received a number of e-mails from different friends that have contained powerful words. Words that have guided me and spurred me on. Just e-mails. Simple, brief, and generally with sketchy grammar. But with words that have kept me going.

Because we often think that the only words that can stop a disaster, or motivate someone for adventure, are epic speeches, right? We think in order to fire people up we need to quote the Lord of the Rings or something.

But it is often the simple daily reminders that keep us on the straight and narrow.

Think of your car sat-nav: which instruction is the most important?

OK sure, if you miss the turnoff from a motorway it is more annoying than if you do the same on a normal road, but you get my point, right?

It’s the gentle “Keep going straight” that encourages us that we’re on the right track. And the quiet but firm, “Perform a U-turn when necessary” that stops us from continuing in the wrong direction.

“Keep going”

“Don’t be too hard on yourself”

“Isn’t Jesus awesome?”

“Praying for you”

“Choose joy”

Simple words. But sometimes that’s all we need: clear but gentle reminders to keep on keeping on. To keep fighting the good fight. And to do it with a happy heart.

The post Peta wrote was actually inspired by another blog. That didn’t reduce its power. Because the power of words doesn’t come from their originality, but from their truthfulness. The call to “rejoice” was not a new idea for me. In fact, none of the words that people sent to me were really original. They didn’t have to be. They were reminders of truths that I had taken my eyes off in the business of life.

Not that I’ve been particularly busy. I don’t think busyness is a necessary requisite of forgetfulness – being human is enough for that. I think that’s why the Bible is so full of the same things being said over and over again. And why the apostle Peter wrote to the first bunch of Christians,

“I know you know this stuff, but I’m going to keep reminding you of it until I die.”

Because joy in the Lord Jesus gives power to pour out your life for the sake of others. And that joy can come from a handful of words.

 

But enough from me: what about you? Have you ever experienced the power of a few simple words?

I Want to Change Japan But I Don’t Want People to Think I’m a Crazy Christian. This is a Problem.

A t-shirt with "Jesus: the best way to stay clean" printed on it

Yes, I own this t-shirt. Yes, I found it in a second hand clothes shop in Japan. No, you can’t have it.

If you drove past junction 7 of the M62 at about 10.40am last Thursday you would have seen a man standing on the bridge with his arms outstretched. That was me. Let me explain how that happened.

I had gone for a jog, taking my new favourite route up to “The Dream” – a huge, and frankly bizarre piece of art that resembles an Easter Island head. Seriously, check it out:

Giant stone head

 

 

Weird, right?

 

 

Anyway I was listening to a talk from a conference that my friend had recently attended. It was by a woman from the Salvation Army (and if you want your preconceptions about the type of people in the Salvation Army blown away, listen to her talk). She was sharing crazy stories of how her and other folk had worked to free girls from the sex slave industry.

Now In the morning I had been thinking and praying about what “to live is Christ” means. I was thinking about how in my life I’ve gone kinda full circle from being a really hyped-up excited 21-year-old who was all, “I’m going to give my life for Jesus!” And then I got called to Japan – possibly the safest country on the planet – and my friends started to get married, and settle down, and I felt pressured a bit to do the same. But now I feel I’m back at a more balanced version of “to live is Christ.”

Anyway, I’m on the approach to “The Dream” listening to this talk about what it really means to give your life for the sake of taking the gospel to the nations. And it hit me pretty hard. I realized that to live for Christ in Japan would mean a lot of being misunderstood, and even hated, if I was to be a faithful witness to Jesus. I mean, simply trying to make a difference is enough to annoy some people. Doing it in the name of religion? Goodbye friends!

Then, as I was running back along a path by the side of the motorway the talk ended and she started doing a prayer bit. She was talking about confessing and letting go of the stuff you’re holding onto. The “As long as I can have this, I’ll be happy to live for Jesus” stuff.

Now… I have had a few times in the past when I’ve been praying whilst out jogging, or just walking, and felt prompted to kneel and pray where I was. But I always reasoned my way out of it – “That can’t be God,” “It’d just weird people out,” “What would be the point?”

But today I was listening to the talk and praying about wanting to let go of a desire to have people think well of me, or at least not think bad of me. Like, I’m happy to not have people think I’m amazingly cool, and stunningly handsome. But to have people think I’m crazy, or bigoted, because of Jesus – I’m not so much down with that.

So when I felt prompted again to kneel and pray, I realized that I needed to let go of this desire not to be thought bad off.

So… I knelt and prayed by the side of the motorway. And I felt so free!

Afterwards I was running along thinking, “Yeah, I can kneel and pray in public and I don’t mind.” And as I was coming up the hill to the motorway bridge I felt a prod, “How about praying on this bridge?” And I was like, “Bring it!.” And the voice was like, “Yeah, but not kneeling. With your arms outstretched. You know, like people pray in the Bible!”

For about 10 minutes I stood on that bridge. Do I? Don’t ? I even tried to fake God out by doing some stretches where my arms were up in the air for about half a second. But it turns out God isn’t so easily fooled. So finally I did it. I prayed with my arms outstretched over the M62.

OK, so what was the point? What did I learn from this experience, more bizarre than that giant stone head?

3 main things:

  1. I need to care less about what people think of me – people in Japan will inevitably think I’m mad, especially when I try to explain myself to them in my sketchy Japanese. The only way to avoid being misunderstood in Japan is to not go!
  2. I need to care more about what people think of Jesus – Japan won’t be changed by people thinking I’m a great guy. Jesus is the hero of this story. What people think of Him is much more important than what they think of me.
  3. I need to care most about what Jesus thinks of me – this is what frees me to follow the first 2 points. Because the truth is that before I knew Him I was proud and stupid. When people misunderstand me to be crazy or arrogant, they underestimate me. And yet, Jesus died for me. So I think it’s safe to say that He likes me. And that’s enough.

Except I still struggle to trust that. It’s why there’s people I love deeply that I haven’t really ever spoken to about Jesus (you know who you are!). It’s why I deliberated about publishing this post (because if you didn’t think I was crazy before, you certainly do now!). And it’s why I, and other missionaries like me, need your prayers and encouragements.

So if you pray, then please pray for missionaries in Japan. Pray that we would be free from our desire to be though much of, so that we can make much of Jesus, and keep loving Japan even if we don’t get loved back.

Also if you’ve got 4 minutes to spend I’d highly recommend this spoken word piece. It’s called “Beautiful Feet” and pretty much sums up how I feel.

Oh, and if you’re interested, here’s the link for the talk I was listening to.

Reasons to Pray: Because our Instincts do not Always Lead to Awesomeness

Kanye West was once asked whether his instincts have ever got him into trouble. His response,

“It’s only led me to complete awesomeness at all times. It’s only led me to awesome truth and awesomeness. Beauty, truth, awesomeness.”

Now, you’re probably questioning the validity of this claim. At least you will be if, like me, you’re human. I mean really, Kanye, following your instincts always results in ‘complete awesomeness at all times’? I know that’s not true for me. But then maybe that’s why I’m not Kanye West.

The thing is even people who actually are generally awesome still get it wrong sometimes. Sometimes we make a decision based on our best understanding of the situation and it ends up nowhere near as well as we’d hoped. Sometimes we make choices based on our own selfish desires. And so we get what we want, but others get hurt.

I think anyone with an ounce of self-awareness would have to admit that the decisions we make do not always lead to ‘awesome truth and awesomeness.’ No, our attempts to be awesome often end up like this:

(In case you’re worrying: I’m assured the cat survived.)

And this is one of the reasons why prayer is so important. We all have to make decisions. And those decisions impact others. I’ve heard people at times refer to Christians as ‘God botheres’ – pestering Him with all our prayers and singing. But given our tendency to fail epically, maybe we should be bothering God more.

I heard the Kanye West quote during a sermon on Fruit of the Spirit. Now it’s a bit of a cliche for sermons to end with, “so read your Bible and pray more” which actually is not how the sermon ended (if you want to listen, it’s here).

But when I look at the challenges facing me in life, or consider the decisions I have to make, if I look at my own heart, and then read the description of the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control – I can’t avoid the obvious conclusion that I need to pray. Not just for guidance, but also for a heart that is full of that Spirit. A Spirit that could possibly be summarised as ‘beauty, truth, awesomeness.’

So maybe I’ve been too hard on poor Kanye. Maybe he’s just full of the Fruit of the Spirit. But I doubt it.