Why is This State So Big?

Nearly all of March was spent with us on the road from Northern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and finally Texas. The main focus was all about sharing God's mission for Japan and bringing people on to be a part of that. We had some great meetings with family, friends, and new faces. We gained some new supporters, ate some interesting (good!) food, and even better, gained some new stories. 

We began our trip leaving from Morgan Hill, CA and made our way across the I-40 which we found takes us on a much more scenic and less busy route to my hometown of Payson in AZ. It also avoids both LA and Phoenix, and who wants to drive in LA by choice? Not I. We pulled it off in about 12 hours over the course of one day, but this leg of the trip has been done a few times now. We stopped to stay with my family for a few days while we made a few calls, had a couple meetings, did some car maintenance (Ended up being pointless, read on...), and bought more food because road snacks are important to over-all well-being and keeping Nick awake.

We left Pine and went south through Phoenix, were we made a pit-stop in east Mesa (car things again...) then out east into New Mexico. At this point, crossing the vast empty desert that is New Mexico, it felt I might pass from old-age before I saw another city/town/something with more than a tumbleweed and single gas station, but oh what little did I know. But it happened, we hit El Paso! Texas! I could feel the second wind coming on, this was our destination state, it can't be much further...

6 hours later, I could drive no more. The great plains of Texas defeated me, and nearly the cars gas tank. It had seemed that I was spoiled on seeing a gas station every 10 miles or so for much our trip, but the phrase "everything is bigger in Texas" must also apply to the distance between stations. This dawned on me as what my family refers to as the "idiot light" on the dash for one's gas level had now illuminated, effectively stamping me as the idiot. So I was hungry, car was hungry, wife was just barely keeping my sanity by playing road games, and thus we decided a more lasting stop was needed. We picked a small hotel in Fort Stockton to stay the night.

Two things happened that night. One: we got into the hotel somewhere around 1am. Second: a special thing occurs on Sunday March 12th that a person in AZ doesn't care about. Daylight Stinking Savings Time. DSST. Somehow I managed to plan us into getting a bit less sleep and putting our arrival time later and later, yeah, I am pro at logistics. We still managed to get enough sleep and finish our trip moving into Houston later that evening. 

The actual time in Texas was eventful and the trip back trouble-free. My Aunt and Uncle were generous in providing us not only a place to stay, but also fed us with food that was much tastier and classier than our typical value meal road grub. We loved spending time with them and all the connections we could make, both new and old. We are hopeful to go back out (even further east next time!) to keep sharing this mission.

How Much is Enough?

Since this stage of our lives has mostly been revolved around raising support, the act of “giving” has been on my mind lately.  As I’ve said before, when we first realized that we were going to have to fundraise to pursue the mission God set before us, the thought made us cringe a bit.  The concept of fundraising can just have such a bad connotation to it, but we know that there is nothing innately wrong about it.  So I’ve been contemplating about the idea of giving both from the missionary’s perspective and hopefully from your perspective as our supporters.

Firstly, all things belong to God. The reason we try to reach the lost with the Gospel is not so that they may become followers of us but because we are trying to bring back to Jesus what He rightfully owns.  He purchased all people for Himself through his sacrifice, and we want both parties to rejoice in that restoration.  Similarly, all money, talents, gifts, resources and everything else belong to Him.

We do our best to maintain the mindset that we are not asking people to give money to us and for our cause but to God and His cause for the world!  The ministry you give to acts merely as a legate of God, to whom you are truly giving. Anything you could give belonged to Him in the first place, so you can rejoice in giving it back to where it truly belongs.

This idea appears in 1 Chronicles 29.  I’ve recently read through this book and was particularly encouraged by this chapter.  Throughout the story, David is trying to build a new temple for God where the Ark of the Covenant can reside.  He gathers an abundant amount of resources from all over the land, and in combination with what the people were able to provide, they are able build it.  In verses 14, David says, “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.”  Earlier in verse 9, you see the people rejoice over their leaders giving willingly, freely, and wholeheartedly toward David’s project because they realize that they are giving back to the Lord.  It also pleases David to see how earnestly the people are serving God through his mission to complete the temple.

Just like David, it makes us joyful when we see your commitment to support the mission God has given us because it gives us affirmation that this is how God wants to use us.  If you are confident enough to entrust us with your gifts, then it must be God’s work at hand!

So we hope you find through giving to us (or any ministry really) as your own means of service to the Lord.  By giving, you are an equal partner in serving that mission.  The missionary, Paul, thanks the Philippian church for the aid they provided him.  He says, “Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account,” (Philippians 4:17).  We hope that everyone who does decide to support our ministry finds it as an opportunity to be credited with serving the Lord.

Another one of my favorite examples of giving in the Bible comes from the book of Nehemiah.  Again, God gives his servant a desire to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem.  The passion he has for this vision consumes his thoughts so much that it shows in his face while he is at work as a cup-bearer for the king.  The king notices the change in Nehemiah’s demeanor and inquires about it.  Probably being moved by what Nehemiah has to say, the king willingly offers to support him in a variety of ways.  The king not only gave him supplies to complete the task of building the wall, but he also made connections to people in authority so that he could successfully make the make the trip. 

The king truly acted in accordance with Proverbs 3:27.  Because it was within his power to do something about it, he did not withhold good from this man whom he thought deserved it.  He had the power to help Nehemiah in several different ways, which goes to show that support can come in many forms.

In the context of making a sacrifice to God, Deuteronomy 16:17 says, “Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the Lord your God has blessed you.”  So however God has blessed you (your resources, your talents, etc.), that’s the way you should give back to Him.  If you aren’t able to give with your finances, then find a way you are able to!  Several of our supporters don’t really have money they can commit to giving, but they sure are zealous prayer warriors!  Not all people can honestly commit to praying for us on a regular basis, but they do have the resources to mail things for us or to send us care packages once we’re on the field.  And as far as financial giving is concerned, we have quite a wide range of amounts we receive because people are only able to give in proportion to how God has blessed them.  The best part about different types of support is that they are all equal in partnership, equal in service to God, and all equally needed!

We have had the privilege of being able to witness people’s earnest hearts in giving toward our mission just as Jesus got to witness the widow offer her gift to the temple treasury.  Even though, by the world’s standards, her two copper coins were nothing in comparison to the large amounts of wealth that were put in, Jesus said that she put in more than the others because she didn’t give out of her wealth but rather out of her poverty – a true sacrifice (Mark 12:41-44).

We see the ways you have been able to give toward this mission to Japan, and it is beautifully different for each person.  So just remember that in whatever way you choose to give to God that it’s not about equal giving but equal sacrifice.

The Sea of Trees

Disclaimer: This story was found in an earlier newsletter of ours, but some were not getting them yet and wanted to share it, so here it is.

The Aokigahara, or better known as the “Sea of Trees”, is a beautiful forest at the base of Mt. Fuji that got its name from the illusion it gives of waves in the ocean. However, these "waves" of leaves hide a very sad secret in their depths, leaving this location to be more infamous than famous. Nearly 100 years ago, a Buddhist monk traveled to this forest on a journey to reach a higher plane of enlightenment through fasting and seclusion. The lack of food actually resulted in his death, which started a trend for other monks who believed that the first must have achieved one of the highest states a Buddhist could aspire to. While monks are no longer found going here, the trend of death continues. Kuroi Jukai (translated ‘Sea of Trees’) is a 1960's Japanese novel in which a pair of young lovers take their lives together in the forest. Later in 1993, a handbook was written for the suicidal called The Complete Suicide Manual. The guide praises hanging (the most common method for those who perish among the Sea of Trees) as a “work of art” and called Aokigahara the ideal place to die because your body will be impossible to find and “You will become a missing person and slowly disappear from people’s memory.”

aokigahara sign.jpg

Today, an average of 100 bodies are removed from this ominous location each year, and that’s only counting the ones private parties find in this vast and dense 14 square mile area. It got so bad that since the early 2000’s the government doesn’t even report the number of deaths there. Rather, their solution is to post signs like the ones on the right and scatter phone boxes that connect to free helplines.

Given that over 24,000 people committed suicide just last year, there is still a lot of work to do; more is needed than a couple metal framed signs. The Japanese are losing a person to suicide every 15 minutes. Many of these same people have never heard the Gospel, and with less than 0.5% of Christians in Japan, there is almost no one to share this hope with them. It breaks our hearts to know people are leaving this world without knowing Jesus, and we know it breaks God’s heart as well.

To Those Who Go Before Us

You might think I’m referencing other missionaries already in the field, but this time I'm referring to those we’ve lost and have gone on ahead of us. They go on ahead to see the glory of the Father and to be in His presence. Though this isn’t always the case (because sometimes even our closest loved ones may not have yet received the free gift of Grace), we are left wondering, will we meet again?

I’ve spent the last couple days on the road, traveling back out to the place I was born in Oklahoma to be with a family member who may begin that journey soon. For many of us, not to sound too cliché, death is only just the beginning and not at all the “end”. We go to spend an eternity with the God who loves us in worship of Him. I’m very grateful to rest in the fact that this family member is without a doubt a strong believer in Christ, though I’m saddened that I have to fear that it may not be the case with others.

The death of others close to us is the time that causes many people to contemplate their own passing away as the sudden reality of it, once so removed, is undeniably right in front of them. When we are teenagers, the end of life seems like it comes at the age of 30 (I’m nearly there, what will I do?!?!) While I certainly don’t think that way anymore, I do realize that for many (non-believers) the end of life is just that, the end with nothing else to look forward too beyond a black abyss of nothingness. How can someone push on without some kind of hope?

Woody Allen sums up this way of thinking the best, “…Because in the end it has no meaning. We live in a random universe and you’re living a meaningless life, and everything you create in your life or do is going to vanish…”. His solution to the matter? “Turn on a baseball game or watch a Fred Astaire movie or do something that distracts you.” I can’t fault the logic: if you don’t believe in God and life after death, there doesn’t seem to be much point in preparing for it, is there? Many buy into this form of thinking, and their pursuits end up being focused on materialistic things. Money, prestige, etc… They seek to fill a gaping void in the core of their being with something so temporary and incapable of truly filling it. During several years of my life, I found myself trying to do much the same. It took losing those temporary, material things for me to see the true hope. Now I just want to share that hope with anyone and everyone, though I realize they don’t often want to hear it. I know I didn't.

Even for all that pursuit, when asked, did you know only 10% of people say they actually find their happiness in material things? Relationships and achievements (work, education, etc…) held about 60 and 30 percent respectively. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t often heard people say that their pursuit in life has to do with relationships. But it should, and apparently we know it, but I suspect many of those people didn’t have God in mind when they checked that box off in the survey. Regardless, it points to a core point of our being that the Creator designed in us with a need for relationship.

That is what makes relationships beautiful things yet so hard when they must be broken. Sometimes the break comes from disagreements, death, misunderstandings, or distance (emotionally or otherwise) but each results in an emotional pain, and this can be a good thing as we learn to grow from them. However, we must focus on the joy and goodness relationships bring as well. It brings us happiness to spend time with our loved ones, it gives us strength to be encouraged by our spouses, it provides us growth when we work through conflict with a friend, and it gives us hope and life when we have a relationship with God.

To those that go on ahead with the work of Christ leading the way, they take their relationships with them. The earthly physical components may end for the time but the impact their lives have had on us live on fully through us and to others. If a person’s legacy only consists of relationships they’ve had with people that God used to His glory, I think Jesus will welcome them with the phrase any of us would long to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Willing in Weakness

When we first realized the fact that we were going to have to fund-raise (which our minds translated as “beg for money”), we were sure that we would dread the process.  To my surprise (Erin speaking here), I’ve actually been quite enjoying the process, and that isn’t the only surprise that has come from this point in our journey of being missionaries.  It is rather exciting to see how and who God works through, and it often leaves me bewildered because God often works through the ways we least expect.

Taking myself as an example, I am not a great speaker.  I’m usually not even a very outgoing person, so being in this stage of life where I am constantly having to engage with people to share about myself is quite odd.   Nonetheless, this whole concept has become more comfortable as I’ve learned that support raising is not so much us asking for money but is more giving others the chance to serve God’s purpose.  It also doesn’t hurt that we’ve been mostly meeting with small groups and individuals. However, the time finally came for us to speak in front of a mass of people.

This last week we went to Arizona to visit a couple of our supporting churches.  One of those churches was the one Nick and I attended as a married couple in Phoenix.  Although we were there for two years, we hardly got to know anyone because we were usually antisocial.  We were part of our young adult small group, and that was enough for us!  But going back this time around, we obviously made it a point to get to know more people since we will be investing in each other as partners of the mission God has called us to!  So apart from meeting a bunch of familiar faces for the first time, we had to speak in front of the two congregations combined, which was about 150-200 people.  Not only that, but we got the entire service time to speak.  Obviously I was a bit nervous because I knew that I was no good at public speaking, but before we got up there, I was reminded by some encouraging words.

Before sharing at this church in Phoenix, we went to another church in Payson for their annual missions banquet.  There was an awesome guest speaker from Dallas Theological Seminary who shared about his time on the mission field.  While in some Spanish speaking country, he didn’t know the language at all. Thus, he made it a point to learn a short Gospel presentation in Spanish.  Though that was all he knew, he boldly shared the Good News to a couple of gentlemen he was working with.  Despite the message being presented in broken Spanish, the two men accepted the Gospel.  The speaker pointed out how it wasn’t his speaking ability or any other skill that caused the men to accept Jesus, but it was God using His mighty word through him because he was willing to speak up.  He then challenged us to stand if we wanted to show that we are willing to do whatever God asks of us.

Another Word that brought encouragement to me was the example of Paul in 2 Corinthians 10-11.  Throughout these passages, Paul repeats several times how he was “timid” when face to face and was an “untrained” speaker.  However, we all know that despite the fact that Paul may indeed have been a poor speaker, he was obviously quite influential through his ministry!  That must be a testimony to how God works through our limitations, for His Word and will is more powerful than anything we can produce on our own.  Paul ends chapter 11 and begins chapter 12 with boasting in his weaknesses.  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 

While Paul may have been lacking in speech when he was in person, he made sure to minister through his actions (10:11).  We can’t let our weaknesses be an excuse to do nothing.  I still went up on stage and spoke that Sunday morning in front of the congregations because I made a stand and told God, “I am willing.”  I take that phrase to be the first half of my action.  The second half would be to follow through with obedience to His call.  Did I speak with complete gusto and clarity that Sunday morning?  Probably not.  Did people still come up to us afterward to connect with us?  Yes they did.  I was willing to let God use me however He wished, and I let Him worry about moving in the hearts of the people if it was His will for them.

Though this may not be a new message for you or even for myself, I hope it is an encouraging reminder that we can go forth boldly in whatever He is calling us to do because we have the power of the Holy Spirit in us.  “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Just be willing.

The Heat is Just Beginning

For those that got our more recent newsletter, some of this you might already know, but if you are curious or need a quick catch up, continue on! 

This summer has been filled with events and people, of which, we are thankful for every one. We have now been in California for about 4 months now with plans to make it our "homebase" for some time longer. Though the end of summer has come and gone, and thankfully bringing in lower temperatures in it's absence, we intend to keep our energy high as we move towards the end of the year.

We are very blessed to have hit about 35% of our fundraising goal at this point (granted that number flexed a bit as we waited on a final budget from TEAM in Japan) and with many new friendships to boot! It's been a steady stream of meeting with individuals, small groups, and entire congregations where we get the privilege to share God's call on our lives and present the opportunity for others to be involved in the mission. 

We want to make this time more than just about raising up support and we have recently found an incredible Japanese church in San Jose that has been very welcoming. We are currently involved in their bi-weekly Japanese classes (incredibly helpful), weekly small group, regular service, and the time of fellowship that follows immediately after that. It has been a great blessing to get to know just a few of the people there to hear some incredible testimonies and stories about Japan. We are hopeful to visit this community frequently and look for ways we can serve.

Nick has just one last semester left until the Master's degree journey comes to a close and he can finally take a short reprieve from educational pursuits. For those that don't know, he intends to pursue a Doctorates while in Japan that will enable him to not only be much better prepared for future ministry in that nation but also allow for more opportunities in places missionaries can't always go (such as the public schools). 

We will keep it short, if you want to hear more, please get added to our newsletter! But for a quick recap:

  • We've hit 35% of our fundraising goal
  • We will be travelling over the next several weeks out in Arizona to visit family, friends, and churches
  • We are still looking for a more permanent housing solution as we continue fundraising
    • Currently staying with family in the Bay Area
  • We have joined a more formal class for Japanese language
  • Began attending a local Japanese church 
  • Timeline for Japan is summer of 2017 (Already less than a year!)

Please keep us in your prayers as we travel these next few weeks to meet with a church in Phoenix (our first church we attended as a married couple!) as well as Nick's home church back in Payson and that God would use us to share about His calling on us for Japan. Thank you all so much for your continued prayer and support, it is absolutely what makes this happen and keeps us going! 

The More You Learn the Less You Know

Technically not true, as of course we always "know" more than what we did yesterday, it's just that knowledge we gain often puts into perspective how much more we don't know. As I was pursuing my undergrad I had a strong mix of Theology and Psychology thrown at me. The Biblical studies really helped me define and expand on what I believed and created some of the most edifying relationships with professors that loved God. The Psychology really helped me to better understand the human mind, not only just how it works and develops, but also how individually different they are for each person that is the result of God's work and their unique experience.

What is most interesting about Psychology, that while it is a science, it has many limitations in application and scope that other scientific fields don't typically encounter. For example: mathematics in China can be used in the same way to solve the same problems in England. Logic flows that a cure a doctor might use for yellow fever will work in Africa the same way it might work in South America. Psychology is all about the mental faculty of humans and this mental faculty is made up of our own individual experiences, relationships, biology, and culture. This science has to adapt to each of these factors, and that introduces no small amount of challenge.

The deeper I went into Psychology and Japanese culture, the more I realized how "western" this science is. I think many people already know that a healthy secular mindset as presented by a therapist will be very centralized with the patient focusing on themselves and doing what is best for them: that they should be all about themselves and they alone have the power to realize this (this is oversimplified, but we've all already heard this one) In Japan, this idea is completely wild and unacceptable. The Japanese are very much about what is best for the group as a whole, and not that of the individual. In fact, the people of that nation have a phrase that is commonly used, "This is very Japanese of me to say but..." which one might translate as, "I know what I'm about to say doesn't make sense, and might even be considered wrong, but it is what I believe because it's the most appropriate response". 

So it took me 4 years of college and now almost 2 years of graduate school to realize I'm not getting what I need? Not quite: I certainly gained some useful skills, and it sets me up to pursue that PhD as originally intended, but instead of pursuing that in the US, I'm going to wait and do most of it in Japan. I realize this means a very high level of language fluency, but that was always part of the plan. What I really need is that deeper level of cultural understanding of the Japanese people and I'm not going to get that over here no matter how many classes I take. Of course this will also have the benefit of knowing more effective ways to minister and disciple, but that is an entirely new topic on its own. 

So even as I wrap up this Master's I know I have quite a few more years of study ahead of me, and I'm very thankful for that. God has given me such a passionate yearning for the Japanese people and culture, and the thought of pursuing education in that very context to help give me the tools for ministry towards sharing Jesus and combating suicide is nothing short of a blessing. 

A quick glance at our current progress

As more checkpoints pass by, the closer we are to long-term ministry in Japan. Hopefully this quick list will get you up to date at where we are on that path. 

  • We have both finished our undergraduate degrees and Nick has moved into graduate studies.
  • We've officially got one full year of Japanese language self-study behind us with still much more ahead(We can even read the occasional article now!)
  • Just this past May we completed our orientation with TEAM and are now fully-fledged missionaries with them. 
  • The JET program placement was unfortunately not workable, so we have transitioned into traditional long-term missionary status. 
  • We have officially begun the process of building support through partners in our ministry and it has been very encouraging.
  • We have moved out of Phoenix and are spending the summer meeting with individuals and churches to spread the news about our mission and gain partners in that pursuit.
  • We will be making our way out to Erin's family in the Bay Area of California towards the end of summer where we plan to settle down until we head for Japan.
  • Our current hopeful timeline to be in Japan is by June of 2017.