Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Philippine Typhoon Disaster Response

Balangiga, Philippines
Last January I (Brian) had the chance to lead a small team to the Philippines to help with
disaster relief two months after Typhoon Yolanda destroyed the central section of the
country.
When the four of us flew into Tacloban it reminded me of how the Tohoku region of
Japan looked after the tsunami. I didn’t know what to think or how to feel. There was
just devastation everywhere. The District Superintendent, Edgar Longcop, who was
driving us the two hours further to our work site said that this town did not have the
destructive winds but the storm surge had drowned so many.

As we drove down the small highway, every small community, already poor, looked like
it had been hit with a hammer. The rain was falling, making everything more muddy.
The landscape was covered by white tarps and tents from more aid agencies than I had
ever heard of. The hillsides, once covered with thousands of coconut trees held some
 long trunks with the top snapped off, but it seemed most were blown down like
matchsticks.
We arrived into Balangiga and saw the church where we would be working. The entire
structure, well built though old, had been destroyed, along with the nursery school and
parsonage. The church members had painstakingly separated the destroyed materials
into piles of lumber, metal rebar, and crushed concrete. After beginning that day to
rebuild a temporary wooden structure to give the church a place to meet, we went to
stay in the home of a church member whose concrete house had not been destroyed.
I remember being surprised by the many young people that were in the church. They
were there at the work-site that day as our team tried not to get in the way and to be
as much of a help as we could, without specific carpentry or construction skills. What
struck me that day and the days after was their great joy and great optimism. They
were always laughing, joking, smiling, half in English and half in their home language of
Waray.

God has taught me through multiple mission trips that the ‘job’ is not the reason you
come to a place. It’s often a convenient purpose or reason. The ‘job’ is the people you
get to be with. This was a great blessing because there were more people than work,
and we began to settle into a very different rhythm of working and talking as the frame
of the structure slowly went up.
The youth always loved to sing. There was a small tarp-covered area where they would
bring out a guitar and worship. They loved to worship Jesus. As we got to know them
we found out that most of them had only come to have a relationship with Jesus in the
past few years, but their faces were living illustrations of a change in their lives.
On the last day our team invited the youth over to the house we were staying at.
Probably 35-40 people crammed into the small kitchen and living room. One of our
team members had been invited to guide the group through a stress debriefing and
invited them to talk about their stories surviving the typhoon. We wanted them to
speak in their own language and share with those who had experienced the situation
together. But I was surprised when a few of the youth found me and said, “We want to
share the story of the typhoon with you.”

I sat for the next hour listening to the horror of that night. It struck hours before dawn,
the winds rising to gale force and the storm surge from the ocean, a mere 100 feet away,
flooding the property to their knees. The youth had been living in the church sanctuary
recently and they recounted how the church literally was blown to pieces around them.
They met the pastor and his family outside, the parsonage also blown down around
them, and waited out the night in chest-deep water, with 180 mile an hour winds
howling around them. I won’t forget the youth who said “Jesus will not forget us, we
will make it!”

At the end of our few days, the new church sanctuary had a frame and half of a roof.
But our lives had been changed by Jesus and what he had done in the lives of those
who would remain after we flew back to the comforts of home and Japan. I remember
reflecting with God about the time. The people’s lives had been deeply traumatized,
many still dealing with the after-effects of that night. The joy that Jesus gave, while not
cancelling out the past, began to surpass it, re-shape it, and redeem it. Their laughter,
smiles, and songs were not the triumph of the human spirit over and against adversity,
but the gift of a loving a gracious God who saw them through that night, and was giving
them a life, even greater than they had before, as they learned to live more deeply from
his inexhaustible presence.
I remember watching the landscape grow small in the airplane window as we returned
and talking to God. What I saw in the lives of that church, of those youth, I hungered for.
There was a joy, hope, and love that went so far beyond the reality of their economic
condition and the trauma of that disaster, that I couldn’t grasp it. It only was because
of Jesus and what he does in the lives of people who, in whatever the circumstances of
the life they are living, learn to trust deeply in him. Thank you to the people who make
up the Balangiga Nazarene Church, for your hospitality and for the ways Jesus met me
through your lives. May my life also reflect the same to others!
 If you would like to hear stories from some of the team members when they got back to Okinawa, click here to listen.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

"A time to be silent..."



The last few years God has been teaching me more about what it means to wait on him and spend time together in solitude and silence.   Over the past few months I have simply been overwhelmed at God's love for us and desire to have a unique, intimate relationship with everyone He created.  I'm so grateful for His patience with me and the opportunity to continue to learn and grow in my relationship with Him.  A couple of years ago I read Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Haley Barton, and I highly recommend it.  It's a wonderful book about spiritual disciplines, and when I read it the first time, I remember thinking that I should read it at the beginning of each year... it has way too much in it to digest in just one reading.  So this year, I was thrilled that I finally did it.  Last January, I took a morning that was free and managed to not schedule anything else, which was quite an accomplishment in and of itself. ;)  There is a botanical gardens about 30 minutes from our house which was closed for a while and then recently re-opened, so I spent my morning there.
 

Of course, it was absolutely incredible to just spend time with God, surrounded by His beautiful creation.  I prayed, read my Bible, listened, and worked my way through most of Sacred Rhythms... it was just a great time to reflect and seek God's guidance on what I should be focusing on in the coming year. 
As I was coming near the end of my time alone, I reflected on how meaningful the last few hours had been and what a shame it was that I didn't take special time with God more often.  God then gave me an idea that led into our church having a women's retreat in March. We started out at the church with worship and a devotion.  Then we drove to the botanical gardens, enjoyed lunch in my new favorite restaurant, and the rest of the retreat was open for everyone to enjoy time alone with God while walking around the gardens.  We provided a prayer and Scripture guide for people to use.  It was wonderful, and it is our prayer that God would use the time to help build habits of solitude and silence for everyone that participated. 

One of the most exciting things that happened at the retreat was nearly half of our participants were Japanese!  Keystone has always had a small number of Japanese members, but since our service is in English, it's always been Japanese who have a high level of English proficiency.  We have prayed for years that God would continue to bring Japanese to our church and in our lives, and it's so exciting to see how He is answering those prayers.  At the retreat our worship, devotion, and booklet (prayer and scripture guides) were all in English and Japanese.  We are excited to see how God continues to move, challenge, and stretch us as we seek to show His love, peace, and hope to the people in this amazing country He has led us to.

So, this is kind of a rambling blog post, but one more thought because it kind of goes along with the theme of silence and solitude.  After the retreat, I really felt like this was the spiritual discipline God wanted me to focus on this year.  So I bought an annual pass to the botanical gardens (yes, I'm quite obsessed with this place!), and it's my goal to go there at least once a month just to spend time with God.  I also felt God leading me to give up facebook for Lent this year, and that has also been an interesting journey.  Facebook is definitely a great way to keep in touch with people, especially when you have friends literally all around the world.  But I was surprised and saddened that going for 40 days without facebook made me feel  lonely sometimes... and that's a little ridiculous.  I am surrounded by amazing friends and family, and I've lived most of my life without social media, so the past 40 days have been a good reminder to watch how I use my time (i.e. don't get sucked in and distracted by facebook - just use it to stay in touch), cherish the time I have with friends and family, and, as always, make sure my relationship with God is my #1 focus and priority.  Thanks for listening, and yes, pictures from the last 40 days will be coming soon to facebook. ;)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Culture shock blessings... or Surviving a Dentist appointment in Japan

So, if you've ever lived in another country or participated in a mission trip of any kind, you have probably heard some kind of talk or read a book about culture shock... there are many resources available to make you aware of the various stages of culture shock and how best to work through them.  We have many different stories of 'culture shock' experiences through the years, and sometimes they happen the most when you return to your 'home' country.  When we went through Youth in Mission training camp in college, the most important thing we learned was to say... "That's different."  Not that's strange, weird, wrong, etc., but just that's different - and it really has helped over the years when you experience MANY things that are different than the way you are used to doing them... it's easy to feel like they are weird, wrong, etc., but they really are just different.

So you would think by now we would have this 'living in another country' thing down... I mean after almost 11 years of being away from our 'home' country, shouldn't we have at least a small amount of expertise?  Well, of course not... we still make mistakes frequently (sometimes it feels like every day) and will always be learning... and I'm here to tell you that culture shock can hit in the seemingly very normal experiences of life... most recently for me (Julie) - a trip to the Dentist.

It's important to preface this story with a bit of my personal teeth history... not that you really care.  Just suffice it to say I have always rather enjoyed going to the Dentist.  My Mom made sure we took very good care of our teeth, and so it was common to hear glowing reports at the end of our Dentist appointments when we were kids.  I did have the unfortunate experience of braces in high school, but after that the Dentist even complimented me more about how great my teeth looked and how well I took care of them.  So, obviously, I have a bit of a pride issue going on, but it is relevant to the story.

After we moved to Japan and got settled in with regular doctors (a must since Noah was born 6 months after we moved here), we decided we needed to find a Dentist for our family.  At this point we were still like babies with our Japanese language abilities, so we looked for a Dentist that had some English ability also.  We found a great one, near our house, and I think our first appointment with him was for Justin when he was about 4 years old... that's another story, but it was a HUGE disaster.  Justin is quite fearful of anything new, so he screamed... a lot... and the Dentist never got to look inside his mouth.  But after 2 years of praying and some mild bribery, Justin now loves going to the Dentist. :)



So soon after Justin's first fiasco, Brian and I decided we should get back into this 'normal' part of life in our new home and we made appointments to have our teeth cleaned.  We are blessed to have Japanese national insurance that covers visits to the Dentist, but there is one interesting aspect to this coverage... when you get your teeth cleaned, you can't do it all in one appointment.  In order for the government insurance to cover it, you get your top teeth cleaned at one appointment and your bottom teeth at another appointment... think about that for a minute.  I think it's all psychological, but I guarantee after that first appointment when only your top teeth have been cleaned, suddenly your bottom teeth feel almost toxic and you can't wait for that second appointment so you can have some balance back in your mouth again.

So that's the first 'different' thing about going to the dentist in Japan.  But, I'm thankful for our insurance, so I can get past it.  When I went in for my first appointment, I was pleasantly surprised.  Japanese people are overwhelmingly considerate and thoughtful and this is made evident at the Dentist.  You are given a small blanket to put on your lap so you don't feel cold during your appointment.  They offer you a small towel to put over your eyes so the glaring light doesn't bother you.  And, in typical polite Japanese style, they announce when they will start each phase of your cleaning by telling you what they are about to do, followed with 'start'. :)  It really is a pleasant experience....

Until they pulled out a bottle with pink liquid in it... it says 'Plaque Checker' (in English!) on the label.  I had never before experienced this at a Dentist.... they put this 'strawberry flavored' plaque checker (of course, they informed me it was strawberry flavored) on my teeth and then told me to rinse.  Okay, no big deal.  Then the sweet dental assistant proceeded to hand me a mirror and inform me that every spot on my teeth that still had this pink liquid on it was plaque... and this was very, very bad.  I remember I tried to laugh it off and make jokes (never a good idea when you're not speaking the same language), and this caused the sweet dental assistant to bring out the large model of teeth with a large toothbrush and show me how to brush my teeth... because apparently I didn't know after thirty-something years of doing it. (Note: they did not do this for Brian at his appointment - I guess he knows how to brush his teeth)   They also gave me a kind of report about my visit to the dentist which included a diagram of teeth and they colored red marks on all the teeth that had plaque... let's just say I was quite embarrassed.  I obviously had been a little too prideful of my teeth before coming to Japan, and I was greatly humbled.  So humbled, that it took me longer than normal to schedule my next annual cleaning.

But I went today, and even though I was dreading the two separate appointments (because yes, my bottom teeth do feel particularly 'unclean' as I write this) and the inevitable humbling lesson in how to brush my teeth, God helped me change my attitude during my appointment.  First of all, it's such a great feeling to feel like you're living normal life even in a place that can many times still feel so foreign.  I am overwhelmingly grateful how God has helped our family adjust to the different countries we've lived in... I am so thankful that things seem so normal now, although I'll probably make a huge cultural mistake tomorrow - it's almost guaranteed. :)  We're just living life, and even though the Dentist is still a 'different' experience, we're figuring out the system.  I'm thankful for insurance, I'm thankful for our growing Japanese language abilities, I'm thankful that Justin now loves the Dentist (he was jealous I got to go twice) and I'm really thankful that God helps us laugh... because even though they didn't pull out the large toothbrush and model today, this was one of the papers they sent home with me....
 Yes, the sweet assistant circled the picture in red and wrote in English, "You need!"  Wasn't that considerate? :)

Thank you God for adventures, for humbling lessons, for the amazing people I get to spend my day with, and the opportunity to join you in your work in Japan... I am truly overwhelmed. :)




Oh, and this was my view as I ate my lunch today and talked with God... not such a bad day, after all. :)

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Sakura!

We have lived in Okinawa 4 years now, and today was our 5th time to see sakura (cherry blossom trees)!  You can only see the blooms for about 2 weeks, but somehow each year we have managed to have a 'sakura day' where we spend time together as a family and enjoy God's beautiful creation on our island.  We're really bad at keeping track of how the boys grow on a regular basis(height, weight, etc.), but we do have pictures of them every year with sakura. :)  It's so fun to look back and see how they have changed.  Each year's pictures bring back wonderful memories - we are so blessed!

Sakura 2010 - we had only been in Okinawa a few weeks, and I was still pregnant with Noah!





 Sakura 2011 - Noah was just a baby and Justin was 3 years old...
 


Sakura 2012 - Noah was 1 1/2 and Justin had just turned 4...
 


Sakura 2013 - we went to a different area of the island that year and don't have as many pictures, but you can still see how they're growing...




And sakura 2014 - Noah is 3 1/2 and Justin turned 6 last week... we had tons of fun walking, running, exploring... more adventures every year! :)


Again, thank you Jesus for our family! :)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Our garden!

Last year we moved into a beautiful house that our church purchased for a parsonage.  One of the only things on our 'perfect house list' that our house doesn't have is a yard for the boys to play in... but it's not typical to have a yard in Japan, so we are fine.  We're spoiled with beautiful parks everywhere, anyway. ;)  But we do have a nice walkway that leads up to the front door.  The former owner had some landscaping, but after a year of doing nothing with it, it was overgrown with weeds and did not have the inviting look we wanted for our home.  So when we got back from home assignment last summer, it was time to tackle the front walkway and make it our garden.  We enlisted the help of a wonderful friend from church who has made gardening in Okinawa her hobby.  She continues to teach us how to plant, when to plant, and nearly every plant in our garden has come from hers!  Tara, we can't thank you enough for your help and joining us in our adventure!
It has been a really fun experience over the last few months, so here are some pictures of the process...

Before (looking from the door to the street)
 
and AFTER!!!

Here's another before shot looking toward the front door (this is after hours of weeding, by the way)...
 

 

and AFTER!!!  Quite an improvement, don't you think?
 
So here are our pictures of the process....
First we had to make our dirt better... so we dug up a lot of the dirt we had and mixed it with many kinds of 'good dirt'... this took about 4 hours... it made our small space seem very large. ;)






Then we laid out covering to minimize weed growth and covered it in mulch...



 
 Noah found a praying mantis friend during the process. :)
And then we started planting!
We've been slowly adding plants as we buy them or as Tara gives us more from her garden. :)


















My favorites are our water plants... we even have fish in one of the pots!  We are loving the blessing of living in a house and having a small garden to take care of... we pray that God would use this garden to help us get to know our neighbors a little better.  I also love the time of watering our garden every day - it has become one of my favorite prayer times. :)