Saturday, December 20, 2014

24 Hour Vacation

As usual, I can't believe it's already December!  The summer flew by and it seems this fall went by even more quickly.  Life has been busy but full of amazing friendships and memories.  God continues to teach us so many things and we are in constant awe of His grace and working in our lives.  Our summer was wonderful, but as it came to a close, we realized we never had any time away just for our family and we could tell we needed it. :)  But the fall calendar was busy and it's difficult for us to get away on weekends.  So we came up with a new idea that we all fell in love with and can't wait to repeat... the 24 hour vacation!

We picked up the boys early from school on a Friday and informed them we were going on vacation... for 24 hours. :)  Thanks to Brian's jar of change, some leftover birthday gift money, and support from our LINKS churches, we were able to have a short but very meaningful and fun get away. :)
 
So we checked in to our hotel and immediately went to the pool.  It was a little cool outside but we had just enough sun to still enjoy ourselves. 
 
 
We had a wonderful dinner and evening walk on the beach. 

The next morning we greatly enjoyed the hotel breakfast buffet (always our favorite part of staying at Japanese hotels... and we were way too busy eating to take any pictures) and spent our last hour in the pool again.
 

After we checked out we enjoyed a special treat for lunch and then went to a fun nature park we hadn't been to before. Then we made it home in time for supper and church the next day. :)

 

 











 A few years ago, I probably would have never been okay with us doing something like this... we should have had more time away, the hotel was too expensive, we missed an event and had stuff we should be doing, etc., etc.  But thankfully God is so patient with me and is teaching me to look at things differently.  There are always things that need to be done, and He is teaching me to not be so concerned with all those things... every day we have together is precious and wonderful.  It's important to work at what He has called us to, but it's also extremely important to obey His Sabbath commands and rest, get away, and play together... even if it's just for 24 hours.  :)

Monday, October 20, 2014

The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these...

Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Matthew 19:13-14




 
  Since I became a parent, and a parent in full-time ministry, these verses have started to mean something new and different to me.  I've heard them discussed countless times in my life and have always found deep meaning, challenge, and motivation in how I treat and love all children, and how 'child-like' my own faith is.  And while all of those thoughts still hold very true, God is helping me see them in a new light.

Our life is busy, like most people.  But sometimes being in the ministry is a different kind of busy, and it can have great impacts (positive and negative) on our children.  While we don't feel obligated to be at every single event that happens at our church, we're involved in most of them.  And while we try to protect our family time and our boys' needs, our boys end up being at church and church events a lot.  For the most part, they love it... and we're very thankful for that. :) But this last Sunday was one of those days where there were many things going on.  And honestly, I wished that only Brian had committed to go to our evening activity.  But we rsvp-ed for the whole family, so I put on smile, told the boys how much fun we would have, and we got in the car, even though they would get to bed late, it was a school night, I still needed to go shopping for school lunches the next day, etc. etc. :)

There are five other Japanese Nazarene churches on Okinawa (ours is the only English-speaking), and a few times a year they host events for people from the different churches to have fellowship together.  This Sunday night was one of my favorites - a really delicious bbq on the beach... yes, why in the world did I have any hesitation to attend? ;)  We have attended almost every year since we moved to Okinawa, and it's usually the same small group of young adults from three or four churches.  So we know each other, but we only see each other a few times a year.  But our friends have watched the boys grow up over the last 4 1/2 years of occasional interaction.  Some speak English, but most of the conversations are in Japanese (sometimes the conversations are very short when we are a part ;) ).

So, on the way to the park, we had the usual talk in the car... 'Boys, our friends are going to be at the beach tonight.  Please say hello or konnichiwa when someone says hello to you.  This is a good time to practice your Japanese.  These are our friends.  It's okay if you don't talk a long time, just smile and be friendly....' etc., etc.  Our boys love being with friends, but they can also be shy in new or different situations.  So they stuck pretty close to us for the first 30 minutes as we started eating and saying hello.  After a while, they were getting restless, so I encouraged them to go watch the food being cooked, and they decided to watch a nearby soccer game instead.  I was talking to a friend and didn't notice that some of our friends from the other churches were sitting and talking with the boys.  And my boys were beaming. They kept talking, occasionally coming to me for more food or drink, but then eagerly returning to the steps where they were hanging out with 'their friends'.  



And then I watched them all go down to the beach and play soccer together... soccer the way our boys like to play it.  And I remembered Jesus' words in Matthew... and I realized I was watching it happen right in front of me..."Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."  Our friends welcomed, loved, and 'received' our children, and I was a witness to the kingdom of heaven here on earth.
As we said our goodbyes later, the boys didn't want to leave.  The whole way home they kept talking about 'their friends' and asking when we would see them again.  Thank you, Jesus, for giving us glimpses of your kingdom here on earth.  Thank you for giving us friends who love our children in small ways that have very big meaning.  And please help me to do the same.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Motheread!

So now that I'm not on the board at OCSI anymore (see previous post), I'm able to be more involved with the Parent Teacher Fellowship (PTF).  Many of the families at the school are Japanese or don't speak English at home, even though everything at school is in English.  So sometimes the parents struggle with understanding things and being able to help with their children's education.  As I continued to hear about this the last few years, it kept reminding me of a program I was involved with when we lived in Guam - Motheread!  Motheread is a literacy program for adults that uses children's books.  Each week you study a different book together and then the parents get to take the book home and read and do the activities with their kids.  It's a wonderful program and has always been one of my most favorite things I've been able to be a part of.  So I talked with the administration and other PTF members about starting a class here at OCSI... and we did.... and we're having SO much fun.  :)
1st Motheread Class at OCSI - September, 2014
When I started looking back through the curriculum, I came across some material when I first got trained in the program, and it was 10 years ago! I immediately started thinking of my friend Beth in Guam.  Beth was part of our church and also worked for the Guam Humanities Council.  The Humanities Council sponsored the Motheread program on Guam, and since I was working for the Salvation Army, Beth encouraged me to get trained and use it with some of our clients.  I taught the program 2 different times with other teacher friends and it was simply amazing... we were able to develop very close relationships with the Moms that participated, and it helped them with their children and living as immigrants in a place very different than where they were originally from.

Guam Motheread class - 2004



It was also an emotional time as I started making lesson plans for Motheread again.  Beth was one of our closest friends in Guam.  And she stayed in touch with us after we moved to the Philippines and she later moved to Florida.  Two years ago she died unexpectedly, and sometimes it's still hard to think about the world without Beth.  She was an incredibly generous person who supported us in many ways ever since we first met.  She is the reason I was involved in Motheread in Guam, and she is the reason I'm able to use it again to connect with other parents here in Okinawa.  I am forever thankful for Beth's friendship and the way she influenced my life.  Please pray for our Motheread class and the opportunities God has given us to build relationships with new friends.  And thank the people who have made a difference in your life... God used Beth to make a difference in my life 10 years ago, and he continues to bless that influence even now. :)
with Char and Beth in Manila - 2006

Daily living

Well our summer was busy, and apparently September was too, because I can't believe it's already October and our calendar is filling up with activities from now until the end of the year.  But school is going well for both boys and we're excited for new opportunities and friendships God continues to bring us.  Recently I've had a few friends ask what a typical day is like for us.  And it made me realize that sometimes things become so normal to me that I forget to share with our friends and family around the world what we're involved in and what God is doing... so this post is about one of those things that has been a part of my daily life. 

Some of you know that Justin attends Okinawa Christian School International (OCSI) and Noah will start there next year.  We heard of the school as soon as we moved to Okinawa and have been so blessed to be part of the school community as parents, and our church also partners with OCSI in many things.  But when we had been in Okinawa about 1 1/2 years, I (Julie) was asked to join the school board.  I also grew up at a private school and was excited about the chance to serve the school and expand our involvement in Okinawa.  The school is set up so that local missionaries and pastors make up the board, and you are asked to serve for 3 years. 

When I first joined the board, I only knew a few teachers, and I didn't even know the other board members much.  I had no idea how God would use that experience to change me and give me incredible friendships.  I learned a lot while serving on the board... my Mom was previously a school principal and teacher, so I knew that working at a private school was very stressful at times.  But I really had no idea. ;) Yes, sometimes it was really hard and we had to deal with very difficult things.  But it was such a privilege to deal with those difficult things together, with amazing brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are blessed with an incredible community of churches and missionaries on Okinawa.  We are all from different backgrounds, denominations, and organizations, but God has blessed our relationships with unity, encouragement, prayer support, and incredible friendships. 
 
I learned so much from the other board members and school administrators, faculty, and staff I got to work with.  God stretched me and challenged me in ways I hadn't experienced before... it was hard, but so good.  And now that my 3 year commitment is finished, I know how to pray for the school in a different and deeper way.  We are still very involved in the school as parents and through church partnerships, and sometimes I do miss that tangible way of serving, but God is opening new doors and opportunities.  It's actually really cool that we've been here long enough to go through 'seasons' of serving in different ways.  I am so thankful for my time on the board, and now I'm thankful to get serve God at the school in other ways.  But my life has been changed by the incredible people I got to serve with and their love for God and dedication to him.  And if you ever want to serve at a great school on a beautiful island in Japan, just let me know and I'll send you an application... :)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Summer 2014

So, the last time we wrote a blog was a few months ago, and there are quite a few reasons for that... we have enjoyed a wonderful but incredibly busy summer, and I can't believe it's over, and we fit so much fun into such a short period of time!  Here's a brief recap of the highlights, and we hope that as we get back into a regular routine, it will also include regular blogging. :)

Julie's parents arrived the first week of June right in time for Justin's kindergarten graduation!

 We are so proud of Justin as he continues to grow in so many ways, and it was so special to have family here to celebrate together.  Justin was also a ringbearer in a wedding!  Some dear friends got married and we had a wonderful time celebrating their marriage... and I think our boys are pretty handsome when they get dressed up. :)


Next we celebrated Noah's 4th birthday!  Noah continues to become such a fun and creative boy... we are so thankful for the constant smiles and laughter he brings to our family. 
A few days after Julie's parents left, we reconnected with a very special friend from our time in the Philippines!  We were very close friends with Mami and her family, and she was one of Justin's first babysitters. :)  Mami is now about to graduate from college in Tokyo, and she came to Okinawa with a mutual missionary friend, Andrea, who lives in Osaka.  We had an amazing time showing them Okinawa and reconnecting.


 And then a few days after Mami and Andrea left, I (Julie) flew to Denver for a week! My sister, Jessica, got married, and it was such an incredible blessing to be with them. I know I'm biased because she's my sister, but it really was the most beautiful and meaningful wedding I have ever been to.  It was such a gift to spend time with family and friends in the beautiful mountains, and we're so excited for Jessica and Andy and their future adventures together!

















The same day I left for Denver more of our dear friends from the Philippines came to Okinawa... but not just to visit - to stay! Jana has been a close friend ever since we moved to the Philippines in 2006.  We traveled to South Africa together, were Seminary students together, and worked together on different NYI projects.  Last year she married Anderson (who of course is our friend because he married Jana) and as they were looking at where God wanted them after seminary, we suggested they apply to become teachers at OCSI.  After months of praying (well, years really, but that's another story), the school hired them, their visas were approved, and they arrived in Japan! Their apartment wasn't ready when they got here, so they got to stay with us for 2 weeks.  We had a wonderful time showing them some of the island and reconnecting.  But we're even more excited that we get to live in the same place!  Even though they are working full-time at OCSI, they will also be involved in our church, and we will meet regularly to pray together about what God is doing around us. 
And next... a week after Jana and Anderson moved into their apartment, Brian's parents and brother came for a visit!  It was so great for the boys (and us!) to see both grandparents in the same summer.  It was also Justin's (Brian's brother) first time to come to Okinawa, so again we had a great time showing him the island and spending time together. 
Oh yeah, and we had Vacation Bible School at church while they were here... never a dull moment in the Woolery house! 


So, after 2 months of guests, emotions of reconnecting and saying goodbye, keeping up with church responsibilities, and LOTS of eating out and being tourists, Brian and I are ready to get back into our crazy, but normal, routine.  But after we said goodbye to Brian's family, Noah's first question was, "Who's coming next?".  I'm so thankful that God gives our children flexibility and perspective... the gifts of a guest room and time with family and friends are MUCH more important than routine and schedules... every day is a gift, and we're thankful for the days of this summer. :)

Friday, May 23, 2014

"You're my only friend..."

Today God showed himself to me in such a real and amazing way; I'm still in shock and can't wait to share. :) Right now our ladies Bible study at church is studying Henry Blackaby's Experiencing God.  I first did this study when I was in high school, and it has been a wonderful experience to go through it again at a very different point in life.  One of the things I remembered most from the first time I went through it was the point that God is always working around us... we just need to see where He is working and how He is inviting us to join Him in His work.  It's such a simple concept and I so easily forget it... it's just too easy for me to rush ahead, race into things, and even invent my own ideas without ever looking for what God is already doing around me.  So as I continue to be reminded of this, God made it very clear to me again today... and I'm beyond thankful.

About 3 or 3 1/2 years ago I was buying some things in the drugstore I normally go to, and the girl at the cash register was friendly and started a conversation with me.  She was eager to practice English, and I was eager to practice Japanese... at the time one of the only things I knew how to say was that I wasn't military, I was here as a missionary. :)  That was very fascinating to her, and she shared that she had previously lived in England and attended church there.  She asked me lots of questions about our church and I invited her to a special Christmas service we have each year with our Japanese churches.  I didn't really think I would hear from her again, but a few weeks later, she was there with her boyfriend.  It was great to see her again, and over the last 3 years, she and her boyfriend (now husband) have randomly shown up at church about 2 or 3 more times.  They have a baby now, and it's always been a little funny when they show up... she's always happy to see me, but then I don't hear from her again for at least 6 months or a year, so we really don't have much of a relationship at all.

About 2 weeks ago she called me, but I was in a meeting and forgot to call her back.  Then last week she sent me an email.  She said she really needed to talk to me because something was going on with one of her friends, and I am the only friend she has who knows anything about religion.  This was very different than any of our interactions before, so we scheduled a time to meet and I saw her this afternoon.  As we caught up on life and families, she started to share some of her story with me.  She believes in God (which is not normal for most Japanese) but doesn't really know anything beyond that.  Unfortunately she has people in her life who claim to be Christians but are acting in very hurtful and destructive ways in their relationship with her.  She poured her heart out with fears and questions.  As we talked, it was so obvious that she is hungry to know more about God and who Jesus really is.  So I asked if she would like to meet weekly to study the Bible together.  She said, "Yes!  That's why I was so excited when I met you the first time.  I really want to study the Bible and know more about God."

Sometimes ministry is hard and discouraging... and it has been for me recently... it's not always something specific, but sometimes you just have more questions, doubts, and disappointments than reassurances and confidence that you're where you're supposed to be and moving in the right direction.  But God made some things obviously clear to me today.  He is working and moving... and I'm in awe that He invites me to join Him.  He loves and cares for the people of Japan more than we do, and we need to be persistent in our prayers for our neighbors, friends, and the country we're so privileged to live in. 

Recently a friend talked about how so many people in Japan have no Christian friends they can turn to or talk to when they are going through hard times (Less than 1 % of the total population is Japan are Christians).  I'll never forget when my friend (whom I randomly met in a drugstore 3 years ago and have seen only maybe 4 times) said that I'm the only friend she has who knows anything about religion, and she was desperate to talk to me.  But really, she's desperate to know Jesus.  Please pray for my friend.  Pray for our times together.  Pray that God will give me His words and wisdom when we meet.  And thank God today for the absolutely amazing ways He works. :)

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. ;)