The City No Longer Forsaken

"They will be called the Holy People, the Redeemed of the LORD; and you will be called Sought After, the City No Longer Deserted." ~Isaiah 62:12

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

It is for freedom...

It wasn't the finest of missionary moments. The near-fainting spells often come after getting out of a dentist's chair--perhaps because my head has been lower enough than my body that it gets adequate blood flow to panic before then. Since Nathan's birth, my trust of doctors (especially Japanese ones) and ability to show any kind of bravery in medical situations feels like it's at an all time low. And trust me, it's always been low.

When I was slightly more determined to be brave, I could often make a run for it. Many times after painful dentist visits I would somehow murmur my way through paying a bill, making a followup appointment, whatever was necessary, and then walk decidedly to the car or outside step, to finally squat down and get my head between my knees before my vision clouded over too far. Today I tried to do the same at my first visit to a Japanese dentist, but found my thoughts were so fuzzy as my vision was clouding and my head was spinning that the Japanese to schedule a new appointment wouldn't form. I finally gave in, admitted I was dizzy, and had to curl up on a waiting room bench for a few minutes. God is gracious and lunch hour had started and it was a private little moment between the dental hygienist and me (the only thing worse than almost passing out at procedures is when it becomes a scene), but I still left just feeling yucky. I'm going to be thirty next year. I have a son. Isn't this about the time that bravery is supposed to kick in?

I've spent much of the day with my mind spinning. What freaks me out so much? What is a Christian to do when fear is kicking them down so often? When God and angels and prophets and Jesus and disciples all say without ceasing in the Bible: "Do not fear"? My thoughts wandered through all the books of the Bible and wondered if I could think of any that gave a more step by step answer to the "how" of "do not fear"...I couldn't think of one off the top of my head. Of course, it says that perfect love casts out all fear. But it seems like perfect love is often hard to get to during those times. The fact of the matter is that there are still life events that shake my ability to trust God's goodness--which makes it hard to rest in it. So what do I do, being a person who truly believes that He is good *all* the time?

Nathan went down early tonight, and Joel is eating ramen with co-workers. When my internet flashed out, I realized this was starting to look an awful lot like a God set-up. What do you know--even busy moms with little ones clinging to their ankles get dates with God! Amid pouring out of frustrations and time to worship, a book of blessings on my bookshelf crossed my mind for the second or third time. I decided to get it and flip it open and see where it took me.

"Beloved one, listen with your spirit to God's Word for you in Galatians 5:1. 'It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.' Be released into your full freedom in Christ to be entirely whole . . . You are not meant just to survive. You are meant to thrive and be whole, and free, and complete. . . Receive the tender correction of your Shepherd. Sometimes he uses his rod and staff to guide you, lest you stray from his care in paths of righteousness, but your soul resists. Welcome your Shepherd's discipline for your good. He guides you to persevere into full freedom in himself that is your right in him. Persist and stand firm in him. Be blessed with all the liberty of the Lord. It's yours, because Jesus set you free. Be blessed in his purpose for you to live free in full confidence. Be blessed in the name of your Deliverer." (Sylvia Gunter, You Are Blessed In the Names of God).

As I was praying over these words, I realized something. So much of my shame in this fear is that I came to Fukushima to share hope with the fearful. As I watched so many people terrified of earthquakes, scared of radiation, that was what I wanted to give them. But we can't give other people what we don't have ourselves. The thing is, I am fearless when it comes to earthquakes and radiation. I So, I suppose I felt that meant I could teach people about hope. But, as God has called me to walk through a traumatic birth, processing the possibility and terror of a second child born in the same place (I'm not pregnant--just processing the possibility since we feel for now that God is calling us to stay in Fukushima) and seems to be continuing to push me into painful medical situations where I must trust medical professionals while dealing with a language and cultural barrier, it is obvious that I have so much to learn about hope and trust.

I wonder if this is where a lot of relief work goes horribly wrong. When we step in to try to help a group of suffering people, but we have not yet lived through our own horrors, we have nothing real to say. I don't know if there's anything as fearful to me as being poked and prodded in painful ways without knowing if the authority in question understands what I'm saying, or if I've understood what they're about to do...But I'm hopeful as I look at these experiences and think...when I find God here, I'm *really* going to have found something amazing. I realize more and more that what I really want is not freedom from pain, but freedom from fear. Christ has set us free. I can't wait to know it more deeply.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Raising a baby in Japan...the four month checkup

There are some things that Japan does really well. So, while I'm not in what I would consider an ideal location (for me) to deliver babies or raise kids, I have been very impressed by the public health community here. Nathan's one month check up was back at the clinic where he was born, but the two month check-up took place in our apartment. A woman from the city office called and made an appointment with me, and then came, weighed Nathan, and sat with me for a long time answering all my questions about vaccines and services and the next steps. Parents are given a book at this two month appointment that lists local day cares, mama circles and play groups, obstetrician's offices, and even things like emergency drop off places where you can bring your kid without notice in an emergency and they will receive care. She sat for a long time and explained what was in the book so that I didn't have to fumble around with my dictionary and figure it out for myself. Very helpful!

Of course, there are still many things I don't get. I showed up at a local doctor's office a couple months ago trying to figure out where I do our "three month" appointment. I don't know where I got the idea in my head that there was an appointment every month. But we were all confused, and the polite staff finally managed to communicate that I should go to them for vaccines, but that there were no more official appointments until 4 months, and that one was done by the city.

So, I was a little apprehensive about a health check done "by the city". My image before going was that we would kind of be marched like cattle through a gymnasium...military style shots in the butt as you walk in a line past the person giving the shots...and while I was being apprehensive about this, Nathan's fourth month kind of came and went without me figuring out where and when we could have this city check. We got a postcard right about when he turned five months giving the dates for the next month that it was available. So, yesterday, I got up my courage and we went to the appointment.

You know what? Japan does a few things really well. We were in a large room, but they had intentionally sorted us into small groups so that we had a group of other moms to go through the various processes with and to talk to while we were waiting. I wasn't able to make the best use of this time, because I spent about the entire half an hour we were waiting getting help filling out detailed medical forms that I could only partially read. Three cute young volunteers were assigned to us for this task, and we struggled through words like diabetes and tuberculosis and pre-eclampsia until I could figure out my answers to everything.

After that, we went in where we sat down to talk with a person one on one. The public health lady very simply asked how I was doing physically and how I was doing emotionally and we had a very comfortable and personal feeling conversation about postpartum recovery and adjusting to new motherhood. We went from there to height and weight checks, then for a simple medical exam. Nathan decided he wanted to show off, and when the doctor flipped him over to his belly, he popped up on his hands and knees. We were all in shock. He has been rolling and creeping around, and he does a lot of the pushing up to his hands. But I've never seen him actually on his knees before. Our days of only partial childproofing are coming to an end, I think! Then we sat down as a group with a nutritionist who gave us the low down on solid foods. At the end, they sat us down one-on-one again and went over anything they thought was important and made sure none of our questions had been missed. There were a lot of individualized woman was lectured about vaccines, and I wondered if we would be since we're a little behind schedule...but they just reminded us that we should have checked out his hips by now, and helped us find a doctor close to home where we could make sure they're okay. We ran in and out of that doctor in about 15 minutes on the way home.

It's a little crazy trying to navigate the medical system with a baby for the first time when you're mostly illiterate! And it's a little different here to figure out where to ask questions. I find that there is usually zero time with the actual doctor to ask questions unless you ask for it. So I'm finally learning that, rather than saving my questions for the doctor, to make sure to ask the nurses up front, or to take time with these wonderful public health people to figure out what's up.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Nathan's Baptism

After a LOT of wrestling over what I thought about infant baptism vs. adult baptism, I was surprised when I found myself in tears this morning sitting in the front pew in church with my husband and my son, waiting to bring him up for baptism. More than just having come to a place of surrender, somehow I was actually excited for it too. (I've been raised in churches that do both, so I really wanted to wrestle it through with God before I made a choice for our kids. And Joel, who has never been confused about the issue, was patient enough to allow me to do the wrestling before we went through with it.) Nathan screamed pretty much from the second we stood up to baptize him up until we finished praying for him at the end...and then I was able to settle him down. So, I was glad I had that one reflective moment sitting in the pew before we brought him up and all my attention was on him rather than the words.

We decided to baptize him on Pentecost Sunday. The Japanese churches I've been in usually do baptisms on Christmas and Easter, but Pentecost is another option. I've always thought Pentecost would be an awesome day for baptisms, but especially because it was the day that God said "Yes!" to the prayers for a baby. It felt really fitting to offer Nathan back on the same day a year later that I found out he was coming. Crazy how much can change in a year!

Nathan barely calmed down for a picture

Cindy and Nathan

Suda-san has become one of Nathan's adopted grandmas. Nathan will get to meet his real grandmas this summer, but I'm thankful for adopted Japanese grandmothers!

Me with Pastor Nomura and Nathan

In Pastor Nomura's sermon, he talked about how special the baptism was because it is the first baptism he has gotten to do since the earthquake. He talked about God providing people who are willing to raise their children here, and I was so encouraged. When I came to Fukushima, it seemed like such a strange call . . . like I had so little to give at that time in my life. I remember praying that God would use our presence there, if nothing else, to communicate hope. I often forget, since my words never seem to communicate hope the way I'd hope they would, how much it really can mean just to stand with people in a place. I hope to be able to do more for them someday have the Japanese and the wisdom to speak more in. But I am encouraged to know that living here with a baby is an encouragement to the Christians who are standing here.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Introducing the little one!

A few days old.
I'm sitting here now with my one month old son curled up on my stomach. Nothing better than snuggling with a content, sleeping baby! Here's the part where I want to write all of you a ten page novel about the birth and life with him. We'll see how long this nap time lasts!

I've wondered if I should write up an entry about giving birth in Japan. I was encouraged to read a lot of different birth stories from foreigners who did just that while I was pregnant. But, I'm not sure that I actually feel like writing up my whole birth story for anyone who stumbles on this blog to read. If anyone ends up here who is pregnant in Japan and wants more info, feel free to comment and get in touch with me. I'd love to help others get more info!
40 weeks pregnant!

What I will say is, the birth was difficult...not necessarily because I was in Japan. I do wonder if it might have been different somewhere else, but that is more because I gave birth in a rural area where the option I really wanted was not available. Someday, I still hope to have a water birth in a birth center supported by midwives instead of doctors. This time, I gave birth in a small clinic with a doctor. There are many women's clinics that do births in Japan. At mine, the first story of a pretty small building is the clinic, the second is where women are hospitalized postpartum, and the third story is labor and delivery. I was so fortunate to be able to have not only Joel with me, but also my good friend Cindy who both helped with labor and translated. I really didn't feel like there was even one moment where I didn't understand what was going on because of language.

Proud daddy with his brand new son!
The short story is that I had moments where contractions felt like they were becoming regular starting on my due date. I went into true labor six days later around noon, just after going to the doctor for my regular appointment. Nathan was born about 13 hours later, right at 41 weeks. What was very amazing to me was that I had no concept of time, and it felt like everything was going very, very fast to me. Unfortunately, it wasn' least the pushing stage wasn't. So, after pushing for about an hour and a half, since Nathan's heart was showing signs of distress during contractions and there was meconium in the water, we had to extract him via vacuum.  This was all without pain meds, which was how I wanted to do it, and I think it would have been a good decision except for the vacuum. I don't recommend unmedicated vacuum extractions. ;-) His positioning was a little off...the doctor kept explaining that he had been trying to come face first, and a little sideways. The cord was wrapped around his chest and neck also. But despite the pain and difficult delivery, Nathan is here. He came out a little purple, and not crying right away, but they had him breathing quickly, and his Apgar at 5 minutes was a 9, so all is well. The poor guy had a huge circular bruise from the vacuum on top of his head for a few days, and was a little jaundiced, but by a few days in was gaining weight like a pro and doing great!

One of our great nurses!
A Japanese hospital stay is typically very long compared with America. We spent a week with some wonderful nurses. Joel was able to sleep on a couch in the room. It almost felt like a protected "practice run" at being new parents. Nathan had to stay in the nursery per policy for most of the first 24 hours, but the night after that we kept him...until 5am when we called a nurse to take him. So we were able to ease our way into making it through the night. I was really grateful for the long hospital stay. I really felt ready to go home around day 5, and I can't really imagine how women manage being home with a newborn and healing up just a day or two after giving birth.
Nathan and his buddy in the clinic nursery

The most intimidating thing about going home was just how thin our walls are. After a week in a super climate controlled hospital room, something about our cold bedroom with the winter winds that can make things rustle right through the window panes seemed like a bad place to bring a baby into. We're still waiting our first electric bill, as this is the first time living in Japan that we've left the heat on 24/7.

Our celebration meal at the hospital
Life with Nathan has been wonderful and challenging. I'm surprised at how expressive the little guy can be. I know I have all sorts of new mom hormones raging through me, but even after a month, I can spend hours just watching his face and feel so much joy over him. I have trouble carrying conversations sometimes because being in the room with Nathan is like being in the room with someone I have a crush distracting!

Time just to snuggle and be together

Within the last week or two, he's started making many more coos and baby sounds. He is most happy when I can settle in our rocking chair and he can go back and forth between eating, snuggling and sleeping, and perching on my shoulder looking at the light coming in the window. While he's perched he'll be making all kinds of coos and gurgles and even grinning from time to time...until he remembers that he likes eating pretty much all the time and then it transitions into him making his mouth into a little round "o" and trying to eat my shirt until I take him down and feed him. I was worried about feeling lonely with so much time alone at home with a baby--and I do miss more adult conversations--but there is a lot of peace at just accepting that right now what's best is snuggling with this little guy while he's little.

Up until this past week, we haven't been able to set the baby down without him crying. Luckily, he will snuggle in bed with us, so we've been able to sleep. I'm glad that I had done all the reading on co-sleeping before he was with us and decided I was for it (though I was a little nervous at first), because I don't know how we would have gotten any sleep otherwise. Now I can often set him down for an hour or two during the day and get a good nap in or get a few things done around the house. Speaking of naps, this one is over! But I was able to write much more than I thought. :)

My little man :)

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Story of a Growing Bump

I wasn't sure I would ever be here: sitting with a rounding belly with a set of very, very small toes poking around my insides.

I was 22 and on my way to Japan the first time a doctor told me, "If you want to have kids, you should do so early." Ironically, at this point, I'm fairly certain her suspected diagnosis of me was not true. Five years later, a couple months after my wedding, another doctor looked at an ultrasound and said, "I've never seen someone look like this who was younger than 50 years old!" She was doubtful I could have kids right then, but more concerned that I might have cancer. This made my second move to Japan a dramatic whirlwind of a ride with a quick diagnostic surgery and many unanswered questions about what this would mean about my future ability to be a biological parent.

How do you put into words what God can do during 14 months of longing for someone who has not yet come to be? How do I explain what God did? How can I explain the fullness of blessing that came because we had to wait--and the fullness of celebration at the gift that is being given? I want to try, though the words will probably come up far short.

I must give the disclaimer that I was *barely*, *barely* even able to claim the title of infertile. Part of me cringes saying it because we got pregnant in 14 months (the definition is greater than 12 months trying without success). I feel like I have to lower my eyes to avoid making cyber-eye contact with the women whose stories I've come to know...women who have tried ten years. Women who have miscarried every time they get a glimmer of hope. Women who get poked by needles in infertility clinics every single day in hopes to make their bodies able to have a baby. Women who are mothers to so many babies in heaven while the world around them doesn't even know they are mothers. Women who lost babies big enough to cradle in their arms for a few precious minutes or days as they said 'goodbye'. I ache for these women still, and I am humbled as I watch the weeks pass, my belly grow bigger, the internal kicks grow from small bumps into thumps that move my whole stomach... the awe just overtakes me sometimes: God's is God this kind?

The hardest part about the 14 months was that, with what the last doctor had told me, it seemed incredibly likely that I was actually quite able to conceive a baby but not necessarily able to have the egg successfully implant. Let me tell you, this can mess with your head. This means that I would have the potential to be pregnant right in the period of time where pregnancy cannot be detected by a home test, and then the baby would be lost. I was so afraid of this, and every normal PMS symptom usually convinced me that it was happening month after month. What I feared actually happened in November last year when I took a pregnancy test that turned out positive. That pregnancy ended hours later the same day. I'm not sure if it was my only early miscarriage or not, but it was the only one we ever caught.

What surprised me most about those few November hours was that I was suddenly scared stiff. Here I had been crying often about not being able to get pregnant for the past few months, and suddenly, when it happened, I found myself totally shocked and unprepared. I really believe that God allowed us to "catch" this pregnancy because He needed me to switch my mind over from preparing for a lifetime of infertility to actually allowing myself to prepare my heart for motherhood and a baby. I realized that my tendency with anything that hurts, or anything that is disappointing is to push the desire as far away from my heart as I can. But God had finally pushed me up against a desire that I couldn't do that with. It seemed impossible to shake this desire for a baby. The miscarriage in November made me realize that I had to walk forward both trusting God if the baby never came, or if more miscarriages came instead, but somehow to also keep my hands open for Him to give us a child if that was His will. It is the hardest narrow line I've ever had to walk.

My picture of Shadrach et al...forgive the poor quality photo!
I soaked in the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3. I love their response to King Nebuchadnezzar when they're told they will be thrown into the fiery furnace if they do not bow down and worship his statue. They say, "We do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it and He will rescue us from your hand. But if He doesn't, we want you to know, O King, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold." (Daniel 3:16-18) I've always been uneasy praying for physical healing, or praying for greatly desired things, because I'm uneasy with the philosophy some Christians have, which seems to say that if you have faith, you are guaranteed healing and prosperity. But this verse seemed to bring the whole thing into the right place for me. I needed to walk forward believing that God could bring us a baby. I needed to trust that He would give us a baby enough to prepare my heart to become a mother, even if that preparation made the pain of not being a mother much worse. And I needed to continue to serve Him right where I was, outside of the potential mother identity, in case He didn't. I worked to walk forward this way for the next seven months.

In May, I was relieved because it was the first month in my married life I honestly believed that I couldn't be pregnant. I was really ready for a month without thinking about pregnancy, and our timing had been lousy compared to any other month we'd been trying. Lousy enough that I was fairly certain it was impossible. May was also the month of Pentecost and the Global Day of Prayer, which meant that we had our ten days of prayer scheduled from the 17th to the 27th. I was so excited about planning the prayer room and having something like prayer to pour my heart into for an extended period of time.

We got into praying, and a couple days into the prayer week, I was late. Which meant I was wrong. It was possible for me to be pregnant. Very soon, all of my time in the prayer room, which I had had wonderful intentions to spend talking to God about things other than babies, turned into lots of time talking to God about babies. I let Him know that I really wanted an answer from Him...that if He wasn't going to give this to me, I wanted to move on and serve Him and stop being so bogged down in a personal desire. I begged Him just to tell me whether He would ever give me a baby or not, because I believed I could hang on cheerfully for a long time if the answer was 'yes', and I also believed I could pull my heart out and direct it towards better things if the answer was 'no'. His answer surprised me. It was one of those very quiet thoughts that could have been me, or it could have been Him, but it seemed like it might be Him just because of how completely it stopped me in my tracks. That thought was, "Your faith during uncertainty is a precious thing to Me."

I was tempted to keep pushing Him for an answer. But I knew I'd actually been given something more precious than a 'yes' or a 'no'. This self of mine...the one who seemed totally unacceptable in human terms...the one who had moved to Japan and then thought about a baby she didn't have more than she thought about the mission work she did have...the one who burst into tears in public at the most inconvenient times and with strangers and who never seemed to have it together enough to make a good impact anymore...God was looking down at that mess of a child of His and saying, "The fact that you believe I can do this even though it is causing you this much pain is precious to Me." ...and that was more precious to me than certainty. And I felt I had true permission, for the first time, to outright ask Him to give us a baby.

This did not make it a stress-free week by any means. There were many more hours in prayer. And I felt like I was caught in the important thing had been settled with God, and now I had to wait for Sunday, for Pentecost, for the last day of the prayer week, which happened to be the day it was acceptable to take a pregnancy test. God does enjoy His flashy timing when He's showing off. :)

Two pink lines on Sunday morning. And unlike the pregnancy test in November, where the "pregnant" line was broken and light...the second line this time was bold, strong, and certain. I had just enough time to go to church and tell my friends who had walked me through this and prayed through this with me before I had to run home to start the first trimester morning sickness thrills.

God's kindness. There have been so many things I've loved that God has said 'no' to, or pulled me away from. It is so easy for me to understand the side of God that is jealous, the side that strips away, that cuts off to bring greater life and greater fruit and growth. I've spent the past five years nurturing my ability to see His very real goodness in the desert and in hardship. And I wouldn't trade those hardships and lessons for anything. But this... This is grace. This is the verse "We love because He first loved us" being poured out. I feel like I am watching Him pour love into me until I could burst. And I'm realizing that this is how He heals the hard hearts. The cross is only the beginning of grace. That grace continues and lives and poured out in the wounded places. Redemption that is able to cross any boundary put up by sin and by pain and make the dead places live. This would be true baby or not. But the little wiggles inside me keep making the tangible reminder: He loves us first. It's not our job to manufacture an ability to love, but He pours that love right into us to pour back out to others.

As of yesterday, we've hit 26 weeks. The baby is due January 26th. :)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Kids Camps at Inawashiro

Two girls, hand in hand with each other, were stopped outside the tatami room with their moms, where the five of us would be sleeping that night. "I'm sleeping together with you! That's great!" I exclaimed to them. A girl I'll call Nora had been in the same room as me for our Kids' Camp in May, and I was very excited about getting to continue a relationship. The other girl was new to me--I'll call her Hana. But she lit up even more than Nora at my words. Hana, I soon learned, was very affectionate. She wore a pink shirt most of the first day that said, "I'm cute, make me happy", which I have to admit it was nearly impossible not to want to do.

We had just arrived at the third kids' camp I've been able to participate in. I've watched these camps come together from the beginning of an idea, when we couldn't quite tell if it was coming from God, an overseas church connected with us, or our Japanese synod . . . and all my best guesses to try to figure out which Fukushima church was running it came out clueless. The general vision behind it hasn't changed while many of these structural things seem to be fluctuating all the time. We take families out of Fukushima and go to a location with lower radiation for a weekend, or a few days over a long holiday. Then the kids play outside without fear. Whether there are any real physical benefits to doing this or not is a controversial question. But as I talked it over with one of the other Christian volunteers on the bus on the way there, we came to the same conclusion I always reach. Whether the danger of radiation in Fukushima is real, or whether taking people out of it for such a short time does any physical good or not, the fear is real, and the stress relief from taking people out of their lives to relax and play seems to me to be real too. It is a wonderful chance to talk to and love on Fukushima families.

Nora, Hana and I spent much of Sunday and Monday arm in arm. I usually have a little more of a slope to climb when earning the affections of Japanese children, but Hana seemed totally unafraid. From the moment we were together, she shamelessly questioned me and noticed things outloud. "You have a long nose." "That's true. Do you think it's weird?" "Nope! It's beautiful." Later in the evening, she sat down across from me and pulled her cheeks down so I could get a good look at her eyes. "Can you see black?" she asked me. "Yep!" I said. She responded, "Your eyes are blue." Once her mom told her there were lots of colors of eyes other than black, she questioned me thoroughly about all the different options. "Green? Purple? Brown? Orange?"

Having known me for all of 15 minutes, right from the get go she seemed just as disappointed if I sat out of one game of tag as if her dad skipped the final championship of an important sports tournament. She and Nora spent the two days teaching me card games, and how you play dodge ball the Japanese way. We hid out together in the futon closet while Nora's mom rescued us from large flying insects . . . okay, it was actually one medium sized flying insect (I swear I'll grow up about being afraid of crawly things . . . sometime soon! ;-) ). On the last day, I spotted the girls through a somewhat intense ground level ropes course--and had fun encouraging them not to be afraid and to try (safe) things without holding onto my hand. I really am an introvert, and cherish these opportunities in the middle of a big group to get to pour out a lot of love on a few people I can get to know more intimately.

One of the things I love about working at the kids' camps, is that we've had whole teams of Japanese Christians come in to help. Eric and I do some of the games and English activities, and they do some. Last time, it was a whole group from the "Domei" Church. They'll be with us again for later camps too. This time, CRASH--the Christian organization formed to respond to disasters in Japan--sent a team of people. I like teams coming in because they bring a certain Christian environment with them. When prayer and conversations about God are springing up in Japanese in the free time, I always feel like we're being more natural when we have our structured Bible time later on. I also continue to be a lover of interdenominational Christian activity, and these camps have always been a good example of the way we are strengthened by working together.

Even so, we are definitely coming in as strangers! Hana asked me why I came to Japan, and I told her I came here for Jesus. Her mother (a non-Christian, to my knowledge) tried to help me out by explaining to her daughter that I was here for God. Hana was obviously confused. I keep thinking about that conversation and wondering, as I always do doing mission work in Japan, if there's any way to make the gap easier. But it always seems to come to the same thing--pray, follow God's leading, and if anything is in the way of God's Spirit, make sure it's gone. Because it's only His Spirit that leads people to himself. Every time a Japanese person begins following Jesus, I am amazed at God, because none of the conversations ever make it seem humanly possible. There aren't any working formulas that I know of--every solid convert to Christianity that I know of moves because they've had an encounter with God Himself. So, we keep praying, and keep loving, and keep speaking--and wait for the Spirit to move.

We circled with the other Christian volunteers in our church parking lot after waving goodbye to the last bus, and the Baptist pastor lead us in prayer. My eyes filled as he asked God to do so much more to protect the kids' bodies from radiation, but to lead all who didn't know Him to the Lord. It was a good reminder that this is why I came back, and that this is why I stay: to be down on my knees before the Father for these people, to tell them about Him, and to love on them for Him. Some days it costs more than others, and sometimes the way to do all that seems so foggy it's impossible to imagine HOW one prays and tells and loves. But moments like that, it seems as simple as can be.

Just keep following. Just keep praying. Just keep listening. Just keep speaking. Just keep loving.

"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." ~Galations 6:9

Saturday, June 30, 2012

God and Natural Disasters

In 2008, I happened to be in the middle of a 24/7 prayer week when Myanmar was hit by the deadly cyclone that killed many people. I have to admit, I was totally uneducated about Myanmar's political situation. (I still am--I am horrible about keeping up with the news!) I knew almost nothing about the country itself. But I found my heart unable to focus anywhere else, and began crying out to God that this disaster would open the nation up. I was shocked hours later when I began to research Myanmar and found that this seemingly random prayer request seemed to fit the situation so well. I continued to be amazed by this as the government of Myanmar refused to let in aid for its people in the weeks that followed, and so I continued my prayers that the doors would open, for both aid and the gospel.

The Sunday after the first prayer experience, I shared in our church's English Bible study that I felt excitement for Myanmar, because I felt that God was going to use this disaster in a big way for the country. I was immediately chastised, and a key church elder told me that I was 'testing God' by trying to claim that I knew God was the one who had sent the disaster. It turned into a rather fierce conversation without my meaning it to. Every last person around the table felt that I was far, far out of line.

That night, I wandered around a pond and told God about the struggle. I finally settled down on a park bench and flipped my Bible open, and it fell to Amos 3. I began reading, and was shocked to arrive at the verse, "When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it? Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets." (Amos 3:6-7). It was one of those beautiful prayer moments that feels like kisses from heaven. 

But let's slow down here, because when we read the verse, "When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?" I'm fairly certain everyone has a very strong impression of what that means.  Some people will be unable to justify this verse with their idea of God's love, and they will find some way to say it means something different, or was only meant for a given context. Others will feel almost eerily happy about this verse, smugly confident that they are on the side of God's armies and God is wiping out heathen sinners from the face of the planet. 

I was very struck by the polarization of these two views while reading this article that a facebook friend posted about the Waldo Canyon Fire. I have been closely, closely following this fire ever since a college friend texted me to say that her parents had had to evacuate their home, the home she grew up in. I found myself drawn to it not only because of the friend, and a handful of other people I know in the area, but also because I know about the Christian presence in Colorado Springs, and the number of praying people who are there. I had a feeling that God was doing something "strategic". Another friend, who also lost the home she grew up in in the fire, wrote to me that she felt sad at the news, but that she really felt God was in this. She added that she couldn't believe she was saying something that sounded so uncaring, because of how many people were suffering. All of this has left me with a strong desire to pray for Colorado Springs, and a strong desire to know what God is saying to the city so that I can align my prayers with that. 

So, after all this thinking, I couldn't help read the article, even though I suspected that I would struggle with the content. I ended the reading feeling very sad. It seemed to me to say that Christians who believe that God causes disasters and has reasons for them are only of the smug type, and generally only see God as being angry. We are left with the alternative of serving people after disasters, to show the world that God is not angry. I felt that the underlying idea in all this was crippling to God's power. It makes it look like all He is in the middle of a deadly situation is a warm, comforting cup of tea. 

That's a long intro, but this message has been burning on my heart all day ever since reading the article. 

It's so important when we are observing anyone's actions, be they a person or the God who created the whole universe, that we have some idea who they are, what their character is. I think we often feel the need to "throw out" God as the cause of a disaster because we really have no idea how deep His goodness goes.

One of my favorite stories to show God's character during times of destruction is Jesus coming into Jerusalem. It says, "As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace--but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you." (Luke 19:41-44) How often do we miss that God is weeping over the suffering inflicted on His people, even as His hand is in it? And, even as Jesus is prophetically declaring the destruction coming on Jerusalem, He is coming in to die, sacrificing His life to be "what would bring peace" for the sake of these people. This is just one specific example, obviously if I kept going on everything I could find about God's character with suffering, it would turn into a whole book! But I chose this example in particular because it is the aspect of God's character that I have been the most "aware of" during prayer times for the Springs. I don't often cry over disasters, but when my friend emailed me the second time to say that her parents' home had indeed been burned, I just cried and cried. I cannot get my mind off God's grief, even as I simultaneously cannot get my mind off of the belief that He is in this.

There's another key beyond knowing God's character in the second part of the Amos verse I used earlier. "Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets." We might be tempted to read every disaster that happens through the lens of our favorite ideas about God without ever consulting God. But God has a *long* history of combining disasters with prophetic words. Sometimes, he is saying, "Repent and turn back to me and this will stop." (The book of Joel is a good example of this kind of message). Other times, God is saying, "This is happening because of your sin, don't seek me for deliverance. I'm determined to do this." (See Jeremiah 11-12). There are times when God is stripping away earthly treasures so that we are left with the treasure of Him alone, to teach us that He really will provide everything we need, and to test us (See Deut. 8, and, in a different sense, the book of Job). And this is certainly not an exclusive list.

Because of these different messages, it's plain to see that we cannot make a judgment call about whether the people suffering are the greatest sinners or the most righteous. Unless we know what God is saying, there is vast history of Him sending hard times to both groups.

Disasters shake us up and make us think about God--they're meant to! What would we learn and how would we grow and what blessings could He give us if we chose to stand in the tension and pain of the disaster and humbly look up to Him for His words? And this goes for far more than the disasters that make national news--how much more so the quiet suffering that tempts our hearts to doubt or despair on a daily basis. What would happen if we sought His face?

Perhaps He would send us out to minister to the hurting, armed with His actual heart and Spirit inside of us as strength, rather than our own weak good intentions and failing human love. 

Perhaps He would call us to pray, and break our hearts for what is breaking His heart. Perhaps He would teach us about faith that moves mountains.

Perhaps He would speak hard, but life-giving words of truth into our situation by calling us, and those around us, to wake up and follow Him with all our hearts again. 

Perhaps He'd tell us that our supposed loss had saved us from death, because he was cutting away strangling thorns of worldliness to make way for a fruitful garden in our lives and cities where faith, hope and love could thrive and spread. 

Perhaps He would whisper how He is about to bless us by teaching us, through taking so much away, that He is the true provider--ushering us into a season where things we haven't worked for are mysteriously given, and we know in our hearts that He is not poor, and can take care of us no matter how far we follow Him into the desert.

Perhaps He would call us to learn to live more vulnerably within our own community during the time of pain, and give us the treasure of fellowship with dear friends who have stood with us through the darkest times. 

Perhaps He would tell us that we really are innocent, and we need to continue to stand true to Him and live in righteousness even if everyone else refuses to turn to Him so that the pain must continue.

Perhaps He would ask us to trust Him and to wait out the pain in worship and thanksgiving without knowing the reason behind it.

How will we know if we don't seek His face and listen? How will we know if we write off the disasters as coincidences and keep God in a safe box? How will we stand in the light if we always assume that we are on the side of the angel armies and those being destroyed deserve God's wrath? What will we miss if we just find the one answer to human suffering that calms our own heart the most, and do not step into the dialogue with the living God, who is not safe, but good?