Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
2 Corinthians 4:15
Good morning! I pray you had a blessed Thanksgiving. I have much to give thanks for, of course, including all who provided leadership at the November 10th presbytery meeting and day by day, and my colleagues who wrote MMU columns in my absence as I visited Japan.
I had a wonderful time there, visiting several ministries of the Kyodan, the United Church of Christ in Japan. This is the Protestant denomination that was formed in 1941 when the government required all churches to join into one. Since then some denominations separated from the Kyodan, but it continues to be the largest Christian church in Japan. However, all Christians make up only 0.8% of the Japanese population.
Theologian Douglas John Hall once asserted that because the church is so small in Japan, they were free of any temptations to take political or social power and instead, they simply serve. I witnessed this. The churches are small, but there are pastors who have also started faith-based ministries that witness to the larger world, including the Asian Rural Institute (http://www.ari-edu.org/en/), a remarkable international community founded by Rev. Dr. Toshihiro Takami that trains leaders from Asia, Africa, Europe, and the United States in agriculture and community development, and demonstrates sustainability (90% of what is consumed by the community is produced on-site). Another ministry that I’d heard about but never visited is the Bazaar Café in Kyoto, founded by Rev. Teruko Enomoto and now supported by missionary Martha Mensendiek. This is an actual café that welcomes outsiders in Japan, including foreign women who have been trafficked in Japan, people with disabilities and mental illness, sexual minorities, and people with HIV/AIDS and/or drug addiction. By employing these individuals, they give them a place of community, acceptance, support, and purpose.
I was able to meet with several other ministries working with the rebuilding of Ishinomaki and victims of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, the Korean Christian Church in Japan, and churches in Sendai and Kyoto. I preached in Japan for the first time in Kyoto. A highlight from that visit came at lunch. I noticed in general that people with disabilities, who traditionally would have been kept at home, are now much more active in Japan, where pretty massive infrastructure improvements have been made to accommodate them. The Kyoto Church had several people with evident disabilities, including one young man who was totally blind—he was even missing the iris in his right eye. He was at the lunch table with the pastor and his wife, who was also an associate pastor, a visiting seminarian, and myself. The conversation was limited since I speak almost no Japanese and they speak no English. But then we realized that the blind man spoke English very well—since they don’t speak English, I don’t think the others knew that. He ended up translating for us, which means for that moment, the most able person in the group was the one identified as disabled!
But the most meaningful moment for me was when my sister and I visited our family homestead and the church our family helped to start. When my great-great-great-grandfather converted to Christianity in 1886, he immediately invited the missionary to hold meetings in a family building, but by 1888 a church building was raised nearby, and is still serving the community now. Sitting in the empty sanctuary, I had a strong sense of family roots that was a true blessing.
Coming back home, I had another great blessing yesterday, when I preached at La Verne Heights Presbyterian Church. Pastor Jonathan Hughes planned a month-long series on race and faith, and invited several guest preachers to speak. I was honored to be one of them, and it was a joy to speak, and then to have conversations after worship with one biracial family, a group of members, and then over lunch with several church leaders. I don’t know of any other church in our Presbytery to have an intentional focus on race over several weeks. I applaud La Verne Heights for doing this, and I feel blessed to have been part of it. This is actually a priority for the PC(USA), and all levels of the church, especially congregations, have been encouraged to focus on anti-racism. See https://facing-racism.pcusa.org/ for several different resources, including the 2016 policy which gives spiritual, historical, and sociological information on racism and its impacts, and a challenge for the church.
So yes, I’m back. I pray that this holiday season will be truly holy for you. As we are painfully aware of many who are facing this season with grief over personal tragedies and disasters of nature and violence, I pray that the spirit of Christ may pervade places of hurt and longing. And may we all be bearers of Christ’s spirit of peace and healing. I’m sure you know of the efforts to promote tomorrow as “Giving Tuesday” and I encourage you to consider where you can give, including to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance at pda.pcusa.org, and to the Presbytery—just go to sangabpres.org and look for “DONATE.”
Blessings to you and yours. May we continue to give thanks to God!