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Art Life Faith Podcast
8 minutes | 3 days ago
21. Be Still and Know
As I travelled around the disaster area after the 2011 earthquake in Japan to give concerts in shelters, believe me there were times when the aftershocks, the mud, the smells, and everything else really got to me. I especially remember one night. What’s that noise? Where am I? Heavy creaking in the ceiling above my head jolted my sleep-numbed mind into consciousness, as my eyes flew open to darkness. Nigero! Okiizo! “Everybody out! This is a big one!” someone behind me yelled. That was all it took. I blindly fumbled for my flashlight, always kept near my head for emergencies like this, and then grabbed my jacket. The floor moved chaotically, making it hard to keep my balance. But somehow I reached the door frame, grabbed it, and pushed my way outside. The wind hit me like a cold slap in the face. I stopped a safe distance from the door surrounded by fellow relief workers, with nothing to do but wait as the old building creaked back and forth. My right foot was soaking wet. Ugh, I must have run through a puddle, I thought. One minute, I’m warm and happy in dream land. And the next? Well, I’m wet and cold and standing in the dark. How much longer? Will this never end? It was April, a full month since the earthquake struck. Aftershocks mercilessly pelted us every day. I had no idea there could be so many. In normal life (whatever that was) the strength of each one would have been an event in and of itself. But now, each one blended into the next and the next, too many to count. The earthquakes didn’t just shake me physically but to the very core of my being. They threatened me mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I couldn’t relax. I always had to keep busy. My adrenaline levels never went down, and I was anxious all the time. What is wrong with me? I kept telling myself to just stop it. Calm down! I was a mess . . . and I was sick of it. I was sick of people yelling, “Earthquake!” and “Take shelter!” and “Get away from the windows!” I was sick of worrying what was going to fall on my head. I was sick of running for the door, and I was sick of digging holes in the dirt for my toilet, with no running water to wash my hands. I found myself wanting to scream at the top of my lungs, “Stop it! No more! Enough!” I learned something that day. I crave the impossible. I want something on earth that does not move, does not change, does not let me down . . . especially the ground beneath my feet! I want something solid to stand on and be still. Is there such a thing? Then the words came to me. Be still and know that I am God. I’ve heard these words a million times, but now I didn’t even know what they meant. God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging . . .“Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:1–3, 10) There are so many scary things in Psalm 46: earthquakes, crumbling mountains, roaring seas. And in the shaking and destruction, God’s command to “be still” seems ludicrous. Insane! When everything is being torn apart, how can we be still? Where is that emergency shelter we can run to with no fear of collapse? Where is that refuge that will never be overcome by the sea? Where are those walls that can protect us from this invisible radiation shooting through our bodies? Where? WHERE? I started to read the psalm again. God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. (Psalm 46:1) Then I saw the answer. The psalm does not start by telling us to be still. It starts by telling us to be with God, that God is “ever-present” (verse 1), and ever-present means God is always with us. Why had I missed this part before? God is omnipresent; he is with us wherever we are. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). There is no way in life to be separated from the presence of God, and this is our refuge and strength. The Psalmist repeats the message in verse 7, and again in the very last verse. The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. (Psalm 46:11) Three times—in the beginning, middle, and end—we are told that God is with us, that we never have to stand on our own. God can say, “Be still and know that I am God” (verse 10), because he is always there, present with us. He is there when the earth “give[s] way,” and the mountains “fall into the heart of the sea,” and the monstrous tsunamis “roar and foam.” God was present in the earthquake at Jesus’s death (Matthew 27:51), and in the earthquake at Jesus’s resurrection (Matthew 28:2). God is the Lord of earthquakes. God’s voice calls to us louder than the tsunami sirens screaming up and down the coast of Japan. And God’s ears hear the silent screaming of our hearts for it all to stop. When besieged by a world gone terribly wrong, in the shaking and terror, God invites us to a dependable fortress, an uncollapsing shelter, an impregnable refuge. God’s presence offers so much more than comfort. It offers an end to all the shaking and fear. It offers the space where we can finally stop and rest in these words. “Be still and know that I am God.”
8 minutes | 10 days ago
20. Fragments of Hope
After the 2011 earthquake in Japan, Christians started art organizations to provide jobs and build community, and, just as important, to bring beauty back into a shattered world. They made jewelry, decorations, bags, and clothes. In the city of Ishinomaki, a small group of women made jewelry out of broken shards of dishes and teacups found in the rubble. They called themselves Nozomi Project, or literally, Project of Hope. The people at Nozomi pick up the pieces of their lives by making beautiful art, one necklace, earring, and bracelet at a time. Collecting broken pieces themselves was too painful—their unhealed wounds just went too deep—so volunteers brought the bags of debris to them. Then the Nozomi workers carefully pulled out the pieces one at a time, remembering that each one represented a fragment of someone’s life. The women washed, shaped, and polished those pieces. Their creative work moved them beyond mere survival to unlooked-for healing. These broken pieces were powerfully symbolic, as they were recycled and transformed into something valuable, something worthy of display. Tomoko, an artisan at Nozomi, cared for people by working at a retirement center. It was her day off when the earthquake struck, but she immediately felt a responsibility to get the senior citizens to a place of safety. She asked a friend to watch her three-year-old son and rushed to help, but, tragically, both the friend and the boy drowned in the tsunami. Guilt and despair tore her apart. Eventually, she began working with Nozomi and making accessories in the name of her surviving daughter, to encourage both of them in their grief. “I didn’t know that creating something could bring so much healing,” she said. Nozomi artisan Asami recalls, “In the beginning, we couldn’t laugh. We didn’t know what we were living for day after day. We ate without tasting the food. There was no thought for the future even a year after the earthquake.” However, in the community of Nozomi, she learned how to laugh again. These women found a place to belong in the middle of the ruins and the rubble. “It became a home for my heart,” Asami said. The broken shards, redeemed as valuable sought-after pieces of jewelry, were powerful symbols of renewal, but not only that. Sue Takamoto, founder of Nozomi Project, said, “God was working in multiple layers in our midst that we couldn’t have thought of ourselves.” The jewelry provided employment and healing, but it also provided a community of people who loved one another. “I thought to make jewelry you had to do the whole process yourself,” Asami said, “but one person cleans the pieces, another polishes them, another designs them, another puts the pieces together . . . everyone’s involved. I was really surprised by this at first. Women new to Nozomi hesitate to join us because they don’t know how to make jewelry, but we can always find a job for them to do. We tell them, ‘First, just come and see!’” Women started working to help themselves financially, but through the work, they ended up helping themselves emotionally as well. Maki remembers, “In the beginning, I thought I had to keep going as a single mom all by myself, but when I was about to break down, people were there to support me and pull me back up.” Maki fell into a deep depression after losing her mother and sister in the tsunami. Her sister was just a month away from giving birth. “I was at a loss,” she said. “I just wanted to die, but I knew I couldn’t leave my children. But now, everything is different. It’s mysterious to me how this place has soothed my heart. ‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘this is what community is for.’ Because we experienced this pain together, we were able to be there for one another and encourage one another. Perhaps that’s part of the strength of Nozomi.” The jewelry business also became a way to communicate the gospel. Most days after lunch the women gathered to read the Bible together, discuss the passage, and pray. “One time I went to the library with my big Bible,” Maki said. “I sat there to read, but I didn’t understand a thing. I definitely think it’s easier to understand when we’re together and able to share.” Two years after the tsunami, Maki was baptized. Soon afterward, two other women in the Bible study were also baptized. Becoming a Christian is always about the building of community. It’s about bringing healing and love to a world so desperately in need of it. The Christians who started Nozomi Project simply wanted to be the hands and feet of Christ to their neighbors, but little by little they have seen their influence spread around the globe. They continually hear from customers with handwritten notes of appreciation. “My first Nozomi earrings arrived today, on a day I was diagnosed with a disorder I’ve had for more than 15 years. I truly felt broken and without hope, but this afternoon my beautiful blue package arrived, like a gift from God to remind me I am perfectly made in his image. What I saw as a fault was actually a design feature God beautifully built into me.” Another wrote, “I wear my earrings often. I tell people about your work. I tell people that there is beauty in brokenness. Thank you for all the work that you do to bring joy to people around the world!” Sue remarked, “It’s so encouraging to receive notes like these. God’s plans are always bigger than our plans. He works in ways we never could have foreseen. We started Nozomi to help local families, but now God is working through us to send hope to the rest of the world!” Nozomi has now sent jewelry to 42 countries, which they celebrate with a big map marking all these locations on the wall of their meeting space. “God is sending hope around the world through our brokenness,” remarks Chad Huddleston, leader of the church planting network associated with Nozomi Project. “And surprisingly God is sending this hope through the beauty he creates out of our brokenness.” What is the gospel? We are broken, but we are redeemed by the one who found us. We were dead, but we have been renewed with life. We were once a people without nozomi, without “hope,” but we are now a people with hope. Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ . . . without hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:12) In the gospel, we find wholeness brought out of brokenness. Nozomi Project is boldly proclaiming and living out this message one piece of jewelry at a time. www.nozomiproject.com
4 minutes | 18 days ago
19. The Bike
On March 11, 2011, the world changed. Like the old photographs I occasionally found scattered amongst the debris, all the color was gone. Gray mud from the ocean floor coated everything, and gray dust constantly blew through the air turning our white masks black. Even the sun remained hidden behind the dull clouds, refusing to penetrate our colorless purgatory. The world became flat. The wave robbed the land of anything vertical—buildings, electric poles, trees—leaving nothing but the distant mountains. The empty concrete foundations and shapeless piles of debris resembled some alien planet. The world became hard and inhuman. There was no room for anything but the most basic of human needs: food, water, clothes, shelter. Emotions were absent. Natural human expressions of smiling, talking, and laughing were gone. People were waiting, always waiting: for food, water, supplies, or a word from a missing loved one. Mystical barriers between earth and sea fractured into one muddy chaotic mess. Fish sat orphaned on land. Large ships rolled onto downtown roads. A boy’s soccer ball floated across the Pacific. A picture frame, a golf club, a teacup, and a child’s doll lay jumbled together in the wet mud. On one of my trips to the city of Ishinomaki, I took some time separated from the group to walk around try to make sense of it all. I came upon a dirty twisted bicycle propped against a pile of trash. A sudden urge came over me to fix that bicycle and make it useful again. I picked up a metal pole and poked it between the spokes of the front tire, bending it into something resembling a circle. With my foot against the frame, I pulled with all my might to straighten out the twisted handlebars. The seat was too low and covered in mud, but I sat on it anyway. I tried the pedals, and the bicycle lurched forward. This bike and I are going for a ride, I decided, just the two of us. We rattled through the devastation to see how far we could go. We must have looked ridiculous. I’m glad no one was around to watch. But as I rode on, I began to feel very much alone. Not one house remained standing. Children once played in these streets. Families once lived in these neighborhoods. It all seemed so final, these shapeless mountains of debris. And yet, didn’t this abandoned bicycle prove that new life in the rubble was possible, that the brokenness didn’t have to be the end? The bicycle and I rode all the way to the eastern edge of town, where the potholed road led straight into the ocean, a sign of just how far the land sank during the earthquake. It was no small miracle we made it that far, and for some strange reason a small smile crossed my face.
6 minutes | 25 days ago
18. Go Away!
After the earthquake, one of the most startling things I heard was: “Go away! Leave us alone! Too . . . many . . . volunteers!” We had just entered the high school gymnasium of a temporary shelter in the city of Iwaki. I turned to see a young man sitting on a cardboard box. He appeared to be slightly handicapped, with one leg shorter than the other. But it was his face, full of rage, that I noticed most. Time after time, strangers barged into this man’s “room.” In that brightly lit flourescence, he had no privacy, and he was obviously sick of it. Startled by the greeting, but not sure what to do, I followed the volunteers walking in front of me and placed the box I was holding with the others. The volunteer team proceeded to lay out big blue tarps, line up chairs, and set up buckets of freshly drawn hot spring water, still warm to the touch. The city of Iwaki is unique in that hot spring water can be purchased anywhere in the city. With the similar feel of a gas station, you can draw hot mineral-infused water fresh from the ground. After the earthquake when city water stopped flowing, these water sources became especially important. As volunteers, we couldn’t provide a place to bathe at the shelters, but we could at least show love through washing feet. It was meant to be just a little act of kindness. We got down on our knees, and people began to line up. The night before Jesus’s death, he got down on his knees and washed feet. This was an urgent time, not unlike the urgency we now experienced. Why on earth did Jesus choose to spend the night before his death washing feet? Weren’t there more important things to do? Jesus knew what was coming, and there are so many things he could have been doing to prepare: preaching a sermon or writing a message. I was tired and stressed, so maybe I wasn’t thinking straight, but if it was me, I think I would have wanted to take a nap, to have the strength and clarity of thought to say and do the right things. However, Jesus washed feet. He got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. . . . When he finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:4–5, 12–14) In this way, Jesus shared love and the presence of God with his disciples. Jesus came to serve in order to show God’s love for us. The Japanese print “Christ Washing the Feet of St. Peter” (1963) by Sadao Watanabe is one of my favorite works of art. Jesus sits in the traditional seiza position on his knees, wearing a robe and a sash like the kind you would wear in a Japanese bath house. Peter sits in front of him on a chair, eyes closed, hands together in a gesture of prayer. An angel holds out both hands in the act of blessing the event. Waves energetically bounce around the water basin. The gold background shows this is the kingdom of heaven—beautiful, sublime. We can imitate the actions of Jesus almost like a performing art to show love to people, to show we care. After a few trips to shelters to wash feet, relationships grew and so did the trust. “Thank you,” one woman said. “After you brought water the last time, I had my first restful sleep since getting here.” “Thank you,” one man said. “I’m glad you came.” This was the same young man we met when we first arrived. But now, rather than angrily sending us away, he said he wanted us around. His attitude had completely changed. In that gymnasium, the significance of Jesus’s actions became clear to me. The King of kings got down on his knees, “not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). Jesus came not to be loved, but to love and to urge us to do the same. “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. . . . Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:15, 17) May we be transformed more and more into the likeness of Jesus, serving as his hands and feet to a broken world so desperately in need of love.
7 minutes | a month ago
17. Whispering to the Wind
As I walked through a garden on a hill overlooking the town of Otsuchi, Japan, birds flew overhead and the wind blew in gently from the sea. Leaves rustled on the trees, and the sweet aroma of flowers wafted through the air. I looked down to see goldfish swimming in a pond, and at the top of the hill I found a white glass-paneled phone booth. Inside the booth, I saw an old black rotary phone, a newspaper article taped to the wall, small wooden blocks marking the date, and an open notebook with a pen. There was also a letter, a poem, written in Japanese. Who will you talk to?What words will you use?Perhaps there are no words?The telephone of the wind allows the heart to speak.Make yourself quiet.Close your eyes and open your ears.Do you hear the sound of the wind?Or the sound of the waves?Or the chirping of a small bird?If so, speak your thoughts,And they will certainly reach their destination. I continued to think about the words of this poem as I thumbed through the notebook, glancing at what people wrote. Most of the entries were brief, comments on the beauty of the garden or greetings from wherever they came from. But some were more personal. When I left the booth, I saw a woman coming down the hill to greet me. “Hello,” she called out. “Hello,” I answered back and went on to explain. “I just happened to be in the area giving concerts at nearby temporary home complexes and heard about this place.” “I see,” she said. “If you have time, I know my husband would love to meet you.” She pointed toward a small stone cabin, which reminded me of the shelters I often see on the mountains of Japan. As I began to climb the hill toward the cabin, a man who I assumed to be her husband came out to meet me. He introduced himself and we chatted for a while before he invited me inside. After brewing hot green tea, he told me about the “Telephone of the Wind.” “I built this phone to help me grieve the death of my cousin,” he said. “My thoughts couldn’t travel over regular phone lines, so I wanted them to be carried by the wind.” The very next year, the tsunami hit, and word about the phone booth spread from person to person. Soon, many visitors began to arrive. In that cold little stone cabin, listening to story after story about the visitors, I felt an overwhelming sadness. So many came to this place hoping for one last chance to say goodbye. Their grief was as terrible as any tsunami, as destructive as any earthquake. Swallowed by waves of grief, their lives became like so much devastation I saw along the coast, ruined and empty. I tried to imagine the people who visited, the time they spent in that phone booth and garden. Wind from the sea gently rustled their hair and caressed their skin. Though they couldn’t see it, they felt its movement. The wind surrounded them. The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (John 3:8) In the original Greek, “wind,” “breath,” and “spirit” are all the same word. The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, and his presence is like the wind. The Spirit of God is present in the very air that we breathe, always surrounding us. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). We should not take even a single breath without being reminded of the movement and presence of God. He’s with us in our grief and sorrow, the ever-present and perfect grief counselor. There is hope for those who mourn. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said, “for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). The comfort Jesus offers is not temporary. It’s not cozy or sentimental. Rather, it’s full of life and love beyond all our needs, and lasts for all of eternity. Praise be to . . . the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles. (2 Corinthians 1:3–4) God gives a comfort deeper than we can fathom. Jesus bore our grief and pain so that it could be taken away. He died and rose again so that death would not be the end. We have hope in the resurrection, but not only that. In the night before he died, Jesus talked about “the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in [his] name” (John 14:26 KJV). We will be comforted by the literal and unimaginably powerful presence of God. Grief is the tragic result of this fallen and broken world, but in it we never have to be separated from the presence and beauty of God. “Grief is the tragic result of this fallen and broken world, but in it we never have to be separated from the presence and beauty of God.” God listens to our cries of lament and our prayers without words. We are not alone in our grief. God is always by our side, covering us and surrounding us with his presence. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted with the everlasting presence of the living God.
6 minutes | a month ago
16. Tree of Hope
This week I want to share a very special story with you about the most famous tree in all of Japan. It was the only vertical thing left standing in the city of Rikuzentakata after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. As the 10th anniversary of this day quickly approaches, and we prepare an arts conference to remember that day, we’ll be talking about this tree, because there’s a violin that was made from it. This “tsunami violin” will be showcased in a concert at our conference, one of the official 1,000 concerts planned with this violin. And we’ll be playing a piece called “Kibou” (or “Hope”) that was commissioned in memory of the tsunami. Here is the story of my first encounter with the tree, as told in my book Aroma of Beauty. I looked up at the enormity of it. The tree was almost 100 feet tall. It grew here in the city of Rikuzentakata as part of a forest of 70,000 pine trees for hundreds of years. The trees protected the people from storms and strong coastal winds and were once chosen as one of the 100 most beautiful landscapes in Japan. But now they were all gone, all except for this one surviving tree. “The tsunami sure ruined this land . . . and my shoes as well,” Luka added, looking down. She was one of the musicians who came with me on this trip. To get to the tree, we had to slog through mud along the river for about an hour from the nearest working road. The landscape was nothing but mud as far as we could see. Every tree and road was gone. Every wooden building was washed away. Every concrete structure was destroyed. The tsunami demolished everything in its path. I looked up at the tree again. In the entire grove of 70,000 trees, and every park and every neighborhood, only one tree was left standing, the Kiseki No Ipponmatsu, the “miracle” pine tree. Despite the incredible force of that wave, this tree somehow still stood! I saw the tree again a few years later while passing through from one concert to another. Another group of musicians and I were traveling the newly constructed highway along the coast. Even though it was night, we could see the tree from the farthest outskirts of the city, its presence impossible to miss, lit up by spotlights as an unmistakable beacon of hope. We stopped the car at the beautiful park that now surrounded the tree. There were flowers, benches, signs, and a wide clean concrete path. The original tree died due to salt left in the soil from the tsunami, but an almost exact replica stands in its place. It glowed as a magnificent symbol of resilience, courage, and hope against the darkness of the night sky. Standing there by the river and ocean, I began to think about the most famous of all trees, the tree that stands by the river in the city of heaven. I wonder what that tree is like. Is it taller than this pine? Can it be seen even from the farthest outskirts of the city? Does it glow eternally in the light given by God? All we know is what the Bible tells us. On each side of the river stood the tree of life . . . and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. . . . There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. (Revelation 22:2–3, 5) I also thought about the cross. Roman soldiers regularly used pine trees for crucifixions, so the cross of Jesus was most likely made of pine. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24) Both trees are for our healing. The tree of life wipes away the curse of death. The tree of the cross, planted on that ugly skull-shaped hill in Jerusalem, protects us from the storms of this world. That tree also rises out of the muck and mud of our sin as a beacon of light and hope. The tree of hope reminds us that God is always near, even in the midst of our devastation. It will always stand towering over a broken and desolate world, as the source of all healing and life.
6 minutes | a month ago
15. The Cookout
In a couple of months, we’ll be coming out with my next book called Aroma of Beauty, telling stories of how the arts brought hope and healing after the 2011 earthquake and disaster here in Japan. We’re pretty excited about this project because the beauty we found in those dark times can encourage people at all times. And nothing seems more appropriate during this time of unrest and during the spread of the coronavirus. The title of this book, Aroma of Beauty, is taken from the story that I’m just about to share with you. It’s a kind of beauty that is temporary and fleeting, but, man, is it powerful. In fact, this kind of weak beauty, this fragile beauty, is exactly what we needed in that time and place. The food just after the tsunami was terrible. Every meal was treated like an emergency situation. Refugees and relief workers alike, we all lived off of emergency rations, canned and instant foods. This kind of food may keep the body going for a day, but it sure lacks the vitamins, nutrients, and life-giving beauty that we so desperately needed. When we heard from survivors the kind of stomach problems they were now dealing with, our local Tokyo community was galvanized into action and began to plan our first takidashi cookout. Grocers donated rice, meat, and vegetables. Restaurants loaned equipment. My dentist even donated toothbrushes and toothpaste. A dozen people who had never been to the disaster area agreed to go as cooks and volunteers. My wife Abi led a caravan of trucks and vans to the city of Ishinomaki. They came to a halt in a gravel lot cleared of debris, the tell-tale sign that people were taking shelter on the upper floors of nearby homes, stores, and buildings. Fish and seaweed decayed in the sun. Piles of garbage lined roadsides with nowhere to go. Porta-potties and toilets overflowed. The stench was overwhelming, and every time we opened the doors of our trucks, we were overcome by the potency of it. This must be what hell is like, Abi thought as she began to unload, trying to ignore the stench and not stare at the surrounding devastation. Noisy generators powered the rice cookers. Industrial-sized propane burners roared underneath the large pots of water. The volunteers cut meat and vegetables on plastic portable tables. Pork, carrots, daikon radishes, shiitake mushrooms, and konnyaku gelatin strips—all the ingredients needed to make tonjiru soup. As the food went into the pots, something beautiful began to happen. An aroma began to waft through the air, a pleasing smell unknown since before the earthquake. People began to line up from surrounding buildings—ten, twenty, fifty, one hundred people—and volunteers began to get worried. “What do we do? We still need more time!” “It’s okay,” Abi said. “There hasn’t been a smell like this here for a very long time. Let’s enjoy it.” Abi asked the musician who came with the group if he wouldn’t mind playing a little bit. “I know it’s not an ideal spot,” she said, staring at the blocks of concrete and thick gooey mud. “And your audience isn’t exactly nicely grouped together.” The line of people went as far as she could see. The musician pulled out his shakuhachi bamboo flute and began to play, slowly picking his way around the puddles and the mud as he walked down the line of people. The melodies of the flute and the aroma of the soup filled the air, wiping away the stench like tears, comforting with a tales from a world without destruction. The food was more than mere sustenance. The music was more than mere entertainment, a way to pass the time while waiting in line. It was life-giving. An electrifying sense of hope, almost tangible, wafted through the air. It was the aroma of beauty. “An electrifying sense of hope, almost tangible, wafted through the air. It was the aroma of beauty.” Aroma may be temporary and only last a moment, but the more time we spent in the disaster area, the more urgently we felt its need. The aroma of beauty became a seawall against the black waves of despair that threatened us every day after that tsunami. It brought an unexpected joy with the promise that a better tomorrow would come.
9 minutes | 2 months ago
14. Called By A New Name
When I was a child, I was really into astronomy. My father took me to visit observatories every chance we got. I remember attending some big events in Boston that were public lectures and then going home to document the findings myself with my own telescope. I journaled and drew the movement of sunspots across the sun, and the moons around Jupiter. I read every issue of the magazine Astronomy and had all the constellations and major stars of the sky memorized. I even led viewing nights for elementary school kids giving a short talk on what we were about to see, finding it, and then showing it to them through a telescope. If God took all the trouble to make all these beautiful things, I figured, the least I could do was to get to know them a little bit. I really thought I was going to work for NASA, but music carried me in a different direction. Anyway, on December 21 there was a really important event in the sky, you may have seen it, the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Just after sunset, many lined up along the river that runs through the center of Tokyo, pointing their cameras and telescopes skyward to catch a glimpse of it. I was one of them! The sixteenth century astronomer Kepler believed this same conjunction was the original “Christmas star” that brought the wise men to seek Jesus. Every year, we sing about the stars in Christmas. One of my favorites are these lines from the hymn O Little Town of Bethlehem. Above thy deep and dreamless sleepThe silent stars go byYet in thy dark streets shinethThe everlasting LightThe hopes and fears of all the yearsAre met in thee tonight. Phillips Brooks, a Boston native like myself, wrote these words in the reverse order of what most people expect. Usually, “when you wish upon a star,” people think your dreams come true. But here, Brooks points us elsewhere and makes the stars witnesses to this event. The stars are full of stories: animals and gods, love and war, heroes and villains. From ages past, men and women have looked up at the stars of the sky and whispered their hopes and fears. Some make a wish when they see a shooting star. Others check the positions of the planets and stars to make important decisions. While I’ve never had much interest in either of these, I do love the stories behind the constellations. Ever since I was a child, I’ve been reading about them. When I came to Japan, I learned about the Tanabata Star Festival through my son’s kindergarten, a story of love found, love lost, and love regained once again. Hikoboshi the Cowherd and Orihime the Weaver Girl fall deeply in love. Orihime’s father, the king of heaven, does not approve and banishes them to opposite sides of the Amanogawa (the “Heavenly River” or better known to English speakers as the Milky Way). However, every year on July 7, the seventh day of the seventh month, he relents and a huge flock of birds form a bridge to allow these two star-crossed lovers to reunite for a single day. In the abundance of their joy, they grant the wishes of mortal men and women on earth. The Tanabata Festival was particularly lively in Ishinomaki in the summer of 2011. So many people now lived in temporary home complexes, and so many buildings still stood broken and unusable. Yukiko looked at the colorful strips of paper tied to bamboo grass. On each, a short prayer was written. I want to be a soccer star. I pray I can find a job. May there be peace on earth. Yukiko tried to think of a wish. But what did she really want, she wondered. The tsunami had taken everything from her. Her mother and sister were now dead. Her husband left her. Her father, coping with his own sense of loss, no longer spoke to her. She was alone. Everything she took for granted before was now gone: family, friends, home, job, town. She felt there was nothing to live for. Yukiko tried to pray, not even knowing who she was praying to. “Please, if you can hear me,” she whispered, “give me something to live for.” Sometimes, God does amazing things, surprising things, to show his great love for us. The God who created all the stars of heaven heard Yukiko’s prayer and answered. That evening at the festival, Yukiko met some Christian women, and in the months that followed, they became good friends. She began eating with them, and even began attending a Bible study with them. Little by little, she grew to know and love the God of the Bible. And little by little, she learned how to pray to him. In God the Father, Yukiko found a father who welcomed her into his house and wanted her around. In God the Son, she found a husband who would never forsake or leave her, a friend who would always be by her side. In God the Holy Spirit, she found rest. Because her friends met her at a festival, they began to call her “Matsuri” Yukiko, or the “Festival Girl.” She became a joy to everyone around her, a living testimony of how God saves from despair and loss. Two years later, on a rainy Sunday morning in July, Matsuri Yukiko walked into the waters of the sea, those same terrifying waters that took away her family and friends. She was baptized in that same ocean that was a source of so much pain and loss. On that day, the water represented an ocean of God’s love, far more expansive than she could ever fathom. Through baptism, she was transformed into a new creation, known by a new name. Yukiko’s story makes me think of the words from Isaiah. You will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow. You will be a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah [which means “my delight is in her”], and your land Beulah [which means “married”]; for the Lord will take delight in you, and your land will be married. As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Builder marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:2–5) When we look up to the starry night skies and see the dazzling works of God’s hands, we can remember that the same God made us, loves us, and rejoices over us. We can know that one day we will be reunited with our greatest Lover, the one who will wipe away all our tears and fulfill the deepest longings and prayers of our hearts.
11 minutes | 2 months ago
13. A Party One Evening
Happy New Year everyone! We did it! We made it through 2020. It’s been quite a year! Over the winter break, my family and I went into the mountains of Japan near Nagano City, which many of you know was the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. They’ve been getting a lot of snow there this year. Last week, there were a few days in a row when I think we got about two feet a day. That’s a lot of snow! The snow built up almost all the way to the roof of our front door, and my kids had a good time digging a tunnel from our door so that we could get out. I’m also quite proud of the igloo that I dug out of the snow. I worked on it a little bit each day, and by the time we left it could fit about five people. It even had a side room and little cubby holes where my kids and I stored some tools and other knick-knacks. There was even a small pile of snowballs ready to keep away any invaders. I particularly loved how the sun shined through the walls and ceiling almost like stained glass. Anyway, we’re back in Tokyo now and ready to get to work. Over the next few months, I plan to share some stories from that time immediately following 2011 earthquake and tsunami here in Japan. The 10th anniversary is coming up in March, and now is as good a time as any to try to verbalize some of these stories. I usually do a fair bit of travel in January and February to share at churches in missions conferences, but I can’t do that this year! So I’m thankful for this podcast which at least gives me a way to share some of these stories remotely. I would like to tell you about a party we had one evening. The parking lot of the old Buddhist temple was packed full of trucks and vans. It sat on a hilltop, on the outskirts of the city of Higashi Matsushima, the only structure still standing that was big enough to hold a large group of people. One of the relief workers we met that day invited us to come here for a party. We entered the side door and walked through the darkness of a narrow hallway. I glanced inside one of the fusuma sliding doors as I walked past. Shuttered windows which kept out the cold also prevented any light from entering. But by the dull red glow of electric heaters and the glimmer of flashlights, I could tell that people covered the floor, reading or talking quietly with one another. As we continued down the hallway, we entered a large room full of laughing and talking. The noise was a bit of a shock. It was the first time I saw a room of people actually enjoying themselves in the disaster area. I pushed some backpacks aside and sat against the wall so I could slowly take in the atmosphere of the room. Everyone sat on the floor, gathered around little tables about a foot off the ground full of food and cans of Japanese beer. They wore work clothes with different emblems, identifying the relief organizations they belonged to. A man came over to me and offered some food and a can of beer. He also told me he heard I was a musician and asked, “Would you be willing to play something tonight?” Before I had a chance to answer, a man in the front began to speak through a microphone. “Good evening everybody,” he said. “I’m so glad we can gather tonight.” He went on to introduce someone from that area, who had been singing in shelters along the coast. As he spoke, a man, who appeared to be blind, was carefully led through the crowd to the front of the room. “I will let his singing say the rest,” the announcer finished. The blind man stood alone without accompaniment and released a voice full of vibrato. The singing was beautiful but a style completely unknown to me. I figured it must be a traditional folk style and was grateful for the chance to hear it. After a few songs, the blind man finished, and two young men stood up to sing. One of them played the guitar. Then it was my turn. There wasn’t enough room to set up my portable organ which sat outside in the truck, so they provided me with a keyboard instead. “We can’t seem to find the keyboard stand,” they apologized, but two men volunteered to hold the keyboard while I played. My memory shot back to a similar situation I had the year before in Memphis, Tennessee, when I arrived at a woman’s prison to give a concert but my keyboard was confiscated at security. “Can’t let in anything that can be used as a weapon,” the guard explained. I wasn’t sure what his words meant. My keyboard . . . a weapon? I was led down narrow hallways in the prison and through high security doors, until we arrived at a large room packed with prisoners. “Wait here,” the guard said and left. Everyone stared at me until the guard returned with a plastic bag. I opened it to find a small electric keyboard and nothing else. “Um, are there any other parts?” I asked. Where was the keyboard stand, or the music stand, or the sustain pedal? “That’s all we got,” the guard said. I placed the keyboard on a table and plugged it into the wall but nothing happened. “Try another outlet,” the guard suggested. I quickly tried two more without any success, keenly aware that everyone in the room was still staring at me. The guard told me the voltage was reduced in some places to prevent “accidents.” “Turn that fan this way!” a voice yelled, breaking the silence. There was no air-conditioning, and that room was pretty hot. One solitary fan blew across the room. “No, turn it this way!” a second voice yelled from the other side of the room. Suddenly, a large woman under the fan stood up. “I’m not going to effing touch it!” she swore in a strong Southern accent. “You think I’m your effing mother?” I was sure a fight was going to break out right there in front of me. “Ah, thank you for your patience,” I practically shouted into the chaos with all the confidence I could muster, but nobody heard me. Not knowing what else to do, I dove right into my arrangement of Cherry Blossoms, a Japanese folk song. I didn’t know if it was a good choice or not, but being a quiet piece, I hoped it would calm everyone down, similar to how I whisper to my children when I’m trying to quiet the room. My gamble paid off and pretty soon there was not a single sound but the spinning of that one fan. A woman, the one under the fan who had a gift profanity, raised her hand. Oh no, I thought. What’s she going to say? “Yes?” I said, timidly pointing in her direction. “Could you play that again?” she said. “That was beautiful.” With this memory firmly in mind, I decided to try the same piece. First, though, I wanted to have a little fun. A man stood on either side of me, holding the ends of the keyboard. The tables in that room were too low to use as a keyboard stand! I played a fast descending chromatic scale with my right hand, then stopped and shook my head. No, I motioned with a frown. Too high! The two men lowered the keyboard. This time I started at the bottom of the keyboard and using both hands played a C scale quickly up the keyboard. But again I shook my head. No, I motioned with a smirk. Too low! A few people laughed. The two men moved the keyboard again, this time to somewhere in between. I played a short cadence of chords and motioned with a large nod and hands outstretched. Yes, perfect! More people laughed. I looked to the man on the left and gave a quizzical expression. All ready? He nodded. I looked to the man on the right and repeated. He nodded as well. We were ready to go. I began to play but with way too much flourish and the keyboard immediately sank. Gomenasai, I mouthed, “Sorry!” and quickly lightened my touch. I’ve had a lot of strange experiences while performing, but this was definitely a first for me! After improvising for a minute or so, I launched into the piece. Every eye was on me. Not a voice was heard. The music carried us to a place where dirt and fear and broken buildings were a distant memory. When the song came to an end, the room roared with applause and I took a bow. Each of the men holding the keyboard also tried to bow, but that didn’t work out very well. It’s pretty hard to bow while holding a keyboard. We were all happy and laughing and content. I’d forgotten such moments could exist and wished that evening could go on forever. https://youtu.be/-aS7Q271J1w
5 minutes | 2 months ago
It’s just past the winter solstice. As I’m looking outside, it’s dark and cold. It’s dark when I get up, and it’s dark when I go to bed. It makes me think about how precious Christmas illumination is at this time of the year. In the dark, we need the light. In the dark, we need beauty. And I’ve never known such complete darkness as I did in those days following the 2011 tsunami here in Japan. There was one evening that particularly stands out to me. In the storm, the tires of the van sank in the mud newly washed up from the ocean floor, made worse by growing puddles of rainwater. Lightning lit up the wall of debris that lined the streets and closed in on us like some dark tunnel. Every streetlamp had been knocked flat by the wave. We felt like every good and beautiful thing in this world had been wiped out, like we were lone survivors at the outer reach of some alien planet and the darkness would soon consume us as well. I squinted as I tried to peer through the wipers and streams of rain of the van’s front window. The only landmark for my final turn was a torn up pedestrian overpass that somehow still hung over the road. We would be giving a concert in the gymnasium of an elementary school in Watanoha, one of fourteen planned up and down the tsunami-stricken coast on this trip. I was leading a group of musicians, students and alumni from The Juilliard School. Finally, I found my turn and crossed the parking lot straight to the front door. “We’re here!” I called out, and everyone hopped over the puddles to get inside. The shelter was completely dark. There was no electricity. There was no heat. People huddled under blankets, trying to fight back fears of the storm. Flashlights dotted the room from people reading books or talking quietly. We were guided through the gymnasium and straight to the piano, one of the few left in the region, fumbling zippers on our jackets to pull them tighter. Pianists cut fingertips off their mittens so they could play without taking them off. The wind continued to increase in intensity, violently rattling the windows and the roof. Anxieties rose, and because of the darkness and size of the room, I couldn’t see anyone. I knew people were there. I could smell them in a pleasant way, like the intimacy of a living room in an old Japanese home. One of the pianists began to play in the dark, and then an oboist. A violinist joined in. A man climbed up to the second floor catwalk and shined a big flashlight straight down like a spotlight. Then other flashlights began to point in our direction as well. The light was beautiful, like dozens of fireflies flying around the room. The light, rather than the musicians, were the performers, dancing on the walls and ceilings, making our hearts dance with wonder and delight. They magically transported us out of that alien planet of darkness and back to our home…the way it should be. Here we were in the middle of a storm not far from the coast or the destructive power of the waves…in the cold, in the dark. But in that moment, light won over fear of storm and night. Music won over the violence of the wind. The anxiety and stress that filled the room only moments before faded into some distant memory. And because of the beauty, we felt, no…we knew that everything was going to be okay. In that moment, light won over fear of storm and night. Music won over the violence of the wind.
16 minutes | 3 months ago
09. Pippy the Piano and the Very Big Wave
During a season of Christmas concerts a number of years ago, I was traveling near the city of Kamaishi, Japan where the 2011 tsunami hit. Of 16,000 people killed by the tsunami, over 1,000 were killed in this town, and it’s not a very big place. Everyone there knows someone who died. New Life Kamaishi Church was completely flooded by the wave, but miraculously the building was left standing, partly protected by a steep cliff that rises behind the church. After the tsunami, wherever you went, you could see mud stains on the walls of the buildings showing how high the water rose that day. When the people decided to rebuild their church, they did something unexpected. They deliberately put a scar into their beautiful new wall. Pastor Yanagiya explained, “The scars of the people will last a lifetime, so true healing is only possible when we remember that the scars of Christ still remain in his resurrected body.” In other words, they built this scar into their building to remember the risen Christ, to remember that God does not throw out this world ravaged in the mud and muck of our sin but he redeems it. And the beautiful scars of Christ forever remind us of this redemption. But there’s more to the story! When the people returned to their church, they found their piano upside down under a huge pile of mud and debris. And in case you were wondering, pianos and water do not get along very well. When a piano gets wet, you have to throw it out. It’s trash. It’s useless. There’s nothing you can do with it. But because of the gospel, because they believe that God is rebuilding this world rather than throwing it out, they decided to fix their piano…which is completely ridiculous! I mean, do you know how much time and money it takes to fix a piano that’s damaged that badly? It would be SO MUCH easier to just buy a new one. But instead, by fixing it, these people spread a message of hope to the people in their town. There was a lot of damage on that piano. The body was gouged. The keys were so swollen they wouldn’t move. Screws were rusted to hinges. Mold covered the dampers and felt. They paid a team of piano technicians for over a year to work on that piano disassembling, cleaning, and repairing every single piece. The most striking part of the project was the brand new music stand designed and filled with symbols of hope. Noah’s doves hold freshly plucked olive twigs. A rainbow flows from one side of the music stand to the other like five lines of a music staff. Scallop shells, fishing nets, and the city flower represent the city of Kamaishi. And in the very center at the bottom, there is also an anchor in the shape of a cross. This anchor is literally the foundation for everything else in the picture, the ultimate source of hope and rebuilding. On the cross, the wave of God’s judgment crashed down on Jesus, hurling him into the depths, into the very heart of the sea of our sin. However, he rose again, and now the cross represents eternal hope and new life. This “resurrected” piano in New Life Kamaishi Church now reflects God’s promise for creation. The church hosts a “piano of hope” concert series, and musicians come from all over Japan to play it. The piano does not just bring hope to the people of that church but to the whole region, and many who come to these concerts hear about the Christian promise of redemption for the first time. Personally, I think it’s an unbelievably moving story, so when I first visited this church I wanted to tell others about it. The next morning, while having breakfast with the musicians on our tour, I told them, “You know, I really want to make a children’s book about this story!” I’d never written a children’s book before, so all I could do was let the idea mull around in my head for a while until Sarah Dusek came to work with us as an intern. She already had experience illustrating a book, so it was a perfect match between her gifts and the ministry needs at that time. The launch date of Pippy the Piano and the Very Big Wave is December 1st, so I invited Sarah to join this podcast to celebrate the launch! [Interview with Sarah Dusek] Pippy the Piano and the Very Big Wave is available for sale on December 1st in eBook, paperback, and hardcover on Amazon and wherever else you get your books online. The church gave us permission to make this book, because they really want people to hear their story. They fixed that piano not just for their own sake, but to bring hope to everyone who hears it. May this story encourage you as well, as it has already encouraged so many here in Japan.
13 minutes | 4 months ago
08. Art and Mission
I’m going to take a little break from the stories I usually tell you in these episodes to give you a glimpse into an event I participated in this week put on by GCAMM (Global Consultation on Arts and Music in Missions). If you are interested in the intersection of faith and art and foreign missions, then you definitely need to know about this group. Their gatherings have the largest number of missionary artists in one place that I’ve ever met anywhere in the world. This has meant a lot to me in particular, because when I became a missionary artist, I had never met one before. I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t even know that it was possible! You can imagine how much encouragement this is to me, to suddenly find out there’s a large group of people out there doing the same thing. I’m not the only one! So GCAMM is full of missionary artists who are called ethnodoxologists. These are people who encourage indigenous ways of worshiping the God of the Bible. This includes music, of course, but also visual arts, dance, drama, food, film, and really any other art form you can think of. In fact, many of the stories you hear me talk about in this podcast have only been possible through the encouragement I received from this group of people. Believe me, I certainly didn’t learn any of this at conservatory! So it’s been kind of a steep learning curve for me, but I couldn’t have done it without my GCAMM community. When I first learned about this group, the first event I attended was in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There were probably about 300 missionary artists and 300-400 Thai artists. Over the course of a number of days, many people shared how they work in the arts in their local contexts. There were plenary speakers from Egypt, India, and all over the world. There was also a group that led worship through many different languages and traditional instruments. There was a beautiful traditional Thai dance performance in cooperation with a local school, and particularly fun for me, there was a Thai family of classical musicians who run a concert hall in Bangkok. I got to know them a little bit, and they invited me to stay with them on my next trip to Thailand to give a concert in their hall. About two years later, I was in Bangkok for another conference, and I brought my digital organ as checked bags, which was quite an adventure all in itself! It was a really neat event, a fund-raising concert for a local charity, and they packed out the hall. I got to meet a lot of cool people, including a visual artist who came to Tokyo to speak in our next conference. So, it was all about relationship building. Another event I got to attend was in Nairobi, Kenya. It’s funny, my image of Kenya is that it’s a hot place, but it was REALLY cold. We met up in the mountains, surrounded by tea plantations. There was a tea factory nearby that had an amazing smell. I wanted to build a house right there downwind where I could smell it all the time. Anyway, I got to meet many Kenyan visual artists and leaders and heard how God is building his church through the arts in Kenya, in the cities but also in many rural areas with no electricity or running water. I came away with many ideas on how to use the arts for church planting and evangelism. So, the event this week was a webinar, a way to connect people during COVID-19, and I had the privilege of translating for Toshiyuki Machida. Mr. Machida’s story is really interesting I think, because it gives a picture of why missions through the arts is so important. The event is an interview where he speaks in Japanese and I translate into English. Because we were looking at some powerpoint slides of art he made, I’m only going to give you a brief excerpt of his talk. Mr. Machida was an art major in college when he became a Christian through an American missionary. He had never met another artist who was a Christian, so he had NO IDEA what it meant to be a Christian and an artist. How do you life your faith as a Christian and work as an artist? He had no idea what that looked like. But actually, the problem was even deeper than that. He had never met another Japanese who was a Christian. In fact, he thought he was the first one in the history of the world, the first Japanese to ever become a Christian, because he had never met one before. That’s how few Christians there really are here in Japan. Mr. Machida has a real missional heart, so when he graduated from art school he went to seminary and decided he wanted to become an evangelist to Japan through the arts. Everything he studied in seminary he studied through the lens of an artist. And when he graduated, he started an organization called Bible & Art Ministries. Once a month, he holds “Drawing the Word” workshops. I have been to a number of these. He will read a passage of Scripture, and the people around the table, mostly non-Christians, will draw what it makes them think of. It’s amazing how people open up their hearts through these events. It’s not direct, not talking about their own thoughts and feelings, but rather talking about the picture they drew. Mr. Machida will ask, “Why did you put that red stroke there?” and then they will go on to explain what they were thinking. It’s genius. It’s such an unthreatening way to get people to talk about and discuss scripture, something very difficult to do in Japanese culture. Mr. Machida gives talks and tours all over Japan for Christians and non-Christians alike, and the biggest event of the year is an art exhibit involving about 50 artists. Through these events, he builds community between artists, but also gives Christian artists an opportunity to express their faith. They can invite their non-Christian community saying, “Hey, I have this event coming up. I’d love for you to come.” It’s a chance for non-Christians to meet a whole community of Christians, often for the very first time, and it’s the arts that draws them. A lot of the artists I have met have been through this network. Mr. Machida has been a huge encouragement to me. [Excerpt from Mr. Machida’s talk] At another webinar this week, I was asked, “What is the biggest challenge for Japanese becoming Christians?” I have to say that the biggest challenge is that most Japanese have never met a Christian. Why would you become a Christian if you’ve never met one? And the beauty of the arts creates those opportunities. It’s able to bring people together, where non-Christians can experience Christian community for the first time. The second biggest challenge is the feeling that Christianity is the destroyer of Japanese culture. So many Japanese feel like they have to become Western in order to become Christian, but that’s obviously simply not the case. The arts help people see, touch, hear, taste, and smell what the gospel looks like in a Japanese context. This is really the heart of what we are doing here in Japan, the Japanese talks that I give, the writing that I do, it’s all because I want to help people see that the gospel is there in the very heart of Japanese art and culture. The more people we have like Mr. Machida spreading that message, the faster and deeper the church is going to grow. “Jesus Wept” by Toshiyuki Machida
8 minutes | 4 months ago
07. Sea Glass
My friends Matt Burns and Paul Nethercott made a beautiful little film called “Finding Beauty in the Rubble,” telling the story of a woman who made art in the midst of the terrible devastation of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. I put a link to the film in the show notes so you can see it too. I’m especially grateful to Nancy Nethercott for her friendship and for answering all my questions as I kept pestering her to learn more about this story! When the tsunami siren sounded, Hiroko tied her dog, Kai, to a tree and headed for the shelter. “I’ll be right back,” she said. Kai waved his tail in reply. Hiroko didn’t think there was any danger. Why would she? Her town was protected by 13-foot sea walls. And sirens often went off after earthquakes. Forty-five minutes later, she watched in horror as the tsunami surged over those walls and tore through her town. Shockwaves rattled the windows from an explosion at the nearby oil refinery. The electricity went out, and the tap water stopped running. Just as the sun was about to set, the wind picked up and snow began to fall. As she shivered under a blanket of darkness, barely able to breathe thinking about her dog, all night long she listened to the howling of the wind. The next day, as soon as there was enough light, she practically ran back to her house, tripping over debris and getting stuck in the mud along the way. Even from a distance, she could tell her home was completely gone. But as she came closer, she found that Kai still tied to that tree…and alive! He was shivering and soaked to the neck, but he was alive! Can you imagine what he had gone through? “Oh Kai, I’m so sorry!” she cried, as she hugged and kissed him. From that time on, they were especially inseparable. Every morning, they went for walks together on the beach as they sheltered in the gymnasium of the local high school. One of those mornings, she noticed something sparkling in the sand and stooped to pick it up. It was sea glass. She put some of it in her pocket and carried it back to the cardboard square she called home back at the shelter. With every walk, that collection grew. In the months ahead, many volunteers came from all over Japan. In fact, from all over the world. Hiroko said, “The warmheartedness of the people really impacted me. Complete strangers came to help us. Seeing that really touched me.” To show her gratitude, Hiroko made small necklaces from her sea glass collection and gave them as gifts. Over time, she started making larger objects—window decorations, candle holders, even lampshades. She especially liked how the light turned blue, red, and green as it shined through the sea glass. “I no longer felt like a person who couldn’t do anything,” she said. “Here was something I could do. Here was a meaningful way I could respond.” I bought one of Hiroko’s necklaces. In fact, I’m wearing it right now. I wish I could show it to you. It’s interesting to me how its much heavier than you would expect. The piece of glass is a frosty white, and smooth from the friction of the sand and the waves. This one is naturally shaped like an arrowhead, which is why I got it, and is held in place with some very thin silver wires. Wearing this necklace, I’ve been thinking about sea glass and how it is made. You know, the beauty of sea glass actually forms through being broken. First, quartz sand has to be melted to form the glass and shaped into a drinking glass, bottle, or window. But then, that glass object is broken into lots of sharp jagged pieces. Finally, the sand and the waves make it smooth and pleasant to touch. If we push this image even further, we can think about how light that shines through the sea glass is broken. Hiroko’s window decorations and lampshades actually fill the world with color by breaking the light. They fill the darkness of the room not just with light but with beauty, with broken beauty. “The beauty of the sea glass actually forms through being broken.” Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) I wonder what kind of light this is. Do you think it’s white light? Or do you think it’s more like the colorful light that shines through the broken pieces of sea glass? There are so many images in the Bible of the glory of the Lord being associated with rainbow light, with colorful light. The light of God’s presence shines in our darkness. It shines in our devastation. God comes near and fills our world with beauty and with color when we need it most. One day, all the sharp and jagged edges of this world will be polished and made smooth and pleasant to the touch. Little by little, God redeems this broken world, transforming it into the beautiful ongoing work of his creation, or should I say re-creation, giving just a little picture of what we have to look forward to in the coming of the new heavens and the new earth.
10 minutes | 5 months ago
06. Taking A Pounding
There is so much brokenness in this world! Just by me speaking to you right now, it’s very likely that some of you are suffering, or someone you know is suffering. Especially now, during COVID-19. Life is hard, and we would be fools to think otherwise. It’s a terrible part of this world, and you know, frankly, it makes me a little bit angry. We want to protect the ones we love from suffering, but we can’t. So, where’s there hope in that? How can we keep on going? How do we overcome this? This podcast is about art, life, and faith. Art comes in different forms, and one of these forms is food. Food—not just something to get us through the day. I suppose we could just take pills for that if we needed to, at least that’s what a lot of sci-fi films say about the future. No, we have this amazing abundance of food, in so many possibilities, that make up all the different cuisines of the world—Japanese food, Korean food, Chinese food, Thai food, Italian food, and, my favorite, Greek food. They’re all different, and sometimes they’re using the same ingredients. Like so much in our culture, we have the power to create it, and I believe that it tells us something about the way we see the world. Food, too, can tell us about hope in our suffering. Now, of course, every culture is looking for hope. That’s what makes us universally human. And in Japan, when I eat mochi, I have hope. It’s kind of a strange thing to say about food, I know, but it’s true! Mochi gives me hope. I think about it a lot actually. Some of you may not even know what that is, so let me explain. It’s an unsweetened chewy rice cake, a kind of food that’s made through pounding. Sometimes our family toasts it. Sometimes we grill it. Sometimes we put it in a soup. Mochi is made through crushing. By hitting and pounding and crushing this food, it becomes stronger, durable, lasts longer. I need this kind of message in my life, something that’s stronger because of its suffering, that makes the suffering worthwhile. I remember the first time I ate mochi. It was at my son’s kindergarten. Let me try to paint the scene for you. Laughter filled the air. The sound of something being hit reverberated off the walls all around me. A woman turned to me and smiled. She wore a festive red and white headband and bright blue, white, and red clothing known as a “happi,” which I thought was a pretty appropriate name for the occasion! She pointed to a large wooden mallet telling me that it was my turn. I picked it up, surprised by how heavy it was, and there in front of me was a big wooden mortar filled with hot steaming rice. A man crouched next to the rice, ready to turn it over between each of my hits. “Okay, don’t hit his hands,” I told myself as I rose the mallet over my head. Bamm. Bamm. Mochi making is such a violent process. In order to make these Japanese rice cakes, the mallet needs to come down . . . hard . . . in order to crush the rice. It was fun, but at the end of the day, I had blistered hands and a sore back. But every single kernel of that rice was pounded. The source of its strength is its pounding. The source of its durability is its “suffering.” It’s amazing how long you can keep mochi without it spoiling. You can keep it in the refrigerator for a very long time. Two little pieces have about the same number of calories as an entire bowl of rice. In the cold winter months, it’s great for keeping the body warm. I think we are like mochi, hit over and over again. Crushed. Pounded. Sickness. Loss. Broken relationships. Unrealized dreams. When we are wounded, or in pain, or hear traumatic news, or, in my case, poked with needles, sometimes we may even pass out, one way the body protects itself. Nothing good can come from this, we tell ourselves. But if we’re anything like mochi, then pain and suffering can actually transform us into something stronger. The very thing which we think is killing us can actually help us grow. James wrote, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2–4) Do we want trials to grow and mature? No, of course not! We don’t want to suffer. It’s not nice. Why would we want that? Who would? Yet, God uses even this. God works through the brokenness that we “may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” We don’t change by being comfortable. In fact, it may do just the opposite. It may even ruin us, make us unable to change or empathize with others. We have to be broken to be reshaped, and there are so many examples of this in the Bible. There is Job, who lost his children, his health, his property, everything he had, but through it all actually came to know God better. “I had only heard about you before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes.” (Job 42:5) There are the Israelites, pounded over and over again in the wilderness as God transformed them into a stronger people. And there’s the persecution of the early church, and the growth it received through that. God wants good things for us, and he would never allow the pain and suffering of this world to be without meaning. When we’re crushed, we receive endurance. When we’re pounded, God is made stronger in us. Through adversity, we’re prepared for something greater. Trials are an opportunity to know God and rely on him. To rely on his power rather than our own power. To look to him rather than to ourselves. Jesus trusted God and died, in order that we may trust God and live. He was crushed for our iniquities, suffered so we could be healed. The hands and feet of Jesus were literally pounded on the cross for our sake. The world may try to pound us into the ground, but through it, we are transformed to be more like Jesus. He knows what we face. He empathizes with our trials. He experiences our pain. He shares in our suffering, wherever and whenever we are. So, do you see why mochi gives me hope? It reminds me how, by God’s grace, the suffering of this world will not destroy us.
9 minutes | 5 months ago
05. The Golden Cracks
One of the joys of living overseas is being able to see the world differently, sometimes in ways I would never expect. One day when I was in Kyoto, in the Kyoto National Museum, I stumbled upon some clay bowls. Everything about the exhibit screamed, “These things are important!” They were individually encased behind panes of glass. They sat beautifully displayed on felt-covered small boxes. They each had their own special lighting, but the odd thing to me was that they were broken. I mean, usually when something breaks, we throw it out, right? These were just bowls after all. You don’t have to dig too long or too deep almost anywhere in the world to find fragments of broken pottery. Behind the house where I grew up, next to the old stone fence, lots of broken pottery in the dirt. It’s so common, so easily broken, and so easy to replace. So tell me, why did some Japanese artist take all that time and money to fix these broken bowls, and with gold no less! Who does that? The gold was probably worth more than the bowls themselves, and it certainly did nothing to hide the cracks. If anything, it accentuated them. It was actually highlighting those broken places. The glory of these bowls was found in their cracks! Somehow, those vessels were more beautiful and more valuable for having been broken. One bowl in particular stood out to me for a whole piece was completely missing, filled in and sealed with gold. This was my introduction to the Japanese art of kintsugi, and as I gazed at it, I thought, this . . . THIS is the gospel! We are broken in sin. Our world is broken by sin. Yet God does not just throw us out, but rather renews, repairs, restores, redeems, and reforms. God reforms us with the gold of heaven, which never tarnishes or rusts. He is our healer, and he displays the life and death of Jesus in our fragile bodies to reveal his glory. God takes our wound and brokenness to restore us to complete and perfect health. Kintsugi displays the gospel, where the glory of God can be revealed in fragile and broken vessels. The glory of our lives and bodies, our value and our beauty, comes from Christ displayed in our weakness—in our cracks. Paul wrote, “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” (2 Corinthians 4:7–10) Ultimately, kintsugi is not about us but about Christ. We carry around in our body both the death of Jesus, through the cracks, and the life of Jesus, through the gold. Our gaps are gold; our cracks are glory. What a completely redemptive view of suffering! “In [Christ] all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17), so we do not need to, nor can we, ‘pull ourselves together.’ And that’s okay, because Christ pulls us together. Christ holds us together with the glorious riches of the golden cracks of heaven. One book on kintsugi lists eleven types of brokenness that can be found in a bowl. The kintsugi artist not only can distinguish between various kinds of brokenness but can also see how to bring beauty out of them. There are many kinds of brokenness in our lives, but there are so many more ways God can bring beauty out of them. In the garden, the Lord God called to Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). There were two people trying to hide their brokenness and shame, but God went directly to their brokenness to begin working there. God crafts our stories in such a way that we will be more beautiful because of our broken pieces. Once after sharing this illustration with a group of people, a woman came up to me. She had tears in her eyes as she told me, “I’m like that bowl . . . I’m broken. I’m a mess, and there’s a huge chunk of my life missing.” She went on to share how her husband had passed away the previous year, and a piece of her was missing that could never be replaced. And yet, in that moment, she saw how Christ filled her holes and gaps. Christ turned her eyes away from her suffering and toward his own suffering for her. One day, to learn more about kintsugi, my wife Abi and I went to a kintsugi workshop with a couple we were doing premarital counseling for. I figured, what better way to prepare two people for marriage than to take them to a kintsugi workshop, right? Isn’t that what you would do? Anyway, we went and I brought along a plate that had broken in three pieces when it fell from our dish rack. You know, after that plate was mended, it became my favorite. During COVID-19 when worship was live-streamed from our living room, we always used that plate for the communion in front of the whole church. Somehow nothing seemed more appropriate to celebrate the broken body of Christ in communion. Well, the other day, can you guess what happened? A couple of weeks ago, on a Sunday evening after communion, that same plate fell again! From that same dish rack! I think it’s time to get a new dish rack. But what surprised me is that the plate didn’t break into the same three pieces as before. It actually broke in three different places. So not only was this plate more beautiful and more valuable for having been broken, but now, clearly, it was stronger as well. It was one of my sons who broke it, you know he wasn’t being careful, but I wasn’t mad. I was thankful for what he taught me. The meaning of kintsugi was even deeper than I thought. Though I guess I now have to schedule another visit to a kintsugi workshop… Every time I see this broken dish, I think of the slain Lamb of God, in the very center of heaven itself, infinitely valuable and infinitely beautiful and infinitely strong and powerful, for all of creation to gaze upon. In fact, I’m convinced that in the pottery of heaven we will find kintsugi, forever reminding us and leading us in the eternal praise of God.
7 minutes | 6 months ago
04. Simmering in the Gospel
One of the joys of living overseas is being able to experience different parts of the world. There are times when I think, “Wow, that’s exotic.” Sometimes it’s a smell in the air. Sometimes it’s a sound that I hear. Sometimes it’s the feel of the atmosphere. When we first moved to Tokyo, I had such an experience every single morning as I took my kids to school. We had to pass by some traditional wooden houses that always had an interesting smell coming out of them. My kids asked me, “Daddy, what is that smell?” but I couldn’t tell them. I didn’t know. So one day, I decided to find out. The door was open as passed by, and I popped my head in. An older woman behind the counter beckoned me to step inside. “What does this store sell?” I asked, feeling pretty dumb because I could see the objects right there in front of me. Various small brown things were lined up in neat rows behind the glass counter. “Let me show you,” she said and gave me one of the little brown things to try. I popped what looked like a small fish in my mouth, and was surprised by its strong but pleasant taste. It was a little bit salty and a little bit sweet. I still had no idea what this food was even called, so I asked. And she told me that it was called tsukudani and that it had a very long history in the neighborhood. Clearly, I needed to learn more about this food, if for no other reason than the fact that I live in Tsukuda, the area after which the food is named. It is a very small part of Tokyo at the mouth of the Sumida River, where it pours into Tokyo Bay. It only takes 5 minutes or so to walk across Tsukuda. Apparently in the 17th century, there were some fishermen in a small part of Osaka called Tsukuda. When Ieyasu Tokugawa, the famous general who gathered all the areas of Japan into one country, was escaping another army, these fishermen gave him and his men some boats and preserved fish. As a reward, Tokugawa invited these men and their families to move to Tokyo to provide food and fish for his castle. The island in Tokyo was renamed Tsukuda after Tsukuda, Osaka, and the connection between these two cities continues today. My children at Tsukuda Elementary had already met students from Tsukuda Elementary in Osaka from field trips and other fun activities. These fisherman invented a food called tsukudani (literally “simmering Tsukuda”). In order to preserve fish and other seafood from going bad, they simmered it in salt, sugar, and soy sauce. Food in Japan quickly rots because of the high heat and humidity, but tsukudani can preserve this food without refrigeration for over a month. It was a creative act deliberately designed to bring beauty to a world where everything is falling apart. As I thought about it, I began to think about the wider implications of this. Our bodies are always falling apart. Our relationships are always falling apart. We’re always so tired and so stressed. Is there a process that can preserve us from the rot and stench of death? “We will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.” (1 Corinthians 15:53) I continue to pass by this shop every morning. Looking up at the storefront, I see the Japanese characters for tsukudani written right there. The Japanese character Tsukuda (佃) is made up of a person standing next to a rice field. But the way the rice field is portrayed, I can easily imagine the shape of a cross in a box. When I see the Japanese characters for tsukudani, I think of the cross. Amidst all the threats, accusations, curses, and brokenness of this world, we can stand next to the cross. Just as the process of tsukudani preserves the fish, we can be preserved and changed from the inside out. This is the gospel. To be preserved in this world, to be “clothed with the imperishable,” we need to be simmered. We need to be simmered in the gospel. We need to be simmered by the cross. And by the grace of God, it protects us from the rot and stench of death. God is our nourishment. God is our sustenance. I believe we can know something about God through the food we eat, that it shows us in deeper ways what his sustenance is really like. And in heaven, we will enjoy God forever. On earth we cannot possibly know all the different smells and tastes of this world, and in heaven we cannot possibly know the depths of God’s goodness to us.
11 minutes | 6 months ago
03. The Hospital
Summary: A concert in a hospital near the broken nuclear power plants of Fukushima shortly after the 2011 earthquake in Japan brought us together. In that terrible time, music brought healing and helped us mourn and cry for what was lost. Excerpts from my forthcoming book Aroma of Beauty. We had a pretty big earthquake the other day. The alarm on my phone went off as part of the early warning system for coming earthquakes. I heard the sirens out on the street, and all through the neighborhood. It was actually pretty scary. It sounded like the end of the world! My mind immediately went back to 2011 and that 9.0 earthquake. Here in Japan we’ve been talking about that again, and how terrible it would be for an earthquake to happen now, during the spread of COVID-19, for everyone to be forced into the small confines of gymnasiums and other shelters. You can’t social distance when you’re sheltering from an earthquake. When I watch the news about the spread of the corona virus around the globe, they always have a story about the people fighting on the front lines in hospitals. The people on the front lines, facing the worst of this disaster, at incredible risk to their own lives, helping as many people as possible. It makes me think about a hospital in Minami Soma, just after the earthquake. Not far away, seawater spilled over the concrete walls and took out the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. The tsunami knocked out the power all up and down the coast. It went over their backup generators, flooding them, making them useless. The radioactive cores no longer had water running through them to keep them cool, and they began to overheat and melt through layer after layer of protection, becoming ticking time bombs. One reactor blew, and then another, and then another! Radioactivity shot into the air and flooded into the sea. It was a disaster of global proportions, comparable only to Chernobyl. Words cannot describe the fear we felt during that time. In Tokyo, we were told not to drink the tap water, but there was no bottled water anywhere. And we had small children. And blackouts rolled through the city. And rain supposedly showered us with radioactivity from the sky. And rumors spread that all 38 million residents would have to be evacuated, basically the whole middle third of Japan, the most populous part. We would all have to move down as far as Osaka or even further south. Looking back, of course none of that happened, but at the time we didn’t know that. We didn’t know what the future held. People were actually whispering, “Is Japan finished? Is this the end?” It was during that time that we heard about an urgent need at a hospital through a doctor in our neighborhood. In Minami Soma, a city just 15 miles north of the broken power plants, there was a hospital full of patients and refugees that needed food and supplies. They were just outside the evacuation zone, and so they couldn’t get the help they needed to move somewhere safe. Trains and buses weren’t moving. Most of the people left behind were older, and so they didn’t have the money to move anywhere else, and they really had anywhere to go. Professional truck drivers refused to go with supplies because of fears of radiation, and it was the only shelter for miles around. Because of all this, our group of volunteers made many trips to this hospital in those early days after the earthquake. About two months after the earthquake, I personally made my first trip to the hospital. They no longer needed supplies, but now they needed encouragement. And so, I was sent to give an organ concert. I experienced firsthand the isolation and hopelessness of that situation. But man, was that hospital hard to get to! The tsunami had destroyed most of the bridges and roads along the coast, and there were these huge lakes of water because the land had sunk a little and the drainage system no longer worked. So the Japanese Self-Defense Force constructed temporary floating bridges and roads to make travel possible, but it was frustratingly slow for travel. And these bridges were open only for certain hours of the day. We finally arrived at the hospital and unloaded my digital pipe organ. As I entered the lobby, I saw pictures by children in our community. It was like a little art gallery. Every time we sent boxes of supplies up north, children in Tokyo drew pictures to tape to those boxes. The hospital staff had apparently carefully taken off those pictures and saved them, and hung them in the lobby of the hospital and in the hallways. I even saw a few by my own children. It was actually kind of moving to see them there, to see this visual connection between our two communities. During the concert people were pretty quiet. The audience was almost completely devoid of emotion or any kind of response. I played my usual repertoire: Bach, French Romantic music, and some pieces that I wrote. Then I played a pretty long improvisation on Moon Over the Ruined Castle, and the atmosphere of the room completely changed.People engaged with the music. They began to hum along. Some even began to sing softly. This song, Moon Over the Ruined Castle, is very famous here in Japan. It’s about an old but deserted castle in Fukushima. The lyrics describe a beautiful moon rising over the castle but the area is completely deserted. No one is around to see it. “Where has everyone gone?” the song asks. “Only vines remain on the walls. Only storms still sing in the forests.” The scene was eerily similar to the situation we found ourselves in so close to those broken power plants. As soon as I finished the piece, the hospital director stood up and spoke. “We’re ruined by earthquake and tsunami. We’re reduced to nothing, a mere ghost town by radiation. We’re cut off from the world by ocean to the east, mountains to the west, broken power plants to the south, and impassable roads to the north. All the while, we’re bombarded with invisible radiation, but what can we do? What choice do we have?” As you can imagine, the room was full of tears. I saw so many wiping their faces and their eyes. And then, people came up and spoke with me. A young nurse, probably in her early 20s, confessed that she wanted to leave the hospital but couldn’t. There was no one else to take her place to care for the hundreds sheltering there. The hospital had sent requests for new people to come, but no one did. An old man confessed to me that he wanted to leave but couldn’t. He had nowhere to go and no money to do it. After the concert, the hospital staff treated me to dinner at a nearby restaurant of yaki niku. You may know this food from the movie Lost in Translation with Bill Murray. We were served these thin strips of raw meat, which we had to cook ourselves at our table. I will never forget that meal for the rest of my life. It was so good being with these people. Even though I was personally meeting them for the very first time, it was like we were old friends. And the meat at this restaurant was amazing. I wish I could share some with you. I’ve never had anything like it. It was really the best meat I’ve ever had in my entire life. I’ve had yaki niku many times, but never anything remotely like this. I couldn’t help but think that the meat came from cattle nearby that couldn’t be sold anywhere else because of fears of radiation. It didn’t matter whether the meat was radioactive or not. It couldn’t be sold because now Fukushima had stigma attached to it. No one in Tokyo, or any other part of the world for that matter, was going to eat meat from Fukushima. So I think this restaurant was just able to get the best, the kind of cuts that were always sent away before, the kind of cuts that were always unaffordable to people like me. And there was just something about this whole experience. To be with these people, in the midst of this urgency and this fear, and to be sharing a meal together. And to be talking about the people that were at the concert. And to be talking about the past two months. In that moment, we experienced community. In that terrible time, music brought healing. It helped people mourn and cry for what they had lost. The hospital no longer needed supplies, but music enabled the relationship between our two communities to continue. And I was so thankful for that point of connection. Because of music, and because of the art of the children, hearts were opened to us, and they were opened to each other, to share their stories and their lives and their food. And the experience changed me as a person.
10 minutes | 7 months ago
02. The Scarf
My friend, Shannon Johnston, started The Scarf back in 2011 as a direct response to the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster here in Japan. It was a way for people to knit their hopes, thoughts, and prayers together for the people of Japan. Scarves are something you wear around your neck like a hug. The Scarf was a way people could give hugs without actually being physically present in Japan. … Learn more about Shannon Johnston and The Scarf, including how you can participate in this project, here.
9 minutes | 7 months ago
01. Love Your Neighbor
Mayu is a visual artist in Tokyo. With the spread of COVID-19, like everyone else, she was stuck at home, with no way to share her art and no way to make a living. What bothered her most, though, was that people were hurting all around her. She wanted to do something, but didn’t know what she could do. One day, her mother said, “Mayu, I think you should make masks.” … Website: https://loveneighbor.thebase.in/aboutInstagram: https://www.instagram.com/lyn_givingteamDonations: https://paypal.me/mayulyn?locale.x=ja_JP
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