Today, I took my day off on a Tuesday, since I worked all weekend at the retreat in Hiroshima. Ahh, this weekend was a refreshment to my soul. My heart feels refreshed and renewed at the fellowship and worship enjoyed there.
So, since it was my day off, I went to a local shop in Tadotsu, about a 3 minute walk from my house. I’d seen this place a number of times, but till now, I’ve been too afraid to go in. No matter how you splice it, that is the truth behind all excuses. At times, I haven’t had time, or the familiar Joyfull restaurant seemed more inviting, but at root I will not deny fear as the cause.
Why fear? What’s to be afraid of in a small restaurant? Lots. When you walk into a small, local shop, you can’t read the menu at all. Generally, the menu consists of wood blocks, covered with the incomprehensible scrawls of calligraphic Japanese, hung or hidden on random walls. So, first thing: you can’t order.
Second, when you walk into a local shop, it’s more like walking into someone’s living room than an actual restaurant (and half the time, it is someone’s living room). Everyone knows each other, because they’ve been eating there for many years. If you’re a foreigner, an instant ripple of tension enters the room with the dying wisps of the cold “irasshaimase” that greet your nervous slam of the door. Because everyone is nervous, this makes it even harder to get someone to read the menu to you.
So, unable to even find the menu or prices, with four people staring at me (the couple who owns the restaurant and the two customers), I sat down. At first, that uncomfortable buzz filled the room as I tried to ask where the menu was. Eventually, the wife of the chef read it to me, but I couldn’t figure out any of it. However, she suggested a couple “foreign-safe” things like tempura to me. I went with mebaru-nitsuke, though all I knew was that it was some kind of fish stared at me through refrigerated glass.
I commented that that I could almost read the menu, but the kanji was hard to read. The man sitting next to me said, “same for Japanese.” And so we started talking (in Japanese, of course). He asked who I was, how long I’d been there, etc. The regular questions. I said I was a missionary, and he seemed mildly interested, in the way Japanese are about uncommon things. So we talked about things like how I can eat anything religiously, though I couldn’t stomach nattou. While we talked, his teenage daughter sat next to him and emailed friends from her cell phone, quiet as the tides of the sheltered inland sea. I’m sure she wished that her father would hurry up and take her home.
The owner of the restaurant tried to talk to me, but I couldn’t understand a word he said. He spoke in the usual middle-aged Japanese male drawl (an impossible slur that comes from the stomach itself). And to top it off, he used Sanuki-ben, the local hillbilly dialect. The other customer said at one point, “You can’t understand him, but you can understand me if I speak like an NHK announcer.” NHK is the main Japanese television station, and I actually can understand the news announcers pretty well, because they STINKING ENUNCIATE.
The food was amazing. They started by seving me a small dish with some wakame, dark sauce, and something white. I assumed it was tofu, since it was served cold, but they said it was something from the fish. As I happily ate, I told myself, “sometimes, it’s better when you can’t understand.” The other customer gave me a little of what he was eating (nabe, which is a kind of cook-it-yourself-over-a-burner soup). He was very generous. The mebaru-nitsuke (boiled black rockfish) was served whole, but there was no meat on the head. It was good, though boneful, and a little hard to pick apart. They all kept saying how good my chop-stick skillz were (another very traditional Japanese thing to say).
As we ate and conversed, I prayed that I could say the right things to move these people closer to Christ, but my Japanese is fairly limited, so it was hard for me. I don’t know if I could have said much more. I want, so badly, to learn this language. Currently, I’m working on a good, Japanese version of my testimony, which I plan to memorize, but I didn’t see an opening to share that.
How can I communicate my heart to the Japanese? What is my heart for them? What is the missionary heart? I was pondering that some, today, and I think that the missionary heart, especially in such a successful, outwardly happy place like Japan, is this: To cause the Japanese to see the hollowness of all they pursue and the richness of God. To help them to find true joy, and to find that joy in Christ, nowhere else.
For a long time, I haven’t been thinking as passionately as today about those things. The last seven months of my life has been a blur of loneliness and pain with small patches of sunlight streaming through the night-dark clouds of the sky. When I left San Luis Obispo, it was like losing a parent, for the grief it caused, and being isolated in a foreign country has only intensified that grief and the pain of my losses. The reason I’ve feared going into restaurants like tonight is because of the turmoil in my heart, which has made it difficult to do anything but withdraw. All this time, I’ve prayed the simple prayer, “Deliver me, O God,” and waited for His dawn to rise in my soul.
Recently, I’ve been reading past journals of a time in my life when I prayed those same things: an incredible drought swept my heart like a rainless Californian summer after the 2005 Santa Monica summer project. Two nights ago, I read of going to Christmas conference that year, the event that marks to me the final end of that darkness after countless patches of sunlight throughout the fall. Three years ago, I awoke every morning wondering, “Will this be the day that God delivers me this trial?” These last seven months, I have not had such a perspective, though I have been regaining it as I recalled my past.
This weekend, I went to Hiroshima to help host a JET Christian Fellowship retreat. JETers are western English teachers working in Japanese public schools. Dawn put tons of planning into this thing, and I too had the pleasure of buying $220 worth of food on Friday. We left at 5:30 on Saturday morning. It was an exhausting weekend, and I slept 12 hours last night to recover from it. However, I have not felt so encouraged since coming to Japan.
There were 17 of us there, almost all JET teachers. Rather than being “wakai” as the old ladies of Japan screech when I reveal my age, these were my peers! We understood one another! We were open spiritually with one another! We prayed! We worshipped God with all our hearts in words I could understand! We talked of struggles and learned of the Savior! The guys went to bed about 12:30 on the first night, then talked for another hour, when we finally went to sleep. We’ve all been in our own little bubbles, mostly in rural Japan, cut off from Christian fellowship. So it was an incredible release to us all.
I feel refreshed, ready to conquer little fears (like going to local restarants) and leapt afresh into the work. I didn’t want to come back to Shikoku, but being back, I think that a change may have happened. Sin was revealed: I haven’t been faithful enough in the work here. But I think that what I needed most was a refreshment of my heart to propel me forward into what I must do.
At the restaurant, when it was almost time to go, the man said that he would pay for my meal. No matter how I refused, he would not relent. And this from a stranger! Until now, the pain I have endured and my lonliness has caused me to forget just how kind the Japanese people can be, despite their unbearable need for the savior. Tonight, I was reminded of that kindness with the “puresento” of the payment of my meal.
To top it off, he told me to “ganbarre!” (hang in there; good luck) with being a missionary. This man was friendly to Christianity, or at least to me. This is not abnormal in Japan. However, chances are that he will never hear the gospel, and if he does, that he will never become a Christian. Outwardly, his heart was friendly to me, and he enjoyed talking to a foreigner. But to God, his heart is indifferent. He does not believe in his own sin, and if he did, his pride would tell him to “ganbarre” to pay it off. He needs God. So badly. But his entire society is arranged against him finding God. This wonderful man whom I met, is there any hope for his salvation? Did I ruin the one chance he would ever have to hear the gospel by not speaking more boldly of spiritual things on a level deeper than “Christians can eat pork?” If so, I pray for God’s grace to cover my sin, and I pray for His grace to cover my poor Japanese, as well.
And lastly, I went to the grocery store after dinner to pick up some stuff for this week. It’s about a 3-minute walk from that restaurant. And who should I see there but the wife of the cook! She waved, and I didn’t recognize her for a second, then I laughed and told her, “Tadotsu is a small town, huh?” I’ve been given the invitation to come back any time to eat at their living room/restaurant, though next time I’ll probably have to pay, unless I get lucky, again.
I hope that I have the opportunity to. Soon, I plan to complete the long-awaited plans for moving to Kagawa-cho. I hope to be able to sign a lease on Saturday. Now that so many issues in my heart have been dealt with and I have completed the first major step of adjusting to Japan (things that perhaps had to take place in this solitary confinement of Tadotsu) it may be time.
How ironic that when I wanted to badly to leave this place, God stalled the finding of a house, while now that I have come through many issues in my heart (hopefully for good), it is time to go. In my life, this oft seems the pattern, that where I go is not where I want to go but where I need to be. I needed to be here to endure hardship and God’s discipline. And though I knew that’s what was happening, it hurt all the same. Praise God for the deliverance He has provided, the answers to my prayers, and I hope that I will be a better missionary for it.
As I walked home, still trying to pick that last fish bone out of my teeth, I considered that perhaps the deliverance from my struggles has come. I went to this restaurant that I’d been meaning to go to for months, and God provided an incredible, divinely-orchestrated meeting, even to the extent that I ate for free. This feels like I may be stepping into a new season, one not so dry, one where I am able to see His providence more clearly. With the coming of the blasting, freezing winds of winter, I pray that I may come out of my own winter into the deliverance that He has prepared for me.
Until that day…