Blessedly Awkward, Awkwardly Blessed

2 comments Written on February 9th, 2015     
Filed under: missions, reflections
I went to yesterday’s preaching assignment with a good deal of fear and trepidation. Often we choose to be emotionally invested or not… but then sometimes one just doesn’t have any say in the matter. I was invited to speak at a small, struggling church that my parents helped plant some fifty years ago. This was their first church planting assignment in Japan after completing language school and helping out at the Covenant Seminary during their first term. By most standards I would say it was a pretty successful church plant. Our family was there from 1961 until 1966 and then for one more year in 1968-69. During that time a lot of things were accomplished, including the building up of a fairly robust congregation of 20-30 people, the purchase of land and completion of a church building, lots and lots of ministries for children, youth and young adults, and the raising up and training of several national church leaders. And yet after we moved to Tokyo the church seemed to struggle, and then it languished… and to everyone’s dismay, it has continued to languish for over forty years now. It probably should have been shut down or reconfigured decades ago but it just never happened. For more than a decade there have only been two active members besides the pastoral staff and family. And while buildings are always secondary, the undeniably dilapidated condition of the church building is perhaps the most visible and poignant reminder of all the heartbreak I feel when I think about this church. Over the years I’ve more or less just tried to not think about it too much. But yesterday I was the preacher at this church. What’s more, the pastor knew that I have a lot of my dad’s old photos from the early days of that ministry and he asked me if I would share some of them with the congregation after worship. So I’m being asked to visit this run down, almost empty, and perilously close to spiritually “flat-line” church to share the good news and to reminisce about the “good old days”. I don’t think I have ever felt as emotionally torn apart about a preaching engagement as I did going into this one. There is simply no way I can distance myself.

So I prayed for peace, I prayed for comfort, I prayed for courage and I prayed for composure. It probably goes without saying that God answers prayer, and yesterday was no exception! I even invited a couple of acquaintances; one who was baptized at that church as a college student in the early years and was extremely active. Another was a neighbor of our’s back then and a childhood playmate of my sisters. Unfortunately the neighbor wasn’t able to come but the other woman did come with her husband. I preached from the 1st chapter of Mark, the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, the healings of may others and the savior who refuses to settle down in one place. I reflected on the excitement those four disciples must have felt in those early days of Jesus’ public ministry and drew numerous parallels with the early days of the ministry at this church. In the end I could only conclude that Jesus’ leading takes us to places least expected, but that’s the way it’s always been. And the goal throughout is to simply continue the work Jesus began, the work of proclaiming the good news and initiating the Kingdom of God through word and deed.

After worship I shared the slide show containing about 150 photos from my dad’s collection. In spite of the painful irony of sitting in an almost empty sanctuary and looking at 50 year old images of the same room packed to the gills with children, with young adults and with folks from the neighborhood, the striking contrast of sitting in a building that is run down, falling apart, and leaning so badly it makes you dizzy and viewing images of when the building was being built and proudly being dedicated… in spite of all that, the Holy Spirit was gracious and we actually had a wonderful time together. I can’t explain it, and I don’t have any insightful conclusions to offer. But it was good. Having the woman with us who was a member in the early days and was in so many of the photos was a blessing too as she filled in lots of details about the work and the people who were a part of it. So I come away thankful for answered prayer and somewhat amazed that I survived. My ongoing prayer is that whatever manner God chooses, that some how or another more people would have the opportunity to encounter the living Christ. We saw evidence in the photos of many people who were afforded that wonderful opportunity fifty years ago. May it continue to be so even today, even if it isn’t happening in that particular church at the moment…


The new church being dedicated on September 9th, 1962.

The new church being dedicated on September 9th, 1962, three months after my birth.

My mom teaching a cooking class at church while I look from my portable crib.

My mom teaching a cooking class at church while I look on from my portable crib along with my sisters.

Sunday school drew lots of local kids back then. I was probably still in my mother's arms but my sisters were doing their part!

Sunday school drew lots of local kids back then. I was probably still in my mother’s arms but my sisters were doing their part!

Yesterday after worship we shared a meal together.

Yesterday after worship we shared a meal together.

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2 comments “Blessedly Awkward, Awkwardly Blessed”

Sounds pretty important Jim. I’m glad you could be there, even through the awkwardness. Thanks for sharing. As usual, your Dad’s photos are priceless.

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Thanks for sharing this blessed-awkward moment and giving a glimpse into your heart as you prepared and preached to this small yet faithful church significant to your history. I couldn’t help but marvel at the tenacity of staying the course for 40 years — amazing. The photos are pretty incredible in telling the story….

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