Five Years On

Post a Comment » Written on March 11th, 2016     
Filed under: earthquake, missions
Social media outlets are featuring so many reflective posts about the fifth anniversary of 3.11 that I hesitate to join the fray. And yet how can I be silent? What happened on March 11th, 2011 will never fade from my memory. I never witnessed destruction and suffering on such a scale before that day and I sincerely hope I never do again. Five years have passed and while we’ve seen much recovery, the fact is that many people still live in the pain of that event every day. Many towns have made significant progress in rebuilding and yet many previously vigorous and bustling places remain uninhabited. The nuclear disaster in Fukushima is still decades away from finding any sort of closure, if ever.

Yet somehow I’m inclined to look for signs of hope. Perhaps it comes with being part of a faith community that obstinately holds onto something as crazy as resurrection. Nevertheless I strongly object to the bad habit we church folk tend to practice, of trying to ignore or deny our pain and anger by masking it in “God-talk”, as if real or imagined silver linings can always be found, and some how cancel out all that bad. No; pain, suffering, anger, the sense of meaninglessness, and the lack of answers to the question, “why?” are very real and can’t be wished away with some simplistic change of perspective.

In spite of all that; no… more honestly, because of all that, I choose to lift up and celebrate the good that I’ve witnessed over the past five years; perhaps not entirely unlike finding and appreciating blossoming wild flowers that push their way through the blackened earth after a forest fire. So where do I see those beautiful flowers in post-3.11 Japan. First of all, I see them in the hearts of many survivors. They experienced an outpouring of love and care in the days, weeks and months after the disaster. Volunteers flocked to the region in unprecedented numbers and many of them were doing so with the specific motivation of being the hands and feet of Jesus. As the weeks turned into months and the months into years many volunteers had to return to their normal lives. But a significant percentage of those who stayed on were followers of Jesus and it got noticed. Time and time again I’ve heard them report how local residents ask them why they’ve stayed in Tohoku when all the others were leaving. Life changing encounters with the living Christ tend to defy description or definition, but I have witnessed exactly that, and heard lots of testimony of it as well. In this part of Japan that was previously the least exposed to and least receptive of the Good News of Jesus, we’ve seen profound change. I won’t bore you with numbers but simply affirm that the light of Christ is shining brighter in Tohoku than it ever has before.

Secondly, the experience has been empowering for the church of Japan. When one lives in a country where followers of Jesus make up less than 1% of the population feeling small, insignificant and powerless is unavoidable. Worrying more about the survival of your little fortress than dreaming about the expansion of God’s kingdom is only natural. And yet the experience of being the hands and feet of Jesus for people who are desperately needy is inherently transformational for everyone involved. Seeing that the church CAN have an impact on individuals, communities and entire regions without doing any of the things traditionally associated with church growth and evangelism helps us realize just how powerful God really is.

Finally, this experience has been particularly effective in stimulating the church to rethink the very definitions of evangelism and Gospel. Time and time again my students at the seminary have reported to me that their church is feeling the need to rethink almost everything as a result of 3.11. These students come from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds and yet I keep hearing the same thing. At last the evangelical churches in Japan are beginning to really embrace a holistic understanding and practice of the Gospel. Recent publications from the theological committee of the Japan Evangelical Association have underscored the vitality of this growing edge.

Where will we go from here? Where ever Jesus is going! What will we do when we get there? What ever Jesus is doing! Join with us in praying for the light to shine more brightly each and every day.

River bank wild flowers

Wild flowers in bloom along the river banks in Taro.

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