Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tohoku Trip

November 2010:
Several intense days of Parent-Teacher conferences. A month and a half since our last break from school. A busy couple of weeks until Christmas. It was Thanksgiving morning, and I could not have been happier, because despite the busyness and stress surrounding the day, the weekend would be a welcome respite. I was on my way north to Takayama, a small missionary retreat near Sendai. Though I had only been to Tak (as the families who stay there affectionately call it) twice before, I'd immediately felt a special connection to the place. It reminded me of the ocean-side cabin that my family traveled to for a few days most summers throughout my childhood and even up till now. Even more than that, it was a temporary escape from the urban jungle of Tokyo. The beaches were quiet, despite the hustle and bustle of the surrounding fishing village of Shichigahama. This was a place where I felt peaceful.

November 2011
Parent-teacher conferences. Cross country Far East. Knowing that virtually everyone else besides me had enjoyed at least some vacation the previous week. This was what I was feeling on Friday, November 11. The rain was beating down on the school van in droves as we drove north. I was traveling to Tak for the first time in nearly a year. This time, it would not be a leisurely trip of quiet wandering along the beach and lazy afternoons spent on the electric rug in the cabin reading. I was heading north to help with relief work on Saturday and return to Tokyo on Sunday. Despite being stressed and tired, this felt somehow more important than rest. I needed to do this.

November 2010
The very first thing I did after helping to unload the van was to walk down the hill to the beach. I approached the water and stood at precisely the point where the waves lapped up against the tips of my shoes before retreating. I simply stood and watched the ocean; listened to the rhythmic and inexorable crashing of the waves; breathed in the salty sea air; scanned the horizon in wondrous reunion with wide open space.

I'm a farm-boy and though I am very far from those roots now, that part of me is irremovable. I don't think about how much I miss wide open spaces and the quiet beauty of nature while I'm in Tokyo, and in fact there's much that I love about the city. However, I cannot deny that returning to the countryside (whether that's the farm where I grew up in Washington, or the beach at Takayama) fills me with awe and refreshes my soul.

November 2011
We arrived at Tak late, well after dark. As I helped to unload the van, I could hear the familiar roar of the ocean and felt a twinge of sadness that it was too late to walk down to the beach and simply stand near the water. The next day, we drove to our work-site. Though much clean-up had happened since March 11, the signs of ruin were still obvious: houses with the first floor demolished, but the second floor surprisingly intact, empty foundations where buildings had once stood, the vague outline of the water-level still imprinted on many structures, the occasional abandoned, wrecked car.

November 2010
On Friday, I went down to a wooded area to ride dirt bike on the trails with some of my students whose families were also staying at Tak for Thanksgiving. We enjoyed taking turns speeding over the bumpy trails and along the concrete breakwater overlooking the beach. That evening, the several families staying at Tak gathered together for a giant Thanksgiving dinner. After eating our fill of turkey, we were visited by an old fisherman, a lifelong friend of many at Tak. He brought a big plate of raw seafood for everyone. Some of it would have been very appetizing had I not just eaten a large meal.

November 2011
We worked on an old farmhouse which was very spacious--especially considering that it belonged to an old lady who lived alone. Though we never met this lady, I wondered who she was and what her life had been like as I helped to take out cracked walling. Several of the Samaritan's Purse workers who had helped to set up our work-day stopped by during the late afternoon to check up on us. They told us several stories that they'd heard from local families about March 11. The one that had the biggest impression on me was a story about a family that had seen the tsunami coming from their house. They didn't see waves or water--things you might expect to see at a time like that... instead, they saw a storm of dust and debris blowing toward them along the horizon. The water was so powerful that it actually sent a gust of wind ahead of it strong enough to create a wall of dust. The family climbed into their car, pulled out the driveway and sped toward the highway, since that ran along a hill and would be the safest place to wait. Unfortunately, they ran into a traffic jam a good distance from the highway, and so they got out of their cars and ran. They made it to the top of the hill and onto the highway a minute before the wave hit.

Later, I went for a walk in the same wooded area where I'd ridden dirt-bike only a year before. It was virtually unrecognizable: the breakwater was missing huge chunks, the trees within 20 meters of the breakwater were simply gone, the rest of the trees had been pathetically thinned out, and there were huge piles of garbage lining the edge of the woods.

I stood near the ocean and, as I'd done the year before, simply watched and listened. How could it be that this ocean had been the vehicle of so much destruction and damage? Had anyone been walking along the breakwater and been swept away when the first wave hit? How many had lost their lives? How many had lost their homes? How was it possible that this ocean, with its predictable routines and rhythms had done something so unpredictable and overstepped its bounds by so much? Why had all of this happened?

Feelings of frustration, bewilderment and anger that I'd not felt since Spring resurfaced at that moment and I prayed a tearful prayer for patience and understanding.

November 2010
On Saturday evening, I walked along the beach at sunset and took pictures. Again, I spent time just standing near the water. As I watched the sunset, and admired the glow over the water, everything felt right. Despite the stresses and worries of life, God had painted a spectacular scene that now made those problems vanish from my mind. I was safe. I was at peace. I was reminded that God is Lord of all creation: water, earth and sky. In His hands, I could find respite.

November 2011
Watching the sunrise over the ocean just before loading the van to leave, I was reminded of why I'd felt so at peace the last time I'd visited Tak. Terrible things had happened since then, but the most important fact hadn't changed: God was still Lord of all creation, still in control of all things. As I absorbed the vastness and beauty of the morning scene, my anguished "why?!" suddenly seemed trivial. God is so much bigger than we can even begin to fathom and we cannot understand His purposes or His plans. We also know that we can trust Him even in the midst of chaos, even when our hearts ache and we cry out in hurt and confusion. The sunrise over the water heralded the start of a new day in Sendai, and as we drove home, I saw evidence of a new day dawning in so many other respects: repair and reconstruction happening tirelessly throughout the city and countryside. Businesses newly reopened. Friends smiling and chatting while waiting to cross the street. Hope is abundant, and though the destruction was great, the cause of that destruction is now firmly in the past--hope is now and hope is in the future. I pray that God will reveal Himself to the people of Sendai as they rebuild their lives. He is the source of all hope and though we are too small and limited to understand how God works, we know that He is faithful. Amen.

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