Friday, January 25, 2013

Time flies like an arrow, folds like a... something...

We all have analogies for time: the Western world tends to view time as a river, a winding road, a captivating story, a marching army... something linear, at any rate.  The eastern world might propose time as a ring, a band, a loop, something cyclical.  Frankly, I don't find either model all that satisfying.  Time seems to me to be too complicated to be reduced to something familiar or material.

Sometimes, the best we can do is to take a few analogies together.  Here's my humble contribution to the laundry list of metaphors and graphic organizers: I believe that time folds...  like a piece of paper... like a winter quilt as it is being packed into the closet... like an umbrella being set aside after a rainstorm.  Time may march or flow, rush or crawl, but occasionally we experience moments where time simply folds.

These are moments that align specific instants from past, present and a yet-unknown future like slides from a projectionist's reel, or like squares of a well-worn handkerchief.  In these moments, the "now" huddles between what has been and what will be in a strangely intimate way and in these moments, we are afforded a clear view of havens long departed and destinations not yet reached.  These moments, which link past, present and future, are known as traditions.

The CAJ community has a wide array of rich and much-loved traditions: Thrift Shop, the Senior trip to Thailand, the Middle school pasta-bridge and egg-drop competitions, plays, musicals, concerts and games, graduation.  The event that inspired me to think this through and to write this post was last Friday's Senior talent show.  Each year, typically at the end of January or in early February, the Senior class puts on an evening of music, dancing and other types of performance to raise money for their building project in Thailand.

Perhaps this event stands out so vividly to me because it was the first major CAJ tradition that I experienced when I arrived here in 2009.  I had only been here two weeks, I didn't know many of the students, and I had no idea if I'd still be in Japan the following year.  In fact, I assumed that I wouldn't be.  Nonetheless, as I walked down the stairs of the auditorium after the show, I turned to some Juniors walking next to me and told them to start thinking of ideas for their own talent show, as one year would have passed by before they knew it.  I repeated this advice to small groups of sophomores and freshmen as well, that two, three years would pass by with stunning swiftness, that in no time at all, their turn to perform would have come and gone.

Each year did just that; came and went.  The juniors had their turn, then those sophomores, then those freshmen.  Each class was unique, and the shows that they put on reflected the flavor of each class.  Yet, each evening was strikingly similar: many of the same teachers, students, parents and siblings filled the same auditorium on a chilly evening to watch Seniors perform to raise money for the same cause as the year before.  Each year, I would dutifully repeat my advice to juniors, sophomores and freshmen, to start planning because the time flies.

This year, I left the auditorium and as I began this routine, having spotted a group of my junior students, I realized that the class that had just performed were not among the original recipients of my advice.  They'd been in 8th grade that year, and though they'd heard my advice each following year, I'd decided they were too young, and their turn too far off for me to bother them with an encouragement to start planning ahead.  How wrong I was!  Their turn on the stage came fast, and was watched by not only teachers, family and future Seniors, but also alumni who had performed in years before.  I looked out at the small, huddled groups of CAJ students, the juniors, the sophomores and freshmen, even the middle schoolers and I realized that very instant was enfolded snugly between past and future.  When I'd talked to the underclassmen four years ago, I couldn't have imagined them as college students preparing for careers.  Soon, and perhaps too soon, these kids will be up on the CAJ stage performing.  Soon, and perhaps too soon, they will work their way through college and be set loose upon the "real world".  Will they be ready?  Will I have done all I could, as one of their teachers, to prepare them?

The moment caused my head to spin, and I gripped the hand-rail extra tight to support myself.  Then, the moment passed, and I walked up to the group of Juniors, asked them how they liked the show and told them to start planning ahead...

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

To love another person is to see the face of God

Okay, so I've blogged about Les Miserables before... but it's been about six years since then, so I figure I can write about it again!  There have been few stories that have impacted me as much as Les Miserables, and have endured in my heart and mind as long.

My first exposure to the story of Les Miserables came in 2002, when I was a sophomore in high school.  I was in Concert Choir that year, and our director gave us a medley from the musical to sing at the Spring Concert.  He announced that there would be a handful of solos for which we could audition, including a baritone solo ("Do You Hear the People Sing?").  My voice register was lower at that time, and most solos were so far out of my range that I didn't even bother auditioning...  Until we received the Les Mis medley, that is.  

That weekend, I went over to a friend's house and watched the 15th anniversary concert on DVD.  Because the concert was essentially a highlight reel (with many songs cut out, and the actors simply standing by mics and singing rather than performing as they would in the theater), I had a difficult time following the story, but I did enjoy the music.

Skipping ahead a little bit, I got the solo, and thoroughly enjoyed singing such a passionate song of revolution in the Spring Concert.  However, more than that, I was left wondering at how all of the songs in the medley fit together.  There seemed to be a beautiful story behind the lyrics, and the medley (as well as the concert DVD) only afforded snippets.  

That summer, I received my driver's license, and one of the first CD sets I bought for my car was the complete Broadway recording of Les Miserables (I forget which recording).  Additionally, I purchased and read an abridged edition of the Victor Hugo novel.   I completely fell in love with the story, with its theme of undying, transformative grace in the midst of what seems at times to be utter hopelessness.

Over the following years, I could forget neither the music nor the theme of grace.  When I wrote a scholarship application essay for college, I compared the characters of Javert and Valjean in talking about legalism vs. grace.  When I auditioned for a college music scholarship, I sang "Do you hear the people sing?" once again.  In 2007, my brother was cast as Jean Valjean in the Lynden Christian production of Les Miserables, and I flew back to Washington from Iowa to watch him in two performances (the occasion for my previous blog-post on Les Mis).  I have, several times, sung songs from Les Mis to my students at CAJ.  

Needless to say, it's a story that has held tremendous personal significance for me, and I always wished that more people knew the story or had the chance to watch the musical.  With the recent movie adaptation of the musical, I got my wish.  

On Tuesday night at Japanese class, my teacher mentioned that he had just watched Les Miserables over the weekend and said just how much he had enjoyed the music and appreciated the story.  As far as I know, my teacher isn't a Christian.  Most in Japan are not.  And yet, the movie seems to be doing very well here.  What an encouragement this is!

Grace is transformative.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes true grace as something costly; something that will change a person from the inside out.  Certainly this is what happens to Jean Valjean: years of imprisonment had built up callouses around his heart, and he fell from being a decent man who was simply trying to put food on the table for his sister's family to a bitter, desperate ex-convict, angry at the world and at God.  Such bitterness and hatred is like plaque--nearly impossible to scrape off or penetrate.  Yet, when the Bishop of Digne saves Valjean from returning to prison and gives him those candlesticks, it breaks Valjean's heart.  

I believe many in the world today are in (or have been in) the place that Valjean was in when he stole the silverware from the old bishop.  Our hearts are hard.  We are desensitized by a world that is saturated with corruption, immorality, cut-throat competition (and/or blind conformity) and hate.  It's tough for the Gospel to break through and for our hearts to be filled with the joy that comes with God's grace and forgiveness.  Depending on the exact situation, it is like the seeds sown on rocky or thorny soil (Luke 8).  

What good would the Gospel be if grace were merely a theory that was discussed and pontificated upon academically, but never lived, never put into practice?  The bishop surely had the smarts to preach to Valjean if he'd wanted to, but instead he keeps his words to a minimum and lets an act of love do the talking.  Valjean goes on to pay this love forward throughout the remainder of his days.

My first challenge to myself as much as to my readers is to accept the candlesticks.  To allow God's grace to break my heart and penetrate the callouses that keep me from consistently rejoicing in the Gospel.  My second challenge is that we strive for grace in our relationship with others; that we can do for those around us what the bishop did for Valjean, and what Valjean would go on to do for Fantine, Cosette, Marius and even Javert.  Grace changes hearts, and changed hearts alter the course of our lives.  May we receive God's grace and ourselves be agents of grace!

Saturday, January 12, 2013


2004 was a long time ago.

This was just one epiphany from the conversation at dinner this evening.  I had the privilege to meet up with a friend from high school and his wife, who are currently stationed at Yokota Air Base, about an hour away from me.

My friend remarked that much of a person's life when they are young is divided into four-year chunks: elementary school; middle school; high school; college.  "Did you realize", he asked, "that another four year chunk has passed since we were in college?"

I hadn't looked at it that way, and it was definitely a strange vantage point from which to look back on college and high school.

2004 was a long time ago.

Of course, 2004 Nate, then a Senior in high school, 17 going on 18, would never have been able to imagine that conversation.  2004 Nate wanted to be a journalist.  2004 Nate was preparing to go to college in the middle of a corn-field.  2004 Nate had no plans to live anywhere other than America.  2004 Nate even expected to return to his hometown of Lynden as soon as he'd finished college.

2004 Nate assumed that all of his friends and everyone he'd known in high school would settle in America, too, and mostly likely, in Lynden.  After all, that was simply what one did: flew away for college, and then like homing pigeons, migrated resolutely back to those familiar sights and smells.

2004 Nate could not have come up with the scenario of one day eating at an Indian restaurant in Japan with a friend from high school in even the wackiest of MadLibs.

Yet, tonight, this event did not seem so unusual: it was the second time I'd met up with this friend and his wife since they arrived in Japan in the summer.  A few months before that, I'd met up with another friend and his wife in downtown Tokyo, as they made a brief stop before traveling back to Thailand, where they live and work.  In a few weeks, yet another friend from high school will arrive in Japan, stationed at Naval Air Facility Atsugi.  It is good to reunite with these friends, though indeed our days of hanging out in the halls of the school, or playing video games at one or the others' houses are part of a chapter long past.  It is a privilege I never expected when I made the move to Japan, that I'd end up living within an hour of several friends from high school, and in the same part of the world as even more.  Perhaps this may change notions of "what is expected" for future generations... perhaps we're setting a new kind of precedent: 3 out of a class of 84 students living in Japan; 4 living in East Asia, more than that living outside of America and Lynden... or perhaps nobody will even notice, and life in Lynden will go on much as it always has this past age.

And of course, not one bit of this situation--not even the basic premise--would have been on the radar of 2004 Nate.

2004 was a long time ago.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Four years abroad

Yesterday, I flew back to Japan after spending Christmas vacation in the States with my family.  As I was waiting for my suitcase at Narita's baggage claim, I did the math and realized that it was my 19th trip across the Pacific.  Four years ago from this coming Saturday, I made that trip for the first time.

I flew out on January 4, 2009, and landed on January 5.  It was my first time to travel overseas, and in fact, my first time to set foot into a foreign country (Canada doesn't count, as much as my Canadian friends might plead distinction from their neighbors to the South).  Having hovered in roughly the same rural, Dutch-American CRC communities up until that point, I went through my own process of culture shock.  As I looked back through some of my first Facebook photo albums from my first month in Japan--and yes, there were several albums, as I took hundreds of pictures in those early days--I was reminded of the things, both little and big, that really stood out to me as a newcomer to Japan.  Of course, all of these things have become a normal part of life since then, which I never expected would happen.  Here's a tour of what I saw in those first exciting and intimidating days in Japan:

 1. Narrow, twisty roads.  I was used to the wide, empty country roads of the farming communities I'd lived in.  That first ride back from Narita in the big school van was terrifying, especially the detour through the rice paddies!  I avoided riding bike for the first month of living here because I was uncomfortable with how close the cars were to me as I was biking.  Also, I was struck by how twisty the roads could be--the first time I tried walking to school by myself, it took me more than an hour because I got lost.
 2. Orange trees.  I'd never seen an orange tree before.  I'd always associated oranges with warmer climates, so was quite surprised to be walking to school on a brisk January day and see ripe oranges on the branch!
 3. Temples EVERYWHERE.  I knew going in that Japan had strong roots in Buddhism and Shintoism, but I had no idea until I actually got here just how ubiquitous the temples were.  The architecture is beautiful and so unique, but seeing so many temples reinforced to me just how important mission-work is in Japan, and how vitally needed the Gospel is in this country.
 4. Fields in the middle of the city.  As a country-boy, my image of Tokyo before coming here was cramped rows of skyscrapers and high-rises, stretching as far as the eye could see.  Of course, there are parts of the city where that's somewhat accurate, but Higashi Kurume surprised me.  To see huge veggie fields in the middle of an otherwise suburban residential area was at once unexpected and refreshing.  I still like the fact that if the breeze is right, I can smell hay or cow manure (I don't expect my city friends to understand why that's a good thing).
 5. Vending machines, vending machines and more vending machines.  Japan clearly values convenience, and indeed, this is a country where basic amenities are often no more than several minutes away by foot or bike for those living in the city.  There are vending machines everywhere and I recall laughing out loud on my first walk to school as I counted how many I saw.
 6. Bike parking lots.  I come from the land of SUVs and Hummers.  A land where many people work sedentary jobs and because of their cars manage to keep physical movement to a minimum on a given day.  Of course, there are many cars on the roads here, too, but exponentially more bicycles than in America.  Strangely enough, there seems to be nearly as many bike brands as there are bikes.
 7. Strange signs and English writing.  I've taken many pictures of signs that made me laugh because of non-sensical or grammatically funky English, and have bought many shirts with such English.  However, the further I've gotten into my Japanese language training, the less this has amused me as I realize that I probably make even less sense than this when I speak or write in Japanese.
8. SUSHI.  My one and only experience with sushi prior to moving here was once in college, in Iowa, when a roommate talked me into trying sushi he'd bought at WalMart in winter of 2007.  There are so many things wrong with what I just wrote that it now makes me shudder to think of it!  Of course, I'd come away with a very low opinion of sushi, and had to be more or less coerced into trying it again.  I'm glad I did, though.  Sushi is high on my list of favorite foods, and has opened my eyes (and tastebuds) to so many kinds of fish I'd never tried before.  Also, this is a message to the state of Iowa: stop selling sushi.  Please.  You're thousands of miles from the ocean on either side, and what you call sushi is a dismal shadow of what ought to be a wonderful culinary experience.  Stick to what you know: meat, potatoes, corn, and those wildly unhealthy salads made with whipped cream and Snickers bars.
9. CAJ.  I expected campus to be cramped, cluttered and small.  How wrong I was.  CAJ is a beautiful place with a spacious plaza shaded by sakura trees, an athletic field and abundant facilities.  Not only that, but the community that inhabits that campus for the better part of each weekday is amazing.  I'm so glad that I followed the call to this place, and that I've been blessed with now four wonderful years living and working here, with these students and colleagues. Thank you, LORD!