Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lenten Meditation--Sakura

This past Monday, as I was walking through the plaza at Christian Academy in Japan on my way to work, I spied a single white blossom in a nearby branch.  This sighting pulled me from my walking-but-not-quite-waking 8:00 am stupor, filling me with joy and excitement.

Most of the trees in CAJ's plaza are Somei Yoshino Cherry Trees, one variety of a larger family known in Japan simply as Sakura.

Forget groundhogs; forget robins--the pink and white Sakura blossoms herald the beginning of Spring in Japan.  When the trees are in full bloom, each tree, each limb resembles a vibrant cloudburst.  Each limb is filled with life and beauty.  The weather warms and people begin to venture outside for long walks and picnics under the blossoms.

This is why I was so energized and excited when I saw that blossom that morning: it was a promise; a preview; just a taste of the new season to come.  Almost every other branch of every tree in the plaza was still bare, as though dead.  The weather that day was just a little too chilly to feel Spring-like and wind-storm that night made it seem as though the weather was not improving but getting worse.  Yet, that blossom signaled something inexorable; something true and reliable: Spring would arrive in full and nothing could stop it!

We live in a rather extended version of this cool March Monday morning: the world is broken and so many things around us seem bare, bereft of truth, beauty and life.  Sometimes, it seems as though the world is simply getting worse.  Yet if we look carefully, we can spy the blossoms around us; those special moments of reconciliation, healing and restoration that hint at something yet to come.  

This combination of celebration and patient expectation is embodied in these days and weeks leading up to Easter.  Through His death and resurrection, Christ dealt a mortal blow to sin and death and the outcome of this ancient battle is now certain.  Christ will return to end the battle once and for all so that we can enjoy the fullness of victory in a newly restored Earth, and we wait for that day with earnest and deep longing.  It is perhaps all too easy to become impatient and to lose hope in the waiting, but it is essential to look for the first-fruits; those signs and signals that sin will pass away.  In time, the bare branches of this world will burst to life, beautiful, full and new.  In time, Spring will come.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Mar. 11, 2011

This is a repost of a Facebook note that I wrote on Mar. 12, 2011, the day after the Sendai Earthquake:

When things are going well in my life, I have a tendency to attribute the peace and success to my own abilities; I think of it as something that I've somehow merited, something that I deserve.  I occasionally give lip-service to God, but fail to acknowledge him in my heart. 

The strange thing is, I don't only do this with my career and my talents; I even do it with things like the weather, or other features of my environment.  If it's sunny, well--it must be sunny because I really wanted it to be that way.  This was certainly how I felt about the lack of major earthquakes during my time in Japan.  It looks completely irrational when it is written down, but at least a part of me genuinely believed that there hadn't been a devastating earthquake because I really didn't want there to be one.  This was reinforced every time I would feel a small earthquake.  I'd enjoy the break in my routine for a few seconds and then think "okay earth, you can stop shaking now.  That's enough."  And, the earthquake would always subside, reinforcing my twisted logic.  I don't think I ever would have admitted to thinking in this way, but this faulty reasoning was exposed to me in a big way yesterday afternoon.

It was just after 2:40 P.M.  My 6th period Junior American Lit. class had dismissed minutes before and the peaceful stillness of my 7th period prep-time had begun.  I was all alone in my room, sitting at my desk, when I noticed the blinds on the window swaying.  Since we'd had a small earthquake only a few days earlier, I recognized this symptom immediately and went through my familiar process of thinking "Ah, yes, the earthquake!  One of Japan's little quirks.  I shall enjoy this novelty for approximately 10 seconds and then it will stop."

But it didn't stop.  In fact, it got worse.  And when the room started to shake and sway, it occurred to me that this quake might be out of my hands; that I could not will this earthquake to stop any more than I could will the sun to rise in the evening or set in the morning.  As I sat huddled beneath my desk, the quake seemed to get progressively worse--more violent.  It lasted for several minutes.  Every second that I was under the desk, I couldn't help but feel the terror of the realization that this event really was beyond my control.  Japan was having a big earthquake, and who knew what the damage would be, and I could do nothing to make it stop.  I felt instantly small and powerless.

God speaks to the small and powerless.  Those caught up with their own pursuit of power, those who believe they control all things, those who think they know best manage to tune out God's voice, but the small and powerless chase that voice, call after it, cling to it for all they are worth.  So that's precisely what I did.  I clung to God.  My weekend was long, exhausting, uncomfortable, and chock-full of responsibility that I frankly didn't want to take, decisions that I didn't want to make. I woke up terrified several times during the night because of tremors, and while I was asleep, had nightmares about trying to drive away from crashing waves and exploding nuclear reactors.  Even tonight as I write this, my stomach is a nervous bundle of knots.  Yet aside from the physical discomfort and surface-level feelings of fear, I feel a peace that runs much deeper. 

God is in control.  I was in Japan during one of the biggest earthquakes in recorded history and I emerged with only minor, stress-related physical discomfort.  So many lost their homes, their lives, their livelihood... it easily could have been me, as a small missionary retreat near Sendai is one of my favorite vacation spots and I've spent hours walking along beaches that are now ravaged and flooded.  God is in control.  He kept me safe.  He kept my friends and colleagues safe.  He kept my students safe. 

God is in control.  He is watching over Japan and calling out to a nation that doesn't know him.  This is a time when Japan, weakened by crisis and being offered support by so many other countries, feels small and powerless.  I pray that the people of this country can listen, hear the voice of God calling, chase the voice, call after it and then cling onto it for all they are worth.  May all who live here be able to proclaim that God is in control.

Please remember Japan in your prayers.

Monday, March 4, 2013


This is a repost of a piece that I wrote in May of 2010 about an event that happened in May of 2008:

It was a clear, sunny Spring day in Northwest Iowa. The last of the snow had melted the week before, and graduation was one week away. We Dordt students had finally entered into one of those rare windows where the weather was not only tolerable, but beautiful. 

Since I only had 11:00 Linguistics on Fridays, I was using my afternoon to visit my future cooperating teachers for my student teaching placements the coming fall. I had to find out just what I would be teaching, collect the necessary textbooks, and make sure I'd worked out just when I would be starting each placement. The 20-mile drive to Le Mars was enjoyable, and made me appreciate the midwest's flat landscape for a fleeting while: I could see fields of green and blue skies in every direction. I rolled down my window, opened my sunroof, and cruised down Hwy. 75 with my elbow resting gently on the door. 

The meeting was fine, and I found out I'd be teaching freshman World History for two different cooperating teachers. Leaving the school, I turned my visitor's badge in to the receptionist, who said: "You came down from Sioux Center, didn't you hun?"

When I nodded my affirmation, she said "You'd better get a move on; there's a storm coming." 
I smiled politely and thanked her for her advice, but silently questioned her sanity. A storm? There weren't any clouds in the sky, nor so much as a gentle breeze. These old Iowans sometimes started to lose their grip on reality a little early, I thought to myself. It was sad, really.

Just as I was concocting my own senile version of the receptionist in my head, I stepped outside to find that it was significantly darker than when I'd entered the school 40 minutes before. It was only 2:30 in the afternoon, but charcoal clouds had materialized out of the blue and were blocking the sun enough to create a distinct dusk-like feeling. And yet, the sun was still high enough in the sky that it it bathed the cloud cover in an eerie greenish tint. On top of all this, the wind was blowing. Not hard, but threateningly. Everything looked surreal in this light: the cars, the trees, the traffic signs near the school. It was as though someone had taken a photo and adjusted the color saturation just a little, decreasing the reds and yellows, but increasing the blues and greens... This was how the sky looked before tornados and that was enough to send a chill up my spine. 

I wasted no time in getting back onto the highway. The leisurely joy-ride over, I rolled up my windows and shut my sun-roof. Just in time, it turned out: several tiny raindrops speckled my windshield. I waited a few seconds, and as no more raindrops hit, I began to relax my grip on the steering wheel. Then, as though a dam had burst in heaven itself, endless sheets of water began to pound my windshield. I braked just in time not to rear-end the car in front of me, which had also slowed to a crawl. I turned the wipers on to full-speed, but that made absolutely no difference. My view out the front of my car was a shimmery and blurry guess at taillights, road signs, dividing lines and gray. Ominous, dark, unforgiving gray. It felt like I'd forgotten to wear glasses, or lost my contacts. I followed the taillights in front of me at 10mph as the rain beat mercilessly down on the car. I trailed the car ahead for ten minutes, although with my senses of sight and sound distorted, it felt like hours. I was leaning forward, nose over the dash and knuckles turning white on the wheel. And then, the car ahead of me, my only clue to where the road was, my lifeline, turned into a short driveway. They were home. I still had 10 miles to go. 

I continued to drive blindly. Occasionally, I would see oncoming headlights through the barrier of liquid on my windshield. These headlights were usually far enough to my left that I knew I was in the correct lane. Once, they were directly in front of me and I had to adjust quickly to return to my side of the road. I was inwardly grateful I'd had the common sense to drive 5mph, because a car going the speed limit would have hydroplaned into a ditch or worse, making a fast adjustment like that. 

At that point, I knew the only way I would be perfectly safe was to get off the road, to wait the storm out. I turned onto a gravel side road, pulled off to the shoulder and parked. I turned off my car, and sat still, listening to the rain. It was impossible to discern the sound of individual raindrops; instead it sounded like the rushing and roaring of a waterfall. It seemed to be hitting my car from all angles, too, driven by the wind which was now pushing with all its might. 

My car shook and rocked as the storm raged on. I marveled at how strong and persistent this storm was, and how it seemed to have started in a matter of minutes with no warning. I was comforted by the thought that this storm would pass: there had been blue, sunny skies before, and there would be blue, sunny skies again. Storms came and went. They could be frustrating, scary and even dangerous to weather, but they never lasted. 

Eventually I felt the rain lighten up a little bit. My car was still shaking, but it was shaking less, as though the strong gusts of wind were coming less frequently than they had been. Recognizing my window of opportunity, I started my car and returned to the highway. The rest of the drive back to campus was still harrowing, although I could now catch clear glimpses of the road each time the wipers pushed layer after layer of rainwater aside. Parking my car, I made a mad dash to my apartment. In the course of running maybe 20 meters to the lobby door, the rain soaked me from head to toe--not a single square inch of me was dry... "How very typically Dordt", I thought to myself.

I changed into dry, warm clothes and sat by my 3rd story apartment window with a cup of tea and hot plate of Mac and Cheese in front of me. I watched the storm pick up again, this time with thunder and lighting, and silently thanked God I'd made it back safely.