“She is the first Christian I ever met. Others have come to talk about Jesus, but it is a different Jesus. She is the first follower of Jesus I’ve met.” Masaru explained to Wendy and I that other groups had come to talk to him about Jesus, Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by his shop but he religiously tells them he cannot be one of them. He is a Buddhist, or better put, he is Japanese. Throughout our conversation Masaru intertwined the words Buddhist and Japanese as though they were direct synonyms. In many ways they are. “It’s better to have two or three gods”, Masaru told us. “I know there is one true God. He is forgiving, like a father. He is kind and loving, but I cannot come close to him. He is too big.” As we went on talking with Masaru we giggled and clapped over his seemingly near grip on the God of the Bible. Moments of clear understanding were clouded with a polytheistic worldview and juxtaposed against a strict belief that he could not become a Christian because he wasn’t American.
Before becoming a mechanic Masaru was a shut-in, a hikikomori, someone who has lost hope in the economy, in relationships and in the future and locked himself in his room, unwilling to face life. A deeply rooted belief in reincarnation convinced Masaru that there was no reason to participate in this life. He might as well waste away in his room because he would just die and do it again. Without purpose Masaru lived in a dark and lonely world. A committed friend rescued Masaru out of hopelessness and told him that reincarnation was not true. When you hear Masaru tell the story you can feel the presence of God and sense the Holy Spirit’s pursuit of this man. “My mind was changed and I thought differently. I started going through my thoughts one by one and deciding what was true and what was false. After a long time I came to the conclusion that all of life boils down to love. I want to experience love.” In a beautiful and riveting retelling of his story Masaru explained to us that only love remains. Everything else will fail, but love will never fail.
Matsuri didn’t have a particularly strong bond with his father. He grew up on a traditional Japanese farm, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. A full house, but not full enough considering all the work that needed to be done. Matsuri’s dad had many rice fields to tend. When he wasn’t harvesting he was looking after the cows, working in the orchard and running a successful business. In the little town Matsuri grew up in, his father had a great reputation. On the day of his funeral over 800 people came to give pay their respects. They gathered in mid-August and grieved the death of a dear elder. Less than 6 months after the March 11th earthquake shook the town’s foundations and split their roads, Matsuri’s heart underwent a parallel devastation. After the disaster that spring, Matsuri and his father struck up a friendship like they never had. While others tried to cope with the painful loss of family members and belongings, Matsuri and his father were getting to know one another. Their hearts were drawn to each other and a deep mutual respect grew from the soil of the trials they’d undergone.
They had 6 short months together before illness claimed his father’s life. Matsuri had no time to learn the family business. This will be the first spring he’ll attempt to plant the rice and care for the rows upon rows of clementine trees. He may have missed his opportunity to learn the family trade, but he held onto the family name and is known and loved by the entire community just as his father was. When I met Matsuri he was in his slippers, shuffling quickly to the door with a couple quarts of fresh milk. It’s just one way that he’s able to help the relief efforts. From donating last years rice crop to a base of volunteers nearby to getting their internet set up and fixing their pipes, Matsuri has been more than helpful. He smiled a full-face smile the morning we met, one of those smiles that makes you feel special, as if you’ve just been seen. I’m sure it’s the same smile everyone receives when they come to his front door. When we walked away, our host, Emiko, pointed to the characters on the mantle of the roof. His family name had been carved into the posts on either side, as was common on traditional Japanese homes. Emiko visits Matsuri regularly and shares the gospel with him again and again. She prays faithfully that this man of peace who holds a key of respect to the rest of the town, who will one day know Jesus.
Here in a little corner of Tohoku we came across a young man, probably still a boy in so many ways. A son who’s lost his father. A respected and hard-working citizen trying to take care of his family, spared by the tragedy of March 11th, but still recovering from the personal loss. His nickname, Matsuri, means festival. It’s clear that the Lord has purposed to bring joy into his life. He will be a bringer of peace and compassion, a carrier of the gladnness to his town. The respect that he has, the name that his father passed down, will be synonymous with the good news. He started with milk and oranges, with rice and electrical support. One day Matsuri will bring hope to his people. Instead of milk he’ll have living water to share and instead of rice he’ll hand out the bread of life.
The Filling Station Family
I was a bit confused when we pulled into the gas station. I looked at the gauge on the dashboard. We still had half a tank. It was freezing outside and I couldn’t think of any reason to stop and refuel unless we absolutely weren’t going to make it home. My surprise continued when we got out of the car to chat with the guy pumping gas. Soon we also had the attention of the postman and. Two minutes went by. Five minutes. Eight minutes. It was becoming apparent that we weren’t here for gas. Two cups of coffee later, Wendy, Emiko and I sat with the owners of the station. A glass bowl filled with the remains of candy wrappers and chocolate crumbs sat next to our cute little 6oz “mugs”. We’d done out best to communicate to the shy auto repair man and his administrative father who sat at the computer punching in numbers. Half way through out visit 2 children ran in from school, threw themselves on their father, took off their boots by the stove and ran to their rooms to change out of their school uniforms. It was delightful. Although Wendy and I had only the slightest (if that) clue of what was going on, we knew that something was happening between our host and the postman. He had also come by to “get gas” an hr and a half earlier, but was allowing himself a bit of in-between time before getting back to work. The Father on his technological toy, the mother in the back cooking up a storm, the eldest son working the desk, the postman on an extended break. I was right. We were definitely here for something more than petrol. Chatting, laughing, making conversation and obviously enjoying friendship, this was Emiko at her best.
After leaving the gas station Wendy and I found out that these are dear friends of Emiko’s. She’s stayed with them from time to time, had meals and regularly communication. They ask for her to stop by and visit whenever she can. As was the case with the auto repair man, Emiko was the first Believer that the filling station family ever met. To them, she represents Jesus. They don’t know this man she mentions, the stories she tells, or the book she talks about. They recognize her kindness, though. They’re familiar with her generous heart, her patience and joy. In this way they’re getting to know God as they get to know Emiko. It’s a beautiful, simple and profound way to expand the Father’s Kingdom and enlarge his family.