Advent Reflections on Nov. 26–Dec. 4, 2011, Journey to Tohoku

December 7, 2011

David W. Bennett, Chief Collaboration Officer & Teaching Pastor, The Lausanne Movement

It was extraordinarily moving to recall at many points last week my initial three months in Japan in 1973—as a summer worker with the Language Institute for Evangelism (later LIFE Ministries, later Asian Access), as a commuter on the Tokyo trains, as a speaker at the Tyrannus Hall in Higashifushimi and at Christian Academy of Japan in Higashikurume, as a church growth researcher interviewing Paul Ariga as well as veteran US missionaries like Ralph Cox of TEAM, and as a vacationer with other missionary families at the coast in Takayama (giving a sailing lesson to the teenager Phil Foxwell), at the very section of coast recently devastated by the tsunami. Worshiping with Japanese believers with familiar hymns and contemporary choruses; working to stir up my recall of kanji and hiragana writing; sampling miso soup, nori and inari sushi; marveling at the delicate leaves of Japanese maples in fall splendor— these are just a few of the experiences that awakened decades of memories of visits to Japan, with precious times of laughter as well as tears with Japanese brothers and sisters.

I remember stopping in Hawaii on the way back from Japan 38 years ago, asking the Lord if he wanted me to return as a missionary. To my surprise, the Lord seemed to say clearly to my heart, “No, I do not want to use you as a worker in one nation, but to use you in many nations.” Nearly four decades later, having traveled as a Bible teacher and researcher to over 40 countries, and now serving as part of the leadership team of the Lausanne Movement, I have a better sense of what the Lord was intending. But still there is a deep tug on my heart whenever I return to Japan.

Three words dominate my impressions of this recent week: incarnation, partnership, hope.

During this Advent season we recall the miracle that “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling [literally, pitched his tent] among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The incarnation was the process. The revelation of God’s glory was the result.

That’s what I saw illustrated again and again in the responses of Asian Access staff, other North American workers, and numerous Japanese believers to the triple disaster of March 11. I recall the old saying, “A friend is one who comes in when the whole world has gone out.” The church of Jesus Christ has been a friend to the people of the Tohoku [northeast] region. I heard numerous examples of Christian volunteers, both Japanese and foreigners, making repeated trips into the devastated areas, not only delivering supplies, and assisting with clean-up, but taking time to listen to people’s hearts, drawing out the stories of grief and loss, weeping with those who weep, befriending those who felt alone.

The most vivid illustration was to meet two American families who were moving, with their children, into neighborhoods where many of the homes had been swept off their foundations by the tsunami, becoming part of rebuilding the communities and preparing to share the long road toward a shalom more far-reaching, more integral, more multi-dimensional, than any of their neighbors could presently imagine. “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” God with us. Incarnation. The whole gospel.

Asian Access has long been known for its determination to work in partnership with the whole Body of Christ, to form multi-denominational church-planting networks, and to conduct leadership development with cohorts of pastors from various traditions. In country after country Asian Access has been a catalyst for unity and collaboration in evangelism, discipleship and establishment of worshiping communities. But this passion for partnership was evident among all of the leaders we encountered. Wherever we visited, we heard stories of cooperation with agencies like Samaritans Purse and Churches Helping Churches. We saw Pentecostals and Conservative Baptists working together and affirming one another—something one could hardly imagine even twenty years ago in Japan. We encountered many cases of younger leaders and older leaders sharing the burden together.

In times of crisis the people of God cannot afford to be divided. In a country where less than one percent profess any sort of allegiance to Christ, a united witness is more important than ever. What joy to see Jesus-followers functioning in the disaster areas more and more as “one body.” The whole church taking the whole gospel. Partnership embodied.

The clean-up had progressed far more than I would have imagined after less than nine months. The lingering grief was not far below the surface, but the rebuilding of communities, and of personal lives, was underway. And there were many expressions of hope. The region of Japan once known as the most traditional, the most closed, and the most resistant to the gospel has now become the most open. Veteran Christian workers, both Japanese and foreigners, expressed marvel at the openness of people to prayer, to reading of the Scripture, to genuine expressions of Christ-like love, to spiritual conversation about the ultimate meaning and purpose in life.

Japanese people are coming to Christ, both young people and adults. Many are now openly seeking. New forms of church structure and fresh experiments in outreach are bearing fruit. There is a spirit of energy and enthusiasm and new possibilities, especially among younger leaders, and a passion to take the good news of Jesus not only into the northeast region of Japan, but to accelerate the sending of workers from Japan to other parts of Asia and the world. New wineskins. A spirit of optimism. A fresh awakening of hope.

The whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world.