On December 9, 2014, Dr. Arden Jensen and I took a small group of Lee University students to Japan to do a series of concerts that continued through December 23. The musical ensemble is called Advent Now! and Dr. Jensen serves as our guide. You can see a short video about our reasons for taking the trip: Advent Now!, Going with Purpose.
The main thing that set this trip apart from previous trips, in 2010 and 2012, was the richness of the interactions we had after the concerts. Richard Notice said, on a couple of occasions, “We talk a lot about sharing the gospel back home, but here we are doing it!”
In the first couple of concerts the group tended to circle up with one another rather than risk the awkwardness of talking with Japanese, but by the third concert, everyone was fanning out to meet and speak with people. I encouraged going out in pairs to engage with people, but many started striking out alone, perhaps with a church member who could interpret. Alex Smith expressed surprise at the way the Japanese audience members would approach us to express their appreciation and to say how moved they were. They were willing to attempt communication across the language barrier, and that comes as quite a surprise when people are otherwise so formal and even seemingly aloof elsewhere.
On the way back Christine Armao mentioned having been on other missions trips and having the feeling afterward that the money they spent could have been better spent, not on their travel expenses, but as a gift to the believers in that country: Natives could have done it better. But this trip was different—we really accomplished something significant, she said.
Pastor Koishi at Chiba Grace COG explained that a group of young American musicians can accomplish something that other groups can’t in Japan. Because young Americans are “cool,” they get people’s attention and draw a crowd. Pastor Koishi told me this while leading us from place to place to sing on the streets of Chiba. As we sang church members passed out flyers with information about the concert and the church. At one point he jumped up and down saying “I am SO excited” and even yelled out something like “Praise to Jesus Christ” across the central square of Chiba City. “I am ready to start preaching,” he said. But then he steadied himself and we prayed for the people of the city instead. Izaya Sensei, at Tokyo Lighthouse Church of God, said (on the preceding trip) that our concerts are a centerpiece for the Church of God in Japan’s evangelistic work.
Perhaps the outward focus and the depth of our interactions with Japanese people had something to do with the focus on prayer. I felt that God was saying to see that the fields are white unto harvest and to pray for laborers, and to ask that he make us laborers for his kingdom. Ben Christman inspired me to also fast. And so I invited everyone in the group and beyond to join me on two Saturdays in fasting and praying. Some did join me, and it was moving. On the trip we gathered several times for extended prayer. It was truly wonderful to hear everyone expressing their deep desires to see God glorified and to see God move among the people of Japan.
The performances were consistently excellent, although there was always something we could have done better, naturally. And the stress of running around to set up and adapt to new surroundings and challenges did not infect our hearts. We were remarkably at peace in these situations. This was obvious, for instance, at the radio station where we were to do a live broadcast. [We had arrived very late at the Nozomi Relief Center the night before because of the snowy, slick roads] We were late in getting to the radio station. The broadcast was to begin at 10:00am, but we had only just arrived by then. While we were quickly setting up mic stands and getting instruments out, you could feel the rising tension in the missionary and in the lady who works at the Nozomi Relief Center. I asked the group if anyone was stressed out. “No. Not really,” they said. To which I responded “Glory to God!” It was a great joy to see that outward pressures did not produce anxiety in us.
God also gave us the words to say in so many instances. For instance, at that same radio broadcast, after we had performed a few pieces, the broadcaster interviewed us (through an interpreter). She had two questions for each one of us: Where were you when the tsunami struck Japan and how did you feel? They took the time to hear from each one of us, including James. Every single person spoke with such gracious words, expressing solidarity and concern, admiration for the resilience of the Japanese, and a desire that God would strengthen them with hope and joy, particularly this Christmas. The interviewer was wiping away tears by the end and apologized after the broadcast. She felt that, as a professional broadcaster, she should not have had such an emotional response. I believe this was evidence of God’s work. He gave us the words to say!
By the way, the radio station decided, after hearing us that morning, to interrupt their normal schedule in order to broadcast our first concerts that day, the one we did at the Nozomi Relief Center.
Some musical highlights: Everywhere we went Jonathan Robbins got ooh’s and ah’s, not just for his fluent Japanese (he grew up in Japan as the son of missionaries), but even more so for his Koto playing. He received long, enthusiastic applause for his piece, Variations on Silent Night that feature the Koto, a traditional Japanese instrument. Kristiana McCombs received long applause both for her cello playing and for her singing of O Holy Night. Richard Notice, with his black gospel vocal style, was a real hit. Marcus Wiles added a whole new dimension with his tasteful improvisations on jazz and gospel numbers. What a great group!