Japan: Transition to a New Season and Looking Forward to a New Year
The past two years have been very interesting for me, to say the least. When I ended 2014 on a low point, I had no idea it would end up leading to the greatest adventure of my life. I responded to God in trust and faith, and He’s led me step by step and given me courage to do things I never would have considered a few years ago. Now, here I sit in Japan trying to collect my thoughts into a concise newsletter/blog to share with everyone. It’s been almost 3 months and so much has happened, but I’ll try to fit all the important details in without going too long.
I was blessed to be able to spend my last three months in Nashville with my wife, Ai, at my side. It worked out that she was able to take a couple of months off from work and help me prepare for the journey ahead. Those three months were a sort of transition for me, like that moment between two chapters of a book as you slowly turn the page excited to see what’s on the next one. With Ai there, it felt as if my worlds were colliding as she met my friends and family and became a part of my life practically 24/7 (which sort of spoiled us, as she began teaching again when we got back to Japan). That time had a few small challenges, but it was extremely rewarding for our relationship, and I would almost go as far as to say that every couple should spend their first three months of marriage in a 1 room studio apartment and going everywhere together.
That three months was also very important for my preparation for the mission field, as I phased out of my music work (aside from a few gigs and sessions here and there) and into a new frame of mind. I had planned out many meetings with anyone I could think of to ask them to pray about funding, but the Lord led me pretty early on to make that a second priority, to trust Him with the funding, and just listen to what people had to say. Every meeting, no matter how short, had some profound nugget of wisdom that helped push me in the right direction (and I’m sure I’ll constantly be discovering new things throughout this adventure) and my wife and I were encouraged by each story we heard. What began as a music and creative ministry has turned into a ministry of exhortation and encouragement meant to facilitate true fellowship among Japanese believers and embolden people to live out the Gospel in their daily lives in the face of a culture that does everything to silence expressions of faith in Christ. There is, of course, still a focus on worship arts, as that is my strength, but I’m constantly learning how the two can work together to build deeper relationships in the Japanese church.
Before I tell about some of the things I’ve been doing, and what I see in regards to ministry in the foreseeable future, I want to tell about a few of the important relationships and amazing God-led encounters I’ve had with brothers and sisters in Christ, both here and in the states. First off, I want to thank the two groups that have made this whole thing happen and have been my greatest encouragement and support. New River Fellowship, in Franklin, TN, has been my home church since 2008. In the time I’ve spent serving there in worship ministry, I’ve not only grown in my faith and knowledge of who God is, but also as a worshiper. Under the leadership of Steve Garrett, Jack Mooring and Michael W. Smith, I gained a much greater understanding of worship and my place as a musician and creative in the body of Christ. During the last year as I began to set my sights on Japan, I’ve been surrounded by a small but insightful and wise group of men from the Board of Elders at NRF; Bob Stout, Kent Phillips and Keith Roberson. They’ve not only covered me with prayer and words of encouragement, but also presented me with the tough questions I needed to face before taking on such a responsibility as a missionary in another country (all while being a newlywed!)
The second group is A.C.T. International (Artists in Christian Testimony), the mission organization that the Lord led me to during an uncertain time in finding a way to get my feet on the ground in Japan. A.C.T. President Byron Spradlin and his small but mighty team there in Brentwood, TN, have helped give me the confidence I needed to step out, and through Byron, Larry Moshell and Rob Frazier, I’ve learned a great deal more about creativity and the role it plays in God’s design for the church. Not only that, but Byron is also already deeply connected here in Japan and knows several of the people I was already in contact with before we even met! I’m thrilled to be a part of this group of over 350 creative and innovative ministries around the world. These two ministries, as well as a few other ministries including Crossroads for the Nations (Nashville Japanese Church) and Wako Bible Chapel (my wife’s father’s little house church here in Japan) have been used greatly by the Lord in my journey in Japan missions.
I already mentioned the surprising connections between Byron Spradlin and some of my friends who have been involved in Japan missions (namely Paul and Nancy Nethercott, whose songwriting/worship workshop I was a part of back in 2016 on my second Japan trip). There have been many other connections like this that have give me goosebumps when I found out, but I wanted to share just one to show the kind of crazy stuff God has been doing. Back in August, I saw an ad online for a house in Higashi-Kurume, Tokyo that was being sold by a missionary couple, Mike and Theresa Sherrill, who had to return to the states to take care of sick parents. I had a quick phone call with Mike, who was in Indiana, and asked about the house. He said they were reluctant to leave Japan and had planned to retire in the house, which Mike had been in the process of renovating. Looking at the price, we knew we would need God’s provision to get a loan, but on faith my bride-to-be and I went and checked it out while I was in Japan for our wedding. It was perfect for ministry opportunities, with a large, open dining/living area for gatherings (the most important thing since I’m focusing on fellowship most of all), an American gas stove and a couple of extra rooms we could use to host traveling missionaries or pastors on their trips (and one for a little recording studio!). We prayed about it after we got back to Nashville and stayed in contact with Mike and Theresa, who said they would love for someone like us to be in their house and had been praying for someone in ministry to take over. As we prayed more about it, we reached an agreement with Mike to act as proxy owners (taking over all financial responsibility) which allows them to breathe a little easier and take care of the tough situation back in the states. Our prayer is to be able to raise the roughly $20,000 it will cost to get the loan within a year.
Around this time, just a few weeks before I was going to leave for Japan, we had visited my family and some friends in Texas, and on the way back I stopped in Oklahoma City to see my Aunt Cindy. It worked out that we were able to go to church with her on Sunday morning, which was the first time I’d ever visited North Church in OKC. The first person we came face to face with, a greeter named Michele, began to make conversation with us, asking if we were new. I told her we were visiting my Aunt Cindy and were on our way back to Nashville. She asked Ai where she was from and when she told her Japan she began to tell us that she had also lived in Japan for a few years while her husband was in the military. I told her I was just about to move over as a missionary and she said “I have to get you in contact with our pastor and his wife in Tokyo. I think you would really like them!” So, I gave her my contact info and sure enough, the next day I get a facebook message introducing me to a Kazu and Tamayo Kurihara. I sent a quick reply as I was filling up gas on my way back to Nashville and carried on. That night, about 30 minutes before reaching my apartment in Spring Hill, TN, I get an email from Mike Sherill with the rent agreement. So I read it when I get home and the end of his message said something like “You can pick up the keys from the couple just around the corner who have been taking care of the house while we’ve been away. They are super friendly and I’m sure they would love to help you as you settle in. Their names are Kazu and Tamayo Kurihara.” My wife and I were both blown away and couldn’t stop laughing for 5 minutes. How amazingly small the world seems when you’re being led by the Holy Spirit!
Now, as for what I’ve been doing these past few months? Most of my time has been spent settling in, fixing things that need fixing, cleaning, seeking out the best deals on furniture and other things we need, and making new connections. As for ministry, I had one event on the calendar before I returned to Japan, a songwriting/worship workshop on October 28th. One friend from Paul and Nancy Nethercott’s workshop last September took the reins on it as the Nethercott’s are back in the states now. The group was small, but it was a wonderful time. I was tasked with teaching on John 4:23-24 (Worship in spirit and truth). It was my first time doing any sort of in depth teaching, but as I spent time searching the Scriptures to put together a message, I became excited to share what I was finding and learning, and I feel like it was an encouraging message for the little group. We spent the rest of the time discussing, fellowshiping, and writing songs, and we are planning to host this sort of meeting quarterly.
I've also had a few chances to play some music, which is always a treat. I was able to attend a conference called "Hidden Beauty" that is hosted by my friend Roger Lowther and explores Japanese art and culture how it can be used to share the Gospel with the Japanese. I got to spend a little time playing the kokyu, a type of fiddle that's native to Japan. This month (December) I’ve had a couple of opportunities to share some music for the Christmas season. First, I played violin and mandolin with Misa Kamiyama, a well known Christian singer/songwriter here in Japan. We did a small concert with another group called Lasting Note comprised of singer Shizu Takeshita and pianist Yuta Yamamoto. It was a lot of fun! The next was a Christmas concert with my friend Erika Mine at her parents’ church in Niiza, the neighboring town. She had the tiny room packed out and we had a great time sharing the Gospel with music and a short message from her father.
There have been a few opportunities already to use our home as a place for fellowship. We have been put in the rotation for a group that meets monthly called "Simple Fellowship" that is made up mostly of missionaries, but also has a few local Japanese believers. We also were able to host a Thanksgiving feast, complete with a turkey (Thanks, Costco Japan) and it was such a good time. My wife and I have also had the chance to help with ministry and fellowship oportunities at her father’s church, Wako Bible Chapel, for their two annual Christmas parties. The first one is for the kids, and we baked a ton of cookies, played Christmas carols and Ai shared a cute little story she wrote for the kids. The second party was for the adults, and we made sandwiches and shared more music. It was a joy to hear neighbors and others who came asking questions about the Gospel and talking about Jesus, and we’re all praying that they understand and believe soon. I believe these sorts of events are most important, as building relationships and encouraging deeper fellowship are important for the church here in Japan.
As for future ministry opportunities, I’m leaving that in the Lord’s hands, as He has led me faithfully through this journey to this point, and I know He won’t fail me.
This leads me to praises and prayer requests. I’m so thankful for the Lord’s guidance in this time, which would otherwise be uncertain, but I will keep trusting in faith the One who is certain always. I’m thankful for the connections that the Lord has made and I pray for more of them, especially the ones that are surprising, amazing and keep me encouraged in God’s sovereignty. Please pray for the Lord to make more connections happen, particularly with Japanese believers who are hungry for true fellowship in the body of Christ. I’m thankful for all of you who have given financially, some of whom I didn’t even ask, and some of whom blessed me beyond what I could have imagined. Please pray for God to continue to provide for our needs, as living in Tokyo can be quite expensive. I’m very thankful for my wife, Ai, and am happy to say that our marriage is going strong and we’re silly crazy about each other (we celebrated 6 months on the 17th of December!). She’s my best friend, my helper and my favorite Bible study and prayer partner. :) Please pray that God would deepen our love for one another and keep us grounded in the Word and in prayer. I’m thankful for someone experienced to help me learn Japanese. Please pray for diligence and consistency in study and that I wouldn’t get distracted so easily. Again, I’m thankful for the support in prayer, wisdom, accountability and training I’ve had from New River Fellowship, A.C.T. Intl. and all of the other people who’ve poured into my life during this season and in the past. Please pray for opportunities to be able to connect with the core team of people who have been close to me in this time in order to share with them and get advice when I feel restless or unfruitful. Please pray for diligence in keeping up to date with all of you in a newsletter or blog (I’m new to this, too.)
Thank you all so much for your prayers and for letting me catch you all up on the latest happenings in my life and ministry. I pray that each of you are growing closer to God daily and discovering the limitless depths of His great love. Merry Christmas and may God bless your new year abundantly!