(Written on the bullet train last Friday; posted on Monday)
I am returning from the memorial service of my friend Rikako in Tokyo. She was 45 years old, and has left a husband and two beautiful girls.
I first met her two years ago when I spent the day visiting her with her sister, my good friend, Yumiko. On that day, Rikako was dealing with the return of her cancer. Yumiko and I shared with her that day the hope of Christ, and it was an amazing privilege to be a small part of her decision to become a follower of Jesus. The three of us rejoiced together that day.
Four months after that, our two families met (see photo) when she and her daughters came to Kobe to see her mom.
Here’s what I wrote about her on the blog two years ago:
We have talked on the phone at different times, but it was such a treat to meet her today. The woman I met today is a different person than she was four months ago. She has hope; she has joy. She is not afraid. When I asked her what it is like this year to go through the Obon holidays, she said it very different…now she is praying and singing praise songs throughout the day, and she just has a thankful heart. It was such a joy to be with her. Her two girls are beautiful, and they have enjoyed the chances to go with their mom to church on occasion as well as to pray together every night before bedtime.
Today, her funeral was a church nearby where she attended when she was able. The pastor would often visit her at home and spend time in fellowship and worship as Rikako’s cancer became worse.
I learned some new cultural things about funerals this week. A neighbor friend offered to prepare for me the traditional envelope that you give at Japanese funeral with a money gift inside. She put our name and address on one side under a short Japanese phrase, the amount of money on the back with the first number just hidden purposely by the folded flap. I was so thankful to have the “right” cultural present to take with me today!
Alas. Late last night that neighbor friend called as she realized I was attending a Christian funeral. She said, “you can’t take that envelope to a Christian funeral!” I was confused. Why not? The phrase that is traditionally written on the front means, basically, “that her spirit will come back during the Obon season.” Obon is a Japanese holiday coming up in August in which many return to their hometowns in order to celebrate the return of their ancestor’s spirits.
Eric and I laughed pretty hard. I would NOT have been presenting the right cultural present at this Christian funeral! Thankfully we found out in time, and I was able to use a simple white envelope that my friend Yumiko prepared when I asked her today…
I debated what to wear, and was thankful for our friend Yas’s advice to go with the all-black classic dress, rather than the jacket/skirt that was black with a bit of color in it. Phew. Good call. EVERYONE really was wearing all black (I wasn’t sure since this was a Christian funeral). I also wore pearls, as did most of the women attending.
At the church, we were handed clear veneer slippers to put on over our dress shoes. I realized the church didn’t have enough slippers for all the people who would be coming in, so instead the funeral directors had provided these alternatives to protect the church floors that are only used to slippers gracing them. Another new experience!
It was so good, and so hard, to see Yumiko and Rikako’s daughters. What a huge, huge loss. My heart has hurt so much for the premature death of this special lady.
As I was sitting in the pew listening to the organ playing “Amazing Grace,” it occurred to me that this event – the funeral – is the bottom line. The tears ran down my cheek as we sang “What a Friend we have in Jesus.” Because either all that we believe about eternal life and trusting in Jesus is 100% true, or else 100% of all that we are about here in Japan is a joke and has no meaning. There’s no other option. Either God’s promises are all real, or none of it is.
As I listened to the wonderful female pastor give a message in the most polite of all Japanese, the message was not lost even on my ears unaccustomed to this formal language: The same God who is holding Rikako right now is wanting to love us. Her text was from I John: “Perfect love casts out all fear.” That the perfect love of our Father is able to take away our fear of sickness and even of death. She herself teared up several times in the midst of the message. She kept telling the participants (mostly nonbelievers from the family’s community) to not forget one thing when they leave: that they are loved by their Creator God.
His promises ARE all real. In that church in the midst of so much grief and sadness was the presence of our Lord. I sensed His lingering there, longing to get the attention of the 300 or so who were sitting there trying to figure out this church thing. And I prayed that they could see past the “churchiness” and the formal Japanese to the message that was so real for Rikako, that is so real for me today: God loves us each so much. He loves the Japanese people. And if it’s worth living for, it is certainly all the more worth dying for.