Hidden Changes and New Things

This morning in staff meeting we played an observation game.  We divided up into two teams.  Team A turned around, faced the wall, with eyes closed.  Team B had about 2 or 3 minutes to change 12 things about themselves.  Chiaki wore my wedding ring; two women switched blouses/smocks; we switched out two scarves and two necklaces, etc.

Then Team A had to turn back around and figure out the twelve different things.  And then we switched.  When Team A changed twelve things about themselves and we turned around, we all burst out laughing.  They took it to the next level, switching all their sweaters, glasses, etc.  By the second round, Team B was a lot faster than Team A at finding the changes. IMG_0143

After the game, we debriefed a bit.  And I used it to share the verse that I had been given this year:  Isaiah 43:18, 19:  “Do not remember the former things, nor consider the things of old.  Look!  I am doing a new thing;  now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

I quite honestly wasn’t too excited about this verse for this year.  In some ways, I’m not looking for new things right now. My family, the Nozomi Project, and other ministry all around keeps me quite busy, thank you very much.

But I was thinking about this verse the past couple of weeks, and I love that it’s present perfect tense (is that the right phrase?) God is already doing a new thing.  He’s in the process of it.  But have I noticed?  Am I watchful?  I really believe in daily redemption… that God isn’t just wanting to do a one-time-it’s-all-fixed redemption but rather a day by day, Jesus is wanting to make all things new.  His redemption is here for me now.  What a loss when I am not aware;  not joining in!

So I shared about this verse, and what I really believe is God’s hope that each of us are watchful for the new things that He wants to do in our lives.  We get better and finding and participating when we are watchful.

I’m excited for the new things that God wants to do in my midst.

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Out with the demons; In with the birds

Our five year old saved the day!

Today in Japan, many people celebrate the day before spring by a ritual to cleanse away the evil from the former year, and hopefully bring good fortune to the coming year.  Traditionally participants will  wear the masks of evil spirits and throw beans as a symbol of driving away the evil spirits.  Families and school classes will often carry out these rituals. The masks often look like this:

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In our previous town,  these ceremonies were pretty underplayed.  But since moving here to Ishinomaki, it has seemed more important.

I had forgotten that today was setsubun day until my daughter came home from school crying yesterday.  She had remembered coming home, and was pretty adamant that she didn’t want to have any part of the scary demon masks at school today.  So I called the elementary school, and was assured that this year their classes were not planning to do anything special at school (though they did bring home peanuts as a snack!).

Our five year old Ian brought home a letter yesterday stating that they would be celebrating this today, with the throwing of beans, making masks, etc.  So I called his preschool, and explained to the teacher who answered that we would prefer not to have Ian participate in the setsubun rituals.  The teacher put me on hold, and came back and said that was fine.

This morning we prayed with all the kids as they went off.  We talked to Ian a bit and explained that he wouldn’t be participating in everything they did at school – he seemed fine about it.  We sent him off on the bus this morning.

He came home announcing that he made an evil spirit mask!  He said that he needed to participate – he had to make a mask and throw his beans.  I’m not quite sure what happened with my communication to the preschool, but my wishes didn’t seem to make it to his teacher somehow.  And then, I saw his mask:

IMG_0122Our son deviated from the normal evil spirit masks… using all the same cut out parts for the demon masks, he made an Angry Birds mask! Genius. Made my day.

Our futures…

Yesterday as the weekend was approaching at the social enterprise where I am working, one of the staff shared that her daughter has her major college entrance examination this weekend.  She would need to drive to Sendai (an hour or so), and stay in a hotel for two nights with her dad in order to take the tests on Sunday and Monday.  She has been preparing for a YEAR for these tests;  going every day to a cram school after her regular high school in order to prepare for this test.

At the end of the day, three of us gathered around our staff worker and prayed for her and her daughter.  It is a really huge deal; and apparently it is also a ton of money.  It was special to have that time to pray together.

Tonight I was out with my family and this staff worker called and tried to reach me several times.  I called her back during dinner.  She said that she had shared with her daughter S. about our prayer time, and S. wanted me to pray for her too!  Our staff worker was surprised.  I haven’t seen S. in about a year (mostly because she’s been going to cram school every day of the week, all year long!).

So this evening when our family returned I called S.’s cell phone.  She shared a little bit and then I prayed with her over the phone.  I am not a very confident prayer in Japanese;  but I welcome times like this, even though I feel often like an early-days Moses… where the person on the other end is so hungry to experience the reality of God’s presence.  It was a special privilege to pray for her.  I found myself praying for her sleep, for her to have God’s perfect peace as she wakes up tomorrow, to experience God’s presence throughout the next two days.  And that more than hoping for good results from this test, that she would trust and lean into the special and good future that God is preparing for her.

Just a few minutes ago, S. sent me a text (first time!).  She said she was getting really nervous before going to sleep.

I sent her Jeremiah 29:11-13 – “…for I know the plans i have for you, says, the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you… plans for a future and a hope…” (Sue paraphrased here!).

She wrote back:  “How strange!  I suddenly feel a sense of peace come over me.  Thank you so much.  It has really helped.”

As we finished our texting exchange, I realized that I was stressing tonight about our son’s education.  We have made the decision (gulp!) to take him out of the local Japanese schools when he graduates from elementary school in March.  We have a plan through the summer, but no teacher lined up for September.  We have been praying and recruiting but nothing has turned up yet.  One lead just fell through tonight.  And I was starting to feel panicked.

But God’s promises…  I have had to go back and read these verses for my family. He has a future and a hope. To believe this for my son Owen, even as I can believe this for S.  To ask God for the faith to trust in what I cannot see.

I am hopeful that S., and I, will sleep well tonight, entrusting our futures into God’s loving and capable hands.

Six Family History Rituals that Even Moms Like Me Can Do

One of my “bents” is finding unique ways to celebrate people that I love.  This can mean making a unique cake for friends, surprise parties, even wacky practical jokes.

This interest plays out in our family.  For numerous reasons, I have searched for effective ways to celebrate and remember who we are.  I think in my desire to make up for not being enough of  the-get-dirty-on-the-playground- kind of mom, I have looked for other ways to celebrate with our kids. Also, because we live overseas in Japan, we are mostly separated from our extended families and have a unique lifestyle with the blending of cultures. In particular, because our four children are all adopted, I especially desire to give them a strong foundation in which they  feel grounded, special, and unique. Here are some ways that we try and do that.

Birth-day books:  Each of our children’s stories of birth and adoption is precious and unique.  There was pain and trauma involved, but redemption as well. When we received each child, I bought a simple journal for  and did my best to write  in it the story of their early days. I printed out some of the email announcements and other correspondence we sent out.

Each year since we started those books, my husband and I have tried (!) around New Year’s to set aside a few hours and write in each of their books.  On Monday we finally had a chance to do this at Starbucks – we grabbed a few good pens and the four journals and wrote away!

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We write about memorable events or funny things that child has said;  character traits that we have seen; blessings for their future as we watch them growing up.  I recently pulled out the books because my daughter kept asking me what her first words were (funny how I can forget so easily!);  we laughed and laughed over some of her early antics as I read them aloud!  Tonight she asked me, “Mommy, would you still have remembered that every night I needed you to close the curtains, turn on the bathroom light and turn off the hall light if it hadn’t been written in that book?”  No need to think.  No.  Absolutely not!  Two kids and a lot of life later and I just don’t remember these details.  Thankfully some of them at least are in these books…

We’ve also had a “guest” writer or two.  When my sister Beth visited us once I asked her to write her impressions in the book of each of the children at that stage in their lives.  I know some day they will treasure that letter, and hopefully each of the letters in their book that have been lovingly handwritten over the years by the people who love them most in the world.

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(It’s not too late to start!  As my chemistry professor used to say — better late than never!)

Newsletter/Christmas Card Books –  Part of our role as protestant missionaries includes writing frequent newsletters to those back at home.  We write five or six a year, as well as sending out some sort of creative Christmas cards that we mail out to everyone. In addition to one master clear-file book that I use to keep one copy of all of our newsletters, I started a number of years ago making clear-file notebooks for each of our children.  They will later be able to go back through their own newsletter notebook and read a unique perspective–their parents’– of our family history.

Digital Photo Books –  I don’t have time for scrapbooking, but I do try most years to create a simple $30 digital photo book.  I also do smaller ones after major trips to the U.S. or big experiences, like a move.  Our kids love to look through these! It’s also a great way to help them remember our loved ones who live far away.

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Birthday Story:  This is a tradition that started with  my own mom when I was little.  It is special whether or not you are adopted because all children want to know the story of their entrance into the world.  On the night of each child’s birthday, they have special mom time when I tuck them in.  And I tell them their birth and adoption stories.  As they have gotten older, I have included more information that they may be ready for.  They always look forward to this sweet time, as do I.  It is often a chance, too, as we lay there in the dark and snuggle, for them to ask questions that may be are harder to ask at other times.

Letters to Jesus:  Two years ago we began a new tradition that became more defined last year through this blog article.  On New Year’s Eve (which is a day or two before taking down the Christmas decorations) we gather and each of us writes a short note to Jesus.  The letter serves as a prayer, asking him for help in an area of our lives where we need help this next year.  This past year one child asked for more self-control;  another for patience.  Our youngest asked for help in not being so afraid.  Eric and I wrote our own as well.  Then we shared our notes as we sat in a circle, and the person on the left prayed for the person who just shared.  It was so sweet to see even our five year old praying for his big sister!

When we put away the Christmas decorations, we each put our notes in our own Christmas stocking, and packed them away till next year.  It is fun as we decorate for Christmas to read our notes from the past year and realize how God has been at work in our hearts. I’m looking forward to us growing up with this ritual, and reading over our letters over the year as a testimony to the hand of God in our lives.  (It’s not too late – you don’t need to put yours in the stocking but it’s a great time as the first month finishes to sit down with your family and do this for the coming year!).

Ten-Year Journal:  This last one is for me!  In addition to using one myself (thank you, Claire, for the original gift!), this journal has been one of my favorite gifts for girlfriends over the year.  I cannot believe I am already in my ninth year.

There is space for ten entries on each of the journal’s 365 daily pages where I write down about four line’s worth that somehow summarize my day, or I share one significant memory, challenge, triumph, special event.

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I did not think I could start a new habit and do this every single night – but it’s been nine years!  I’ve missed a few here and there but I really hate missing even a day, and try and go back and write if I miss.  Because reading over what has happened on this day for the last nine years is so amazing!

And there are so many things that I would never have remembered.  It has become a place where:

  • I check now for annual or past occurrences, such as when we usually pull out the winter clothes and heaters, when we had our first snow storm; or when we actually bought our mini-van;
  • in the front, I write down my one-word and/or bible verse for that upcoming year (sometimes, quite honestly, it will take two or three months to decide these.  But it usually happens.)   IMG_0109
  • remember important, non-family member birthdays, holidays, remembrances;
  • keep track of gifts — how many bags of pecans we bought, and how many  tins of candied pecans we gave out for Christmas each year;
  • keeping general track of my weight over the years (for better or worse!).
  • Cakes and bedtimes – On every birthday I love to stay up very late the night before the celebration and make a theme cake  that is unique and will speak to each of them on that particular birthday (see some of them here), I love writing the theme in my book, as well as the time I went to bed for that cake.  (Most recent “Diary of a Winsome Kid” cake:  3:30 am!).
  • In the back, I keep track of all of our family illnesses, shots, etc.  Just recently I recognized an important pattern — that our oldest son gets strept throat every. single. year.  I never realized it before in the midst of six of us getting sick at different times.

IMG_0111  To buy your own ten year journal– you can get them at stationery stores or online in Japan;  I found several different versions on Amazon as well.  For as little time as it takes to write a few sentences, this ritual and journal can become a gift to yourself  – and to your family — as you use it over the years.

What are rituals that you do to celebrate family? I’d love to learn and add to our own family traditions.  It’s really worth it.

food fun following the flu

After a week in virtual quarantine at home, today I was ready for some healthy food alternatives!  I’ve had the flu – and three out of four kids as well and one with strept throat to boot!  Most of the week has been just trying to get us all through.

Our kids have been troopers!  In Japan, a fever in the winter = need to go to the doctor for an influenza test.  A positive flu test = a required five day quarantine at home.  Even if your kids are healthy, there are frequent class cancellations when more than 1/4 of a class population is diagnosed with the flu.  So we have had the majority of the kids home for the past week or so, either sick or because others in their class are sick!  And next Monday there is already cancelled school for our second grader…

Today I felt my first burst – or hint! – of energy.  I woke up craving some healthier food options, and our kids were ready for something creative to do. It felt like our go-to comfort meals this week have been starchy and/or not the most healthy.  (But I have to say a woohoo for macaroni and cheese yesterday- a rare gift from a friend!).

So today, on our road back to recovery — we made picture art lunches.  All the kids got to make pictures on their own piece of oven paper using the lunch ingredients I had set out.  There was only one rule:  they needed to eventually eat all of the ingredients they used in their pictures.

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For being a very spontaneous and first-time idea, it was a surprising success. Our kids ate A LOT of lunch, and we had a lot of fun.  The lunch supplies that I had on hand were:  ham, cheese, carrot sticks, cucumbers (half that I put through a “Vegini” and made into thin long strings), ranch dressing, tomatoes, oranges, cut-up apples, peanut butter, curly pasta, sliced pepperoni, green olives, raisins.  (A great way to use up leftovers!). I pulled out my cookie cutters, which was fun to use on the ham, cheese, and tomatoes.  Love the happy faces — on the kids and on the oven paper!

IMG_0100(My daughter loves to make hair curl on one side like this in all her pictures — so cute!)
IMG_0101IMG_0102It was a SCORE lunch … everyone ate healthy; we had fun family time together, and we used up some random food in my fridge.

Tonight, I was feeling a bit unprepared when dinner rolled around… A friend called from the store and offered to bring some groceries.  She brought some fried noodles for the kids, and i requested some vegetables.  I have totally been craving grilled vegetables — I made them on Christmas eve and have wanted more since.  She brought me the veggies I didn’t have, and using a simple recipe I cooked up some deliciousness.

Here’s my recipe for simple Grilled Vegetables:

Cut up into bite-sized pieces your favorite vegetables.  Tonight I used:  carrots and sweet potatoes (top tray); and broccoli cauliflower, peppers, and onions (bottom tray).  I forgot the mushrooms but those are favorites too!  I threw them all into a big ziploc with a small amount of olive oil and sea salt that I tossed all around, then spread them out on these two trays.  Preheat your oven to about 425 F, then bake away for 25-30 minutes, turning two or so times in between.  We now have vegetables to last us a few meals.  I am a happy flu-recovering mama on our way back to health.  

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Christmas Full; Christmas Emptying

Today, December 25th:

  • It snowed twice:  beautiful big snowflakes this morning as our family was assembling to open gifts, and then driving home tonight from Christmas dinner with friends.  It melted in between but it was a beautiful Christmas morning and evening.  Something about snow is pure and new and touches me.
  • We had a crazy 5.5 earthquake wake us up this morning.  It is about the fourth one in the past ten days, which is unnerving.  Our friend Beth said that in light of the recent activity, she has updated her earthquake survival kit recently….
  • We were blessed with some amazing gifts.  Our kids had a really really fun day opening gifts and building/learning/trying on/imagining.  So so fun. So so blessed.
  • In the midst of it all, I got mad once at one of our kids, and had to apologize.  We made up.
  • I talked with my dad this morning.  All of our kids did.  It was his evening, which seems to be his hardest time in terms of being lucid.  He wasn’t making much sense to any of us, and then suddenly to me he said, “Hey, I read your latest four- page newsletter that came.  It’s exciting all the lives that are being changed!”  And my old Dad was back for a short bit, quick to rejoice over news of God at work. The dementia has not managed to take over everything!
  • I did a lot of cooking in between gifts and prep for Christmas day – made our traditional sausage breakfast casserole for brunch, and pot roast and chocolate chip cheesecake for dinner/dessert.  They all turned out pretty good, though the pot roast was a bit dry.  (It was still an awesome treat that we can’t usually get here!).  Oh – and our favorite homemade eggnog for dessert time.  I love it that our kids love it as much as I do!
  • We had a fun dinner/gift exchange time with our team tonight.  It was good to laugh and enjoy each other’s company, even though we were all tired.  We did a white elephant gift exchange, and I won a box of old-ish cans of tuna and some canned bread (entering the fourth year of its five year shelf life!) that I think will make perfect updates to our own survival kit…
  • My highlight of the day was between 2 and 3.  Our team all went to a local nursing home and sang Christmas songs and a few of our favorite worship songs.  We had prepped our kids, knowing it wasn’t easy for them to do this.  But I loved hearing their voices sing louder than the adults!  We sang “Kimi wa aisareru tame umareta” to them – “You were born to be loved.”  While we sang, we went out and greeted and shook hands with each of the attendees.  I got to one sweet woman, and there were just tears streaming down her face.  She couldn’t stop.  She hugged me and kept squeezing my hand.  Of course I couldn’t sing!  Jennifer came over, still singing, and then her voice broke.  Eric said that Ian (5) bravely went from person to person, shaking their hands.  They were all waiting for this little dressed-up Santa to come and greet them too.  I was proud of him and each of our kids. When we had finished our short time of singing and were saying goodbye, I went and sat with Mrs. Akio a bit longer.  She said a lot has happened in her life.  I looked at her eyes and could only imagine.  I prayed for her and promised to come back.
  • It was a wonderful treat to have our friend Y. go with us.  From the minute we started singing, the tears started flowing for her.  She was touched deeply today. I think we all were moved from our own self-preoccupation to focusing on these dear older ones who did not have the blessings that we currently have.  There was an emptying of ourselves that happened;  I sensed we all, like me, walked out a little lighter;  with a little less of me.
  • Many blessings today! That short time of giving our time and ourselves to people with more needs than our own shapes our perspective.  I was thinking about the old hymn that speaks of Christmas with the verse, ”
    He left his Father's throne above 
    	(so free, so infinite his grace!), 
    	emptied himself of all but love, 
    	and bled for Adam's helpless race. 
    	'Tis mercy all, immense and free, 
    	for O my God, it found out me!
  • It’s the Christmas story, isn’t it?  One who left his comfort for much for than an hour and emptied himself in a myriad more ways than we did.  But it is such an immense privilege to join him in the emptying process of loving. It has been a wonderfully full day.
    Merry Christmas!    IMG_6216

Shepherds and Angels in Ishinomaki

One of my favorite activities each week on Thursday mornings is a simple bible study that we do before the Nozomi Project starts.  Six of us or so gather around our dining room table and study a passage of scripture and seek to apply it to our own lives.

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This month we have been looking at different passages of the Christmas story.  On Thursday, we were reading the story of the angels who came to the shepherds, and through their proclamation the shepherds were among (if not) the first to go and meet the baby Christ child.  One of the many beautiful things about the Christmas story – and most of the stories of the Bible – is that God loves to use ordinary people.  We were thinking about the shepherds – they were probably ruffian types; working all night; smelling like outdoors/animals.  But these were the first visitors to meet the King!

After talking through the story a bit, each of us shared observations.  Our most recent member, A-san, shared this:

“S. was like the first angel who introduced me to the Nozomi Project when I told her I was quitting my other job at (a local sandwich shop).  She led me here to the Nozomi Project. I  was always afraid to go deep with people, so I avoided relationships.  But by becoming a Nozomi member, I have been able to grow deeper in friendships.  The group of angels in the shepherd story are like the Be One staff members and our manager Yuko.  Day by day they share truth with me.  And now I’m here, studying the Bible each week. I’m changing from reading this.”

Then T-san shared:  “I never believed in miracles.  But then I met a member of Be One, and that was the first miracle I experienced.  Now I’m reading the bible and learning so much about life.  I’m so glad that I met God.  God entered our everyday world through Jesus, and He’s come into my normal life too. I am so thankful to experience miracles.”

My friend C-san.:  “I’m like the shepherd, and God keeps bringing angels into my life who share about the Message.  When our friend Nobuko came last month and shared, her message was just like that of the angels, and I thought, I want to try out this Christian faith.  It’s been a month and I still believe.  When I used to hear sharing from the Bible, I would listen but forget it in a few days.  Now I hear the stories and they stay in my heart.”

Those of us with the Hope of Jesus this season have an amazing privilege of being like the angels.  We had some laughs last week as the Japanese typically imagine angels as the little cherubim baby-face images with halos on their heads.  But the biblical angels are usually depicted as those who know the Glory and Sweetness of God and are sent as messengers to share that beauty.  This can be us!  While being far from perfect and without halos or glowing robes, we have an amazing privilege wherever we are of sharing with the ordinary people surrounding our every-day lives the realities of the Jesus -story.  We can bring them to Him.

But there is also something else that happens as we share the truths of God with people around us.  God continues to use the beautiful people in my everyday world here to lead me to Jesus.  They become the angels, and I am a recipient of their wonder and awe as they experience grace and living hope for the first time.  The stories I have heard since childhood become new and fresh again.  Like the angels did for the shepherds, they lead me before the Christ child.  And as we experience him together, all social structures are flattened and we together are transformed.

Christmas is a time of miracles.