October 29, 2022 - Roger W. Lowther
It’s been a while since our last podcast, a lot longer than I thought it would be! Our family was in the US for furlough, and then it was one thing after another. My son Aidan was in a terrible bike accident and had to be hospitalized for a month. And then had to drop out of college for a semester as he continued to meet with doctors and heal. I want to thank all of you who have been following him on the CaringBridge website. Fortunately, he’s doing so much better now. In fact, he was even named athlete of the week for a win on the crew team, but it’s been a really hard road.
Then my mother was dying from ovarian cancer and passed away a number of months later. Then I had trouble getting back to Japan and was separated from my family for a while. And then we finally made it back and found the various ways the pandemic has been wreaking havoc in Japan. It’s taken everything we had to put out the fires and keep going.
I can’t tell you how hard it’s been for missionaries around the world. For example, there was one woman who traveled to another country to participate in a conference, then her host country shut down due to a second wave of COVID. She couldn’t get back and was stuck, for over a year (!), apart from her husband.
Many missionary families struggled in limbo, stuck in the US, as they waited for borders to open back up. This was especially hard on missionary kids. When you’re outside the school too long, without opportunity to hear the host language, you really fall far behind. Your world becomes an English-speaking world.
So, COVID has disrupted marriages. It’s disrupted kids. It’s disrupted families. And parents were tearing their hair out with kids home in very small spaces, usually much smaller than the size of your average American home. One of our Japanese staff was actually sued by the man downstairs over noise complaints. And the judge eventually threw the case out, but it was still really stressful during a time when a lot of other stressful things were going on.
And all this stress has caused so much friction in relationships. Missionary teams are falling apart because of these things. Churches are falling apart because of these things. So many pastors have stepped down because of all the division in their churches. People are unhappy, and they’re taking it out on their leaders. Depression. Discouragement. Disillusionment. Overwork. Burn out. The list goes on.
So even now, two and a half years later, Japan is still under restrictions. We’ve had to limit the number of people who can come to worship each Sunday. I got an email just yesterday from a woman who was so upset that she was turned away from the retreat because of space restrictions. There are huge plastic barriers at tables all over Tokyo, making conversation all but impossible. The waiters want you to sit diagonally across the table, so you can imagine how noisy those rooms are as everyone tries to shout to the person on the other side of the barrier. It’s a mess, just a terrible mess. But God is working, and I’ll be sharing some of those stories in the weeks ahead.
During this time, we did what we could. One of the things we did was start Community Arts Media, a publishing arm to our ministries here in Japan. Creating resources, that’s always been part of the vision, but during COVID we formalized it. Community Arts Media, to publish and distribute books, ebooks, audiobooks, sheet music, music albums, videos, and all the rest.
And I’m excited to announce that our first official book with Community Arts Media is coming out on November 1, 2022, Living in Full View of the God of Grace. It will be in English and Japanese, in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook, on Amazon and wherever else you pick up your books. I encourage you to check it out. It has really encouraged me working on this project during such a difficult time, and I know it’ll encourage you as well!
So, I’d like to kick-off our podcast series once again by sitting down with the author, Bruce Young, and his wife Susan.
Hi, Bruce and Susan, thank you so much for being on the show today.
Well, thanks for having us. It's a privilege.
We are looking forward to enjoying time with you, Roger.
So before we get into talking about the book and some other things, I know that you're finding a disease right now that makes your speech slow. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Yeah, it's called ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease and affects my muscular and nervous system and therefore slows down my speech, making it a little bit slurred and whatnot. It's what the Lord has given, and I'm very thankful that he's sustained me to this whole process of writing this book that you helped me with.
Before we start recording, Susan, you were telling me about how God has a sense of humor. What did you mean by that?
Well, I married a man who was an amazing athlete, three sports in college, and tennis and golf on the side. Of all things to happen to him, to not be able to have that physical ability anymore, struggling with walking and whatnot. When we looked at what the Lord had given us, we had to make a decision about how we were going to move forward. And we decided that every day is a gift from God and that God is a good God. He can only do good things. And so this was going to be for our good. We were going to see it that way. And that's been really helpful to know that God is with us in this and he has a purpose in it, and it's enabled us to move forth with joy.
Well, let's talk about the book now, Living in Full View of the God of Grace. When I first heard about this project, I was really excited about it. I'm holding a copy in my hand right now, and what you can see on the cover is Mt. Fuji peeking out with a golden glow on it. But then there's these trees, a line of dark trees that are blocking our view of the mountain. And in the book, you give us this imagery that what if that mountain is the God of grace? What are the trees in our life that block us from being able to see this God and to see his grace? And the more I thought about the message, the more I craved it in my own life as well. Everyone needs grace. Can you tell us a little bit about why you found the message of this book important enough to write about?
Yeah, it was based on a real experience I had driving to a meeting at the foot of Mt. Fuji, and I was really enjoying the view. It was beautiful. But then that row of trees came and I thought, what is it in our lives, especially in Japan for Japanese Christians, that blocks that view of the God of grace. And as I thought about that, I realized that there are a number of things unique to Japanese culture, especially the importance of performance and looking good and evaluating your worth, your contribution to the group that you belong to, your family, your company. And that is elevated to such a high level in Japanese culture. It seeps into the church as well, how you look, how you're performing, whether you're doing the right things as a Christian. And so it quickly becomes a performance oriented view of yourself and God. All those things just help me formulate in my mind the importance of trying to help Japanese Christians to see. And sometimes it's helpful from an outsider's perspective to see what the struggles are in that particular culture. And so, having grown up there as a kid and then worked there as a missionary for 30 years, I felt that was God's calling to me. I'm not an author or writer, but I thought, I need to do this.
What do you think are some of the challenges that missionaries face? What are the trees that block our view of the God of grace?
Missionaries live under a similar pressure, I think, like performing well, being successful in your ministry, comparing yourself to what others are doing, giftedness, language, evangelism. All this puts missionaries under the pressure of performing in different ways than the Japanese Christians. But the result is the same. We take our eyes off the God of grace and try to find their worth in value and comfort in what we're doing, rather than who we are in Christ.
We're now two years into COVID. When I was putting together and editing the book, I was going through a really difficult time. My son was in a terrible accident, and so we were trying to recover from that as a family. My mom was struggling with cancer, and the doctor told her this was probably her last spring. And on and on. There were so many things, and I desperately needed to meditate on grace, to be under the waterfall, the spring of grace. To be able to go through this page by page was such a blessing to me. And I was more sure than ever that people needed this message. That this book could really encourage them.
Well, it's in English as well as Japanese. And the reason being, in addition to that, we need to see how the gospel applies to every culture. And every culture is different. But the answer is always the same, that our true identity is not in what we do, but who we are in Christ.
I've heard it said a lot that what we need to do is not think less of ourselves but to look at ourselves less. We need to be looking at God. And just the beauty alone! Again, the imagery of this book is that God is like a beautiful snow-capped Mt. Fuji against the clear blue sky. The mountain is always there. We just need to look at it and stop looking at the trees or the ground or the dirt. Remember that he is there and he's faithful and he's waiting for us.
Our circumstances can be very, very difficult, but if we keep our focus on God, it can totally change the way we see our circumstances. To see God clearly is to love him more. When you are contemplating him, who he is, what he's done for us, specifically the love he's extended to us—the forgiveness, the kindness, the faithfulness—and to know that we're safe because of all that Jesus has done for us, then it's easier. Much easier. To be secure and to rest and to focus on how we can extend that same knowledge and understanding to others so that they can serve God and serve those around them. It's such a blessing to be freed up from looking at ourselves.
Is there anything else about the message of the book that you want to make sure that people listening here know about?
I'd love to help people understand that the gospel is not one solution, but the only solution. By that I mean, for example, how do you get rid of a judgmental, critical heart? If your criteria is to build your self esteem on your performance and you're doing well, you can't help but look down at others. On the other hand, if you're not doing well, what's going to pick you up? If you're looking to performance in the gospel, we realize that it's not because we're performing right, but because Christ has done it for us, and our identity is tied in him. That brings humility and compassion together, and that's the only way we can get both humility and a compassionate heart toward others, rather than being judgmental. This is an example that applies so well to Japanese culture, where there is a lot of that one up on the other person, or the person who doesn't do well is a failure, often commits suicide, or has a dark cloud over them all the time. The gospel gets rid of both of those things.
Thank you. Before we end this podcast, I wanted to talk a little bit about arts in ministry. Both of you have said some really kind things to me and my team over the years about why the arts can play a role in church planting. There's this image that the best missionaries are the pastors or the ones who are leading the Bible studies.
I came in as a new missionary, trying different things with music and arts and painting, and both of you gave me permission to make mistakes, gave me that grace that you were teaching when I went through the training for Mission to the World, and said that God was going to use this in Japan.
What would you tell artists who are considering being missionaries or who are already missionaries now listening to this?
Well, human beings are not one-dimensional. When you read Scripture, you see that God loves beauty. When you see all the time he spent giving directions to people, how to build the temple, when you read the poetry in the Psalms, the songs of praise from different people in the Bible like Miriam or Mary, you realize these things all speak to us into different aspects of who we are as human beings. And music is part of that. Visual art is part of that. The more ways that you can find to communicate the beauty of the gospel, the more beautiful it becomes. You're just filling it out visually, audibly, verbally. It just fills it out. You see more of who God is and the beauty of who God is and his creativity. And he's given people the gifts to be able to do that. I wouldn't be one of those, but I certainly enjoy the arts and so appreciate my brothers and sisters who have those gifts to be able to bring the fullness of who God is, the largeness, the wideness of who God is to the church and those who are seeking. Those are great hooks to bring people in.
And maybe I'm prejudiced, but there's probably not a country in the world with a higher level of artistic value than in Japan. It can be food, the way you present it, the music, the gardens, the photography. It's amazing how gifted Japanese people are. And to as a Christian, "Well, that's a secular thing. That's not something that God is involved in," is a huge mistake. They need to know that the Creator God, who is creative beyond measure, has bestowed to us that creativity, and that when we express it, we express our image of God in us. And to have that understanding frees up Japanese Christians to use what they have.
I've seen so much talent and giftedness in these areas, but for Japanese Christians to say, "Well, that's not something that is part of my Christian life" is a big loss. And so I'm so glad there's a team like yours who are devoted to help people grow in this understanding and demonstrate it and use it not just within the church, but even as outreach to people saying, "Look, we can do these things and enjoy these things because we have a creative Creator who takes delight in it."
It's certainly a fun experiment, to have a team of artists who are trying to share these things and resource the church playing movement. Susan, you were talking about seeing God clearly and how that comes across in so many different ways. As in the message of the book, the arts can help blow those clouds away from the mountains so we can see the mountain and cut down those trees that are blocking the view.
Yeah, my son is an arborist. We can do beautiful things with those trees, too. I just think we're so limited, and we just need to be freed up to enjoy every single aspect of who God is and how he's made us. Each one is necessary to express just a bit of who he is and his beauty.
I think one of the things I look forward to having is to explore creativity without any fear of shame or judgment or self-consciousness and just be able to do it. For me, for example, it's playing the piano. I'm not very good, and I'm embarrassed to do it in front of others. But to have that lifted and taken away will be a totally new dimension.
Well, I thought it would be fun to end with playing a little clip from a video of an interview that was done a few years ago. Have a listen and then we'll comment on it.
So talk about the relationship between the church and the arts and what that is like in Japan.
Well, I think you're really sitting on a minefield. Gold mine.
Those are totally different things, Bruce! Gold field. Mine field. Gold mine. When English is your second language, sometimes you get your metaphors mixed up a little bit.
I think you're sitting on gold, because there's probably no country in the world that's as artistic as Japan. This is a legitimate means of communicating the gospel on a much deeper level than just opening up a Bible and saying, this is who God is or whatever.
Using art as a form of expression, that's legitimate. Using art galleries and churches to say this is an expression of God's creativity in us. We're made in his image. He's made us this way. And it's legitimate to express ourselves that way. I think God's really going to use that in Japan. It's not a gimmick. It's part of who we are as people, as human beings created in his image. So tap into it. Use it in whatever ways you can. And I'm thankful for all of you.
I think it's so exciting. Some of us can only cook or teach English. This is so much more fun!
Everyone wants to know English, and we've used that a lot over the years. But now we're taking it to a different level, I think.
What do you think?
Well, I still feel that you all are on a gold mine.
Gold mine. That's a good analogy. I like that.
Take advantage and enjoy what's there in Japan in the area of arts. There's huge potential there.
The riches, the treasure, what God has put there.
And mining is hard work. It's not easy to mine gold, right? But what you get at the end is this beautiful, brilliant reflection of who God is. So keep mining.
We will. We'll keep it up.
Well, thank you so much for your encouragement, and I'll try to pass that on to others as well just as you have through this podcast. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
It's been a pleasure. Thank you.
Living in Full View of the God of Grace is available everywhere from November 1, 2022. So I encourage you to pick up a copy and check it out for yourself.
This is Roger Lowther, and you’ve been listening to the Art, Life, Faith Podcast. As we say in Japan, “Ja, mata ne! See you next time!”
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