Pastoral Perspectives

Losing One’s Voice

As a tourist, being in Japan is an amazing experience; the Japanese people are hospitable, considerate and go out of their way to make sure you enjoy your stay. You can get by easily with hand gestures and saying ‘Konnichiwa’ & ‘Arigatou’ here and there. However, things start to get a bit more tricky once you become a resident and have to navigate the processes of daily life.

Mundane activities like registering for school, applying for insurance, rent, utilities, etc. feels like a minor obstacle that needs to be overcome and with each day bringing new challenges they can slowly add up into a mountain. When we first arrived in Japan, we had to wade through stacks of forms every day, each one having to be painstakingly translated. Then there were the meetings with teachers or city officials to explain our situation and to answer their questions. We were fortunate that our team leader accompanied us for these meetings, assisting to translate.

However, this feeling of being so helpless, so unsure of what’s going on around you and so overwhelmed by the flood of information, is also an incredibly humbling experience. We were so used to being able to communicate our thoughts and desires in English, that we take for granted how difficult it can be to do simple things when you don’t have the words for it.

For instance, one time we were looking for furniture and all we wanted to know was the cost and timing for it to be delivered to our house. The poor shop assistant could not understand English and had to call for help. In the end, what should have taken a minute, ended up taking almost 15mins instead. When we left, we weren’t quite sure who was the more exasperated party, us or them. It is negative experiences like this that make me want to hide and not talk to anyone because each conversation in Japanese feels as strenuous as climbing a hill.

To add to the challenge, our children began to fall sick, succumbing one by one to the flu. All three went through bouts of vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, and coughing which, all told, lasted for a month. Initially, we relied on the medicines we had brought over but none of them made any difference. Altogether, it took two visits to clinics, two trips to the hospital and multiple doses of local medicines before all 3 kids finally recovered. We felt thoroughly spent having gone through such a long drawn and stressful experience.

The Silent Hand of the Lord

In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, Zechariah was informed by the angel Gabriel that, in answer to their prayers, his wife, Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son. Zechariah questioned how, in their old age, this would be possible. As punishment for his disbelief, he was made dumb until the promise was fulfilled. Similarly, if someone had, years back, told me how my family would one day be living in a foreign country despite not knowing the language, tell people about Jesus, I would have scoffed at the notion. Now that the Lord has opened the door for us to be here, humanly speaking we are so outside of our comfort zone and so helpless that anything could easily trip us up. In fact, some nights as I looked upon my children coughing in their beds and heads warm with fever, I found myself silently wondering whether it was a good idea to move my whole family to Japan at all. I wondered if the Lord would really enable us over here. Like Zechariah, I too feel that I have been ‘struck dumb’ here in Japan as it feels as if I have been stripped of the agility to communicate and can only sit in helpless frustration awaiting God’s fulfilment of His promise to use us to share the good news of Christ in His timing.

Yet it is also in these moments of helplessness that God’s grace and mercies are most abundantly displayed to me. Through them, I painfully realise how utterly dependent I am on the Lord. He is not just my family’s source of strength, provider and sustainer, but fittingly in my case, He also gives us a voice when we are otherwise voiceless. When I had no one I could speak or turn to, He was always there by my side awaiting my prayers. Sadly, I must confess that even with such ready access available, I did not always turn to Him first, relying instead on human wisdom and understanding. I shudder to think that the Lord prolonged my children’s illness just so that I would learn the valuable lesson of turning to Him first… If anything my journey, like Zechariah’s, is an encouraging reminder that man’s disbelief can never thwart God’s plans!

Slow but Steady Progress

Recently, some older WEC missionaries had pointed out how well our family has adjusted to life in Japan and how delighted they are that our children are settling well into the local school. In the midst of fighting our daily battles, it has been difficult to recognise that, thanks to the silent hand of the Lord, both of those points are true. On reflection, we are not just surviving here but, in fact, doing better than we think we are. This despite not knowing exactly what each day will bring and still having a long way to go in our Japanese studies.

I’ve heard it said before that one of the hardest challenges in Japan is speaking on the phone. In person, you can get the message across through body language or facial expressions. However, on the phone all that is available are your words. I struggle with this fear so much that initially I refused to answer the phone, preferring to pass it to Hooi Yin instead. Lately though, one of my small triumphs was the sudden realisation that I could understand (just a little) what a delivery man was saying to me over the phone and gave a small cheer when I hung up. It turns out, my proficiency in the Japanese language, much like my faith and trust in God, grows slowly but only with daily practice.

Final Greetings

Looking back, it amazes me that, with all we have been through, it’s only been 3 months since we arrived in Japan and 2 months since I last wrote to True Way. How I miss being able to sing songs of worship to the Lord surrounded by the congregation in Singapore! Though we are far away, I still feel connected to True Way from the regular messages that I receive from friends asking us how we’re doing. It is always a pleasure to know how you all are and that you have been praying for us. In turn we also appreciate being able to pray for you as well. Finally, thank you all for your prayers and well-wishes for my family and I look forward to updating you again in future.

Sean Tan (Missionary to Japan)

June 23, 2019