Japan, like other temperate countries, enjoys four seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. One of the amazing experiences of living here is getting to see how people celebrate and adapt to each season as they come and go. Over the years the Japanese have developed many unique customs and traditions for each season. For example in Spring there is 花見 (hanami) the celebration of the blooming of the Sakura flowers. Summer is full of fireworks and festivals as numerous gatherings are organised. Autumn is the time to enjoy 紅葉 (momiji) where people gather to see the beautiful autumn colours. Finally, in Winter there are moonlight festivals where temples are brightly lit up while freshly fallen snow blankets their roofs and pagodas. Each season brings its own set of unique smells, colours and tastes such that, in the blink of an eye, the physical and human landscape changes quite dramatically.
The regularity and starkness of these changes is fascinating for someone coming from a country with a stable predictable climate like Singapore. In Singapore I was used to being able to go out in the same clothes all the time and being able to buy the same foods and produce whenever I wanted. Not so here in Japan where items and activities can be dependent on the time of the year. These changing seasons and the impact it has on what we can and cannot do brings to my mind the verses of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
In that manner, no one dons swimwear and goes to the beach in the dead of winter (at least not anyone I know). Nor do people put on heavy jackets to go skiing down grassy slopes in the heat of summer. To do so would be ridiculous or unheard of. Each activity has its own appropriate season and timing as the writer of Ecclesiastes knows. It is thus wise to accept the current season and embrace it for what you can do at the time rather than trying to do something you cannot. However, with that in mind what season is it that we are facing right now?
All over the world, many people, my family included, have been confined in their homes because there is a risk posed from the spread of COVID-19. In Japan all public schools closed 2 weeks ago following the government’s direction. This caused other institutions like universities, museums and even our language school to follow suit as a precaution. During this period we were told explicitly to minimise going out to public places, to avoid gathering in groups and to not travel unnecessarily. In some places additional measures or precautions have also been taken to halt the spread. For example, while our church continues to meet with lunches canceled indefinitely, other churches have closed or have encouraged congregants to disperse immediately after the service. Some of our missionary colleagues have also had to cancel outreach activities out of concern for the elderly people they are trying to reach out to. This has led to some uncertainty and frustration, as no one knows when things will go back to normal. As many of us sit helplessly at home, it is as if the Lord has hit the pause button. Or has He?
While browsing the internet for how others are coping, I was encouraged to read that for some believers in China being confined at home has led them to read their bibles in earnest and depend on God’s Word again. One elderly gentleman remarked that,
’During this time of isolation, I read the Bible without stopping for 10 days and I could not stop reading about God’s forgiveness and love for me. Now I want to spend the rest of my life reading the Bible!’
When I read this quote, I realised that, for many of us who are in the fortunate position to do so, being confined to our home can actually be a blessing in disguise as it reveals things that we should focus our energies on that we may have otherwise been neglecting. For some this may be a time of healing & reconciliation as families are made to spend more time together. For others it could be an opportunity to help others who are less fortunate, such as our Malaysian neighbours who are unable to return home. For me, I know that this has given me no excuse to neglect my prayer time with the Lord… after all I don’t have a lot going on for me right now.
Like the elderly Christian mentioned above, refocusing on prayer and God’s word plays an additional role for us as Christians. While the world goes crazy stocking up on toilet paper, we need to constantly affirm to one another that God can use such events to accomplish His plans. One thought that struck me in my reflections is how the largest and strongest countries in the world are being stopped by one of the tiniest organisms on the planet and how consistent this is with God’s nature to use the weak to humble the strong. This virus has revealed just how vulnerable we all really are, that despite massive resources, wealth and technological advances, mankind’s ‘strength’ is but a fabrication. We are simply powerless against our God’s Will. In fact it makes me grateful that I have been saved by and am loved by such a mighty Lord!
So my dear Brothers and Sisters, as we ponder the times, what does this season mean to you and I and how will we make the best of it? What is the Lord calling us to do right now? As is the nature of seasons to come and go, this one too will surely pass. At the Lord’s anointed time a new season will soon follow where we will then be enabled to do different things. Therefore, for those of us who are blessed to do so, let us not ‘waste’ this chance afforded to us this season but live it out in fullness and obedience to the Lord for His Glory.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.
Sean Tan (Missionary to Japan)
March 29, 2020