Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth . . .
“What is your normal week like” is a question many of you have asked. Our usual answer is that we have very few “normal” weeks. This past week, though, was even more unusual than most.
Saturday was the annual Wheelchairs of Hope fundraising event. Praise God, almost $10,000 was raised that day! I wish that was part of a normal week!
Sunday after church we drove with Uiko (the translator) up to Sendai to meet Hori (the Greek and Hebrew checker in training) for a week of translation work on the Gospel of John. So instead of the normal Thursday 4 hour supper/Bible study in our home with Uiko, we would spend the entire week together. Her love for her Lord and desire for her parents to be given the gift of faith to believe were something we talked and prayed about.
Then on Thursday morning Toshimi Ogata, our friend who was fighting cancer, died. The translation team had just been working on John 12:24 (unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth . . . )
Friday after translation work was over, we left Sendai at 9 PM and drove home arriving at 3 AM Saturday. That evening was the wake at church. Pastor Matsumoto’s message was from John 12:24. About 50 people packed out the small pre-fab two-room church building (one room downstairs with outside stairs leading to the one room upstairs.) Everyone, as the Japanese say, was “dressed like crows.” Solid black. The men work black suits, white shirts and a black tie. The women wore black “funeral dresses” and white pearl necklaces. Shoes, stockings, purses, coats, everything is black. At the door of the church was the reception desk where you signed the register, gave your monetary gift in a black and white envelope (gifts range from about $37 to $370 depending on how close you are to the deceased,) and received a small thank-you gift from the family. At this service the gift was something like a washcloth-handkerchief fusion. Usually we take off our shoes when we go into the church, but there would be no way to deal with 50 pairs of shoes at the door (the shoe box maybe handles 30) so we slipped on what looked like shower-caps over our shoes and walked into the church. Everything happened in Japanese Sign Language, with interpretation into Japanese for Toshimi’s relatives.
The next day was Sunday, and most of Yamagata Deaf Church was there (the Ogatas originally came from Yamagata) for a packed joint morning worship service with Tokyo Deaf Baptist Fellowship, which was held with the coffin in the room. Pastor Minamida preached from Toshimi’s favorite passage, I Thess. 5:16-18. At 1 PM was the funeral. Again dressed like crows and the shower caps on our shoes, this time 70 people crowded into the room, with many standing as there wasn’t room for everyone to sit. Pastor Minamida brought the message.
At both the wake and the funeral, by her request, they played a 15 minute video of Toshimi sharing her thoughts from her hospital bed, saying she knew by the time we saw this she would be gone. But there were several things she wanted people to know. Among them were that she was proud of her husband though he was not a pastor his IT work at the Japanese Sign Language Bible translation project allowed the Japanese Deaf people to have God’s Word in their own language. And not just Japan, but throughout Asia as well he was spreading God’s word though his work. Also, she wanted us to know that though her body was dead, she was alive in the presence of God. She urged those who didn’t believe Jesus to be God’s Son and the Savior of the world, to do so soon. Her slow signing reflected how weak and pain-filled her body had become. At the end, she sign-sang two songs, and then waved goodbye. There were many tears. Uiko’s parents were sitting directly in front of us. They were watching closely. We were praying.
After the funeral we all loaded into buses for the cremation ceremony. All gathered around the open casket one last time while Psalm 23 was read. Open displays of emotion followed as we said good-bye one last time. Then Mr. Ogata tearfully closed the lid of the coffin, and the attendants rolled it into the vault, bowed deeply, and closed the door. For the next hour we gathered in a nearby room, drinking tea, eating sweets and sharing memories of Toshimi.
We noticed that Uiko and her parents “ended up” at a table with Pastor Minamida, but were soon caught up in the conversation at our own table. About 40 minutes in, though, Pastor Minamida stood, motioning everyone to pay attention. Next to him were Uiko’s parents. The announcement: They had confessed that Jesus was Lord and believed in their hearts that God had raised Him from the dead. There were more tears, and very uncharacteristically, hugs.
The hour over, we broke with normal protocol and all gathered back into the room with the vault where the stainless tray which had held the coffin was pulled out. On it were ashes and fragments of bone. Usually what is considered a matter only for family was shared by each–for we were all part of her family–each taking a pair of very long chopsticks, picking up a fragment of bone and placing it in the white urn bearing Toshimi’s name and a cross.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth . . .”