Justina’s internship finished, but she’s still in Japan for school, and came back to ViBi to help with the recording session for John 11-21. It was great to have her here to make sure the hair and make-up were just right, but even more, she had a way of lightening Uiko’s heavy load with a smile or a joke, or just her presence.
During pre-departure training, I was thoroughly instructed on what to expect and what to be careful of in cross-cultural ministry. I was also warned on several occasions that although I would be in Japan, a place not entirely new to me, the world of the Japanese deaf would be completely different again from the “mainstream” culture it is embedded in.
One of the first things I learned here is that it is unexpectedly easy to fall in love with a culture and a people if your heart is all the way open to it. For starters, God gave me a thirst and an ability to learn Japanese Sign Language. By some miracle, a person like me—occasionally still having trouble with which hand is left or right—managed to learn enough JSL in a month or so to express my thoughts, tell my testimony, and say the Lord’s Prayer. I came in expecting to have to deal with devastating culture-shock, but in its surprising absence I learned more about Christ’s love and what it means to “love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).
Back home we have these buzzwords like “Christ-like love” and “Christ-centered relationships”—but looking back, I wonder if I really ever knew what they meant beyond the general good intentions implied. Within two short months, I met all kinds of people in the deaf community around here, both Christian and non-Christian, and developed a very blessed friendship with one sister in Christ in particular. She is the main translator for the project, taught me most of the Sign I know, and was also my roommate for much of the two months as I was staying with her family. It still takes me by surprise every day when I think about how she was only asked to open up her house to me but we have traveled together, laughed together, cried together, and had many Spirit-led conversations late in the night—what she really opened to me was her heart.
I have had friends, and I have had close friends, brothers and sisters in Christ as well as friends outside the church community—but never in my life have I had a friend who is as different from me as she is. She is deaf and I am hearing, she’s more than ten years older than me, and her personality and interests are hardly similar to mine at all. When we encounter people who are necessarily different from us, we sometimes need to wrestle with those differences and learn to love them sacrificially, selflessly, and completely just as Christ did.
My biggest fear was of being rendered ‘ineffective’ in my service, because I wasn’t sure how I could be used to minister to people whose language, culture and personal histories were so fundamentally different from mine. 1 John 4:12 says that no one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. It’s neither by my own magnanimity nor other people’s merits that a Christ-centered friendship is born, but a desire to exhibit and to experience (indeed, I feel like I received more love than I was able to give) the inexplicable love that Christ extended. It doesn’t matter if the people you serve are very different from you, or if you feel like you don’t know how to minister to them and think you have nothing to offer. We are only commanded to obey when God calls, not to prescribe our own roles in doing his work. It is better to simply come as we are and see what miracles our all-powerful God can work through us, so that by our ministry to others we can better see the blessings he pours out on us and by our weaknesses his glory can be revealed.