“Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”   Hebrews 4:13

As maskI boarded a crowded train one morning in Tokyo I felt like I had stumbled into the middle of a hospital operating theater.  Almost everyone was wearing a surgical mask. Obviously, the flu season was at its height in Japan so people were taking precautionary measures to protect both themselves and others from the spread of unwanted germs.  In allergy season, the usage of such masks is even more widespread as newer versions claim to block out pollens that cause many victims to suffer. Due to increasing demand, masks are now sold in various shapes, sizes, colors, materials and even aromas, with sales tripling in the past decade.  Witnessing such a phenomenon, outsiders might wrongly jump to the conclusion that Japanese are germaphobes, but that is largely not the case. The usage of such masks primarily reflects their consideration of others as they press on with the daily demands of life, despite not feeling well.

However, sociologists have recently identified an additional reason for the Japanese propensity to wear surgical masks in public, referring to it as “mask dependency”.  Many people, particularly those in their 30s and 40s, will only venture into the public square if they can hide behind a mask and headphones. Wearing a mask enables them to shut out others while mingling among the unavoidable masses of humanity in crowded cities.  Young women may also use masks when they don’t have time to apply makeup, but others may don a mask to cover self-perceived flaws or imperfections that might invite hurtful stares and comments. In such cases, masks become like a security blanket and can easily be used to keep other people at arms’ length, reflecting similar trends in social media.  Wearing a mask allows a person to function with a large degree of anonymity while still participating in the required routines of life.

While those who refuse to veil their faces in public may find this tendency a bit odd, they overlook their own hypocrisies as they practice this on a daily basis in their relationship with God.  Like Adam and Eve covering themselves with makeshift clothing after their disobedience, we are all naturally inclined to hide our faults and failures, foolishly believing that the masks we put on to deceive others will be equally effective with God. However, Scripture reminds us that “everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”  This is both a terrifying and reassuring truth. But it also serves as a warning about the masks we might be tempted to wear, not just before people, but before our Creator, who sees and knows everything.

Walking with God in Japan

“For we walk by faith, not by sight.”   II Corinthians 5:7

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Ippo Ippo is the Japanese equivalent for the phrase “step by step.”  It is also the name we chose for a disaster relief ministry among the displaced population of northeastern Japan following the devastating earthquake and tsunami that occurred on March 11, 2011.  In the days following that national disaster, our team of relief workers moved and served among people who had lost everything. Each day required new steps of faith for both us and the hundreds of volunteers who scrambled to respond to ever- changing conditions.  The name Ippo Ippo, which was on our ID badges, served to reassure the disaster victims that we were there to move forward with them, one step at a time.  It also reminded us to lean daily into God for His enablement and guidance in the midst of adverse circumstances.

Since then, ippo ippo has lingered in our hearts as a catch phrase as it seems to characterize our 34 years of ministry and life in Japan.  From the moment we took our first faltering steps as new and inexperienced missionaries in the spring of 1984, we were keenly aware that we were sojourners in a culture and country that was not our own.  But by the grace of God, we learned much about ourselves, the amazing people of Japan and more importantly, the faithfulness of God. Since then, our journey has been comprised of many steps that eventually expanded into a marathon as we inched forward, ippo, ippo, trying to keep our eyes on God through the many twists and turns on a road through uncharted territory.

Over the years, people have frequently asked us “What’s Japan like?”, which is a very difficult question to answer when limited to a brief verbal exchange.  While our conversation can easily turn to topics such as sushi, anime, hot springs, bullet trains, earthquakes and all the things commonly associated with Japan, such an approach fails to capture the uniqueness, simplicity and yet complexity of this unique country. Our protracted journey in Japan has taken us to many destinations, so I have tried to capture these steps through short devotions centered on cultural examples, short vignettes and personal experiences.  Hopefully, this collection will provide further enlightenment on the Land of the Rising Sun and encourage each of us as God’s children to walk deeper and purposefully with the Risen Son.

Ippo, Ippo.