Visas for Life

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  John 10:10b

Chiune Sugihara

Most people have heard of the World War II German industrialist, Oskar Schindler, who was made famous by the award-winning movie “Schindler’s List.” Schindler was credited for rescuing 1,200 Jews from the Holocaust, but few realize that he had a Japanese contemporary who played a similar key role by saving many Jewish lives during those tumultuous times.

Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat who served in Lithuania from 1939 to 1940 as a vice-consul for the Japanese Empire. At the time, Lithuania was occupied by Russian forces. Many Jews already resided in the tiny Baltic country or had fled there from other parts of Europe to escape persecution. Sugihara had been stationed in Lithuania because of his expertise in Russian affairs, his military background and his command of the Russian, German and English languages. As a student at the famous Waseda University, Sugihara joined a Christian fraternity and later openly converted to Christianity (Russian Orthodox Church) when he married. Later on, while carrying out his assigned governmental duties, Sugihara began to experience conflict between some of his ingrained cultural values and his growing Christian conscience when he observed injustices perpetrated by the Japanese. This inner turmoil eventually led Sugihara to actually resign his position as the Deputy Foreign Minister in Manchuria in 1935 as a protest against the inhumane treatment of local Chinese by the occupying Japanese army.

 

Sugihara’s radical and rather risky action seemed to set the stage for the chain of events that later unfolded in the summer of 1940. In direct disobedience to his orders from Japan, Sugihara san issued transit visas to Japan for Jews stranded in Lithuania and seeking safe passage from war-torn Europe. For a period of one month, he and his wife tirelessly worked twenty-hour days to painstakingly handwrite and grant visas for long lines of desperate refugees begging for help. When Sugihara was ordered to leave his post on September 4, he still continued to issue visas in route to the train station and even tossed them out the window to eager recipients as his train departed. Towards the end of the war, Sugihara and his family were cruelly imprisoned in a Soviet POW camp for 18 months before finally returning to Japan where he lived out the remainder of his days in obscurity and poverty. Although it is impossible to confirm how many visas Sugihara issued, conservative estimates place the number at around 6,000, which means roughly 40,000 descendants of those original refugees owe their existence to Sugihara’s heroic efforts. In 1985, the State of Israel finally recognized Chiune Sugihara, bestowing upon him the title “Righteous Among the Nations” for his selfless and sacrificial actions on behalf of the Jewish people.

 

Some people have referred to Sugihara’s coveted transit visas as “visas of life” for those fortunate recipients. In the Bible, Jesus frequently affirmed that He is the ultimate source of life for those who follow Him (cf. the Gospel of John) and as such, Jesus offers us the only available “transit” to heaven. Through Chiune Sugihara’s sacrificial advocacy for others, he provided “visas of life” for those who would otherwise perish. But through the cross, God provided the far more important “visa of eternal life” to escape the coming judgment of sin. Therefore, God has bestowed upon Jesus the title, “The Righteous One” (I John 2:1), who brought salvation to His people.

Pachinko

Direct me in the paths of your commands, for there I find delight.”          Psalm 119:35

pachinko

Out of curiosity as a relative newcomer to Japan, I cautiously opened the door to the gaudily decorated establishment and peeked in. I was harshly greeted with an immediate sensory overload of sights, sounds and smells (cigarette smoke) that encouraged me to make a hasty retreat to the comparatively quiet sidewalk. That was my first and only direct experience with the infamous Japanese parlor game known as pachinko (パチンコ). Pachinko is often compared to the arcade game of pinball since it is a mechanical entertainment device that involves the manipulation of steel balls. However, pachinko is significantly different from its Western counterpart in a variety of ways and, on top of that, it is deeply rooted in Japanese gambling culture.

The word “pachinko” is derived from the onomatopoeic sound “pachin,” which is a clicking or snapping noise the machine makes when the balls drop through and this sound is combined with the suffix “ko,” which means “little.” These machines were initially developed in the 1920s as a children’s toy, but within a few years evolved into a popular adult pastime. A pachinko resembles a vertical pinball machine but it utilizes multiple small steel balls that can be slightly directed by the player as they fall through a series of steel pins or nails. The objective is to capture as many balls as possible in the small openings along the course before they reach the bottom.

These balls can then be exchanged for prizes which can in turn be discretely converted into hard currency in compliance with Japan’s prohibition of gambling for cash. As such, these so-called pachinko parlors are a Japanese version of casinos where guests play slot machines. It is estimated that roughly a tenth of the Japanese population frequents one of Japan’s 10,600 pachinko parlors once a week and that the annual gambling revenue from pachinko is thirty times the yearly gambling earnings of Las Vegas. To maintain this delicate balance between winning and losing, pachinko parlors employ “kugushi” (釘師), or “nail adjusters” who expertly adjust or bend the pins within the pachinko machines. This fine-tuning serves to protect profit margins, but at the same time provides a sufficient number of favorable outcomes to attract customers. Some customers will line up at the pachinko parlor entrance several hours before it opens in order to gain access to their favorite machine.

If you closely examine a pachinko machine, you will soon discover that there are countless courses a ball can take as gravity takes over and it makes its way to the bottom. The goal of the player is to manipulate the course or path of the ball to his advantage. In the game of life, most of us would like to be in the position where we can influence the path ahead of us for a favorable outcome. Even though such power lies beyond our means, this limitation fails to quench our ever-present desire to control our own destiny where we naively believe happiness awaits us. Scripture tells us that such joy or delight is certainly available, but it only comes as we follow the commands or course laid out for us by an all-knowing, all-powerful God. (Psalm 119:35) As our heavenly kugushi, God lovingly and flawlessly adjusts the various “nails” in our lives in line with His desired outcome. Our only response therefore should be faithful obedience as we submit to the course uniquely laid out for us. Our reward is not a cheap trinket or even a cash prize, but rather, a meaningful and purposeful life that brings glory to God and delight to us. When we obey, we come out winners.

Yellow Tiles

“I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth.”  Isaiah 42:16a

Yellow Tiles

New visitors to Japan are initially puzzled by the bright yellow lines of tile that often line certain streets and intersections. They are even more common near train and bus stations. These lines are technically known as “tactile ground surface indicators” (TGSI); in layman’s terms, they serve as a hazard guide for the visually impaired.  These special tiles are designed to be used by blind people as a means to navigate crowded public places by feeling the texture of the tiles with the help of a cane or through the soles of their shoes.  Differences in the tiles help to indicate directions and potential hazards.  The bright yellow color also serves as a useful reminder to others to be considerate of those who may be visually handicapped.

A closer examination of the tiles reveals that there are two major varieties. One has straight raised lines and the other type has raised circular bumps. Tiles with straight lines indicate it is safe to proceed forward in the direction of the lines. However, when one encounters tiles with bumps, it is a warning to stop or to proceed with caution. Some form of obstruction or potential danger like an intersection, stairs or a train platform edge typically lies beyond this type of tiles. In addition to the yellow tiles, many intersections in Japan play set songs or sounds to indicate which direction is safe for crossing. Braille signage is also quite common for the visually impaired.

When one observes these tiles, it is only natural to recall the classic movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” where Dorothy and her traveling companions are instructed to follow the yellow brick road to reach the Emerald City, where all their problems will be resolved. While none of those famous characters were visually impaired, the purpose of the yellow bricks was the same as Japan’s yellow tiles… to help travelers arrive at their intended destination without incident.

Most of us do not need yellow tiles to aid us in our daily travels, but in a spiritual sense, we are all visually impaired. It is certainly a good thing to be aware of the physical handicaps of others and take measures to assist them, but more importantly, we must acknowledge our own blindness to the things of God that can potentially lead us down paths of destruction. From the Bible, we know that the nation of Israel had turned its back on God and in its blindness, fell into sinful thinking and behavior that invited the wrath of God. But thankfully, God also cares for the spiritually impaired and took extreme measures to assist them… He sent His Only Son Jesus, to die on a cross, in order to save them and us from eternal destruction. In this manner God “will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths…” (Isaiah 42:16a). God Himself became our “yellow brick road” to deliver us from harm. An eternal city awaits those who travel upon it.

Hikikomori

He will cover you with his feathers and under his wings you will find refuge;”             Psalm 91:4a

Hikikomori

Ichiro Takahashi* has not gone to school, held a job, met a stranger or left his house for over three years. He is one of a growing segment of modern day hermits known in Japan as “hikikomori.” This unusual phenomenon was first identified by Dr. Tamaki Saito in the 1990s when a number of parents whose children had dropped out of school and had gradually withdrawn from the world, sought his professional help. Observing this pattern, Dr. Saito coined the term “hikikomori” (引きこもり) to describe these individuals, which means literally, “pulling inward.”

Recent surveys of the Japanese population estimate that over half a million people can be classified as hikikomori, with the vast majority of them male and their average age is 31. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry now defines hikikomori as an individual who has remained isolated at home for at least six consecutive months without going to school or work and rarely interacts with people outside of their immediate family. Sociologists and psychologists point to a number of contributing factors that lead people to this withdrawn lifestyle. For some, it is the pressure to perform in school; for others, the demand to conform to various societal expectations. Overprotective parenting, particularly by the mother, often compounds the problem and serves to facilitate such behavior. An academic or social failure may be the initial trigger that causes many hikikomori to stray from conventional social circles. They then find it difficult to return to the path of normal life interactions. Many of these self-imposed isolationists may suffer from anxiety, depression, internet addiction or exhibit OCD tendencies that further complicate efforts to assist them.

Concerned about this growing trend, the Japanese government is taking measures to identify the scope of the problem and provide effective solutions. However, reversing such a widespread and deeply complicated sociological shift is proving to be no easy matter. With a steadily declining population, and fewer and fewer able bodies available for the work force, Japan desperately needs young men like Ichiro Takahashi to reengage with life and become contributing members of society. Research also reveals that there are countless more individuals who are not identified as true hikikomori, but are barely coping with routine social demands and are thus described as “functional” hikikomori.

The hikikomori phenomenon is now extending beyond Japan to other countries and is manifesting itself in an array of behavioral patterns rooted in a variety of coping mechanisms. In many ways, the hikikomori represent the extreme end of a social spectrum where we all reside, but in varying increments. All of us are looking for security and safety in some form in a world where the rules are constantly changing and we feel like victims to things beyond our control. Most of us press on in life, despite these threats that can potentially unsettle us, but our conformity to normalcy doesn’t eradicate our longing for sanctuary in the midst of pain and chaos. Therefore, it is essential to recall that God does offer refuge to anyone who turns to Him, like the beautiful analogy where a mother hen shelters her chicks under her wings. While our natural response to the difficulties in life may be to “pull inward” like the hikikomori, we are invited to lean into God. There is no safer place.

*Fictitious name

Karaoke

“But let all who take refuge in you be glad; let them ever sing for joy.”  Psalm 5:11a

Karaoke

The distinguished members of the local Japanese Rotary Club had just finished their sumptuous meal which would shortly be followed by a mild case of indigestion. The source of their discomfort that evening was not what they ate, but was actually on stage holding a microphone doing a poor Elvis impersonation. The culprit was me, and that was my introduction to karaoke. As the token foreign guest for the occasion, I was obliged to “honor” the assembled members with a song. In a state of sheer terror, I chose to sing “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” by the King of Rock himself, since it was the only song in English on the provided playlist. As an impromptu romantic gesture, I also dedicated the song to my lovely wife, who, understandably, was desperately looking for a place to hide!

Karaoke (カラオケ) is now a world-wide phenomenon, and the correct pronunciation is not “keh-ree-oh-kee,” as it is widely used in the West, but is instead, “kah-rah-oh-keh.” Karaoke is actually a blend of two words — kara (meaning “empty”) and oke (which is an abbreviation for “orchestra”). Taken together, karaoke means literally “empty orchestra,” or music that is missing the lead melody and vocals. That melody is provided by an amateur vocalist who sings along with a microphone to the recorded instrumental music following the lyrics provided on a video screen.

Daisuke Inoue, a Japanese musician, is generally credited with inventing karaoke in 1971 when he developed the equipment that helped launch its huge popularity. As a result, venues advertising “karaoke boxes” are now quite common throughout Japan. These are basically soundproofed private rooms rented by the hour that come equipped with karaoke machines, comfortable lounge furniture and refreshments available to order.

For many Japanese, karaoke is a great means to relief stress and enjoy relatively inexpensive fun with friends. We witnessed the unusual power of karaoke years later while doing relief work. We had gathered a number of people displaced by the huge tsunami that struck portions of Japan and facilitated an event centered on karaoke. Not wanting to destroy the ambiance of another public gathering with my vocal skills, I gladly refrained from joining the many performers. Instead, my wife and I enjoyed our front row seats to a magical evening of observing those who had lost so much, coming together as a community for a few moments of frivolity and much needed healing.

That event was a vivid reminder that we are designed by our Creator to sing. Music offers a unique opportunity to express deep feelings and thoughts that, in turn, can bring joy and healing to the participant. Heaven is described as a place where music abounds, but the focal point there is on God Himself as everyone offers up praise to Him. While our participation in such heavenly choirs still awaits us, we are encouraged to recall the greatness, mercies and deeds of God and express them in song while we linger here on earth. Instruments and skilled musicians can certainly help facilitate such singing, much like a karaoke machine, but the joy such music brings comes not through our expertise, but from a thankful heart. The Bible calls this worship and this is the kind of singing that brings delight to God (John 4:21-24).

God Spoke

“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…”  Hebrews 1:1-2a

Emperor Hirohito

On Aug. 15, 1945 a “god” spoke. When Emperor Hirohito of Japan directly addressed his subjects for the very first time, life came to a temporary standstill around the world. Hirohito’s announcement of Japan’s unconditional surrender not only ended a war and brought peace, it ended the myth that the emperor of Japan was divine. He spoke and the world changed.

Because of this historical event, much changed in Japan as well. A new constitution was adopted and war was renounced. Democratic ideas took root in Japan and the emperor was reduced to a figurehead.  Japanese industries flourished and a new middle class rapidly emerged, resulting in a booming economy. The phrase “Made in Japan” stamped on manufactured goods was no longer derided as symbol of cheapness or inferiority, but esteemed as a mark of quality and success. Expensive vacations, quality education, designer clothes and the latest electronic gadgets could be purchased by the masses and it seemed the lone threat to a peaceful, prosperous society was the legendary Godzilla!

Certainly much changed after the emperor spoke, but in some regards nothing changed. The gods of war had only been replaced by the gods of materialism. At the same time, the traditional gods of Japan were still venerated through worship at Shinto god shelves or Buddhist altars in homes throughout the country. Japanese still made periodic pilgrimages to the local shrines or temples for various life events and relied on good luck charms for success and protection. An occasional church could be found in obscure corners of Japan, but temples and shrines remained the symbol of the country and retain a strong grip on Japanese hearts. Everything has changed and yet nothing has changed.

However, according to the Book of Genesis, everything changed when the God of the Universe spoke and the world as we know it came into being. The sun, moon, stars, oceans, dry land, vegetation, life and mankind itself were created by the mere voice and directive of God. But God didn’t stop there. He continued to speak to the hearts of men, as the author of Hebrews explains, calling them to repentance and into a relationship with Himself. This God who speaks ultimately provided eternal reconciliation to mankind, not through superior weapons of war and powerful armies, but through the death of His Son. This ultimate act of love and sacrifice brought eternal change to the world. Through the cross, God offered peace, not just between men, but more importantly, between God and man. The Living God has spoken, and hopefully, people in Japan and around the world will listen.

Traffic Mirrors

“’For I know the plans I have for you. ‘declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”                        Jeremiah 29:11

Curved Mirror

The urban sprawl of Tokyo has grown slowly over the centuries on top of an ancient network of roads, hilly terrain and even encompasses over a hundred river and canal arteries. Many of Tokyo’s streets were originally little more than footpaths and presently bear more resemblance to a wide sidewalk or an alley rather than a conventional thoroughfare. These minor roads snake through residential areas and many of them are reduced to a single lane, allowing passage for only one car at a time. On top of this, they are generally fraught with numerous curves, severely limiting vision of what lies ahead. This makes navigation quite challenging and even dangerous at times as drivers can’t anticipate oncoming cars, bicyclists and pedestrians.

Because of these difficult conditions, Japanese traffic engineers have developed and implemented an ingenious, yet simple device to help facilitate safety. It is called a “kābu mirā “(カーブミラー), which is basically a large convex (curved) mirror mounted at the top of a pole. These special mirrors enable drivers to literally see around the blind corner or sharp bends in the road to determine if it is safe to proceed. We relied on these mirrors daily when bicycling or driving to the office from our home and I’m sure they prevented countless accidents for us and many others.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of such mirrors to help us navigate the inevitable unknowns of life. There are no kābu mirā that reveal the coming of major health problems, employment setbacks, relationship breakdowns, financial challenges or natural disasters such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, our lives often seem to be unpredictable, chaotic and without purpose as we feel victimized by one crisis after another.

But this is not what the Bible teaches. The God who created life is depicted time and time again as the same God who knows, sustains and directs our lives and the affairs of this world (Psalm 139:1-18). God reassures His own people of this truth while they were living in exile in a foreign land as a result of their disobedience. “’For I know the plans I have for you. ‘declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”  This verse is not a promise that all their problems will immediately disappear, but rather, an offering of hope in the midst of despair. That hope is not placed in the possibility of coveted changed circumstances, but instead, in the very person of God. A God who loves us. A God who will do what is best for us. A God who reigns above the forces of evil and calamities that sometimes seem to dominate this world.

God has a plan for the nations and He has a plan for us. That plan is good. But saints of old were only provided glimpses and hints of how those plans would unfold. Like us, they could not see beyond the curve in the road, so they just continued to drive forward in faith. Fears of turmoil, dire consequences and impending economic collapse currently dominate the news cycles and social media, but as people of faith, our well-being and future are not dependent on the affairs of this world. Therefore, we would do well to emulate the Psalmist and pray in this way: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24) If God is visible in your kābu mirā, that is all you need.

Unseen Danger

“For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world,”                                      Ephesians 6:12a (NLT)

radiation monitor

A shroud of silence hung eerily over deserted streets, homes, businesses, schoolyards and other public places that once bustled with activity. Outside of a few lonely security guards wearing protective clothing, there were no normal signs of life. No people, no pets, no stirring. Wherever we looked, nature appeared to be taking over each vacant town as greenery and wildlife seemed to be flourishing unchecked by human interference. It was as if all human life had been squeezed out of the area by an invisible, deadly force. Temporary gates now barred entrances to every street and driveway.

Entering the vicinity, we passed massive dumps filled with radioactive waste and radiation monitors posted along the road flashed cryptic numbers warning us of unseen dangers. We were driving through the Fukushima radiation exclusion zone that had once been the thriving home of 150,000 inhabitants. They had been suddenly forced to flee following the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011 and the resultant tsunami that compromised the local nuclear plants.

The radiation exclusion zone was initially off limits to everyone, but several years later, it was now possible to drive through portions of the formerly forbidden region. With the passing of additional time, residents were eventually allowed to return to designated areas that were declared safe for human habitation. As part of a massive decontamination effort, a literal army of government workers had laboriously scrubbed down the more effected areas of those previously deserted towns and even removed thousands of tons of radioactive topsoil and vegetation. The nuclear reactors were also decommissioned and together, the resultant cleanup attempts had served to lower some of the radiation markers. However, despite these large scale endeavors, the majority of the local residents were understandably hesitant to return to their homes and businesses. To lure them back, the government had rebuilt or reopened schools, shopping areas, sports centers, hospitals, housing complexes and offered additional financial incentives. But the scars on both the land and in people’s hearts still stubbornly remained; such wounds will likely take decades to fully heal.

Now, around the world and a couple of years later, silent city streets, daily news postings of COVID-19 related deaths and accompanying fears have an uncanny similarity to that unique experience in Fukushima. Interestingly enough, on that day when we drove through those modern Japanese ghost towns, my thoughts were drawn to other unseen dangers besides the flashing numbers on the radiation monitors. Since we live in a physical world, it is natural to become preoccupied with matters of physical safety. However, the Apostle Paul warned the Ephesian Christians (Ephesians 6:12) that ever present dangers of a different nature were potentially far more lethal. These dangers are the radioactive seeds of pride, selfishness, anger, apathy, strife, slander, lust and greed that are sown unseen by the Evil One himself, silently destroying healthy lives and communities. This form of pandemic can be far more destructive than any physical terror we might have to face in the present or in days to come. Fortunately, God has graciously provided His Word, His Spirit and His people to serve as warning monitors to assist us as we travel through life facing seen and unseen perils. Our safety and well-being are, thankfully, in His hands, but we must give heed to the warnings posted for our protection.

Shinto Blessings

“From the Lord comes deliverance. May your blessing be on your people.”  Psalm 3:8

shinto blessing2

While sitting in the office of the local Shinto priest, my gaze fixed upon a placard on the wall which advertised (in Japanese) set charges for services rendered:

  • ¥10,000 for a car blessing
  • ¥5,000 for a school entrance exam blessing
  • ¥10,000 for a baby blessing
  • ¥15,000 for a new home blessing
  • ¥10,000 for a marriage blessing

The whole concept stunned me on many levels and several questions came to mind as I chatted with my gracious host in a very unfamiliar setting. “How can mere mortal men place themselves in the position of dispensing blessings on behalf of the gods?” was something I asked myself. I did my best to politely nibble around the edges of this concept as I conversed with the Shinto priest. He explained, according to the Shinto religion, that nearly all objects, including both animate and inanimate, possess a spiritual essence known as kami (神). These kami are everywhere, but they are not regarded as omnipotent, omniscient, or even immortal. The term “Shinto” (神道) means literally “way of the kami” and they reportedly number over eight million. These spirits are duly venerated across Japan at various public shrines and private god shelves. It is believed by many adherents that kami have the power to dispense blessing on their devotees through rituals, good luck charms and designated intermediaries such as the priests.

As I sat in the office of the local priest, other questions continued to fill my mind such as: “How can one charge money for a blessing?” From my perspective, such a practice seemed to reduce religion to a mere business transaction. This thought led naturally to another related question, which was, “Why would people actually participate in such obvious duplicity?” Perhaps the explanation to this conundrum resides in the standard practice of Shinto religious ceremonial procedures, where devotees have a sense that they cannot approach the kami with a request without some form of ritual purification to remedy their unclean state. This rite of purification is called harae (祓) and it usually begins with a symbolic washing using water near the shrine entrance. The next phase in absolution is conveniently performed by the priest (for a fee!), who rhythmically waves a large paper shaker called an ōnusa (also referred to as a haraegushi) over the object or person to be purified and blessed. Only after these procedures are performed can one approach the kami and hope to have their request granted.

Lying at the heart of the many intricate rituals of Shintoism is the basic human desire to be blessed by something or someone greater than one’s self. We want a healthy baby, success on a test, protection from infectious diseases, safety on the road, a good paying job, and a happy marriage, but such objectives often elude us because they lie beyond our control. Therefore, we are tempted to turn to a higher power to obtain them. Fortunately for us, there is a Higher Power who graciously dispenses such blessings on His people (Psalm 3:8) despite our unclean condition. We are beckoned to approach this God to request such favors, not because of our worthiness or the intercession of others, but because of the forgiveness provided through the cross by His Only Son. No fee is charged; God has paid it all. A few years later, this same priest reached the same conclusion and turned to Jesus for eternal absolution.

Counting Bowls

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12

wanko soba

Iwate Prefecture has many cultural distinctives and I happened to witness one first hand while eating my lunch and waiting to board a bullet train bound for Tokyo. I silently watched as a waitress in the restaurant hovered over one particular customer who was rapidly slamming down bowls of buckwheat soba noodles in front of him as fast as he could consume them. This bizarre scene continued for a period of time with the bowls stacking up until the man eventually halted his eating frenzy by placing a lid on his final bowl as an obvious indication of surrender.

I later learned that this unique custom is called “wanko soba” where wanko means “bowl” and soba is the Japanese word for buckwheat noodles. At a recent eating competition, the winner consumed 383 bowls of noodles in ten minutes. Apparently many people who visit Iwate are eager to experience the wanko soba challenge and even leave with a certificate verifying how many bowls they ate as a souvenir of their unique experience. While the whole scene was rather entertaining, I was not tempted to participate, but rather, quietly ate my own lunch of noodles at an unhurried pace before proceeding on my journey without indigestion.

No one is quite sure of the origin of this unusual custom, although several theories abound. Probably one of the most common is that of a powerful lord whom locals were suddenly asked to entertain when he passed through their territory. Embarrassed that their local cuisine was not up to their special guest’s usual standards, they served the nobleman just a small portion of their common fare of noodles in addition to other standard dishes. To their surprise, he demanded more noodles so they kept providing additional servings in small bowls until he was finally satisfied.

We don’t know if this particular account is historically accurate, but at least it is an entertaining explanation of why the locals count bowls of consumed noodles. Of course, it is human nature to keep track of things by counting them, but it is important to remember that God has a different perspective, and therefore a different way of counting or evaluating things in certain circumstances. For example, we are told that with God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day (II Pet. 3:8). He is also the Good Shepherd who zealously searches for the one lost sheep (Luke 15:4) while our focus would more likely be on the remaining ninety-nine. God identifies trillions of stars by name and unerringly knows the number of hairs on our head and the grains of sand on every seashore. Yet, not even a sparrow falling to the ground escapes His notice (Matt. 10:29). God can amazingly see the vast whole and the intricate details of the most seemingly insignificant matter all in one glance without the constraints of time and space.

It is critical to bear such truths in mind when newscasters announce the latest numbers of COVID-19 cases. At the same time, we anxiously track the economic plunge of our hard-earned investments while worriedly taking note of our dwindling supply of goods needed for daily life. We are by nature prone to panic and anxiety about matters beyond our control, but God’s peace and provision in the midst of such extreme circumstances comes as we learn to lean into Him. We certainly need to count, but we would be wise to do so with a heavenly perspective. Like Moses, we should pray: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12) Rather than counting bowls, we are called to count each day for eternity and trust the God who knows the very hairs on our head and loves each of us as the one lost sheep.