150 years ago today, after following the call of God to China, James Hudson Taylor founded what would eventually become the Overseas Mission Fellowship. Because he could not bear the thought that millions of people had never heard the Good News about Jesus Christ, he could no longer stay in his comfortable church in England. Someone had to go. The birth of the China Inland Mission and the tireless efforts of Hudson Taylor sparked a modern mission movement that would change history.
The Great Commission is not an option to be considered; it is a command to be obeyed.
(J. Hudson Taylor)
A little over 28 years ago, I visited Japan for the first time. My initial reason was to see a certain individual Japanese girl who was to become my wife. The call to give my life as a full-time missionary to Japan was more gradual, but sure. About 22 years ago I moved my young family here to Japan permanently because I could no longer stay in my comfortable church in the U.S.A.
Each month, week, and day that goes by brings more conviction from the Holy Spirit that the most important thing I could ever do with my life is to obey the Great Commission and preach the Good News to those who have not understood it.
Some of my greatest living heroes are the missionaries who honor God by following in Hudson Taylor’s footsteps. They go and make disciples in nations that have not yet heard.
On this 150th anniversary of the China Inland Mission and OMF, I pray for a great harvest of souls in Japan and that many millions here will find saving grace and life in Christ. I pray that the hopeless will be lifted out of an empty existence and into a life filled with eternal purpose. I pray that many young Japanese people will hear the same whisper of the Holy Spirit that moved Hudson Taylor to go. That they will hear the same whisper of the Holy Spirit that missionaries, apostles, church-planters, and disciples have heard for over 2000 years now, to go into all the world and make disciples – in Japan, in Asia and everywhere.
“God isn’t looking for people of great faith, but for individuals ready to follow Him.”
(J. Hudson Taylor)
GOODBYE VISUAL BASIC, GOODBYE
Today I finally said goodbye to Visual Basic. I made a decision to throw out hundreds of DVDs containing software worth thousands of dollars. For years, I received two complete Microsoft Developer Network subscriptions, one from Microsoft Japan and one from Microsoft U.S.A. I have finally decided that I will never need to install or use this again, even though it was a big part of my life for so long. The software, programming books, computer hardware and other perks, came to me because of my work with the Visual Basic programming language. VB allowed me to create some pretty good software and I really loved it. I used VB from version 3 through version 6 and I would probably still be using it today if I had the choice. Unfortunately, Microsoft made a very misguided attempt to re-invent the language starting in about 2001 and decided to change it into something totally different.
MY LIFE IN A JAPANESE COMPANY
In 1994 I joined a high-tech Japanese company in Yokohama, Japan and so I moved from a hobbyist in the BBS world, using command line FTP clients and dial-up modems, to a professional developer with access to multiple T1 connections, cutting edge hardware and a whole new internet protocol called http using “browsers” like Cello and then Mosaic. The world was getting smaller and that was fine with me. Being an American living in Japan, I really loved the fact that I could communicate with anyone, anywhere for free over the internet. It was sort of like short-wave radio, only so much better, and there was a whole world of servers and new technology to explore.
In the early 90s the smartphone had not been invented yet. Internet giants like Yahoo, Google and Facebook had not yet appeared. Killer applications like Wikipedia and GMail were yet to be invented. Videochat was a new and exciting emerging technology. In 1995 I was assigned to the Multimedia Product Development Division in my company and became part of the team that ported Cornell University’s iconic CUSeeMe software to Windows and to Japanese. We ran the official “reflector” servers for CUSeeMe in Japan and we hoped to sell lots of hardware webcams to the growing market of computer users in Japan. Eventually, it was decided that my company would try writing original software that made use of video so we could bundle that with our hardware inexpensively.
I had been trained on programming languages such as ASM, C, and then C++. There were new languages popping up like Java that held great promise. But when I was assigned to write new software for Windows 3.1, I decided to try Visual Basic 3.0. I wrote a screensaver to learn the basics. Then I wrote an app to control playback of Video CD discs on Windows. Because there was a great community of developers on BBSs (especially CompuServe) who then migrating to the nntp (especially the Usenet) and eventually on to http websites, it was a great time to be learning about computers, programming and the internet. I learned from the VB masters like Dan Appleman, Matthew Curland, Karl Peterson, and the whole CCRP gang.
BECOMING A MICROSOFT MAN
Eventually, I was put in charge of a team that was developing an original videochat application software for Japan. By this time I was using VB4 and the big change from 16-bit Windows 3.1 to 32-bit Windows NT was happening. I spent about 12 hours a day working in Visual Basic and understanding the internals of 32-bit Windows and the way video-capture and video playback happens. By the time we finished the video software I was somewhat of an expert on using the the Win32 API and the Visual Basic programming language. The internet community had trained me and I felt it was only right to give back so I spent a lot of time helping to teach other aspiring VB programmers on the Usenet. I was awarded Most Valuable Professional status by Microsoft the first time in 1999, and being a VB programmer felt good. It seemed like computers and the internet were still young, the possibilities were endless, and I had a great tool to explore everything the Windows OS was capable of.
By now, I was a loyal VB programmer and I was loyal to Microsoft and MS Windows. In my spare time I released some free software tools written in VB. I even made some money on the side by taking contract programming jobs for custom sports and medical applications that used video capture. I continued to be awarded Most Valuable Professional status by Microsoft for five years.
VB4 was better than VB3. VB5 was a LOT better still. VB6 was another improvement. I was making good money with my knowledge of Visual Basic programming. I assumed that things would just keep rolling and getting better. Microsoft was sending me goodies every month, software and hardware – even perks like buying items in the Microsoft employee store.
When MS released a “Multimedia Jumpstart CD” for their new Windows NT Operating System, they included my software on it as an example to multimedia programmers. They even invited me to Redmond to talk about how I had done the video capture and compression and video overlay all in Visual Basic using functions already built-in to Windows NT. And then came the big surprise.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
I think it was in 2001 that Microsoft invited me and all the Visual Basic MVPs to Redmond and had a big event to announce VB.NET. The project manager for the new version of Visual Basic, tried to sell us on the new features of VB.NET but we soon realized that it had already been decided that VB as we knew it was going to die. I had the sinking realization that all of my old code and all of my expertise as a VB programmer was going to be thrown out by Microsoft just because they were afraid of the growing popularity Java (and indirectly Linux and also Google). Instead of letting VB be what had made it so popular they tried to leverage the popularity of the name and developer-base to sell their gamble on a totally new concept. The .NET team seemed driven by a vision of .NET becoming some kind of meta-OS that could take over and be ported to run on any Operating System. I got the feeling that they truly felt that all VB programmers would see how wonderful it was that they were going to change the language and even the purpose of the language. They simply felt that classic VB was holding back progress. I’m sure they sincerely believed that Java would take over if they didn’t sacrifice the Windows-centric API and COM based VB Classic and move as quickly as possible to some amazing miracle product. Now, over a decade later, it is pretty obvious that this was a mistake.
Visual Basic was one of the top 3 most popular programming languages in the world in the 90s and that is pretty astonishing given that it was a Windows-only language. Each version of VB increased in popularity until the age of VB.NET. Google Trends doesn’t go back to the 90s but look what happened in the 00s…
Even this year, articles are being published and petitions are being submitted for Microsoft to bring back “Classic Visual Basic”, or at least to open source the code so that the developer community can own it and bring it into the 21st century. But I have resigned myself to the fact that VB is dead. Microsoft will not bring back their best Windows programming language and I will not try to learn their new ones. I already hear rumors that VB.NET will be discontinued because it is similar to (and not as popular as) C#…
Two years ago my daughter, Alishea, who grew up mostly in Japan and went to school mostly at home, ventured into the wide world for the first time. She flew to Portland, Oregon to attend college and study music and the Bible. Since she needed to get a job and had never worked in the United States, I advised her to pray about it. It wasn’t too long before I got a nice phone call from her. She had gone into a sushi restaurant to find work and the owner had been praying for a Christian to come work for him. His daughter’s name was Alicia (same name, different spelling). In short, both my daughter and this man knew that God’s hand was in the situation. He hired her and she thrived there as the only Japanese employee in the Korean-owned establishment. These are the kinds of stories we love to hear.
Alishea has worked at this restaurant for two years and has been able to pay for her education. She always spoke well of her boss and loved her job. When I visited her last summer he gave me the VIP treatment and he fed me all the best food. When Alishea came home for the summer last month he said, “Take your family out to eat on me.” That is just the kind of man he is.
I thank God that He blessed her and guided her to that place. I know that God is in control and I also know that He is good. That’s why it is so hard when tragedy strikes for no apparent reason, in someone’s life – even someone who also believes that God is good and God is in control. These are the kinds of stories we hate to hear.
This morning a church member here in Japan posted a link to a news article about the shooting at Seattle Pacific University. She asked for prayer because her son is attending school there and we soon got word that he is safe and was not injured. We were all very glad that Alishea’s friend, Jeremy, was OK. But later when she walked by the computer as we were viewing a news article about the event she she suddenly pointed at the picture on the screen and exclaimed, “Oh no! That is Paul!”
Satomi and I were shocked to find out that Paul Lee, the 19 year old Christian student who was shot and killed yesterday, is the son of the owner of the sushi restaurant in Portland that Alishea has worked at for the past two years. She has become so close to this family and knew the young man personally. Because of this it has hit us hard that sometimes we just don’t know the reason why. Why would our Good God let tragedy strike this family? I just don’t know. Why would someone senselessly take a life? I don’t know the answer to this question either. I do believe that Paul knows the answers now.
Please pray for Paul’s family, they are the ones left behind who will be struggling with this question and struggling to forgive and release this into our Good Lord’s hands until the day that they finally join Paul in eternity. I am praying for Paul’s dad Peter, his mom Mira, and his sister Alicia. Won’t you join me?
NOTE: This is an updated version of my article originally published in the Winter 2014 edition of Japan Harvest, the magazine of the Japanese Evangelical Missionary Association. I am no expert, but then again most Japanese people are not Shinto experts either and this is just an attempt to understand and reach the amazing and wonderful people of Japan.
IN JAPAN, children grow up hearing ghost stories and attending festivals to honor a world of thousands of kami (spirits), which interacts freely with our own natural world. This mindset is part of everyday culture. So it’s normal for sophisticated and materialistic Japanese adults to say they have no religion, and yet buy omamori (good luck idols) for protection over their car. It’s part of the ordinary process of building to have the land blessed by a Shinto priest before construction begins. It is considered safer to do this to avoid upsetting any spirits who just might be disturbed by the use of the land. How can we effectively reach into a very modern, but obviously Shinto-influenced worldview like this, and become an effective bridge for the Gospel? One of the challenges in reaching any people is to understand them. In this article I will present an overview of Shinto’s influence on the Japan and her people. My goal is to give context to the things in Japanese culture and society that might be puzzling to someone who did not grow up in a Shinto-based culture.
HISTORY OF SHINTO
With origins dating to 500 A.D. and earlier, matsuri (festival worship) and other Shinto practices began as ritual worship of the ujigami, or local clan deity in each area and village. They sprang from a type of shamanism unique to these medieval agricultural communities. Over the centuries ancient Shinto was influenced by and syncretized with Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and other elements from continental East Asia.
SHINTO IN MODERN JAPAN
Many aspects of syncretized Shinto worship practices are common in modern Japan. They are as ubiquitous as the stone idols one sees scattered throughout every town. Surprisingly, most Japanese people do not associate these things with religion at all. Engage a typical Japanese city dweller in conversation about their participation in ceremonies, and worship of idols in shrines, temples, or the family kamidana (household altar) and it will soon become clear that these are seen as essential cultural duties and not as religious. Shinto worship practices are widely seen as traditions that must be followed to honor family and country.
Even “churched” Japanese are not free from the strong cultural influence of Shinto. Earlier this year a Japanese man came to my office asking for donations for a local matsuri (festival). After a brief conversation I discovered that he attends a Protestant church. I asked him why he was raising funds for the mikoshi (portable shrine for carrying a local idol) when the Bible explicitly forbids worshiping idols. His answer was that it was Japanese culture to do so. I continued to press him, explaining my hope that Japanese culture might someday be transformed so that festivals would be held to honor the true Creator God rather than idols, but he didn’t seem to grasp this idea at all. He left a bit disappointed that I would not give an offering, but undaunted in his efforts to raise money for the local matsuri.
THE FOUR AFFIRMATIONS OF SHINTO
Although Shinto has never been codified in the way that Christianity has, there are four affirmations that seem to be generally agreed upon  and it’s good to consider how the Bible helps us to respond to each.
Family and tradition
Tradition and family are supremely important in Shinto practice. This is often expressed through ancestor worship and even “tradition-worship”. Of course family is important to God. The Bible teaches us to honor our parents and to give importance to the family, but in Luke 14:26 Jesus clearly set honoring the Lord above all other relationships, even familial ones. I have found that the best way to approach Japanese culture regarding familial relationships is to emphasize that sincerely obeying God is the best way to honor and be a blessing to one’s family, even if it means going against Shinto traditions in some ways.
Another affirmation of Shinto is matsuri to honor local deities or ancestral spirits. Almost every shrine in Japan has its own matsuri, originally held to influence things like the harvest or the local fishing. Christians believe all humans were created to worship and enjoy their creator and the beauty of dance, art, music, ceremony and ritual should all be purposed to honor and thank the true God and true source of blessings. As missionaries and ambassadors of our faith we need to identify and affirm the beauty and harmony in Japanese traditions that can serve to honor God, and at the same time clearly explain why animistic and pantheistic practices are contrary to God’s will. Our human artistic expression echoes the ultimate beauty in Christ, which is what the Japanese heart is really searching for.
Love of nature
Shrine festival worship ties in with the third affirmation of Shinto, which is a love of nature. Scripture tells us that all of creation bears witness to the sovereign power of the Creator. But the Shinto affirmation of nature elevates nature to the point that each unusual rock or tree is given the status of a minor deity. Hence the Japanese saying, there are over eight million gods (yaoyorozu no kami).
Because this spiritual error is deeply ingrained in the Japanese worldview, gospel teachers must clearly preach the words of Christ, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). Without a clear understanding of this Japanese people may believe that Jesus Christ is another one of many gods, but miss that he is the one and only Creator God. Jesus came to affirm the true intended order of the creation by revealing Himself at the pinnacle. If other good things, such as family or nature are elevate above Jesus Christ, they become idols. In essence, the good becomes the enemy of the best. This truth about the ultimate authority of Christ will resound with the strong desire in the Japanese heart for harmony and proper order, if they can only see it. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17 NASB).
The final affirmation of Shinto is physical cleanliness. Taking baths, washing the hands, and rinsing out the mouth are all encouraged because of Shinto’s emphasis on ritual purity. In the past, believers practiced misogi, ritual bathing in a river near the shrine. In recent years it is more common to merely to wash hands and rinse out the mouth in a washbasin provided within the shrine grounds. Because Jesus came to make us truly clean, there are many ways we can use this affirmation as a “redemptive analogy” for the Gospel. Imagine the impact of a sermon that contrasted ritual Shinto washing in water with Ephesians 5:26 (“washing with water through the word” NASB), or 1 Corinthians 6:11b (“you were washed… in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” NASB).
Water baptism is a big step in a new Japanese believer’s life. Although in some ways it appears similar to Shinto ritual purification rites, the Bible is clear that it represents more than just “washing” but rather a symbolic death and resurrection. Of course baptism also means a public confession of identity as a Christian and to many new believers this is a weighty decision. Because rituals are important in Japanese culture; water baptism strongly brings home the reality of a believer’s commitment to follow Jesus as Lord.
Taking the time to understand and prayerfully consider some of the influences of Shinto on Japanese culture can be very beneficial to a Christian who would like to share the Gospel in Japan. This article originally came from a paper I wrote called The Theology of Shinto. If you are interested, you can read the original paper at:
If you have read this far, would you take a moment and pray for Japan? I have focused on Shinto in this article but that is just one aspect of this amazing nation. I have lived in Japan for more than 20 years but I still learn things about the culture every day. I would love to hear your thoughts about Japan in the comments section below.
 Dr. David K. Clark, Shinto, A religion profile from International Students, Inc., (Colorado Springs, CO: ISI, 2004), [book on-line] available at http://www.isionline.org/pdfs/Shinto%202004.pdf, Internet, accessed November, 2013.
 For example notice the following paragraph in the “About” section of The International Shinto Foundation official website – “Those involved in establishing the Foundation shared the belief that without study that takes account of Shinto a true understanding of the Japanese people and Japanese culture will remain inaccessible.”, [website] available at http://www.internationalshinto.org/, Internet, accessed November, 2013.
 The definitions of the “Four Affirmations” are a generalization but can generally be observed in Shinto practices and literature. See The Japan Reference, [database on-line] available at http://www.jref.com/glossary/shinto_traditions.shtml, Internet, accessed November, 2013. Also see the website for the book Religion for Dummies, Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002, [website] available at http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/four-affirmations-of-shinto.html, Internet, accessed November, 2013.
This year marks our 20th Christmas in Japan since we were sent out from City Bible Church in Portland, Oregon as missionaries in 1993. I led my three year-old son James, and my wife Satomi, who was six months pregnant with our daughter Alishea, back to her home town near Nagoya and we started a journey of faith.
In all these years God has been faithful to us. When we recognize our dependence on him and submit humbly to follow him wherever he leads, it opens the door to his blessings in our life. God’s will for us is always to bless us and never to harm us. When He sent his angel to a young Mary and then to young Joseph in a dream, they humbly obeyed and through that God brought the greatest blessing in history – the birth of Jesus Christ.
We are so blessed to be sent as missionaries and now to be supported by wonderful people who give sacrificially as the Holy Spirit leads them. Thank you for partnering with us as we endeavor to do our assignment in fulfilling the Great Commission by reaching Japan with the good news of Jesus Christ. 2014 will mark the 7th anniversary of Yokosuka Grace Bible Church. We believe this will be a year of blessing and growth for the church here and we pray that the blessing of God will overtake you and prosper you and yours in the coming year.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Mercer family!
|Ray Mercer Pastor, Yokosuka Grace Bible Church
You can give online to help our ministry here:
This week Google rolled out a new feature to Gmail. Most email clients, including Gmail, set show images from sender automatically off to protect the user from being tracked by spammers. Since Google runs the largest email system in the world and their informal corporate motto is “Don’t be evil,” they can expect some scrutiny when they change how things have normally been done. The new Gmail client has changed this setting to on by default. Some say that Google has found a way to protect us from being tracked and the new setting is good. But others disagree. I have read conflicting articles about it in Wired and elsewhere on the ‘Net. Is Gmail’s new show images by default a good thing or not? Is Google “Blowing up email marketers by caching images now” or not? In fact, this new Gmail roll-out contains a little good and a little bad. Let me explain.
First, take a look at what Google has actually done under the hood of Gmail. To see what I am talking about go to your Gmail settings and look at the general options tab here:
If you click “Learn More” you will be presented with the official description of the new functionality in Gmail. Notice this part of the text
Gmail serves all images through Google’s image proxy servers and transcodes them before delivery to protect you in the following ways:
- Senders can’t use image loading to get information like your IP address or location.
- Senders can’t set or read cookies in your browser.
- Gmail checks your images for known viruses or malware.
In some cases, senders may be able to know whether an individual has opened a message with unique image links. As always, Gmail scans every message for suspicious content and if Gmail considers a sender or message potentially suspicious, images won’t be displayed and you’ll be asked whether you want to see the images.
In the first section above we read that Google is protecting us from marketers having certain identifying information about our computer or our browsing habits (through IP address or cookies) and as always Gmail is great at protecting us from malware and viruses. I applaud Google for these things and I seriously love Gmail. It is the best tool I have ever used to battle the rivers of spam that flow daily and safely communicate with the world.
Unfortunately there is another section below that. Notice these words, “In some cases, senders may be able to know whether an individual has opened a message with unique image links.” Look, I will be honest. I don’t want people to know when I listen to messages on on my telephone answering machine. After all, I might want to use it to screen calls. For basically the same reason, I don’t think it is “a good thing” if those who send me an email know – without my consent – the exact moment when I read that mail.
After reading their official explanation it dawned on me what their real motivation is. Google wants to be the one who decides who can track me and who cannot because they can then charge for that privilege! Just think of how much Mailchimp and others will be willing to pay so that Google doesn’t consider them “potentially suspiscious.” Yes, think about it – one of the biggest Email clients has gone to showing images by default and now Google has the power to filter which services can track mail with those images and which services cannot – through their own proxies. They have just quietly set themselves up as the gateway for email marketing for a large percentage of the market and they don’t even have to compete.
So for those who, like me, want to make that decision for themselves I recommend turning off “show pictures by default” and using Gmail as a useful tool under your control rather than the other way around.