I have been thinking a lot lately about my time as a missionary in Japan long ago. I am not sure exactly why. My memories of that time are hazy, but lately one of my missionary friends has been posting pictures of those days. So that might be the reason. Or it might be that as a Minnesotan living and pastoring in Texas, I feel some sort of culture shock again. I am remembering what it was like to be a missionary. What was it like being a missionary? How is it like or not like being a pastor in a new place?
My actual job description was to teach English to Junior and Senior High School boys. So even if they spoke Japanese to me, I always spoke in English to them. A fair amount of the adults I knew also could speak some English. In some ways we used English as a strategy to preach the gospel. During the evenings we would host English Bible studies with groups of interested people.
We did learn a little bit of Japanese before we began our work. We learned some basic sentence structure and key words. But (I'm not proud to admit this) it was easy to avoid using Japanese in many cases. Many people were eager to practice their English with us. I was shy and self-conscious about making mistakes.
Except that if I didn't learn Japanese, I couldn't talk to the children.
Not my students, the little ones at the yochien (pre-school) that was connected to the church. As far as I knew, none of those children were Christian, but their parents thought Christian pre-school was a good idea.
I wanted to talk to the children.
So I learned Japanese.
I wanted to know the things that only the children could tell me: about their lives, whether they had a dog, what was the picture they were drawing. I wanted to know what they were learning in pre-school, who they were mad it, who they loved best. I wanted to know what was their favorite color, if they had a dog, whether they were afraid of the dark.
You know, all the important things.
So I learned Japanese.
It wasn't like my English Bible Studies. There wasn't an agenda. I just wanted to know them, to talk with them, to learn about their lives. I was curious.
I don't think I have ever known how to be a pastor without the children. It's not that I don't think it can be done: after all, there are plenty of good chaplains in nursing homes. But in the same way that I learned Japanese from the children, I have learned how to be a pastor from children as well.
I have learned to be curious. I have learned to listen. I have learned to laugh.
I still have a few gifts I received from the children. Hand-made things. It's been a long time, so I no longer remember their names. I don't even remember their stories. I'm sad about that. But I remember sitting down with them at the low Japanese tables, eating sweets and chattering together.
I wouldn't have learned Japanese without them.
And for some reason or another, I can't be a pastor, or a missionary, without them either.