Soon after moving to Japan, I confessed to a good friend how hard it was for me to find time to pray. Not only was I a new mom learning to cope with the excitement and exhaustion of motherhood, but I was also a new missionary learning to adjust to life in an unfamiliar city. Time for pause and reflection seemed in short supply. My friend, who knew my need only too well, shared with me prayers by Anne Lamott that consisted of the three short words: “Help. Thanks. Wow.”1 It was the kind of prayer I could grasp in this dizzying stage of life.
Cries for help
Motherhood can often feel like an uphill slog whose rocky trail weaves through mounds of soggy diapers, piles of dirty dishes, streams of runny noses, pools of spilled juice, and flurries of nagging demands that all begin with the declaration “I want” and end with “Mom.” As much as we mothers love to be near our children and hear the sweet sound of their little voices, loving and caring for them leaves little time for us to stop and pray, except to cry, “Help!” But God hears these simple pleas or arrow prayers—short cries for mercy shot up in a desperate moment. And he answers. God doesn’t ask us for prayers wrapped in pretty bows. He wants children who hunger and thirst for him, who even faint, as the psalmist says (Psalm 84:2), for his abundant grace.
Many times during my first two years in Japan I cried out “Help!” in order to meet my children’s most basic needs. One time that stands out came soon after my husband started his new job, when it rained every day for two weeks. With no car, I was stuck in a two-bedroom apartment with a newborn, a one-year-old, and a brand-new three-year-old. On one of those days, I ran out of diapers. So I strapped my baby to my chest, loaded the other two in a double stroller, and set out, pushing the stroller with one hand and holding an umbrella in the other. In the States, I would have buckled the kids into the dry car seats of my SUV and sped to the store, but here I was, braving the rain without a car. I was so impressed with myself. That is, until I discovered that my American double-wide stroller barely fit within the narrow aisles of the Japanese grocery store. My poor Japanese reading skills made matters worse. I ended up buying two brands of diapers hoping I got the right size.
God’s provision of friends and community
I often joke to my friends that I cannot get past “help,” the first word of the prayer. But that is not always true. Our first Sunday in our new home in Higashikurume, Tokyo, a fellow mom stopped by with bug spray, a simple but important addition to any mom’s summer supply kit. She remembered me mentioning that I was at a loss trying to figure out what bug repellent was infant-safe. Her thoughtfulness humbled me. That day, God not only brought me child-safe bug spray, he also brought me a new lifelong friend. “Thanks. Wow.”
The community that has surrounded my family in Higashikurume is a gift, a continual reason for me to turn to God and say, “Thanks.” Leaving my friends and community behind in the States, I wondered how I was going to make new friends and, more importantly, minister to the community around me in Tokyo. I asked God to give me contentment if moving here meant my part of the ministry was to support my husband at home while he ministered outside our home. I prayed that God would give me opportunities to make friends, though I seemed to have little time or energy to spare. We happened to move to Japan when my eldest was at the right age to enroll into the local Japanese kindergarten, and I began to see this as God’s answer.
I knew that being a kindergarten mom would be overwhelming, and I wondered if enrolling my daughter was the right decision. I also worried about how I would come across with my rusty Japanese, my inability to read kanji, and my constant frazzled state (“help!”). But I quickly discovered that when you are chasing kids in all different directions, you don’t have time to be embarrassed. I thought the other moms would laugh at me for the mess I was, but instead they laughed with me because we were all in the same boat. I realized we moms are all in this battle together. When my husband has to work late, my Japanese friends with late-working husbands come over and we make the best of it. It gets loud and maybe a little out of control, but letting loose is best in good company. I am “wowed” by the joyfulness of these loving mothers.
A couple of months ago, I fell ill and did not even have the strength to sit up. The timing was terrible, since I had planned to help throw an event for my children’s kindergarten. Discouraged, I prayed “God, give me strength to do your will and to find contentment in this situation.” My symptoms only got worse, and I had to face two of my fears: being unable to care for my own children and having to navigate the medical system in Japanese. Thankfully, a friend who had come over to pick up supplies for the event called a few other moms from the kindergarten. Between them, they called an ambulance, lined up a translator to accompany my husband to the hospital, and cared for my children all day. When we returned from the hospital, there was dinner prepared by some of my fellow kindergarten moms. “Wow! Thank you, Jesus.”
In this season, God has used my weakness to make my friendships more real. I haven’t had time to hide my insecurities, which has been a blessing in disguise as God used it to make me truly vulnerable with my new friends. I pray that God will continue to strengthen these relationships. If showing the abundant grace and mercy of Christ means not hiding the disheveled mess beneath a facade, then I pray that “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor 12:9 ESV) and them.
God’s grip our ultimate security
Kevin Smith, my pastor back home, once used a sermon illustration about children holding hands with their parents. “Whose grip is tighter,” he asked, “the child’s or the parents’?” Our heavenly Father grips us so that we can cling to him. His firm grasp is the true source of my security, my deepest sense of fullness. He will never let me go, and he always hears this missionary mom’s cries for help. Confronted with such love, I can only say “Wow!”
1. Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. by Anne Lamott
Photo by Jannoon028 – Freepik.com
Yukiko Howard is a Japanese MK, raised in South East Asia. She moved to the US for college. In the US she married and had kids, then moved to Japan in 2015 where her husband teaches at the Christian Academy in Japan.