Counting Bowls. . .
Grabbing a quick lunch in Iwate before boarding the bullet train bound for Tokyo, I watched a waitress hover over one particular customer, rapidly slamming bowls of soba noodles down in front of him as fast as he could eat them. This bizarre scene continued for some time, with the bowls stacking up until the man eventually surrendered. I later learned that this custom, unique to Iwate, is called wanko soba. At a recent eating competition the winner consumed 383 bowls in ten minutes. Apparently many people who visit Iwate are eager to experience the wanko soba challenge and even leave with a certificate/souvenir verifying how many bowls they ate.
Counting Results. . .
As our two-year commitment to relief work in Iwate drew to an end and we prepared to return to the States for our postponed home assignment, we struggled to gain perspective on our own unique experience. How could we measure this blur of activity that now seemed like a 2-year wanko soba challenge? How could we count the bowls that sat, stacked before us, reminding us of the many challenges we had faced?
The most obvious measure was to count the numbers of items given away: apples, electric blankets, boxes of laundry detergent, juice bottles, or hand warmers. Or the hundreds of volunteers who had sacrificially served alongside us. We could have tried counting the number of mobile cafés we hosted in various temporary housing areas, or the number of doors we knocked on to distribute various items and greet people. And, thanks to a Japanese co-worker’s meticulous record keeping, we could count the exact number of customers who came to Ippo Ippo Yamada since we’d opened a year earlier as a drop in center for the community.
A more spiritual form of counting would certainly have included the quantity of tracts handed out, Bible studies initiated or even more importantly, the number of baptisms. While many of these items listed we could indeed literally count, the worth and meaning of such things cannot be measured by mere mathematical calculations.
Counting Eternity. . .
As we tried to evaluate the meaning of our stacks of bowls, it was critical to recall that God counts things quite differently than we do and it was important that we held on to that perspective. We are told that with God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day (2 Pet. 3:8). He is also the Good Shepherd who zealously searches for the one lost sheep (Luke 15:4). God knows the trillions of stars by name and counts the numbers 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 somehow sees the vast whole and the seemingly most insignificant individual all in one glance without the constraints of time.
It was important to keep these truths in mind as our stories and the countless stories of those we came to serve became so intertwined that it was hard to separate them and make sense of it all. Fortunately, we didn’t have to. The God who allowed this disaster and led us there will take every bowl that was offered up in faith to Him and use it for His eternal purposes. We came to realize it was not time to count, but rather time to pause. Time to give thanks to God for His faithfulness and trust Him with what we could understand.
Counting Waste. . .
The tradition of wanko soba initially struck me as being incongruent with the circumstances we faced daily along the disaster stricken coastline of Iwate. People seemed to be trivially overindulging and wasting food in one part of Iwate while another area was scrounging for enough to eat while living in makeshift shelters. Likewise, it equally grated on me at times to witness some of the waste that inevitably occurred in the rapid response to a crisis of this magnitude. Finances, resources, and time were not always optimally used as all of us engaged in relief work struggled to discern and meet constantly shifting needs in overwhelming circumstances.
However, as we surveyed the many amazing responses of the body of Christ in a nation literally and figuratively shaken to its core, we realized that something powerful was transpiring within the Japanese church and we have truly been privileged to play a small part in it. We are also confident that the deeds and words of love sacrificially sown in faith by so many of God’s people will not be wasted in this part of Japan that had been overlooked by the church until a disaster put it on everyone’s map.
Counting the Future. . .
Relief agencies are closing up their operations one by one and the number of volunteers continues to decline even though much remains unchanged. Thousands still reside in temporary housing, damaged infrastructure is only partially restored, unemployment is sky‒high and the vast fields of empty foundations remain as a silent testimony that there is still much work to be done. While government agencies blow hot and cold in their responses to these long term needs, the church of God and the people of God continue to remain engaged in the work of rebuilding. For some that will take on the form of church planting while for others it will involve continued efforts to come quietly alongside of these broken communities with words and deeds of comfort.
If God grants us the opportunity in ten years to return to our temporarily adopted home of Iwate, we hope to see many changed lives and established churches emerging from these ruins.
In the meantime, the OMF Iwate Relief Project will continue through May 2014 under the able leadership of Pastor Kazuyoshi Takahashi. It is our prayer that through the grace of God and the efforts of those who have come to serve, many more bowls will be added to the collection for God’s ultimate glory.