Thursday, May 19, 2011

Singing in the Darkness

One of the things we miss most about our life in Tokyo is songbirds. Oh, there are some birds of a crow variety that remind us of Alfred Hitchcock’s story Birds. But their voices are raspy and threatening, and these vulture-like creatures will attack anything—including people—if they’re provoked.

The hillside behind our house in Kobe was a different scene entirely. There a choir of the most exquisite and talented singers I’ve ever heard serenaded us regularly, filling our spirits with peace and gladness. As I said, we do miss the songbirds in Tokyo.

Needless to say, we’ve been pleasantly surprised at the birds here in Anderson. Bernie has purchased a bird feeder and seeds to coax them closer to our dining room window, and they’ve come—first a cardinal couple, a variety of titmouses and sparrows, and others we’ve not yet identified. We’re waiting for hummingbirds to discover the nectar and feeder Bernie added to our window bird sanctuary, but so far, none have come our way. Nevertheless, the song of the birds is a true gift from God to us.

Maybe it’s a cultural difference, but for some reason, the crows in Tokyo don’t sing until the new day begins dawning. Here in Anderson, I realized one morning that the birds were singing even in the early morning darkness. I’d awakened early and was surprised to hear the choir warming up already. It wasn’t long before God used the birds’ chorus to encourage and challenge me.

The news from the doctor wasn’t very good. Blood and test results showed new cancer activity, disappointing news to have to digest yet again. I felt a huge sigh escape from my lips as I began to think about the implications of what he was saying. Naturally, I wished the news were different.

But I was different in the morning. Starting a new day in the darkness once again (I do not like daylight savings time), I heard the songbirds. Suddenly I was reminded, “The birds are singing in the darkness.” As new images flooded my mind, I thought about how darkness represents the negative while light represents hope and life. Sometimes our circumstances are difficult and dark, but they shouldn’t be allowed to dictate negative responses. We can choose how we respond and whether or not we’ll sing in the darkness. My recommendation? Sing in the darkness.

Paul and Silas did (Acts 16). The prison doors flew open, their chains fell loose, and they were free—all because they chose to sing in the darkness.

The birds have made that choice. I have, too.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Coming Full Circle

My parents, Bernie and me

“…for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance” (Philippians 1:19).

The foremost missionary ever, Paul was talking about his being a prisoner for Christ. That is “what has happened to me.” In my case, what has happened to me is cancer.

Paul goes on in verses 20-21: “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Hallelujah! No matter what happens to me physically (though I always pray for healing), I do desire that my life and my death will indeed glorify you, Heavenly Father. A life of meaning, a life of faithfulness, a life of influence and witness for the sake of the Kingdom. This is how I’ve always wanted to live, Lord God. Thank you for giving me the courage need to do so. Thank you also that when I’ve failed, you’ve always accepted, loved me anyway, and forgiven and purified me according to 1 John 1:9.

But what of the deliverance mentioned in verse 19 above? Surely getting cancer isn’t deliverance—except deliverance into the hands of pain and suffering. Surely this isn’t a truism. Yet it is! As I was challenged to think about the other day in my conversation with my mentor and friend, Ann, the closing of doors is opportunity for new doors to open that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. What doors have been opened for me as I’ve been delivered from a very busy—much too busy—schedule because of cancer?

Doors of discovery. How many lessons you’ve taught me, Father, in these two years since my kidney was removed in April 2009. Among the most important are lessons related to patience and finding my value in being with you rather than in doing for you. Doing, I’ve discovered, was where I was finding my value and identity, despite the fact that Scripture clearly teaches that these are found in you alone.

As for the discovery of patience, though it is tested regularly through cancer, I’ve discovered I really am becoming much more patient person—something I’ve prayed about forever (it seems). I’ve been eager for the Fruit of the Holy Spirit (among these, patience) to grow in my life. Maybe, in your infinite wisdom, Lord, you knew that the only way this would develop into the desired plump and delicious fruit would be through cancer and all the related trials, especially when we’ve had to wait so long for many of our prayers to be answered. But praise God! You are answering these prayers, one after another, in your perfect timing.

And what of Paul’s assertion that, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain,” in verse 22 above? Actually, reading this was a little hard for me this morning, especially as Paul continues n verses 22-23: “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far . . . .”

I do desire Christ; I do desire to have fruitful labor for God. I do agree wholeheartedly with these words. But to desire to depart this body in order to be with Christ? Honestly, I shout out a resounding NO!. “Yet not my will, but yours be done,” Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. I, too, will yield to your perfect will, Lord God—and it is perfect according to Jeremiah 29:11. But, in the meantime—before that perfect will opens new doors of opportunity—I desire to stay right here in this body, weak as it is (though I praise you for the strength you give me daily, Lord). I want to be here for others, as Paul expressed so eloquently. I want to be here in this body in order to see others come to Christ and grow in him to be like Jesus.

But I also want to be here for my family. Today is my mother’s 87th birthday. What a tremendous influence for good she’s had over the years. I’ve not always been a gracious and grateful recipient of her many lessons. (Often I’ts been years later that I’ve come to understand the value of all she’s taught me by word and example.) But I also want to be here for Bernie, Benjamin, Stephanie, Donald, Little Ben, Hosanna, and my yet unborn third grandchild who whom I will meet later this year. I want to see the three little ones grow up to be people of God. Just as others have influenced me over the years, I pray for many more opportunities to influence my grandchildren, to laugh with them and to enjoy and share in their lives. I pray for the building of many more memories. No, I am not yet ready to depart.

Still, this I know with confidence: “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die . . .” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2).

I praise you because you are the creator of all time, Lord. I worship you this morning with full confidence in YOU—with joy in the knowledge that whatever happens and when, you are in control and that time is in your hands according to your perfect will that desires and carries out what is best for me.

One more lesson of discovery: I don’t have to understand things in order for whatever happens to be the best for me. God is perfectly able to understand. In fact, he does understand because he is the Creator God, all powerful, all knowing—and it is his choice whether or not he explains to me in part or not at all. This is a part of my trusting him and fixing my eyes on what is unseen (God and his perfect plans) rather than only on what is seen (the world I understand around me). How freeing that I don’t have to figure it all out! Thank you, Lord, that I can just relax in you and leave it to and with you. What a peaceful way to live! And to think that “what has happened to me [my cancer] will turn out for my deliverance [has turned out for my deliverance]”, as Paul wrote in the very first verse I read from Philippians this morning.

And here I am having come full circle in my musings this morning. Thank you, Lord, for the journey on which you’ve led me through the Bible and the thoughts you’ve given me as I’ve read. It’s been a fascinating and eye-opening journey, and I’m so grateful—yes, even grateful for my cancer. What gifts you’ve given my, Lord! “Every good and perfect gift comes down from above . . . .” How I praise and thank you.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

Spring: a time of change--for us and for Tamagawa Seigakuin

(completion of a new third-floor addition)

A new challenge

It was a hot, sticky evening in June 1976 when Bernie and Cheryl Barton accepted the biggest challenge of their lives during a national church convention in Anderson, Indiana, USA. That challenge was to move to Japan as English-teaching missionaries for two years. NEVER could we have imagined that two years would stretch into more than 30—and even more amazingly, a calling that became a lifetime.

The call has never changed; it just gets more challenging at times! This is one of those times. How do we live in two cities, not to mention two countries, at the same time? This is our new challenge since cancer entered the picture in 2009. Cheryl received excellent care in Japan, but when that option was exhausted in 2010, we were permitted to come to the US for advanced treatment. After much prayer, here we are in Anderson. We’re so grateful for this lovely furnished apartment provided by our Living Link supporting churches!

The call remains the same. We’re still missionaries in Japan, but continue working in both places at the unexpected request of Tamagawa Seigakuin girls’ junior/senior high school, where Bernie is headmaster, and Tamagawa Church, where we pastor and mentor Fujiwara-sensei as an associate. It’s not the easiest call to manage, but we’re promised in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

As such, Bernie will be making approximately six short trips to Japan this year to carry out official functions in his continuing capacity of headmaster, things including formal ceremonies, school board meetings, and other assignments until the new headmaster can begin. Please pray for a smooth, timely transition and for our effectiveness in this “tale of two cities.” We are relying on Skype, the Lord, and your prayers to be faithful.

The earthquake

Bernie was to have flown to Japan on March 11 for the first of these scheduled working visits to Japan. Instead, that was the day the country was struck by the most devastating earthquake and tsunami in its history. The death toll currently is around 12,000 people with another 15,000 still missing. More than 150 miles away from the quake center, Tokyo was badly shaken, but things are already mostly back to normal. But the quake did delay Bernie’s return for two days. Additionally, Tama Sei’s graduation and other ceremonies were rescheduled, canceled, and/or scaled back. Pray for Japan’s recovery and that Christians will be active in compassionate service. We rejoice that the Church of God in the US has given $25,000 for relief efforts. We don’t have any congregations in the quake area, but we do have a responsibility to live out Christ’s love there.

Assignments in Indiana Thank God for answered prayers! Not only is Cheryl’s condition stable again, but she’s being able to carry out responsibilities in Indiana now that her pain is under control. Praise God and thank you for your faithful prayers. In addition to her writing, God has opened doors for some volunteer work with our local congregations’ food pantry. Park Place Church is one of the churches that has supported us in Japan almost from day one. Their faithfulness to serving God in many ways is an inspiration to us. We are grateful for this unexpected opportunity to give back to God and the church here in Anderson.

Of course, Cheryl’s main assignment is to get well. We appreciate your sustaining prayers that have seen great improvement in her physically. When M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston said there was little more they could do except admit Cheryl to an experimental drug program that has yet to show much promise, we decided to relocate to Anderson where we’re surrounded by great support, including our local church and family. Nearly daily we’re surprised by the care we’re receiving here—not just medical. Call it heart care, if you will. Thank God for our employer and team leader, Church of God Ministries, and its gracious, loving care. We also thank him—and you—for continuing support to face our new challenge, an unusual calling to be sure.

Prayer points

As you support us through prayer, please pray specifically for:

a scheduled PET/CT scan on May 4. Pray the tumors will have shrunk—better yet, disappeared—and remember the angel’s words, “With God nothing is impossible!” and, ►strength for Bernie in his next trip to Japan in early May. The travel is extremely tiring and long (more than 24 hours door-to-door). Once he arrives, he has endless speaking assignments. Pray also for wisdom as we endeavor to be faithful to the call.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sleeping Like a Baby

One of the questions we’re asked frequently by Americans is, “Are you fluent in Japanese?” After living 30-plus years in Japan, I would hope so.

But the truth of the matter is that fluency fluctuates wildly depending upon the subject matter. Those subjects that I know well make me appear to be fluent; others leave me so completely in the dark and so unable to speak, participate, or understand a conversation that I must appear to others to be blind and deaf—certainly not fluent. But I get along well enough. In my own brand of fluency.

Consequently, in coming back to America for this time of medical treatment, I’ll admit I was looking forward to watching television in English. Ah! Kick back and enjoy while understanding without straining. And there were several crime dramas that fascinated me. Although I’ve never watched much TV, I was intending to acclimate back to life in the United States in part through television. Now I know the truth: “enjoy” and “television” are opposite words and should never appear in the same sentence.

One evening I nestled into the recliner and turned on the TV, eager to watch a drama that had been advertised. Although I’d seen only infrequently, I remembered that it wasn’t overly graphic in depicting crime scenes; much was left to the imagination. While enjoying the drama of solving an intriguing crime story, I don’t like blood, guts, and violence, so that was great for me. Only it wasn’t great. I spent the whole hour shivering with tension and dread. I wish I’d turned off the TV. Instead, I watched until the troubling end, following which I headed for bed.

Big mistake. That night I tossed and turned and wrestled, perhaps with the devil himself. It was the worst night I can ever remember. In the morning, I awoke feeling defeated, pessimistic, afraid, worried, and definitely not rested or refreshed mentally or physically, either. I was a prisoner in a dark, deep cloud from which I could not escape, no matter how I tried.

Although I fought it, the negativism continued throughout the day. Mid-afternoon, as I cried out to the Lord for relief from the battle of doubt and pessimism, God reminded me of Paul’s admonition in Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Suddenly it all made sense. These instructions on good living weren’t given just to be restrictive and because God has no sense of adventure and is a stick in the mud. They (and all the mandates and advice in the Bible) were given to protect us for they are the keys to our freedom rather than to our imprisonment.

As I contemplated this quite obvious truth that somehow had never spoken to me quite this way before, I remembered an illustration author Randy Alcorn makes in his excellent little book, The Purity Principle. He describes a winding road that runs dangerously close to the edge of a steep precipice in the mountains. Because of the risk, there are many sturdy guard rails lining the road, especially at the curves. Alcorn depicts a scene where a car collides with the rail and then asks the reader this question: Do you suppose that when the driver gets out to inspect the damage, he curses the guard rail for scraping up the side of his vehicle? No! Instead, as he looks down the mountainside that is littered with other wreckage, he gives thanks to God for the guardrail that saved him from what would have been the same tragic fate.

I’ll not forget Alcorn’s illustration. God’s instructions are wise and intended for our good, and they relate to our whole lives—even the shows we watch on television.

By the way, I’ve been sleeping like a baby recently.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Praising Now and Forever

Praising God in the promise of springtime after a long, hard winter

“Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the Lord” (Psalm 102:18).

What an amazing thought—God has planned for us to praise him long before we were created or even thought of! That’s how important it is for us to praise God. This is what he desires. (Could it be said he desires this most?). God desires our praises and this is planned into his eternal design. Amazing. It is not so much what we do for God as how faithful we are to be instruments to praise him as he desires.

Praise. That is my assignment for today. Beyond anything on my “to do” list, I am to praise God “[who remains] the same, and [whose] years will never end” (Psalm 102:27). Praising now and forever. It is my mandate. May I ever be faithful is my prayer.