Friday, February 27, 2015

The Multiplying Bento

Today’s coffee: Dominican Republic

It’s already melt season. I suppose we could get another round of snow storms, but already we can see the road outside our house. Usually we would not expect this for another month. My friends (in this area) are posting pictures of crocuses on Facebook. Global warming?

I want to write about some encouraging things that have happened in the last few weeks… besides the melting snow.

Keith and I were away from home for 3 weeks during the end of January and the beginning of February. As often happens when we take time off for a conference or vacation, appointments and responsibilities got crammed in before and after we go. The day after we returned, I was scheduled to give the Sunday school message.

The usual pattern for the Sunday school message has been that the children sit in chairs in rows while one of the leaders stands at the front and gives a talk or tells a story. Keith and I have been trying some different models. If it’s a story they know well, we get them to tell the story. That worked well on Easter Sunday. Once, Keith had the kids act out the story of the good shepherd as a play. That time the story got a bit out of hand—the so-called “good shepherd” let the robber into the sheep pen and the sheep were overjoyed to be “attacked.” Oops.

The shepherd and the thief "fight" while the "sheep" enjoy the show
I have read to the kids a few times from a children’s Bible story book that I like. Usually I have them sit on zabuton (cushions for sitting on the floor) in a circle, and I ask them questions and interact with them as we read through the story. This seems to keep them engaged (and sitting still), while being a good option for someone like me who doesn’t enjoy public speaking.

To return to the Sunday school message a few weeks ago, I was assigned the story of the feeding of the 5000; thankfully, this story was included in my book. Unfortunately I didn’t have sufficient time to practice reading it aloud—I was busy preparing my visual aid: a bento. (As a cultural aside, this story is a favorite among children in Japan, since they love going on picnics and eating a bento lunch.)

Opening my bento box. That day I had yakiudon. What story does this remind you of, kids?
I stumbled over an unfamiliar word in the first paragraph. I apologized for my lack of preparation and just as I was going to continue reading, one boy snatched the book out of my hands and continued reading where I had left off, perfectly expressing the nuances of the story—the disciples’ doubt, the small boy’s faith, and Jesus’ sense of humor shone through. (My young helper’s brothers were also eager for a chance to read—my role switched from reader to supervisor as I made sure everyone got their turn so that we didn’t end up with a riot…) After the three brothers (and their older sister) finished reading, I wrapped up the story by talking about how God can use even the small and insufficient to do amazing things—he can even use us!

Reading the story together
This development was completely unexpected, and I felt like the story was playing out right before my eyes. Here were three squirmy boys vying with each other for a chance to help. God was using my insufficiently prepared children’s message and making it so much bigger and better than I ever could have imagined.

Last Sunday, another encouragement: our budding middle-school musicians accompanied the Sunday school worship time. I think it’s no surprise that one middle-school girl brought a friend for the first time on this particular occasion. It’s as if she was saying to her friend, “This is my family, my church—I belong here.” This makes me want to give each of these children more opportunities to contribute their gifts to the life of the church, fully expecting that God will make their contributions bear fruit.

A-chan on piano, Ko-kun on guitar, Ke-kun on cajon. (A-chan's friend in the foreground.)
My friend, Izumi once told me that if you want a person to come to your church and stay there, don’t treat them as a guest. Treat them like family—give them something to do; give them a chance to serve. Let them know that they belong. Good advice, I think.

I like to help people find their “bento”: what is God asking that person to contribute? What is it that God has given her that she needs to offer back to him? What is it that God wants to multiply? Our offerings may seem as insignificant as a small child’s bento, but God uses them! I trust that God will continue to multiply the eagerness of each of these children to serve—and use this eagerness for his glory!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Airplanes and Pyramids: The Wind Rises

Today’s coffee: Rwanda, White Day blend

I’ve had this blog post stewing in my head all week. Last week’s chocolate event was actually the prelude to a movie night. This time we watched 風立ちぬ (Kaze Tachinu; the English title is The Wind Rises). This time was a bit unusual: we had 5 newcomers—church kids brought friends!! This also meant that the discussion time was a bit quieter than usual. But then again, it’s usually pretty quiet. We’re still struggling through a major cultural barrier: Japanese schools do not teach children to express their opinions. We started doing movie nights with the youth group because we wanted to teach them to think about the movies, TV, etc. that they watch and engage with them, rather than simply taking them in.

But I digress. Today I mostly wanted to write about the film itself. If you haven’t seen it, watch it now. (Mom and Dad, I’ve had it sent to your house. Other friends in Seattle can borrow it when my parents are done with it. Enjoy!) It’s an amazing, bittersweet, conflicted film. It seems it was a very personal film for the director, Hayao Miyazaki; it may also be his last film. (Maybe. He already came out retirement once.) If you are from Seattle, you may also find that you recognize someone you know in the protagonist, Jiro Horikoshi—he’s an aeronautical engineer. He reminds me very much of my maternal grandfather.

Japanese poster for The Wind Rises
In the tradition of our movie nights, I’ll even give you some “warm-up” discussion questions and some things to think about while you watch. These are the questions we used last week... translated, of course.

Warm-up questions:
  • Do you have a dream? What is it? (Future job, place you want to go, something you want to do, family, etc.) Why is that your dream?
  • When you hear the word, "wind," what do you think about?
Things to think about while you watch:
  • Wind is treated somewhat as a character throughout the film. What sort of character is it? What sort of roles did it play?
  • Who/what did Jiro love?
  • What were Jiro's dreams? Did they come true? Was he satisfied?
Spoiler alert from here on. (You’ve seen the movie now, right?)

I’ll start by saying that I feel somewhat conflicted watching this film. (I think provoking conflicted feelings was Miyazaki’s intention, actually.) While the real life Jiro Horikoshi, a genius engineer, was building the Mitsubishi Zero and its predecessors here in Japan, my grandfathers were engaged in similar work at Boeing on the other side of the ocean. I have visited Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where photographs and displays and uniformed staff tried to explain why such atrocities were committed by both Japan and the United States, so I understand (in a very limited way) the results of Jiro’s work, and that of my grandfathers and their colleagues as well.

But Jiro, the film tells us, just wants to make beautiful airplanes. This is also Miyazaki’s paradox: he is an outspoken pacifist who is fascinated with war planes—because war planes are the fastest and most beautiful planes.

I think perhaps for this reason, Miyazaki inserts another aeronautical engineer, Caproni, into the film. (Seattle people: Caproni’s work is on display at the Museum of Flight.) Caproni and Jiro meet in their dreams and talk about airplanes—or rather, the ethics of airplanes. “Airplanes are beautiful, cursed dreams,” says Caproni. He has already experienced the devastation of World War I. His dream is to make passenger planes, but the Italian government has him building war planes.

Caproni poses this question to Jiro: “Would you want to live in a world with or without the pyramids?” He explains: the pyramids are great monuments, but they were built at the cost of many lives. What about airplanes? They are beautiful and useful to transport people and cargo. But in the wrong hands, an airplane becomes a weapon. Is it possible to build such a weapon "because it's beautiful" and not take responsibility? Who is responsible, Jiro or the pilots flying the Mitsubishi Zero planes? Or is it the people who gave orders to the pilots? What should Jiro have done?

The film points out repeatedly that while Jiro and his colleagues used a huge amount of government funding to research and build new airplanes, at the same time, people all around them were unemployed and even starving. The protagonists seem conflicted, but they are still driven by the embarrassing reality that Japanese airplane technology was 20 years behind Germany and the US. Were they perhaps convinced that advancing technology would give average citizens a better life?

To return to the question about the pyramids, we asked our middle school guests what they thought. Would they want to live in a world with or without the pyramids? The looked at us blankly. I made a stab at answering the question: no, I wouldn’t want the pyramids. I wouldn’t want to build an airplane and have it used as a weapon. And I wouldn’t sacrifice my family to make it happen, either. One guest pointed out that without the need for war planes, airplane technology would not develop nearly as fast. Another pointed out that Jiro’s (fictional) wife chose to become a sacrifice in order to help her loved one achieve his dream.

As I listened to others’ thoughts on the subject, I continued mulling over the question in my mind. This question was much bigger than just pyramids or airplanes. Is it possible to do or make anything in this world and not have it misused or misunderstood? Would I really be satisfied with a sterile world devoid of anything that could possibly lead to suffering or abuse? Could such a world even exist?

This “pyramids” question isn’t a black and white question at all. What if there is a third answer? What if there was a way to have a world filled with beautiful things, but without the risk of having them abused?

At the end of the discussion, I answered the question a second time. I said that I wanted a completely different option: God’s world returned to its original state of perfection. God made the world and called it good—all of it. Yet fallen humans abused God’s good world in their selfishness; beautiful dreams became cursed through misuse.

But this is not the end of the story. Jesus gave his life to reconcile the world to himself. His kingdom already exists in the hearts of those who love him, and we wait with expectation for the full coming of his kingdom, when every wrong will be made right. No more will beauty become cursed through sin and selfishness.

The end of the film finds Jiro watching the successful first flight of his prototype; the pilot, his colleagues, and representatives from the military surround him with praise and congratulations, but he doesn’t seem happy at all. In fact, he wasn’t even watching his plane’s maiden flight; he was looking off into the distance towards where his dying wife was. Jiro’s dream has come true, at great expense. Was it worth it?

That’s all from me; feel free to write your thoughts about the film in the comments below. What about you? Would you want to live in a world with or without the pyramids?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Chocolates for Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine’s Day! We celebrated in Japanese style (sort of) by making chocolates with the youth group from our church. Although in Japan it is usually girls who make Valentine’s Day chocolates for their significant other, friends, family, and people who have “cared for” them (boss or senior colleagues), we do not discriminate against male chocolate lovers. We had 3 middle school boys (one of whom wants to become a chef) come to make chocolate too.

I’ve long thought about posting my recipe for truffles, but it’s difficult to get pictures with chocolate-covered hands… and I wasn’t really so consistent with measuring and such. But I made an effort this time while making test-batches for the chocolate party. So here we go.

First I make ganache—truffle filling. Depending on how hard it is, you can cover the ganache in coating chocolate or not. I make a variety of different fillings, but let’s start with the easiest.

Classic Chocolate ganache

  • 120-150ml (1/2-2/3 cup) whipping cream (More cream makes a softer ganache; less cream makes a ganache that is easier to work with.)
  • 120g (4 oz) bittersweet chocolate chips (or other chocolate of your choice, broken into small chunks.)
  • 1 teaspoon rum (optional) or other liquor of your choice, for flavoring

Put a little water in the bottom of a double-boiler and bring to a simmer. Put all the ingredients in the top of the double-boiler. (Or, if you are like me and you don’t have a double-boiler, a heat-proof bowl set over a small saucepan of simmering water will work just fine.) Do not stir; put on the lid and let all the ingredients warm up together for a few minutes. After the chocolate starts to look glossy, mix the chocolate and cream together until smooth. Transfer to a container and chill at least 5 hours or overnight.

Measuring the ingredients. The cream has had green tea steeping in it for the green tea variation below.
Assembling the ingredients in the top of my makeshift "double-boiler."
This is the caramel version.
It takes a while for the chocolate to melt. So we waited.
Chocolate is nice and melty; time to stir.

Nice and smooth; ganache is finished!

Classic Chocolate variation: Chocolate Nut ganache
  • 120-150ml (1/2-2/3 cup) whipping cream
  • 120g (4 oz) bittersweet chocolate chips (or other chocolate of your choice, broken into small chunks.)
  • 50-80g (1.75-2.75 oz) finely chopped nuts of your choice—my suggestions would be almonds, pecans, walnuts, or hazelnuts.
  • 1 teaspoon rum (optional) or other liquor of your choice, for flavoring
Follow the directions for Classic Chocolate ganache.

Classic Chocolate variation: Green Tea ganache

  • 150ml (2/3 cup) whipping cream
  • 2 teaspoons green tea (sencha) leaves
  • 120g (4 oz) bittersweet chocolate chips (or other chocolate of your choice, broken into small chunks.)

Place the whipping cream and green tea leaves in a small saucepan; bring to a simmer, then shut off the heat, cover, and let steep for at least 15 minutes. Pour the cream through a fine mesh strainer; press the tea leaves with the back of a spoon to squeeze out as much liquid as possible from the tea leaves.

Continue with the directions for “classic chocolate ganache.”

The previous 3 varieties of ganache are easy to make and easy to work with. They don’t necessarily need coating. Let’s move on to a more challenging ganache: caramel!

Caramel Ganache

  • 100ml whipping cream (That’s approximately ¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons? Seriously… can’t we use the metric system already?)
  • 130g (4.5 oz) bittersweet chocolate chips (or other chocolate of your choice, but I would recommend dark chocolate for this recipe, broken into small chunks.)
  • 120ml (½ cup) caramel sauce*
  • ¼ teaspoon salt (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon rum (optional) or other liquor of your choice, for flavoring

Follow the directions for Classic Chocolate ganache. Make sure the salt get mixed in completely; if you’re not sure whether you want salt in your caramel or not, add a little at a time.

*Although using plain caramel sauce is a good option, I like to mix things up with flavored caramel sauce. Since Hokkaido is famous for lavender, I have made lavender caramel sauce from this recipe, using lavender from our garden.

Another favorite caramel variation is my very own invention, which I call "failed mikan (mandarin orange) marmalade caramel sauce."

Shaping the Ganache

Now that we have chilled ganache, it’s time to shape it into little balls!

You will need:
  • Chilled ganache of your choice
  • Aluminum foil or non-stick silicon mat
  • Cookie sheet or other wide, flat containers
  • A teaspoon, or melon scoop, if you have one
  • Cocoa powder, green tea powder (matcha), finely chopped nuts, etc. to roll finished balls (firm ganache only)
  • For very soft ganache, you may want to use a piping bag with a wide tip
  • Space in your freezer

Prepare your work space: line containers or cookie sheets with foil, or use a non-stick silicon mat if you have one.

Option one: using a teaspoon, scoop out a small amount of ganache, and shape it into a ball with your fingertips.

At this point, you can either put the balls in a foil-lined container and freeze them to coat with chocolate later (freeze at least 5 hours)…

OR, if you aren’t going to coat them with chocolate, roll the finished balls in your choice of topping: cocoa powder, green tea powder, or chopped nuts. Refrigerate for a few hours until firm. (And you’re done! You can ignore the rest of the recipe.)

Option two: for softer ganache, spoon the ganache into a piping bag and pipe onto a foil lined tray. Freeze for at least 5 hours. (If your ganache is soft enough for this method to work, you will definitely want to cover the ganache balls with coating chocolate.)

Note: You can make the balls as big or small as you want, but keep in mind that if you are coating them, the additional layer of chocolate makes them quite a bit bigger.

Finished ganache balls
These are caramel ganache. They look kind of funny, since they were stickier than the plain chocolate ganache balls.
Explaining the rolling process to the group.
Rolling ganache balls makes for sticky fingers.
Finished uncoated truffles, rolled in matcha, cocoa powder, or chopped nuts to finish.

Final step: Coating Chocolate!

This step is necessary for caramel ganache, but for firmer ganache as well, this makes a nice finish. And my experience is that most people don’t bother with coating, because it’s a bit of a pain… so that makes it special! But it’s not really as hard as it looks…

…especially if you have one of these nifty coating chocolate packs that you can get in Japan. I think you might be able to get them elsewhere, too. You can melt the chocolate right in the bag (immerse in hot water for a few minutes), open it up, and use chopsticks or a toothpick to dip the ganache balls in the coating. And it hardens right away! Neat! We used them for our chocolate party—(almost) no mess.

But I’m assuming you don’t have access to one of these nifty packs. Here’s how to coat truffles with normal chocolate.

You will need:
  • Frozen ganache balls
  • 150g (5 oz) chocolate of your choice—anything is fine, as long as it melts. I recommend 50-70% dark. CAUTION: Some chocolate has additives to help it keep its shape—you want to avoid that, since it won’t work at all.
  • 2 teaspoons unsalted butter
  • Non-stick mat or foil-lined containers
  • Toothpicks or chopsticks
  • An ice pack or two (optional)
  • Toppings: green tea powder (matcha), lavender flowers, candied fruit, chopped nuts, etc. (optional)

Using the same double-boiler method as for the ganache, melt the chocolate and butter. Don’t mix until it starts to get shiny and melty.

Remove your ganache balls from the freezer, and set the container or tray on top of an ice pack if you have one. This will help keep them cool, since warm ganache balls are much harder to dip.

Using chopsticks or a toothpick, quickly roll each ganache ball in coating chocolate. Put in foil-lined container to dry. If you’re using toothpicks, you can leave them in; this makes for easy consumption later. You may want to use chopsticks to swirl the chocolate a bit and make a pretty pattern. This also covers lumps and dents in the coating.

Before the chocolate dries completely, add toppings of your choice.
Chill the finished truffles in the refrigerator until immediately before serving.

Ready to stir. This is milk chocolate, since it's hard to find dark chocolate in Japan that is not expensive imported chocolate.
Ready to dip!
It wasn’t easy to take pictures left-handed while dipping melty ganache balls with chopsticks in my right hand.
I usually swirl the chocolate on top of the truffles--covers lumps and dents!
Everyone is hard at work dipping and decorating with chocolate pens!
And now you're done! Enjoy your truffles! (And feel free to post variation ideas in the comments.)

Finished lavender caramel truffles
Green tea truffles with white chocolate coating and matcha topping
A variety of finished truffles

Failed Marmalade Caramel Sauce

Here’s my attempt at a recipe for my favorite caramel sauce. It’s a little hard to explain, since it started out as a mistake. Basically, I cooked my mikan (mandarin orange) marmalade far too long—it went way past jelly to borderline hard candy. Or, that’s what it turned into when it cooled.

But failures do not necessarily end as failures. I love making caramel (because I love eating caramel); I realized that the failed marmalade was quite similar to the beginning stage of caramel, so I “recycled” it into caramel sauce, and it was delicious!

Failed Mikan (Mandarin Orange) Marmalade Caramel Sauce

First, you will need some marmalade, if you don’t want to make a “failed” batch on purpose. You can start with a jar you’ve purchased or canned yourself. (If you are looking for a recipe, this is the one I used. I assure you, the failure was entirely my fault.) Throw it in a saucepan and bring to a boil; cook for about 3-5 minutes until it gets really thick. You will need about 80 ml (1/3 cup). Now, “failed marmalade” having been prepared, let’s move on to the caramel sauce.

  • 80ml (1/3 cup) “Failed marmalade” caramel base
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • ½ teaspoon salt (optional, but highly recommended)

Return “failed marmalade” to the saucepan and add sugar. Melt the sugar and boil for a couple more minutes. The caramel sauce will be harder or softer depending on how long you cook it.

Remove from heat, and add the cream. Return to the stove and stir until combined. Remove from heat and stir in the butter and salt. Keep in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it. I recommend it for caramel ganache and as a topping for fruit or ice cream… but I have also been known to eat spoonfuls of it straight from the jar.

Caution: caramel sauce is delicious, and you may be tempted to taste as you go. Please don't; it is very hot, and you will burn your tongue and/or finger. I know this from experience. Please wait until the caramel sauce has cooled a bit to taste it.

Friday, February 13, 2015

February Newsletter

Keith and Celia Olson
Newsletter #27・February 13, 2015

Dear Friends and Family,

Greetings! We’ve just gotten through a busy season of concerts, sermons, Christmas events, and a workshop, and things have finally slowed down a bit. We’re thankful for the many ways we have seen God at work over the last several months. Here are a few pictures of recent events.

We visited Kyoto in November. This is the famous Kinkaku-ji.
On the same trip, we attended an Ochakai (Japanese tea gathering) at a church in Saitama. We found it inspiring as we think about how to use tea ceremony for God's glory.
Movie night and bread workshop (we watched Shiawase no Pan/The Bread of Happiness)
Christmas fondue party
Celia's Osechi, fifth time!
We’re in the final stretch of our first term, so we’ve started making preparations for our home assignment, which begins in July. We recently attended Pre-Home Assignment Workshop, where we learned, among other things, about storytelling our experiences as missionaries. Keith wrote the following story at the workshop, having been prompted to write about “something that inspired you lately.” (There were originally 2 stories, but one was not appropriate to post on the internet; let us know if you would like to get the email or print version.)

I was sitting in the back row in a room filled with people who came for Celia's cello concert. Next to me were the members of the church that were hosting this event including Mrs. Y. Since we were renting a room in the fairly warm and relaxed atmosphere of the Otofuke community center, people were filtering in late and even in the middle of songs. As soon as the door would open, in order to not disturb the concert, Mrs. Y would stand up with a smile, welcome the person, make sure the door closed quietly, and then helped the person to a seat.

Later in the concert, she cheerfully went to prepare tea for the reception. Shortly thereafter, she came back into the room holding a box of snacks for later. Very quietly and with seemingly exaggerated motions she tip-toed to her chair and slowly put it down without making a sound. Then she shoved it rather quickly under her chair, and as it slid, it seemed like she was intentionally making a grating noise, not loud, but certainly noticeable.

If it had been someone other than Mrs. Y, then at that moment I might have justifiably given the look that concert-goers give people to tell them to hush up. But instead, that was the moment it occurred to me that Mrs. Y, who is trying so hard to support this concert, cannot possibly be enjoying the music at all. Not because she is so busy, but because she is deaf. Her servant heart amazed and humbled me. She is serving so that others can more fully enjoy that which she will never be able to in this life.

Mrs. Y’s cheerful service challenged me to reconsider my own attitude. Do I serve out of obligation, or out of love? Especially about humility and service, I have a lot to learn from the Japanese people.

Celia and Shino's Otofuke concert

Prayer Points

  • We give thanks for Keith’s “Koinonia” small group Christmas Carol party--several seekers and neighbors attended, and they were able to hear the Christmas story and enjoy fellowship with the group. Please pray that group members will be encouraged by this experience and emboldened to continue reaching out to friends, family, and neighbors using the gifts God has given them.
  • We give thanks for Celia and Shino’s concerts in December and January. Please pray for each of the five churches who hosted concerts, for good follow-up.
  • Please pray for seekers, Ms. M and Mr. K (and his wife, who isn’t as interested). Mr. and Mrs. K (a different couple) have recently started a seeker’s Bible study with Pastor Takahashi, and we are participating as well, as part of our training.
  • We’re starting preparations for home assignment as well as considering where we will serve when we return to Japan in May 2016. Please pray for discernment and patience.
  • As part of our home assignment preparations, we are considering how to hand our church responsibilities off to others, especially Keith’s small group and movie nights for the youth group. Please pray that our “handing off” would empower church members to serve.

Save the Date: Home Assignment!
We’ll be on home assignment, based in Seattle, from mid-July 2015 until mid-May 2016. We look forward to catching up with many of you! More details to come in our next newsletter.

About the New Banner

We’ve updated our banner in the print/email version of our newsletters with pictures from recent life and travels in Japan. We're including it here, in case you're interested. From the left: bamboo forest (Kyoto), pickled ume plums and cherries drying in the sun, the roof of one of the Imperial Palace buildings (Kyoto—thanks to Sharon Law), a bowl of matcha, Osechi New Year’s feast, Tsuru no Yu onsen buildings in Akita prefecture, and ginkgo trees at Hokkaido University.

Language Corner

Here’s a gem we found recently in Kyoto. Remember to always use punctuation!

p.s. the karintō manjū at this shop were delicious!

Thanks for continuing to support us in prayer!

Love in Christ, Keith and Celia

I'm glad to be inside for the winter.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Pilgrimage by Shinkansen

Today's coffee: whatever was in our room this morning...

I'm on the Shinkansen. I think I used to call it the bullet train before I came to Japan. One of our colleagues suggests that we invent a new word: "shink." It's a verb which means "to travel by Shinkansen." As in, "today we shinked to Hanamaki." Or is the past tense shank? 

Today we saw Mt. Fuji from the train. Actually, I've only seen Mt. Fuji from a train. Several times, in fact. We tried twice to see Mt. Fuji from a good viewing spot in Hakone, but the weather didn't cooperate. 

Another exciting part of traveling by train in Japan is Ekiben (駅弁), which means a bento bought at a station. 

You'll see that the background is blurry, since we're moving pretty fast. 

We've been heading north on the train for an hour now; we've left behind Tokyo's spring-like weather and there's now a light coating of snow everywhere. I especially like seeing the beautiful red pines that grow in this area coated with snow.

I took this picture in Tokyo last weekend. Very spring-like and green, I think. Unfortunately, all I had with me was my iPod...

We spent the last 2 weeks in the Tokyo area for a conference. It was intense... 8:30-5:00 in meetings, with homework that lasted until midnight some nights. We did get a lot of work done, writing about our experiences the last 3 1/2 years and preparing for our home assignment this summer. (We wrote some good stories, so you can look forward to hearing them in person when we are "home" in the US!) 

At the same time, we are in the middle of figuring out what to do when we come back to Japan. We have a lot to think about... and we're still worn out from Christmas, so it's time to spend some time resting and reflecting while spending time with friends... and doing the best ever wintertime activity: soaking in an onsen! 

Which is why we're on the Shinkansen, rather that flying directly back to Hokkaido. Train trips in Japan always seem to end up being like pilgrimages to me. Our first Shinkansen trip was to Nagasaki, where we saw places related to the early church in Japan and the martyrs from that time period, and also museums and sites related to the Second World War. I remember looking out the train window, pondering the darkness of the human heart that caused those horrible events to take place.

This time I'm thinking about our future work and our future home. It's possible we could pass by it on the train today, or maybe later this week as we continue northward to Hokkaido. I don't know where we will be two years out, but I do know that I'm not going alone. God is already there ahead of me. 

It really does feel like we're on a pilgrimage.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Reclaiming the Debussy Sonata

Today’s coffee: Tanzania

Last weekend was a concert weekend: Shino and I played two concerts in the Obihiro area. To follow up what I wrote last time, despite all my worrying, everything went fine. There have been several concerts recently that I was worried about for various reasons; each of them turned out to be far better than I had expected. The concerts themselves went well musically, a lot of people came, we enjoyed spending time with our colleagues, we ate some great food, and with beautiful sunny weather last Sunday, the mountains surrounding Obihiro were stunning. We went home with full hearts (and full stomachs).

First concert, in Otofuke
Hanging out after the concert
Second concert, in Nakasatsunai
Beyond the various blessings of the concert weekend itself, I achieved a small personal victory. I’ve written before about how being in Japan has made me a better musician; here’s another example.

Shino and I played the entire Debussy cello sonata for the first time this weekend. While practicing, I remembered a lot of unpleasant things about when I first learned this piece during my junior year of high school. That year I visited a number of highly regarded music schools and took lessons from a couple of famous teachers... one of whom told me that my Debussy sonata (and my technique in general) sucked, and I’d be better off giving up the cello.

Defiant, I kept at it, working through problem after problem and increasing my practice time. I made a lot of progress and passed the audition at my first choice university. Still, I was afraid of rejection; I developed a bad habit of crying when I was criticized.

I think I probably burned out in graduate school, so “being busy with theological studies” gave me an excuse to let my cello gather dust. Then, when we first came to Japan, I was delighted to discover that I was able to practice almost every day!

Although change of atmosphere may have helped, I think what made the biggest difference was the purpose of my practice. I was practicing to improve and to perform well, but I started praying while practicing Bach, and I started thinking that God enjoyed my cello playing—not so much my skill, but my heart. I play for other people, but I play for God most of all. Then I started enjoying practice sessions a lot more. (Not always… but it’s been a big improvement.)

Weekly rehearsals with Shino have provided motivation to practice. But more than that, I found myself remembering how much fun it is to play music with a friend, and how beautiful the Brahms sonata is. Then I realized about a month ago that the Debussy sonata is really, really fun. It’s full of character and spunk, and it’s such an interesting fusion of Western music with elements of Asian music that were popular among French composers of Debussy’s time.

I was able not only to take the Debussy sonata to a new level personally, but the challenging piano and cello interplay forced us to listen to each other even more carefully, which in turn helped us to make a huge improvement in the Brahms sonata and other pieces in our repertoire. Most importantly, I had fun. Shino had fun. I didn’t care anymore what a couple of music professors said about my playing in the distant past.

I’m thankful for Shino, and for chances to perform great music together. I’m thankful that God listens to my cello, even when I’m having a “bad cello day.” God’s love for me is not dependent on perfect performance.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Becoming a Dancing Panda

Today’s coffee: Tanzania

A couple of years ago, we visited a rural church where our friend is the pastor. After the service, we chatted with church members and visitors over tea. One person expressed his appreciation for western missionaries: “you’re the 客寄せパンダ (crowd-drawing pandas, or dancing pandas).” I could see the pastor and his wife face-palming behind him in embarrassment.

I’m in a bit of a slump.

Shino and I have two concerts coming up next weekend, and although the music preparations are going okay, I’m having a really hard time getting motivated to work on the spoken parts of the concert. To be fair, getting myself to work on concert talks and piece introductions is always a struggle; I am not a public speaker. Back in college, I used to come onstage with my cello, play whatever I was scheduled to play, and then leave the stage again, all without saying a word. Sometimes I really miss those sorts of straightforward concerts.

I think Celia the musician and Celia the missionary are locked in some sort of battle. Celia the musician wants to play concerts that the audience will enjoy, that Shino and I will be proud of, that we will enjoy playing—a good concert, with good music and a good atmosphere. Afterwards, I envision lively conversation over tea with guests. Hopefully the guests can make the first steps towards friendship with members of the church which is hosting the concert.

Celia the musician struggles with her own annoyance at requests to play popular music, or “songs everyone knows,” or just “nothing too long.” Most pop-songs aren’t suited to cello and piano. There is so much good cello repertoire, but most of it is longer than a 3-minute pop-song, and much of it no one has ever heard.

Celia the musician would not be upset if she never had to play Amazing Grace or What a Friend We Have in Jesus ever again. These are the two hymns that get requested for every concert, since they are the only two hymns that the average Japanese concert-goer will know. (Much to the frustration of Celia the missionary, the line in Amazing Grace that I was hoping to work into my concert talk—“I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see”—disappeared in the Japanese version. I even checked three different translations.)

Celia the musician is feeling conflicted about using concerts as “bait and switch.” Celia the missionary is also feeling conflicted about this. Recently, there was a major evangelistic outreach in Sapporo, which was advertised as a concert. There was a lot of great music, I’m told. (I didn’t go; I was sick.) But some of the concert-goers were surprised that the main event of the evening was not the various musical performances, but the lengthy sermon by a famous visiting preacher. I wonder if some of the guests felt that they had been tricked?

Celia the missionary, while feeling conflicted, wants to do whatever is necessary for the spread of the Gospel through her concerts. Should I give up my desire to play what I think is a good concert? Should I play popular songs and then give a directly evangelistic talk (unadvertised and possibly unexpected)? Is that really what is necessary for the spread of the Gospel? Does it matter that guests who come expecting “just a concert” might feel that they have been deceived?

A friend of ours was explaining to a Japanese Christian friend his distaste for teaching English—an expectation every English-speaking missionary has placed on him or her. “Why do I have to be a dancing panda?” he asked. His friend responded: “I would gladly be a dancing panda if it meant that more people could be reached for the Gospel.”

I agree. But “if” is a very important word here. Is God asking me to be the bait in a bait-and-switch scheme? Should I embrace the role of dancing panda? Or is that just an expectation, because that’s the way things have always been done? I’m not sure. If becoming “bait” really is what’s necessary for the spread of the Gospel, I will certainly continue to do it, but I’m not convinced. I struggle to distinguish God’s voice and God’s leading for my music ministry from the pressures and expectations placed on me by others—or even my own faulty interpretations of what others expect.

I do know that God led me to play the cello, and he led me to study cello at university and in grad-school. Then he led me to Regent College, and to Japan. Keith and I decided on Regent in part because of the Christianity and the Arts program; I spent three years struggling through these very same sorts of issues: what is a musician’s purpose in the Kingdom of God? Where do I fit? This is what I concluded: my purpose, like everyone else, is to worship God and bring glory to his name. I’m still trying to figure out what that looks like specifically, but I think that’s the way forward for me now.

Monday, December 29, 2014

What we ate (and other Christmas notes)

Today’s coffee: New Year’s Blend

It’s raining today, which is annoying, since it makes some of the huge amount of snow that fell on December 26 rather slushy and gross. But this too shall pass; the weather will get cold again later this week.

This is our car, on the morning of December 26. It's hard to tell from the picture how much snow that is, but it's more than 2 feet...
Actually I was rather pleased with a quiet day indoors on December 26. I made sauerkraut, yuzu curd, and sandwich fillings for the Christmas tea party the following day. Then we sat in front of the window watching the snow fall. (Keith also shoveled snow.)

Tea Party menu:
Scones with yuzu curd, jam, and cream
Mini-quiche with ham and sundried tomato filling
Tea sandwiches: egg salad on pumpernickel, cranberry pecan chicken salad on pecan sourdough
Linzer cookies
Cardamom rolls
Chocolate banana pound cake (from Noriko)
Raisin pound cake (from Mina)
Sasakushi dango (from Kyoko)
Lots and lots of tea

Tea party table, complete with flowers from one of my concerts.
Tea party guests: members of my small group and some friends.
Being in Japan has influenced me in many ways, perhaps especially in the area of food. Taking pictures of food, thinking more carefully about color and balance and seasonal vegetables when putting together a meal, and considering the tastes of my guests, to name a few points. Also, just spending more time thinking about food, and planning menus. Today, I have food on my mind for various reasons, so that’s what I’m going to write about, mostly.

I think I’ve never been as well-fed as I’ve been in the last week. We have invited a number of Japanese friends over, thinking that they will help us to eat the mountain of food currently in the house. However, Japanese tradition dictates that when you go to someone’s house, you bring a gift, usually food. This means that the mountain of food did not necessarily decrease when our guests went home.

In Japan, Christmas is “over” on the evening of December 24. After that, it’s time to prepare for the New Year holiday. We deliberately invited people over after Christmas, since now that concerts and church events are over, we have time to relax with friends… and celebrate Christmas. There has been a steady stream of guests at our house since Christmas Eve, and this will probably continue until after New Year’s. (Meanwhile, Keith is trying to write a sermon…)

Christmas Eve menu:
Swedish Meatballs and gravy
Mash potatoes
Cranberry sauce
Green bean casserole
Dessert: Cardamom rolls
Drinks: Sparkling apple cider

Thanks to Costco, we had ham for our Christmas dinner; that’s the first time we’ve had ham since coming to Japan. I made a glaze with mikan (mandarin orange), and we roasted potatoes and carrots together with it. Uncharacteristically, there is no picture of the ham. Tonight the leftovers will become split pea soup, also a first since we’ve been in Japan.

Christmas Dinner menu:

Ham with mikan glaze
Roasted carrots and potatoes
Brussels sprouts with chestnuts
Stuffing, provided by Sarah
Dessert: Fruitcake with marzipan, mince pies
Drinks: Sparkling apple and grape juice

The reason I’ve got food on my mind is because I’ve started preparations for Osechi, the Japanese New Year’s feast. This year will be my fifth time making Osechi. Keith says it gets better every year. I wouldn’t doubt it; the first time I made Osechi, I could hardly read the recipes I was using. Most people make Osechi over the course of several days. Usually I just do it all on December 31, but this year I’m trying to spread it out a bit.

This, too, is part of my training. Keith and I hope that hospitality will continue to be a big part of our ministry in the future.

Other than the previously mentioned meals, here are some other pictures of various Christmas events.

Church potluck #1. Can you find Ultraman?
Christmas concert #1 at Hokuei Church
Church potluck #2
Playing for worship service at Wakaba
Christmas concert #2 at Wakaba