Friday, January 30, 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.

Friday, January 09, 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.