Saturday, February 2, 2013

Wholesome Freedom

As promised, here's the scoop from the women's conference I attended last weekend!

This Women's Conference in Japan started back in 1957 when a group of missionary wives began gathering on an annual basis to celebrate and share in in fellowship with other women. The gathering has grown to include women from all over Japan, and not just those who are married or missionaries. For some years now, the Women's Conference has invited women from ARI and provided them with scholarship for the weekend.

So Kelly and I were invited to attend the conference this year, how exciting! Kelly handled most of the communication and planning, so it was nice just to be along for the ride and not have any expectations. We once again navigated the the incredibly complex yet user-friendly Japan Railways (JR), and after 8 hours on local trains, we arrived at Amagi Sanso, a lovely retreat center/hotel in the mountains of the Izu Peninsula. We got situated in our Japanese-style room with a tatami floor and futon bed :)

The theme for the weekend was "Treasuring Our Gifts" using scripture reading from 2 Corinthians 4:7  "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves." The guest speaker was a woman named Lorelei Johnson VerLee. She grew up in a missionary family in Japan (now lives in Indiana with her family) and as an adult, has founded different organizations to empower women around the world through handicrafts. You can learn more about her and her work on her website. She shared her story of spiritual growth and discovering her gifts.

In our discussions with Lorelei, we especially dissected Romans 12:6-8 "We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us; prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness." We talked about these specific gifts, what I would probably refer to as dominant personality traits, and what each one looks like today. After talking briefly about the possible negative consequences of each of these gifts, we were asked to break into small groups and come up with a skit to illustrate two gifts coming into conflict. In my group was Kelly, Lyn (a woman I met from Arkansas who I will tell you about later), and a Japanese woman named Masako, who knew very little English. Masako began by telling us a story (Lyn translated!). She often visited a park near her home, and occasionally saw people who were contemplating suicide, and once even witnessed suicide. This was clearly something that was heavy on her heart and she needed listening ears. At the same time, we were given only 15 minutes to come up with this skit. I most identified with ministry (or service, as it is called in some translations), and the general "downfall" of a person of this persuasion is always wanting things to be done the "right way" (I certainly fall into this category). So while I was trying to listen to Masako's story, I was also stressing that we were not making the best use of our time to create this skit. And it suddenly occurred to me that this is exactly the kind of situation where gifts can come into conflict with one another:

My desire to get things done was interfering with my ability to show compassion or mercy. It is a miracle to me that my small, one-tracked brain realized this in the moment of said conflict, and I was able to compromise my dominant desire to cut her story short and move on, in order to give her this space to lift her burden. When she had finished her story and we shared our condolences, we were all ready to move on. We did our skit on this very instance of conflict. 

The conference was set up like any typical retreat. There were these kinds of large-group presentations and discussions facilitated by different planning committee members, there were different workshops that we could attend, time for self-reflection and relaxation, etc. I attended two workshops, the first was on quilting! We were given material to make a small quilt (maybe 7in x 7in square) and learned how to line up the pieces, sew them together, and stitch with the batting inside. This was an incredibly fun and enlightening and all around wonderful workshop for me, a productivity fiend who loves to keep her hands busy and create many, many things. I was absolutely delighted with my final product, my first quilt! I gifted it to Nishi for her birthday!
Nishi cutting her birthday cake!

The second workshop I attended was on puppets and puppet ministry. The woman leading the workshop was truly gifted in puppeteering, she had the puppet characterization/voices, body and mouth movement, and the passion to pull it all together. She talked briefly about how puppets can be an incredibly effective tool for conveying messages and communicating effectively, especially with children. They give children a voice other than their own, for circumstances where a child might be embarrassed to tell a particular story or ask a certain question. Puppets are also good at conveying messages because people, adults and children alike, tend to remember the performance more so than they would a traditional sermon. We then picked out a puppet and began planning a skit for the closing worship service. Somehow, I managed to land the lead role in the skit, and I wasn't exactly confident about that. We began practicing and even after multiple attempts and silent motivational speeches to myself, I had to tell myself this just wasn't my gift. I handed over the role to someone else and took on a silent dancing role. This was hard to do, especially in front of people I barely knew. But I think recognizing those things that we are not gifted at is just as important as recognizing the things that we are. We all had a good time dancing with our puppets behind the curtain, and maybe dancing ourselves :)

(I'm the blue guy on the right!)
The absolute best part of this conference, for me, was not the guest speaker, was not the appropriate theme, was not the large-group discussions or skits, was not the snack table (which was pretty awesome)--it was meeting Lyn Sato. Lyn grew up in Arkansas, in Sherwood, Arkansas, to be exact, and in the Episcopal Church. She attended Sylvan Hills High School, a rival school of my high school, Wilbur D. Mills University Studies High School. and, And, AND, she was a counselor at Camp Mitchell (maybe early 80s?). What are the odds? She came to Japan with her husband and works as a teacher now. When we discovered we shared these southern roots, we started this weekend-long "do you know...?" game. We uncovered all these connections, laughing and crying over people loved and lost. Meeting Lyn in this foreign country, at this annual conference mountains far away from both our Arkansas home and current Japan home, was one of the most spiritually uplifting experiences I've had since I've been here. It reinforced for me who I am and where I come from, and seemed to legitimize my identity in this place. To other people, I am just a foreigner, or an American, or maybe even an Arkansan to those people who have actually heard of my state; but to Lyn, I was Jenny Knight, Maumellian (is that what we're called?), Wilbur D. Mills Alum, University of Central Arkansas Alum, Arkansas Episcopalian, Camp Mitchell counselor...all these things that are virtually meaningless to other people I meet here. 

Sidenote: A friend at Camp Mitchell painted a quote in our Arts & Crafts pavilion that I have never understood: "I am whole, I am free." (Cane West). I always thought it sounded too...something, beyond my rational scope of understanding. And I'm not sure if I have any better grasp on what Cane was meaning, but after last weekend, the quote has been popping up in my mind when I think about Lyn. Because since we met, I have felt, somehow, "free." And maybe it's because I feel I have been validated, maybe vindicated by her knowing and understanding my roots. Like I said, this might be far from what Cane was getting at, but I feel by recognizing and really understanding and empathizing with other people, we are freeing them from this feeling of not belonging or fitting in. Maybe the role that Lyn has played in my experience and existence in Japan is the role of assurance, and that, I feel, has completed this wheel of experience I've created in my brain to represent myself in this different culture. I am whole, I am free.

Kelly and I returned Sunday afternoon. We spent the entire train rides home dissecting all that had happened during the weekend. It was really nice for us to have been there together, I think we really bonded over some of the conference activities and our reflections of the weekend. So back at ARI, the "real-world," which still seems so unreal to both of us, we are adjusting back to farm life and kerosene heaters. Kelly arrived just one month after Doug and I, she will stay at ARI until January 2014. As for Doug and I, we are days away from the half-way mark. February 6 is our 6-month ARI anniversary! 6 months down, 6 months to go. Even though our time here will begin "counting down," we are certainly still in the mindset of "counting up." In the next month or two we will be preparing for the new 2013 participants' arrival and the busy spring and summer work that lies ahead. Even though we feel we know the ropes most of the time, it is humbling to think that we have no idea what is about to blossom on this farm in the next few months. A new season brings new work, and new lessons to be learned. We are very excited!

Knight Field Update

Well, our field has seen a good number of snows this winter, but we think it will pull through. We've already stepped on our wheat and now we can sit back and wait for the warmer sunshine of spring to really spur the growth of our strong little sprouts.

Edo Wonderland

Yesterday we visited Edo Wonderland, a theme park celebrating the Edo era in Japan, 1603-1868. We saw ninja shows and reenactments and wax museums and all sorts of theme park-related fun. I will let the pictures do the talking (especially since I have done so much talking already!)

Ninja training

contemplating in the maze

throwing ninja stars!
Fellow Servants in Christ,

Doug and Jenny

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