Greetings.  As we pray approach Easter weekend, I am reminded of an interesting experience I had on our recent trip to Japan in February to prepare for several Global Leadership Teams to work in the tsunami recovery areas  this summer through Remember Japan 2012.

One Thursday afternoon while in Tokyo, my colleague Ben Cheek and I walked down the famous shopping street of Omotesando in the Aoyama district to stretch our legs and check out a giant, four-story 100 yen shop (the equivalent of a dollar store in the US) to buy some cheap souvenirs.   Our funds were very limited but it didn’t seem right to spend two weeks in Japan and not bring something back for the kids. Thankfully, my daughters love anything Hello Kitty and don’t care if the goods are purchased at a 100 yen shop!  After our budget shopping spree, we ventured over to Yoyogi Park, the big park in Tokyo just outside of Meiji Shrine (the shinto shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji.)  Yoyogi Koen (park in Japanese) was popularized in the late 1970’s and early 80’s by the hundreds of Japanese youth who would hang out there and dress in rockabilly clothing and punk hair styles like the popular group “The Straycats” of that era.   These youth known as Takenoko Zoku (literal translation: The Bamboo Shoot Tribe) were growing up in the “Bubble” period of the thriving post-war Japanese economy.  They were quite a spectacle at Yoyogi in those days and were eventually driven out by the Tokyo Metropoliton police.   These Japanese youth were seeking meaning and identity through the  glorification of rockabilly subculture that began in 1950’s America.

Those days are long gone in Japanese youth culture but you will find still find many youth hanging in or around Yoyogi or nearby in the popular youth district of Harajuku where many young women dress up as their favorite manga or comic book character.  This practice is known as costume play or “kosupurei” in Japanese.    As Ben and I walked across the stone bridge into Yoyogi Koen that chilly Thursday afternoon on March 8th in Tokyo, we noticed a group of young people standing together and holding signs that read “Free Hugs.”  They actually looked quite forlorn, standing in a group by themselves with absolutely no one approaching or hugging them!  Ben, who is in his 30’s and more up on global youth culture than myself,  quickly informed me that the free hug movement was popular worldwide and being promoted on youtube.   I am 42 and raising four young children –so my knowledge of youth culture is a bit more in line with Dr. Seuss these days….

In summary, youth go out into cities and hold up signs that read “free hugs” and enjoy the joy of hugging absolute strangers.   In Tokyo, on that particular day –these young people were not having much luck.  In Japan, hugging is quite a bold and awkward gesture as the Japanese for the most part do not hug even among family members in this stoic culture.  A slight bow, a kind word or a small gift is a much more acceptable way of expressing intimacy in this Asian culture.  Ben and I, however, could not resist this opportunity to be overly-exuberant Americans and quickly approached the group who lit up with smiles and laughter as we bear-hugged the entire group of seven students that afternoon.  As we carried out our hug-fest, I asked the youth why they were doing this and one guy looked at me with total sincerity and said, “Because it makes us happy.”  I knew he was telling the truth and was reminded of the emptiness and depression that haunts many Japanese young people.  A Gallup poll in 2006 showed that 12% of Japanese young people actually wished they had never been born!   Japan has the highest rate of youth suicide in the world.  Thus, this young guy’s answer was not to be taken lightly since “happiness” can be a rare commodity in the highly-pressurized, hectic society of Japan.

As we enjoyed our time with the group of renegade huggers, I felt a nudge from the Holy Spirit to directly share the Gospel.  So I began to explain in rusty Japanese (I attended Japanese language school in Tokyo from 1999-2001 while a Presbyterian missionary) that hugging is truly an enjoyable thing to do but that believe it or not, our Creator God also has a big hug for us through his love poured out in Jesus Christ.  I explained that when God sent Jesus into the world to die for our sins, He was actually hugging the entire world through his all-powerful love.   I didn’t push too hard but simply ended my message by saying, why don’t you check it out?  Read the Bible or learn a little bit about Christianity.  One young woman looked at me with such an intense curiosity that I knew a seed had been planted in her and potentially the others.  I wished I had been carrying some of the introductory dvd’s produced by Jesus Net Japan that introduce folks to Christianity in an approachable way through seeker-oriented websites like Knowing God and Why Jesus  in Japanese.  I didn’t have any with me that afternoon but I sensed Gospel seeds had been planted by the witness of our hugs and my description of God’s great hug of love for humanity in Jesus Christ.

As I reflect on that encounter in Tokyo, now four weeks later on Maundy Thursday afternoon back home here in North Carolina, I am reminded of the sacrifice the Father made and the pain his Son endured so that you and I might freely receive the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.   Paul writes in Romans 8:32:

“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”

Living in the United States, it can be easy at times to take the Gospel and Christian holidays like Easter and Christmas for granted.   Like many Western nations, there are churches on every street corner, countless ministries, Christian music and entertainment is plentiful and you can find Christian books for all ages even in secular bookstores.    This is not to say that there are not thousands in the Western world who still need to hear and respond to the Gospel – because there are!!   In the United States, Easter is a strategic time for the Church since supposedly more people attend church on Easter more than any other Sunday of the year.   Praise God – that some of these 1-2 timers will actually hear the Gospel and respond to the Good News of Jesus!

On Maundy Thursday, we remember the Last Supper or the last Passover Seder meal that Our Lord shared with his disciples before his betrayal, arrest, humiliation, trial, torture and crucifixion.  The cost that Jesus paid for us was absolutely HUGE –physical torture and spiritual separation from His Father by taking the sins of the world (all of our sins) upon himself as He endured the horror of the Cross.  Jesus knew how high this cost was and so He prayed fervently and struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane to the very point of sweating blood and asking his Father who He completely loved and trusted to remove this cup from him. (Luke 22:44)  Yet, willing to be completely obedient, Jesus also prayed “not as I will but as you will.”  Matthew 26:39   His willingness led to the salvation you and I celebrate at Easter and can now easily invite others to receive.   Celebrating Holy Week and Easter brings joy and gratitude even as we remember the pain of our Lord because we realize the HUGE cost our Heavenly Father made and the Son endured for you and for me.

So today, join me in praying that these young people we encountered in Tokyo four weeks ago who were looking for intimacy, love and “happiness” through the simple act of hugging strangers will actually discover the incredible bear-hug our Lord Jesus Christ has for

Christian Zebley with the Free Huggers in Yoyogi Park

each one of them and for every young person in Japan.  Young people, in this modern, industrialized society, can be so forlorn that some discuss suicide openly in chat rooms on the internet and even meet together for suicide parties.

One of the saddest moments I had as a missionary in Japan was attending the funeral of a young track star at our Presbyterian university who was involved in our chapel program.  One day exactly at 12 noon, he climbed to a nearby high-rise, took off his glasses and his shoes and threw himself to death on the street below.   On another occasion, I presided at a private funeral for a young man who had suffocated himself at a local beach by lighting a small charcoal grill inside his tent –perhaps a more gentle but just as lethal way to commit suicide.  At the funeral, I cannot forget his mother’s statement of “how young his bones were” when she and her husband received his ashes from the crematorium.  This was a stoic way of expressing deep loss and sadness over her son’s untimely death in his early 20’s.

In the wake of the 311 disaster – the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear incident – that killed 19,000 people on and after March 11, 2011, Japan is experiencing a new spiritual atmosphere.  Last month, I witnessed first-hand the massive collaboration between church denominations and agencies working to rebuild the devastated areas in the northern region of Tohoku.  The Japanese people seem to be more open to the Gospel and new churches are being planted in northern Japan.  I spoke with the director of a mission agency who believes they are seeing the beginning of true revival in the Japanese church.  He also said they were experiencing a historical openness to the Gospel similar to the period just after World War II.

I hope you have a wonderful Easter weekend with your family.  Please join me in praying for the young people of Japan, those rebuilding their lives and homes in the 311 disaster areas and this entire nation.  Perhaps, God is calling you to join us in reaching out to Tohoku this July through Remember Japan 2012 Perhaps, He is calling to you to support this ministry through prayer and financial giving.  Whatever God is calling you to do, would you be obedient to His promptings?   Remember the obedience and the cost that now sets both you and me free when we accept Jesus Christ as our Savior -the gift of salvation.  Also, remember to share the good news of the “free hug” the Father has bestowed upon us through the sacrifice of his Son.


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