Then the Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?”
“A staff,” he replied. –Exodus 4:2
Moses had a staff.
David had a slingshot (1 Samuel 17:40).
A little boy had five small barley loaves and two small fish (John 6:9).
What do you have in your hand? What has God already equipped you with, even before you ever knew it was Him at work? Some parts of our past may seem irredeemable, but God can, and will, use them – if we’ll only let Him.
Before the disaster of March 11, 2011, there was one missionary in all of Iwate Prefecture; after the disaster, there were over twenty of us. We all knew one another and would gather every month or so for a time of fellowship, encouragement, and prayer.
During one gathering, we were brainstorming different ways to reach out to tsunami survivors: up until that point, our network had organized numerous concerts, cooking events, and arts & crafts activities. We were trying to come up with something new.
One missionary, a fellow American, asked me what I used to do before God called me to ministry.
I sheepishly replied, “Oh, I did some animation and graphic design. Taught tai chi on the side,” expecting some sort of judgment for having such a secular background. Instead…
“Wonderful! Have you thought about teaching animation to kids? We haven’t done a whole lot to serve the young people at the kasetsu.”
I hadn’t thought of that. I hadn’t given animation much thought at all since my television show was cancelled. But now that this missionary mentioned it, the possibilities excited me. “That’s a great idea! It might be too much to teach animation techniques, but maybe I could teach them how to sculpt figures out of clay.” I knew that paper clay was readily available at the local 100 yen store. (100 yen equaled roughly 80 cents at the time.)
“Yes!” exclaimed the missionary. “And you could teach tai chi to the older residents. They’re in need of physical activity, you know.”
This stunned me more than the animation idea. For years, I had downplayed my history as a tai chi instructor, mostly because, as a new believer, I had to sort through my own theology of martial arts (which some Christians denounce as ungodly – I have my own thoughts on this and will save it for a separate post). Plus, tai chi has often been associated with the New Age crowd, and as a one-time prayer pastor, I tried to avoid anything reeking of mysticism.
When I entered full-time ministry, I stopped actively doing tai chi and thought I’d never do it again. But here was a missionary from the Bible Belt of America, enthusiastically encouraging me to use what I already have to serve others, in Jesus’ name. (It helps that the style of tai chi I learned and teach was passed down from my grandmaster, who happened to be a Christian who left China after W.W.II and weeded out elements he deemed “dangerous.”)
And so began my tai chi ministry to elderly tsunami survivors.
The Ofunato base staff began to organize tai chi fitness events at various kasetsu, touting the scientifically documented health benefits of tai chi practice. The classes proved popular and allowed me to hold these classes regularly throughout the city, including at a popular burger joint. I’d teach tai chi for an hour, then sit and have tea time with the students afterwards, ending our time with a testimony and gospel message related to the lesson, along with a closing prayer.
I also began to offer classes on sculpting clay figures, using the popular anime character Anpanman as the subject of the lesson. Not only is Anpanman perhaps the most well-known children’s character in Japan, its creator was a Christian and there are blatant Christian themes running throughout the story: for example, Anpanman’s “father” is a baker who prayed to God and asked for living bread. A star soared over the bakery, and the bread came to life as Anpanman, a superhero who rescues people by giving up his body for them to eat when they’re weak (sounds weird, but bear with me). Anpanman dies after this act of self-sacrifice, but his father, the Baker, brings him back to life.
Anpanman was the perfect character for these outreach events. We’d teach kids and adults alike how to make the character out of clay, then we’d explain the history of the character and how Anpanman is an allegory for Jesus.
Clay animation and tai chi – two elements from my past that I had mentally discarded as useless turned out to open new doors for sharing the good news about Jesus. God wastes nothing and redeems even what we perceive to be failures. When my animated series was cancelled – twice – I thought I’d never have anything to do with that world again.
But God had other plans. And for that, I am thankful.
Stephen Bay is the Newsong Kids Pastor. You can check out more of his writing at www.ransomedlife.com.