Legend has it that Americans living in Japan finally gave up on finding a real Christmas turkey and settled for a feast of Kentucky Fried Chicken instead. Their compromise either misled a local branch manager into thinking that all Americans practiced a similar tradition or maybe this KFC employee simply saw an opportunity. Either way, Japanese people have been told that Christmastime equals KFC ever since, and it is now deeply ingrained in their minds and holiday traditions. It’s a tradition that my family has happily joined for the past three years as we have lived and served in Osaka, Japan as your International Mission Board missionaries.

The Fleming Family

Christmas has continued to gain popularity in Japan, but there are still plenty of confusing misconceptions tied to one of our most holy days. Christmas is primarily perceived as a romantic holiday that heavily caters to couples looking for a date night. Christmas is not seen as a particularly fun holiday for kids (they are in school on Christmas Day) and the really big presents are always saved for New Year’s celebrations. Every grocery and convenience store starts taking orders for “Christmas cakes” in November because a strawberry sponge cake with a tiny Santa-San (“Mr. Santa”) is another essential holiday component. Most people just assume that December 25th is Santa-San’s birthday.

Through all the mistranslations, the same feeling comes every year as I watch Japan embrace the commercial side of Christmas. You’ve felt it before bustling through shopping malls or while watching yet another Hallmark special. It’s the feeling that the importance of this Holy event is being completely missed. That feeling is somehow more amplified in Japan. The tragedy of missing the point is so much more pronounced and even painful because it’s Christmas, but without the joy and hope of Christ. As we Americans inch further from the true reason for the season, Japanese are starting off miles away from the truth. This Christmas, I’m reminded that regardless of where we start, the solution is the same in both worlds. In the land of LED yard nativity sets OR KFC combo sets, we can still proclaim joy to the world by listening and obeying God’s calling on our own lives.

In my own life, 2020 has made this simple concept seem like an impossible task. These are hard times for your missionaries. On top of the normal language, cultural, and financial barriers we now have an added layer of COVID-19 concerns and travel restrictions. While this has somewhat impeded our work, I am so thankful that we have the infrastructure and support of our churches and our sending agency. As Southern Baptists who have been working around the world for 175 years, we have a unique opportunity and I firmly believe God has been preparing us for such a time as this. The Woodridge Baptist Church family has particularly partnered with us to accomplish and further our work in Japan. You have sent teams, care packages, and generous financial support during my service as your IMB missionary. I am so grateful for this partnership and I can tell you that your investment is planting many seeds and already seeing fruit. While it is true that we haven’t been able to host teams from your church (or any church) this year, with your prayers and help we have placed Bibles in Japanese hands, planted a church in the most densely populated neighborhood in Osaka, and filled ramen shops and cafes with the sound of biblical discipleship. This year we have learned that when new work is hampered, God is most active in strengthening the existing work. Life and continued mission work have been challenging for everyone in 2020, but God is not surprised by these challenges. He knew and prepared us accordingly.

Woodridge Team in Japan

Last year, the IMB bought us new computers and phones. It seemed like a bonus blessing at the time, but this year we have been using these computers to stream church services, edit videos, move our Japanese language classes online, allow our daughters to attend their school online, and connect with small groups and individuals to offer encouragement and discipleship. What seemed like an extra blessing at the time, has proved to be an essential tool for ministries we never imagined. As I type this article, the borders of Japan are closed to visitors from America and most other countries struggling with Covid. But my family is allowed to enter, to minister, and to live amongst those who have never heard the Gospel because 175 years ago we started to work together in order to reach the lost of every nation. In that time, many missionaries have been sent to Japan and inroads have been made. We now have an organization that provides us with the best visa support, healthcare, housing, and language learning to allow their missionaries to continue the work of missions even in the midst of a global pandemic.

So, what will we learn moving forward? Has 2020 taught us anything that will change the way we do ministry? Our usual ways of working and giving together has proven to be an essential and resilient asset during unprecedented times. One of our precious Japanese church members summed up what I had been trying to say: She said, “I used to think my normal life was average and not very exciting. Now I can see that anything I used to think was normal, was actually a blessing from God. What I thought was normal, was actually one of my greatest blessings.” This pandemic has taken away many things and experiences from us, but through it all God has been proving himself faithful to those who totally depend on Him. God himself has given his church a precious gift in that we now know and appreciate that ministry is never normal. It is a special blessing from the Lord. A blessing that when/if restored, I will most certainly try harder to recognize. This includes your gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. From our perspective, we can begin to see this as a normal or regular gift. After all, those gifts make up our regular salary, which we use to buy groceries and pay bills. But after this year I understand just how miraculous these “normal” things are! Because of the events of 2020, your prayer and financial support is more needed and appreciated than ever before. I eagerly look forward to the day when I can work with teams from your church again, share our stories with strangers at a train station again, pack our house with friends again, and take full advantage of the blessings that a “normal” non-pandemic ministry affords.

As for now, we cling to an even better hope. As 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 reminds us,

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

This familiar exhortation is sometimes quoted without the part about all these circumstances being the will of God for us in Christ. God’s plan and His timing is perfect, and we can trust that even in the tough years, it is God’s will that we be there (rejoicing, praying, and thanking God for it). And if by God’s great design 2021 yields a more open and abundant harvest, we will be ready to respond and reap.

This holiday season, prayerfully consider the lessons you can learn from 2020. How can those lessons change and shape your personal ministry moving forward? Patiently listen for God to answer. Listen in your times of prayer. Listen in the midst of your circumstances. And listen most earnestly as you read the Word of God. Not doing so is an open invitation to mistranslation, a bit like Christmas in Japan. Many of the elements and traditions will be there, but they all will be a bit off. The purpose will become jumbled up and confused and the meaning lost. We are amused at the strange customs like KFC, Christmas cakes, and romantic dates that have grown up around Christmas in Japan over the years. How strange our ministries can also become if we are not daily taking direction from Jesus and trusting in His leadership. I believe wholeheartedly that 2021 will be an incredible year of ministry in Japan. We have positioned ourselves as Southern Baptists, wholly committed to global missions, to make up for any lost ground while making new advances wherever possible. God is moving and thanks to our partnership and His provision, we are ready for a new year of blessing!

Trey Fleming
IMB Missionary