June 22, 2023

Jesus with Skin On

Living out the Incarnation in Ishinomaki, Japan

by Alan Kropp

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck 50 miles off the northeast coast of Japan. It lasted over three minutes. The island of Honshu, a land mass roughly the size of Minnesota, moved eight feet to the east. The vibrations from the earthquake were so powerful they were detected by satellites in outer space. The disaster triggered a monster tsunami that ravaged the northeast coastline. In some places, the tsunami rose as high as 125 feet. In other areas, it traveled as far as six miles inland. More than 100,000 buildings were destroyed and over 22,000 lives lost. To date, this was the most costly natural disaster in recorded history at $238 billion. 

My wife, Jill, and I felt the earthquake where we lived in Japan, some 500 miles south of the epicenter. Three weeks after the tsunami, I felt compelled to make the 11- hour drive north to help with relief efforts and share the love of Jesus. I brought supplies like shovels and tools to help people clear their homes of debris. I delivered water and blankets and assembled bicycles so people could get to work. For the next year, I traveled monthly into the disaster zone to assist with the relief effort. 

Two years later, our family moved to the tsunami-ravaged city of Ishinomaki. This is where God was calling us to be present, being the hands and feet of Jesus in our daily lives. 

Incarnation in the Ordinary

3.4 billion people—40 percent of the world’s population—have yet to experience Christ’s loving embrace. Jesus commands us all to participate in His Great Commission and sends some of us to go to these people groups without gospel access—to become like them, to live life with them, and to humbly serve them in hopes that they, too, can become part of God’s family. 

The 2022–2023 Missions Emphasis theme is Be Present. In other words, as followers of Jesus, we are to be the tangible, loving presence of the Savior where we live, work, and play. As the Body of Christ, we are to be Jesus “with skin on.” Interestingly, the Japanese word for Incarnation is juniku, which is made up of two kanji characters. The first character means “take on.” The second means “flesh.” So, the Incarnation is literally, “God taking on flesh.” The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language by Eugene Peterson, captures it this way: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14). The Incarnation shows us that when it comes to redeeming and restoring this broken world, God literally has skin in the game! 

The Incarnation is not just a doctrine—it is our model for life and mission. We are to identify deeply with those we serve and winsomely infiltrate this world for good. Where and how we do this and the approaches we take will no doubt vary. However, our core identity and calling to be present will be the same. 

During our first four years in Ishinomaki, much of what Jill and I did was ordinary. Our kids went to Japanese public school. We shopped where our neighbors shopped. Our neighborhood was full of kids, so our children played with them. 

One day a new mom approached Jill asking if she would be willing to start a group for new moms and teach them how to be better mothers. Jill replied, “Yes, of course, but we are Christians, and we try to follow the wisdom and teachings of the Bible. Are you OK if we use Scripture?” The mom was fine with it, and in no time she and Jill had started a child-rearing group for new mothers. 

“Thank You for Teaching Me About Jesus”

About six years ago, a young mom started coming to the Ishinomaki New Life Center (NLC), which we started to help tsunami survivors. She had heard about our child-rearing program and decided to get connected. Her daughter had a severe case of eczema. Large patches of her skin were red, flaky, and itchy. When this mom heard that we believe God can heal, she asked us to pray for her child. A teammate and I placed our hands on this little girl, anointed her with oil, and prayed, trusting Jesus to bring her relief. 

The next time we saw her mom, she told us her daughter’s skin condition had improved dramatically! We praised God and thanked Jesus that He still heals today. That miracle got this mom’s attention. Since then, she has been open to the things of Jesus. We invited her to our house church, called Family Room, and she has attended faithfully for the past four years. She prays in Jesus’ name and has told us she believes the truth about Him. However, she has not been baptized because she is unsure how her husband and Buddhist family will respond. 

Two years ago, I received a birthday card from her. In it she wrote, “Thank you for teaching me about Jesus.” As a missionary serving among a people group that knows little to nothing about Jesus—and who often is the very first Christian they have met—this is about as good as it gets! 

“It’s Time to Be Baptized”

When I met Naoki in 2016, he was going through a difficult time. After Naoki got connected with our ministry, we developed a friendship. We would have lunch together, shoot basketball, and meet for coffee—and we would always talk about life and spiritual things. We also spent time studying the Bible together. I would invite him to special events at the NLC, and he was eager to come. He even served as a volunteer at one of our outreach events. Over the years we became good friends, and I could tell that he was moving closer to Jesus. 

Then one day, amid the pandemic, I texted Naoki but received no response. I didn’t hear a word from him for six months. We were deeply concerned. We knew he had emotional highs and lows, but we also knew the enemy was working to discourage him and cause him to doubt what he had learned about Jesus. For the next six months, we prayed. Sometimes we ran out of words so we just wept. We appealed to our prayer base back in the States, asking people to intercede on Naoki’s behalf. 

After those six months, I received a text from Naoki asking if we could meet. We took a walk along a waterway near my house, and he broke down, confessing his need for Jesus. I’ve never seen a person so overwhelmed by the darkness in his heart. He asked God for forgiveness, and then he just cried. As he embraced me, which is not a very Japanese thing to do, he said, “It’s time to be baptized. I know you have been waiting for this moment. Thank you for not being pushy. I was not ready then, but now I am.” 

Naoki was baptized in July 2021 on the very beach where the tsunami waters flooded our city. After eight years of being present in Ishinomaki, this was the first Japanese person I have ever baptized. He is now being discipled and even teaching Bible stories to the kids who attend our house church. 

It took five years of being present and available to see my friend Naoki decide to follow Jesus. I’ve been told that’s pretty fast for someone to come to Christ in Japan. His story was a good reminder that it’s our role to share Christ and persevere in prayer, and it’s God’s job to save. 

“Jesus is Here!”

One of the activities I enjoy on my days off is surfing. This may be surprising, but Japan has the largest surfing community in the world—larger than its Christian population. According to Christian Surfers Japan, there are 1.5 million surfers in Japan. I try to surf once a week as part of my routine. Because I go out consistently, I see the same people and over the years have built friendships with several men. 

Last summer, I was surfing one morning with two other men, one in his forties and the other in his sixties. There were no waves, so we spent most of our time sitting on our surfboards just talking. After an hour and a half, we decided to call it a day. We paddled to shore and walked back to our vehicles. 

After changing out of my wet suit and back into my clothes, I approached my friends. One of them said, “I hope this isn’t rude, but I’m curious about something. Whenever a Buddhist priest performs a funeral, we must pay him around $3,000. Do you mind if I ask . . . how do you make a living?” I assured him that his question was fine and then explained how a pastor is typically compensated. His question allowed me to naturally steer the conversation to the gospel and why we even gather for worship. 

I went on to share with them how Jesus’ way is completely different from all other religions. Using Ephesians 2:8–10, I explained that religion is people reaching up to God seeking salvation through their own efforts to earn His favor, but the story of the Bible is that God, in the Person of Jesus, reached down to us. In fact, Jesus is “God with us.” 

After I shared this and read a passage of Scripture, one of them chimed in, “When you shared these words with us, I felt my heart burning. When I was in college, I went to a school that was started by missionaries. We had a chapel time to hear messages from the Bible. When you shared these words, it reminded me of my time at university over 30 years ago. I’m so glad the waves were not good today because we were able to hear your talk.” 

I told them, “This is why I am here, and I would love to have more conversations like this in the future.” 

The following week, I returned to the same spot and saw my two friends. Smiling broadly, they said, “Hey, Jesus is here!” I don’t know what was behind that statement, but here’s the cool thing: they associate me with Jesus. Isn’t this what we all want? It is because I was present, entering their world on their terms, that I was able to build trust, to naturally connect with these men, and to have a meaningful conversation about things that matter. I didn’t lead them to Jesus that day, but I’ve now joined them on their journey. 

Alliance family, let’s be faithful to be fully present in the moment—to be the tangible, loving presence of Jesus where we live, work, and play for God’s glory and the advancement of His Kingdom. 

Subscribe to Alliance Life Magazine

As an Alliance church member, you can join the 141-year legacy of Alliance Life and get exclusive stories and articles delivered directly to your mailbox or inbox. Click here to request your free subscription!