Tuesday, September 21, 2021

An Open Letter to My Family about Health

Hello Family, 

I never got to know Grandma Jean as well as I would have liked. Unlike my cousins I grew up on the other side of the country rather than across town--and I have always been a little jealous of their closeness with our late grandparents.

While I was in my senior year at the University of Washington, grandma lost a protracted battle with health complications resulting from what I know understand to be Metabolic Syndrome. Like almost all of the adults in my extended family, my grandmother struggled with her weight--and as she got older this lead to diabetes and heart problems.

Over the past few years I have been making significant progress in addressing my own metabolic issues, and have begun to understand how to be more healthy with my genetic disposition towards insulin resistance and the danger of developing the same metabolic syndrome that took the life of my grandmother at the age of 74, twenty years sooner than her husband. 

I do think that this disposition towards developing insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome is partly inherited through my matrilineal line--and so this is being largely written to the Arends, Bedells, and Smiths that share Grandma Jean's Juneau DNA. 

People that are predisposed to metabolic syndrome are at greater risk for developing diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure--which all significantly decrease life expectancy, as well as quality of life in old age.

I don't know anyone in my family, with Grandma Jean's DNA, with possible exception of my extremely athletic cousin Greg, who doesn't have either the warning signs of insulin resistance, or is at some stage of developing into a full blown case metabolic syndrome right now. 

The first step in developing metabolic syndrome is insulin resistance. The first major sign of this is fat accumulation around the mid-section. There are a lot of theories as to how one develops insulin resistance, but the important thing to know, is that your hormones are no longer working properly, and rather than burning your body's fat for fuel, it has transitioned into a mode where it becomes increasingly difficult to use existing fat stores for fuel, instead preferring new energy--meaning that you will be hungry, despite likely eating more calories than your body needs. 

Once you develop insulin resistance, it becomes increasingly more likely to develop into more serious health issues.

I'm writing this, because I wish someone would have shared with me, years ago, what I am about to share with you--because I believe that if Grandma Jean had heard it she could have lived a much longer and healthier life--and I want that for you too.

You can reverse Insulin Resistance and the early stages of Metabolic Syndrome by adopting some or all of these following pieces of advice:

1. Start intermittent fasting. You may think it is impossible, as you are likely always hungry as a result of your insulin resistance, but adopting intermittent fasting will help you gain control over your cravings and what you choose to eat. I suggest starting by narrowing your eating window. In my case, I eat my first meal at 11am, and have dinner before 7, meaning that for 16 hours a day, I am not eating. 

This prolonged period where I am not eating, allows the insulin levels in my body to drop, and for my body to start using its own fat as fuel. There are different models of intermittent fasting, but the most important thing is that you limit the number of times in a day and the window you eat in, so that you give your body more time to shift gears.

2. Stop drinking alcohol. The liver is the most important organ in weight-loss. When you drink alcohol, you are effectively putting something in your body which the liver has to spend hours (possibly even an entire day) to process, meaning that while it is processing alcohol, it cannot effectively burn fat. So long as you are ingesting alcohol of any kind, your liver will be under significant added stress, meaning that it cannot do its job normally.

3. Avoid added sugar. This goes without saying, but one of the biggest factors in developing insulin resistance is a consistently high insulin level. When I was growing up, it was common to start the day with a sugary bowl of cereal, have juice and fruits at school, come home and have cookies or snacks, have more insulin inducing food at dinner, and then have a dessert before bed. 

That means that in a given day, I was spiking my blood sugar more than half a dozen times, from sun-up to sun-down... and at no time during that period was I allowing my insulin levels to drop. Keeping up this pattern for years is what wrecked my hormones and helped me to develop insulin resistance. Simply avoiding sugary snacks, drinks, and desserts alone would have gone a long way towards narrowing my eating window and would have helped me to avoid developing the hormonal problems that I did.

4. Try the Ketogenic Diet. All carbohydrates are processed by the body as sugars. Grains, starches, etc. all become sugar in the body--so limiting the consumption of carbohydrates will help to lower your insulin levels and possibly reverse your insulin resistance. If you are going to consider a diet that works well at addressing these issues while also helping you feel satiated and maintaining a lot of energy, I have personally had a lot of success with Keto--which synergizes well with intermittent fasting and the other advice above.

Keto is not strictly a low carb diet. Keto is a high fat, medium protein, low carb diet. Meaning that the bulk of one's calories are going to come from healthy fats like butter, avocados, coconut oil, and olive oil. A Keto diet should be about 60% fat, 35% protein, and 5% carbs.

5. Cut all industrial seed oils from your diet. Not all fats are created equal. In fact, modern industrial seed oils are just as bad, or worse than added sugar. Industrial seed oils (corn oil, canola oil, Crisco, margarine, grapeseed oil, sunflower oil, soya oil, etc.) are high in Omega-6 fatty acids, which prevent the body from effectively burning fat, and the byproduct of their highly oxidized nature is diminished life expectancy. Unfortunately, these modern industrial seed oils are in almost everything--almost all processed food, fast food, etc. contains high amounts of unhealthy industrial seed oils. 30% of the average American's diet now consists of calories from seed oils. 

By adopting some or all of these recommendations, you will likely gain a degree of control over your diet, hunger and satiety that you never knew was possible. In addition, you could, if you are fortunate, completely reverse the effects of the onset of metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance.  

Notice I did not say anything about counting calories or exercise. During the past two years I have not counted any calories or changed my largely sedentary lifestyle to a major degree--it is possible to reverse metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and lose weight without an expensive gym or weight watchers membership. 

Over the past two years I have lost over 80lbs following these points--albeit inconsistently--and I probably could have lost a lot more had I known at the beginning of this journey what I know now.

Following these has meant that I have had to start cooking most of my own meals, paying a lot more attention to what I am putting in my body. It hasn't been easy, but it has been liberating.

A few positive side effects in addition to losing weight: I have gained more confidence, I am less ashamed of my body, I no longer have acid reflux or heartburn at night, I sleep better, I wake up more alert, I have better mental clarity, I have more energy, I have less mood swings, I have better digestion, I have less aches and pains in my feet and joints--and best of all, I am no longer considered clinically obese. 

I just want you to know that I love you, and that I want you to live long and healthy lives as well.

Finally, God loves you, and sent his son Jesus to die on a criminal's cross in your place as a ransom for your sins. You can have forgiveness and a  personal relationship with God, your creator, if you repent from your sins and put your faith in Jesus. Regardless of how long you live, you will someday be face to face with your creator, and I pray that if you haven't already done so, you would accept his free gift of salvation for yourself today.

Love,

Ian

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Everything Takes Longer in Japan

Southern Chiba in August.

A Monday morning scribble.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a newer international church plant in Tokyo. After the service I had several really good conversations. In attendance was a young American military service member and his Italian wife. They had been in Japan for over a year and lamented their inability to build any significant friendships with their Japanese neighbors in that time. 

The young man said the situation was especially discouraging for his Italian wife, who was used to much warmer relationships in her native Italy--and that Japan hadn't been everything they hoped it would be.

They understood that many Japanese people are very private, and while hospitable, it takes a long time for people to warm up enough to open up their lives for friendship. This has only been compounded by the current global pandemic and the Japanese cultural response to it.

Many missionaries to Japan find that even after years, and possibly decades, they can count the number of meaningful friendships they have with Japanese people--Christians and non-Christians, on two hands. 

Some missionaries, especially those with strong marriages and children to dote on, fare better than others with the relational isolation--in fact, children's friends and classmates often open doors to friendships with similarly aged Japanese non-Christians and people in the neighborhood. 

Single missionaries to Japan may have the hardest time with isolation and the discouragement and potential mental, emotional, and spiritual problems that come with it. This has been my experience--and I have seen evidence of the same in almost every other single missionary to Japan I have met.

In order to get past the politeness and pleasantries in Japan--the most important factor is time. Everything takes longer in Japan--at least when it comes to relationships, decision making, and consensus building.

Many missionaries to Japan come from cultures where attitudes towards time are very different than those of the Japanese. Americans want things to be instantaneous--we have grown accustomed to fast food, instant video streaming via Netflix, and drive-through ATMs. 

Talking with the service member yesterday, he noted how his daughter, a military brat, had a significantly shortened time preference towards making friendships because of how much they moved around for his career. Uprooted people usually do not have the luxury of taking a lot of time to try to build a relational network around them--which is one of the dynamics I have observed at play in a lot of younger more international churches. 

Tokyo is a place with a lot of churn--people coming and going, uprooted and unrooted people. Of all of the places in Japan, this is the place with the cultural and time preferences closest to those in the West--and even then, the gap often seems to be very vast.

The most obvious way to narrow that gap is greater mastery of the Japanese language. Unless you're lucky enough to make some friends with some bilingual Japanese, the odds of developing deep and meaningful relationships without a high level of fluency in Japanese are very low. That too takes time.

It has been nine years since I was appointed a missionary with Converge, and seven years since I first arrived in Japan. After all of that time, I am not where I want to be--my Japanese is still not where it needs to be, I don't have the meaningful relationships I would have hoped to have by now, and I have very little to show in the way of ministry successes.

It doesn't surprise me that some of my supporters and supporting churches have gotten the seven-year-itch. However, I need to keep reminding myself that Japan doesn't just have a reputation for being a hard place to serve as a missionary--it is a hard place to serve as a missionary. I knew that before ever being appointed with Converge. I had counted the cost, I knew there was a very real possibility that I would be in for a hard, lonely, seemingly fruitless season--at least initially. 

Please pray that I would continue to press on and persevere despite the discouragement I have received. Things take longer here in Japan--and I would hate to think of giving up just before reaching a season of breakthrough just because of how hard things are.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Hole in the Bucket: Demographics and the future of the Japanese Church

Be fruitful and multiply.
 Another scribble I have been meaning to write for a while.

Japan is in the midst of a demographic crisis--birthrates are far below replacement levels, and unlike many other developed nations, Japan has chosen not to open its borders to globalization and mass immigration. The current population of over 120 million is projected to be less than 90 million within the next quarter of a century. Japan isn't unique in its demographic woes, but it does present a unique challenge to the church.

Conservative estimates of the Evangelical church in Japan put it at about 0.2% of the population--and based on currently available data, the Evangelical church in Japan is declining numerically faster than the general population--meaning that as a percentage of the population, the church in Japan is losing its foothold.

This also presents a difficult challenge for missionaries to Japan. To use a simple metaphor, missionaries are tasked with the very Sisyphean role of trying to fill a bucket with a gaping hole in the bottom. Without addressing significant trends and dysfunction in the existing Japanese church, it seems unlikely that more than a bare remnant of the Japanese church will remain in the coming decades.

To sum the issue up very succinctly, Japanese Christians are getting married late, often to non-Christians, failing to have more than one or two children, and not catechizing them and keeping them in the church. I'm sure reading this sentence, you may think, 'well that pretty well describes the trends I have seen in my church or denomination here in XYZ country.' And you probably wouldn't be wrong.

The difference with Japan, is that the church is currently operating on a razor thin margin as it is. With churches averaging between twenty and thirty members, often struggling to pay the rent, many are facing the very real possibility of closing in the coming decades--this has only been exasperated by the effects of the current global pandemic. 

This has led me to spend a lot of time thinking about how a missionary like myself can address the spiritual and physician fertility issues within the Japanese church. Talking with Japanese pastors, they are well aware of the issue, but feel that it is one that they cannot touch because it is filled with land-mines.

How does a western missionary encourage young Japanese Christians to pursue marriage sooner rather than later? (Tangentially, how does the western missionary encourage young Japanese Christian women to choose motherhood and raising Christian children over spending her youth pursuing an education and a career).

How does a western missionary encourage young Japanese Christians to court and marry other Christians? 

How does a western missionary encourage young Japanese Christians to start trying to have children while they are still young, fertile, and energetic enough to raise more than two children? 

How does a western missionary encourage young Japanese Christians to have more than two children--ideally four or five? 

How does a western missionary encourage Japanese Christians to embrace home-schooling and Christian schools rather than sending their children to public schools? 

How does a western missionary encourage the kind of family life and worship that creates multi-generation Christian families.

How does a western missionary answer the frequently cited reasons for not doing these things, i.e. children are expensive, education is expensive, both parents need to work, you can do that because you are a missionary, Japanese pastors (and Christians) are poor, there isn't any time to home-school, raising more than two children in Japan is hard, not sending children to public school would mean they are not able to be functioning members of Japanese society, not letting children participate in bukatsu (club activities which usually take place on Sunday mornings) would be cruel, and the numerous other objections to any kind of action direct or indirect that could help to plug this hole?

There are no easy answers. Many western missionaries in recent decades have chosen to start new church plants rather than working directly with traditional Japanese churches as a result of facing these issues and feeling a sense of helplessness and futility in trying to help the Japanese church navigate them. These issues are not going to go away, but will only become more apparent in the coming decades.

Here is the takeaway I would like to leave you with, if the Japanese church were able to find a solution to these above listed issues and plug the hole in the bucket, there is a very real possibility that by simply having more children and raising them to follow Jesus, the Japanese church could grow as a percentage of the population by virtue of the overall population continuing its decline. 

If somehow, the Japanese church were able to plug the hole in the bucket, we could easily see the Japanese Evangelical church become 3-5% of the Japanese population in our lifetimes. 

Disclaimer. These views are not representative of Converge, the Japan Baptist Church Association or any of my individual supporters or supporting churches. They are personal musings, and not position papers. 

Friday, September 10, 2021

Shikata Ga Nai: Fatalism and Defeatism in the Japanese Church

This isn't a full length exploration, more of a scribble, but something I have been thinking about this morning. 

Japan has at times been been called the graveyard of missionaries--many Western missionaries to Japan fail to return after their first or second terms. While in graduate school I read a few articles on missionary attrition--some of the reasons for missionaries leaving the field include finances, family problems, marriage problems, and personal sin. But surprisingly, one of the most often cited reason for people leaving the mission field was conflict with teams and local partners. 

Japanese culture and American culture cannot be more different--often when using different anthropological metrics to evaluate cultures, they are often on the opposite extremes. This probably has a lot to do with why many missionaries to Japan seem to wash out. It is very difficult to find a local church partner that understands and appreciates those differences, and is able to work well with missionaries from around the world.

One particular cultural difference that I believe drives a wedge more deeply than any other is the difference in attitudes between Japanese and American culture as it pertains to Risk Aversion. Risk Aversion is a metric used to evaluate how different individuals and cultures relate to risk and change. To avoid going to long in the mouth, in a nut shell, American culture prizes the risk taking entrepreneur, explorer, and inventor; while Japanese culture has historically prized the tradition and consistency and avoided risky ventures. 

A common refrain a Western missionary to Japan will hear from his partner is, "Shikata Ga Nai,' which translates literally as, "there is nothing that can be done,' but has a more fatalistic and defeatist nuance. Change is just something that cannot occur in Japan--there is nothing that can be done about it. It is a statement of unbelief.

When suggesting possible ways to help the Japanese church become more healthy, or individual Christians to grow in their own faith, it is common to hear a laundry list of excuses. Here are a few examples that will likely come up over and over again.

"We tried that before and it didn't work."

"Japanese people are just too busy."

"We don't want to seem like a cult."

"That is an American way of thinking, this is Japan."

It is hard enough when there is opposition to the Gospel and the sincere desire of the missionary to share their faith and be fruitful from outside of the church--but what many missionaries are unprepared for is the inertia and opposition to their ministry from those that should be their allies and partners.

 Almost all efforts to push back on this deep seated fatalism and defeatism are returned with, 'you are not Japanese, you do not understand.' There is only so much of that that a person can put up with before becoming defeatist themselves. 

I don't have any answers other than to beg for your prayers for a fresh move of the Holy Spirit in the Japanese church. There are of course outliers to the general trend, and I would appreciate your prayers as I search for partnerships with Japanese churches and leaders who are willing to take risks and try new things.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

In the Carpenter's Hands

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." -2 Corinthians 5:17

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with guitars. Despite my grandmother being musically gifted, when it comes to playing instruments I am all thumbs. That hasn't stopped me from buying, and eventually selling a small orchestra worth of stringed instruments.
Recently repainted bass.

Over the course of the past few years I have tried to develop a couple of new skills and hobbies--whether it is tending a small vegetable patch or curing and smoking some bacon. If you have been following my social media, recently I have been spending a lot of time refurbishing (if you can call it that) old and neglected guitars and basses.

A few streams of thought came together in my head when I began to pursue this most recent interest. As a 'Smith,' I come from a long line of craftsmen, carpenters, and machinists. There is something in my DNA that connects deeply with woodworking. I had many opportunities to learn these skills as a child from my father, but regretfully didn't take them. Making up for lost time I have been spending a lot of my free time trying to learn things like soldering, painting, sanding, basic carpentry etc.

One of my person maxims is that 'missionaries should be interesting people'--one's hobbies and interests are going to have a huge impact on the kinds of people they are going to come in contact with and interact with. As a missionary, I want to be able to meet and share the love of Jesus with all kinds of people--not just those who are willing to set foot into the door of a church.

Japanese people in particular tend to build their friendship networks around their hobbies and interests--that means in order to connect with and build relationships with more people, I need to cultivate interests that overlap with Japanese people outside of the church.

Something like curing and smoking bacon is fairly niche, although undoubtedly a great way to develop friendships--but music is more transcendent. One of my hopes in cultivating this hobby is that it will increase opportunities to interact with both Christians and non-Christians who are passionate about music.

Another selfish reason I have been working on these guitars is that I have been using it to understand better how my mind, and for that matter, my attention works. As a young child I was diagnosed with ADHD, and although I haven't thought about it much since then, I recently did a deep dive into adult ADHD and strategies for thriving.

Replacing a volume pot.
In Japan, pharmacological treatments for adult ADHD are fairly limited, meaning that in order to thrive I need to develop strategies to maintain and focus my attention. This past year of lockdown has been especially tough for me--as being at home has meant being bombarded with distractions, but also lacking a lot of the structures I have used in the past to cope with my attention issues. It isn't possible to go park myself at a cafe for hours the way I used to when I needed to get work done.

If anything, I have realized I can achieve an intense amount of focus, almost a zen-like state when working with my hands (probably going back to the DNA thing), and get caught up in a project, losing all track of time. Obviously a good book, or a new campaign of Civilization VI has a similar effect on me--but it has gotten me thinking a lot more about how to harness that focus onto where I need it--whether that is pursuing ministry goals or strengthening my Japanese.

Jesus was a carpenter, Paul himself was a tent maker, and he encourage Christian men to engage in work with their hands--I think that as much as possible, Christian men should pursue creative and productive hobbies and interests that they can then use to bless others. There is something grounding and refreshing about making something--or remaking something. 

Too much of what passes for modern day hobbies is purely consumption based. One of the early church fathers said that we do good works, because we are imitating God whose every work is good. God is a creator, and Christians should pursue interests that are creative.

Finally, I have been learning a lot of spiritual lessons as a result of pursuing this hobby. Just as Jesus often used agrarian and carpentry related metaphors in his parables and teachings, there are a lot of things that God has been teaching me through fixing up these guitars. Guitars are lovingly made precision tools, created to make beautiful music. When they leave the factory they are without blemish and usually ready to be used.

Ready to play music again.

Over time instruments get broken in--and sometimes completely broken. Scratches, rust, cracks, water damage, electrical problems; some of it because of neglect, some of it because of abuse--intentional or otherwise. There are a lot of parallels to the human condition and our fallen state.

Interestingly, in order to remove scratches in paint or a pick guard, the process is to add many more scratches. By using different grades of sandpaper, gradually working from courser grades up to finer grades, one polishes out the scratches. Just like the refining fire of sanctification, God disciplines those that he loves. Through the furnace of suffering and discipline, God is forming those that believe in Him more and more into the image of Christ--but not without adversity.

There is an incredibly satisfying feeling in taking something that was on a trash-heap and refurbishing it into something that can make beautiful music to the Lord. In the same way, God, in Christ, is taking us and through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit making us into true worshipers, capable of singing praises to the Lord.