Grabbing a quick lunch in Iwate before boarding the bullet train bound for Tokyo, I watched a waitress hover over one particular customer, rapidly slamming bowls of soba noodles down in front of him as fast as he could eat them. This bizarre scene continued for some time, with the bowls stacking up until the man eventually surrendered. I later learned that this custom, unique to Iwate, is called wanko soba. At a recent eating competition the winner consumed 383 bowls in ten minutes. Apparently many people who visit Iwate are eager to experience the wanko soba challenge and even leave with a certificate verifying how many bowls they ate.
As our two-year commitment to relief work in Iwate drew to an end and we prepared to return to the States for our postponed home assignment, we struggled to gain perspective on our own unique experience. How could we measure this blur of activity that now seemed like a 2-year wanko soba challenge? How could we count the bowls that sat, stacked before us, reminding us of the many challenges we had faced?
The most obvious measure was to count the numbers of items given away: apples, electric blankets, boxes of laundry detergent, juice bottles, or hand warmers. Or the hundreds of volunteers who had sacrificially served alongside us. And, thanks to a Japanese co-worker’s meticulous record keeping, we could count the exact number of customers who came to Ippo Ippo Yamada since we’d opened a year earlier as a drop in center for the community.
A more spiritual form of counting would certainly have included the quantity of tracts handed out, Bible studies initiated or even more importantly, the number of baptisms. While many of these items listed we could indeed literally count, the worth and meaning of such things cannot be measured by mere mathematical calculations.
As we tried to evaluate the meaning of our stacks of bowls, it was critical to recall that God counts things quite differently than we do and it was important that we held on to that perspective. We are told that with God a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day (2 Pet. 3:8). He is also the Good Shepherd who zealously searches for the one lost sheep (Luke 15:4). God somehow sees the vast whole and the seemingly most insignificant individual all in one glance without the constraints of time.
We came to realize it was not time to count, but rather time to pause. Time to give thanks to God for his faithfulness.
Counting the Future
Relief agencies are closing up their operations one by one and the number of volunteers continues to decline even though much remains unchanged. Thousands still reside in temporary housing, damaged infrastructure is only partially restored, unemployment is sky‒high.
While government agencies blow hot and cold in their responses to these long term needs, the church of God and the people of God continue to remain engaged in the work of rebuilding. For some that will take on the form of church planting while for others it will involve continued efforts to come quietly alongside of these broken communities with words and deeds of comfort.
It is our prayer that through the grace of God and the efforts of those who have come to serve, many more bowls will be added to the collection for God’s ultimate glory.
This article originally appeared in Japan Harvest magazine in 2013.
Mike and Rowena have served with OMF for 34 years. From 2011 to 2013 they served in Iwate in the ministry they reflect on above. After Home Assignment in the US they served in Kanto from 2014 and are returning to the US in April 2018.
Will you pray for Japan?
Give thanks for the ongoing work of Japanese churches to support people affected by the tsunami of March 2011.
Pray for eternal fruit from efforts of those who have served faithfully.