Missionary Diary - a conversation that changed everything

Matt and Jen Lim, with Obadiah, Theodore and Heidi, are serving the Lord in Tokyo, Japan, with the Church Missionary Society. They work with Hi-BA, or High School Born Againers, a ministry of evangelism and discipleship to Japanese and international high school students begun by American missionaries after World War II. For 70 years, Hi-BA has been running after-school Bible studies, large group meetings, special events, camps, and youth rallies. 

At the end of last year, I attended HiBA Winter Camp from December 26-28. To be completely honest, I was apprehensive in the lead-up. I was feeling “end-of-the-year” tired and nervous about spending three days in Japanese. But a 45-minute conversation one night at camp changed everything –  and ended up being a highlight from our past four years in Japan!

After a slow start, about halfway through the camp, it felt like there was a turning point. I – as well as the students – started to settle in and warm up to conversations. The highlight came one night after “Gospel Time” – a one-hour session of praise, prayer and a message. Immediately after Gospel Time was “Talking Together Time”, when students were encouraged to find another student or leader to talk about the previous session, camp … or anything on their heart, really. I have to admit that when I first saw this on the program, I automatically thought this would become “free time” for me, as I just assumed the students would end up pairing up with their friends or a Japanese leader. God had other plans.

After the first Gospel Time session, a student named K stopped me as I was about to walk out of the room and asked if I had a “talk time” partner – all in Japanese, of course. I was shocked. After I said “No”, he then asked if I would like to chat with him. My mind was struggling to process what was happening, but I eventually replied “Yes” – all the while thinking what on earth I would say!

“I felt so out of my depth and was unsure how I would address his issues and questions.” – Matt Lim

We found a couch to sit on, and from there, he got straight into sharing. There wasn’t any of the generic “beginners language warm-up” stuff like introductions, hobbies, talking about everyday life/school, etc. Instead, he immediately talked about his recent baptism and the joy of that celebration, but also lingering doubts about God’s presence in his life and other deep matters of faith.

Matt and Jen Lim with Obadiah, Theodore and Heidi

Now in a “normal” youth ministry setting in English, this would have been a “too-good-to-be-true” launching pad for deep spiritual discussion. But as my brain frantically processed all the Japanese, my initial reaction was panic. I felt so out of my depth and was unsure how I would address his issues and questions. Pauses and silences seemed to go on forever. Yet by God’s grace and through his Spirit, I was able to come up with a response and also somehow able to talk about some of the big issues that he raised.

“The past three years of toiling over language learning had culminated in that moment.” – Matt Lim

Interestingly, I also found out that even though he was usually hesitant talking about this kind of stuff at church or at his HiBA group, he said that it was easier to talk to foreign missionaries because we seemed more “open” to these kinds of discussions. I doubted myself at many points before, during, and after the conversation, but by all accounts, K seemed genuinely interested and pleased with our discussion. I was surprised (and pleased!) by how the conversation eventually flowed and how quickly our time seemed to pass.

From left, Evan, K and Matt

Towards the end of the conversation, I told him that he had “made my day” through this wonderful conversation – which led to an attempt to explain what that phrase actually meant because Google Translate definitely did not convey the nuance! Once he understood what it meant, as we parted ways, he said to me, “You made my day!” and my heart just burst with joy.

Afterwards, Evan, my American colleague, was visibly excited as he had seen how my conversation with K had gone. We debriefed about what had happened and how the past three years of toiling over language learning had culminated in that moment and made it all worth it. We also joked that we needed another three years of language learning to prepare for the next “big conversation”!