For a guy with run-of-the-mill language abilities, learning to speak, read and write Japanese was an enormous undertaking for me. My daily classes burnt more brain cells than I could afford to lose. And I was especially irritated by how my Japanese instructor seemed to relish watching me squirm.
Then one day -- and much to my surprise -- Jun Sensei suddenly called out my name in class.
"Micah san," he said, "as an American, what does Christmas mean to you?"
His question shocked me into an uneasy silence. I made my way to the front of the room, wondering what in the world I would say.
Each day, I had been commuting to the college near Yokohama's bustling train station. My fellow students in the class represented a dozen different nations. Whether businessmen, housewives, or would-be missionaries, they all arrived each day determined to tackle another lesson.
The very first day in class Jun Sensei informed us, "No other language will be permitted in class. We will speak Japanese only."
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This posed a big problem for me, because I only knew two or three words of the language. Each day, then, became like a Mount Everest challenge for me as I tried to twist my tongue -- and my mind -- around the strange syllables. And it didn't help at all that Sensei showed such little compassion for my dilemma.
What I had failed to remember in my frustration is how God works his surprises and miracles into even the most difficult situations and challenges. He was about to give me a gift that Christmas season so far from home that I will always remember and cherish.
For 15 minutes, I stood before the class sharing about the virgin birth of Jesus, the shepherds, angels and wise men. I talked about how special it was for my family to gather and read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke and the wonderful memories we had made together.
"Christmas means love, life, and laughter to me," I told them. I went on to share about Jesus' life, death and resurrection. I concluded by saying, "Jesus is the greatest gift this world has ever received."