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Japan Reflections: To the Mothers of the Church

Recently, I spent ten days in Kyoto, Japan. In fact, I am writing this the morning after my return. My mind is filled with images and impressions, fueled by that mild form of intoxication called jetlag.

Japan is a state of mind as well as a nation, and a true encounter with its people and their way of life jars the soul. This ancient and contemporary country challenges Western thought but has no hesitation adopting (and adapting) those parts of Western culture it views as helpful.

Flying from Osaka to Seattle, I read Thomas Cleary’s introduction to Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Although the Art of War is actually a Chinese text, it has been highly influential in forming Japanese culture. Classical works are nearly always the best place to begin when trying to ‘get under the hood’ of a particular culture.

As Cleary says, “classics are not like books used for diversion, which give up all their content at once; the classics seem to grow wiser as we grow wiser, more useful the more we use them.”

Books are like people that way. Some people reveal everything they are in a ten-minute infomercial. Having heard that, there is little more to know about them. Others reveal the depths of their being over time to those with enough interest and patience to listen. They disclose their being in layers, here a little and there a little. People and books like that are rare. Once we discover them, they become — like the mythical goose the laid the golden eggs — inexhaustible sources of wealth.

For many Christians in Kyoto, Sister Koto is essentially the first lady.


While we were in Japan, she celebrated her seventy-seventh birthday.

Born a Buddhist in Tokyo, she converted to Christianity in the post-war era through the testimony of a college professor. She sailed to California and studied in a Pentecostal Bible school. After that, she married a Japanese pastor and got down to business raising children and growing a Christian Church in Kyoto.

Her husband died a number of years ago, but she has become the spiritual mother of great numbers of believers in the city where she has spent most of her life.

She is full of energy, intelligent, inquisitive, and wise.

She drove me to a famous Zen Buddhist Temple and walked around its spacious grounds, including numerous hills, at an astounding pace for someone her age. As we walked, she explained the various features of the temple and the meaning of the various places of meditation and study.

On our final day, she visited with us in the hotel lobby with her friend, the other grandmother of her grandchildren. Her friend, incidentally, was celebrating her birthday on the very the same day as Sister Koto. The two of them brought me a set of cups, brushes, and other artifacts required for the tea ceremony.

“Don’t brush the tea around in a circle,” Sister Koto’s friend said firmly. “The tea yields its flavor by brushing in a forward-backward motion, like so,” as she demonstrated with a vigorous flick of the wrist.

Much of Asia believes that the universe works because of two different kinds of energy, often called the Ying and Yang. Yang is an assertive, overtly powerful force. Yin is a yielding, pliable force. Asian classics, such as the Tao Te Ching, reflect upon how Yin, although yielding and flexible, often wins through persistence and endurance what Yang cannot win through determination and aggression. Flowing water erodes the resistant rock by gentle and unceasing subtlety.

Jesus referred to this feminine quality in his story of the widow and the unjust judge. “And that judge, Jesus must have said with a smile, “Who feared neither God nor man, finally rendered that woman a fair verdict. So you too ought to pray without ceasing.”

Strength through yielding; victory through adaptation — that is the Yin force, which we Westerners sometimes have a difficult time recognizing. And it is classic Sister Koto.

There is a time when only direct, assertive, and overt leadership will do. The take-charge, will-not-take-no-for-an-answer folk emerge in such times and we eulogize them in myth and legend.

Meanwhile, other kinds of leaders patiently create the culture that teaches us how to think, live, and interact with one another; the Sister Kotos of the world.

If you go to Kyoto and ask to meet with Christian leaders, you may miss her. She has no official title or office, after all. She does not preach. She does not lead a church board or committee.

She just midwives souls and wears out the hard rock of young souls through persistent love.

Our church in Nashville had a person like that. Her name was Montelle Hardwick. She did not preach either, nor boss anyone. She just loved and told funny stories. You had no idea she was molding your soul as she laughed and played. But thousands of people in our city will affirm that what I am saying is so.

I wish the church had more people who worked in this kind of energy and with that sort of intention. We could use them in our government as well. Hard driving, take-no-prisoners – no compromise – kinds of folk make for good television and for statues in the park.

It is the other kinds of people who really change the world, one soul at a time.

So with a Happy Belated Birthday to Sister Koto, grand lady of Christian Japan and with deep gratitude for Montelle Hardwick, and all the people – both men and women – who just persist with goodness and grace as the rest of us push and prod our way through life trying to make a difference – we do sometimes notice you but are too mystified by how you get things done to build you any monuments or even to adequately express our appreciation for your instruction.


-Pastor Dan Scott

One Comment (Add Yours)

  1. Amazing to reflect about Montelle this way! Assertive, but through gentle love and a caring spirit. So unlike most women in ministry…come to think of it…most women AND men in ministry! I would love to hear your reflections on how most in ministry feel that they must reflect the “yang” personality, yet when I reflect on the greatest influencers over my long years, it has been the “ying” personalities that have given me depth and desire to become more like Christ!