We were Junior High School Assistant English Teachers (AETs) in Mito, Japan two ours northeast of Tokyo.
Many who knew us then or now usually assume we were missionaries moving to live a pious missionary adventure. I was, at the time of our move in late summer 2003 in seminary and doing ministry at a church in the Memphis area.
The truth is I went to Japan because I didn't know if I believed in God. For a then seminarian on a trajectory for a life of ministry this was not "good for business." 23 year old me (I'm now 36) needed space away from faith expectations and wounds to come to grips with who he was and who God was, if He was at all. One way to do that is to move to the other side of the planet and be away from any expectation to think one thing or the other.
While there my coping mechanism for culture shock a'plenty on top of a mid-20s faith crisis became running. I was not a runner before arriving in the Land of the Rising Sun. However, running became a quick way to release language learning stress, first year teacher Stress, faith crisis STRESS!
Near our apartment was the third most beautiful park in all of Japan. Cherry and plumb blossoms set the scenery ablaze each spring with glowing white and pinkish blooms. I often jogged up a small river trail which fed out into the path around the trail.
The aforementioned cherry and plumb trees were a strong motivation in Japan's magical spring bloom decor to get off my faith-crisis-havin’-duff. You see, one of the most complementary aesthetics in Japan for a faith crisis is an unexpectedly early sunset each day in the fall and winter months. Our first year this alone felt like a physical weight upon me as the dark evenings bore down upon us before we left our schools everyday at 5 PM.
The closest thing to light there in the evening during those months was those blazing trees along the streets and paths of Mito City.
One other thing I should mention about Japan is, at least in our city at that time, almost no road or street had street signs. This made locating your intended destination complicated. Luckily, there was always a 7-Eleven or other such conbini as a marker in the same way us Bible Belters have churches and Walgreens.
That said, I began really listening to U2's musical library while there. I had no idea early on three of the four members loved the same Jesus I was doubting. However, the The Joshua Tree was the first gospel album I heard which I had never seen in a Gospel section at the music store.
The first song on that album blew me away every time I heard it. It is a song called "Where the Streets Have No Name." The first few lines Bono belts are:
I want to run, I want to hide,
I want to tear down these walls that hold me inside,
I want to reach out and touch the flame,
Where the streets have no name.
I didn't expect someone whom to my knowledge then a mainstream and secular artist to so firmly capture me with such intensity about running into the presence of the Creator I had moved half way around the world to consider discarding--really sing something so compelling to me then a skeptic.
Something about The Edge's guitar and Bono's gospel lyrics lit up my heart previously darkened by doubt and darkness, both spiritual and physical (remember the whole "no sun after 4:30 PM" thing I mentioned earlier).
One spring 2004 evening running through the streets that had no name and around a trail by the lake I sat down on a park bench under a plumb tree in full bloom--nearly on fire with colorful flame like Moses's burning bush. I played Bono's gospel song as I gazed upon that tree. As Moses had known God's presence in that burning bush centuries ago I, for the first time in a refreshingly long time, opened myself to the fiery presence of the Creator at the feet of that plumb tree. He was there, he was a blazing beautiful presence!
Bono doesn't know me. The nearest I've been to him was purchasing tickets to see U2 live in Memphis when I was 16 only to sell them to pay for a speeding ticket. And then, ten years later, I got tickets to see them at the Tokyo Dome in 2006. My wife, two other friends, and I extended our visa past the expiration of our work visa to see them. And then they cancelled! I'm not bitter Bono...except I totally am.
One thing I know, however, is I owe a great deal of my love for music and the Messiah to Bono's gospel album which gave me words to say I still hadn't found what I was looking for but also gave voice to my deep yearning to reach out and touch the flame where the streets have no name!
[Originally posted on Mitchell Roush's site.]