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Jonathan Hayashi: Gangster Turned Pastor

The photographs show a shirtless teenager with a head of dirty blond cropped hair, a toned body, and a pair of Ray-Bans. A huge tattoo of a pair of praying hands fills his back. A cross is imprinted on his right arm.

That was Jonathan Hayashi 12 years ago, a gangster who fought on the streets of Japan. No one would have believed back then that he would become a pastor in America today.

Jonathan Hayashi as a teenager

 

Troubles at home

 Jonathan’s troubles began at home—and with his father, a violent man who struggled with anger management issues.

He recalls times when his father would beat his mother in public at the bus stop because she was a few minutes late in fetching him. Once, his father even threw one of his brothers off the second floor of the house.

Jonathan was only six then. His second eldest brother, Kaz, had punched a wall that day and his father was livid. He dragged Kaz out of bed by his hair and hit him. Crying and pleading, their mother tried to stop her husband. But Jonathan’s father would not relent—not even with Kaz’s desperate cries of “I’m sorry, I’m sorry”. Then his father flung Kaz off the second floor of the house onto the first. Thankfully, Kaz did not suffer any major physical injury from that fall.

“Being at home was a terrible experience, there was always a lack of peace, of security, and of home,” Jonathan, now 28, tells YMI. “Growing up, I had a tremendous fear for my father. I never knew if his anger would lead him to try anything worse on me.” Describing his father as a “micromanaging dictator”, Jonathan says that he always felt distant from his father, who wasn’t a Christian.

On the other hand, Jonathan shared a close relationship with his mother, a Christian, and would accompany her to church weekly. Although he didn’t consider himself a Christian then, the situation at home drove him to his knees to pray daily for God to save his father.

But God didn’t seem to answer. “Even though I prayed so much, He just seemed very distant from me and I didn’t see my situation at home improve,” he says.

 

Troubles at school

On top of this, a hostile environment in school made things worse. Jonathan was born in Kentucky, USA, as his father had got a job there as a scientist for CorningWare. The family had moved back to Japan when he was three, so Jonathan struggled with speaking and understanding the Japanese language.

As a result, he was frequently picked on in class. His classmates would ridicule him with foul words in Japanese, knowing that he couldn’t understand the language. “At first, I was confused; then I felt really shameful for not being able to speak Japanese well,” says Jonathan. He was also mocked and alienated for being the only Christian in his class.

When he was in seventh grade, the abuse from his schoolmates turned physical. He recalls how, on one occasion, a group of seniors used a wooden Japanese sword to beat him up in the bathroom till he was left bruised and bleeding. He says: “I was just an easy target to everyone. Going to school was just plain dreadful and full of negativity. I hated school.”

 

Finding Solutions

At the age of 12, Jonathan got into bad company and joined a gang. His poor attendance at his high school got him kicked out, and he started smoking, drinking, and taking drugs. He found a girlfriend, started working out, and joined his gang for fights.

“I was trying to fill the void and emptiness within me with something, and I went for all the things of this world that promised me fulfillment and purpose,” he says. “I turned to earthly things rather than the Creator himself.”

“Growing up, I watched my father abuse my mom and siblings and naturally, I started to project that onto others,” he says. “I was deeply hurt by so many people, and the internal conflict turned into an external attack onto others.” He remembers one particular fight where he fought one-on-one with a rival gang member. It left him with a deep cut in the jaw that required four stitches and his opponent drenched in blood.

By the time he turned 14, he had stopped attending church. “Deep down, I knew there had to be more to life than these meaningless activities but at the same time, I felt that I couldn’t turn to God,” he explains. “I hated God.”

 

God’s Work

But God was not done with Jonathan. At the age of 15, he was arrested for stealing a motorcycle and being part of a gang. As he sat in the police car, God tapped on Jonathan’s heart, saying: “Jonathan, I have a bigger plan for you—this is not what you’re supposed to be.”

Jonathan was not convinced. “I swore at God, ‘You’re not coming into my life now, not after what you didn’t do for me. If you loved me, why didn’t you give me a dad that loved me? If you loved me, why didn’t you protect me from the bullies in school? If you loved me, why didn’t you protect my mother and my siblings from my father’s abuse?’” he says.

When Jonathan’s parents came to pick him up from the police station, the first thing his father said to him was: “You bring dishonor to the family.” That one sentence pushed Jonathan off the edge. He glared at his father in anger and retorted: “You were the one who taught me to be violent and rebellious. You have no right to be ashamed or upset.”

“I felt zero remorse or repentance for what I had done,” he shares with YMI.

At that point of time, Jonathan wasn’t the only one in his family in trouble. Jonathan’s eldest brother had left the Christian faith, walked out of home, and lived an “open, vile and rebellious life”. His second brother had beaten up a classmate in high school and left him hospitalized for a week. His sister, the youngest of his siblings, had dropped out of school.

Desperate, his mother sent him to a missionary home in Tokyo to stay. That’s when he cut off all contact with the gang and broke up with his girlfriend. But he wasn’t able to quit smoking and taking drugs.

While attending the church there, he was introduced to Pastor Kawamata.

 

Pastor K’s influence

There was something different, and special, about Pastor Kawamata. While other Christians despised and judged Jonathan for his past, Pastor Kawamata offered him words of encouragement. “Pastor K was the real deal—he was so full of joy and love,” says Jonathan. “He treated me as if I were his son.”

It was Pastor Kawamata’s love, he adds, that ultimately led him to Jesus. “I was drawn to this love that no other had showed me and I had to know his secret.”

At the age of 16, Jonathan opened the Bible for the first time. Although he had trouble reading because of his dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), his desperation drove him to read the Word.

The verse 1 John 3:1 convicted him and led him to accept Jesus into his life. In that verse, the apostle John writes that God’s love was shown to us when He called us His children. Gripped by God’s love for him, Jonathan began to see things in a new perspective. Jonathan says: “Everything changed when Jesus came into my life—I could no longer be the same.”

It was also at that point that he stopped smoking and taking drugs entirely. Instead, he set his sight on becoming a pastor like Pastor Kawamata.

 

Starting Afresh

After a few months, he followed the suggestion of his pastor’s wife and moved from Japan to Malaysia, where he finished high school at Dalat International School, a Christian school. While Jonathan was in Malaysia and away from his family, God kept bringing to his mind his broken relationship with his father. “I knew that in order for me to grow in my faith and to model Christ-likeness, I needed to forgive my father and seek reconciliation.”

So when Jonathan went home for one of his winter breaks, he asked his father for forgiveness and forgave his father. They also exchanged hugs—which is a big deal in Japanese culture—and said “I love you” to each other.

After graduating from high school in Malaysia, Jonathan did a degree in pastoral ministry at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, then a Masters’ in pastoral leadership at Moody Theological Seminary. He also met his wife, Kennedi at Moody Bible Institute. They now have two daughters, Kaede and Anna.

Today, Jonathan serves as a pastoral staff at Troy First Baptist Church in Missouri, USA, where he counsels couples with marital problems and students with depression. He is also pursuing a doctorate in biblical counselling. All his siblings also returned to the faith, and now serve as pastors, missionaries, or professors at a Christian seminary. Their father also came to know Christ five years ago.

Jonathan’s father getting baptized

Jonathan attributes a large part of who he is today to his mother, who never gave up on the family. “My mother was so faithful and persistent. Christ was evident in her, not just on her lips but also in her deeds,” he says. “From the lifestyle that she led, it was very obvious that Christ is center of all things in her.”

He recalls how she would wake up at 4 a.m. every day and spend time reading and praying for the family in the corner of her room secretly. She has also been helping the Our Daily Bread Ministries translate the Our Daily Bread devotional into Japanese for the past 25 years.

Jonathan is no longer in contact with Pastor Kawamata today, but he will never forget his love and kindness. He also credits the pastor for pointing him towards full-time ministry.

Another person whose life and words have played a significant role in changing Jonathan’s is the renowned American evangelist and publisher Dwight Lyman Moody, who started out as a poorly educated shoe salesman. “If God could use Mr. Moody, why should he not use the rest of us?” Jonathan says.

“My future plans and goal is to become a senior pastor and to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. I believe God is calling me to shepherd the flock. My dream is to proclaim His Name and preach the Word with all my might to see men saved, baptized, and added to the church,” he says.

Jonathan’s family photo

My Friend Left the Church Because of Me

“I need a break from church and from y’all to think about what happened,” a good friend wrote in a text message to me one day. And with that one message, Jasmine* never returned to my church again.

It all started during a sleepover three of us had at Jasmine’s place. Jasmine, Alexis* and I were talking late into the night and I told an insensitive joke—which I can no longer remember—which deeply offended Jasmine. Alexis laughed and the both of us thought nothing about it after that.

However, that one seemingly innocent remark affected Jasmine; she stopped talking to us and distanced herself from us after that episode.

Confused, we sent her text messages and even visited her at her house with a cake to cajole her, but to no avail. Our confusion turned to frustration when she started ignoring our other friends who were not involved in the conflict.

That’s when Alexis and I decided to get together with another good friend, Adrienne*, to address the situation. But instead of trying to understand the situation from Jasmine’s perspective, we spurred each other on in our unloving thoughts and harsh judgment towards her. We even thought about how to craft the most strongly-worded passive-aggressive text messages to her. Finally, one evening, Alexis and I received that sobering text message from her.

Jasmine was so hurt by what we had said, that she left the church. Although we did not intend this to happen, I have to admit that we were partly relieved that we didn’t have to face her (or the awkward situation) again.

However, while we had seemingly won the battle against her, we had lost the war against our sinful selves.

When someone leaves the church because of a conflict, it’s easy to sweep the entire thing under the carpet and pretend nothing ever happened. After all, who wants to humble themselves to admit they were wrong and apologize?

However, God repeatedly refers to the Church as the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27, Ephesians 4:12) and gives us these instructions when it comes to relating with one another:

 

1. As the Body of Christ, we are called to be united

The church is the Body of Christ and each one of us is a member who plays a specific role in the family of God. In Ephesians 4, the apostle Paul urges us to live a life worthy of our calling by being humble, gentle, and patient. Unity does not start from a group or from others—it has to start from ourselves.

This means learning to value others’ interests above our own (Philippians 2:3-4), not being harsh when a fellow brother or sister has done wrong but showing them kindness instead, and showing patience and grace towards the faults of another.

Ultimately, it is about recognizing the other party as a brother or sister in Christ and doing our part in ministry so that we can grow together in maturity (Ephesians 4:13).

 

2. As the Body of Christ, we are called to love

The apostle Paul tells us that undergirding all these is love (Ephesians 4:2). Even though I did not harbor any malicious intent towards Jasmine when I made that comment, my lack of sensitivity towards her displayed my lack of love. And the issue escalated because my friends and I did not consider her feelings and were unloving towards her.

Through this episode, I learned that loving others is not simply a fuzzy-wuzzy feeling but a commandment and a conscious choice we have to make. If we profess to love God, we have to learn to love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31)—no matter how difficult or unlovable the person is.

When it comes to those whom I find difficult to love, I remind myself that God chose to love me even though I’m not that lovable myself. If God can choose to love someone like me, I too can choose to love my friend and channel the same undeserving love I have received to my friend (1 John 4:19).

 

3. As the Body of Christ, we are called to forgive

God showed His love for us by dying on the cross for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). When we understand the extent of God’s love for us, we are then able to forgive others.

Forgiveness is a deliberate act on our part. It is not something that is easy, but because Christ has forgiven us, we can forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32). We are called to forgive each other not just once or twice, but seventy times seven times (Matthew 18:21-22) and to seek reconciliation.

In my case, we didn’t do this until our youth mentor forced us to sit down and talk. He reminded us that when we are gathered, God is with us (Matthew 18:20). As we took turns to explain why we were upset with each other, God worked in my heart to apologize to and to forgive Jasmine. The session helped us to understand the situation from each other’s perspective and forgive each other.

 

Although Jasmine has left my church, I’m thankful that all of us have since forgiven each other and are reconciled. Today, she goes to another church but all of us still hang out together regularly.

Through this episode, I have come to realize that harmony and unity in the church is difficult to build when all of us are so vastly different and terribly sinful. Our relationships will never be perfect and we will always offend or hurt others. But God used this episode to reveal my ugly heart to me and remind me that harmony in the church is something that all of us have to work on and cannot take for granted.

Reconciliation and humility requires supernatural strength and effort, which we can only achieve through God’s strength. However, if we remember that we have God’s love to bind all of us together, we can be the Body of Christ God longs to see.

 *All names have been changed.

Ivan David Ng: Displaying Love and Art Amid Hostility

It was his first time on a plane. Flying 15,000 kilometers from his home in Singapore to the mid-Atlantic region in the United States, where he would spend the next four years, Ivan David Ng was excited about his newfound freedom and eager to embrace new experiences. But the young artist would soon find out that being a Christian in a foreign land—what more, in a fine arts university—would be one of the most challenging experiences in his life.

Today, Ivan is back in Singapore, as an up-and-coming artist who has exhibited his works both in the US and Singapore. He recently graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he was the commencement speaker for his cohort.

Throughout the two-hour long interview with YMI, the 26-year-old exudes joy and confidence when sharing about his art and faith. But things were not always this way, he tells us. In his freshman year, he was confronted with culture shock, personal challenges, and opposition to his faith.

In his first week of school, a faculty member openly ridiculed him for being a Christian. His philosophy professor had asked everyone to introduce themselves and to share what helped them make sense of the world. When it came to Ivan’s turn, he explained that it was his faith, having become a Christian at the age of 17. His professor promptly responded that she thought religion was “very insensitive, illogical and intolerant”.

This hostile reaction was a rude awakening. But Ivan soon found it becoming a weekly occurrence. Any mention of his faith, Jesus, and going to church on Sundays was met with patronizing smiles, awkward silences, and the occasional eye roll. “I felt like I was thrown into a furnace, it was extremely difficult for me,” he adds.

Throughout his time in university, his close friends teased him frequently about his faith and the choices he made for his belief—especially when it came to his sexual conduct. One of the more memorable comments he received was, “Did you put on a chastity belt and throw the key away?”

He says, “When I first got there, I felt like Elijah . . . am I the only Christian here?” When Ivan tried to seek out other Christians in the college, he stumbled upon a small Christian fellowship on campus. They started to meet regularly.

“It was a time of ministering to one another, loving other people together, and supporting one another in prayer,” he adds. “Once there was strength in numbers, I didn’t feel alone anymore and we started serving the people in campus together. We became Jesus’ covert hands and feet in a place where people didn’t want anything to do with Him. The support of these Christian friends was how I stayed Christian.”

 

Expressing love in a hostile environment

The hostile secular environment and several failed attempts to reach out to friends using traditional methods, however, made him rethink his approach to evangelism. “It’s not so much about standing up for what you believe, but more of just loving people that God has placed around you,” he says. “If I can love them so much and want their salvation so much, what more God? I’ve learned to be prepared for long-term gospel work and enjoy them genuinely as friends—that’s evangelism in that context,” he explains.

The key, he says, was to be emotionally invested in his non-Christian friends and learn to enjoy their friendship and company. He says, “Often, as Christians seeking to reach our friends, we feel the responsibility to give to our friends emotionally, spiritually and even materially. But how often do we allow these non-Christian friends to give to us? In a real friendship, this goes both ways. Otherwise, these friends we are trying to reach out to become ‘projects’—and they feel it.”

“These friends supported me when family members passed away while I was far away from home . . . if they sometimes want to tease me for my faith, so be it! I know they love me,” Ivan says with wide grin. For him, the right to speak about the truth found in Jesus had to be earned through a long, faithful friendship, where love and mutual enjoyment has been consistently demonstrated.

Over time, some of these relationships bore fruit. When a friend who often laughed at Ivan for his faith faced a major personal problem in his life, he turned to Ivan and asked for prayer and counsel. The incident encouraged Ivan immensely.

 

Experiencing God through Art

Besides the shift in his perspective on evangelism, Ivan experienced another change. Though he was a painting major, Ivan discovered that he was more inclined towards material-based and tactile processes. Slowly, his work took on more three-dimensional forms. “I liked to do things with my hands. Sculpting gave me more satisfaction as compared to painting,” he shares.

To Ivan, his art and his faith are intertwined. He says, “My art is essentially about my faith . . . If I were to talk about themes surrounding my art, it stems from a search and longing for God.” He draws inspiration from landscapes, and enjoys working with natural materials such as stone, handmade paper and clay. Referring to them as “toys that God leaves behind for me to discover”, he says, “In putting these materials through processes that transform them, I feel that it is God leading me on a journey of discovery and wonder.”

His passion and joy in creating his art is evident as he excitedly explains and shows off pictures of his art pieces, one of which is a sculpture titled Are You In Love. Pointing to the grey stone, he says, “I cut open a quartzite stone I picked up from a construction site, only to discover that the stone was shiny and glittery on the inside, although its surface was dull.”

Titled : Are You In Love

To Ivan, using the materials that God created and designed in his art is a form of worship. “As I create, I am merely reflecting my Creator. As I work with these beautiful materials that He has in the first place created, I acknowledge God as Creator and I recognize myself as collaborating with Him,” he says.

That said, he urges young Christian artists not to feel the pressure to always make their art a tool for presenting the Gospel. “I don’t intentionally weave the cross into my work, although the work by nature bears witness to God in creation. Sometimes when artists use art as a direct, literal Gospel tool, it ends up being cheesy because people already know where it leads. They don’t feel invited into a deeper conversation; instead, some may feel that the work is lecturing them. It closes up conversations instead of opening them up,” he explains.

He hopes young Christian artists can learn to enjoy making their art and “find God’s fingerprints in their making of art”. “God is always involved—it’s whether you’re conscious of it or not,” he says.

For Ivan himself, art is a springboard for relationships and for long-term Gospel work. He says, “Enjoy the people your pursuit of art takes you to and see those relationships as Gospel opportunities. Perhaps that’s the way we can be witnesses for Jesus as artists.”

 

5 Lessons from A Family Feud

Photo from Yahoo


Family disputes are common. In fact, I see them happening in my own family all too often, whether it is over minute or important matters. But over the past few weeks, one particular family feud in Singapore has captured the attention of many in my country—and perhaps around the world too.

The conflict, which erupted over social media on June 14, concerns allegations of abuse of power by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, made by his two younger siblings over the fate of their late father’s house at 38 Oxley Road.

Yesterday afternoon (July 3), PM Lee formally addressed this issue in Parliament, where he defended the actions he took following the death of his father, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, in March 2015, and allowed Members of Parliament to question him.

Like many Singaporeans, I have been following this saga closely. And I’ve been both shocked and sad to see this happening in a family that I deeply respect and hold in high regard.

Without getting into a debate over who is right or wrong, I can see some personal lessons to be learned from this issue. What this dispute has shown me is that all humans are prone to conflict—regardless of how clever, powerful, or well-regarded we are.

This applies just as much to Christians. Though we all belong to the family of God, we have our fair share of conflict too. When challenged, our natural instinct is to fight back and vindicate ourselves. But most of the time, such encounters don’t end well. In my church, I have seen members leaving as a result; disputes can also lead to a split in the church.

So how should Christians respond when we don’t see eye-to-eye with each other? Here are five ways in which I believe we can respond to conflict within the family of God.

 

1. Recognize the need for resolution

God dislikes conflict. When we were at odds with God because of our sin, He made the first move for us to be reconciled—and He paid a hefty price for it, by sending His own Son Jesus to die on the cross to redeem us.

In the same way, God doesn’t want us to be at odds with anyone in the church. He wants us to be reconciled with others. “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)

Will we make an effort to resolve our differences because it pleases God—even if we don’t feel like it?

 

2. Exhibit self-control

When we feel hurt by others, it is natural to lash back. But we have to be careful not to allow our emotions to get the better of ourselves so that we act on impulse. God calls us to exercise self-control, which is one attribute of the fruit of the Spirit. Practising self-control means taking charge of our thoughts and attitudes so that they do not dictate our actions and lead us to behave in a way that displeases God.

The next time we get into a conflict, will we react calmly (Proverbs 29:11)?

 

3. Have an attitude of humility

Philippians 2:3-4 tells us to “value others above yourselves”. It is a challenging instruction because it means we have to put our pride and our interests aside. But Jesus has shown us examples of humility which we are called to imitate. While He was equal with God, He chose to forsake that privilege by becoming a human, being wronged, and finally dying for us in a humiliating manner. If Jesus cared merely about himself, none of us would ever be reconciled with God.

When we humble ourselves before others, we can take heart that God is pleased, for “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble” (James 4:6).

Even though we may look foolish to the world, are we willing to be wronged for the sake of reconciliation?

 

4. Take time to listen and empathize

Taking time to listen and empathize can seem extremely difficult to do in the heat of the moment. But what this simply means is to be willing to understand how the other party has been hurt.

Fools are described as those who “find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions” (Proverbs 18:2). Instead, we are called to listen before answering (Proverbs 18:13).

Will we put aside our prejudices and hurt to truly listen and understand the other party?

 

 5. Show love

Above all, as a family of God, we are commanded by the Lord to love one another as we love ourselves (Mark 12:31). It is one of His two greatest commandments.

When we show love to others in times of conflict, we are able to stand united as a family of Christ and show the world that Jesus is a God of love. And we can take heart that God is with us when we gather to resolve the conflict, peaceably in love (Matthew 18:20).

Are others able to see Jesus through the way we respond to conflict?

 

The way to resolve a conflict is not by trying to win the fight or prove that we are right. It’s by responding in love and showing Christ in our response.

One statement that PM Lee made yesterday stood out: “At the end of the day, we are brother and sister, and we are all our parents’ children.”

I couldn’t agree more. At the end of the day, we are all God’s children, seeking to please the same Father.