5 Prayer Lessons I Learned From Japanese Immersion

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Here in Alaska the fireweed counts down the precious days of summer, so when the last flower has gone to seed, you know fall has officially arrived. This particular fall marked a milestone as our youngest child started kindergarten. She is the first of our three children to be enrolled in the Japanese immersion program at our neighborhood school. It happened kind of out of the blue, so I hadn’t had time to prepare her — or myself! — for such a huge transition. I asked some friends whose children had gone through the program to give me some advice about how to prepare her for her first day in class. You have to understand that two thirds of her class time is conducted only in Japanese, so she is literally immersed in a language she doesn’t understand for hours on end. We aren’t even allowed to speak English when we drop her off and pick her up; all of our interaction with teachers in English is through e-mail and a communication log that goes home every day. The bit of advice I was given over and over as I spoke to parents and teachers about how to prepare her for class was this:

Make sure she realizes that she isn’t expected to understand Japanese right away.

That seems so basic, so obvious. But several times the evening before her first day of class she said, “But I don’t know how to speak Japanese!” Each time I assured her that this was okay not to know Japanese, that it was even the point of the class - to teach her Japanese by listening, and that gradually she would begin to understand what the teachers were saying. But it would take time, and it would take weeks and months of listening and paying attention.

As I thought about this, I realized the same is true in our prayer lives. As I started seeing even more parallels I began to look at prayer in a new light, so I want to share with you five lessons I’ve learned about prayer from our journey into Japanese immersion.

  1. Make sure you realize that you aren’t expected to be a “prayer expert” right away.

Just as my daughter needed to be told that she wasn’t expected to be a Japanese expert before walking into the classroom, I think sometimes we need to remind ourselves that we don’t need to be “prayer experts” (if there even is such a thing!) before we step into the throne room. Prayer isn’t a performance, or a polished display of knowledge or eloquence. It’s communion with a loving Father who loved us so much that he has invited us in to one-on-one communication with him.

If you ever feel like you’re not polished enough, or don’t have the words to say - it’s okay!

If you’ve been certain you’ve heard something from God and then it turned out not to go the way you thought it would - it’s okay!

If you think of yourself as a student embarking on a lifetime prayer adventure with God as your Teacher, it allows you to change your perspective and view “prayer failures” instead as learning experiences, launching you forward into a deeper relationship with God, and better understanding of prayer.

2. Prayer is a two-way conversation with our Teacher. We should really listen more!

If my daughter went into her class and immediately started speaking English, they would understand; they speak English fluently as well as Japanese. But my daughter is five years old. If all she did was speak her native language, she might get some basic needs met, but she would miss out on so much. Because all of the instruction is taught in Japanese, so the years of schooling and wealth of knowledge these teachers have would be lost on her because she didn’t leave time to listen.

Isn’t it the same with us in our relationship with God? I know far too often I jump into prayer with my agenda of prayer requests. Sure, I thank God and praise him too, but I listen far too little!

God speaks a divine language, and works in ways that are so much higher than our own human understanding can grasp (Isaiah 55:8-9). In order to learn his heart and understand what he is doing, I think we need to sit under his teaching and listen - learn the divine language he speaks and the deep wisdom he wants us to know. I’m not talking about some mystical meditation or literal language. But by reading scripture and meditating on it, by training our minds and bodies to be still, we can engage in listening prayer that can help us grow far more than rattling off our prayer lists ever could.

3. The more we immerse ourselves in the presence of God, the more clearly we grow to understand him.

This lesson flows directly from the first. The more we immerse ourselves in the presence of God, the more clearly and accurately we hear his voice. (Jeremiah 29:13, Isaiah 30:21) The other day my daughter said, “I think (such-and-such) means “I’m finished” because whenever we finish cutting or coloring or anything else, my teacher has us say it.” She’s learning the meanings of words through experience. I think through our own prayer time and experiences we learn to understand how God works, and learn to distinguish his voice from all of the other noise around us. Sometimes this comes through deeply painful disappointment and lament - when God seems to leave our prayers unanswered or allows something tragic to happen despite our heartfelt cries for help. But it’s in these times we need to press in all the more eagerly, because although I can’t guarantee that all of the “why” questions will be answered, I do believe God will meet us where we are and open our eyes to the ways he is at work in even the most disappointing situations (Psalm 34:18, Romans 8:28-29). The more time we spend with God, the more prayer adventures we embark on, the easier it becomes to recognize the voice of our Teacher. (John 10:27, Isaiah 28:23).

4. It’s normal to resist sitting down to pray at first - and even not enjoy it. Don’t give up! The reward will come.

I’m here to tell you that it’s normal to sometimes not like prayer. Or to find it boring. Or to feel like it’s a chore, or as Alana likes to say, “something to check off your to-do list like flossing your teeth.” So don’t feel like you need to pretend like prayer is always fun, because sometimes it isn’t. At least at first.

The Japanese immersion teachers told us (and parents of immersion students backed this up with experience) that the first few weeks or even first couple of months of immersion might be difficult. Some children find the environment so different from what they’re used to that they feel insecure or even like they’ve failed because they don’t understand Japanese. And in all of the kindergarten classes there were some tears the first few days of being left by parents.

We resist what isn’t comfortable.

Beginning to pray is sometimes uncomfortable. We’re used to instant gratification through clicks on social media, the ability to text messages instantly and receive real-time answers in seconds. We have trained our brains to have a short attention span. So it’s no wonder that the idea of being still is so foreign - it’s like sitting in a classroom where they speak a totally different language than we’re used to.

But when I look at the students who are several years into the immersion program, I see something. I see loyalty and pride in what they’ve accomplished, and an excitement and love for the program and the Japanese language in parents and children alike that is just amazing. Those who stick it out and move past the discomfort of those first weeks and months gain a reward that is so worth it.

In the same way, prayer might be difficult in the beginning. You may dread it, but if you make a date with God daily, weekly, whatever you decide is your goal, and stick to it…what you will find is that what began as an act of discipline will quickly turn into an act of love and joy.

If you take nothing else from this post, I’d encourage you right now to decide on setting aside even just five minutes each day to be still with God. It could be in the shower, in the car waiting to pick up kids - whatever. But make the date and stick to it for a week, and I know you will see transformation (and want to keep going!).

5. God loves us so much.

Seeing the teachers in the immersion classroom interacting with the kids is really amazing. Because they don’t speak English to the children, they are extremely animated, using hand gestures and facial expressions to convey the meaning of their words. There’s lots of jumping around, singing and repetition.

This is how I picture God. Almighty God, Creator of the Universe, noble and worthy of the praise of all creation. And yet. He chooses to humble himself to make himself known to us in all sorts of amazing ways. He didn’t have to make the flowers beautiful, but he did. He didn’t have to allow for us to communicate with him through prayer, but he did. The dignified King of Kings has chosen to jump up and down and sing and make hand gestures to show us that he loves us so, so very much. And then to send his only Son, the ultimate means of communication with us - to speak to us in our own language.

Oh, how he loves us.

What about you? Did any of this resonate with you? We would love to hear in the comments! If you need help structuring some time with God, we want to offer you our free scripture journal that you can use for a 5-minute devotion over the next thirty days.