01/02/08 — A Bible and a desire for faith overflowing

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A Bible and a desire for faith overflowing

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on January 2, 2008 2:12 PM

Natsume Lanning devotes hours each day to studying her Bible, underlining and highlighting passages and posting little sticky notes as reminders of valuable lessons found within its pages.

Dog-eared and bursting at the seams, it is clearly a book that has been put to use.

But until a few years ago, the Okinawan who admits to being "over 60" was unable to read -- in English or her native Japanese.

Growing up in Japan in a poor family, as second eldest her sense of duty prevented her from completing her education.

"I prayed. I wanted to help my family so my sisters could go to school," she said. At age 12, she quit school and went to work.

Nine years later, she met husband, Brian, a Marine stationed there. Neither could speak the other's language, but that did not stop them from falling in love and marrying in 1963.

Lanning admits he has yet to learn his wife's native tongue, and while she speaks English, being able to read it was another matter.

"I always wanted to learn to read," she admits now, but the opportunity never seemed to present itself.

So she put her own desires on hold. The couple traveled with the military, moving to Goldsboro in 1991, raising two sons, both of whom served in the Air Force and now live close by.

For years she has been content to quietly, but enthusiastically, nurture her Christian faith at her church, Adamsville Baptist.

"She is the only Japanese woman there," Lanning said. "She's got her own little spot in front. "Her feet don't even touch the floor. They have a little stool for her (feet)."

The couple have their own routine during the week, with Lanning often reading devotions to his wife. Most days, she rises at 6:30 to watch a few of the Christian programs on TV, using the Scriptures mentioned there as the focus of her daily studies.

One question guides her thoughts.

"Every day, what's Jesus going to teach me today?" she said.

Over time, she has sought out others like her, which led to the encounter that has resulted in her own quest for learning as well as a supportive fellowship group of other women.

She first met Merry Sensing 14 years ago, after being told that the woman was also from Okinawa.

"She came to see me at work," Mrs. Sensing recalls. "I was a florist on base then, and she spoke just a little English."

Striking up a friendship, the two soon discovered they also shared a common faith. Soon after, they began meeting weekly for their own private Bible study.

It wasn't long before Mrs. Sensing realized her new friend's struggle went beyond speaking and reading English; Natsume was also unable to read the Japanese language, which has several forms.

"She could read 'hirangana,' Japanese alphabets, and was trying to read the Bible herself. I started to teach some Japanese 'kanji' characters," Mrs. Sensing said. "Now she can read more than several kanji and write them, also."

As the learning began, the excitement spilled over, Mrs. Sensing said. Shrugging off credit, she said it was not difficult because Mrs. Lanning was such a willing student.

"She really taught herself. I'm on the side, helping her. Jesus helped her learn," she said. "It would kind of jump out at her."

According to Mrs. Lanning, "Jesus opened my eyes, reading and understanding. ... This Bible teaches me what I don't know, shows me how to live."

After a few years of meeting together, they found other Japanese women in the community, and a group was formed. The "Japanese Bible Study" now boasts seven or eight members who gather weekly.

Topics depend upon the needs that particular week -- struggles with marriage or children -- "the Lord really gives us the lessons," Mrs. Sensing says.

Then, about three years ago, the women found themselves a teacher.

"We met a Japanese man at our Japanese Baptist Retreat in Asheboro," Mrs. Sensing said. "We were informed that he was a preacher candidate and teaching Bible studies around eastern North Carolina."

He graciously accepted the invitation to work with the Goldsboro ladies, and joins them from Raleigh every other week. They recently celebrated their 100th meeting.

God has truly blessed the Bible study, the women say. Prayers have been answered and lives have been changed, with Mrs. Lanning at times being a catalyst.

"She teaches by her testimony mostly and it's right along with the Bible," Mrs. Sensing said.

"She's such an inspiration to all of us, especially the young ones in the group," adds Kiko Taylor of Goldsboro, a group member and Mrs. Sensing's sister. "She's a leader and a mentor."

The women also have a grapevine of sorts, Lanning said. In addition to keeping in touch via the computer, they often seek out others from their homeland.

"Anybody that sees a Japanese or Okinawan, at the PX or somewhere, they'll pass it on," he said. "The word gets around there's somebody new in the area."

And likewise, his wife is receptive to sharing her faith wherever opportunity presents itself.

"She'll talk to anybody, I don't care where it is. If she ever gets the devil to hold still, she'll get him, too," he laughed.

Mrs. Lanning's seemingly simple desire to be able to read her Bible -- first the Japanese version and now the English translation -- has made her an example to the other women in her group.

"For us who have an education, we just can't catch up with her. She just keeps going and gets better and better," Mrs. Sensing said. "And she's so humble ... we all learn humbleness from her."

Occasionally, Mrs. Lanning still comes across a passage she does not understand. Instead of being discouraged, though, she takes a philosophical approach.

"God will tell me, 'Your time is coming, I'm going to teach you, just not right now,'" she said.

In line with that is her favorite Bible verse, Ecclesiastes 3:11: "He has made everything beautiful in its time."

Mrs. Sensing can attest to that, having witnessed the changes in Mrs. Lanning for more than a decade. It's all been worth waiting for, she notes.

"Who would have known it that we had to come all the way to USA to find God and faith?" she said.