The Snowstorm and the Suffering Servant
In a raging storm in a rural town on the coast of Japan, a man and his daughter huddled against a warehouse. They held one another, they felt the fury of the wind and the snow, and they fought for life.
In early March of this year, a major snowstorm hit northern Japan. In the rural town of Yubetsu (in Hokkaido), it stranded a father, Mikio Okada, and his daughter, Natsune, in a snow bank.
Mikio had driven until his truck could go no further. The snow now piled up all around him. Recognizing that the vehicle would be overtaken by snow, he did what he thought best: he and Natsune got out of the truck, seeking shelter in nearby buildings.
Mikio and Natsune made it to a warehouse nearly 1,000 feet from their truck. They walked with extreme difficulty; no doubt they were aware that they had crossed into the zone where life, always fragile, becomes a 50-50 proposition. A wall of snow raised itself around them, enveloping them. The world went white.
That Kind of Moment
In these circumstances, we can imagine without embellishment that a nine-year-old girl would be scared, and would cry. And we can imagine without embellishment that her father, scared himself, would comfort her. That is what Mikio did. He went to the far reach of comfort, actually. He protected his little girl, wrapping her in his arms.
Sometimes in life, there is a moment that crystallizes the deepest realities of this world, that brings, as the novelist Wendell Berry has said, a revelation. Sometimes ordinary people have an unwitting chance, a flash in time, to play a role in such a revelation.
This was true of Mikio Okada.
Mikio was unknown to the larger world before the storm. He was an ordinary man in a small town, living the life many of us know well. He went to work. He puttered away at his truck. He drank coffee. On beautiful summer days, he visited Yubetsu’s glorious tulip park. On that winter day in March, when Mikio put his arms around his daughter, his life became something greater: visceral and unreal, awful and beautiful, all at once.
Mikio gripped Natsune with all the strength in his body, hunching over her. He had given Natsune his jacket, and he pressed it against her, willing it to contain and preserve her life. There was nowhere else to run. There was no one to call. All his instincts slipped away — hunger, sadness, angst. Only the will to protect remained.
So Mikio shielded his daughter from the elements that sought her death. He did so until the next day, when authorities found him, still hunched over his little girl, still shielding her. They attempted to save him, but Mikio died in the hospital. His daughter survived.
The Call Beyond the Crisis
Every person dies. This is just one story of death in a world full of them. Yet some narratives, however brief, speak a deeper truth. This is the legacy of Mikio Okada. We see in his example a picture of the human will to survive, I think; we see a warning about our response to catastrophic weather, maybe; but most of all, we see a crystallized image of what a father is. This is a revelation. It says what a man must be, and must do.
Many men in our modern world have been trained in the opposite direction. Stories of men dropping out and slipping away have proliferated in our day. Whole sections of our culture have witnessed the disappearance of men, and therefore of fathers. Some years ago, David Blankenhorn called attention to a national epidemic of fatherlessness, and many affirmed his insight. Public ardor over the issue has waned in our day; our president has spoken in a few places to the need for reengaged fathers, but the cause seems at present to rally little zeal in the American conscience.
As in America, so in the West. European countries like Ireland and Greece trace their economic decline in part to a manhood crisis. In a disconcerting number of cases, men, to put it simply, aren’t maturing. They aren’t marrying, they aren’t working hard, and they aren’t creating families. Thus they are not filling one of their most important roles: they are not protecting women and children, but are in fact preying on them, as the hugely popular phenomena of sex-trafficking and pornography show.
In his common grace, God has not left us without witnesses. When the snow and the storm closed in on Mikio Okada, he heard an ancient call. Something in him roused. Mikio felt his life ebbing, his body slowing, but that did not silence the call. It rose in his ears, the wind whistling a death tune around him, and he answered it. He put his arms around little Natsune, and he held her.
That was his call. It is also ours.
Our Good Shepherd
As Christians, this tragedy speaks powerfully to us. It reminds us of a higher call than that which natural revelation gives. Special revelation opens our eyes to behold a Father who loves and cares for his children. The old King James translation of Isaiah 40:11 is stirring in its depiction of God: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” It is noteworthy for our purposes that his “arm” gathers in his covenant people. This portrait of a lordly shepherd is followed, of course, by a portrait of the suffering servant.
In the New Testament, Jesus picks up this theme in his teaching, likening himself to a shepherd: “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11). We see, then, that Christ loves his people, and cares for them. But there is a heightening of this theme: the shepherd and the servant are one. In fact, the servant will lay down his life in order to be the shepherd of his sheep: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” He will protect his sheep, and secure them, but he will not do so by an unbroken, unchallenged peace, but through death, even death on a cross (John 19:16–37).
All this took place so that Christ could present his people to the Father. And in Christ we are truly the Father’s possession, holy, spotless, and protected. In Christ, the breach made in the garden between men and women, husband and wife, is healed, and men find cosmic resources by which to treat their wives as their own bodies (Ephesians 5:25–28). It is not hard to see that this pattern provides guidance beyond the marital covenant. Men, working from this image, protect women.
Every earthly father fails; every Christian father will prove unworthy in light of our heavenly Father’s goodness. Yet it is the Scriptural call of godly men to protect women, including their daughters. Redeemed fathers love and protect their little girls in a thousand ways. We shoot a warning glance at a leering boy; we go on “daddy-daughter” dates and gladly tuck away our smartphone to concentrate on discussions about unicorns and lollipops; we pull our daughters close at night and hug them, letting them know that our strength is not for us, but them. We may not all be the second coming of Roman gladiators, but we communicate in a multitude of ways, many of them ordinary, that we will lay down our lives in an instant for our children.
Occasionally, the natural order pings in with a reminder of this call. Once in a while, it gives us a revelation, it gives us Mikio Okada. In such stories, we are reminded of greater realities, and still more salvific sacrifices.
In them, we discover afresh who we men are, and what we are to do.