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I Saw Him Standing There

My encounter with John Lennon was brief, but it helped me grow.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono with their son, Sean

The bicyclist pedaled closer, his face unshaven, his eyes hidden beneath round wire-rimmed glasses. Hair spilled from his wide-brimmed hat. His clothes fluttered in the breeze. “How you doing?” he shouted, waving hello. A hippie, I thought, dismissing him as I walked up the busy street with my family.

He coasted past, vanishing down the road. Something about him seemed familiar. A minute later another bicycle raced by: a Japanese woman, with long, curly hair–and an unmistakable face.

“That’s Yoko Ono,” I said to myself. Oh, my…That “hippie” had to be John Lennon. What are they doing here in Karuizawa?

My husband, Stephen, was a minister and we moved to this Japanese mountain town five years earlier, in 1971, to work at the missionary camp his parents managed, a place where people came eager to experience a new world and deepen their faith.

But it was hard work raising our three young children, Becky, seven, Peter, five, and Debby, two, on top of the chores that had to be done. I cooked three meals a day for up to 50 people. Nights I set up the coffeehouse we ran.

“Come to the Power and Light Company,” read the signs we put up along the machi, the main street in town, inviting the community for free coffee, cake and conversation in English.

Missionaries had been coming to Karuizawa for years to enjoy the cool breezes coming off the evergreen slopes of Mt. Asama, the charming little shops that lined the machi, which sold cherry-wood carvings and kokeshi dolls.

The Japanese elite fell in love with Karuizawa too. Emperors, diplomats and entertainers built grand, Victorian-style homes with gorgeous moss gardens. That must be why John is here, I thought. He must own one of those mansions.

I wasn’t a Beatles fan. Back in Oregon where I grew up, I adored Pat Boone. Beatlemania shocked me–the moppy hairstyles and the loud, raw rock ‘n’ roll. “We’re more popular than Jesus now,” the papers quoted John as saying.

I was appalled. How could he be so arrogant? I wasn’t surprised disillusioned Beatles fans burned their records in response. Anyway, I decided to put the John and Yoko sighting out of my mind. I’ll never see them again, I bet.

That Sunday, as always, missionaries from the different denominations in town packed into Union Church. Midway through the service, I heard murmuring in the back. I strained my neck to see.

A man and woman were walking down the aisle, looking for an open seat. You guessed it. John and Yoko. They settled in, but the whispering didn’t stop.

“Who is that?” “He’s one of the Beatles.” “I didn’t know they went to church…” The minister cleared his throat, loudly, and everyone went back to listening to his sermon. But I couldn’t focus. What was John doing in our church?

Later that week Peter and Debby played in the sandbox in our yard. I sat in a lawn chair, keeping an eye on them while some people from the church were visiting. I just wanted to relax before I had to bake the cakes for the coffee shop.

Suddenly two bicycles slowed down at our house and pedaled into our yard. It was them! Their son, Sean, was sitting in a child’s seat attached to John’s handlebars. Stunned, I got up and walked toward them. What do I say to the most famous Beatle of all?

“I saw your signs on the machi and thought they were clever,” John said, breaking the silence. “I was telling Yoko here that we needed to see what it was all about.” The camp volunteers saw who’d showed up and quickly began gathering. “What are you doing in town?” I managed to ask.

“We’re staying at a cabin owned by Yoko’s family,” he told me. It was crazy. John Lennon, coming here because he saw our sign?

One woman pushed in front. She had a reputation for being blunt. “I read about your divorce–how could you leave your first marriage?” she asked. “What are you doing now that the Beatles have broken up?”

Everyone crowded closer. I expected John and his family to turn around and pedal away as fast as they could.

But John just smiled. “Right now I am putting my music on hold to spend time with my wife and son,” he said. The woman didn’t seem quite satisfied.

“Do you belong to a church?” she asked.

“Of course,” he said. “I’m C. of E.”

A worried look came across the woman’s face. “The See…what?”

John laughed playfully. “The Church of England. Haven’t you heard of them?”

More questions came, and he listened to each, answering kindly and politely. He didn’t contradict anyone in any way. One of the most famous people in the world–notorious even, to some–in our humble yard, being scrutinized by people he didn’t know, and taking it all in stride.

Even I had to admit, I was surprised by his patience.

“How could you say those things about being bigger than Jesus?” someone asked. I had wondered that same thing myself.

John shook his head. “When we talk to reporters, we play around with them,” he said. “We’re just a music group. Don’t people know that Jesus is far greater than we are?” Finally, the crowd seemed satisfied. Maybe he wasn’t just some arrogant rock star.

Just then there was a commotion in the sandbox. Debby had hit Peter with a plastic shovel. I knelt down to placate the two of them.

“How old are your kids?” John asked.

“Debby’s two and Peter is five.”

“Sean’s about the same age as your little girl, but he’s so quiet and shy. Maybe he could benefit from playing with a girl like that.” I looked at Sean as John reached down and gently ruffled his hair. In that moment, John didn’t seem like a hippie anymore–he seemed like any other concerned dad.

We talked a little more about our kids. Before I knew it, an hour had passed, and he, Yoko and Sean prepared to pedal off on their bikes.

“It’s good to talk to all of you,” John said. “I’ve been looking for something this summer, something spiritual. I’ve been speaking with a lot of the missionaries I’ve met here, about life and what it all means. Thank you for your words.”

He waved goodbye–and I waved back as they rode off, little Sean perched on his daddy’s handlebars.

I had made all sorts of assumptions about John Lennon–that he was arrogant, disrespectful, antireligious, a rebellious hippie. But the man I met was none of those things. In fact, he was modest and self-effacing. Not like my idea of a rock star at all!

I never did speak to John again. But I hope we helped him that summer. He certainly helped me. He reminded me of why I had come to Japan in the first place. To welcome people–not to judge them. And to grow in my understanding of the world.

This story first appeared in the September 2008 issue of Guideposts.

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