Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Making Stone Soup for the Hungry

There are many weddings at this beautiful time of the year. In fact, June and I got married 59 years ago tomorrow, on May 26, 1957. Last Sunday was the wedding of our granddaughter Katrina Laffoon, who married her college sweetheart, Ryan Hlousek.
Early next month we will drive out to D.C./Maryland for the wedding of granddaughter Marian Seat, our first grandchild. Marian’s husband-to-be is Christopher Lane Mulligan, and they were high school sweethearts in the early 2000s.
Chris’s maternal grandmother was Ann McGovern, who was born on this day (May 25) in 1930. She passed away last August, and articles about her life and death appeared in newspapers across the country, including the New York Times (see here).
Ms. McGovern’s claim to fame was as the author of 50-plus children’s books. The article about her in the Aug. 28, 2015, issue of The Week says that her first book was Roy Rogers and the Mountain Lion and that its publication launched “the career of one of the country’s most popular children’s book authors.”
Her most famous book, one mentioned in the headlines of some articles about her death, was Stone Soup (1968). When it was re-published by Scholastic Inc. in 1986, the dedication page said it was “for Christopher Lane,” her one-year-old grandson. 
“Stone Soup” is an old folk story in which hungry strangers manipulate people into sharing their food. Or sometimes it is just one clever man conning one person into providing ingredients for the soup. 

The first published version of the old folk story is said to be in 1720 by Madame de Noyer, a French journalist. The first English version was published in a British magazine in 1806—and just two years later it appeared in The American Magazine of Wit

Of the several different versions of the old folk story I read, my favorite was “The Story of Stone Soup,” found here on the Internet. In it, a wandering soldier of “post-war Eastern Europe” gets the people of the village he arrives at to add ingredients to the pot cooking his stone. It ends by clearly stating the point of the story.
 The moral is that by working together, with everyone contributing what they can, a greater good is achieved.”
This reminded me of some interpretations of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, the only miracle of Jesus recorded by all four Gospels. According to some “liberal” interpretations, the miracle was not that Jesus somehow supernaturally multiplied the loaves and fishes. Rather, the miracle was changing people’s attitudes, getting them all to share the food they had brought with them.
Years ago when I first heard this interpretation of that miracle story, I was somewhat “offended,” thinking that the power of Jesus to perform miracles was being denied. And there are currently websites that similarly criticize what are considered attempts to deny Jesus’ ability to perform supernatural miracles.
Perhaps, however, the story has far more relevance if it encourages people to share now rather than merely to admire what Jesus did 2,000 years ago. But perhaps a both/and interpretation is best: maybe Jesus took all that the people shared and doubled it so that there would be enough for everyone.
And perhaps Stone Soup and the feeding of the 5,000 both can challenge us to share with the hungry. As Pope Francis said last year, “The planet has enough food for all, but it seems that there is a lack of willingness to share it with everyone.”
Can’t we all share more in making “stone soup” for the hungry?

Friday, May 20, 2016

Tempest in a Pee Pot?

Public bathrooms have been in the news a lot lately, and the issues being discussed are not likely to dissipate soon.
One question is why they are called bathrooms in the first place. Quite clearly the issue being discussed is not places where people take baths. But for some reason people seem to think that the word “toilet” is maybe a little uncouth, so some better-sounding word is used.
Last month on our ANA flight to Japan, the “bathrooms” were called lavatories in English and “keshōshistu” (literally “makeup rooms”) in Japanese—and, of course, there were no separate facilities for men and women.
In addition to being called “loos” in Great Britain, a toilet there is often referred to as a “water closet.” It is also common in Japan, and other Asian countries, to see a public toilet identified simply as a W.C.
The issue now in the U.S., of course, is not what the public restrooms are called but who can use what facilities. The “bathroom bill” that recently became law in North Carolina has stirred a nationwide debate, and it looks as if the dispute is far from over.
Having just been in Japan for three weeks, however, the bathroom hullabaloo in the U.S. seems to be a “tempest in a teapot”—or maybe we should say “a pee pot.”
Through the years the use of public restrooms in Japan has not been universally separated according to gender, although there are generally completely separate facilities now. Before we first went to Japan 50 years ago, though, some American who had lived there “warned” us about the “co-ed” public toilets—and sure enough, from time to time there would be men and women using the same W.C.
However, I never heard of “inclusive” public toilets causing harm to anyone.
During our time in Japan earlier this month, June and I had the opportunity to meet a young trans man whom we had known many years ago as a girl. He now looks very much like a man—and seems much happier than when he was a young “male trapped in a female body.”
If our young trans friend were to go to North Carolina, however, legally he would have to use public toilets labeled “Women.” The women he would see there, however, would no doubt be greatly discomforted to meet someone like him, who looks fully like a man, in their facility. 
Those with little understanding of, or sympathy for, transgender persons tend to deal with the issue in a simplistic manner. For example, this week I heard talk-radio host Mark Levin pontificating about the bathroom issue, which he said shouldn’t be an issue at all.

Who uses what bathroom, Levin said, should be determined solely by what is between people’s legs, not by what is between their ears.

Recently I have seen some good and important things written by Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty. Last week, however, he wrote an opinion piece (see here) in which he intimated that the bathroom question is settled by not violating the Bible’s words as found in Genesis 1:27.

Both Levin’s and Moore’s arguments for traditional bathroom bifurcation are not only simplistic, they also disrespectful of and insensitive to the needs of trans men and women. 

Gender identity, including how people think, look, and act, is determined by more than genitalia.
Rather than creating a tempest in a pee pot, we should acknowledge the existence of transgender people and respect their need to use public restrooms that match their identity.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

100 Years Old and Going Strong

Yesterday (May 14) was a big day for Seinan Gakuin, the school complex that was founded in 1916. Following the on-campus Founders Day ceremonies on Friday, there were elaborate centennial activities at large downtown facilities on Saturday afternoon and evening.

It was a joy to be back in Japan and to participate in Seinan Gakuin’s centennial celebration—just as twenty years, and longer, ago I had told people here several times that I would.

After my last two visits here (in 2013 and 2010) I posted blog articles about Seinan Gakuin, so for background information please see here and here.

The first part of the centennial celebration yesterday included a public lecture by Dr. Tetsu Nakamura, a 1962 graduate of Seinan Gakuin Junior High School.

Dr. Nakamura, who will celebrate his 70th birthday in September of this year, has lived and worked in Pakistan and Afghanistan since 1984.

He is a quiet, unassuming man whom I have met and talked with several times through the years. It was a pleasure to hear him speak again—along with about 1,500 other people who gathered in the International Congress Center of Fukuoka for the occasion.

Dr. Nakamura became a Christian partly because of the influence of Baptist missionary Charlie Fenner, one of his Jr. High teachers. Although he does not say a lot about being a Christian, Dr. Nakamura’s life and indefatigable work in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been a very positive Christian testimony.

For years much of his work in Pakistan was largely with patients suffering from Hansen’s disease (formerly called leprosy). He has also devoted much time and effort working with refugees in the Afghanistan/Pakistan borderlands.

In 2003 Dr. Nakamura was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Peace and International Understanding.

The Magsaysay Awards are often called the Asian Nobel Prizes. As the recipient of such a high honor, Dr. Nakamura is perhaps the most prominent among the nearly 147,000 students who have graduated from one (or more) of the Seinan Gakuin schools.

Dr. Nakamura was also awarded the Grand Prize at the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize ceremony in 2013. (See here for a good English summary of his life and work that was read then.)

For the past 15 years, Dr. Nakamura has worked extensively supervising the digging of wells and in land reclamation. He said he realized it was more important to make food and clean water available to people, keeping them from starving or getting sick, than in helping cure those who were ill.

Dr. Nakamura closed his talk with a brief reference to his current slogan: Reconciliation and Grace.

Baptist missionary C. K. Dozier was the primary founder of Seinan Gakuin, and just before he died in 1933 (at the very young age of 54) he said to his wife, “Tell Seinan, be true to Christ.” For many decades, and still, that has been Seinan Gakuin’s motto.

On April 1 the Trustees of Seinan Gakuin issued a peace declaration, partly confessing that in cooperating with the Japan’s war activities in the 1930s and early 1940s the school had not been true to Christ. It was a fine statement of repentance for past mistakes and a re-commitment to the teachings of Jesus.

The evening celebration yesterday was from 6 p.m. until well after the planned ending time of 8:30. Most of the 4,000 people who attended that gala event were SG graduates, and I hope most of them gave serious thought again to the meaning and significance of the motto of Seinan Gakuin, now 100 years old and still going strong.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Considering “Your Erroneous Zones”

A careful look at Jesus Christ will reveal an extremely self-actualized person, an individual who preached self-reliance, and was not afraid to incur disapproval.” 

Those are the rather surprising words of Wayne W. Dyer in his bestselling book Your Erroneous Zones (1976)—surprising not because they seem untrue, but because Dyer was not a Christian (as least in the traditional sense).

Dyer was born on May 10, 1940, and passed away last August 29 at the age of 75. Your Erroneous Zones was the first of many books he wrote, and I read it with great interest when it was still fairly new—and again, hastily, this year. 

Dyer’s book is certainly worth reading, and re-reading. On the New York Times bestseller list for 64 weeks, it was one of the top-selling books of the twentieth century with an estimated 35 million copies sold.

Even though a religious pluralist, Dyer had great respect for Jesus, as seen in his statement above. While not in his 1976 book, he is also quoted as saying, “My beliefs are that the truth is a truth until you organize it, and then becomes a lie. I don’t think that Jesus was teaching Christianity, Jesus was teaching kindness, love, concern, and peace. What I tell people is don’t be Christian, be Christ-like.” 

He went on to say, Don’t be Buddhist, be Buddha-like.” From such statements, it seems clear that Dyer was a person who was very spiritual, but not religious.

Another of his books that I read with interest and profit was Change Your Thoughts—Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao (2007), and he has other books about the ancient Chinese spirituality known as Tao (now sometimes written Dao, the way it is pronounced). 

Dyer also considered Swami Muktananda (1908-82), a Yoga guru, as his master. 

Dyer held a doctorate in educational counseling from Wayne State University and served for a while as an associate professor at St. John’s University in New York. But he is mainly known as the prolific author of self-help books and as a motivational speaker.
On his website, Dyer is introduced as “an internationally renowned author and speaker in the fields of self-development and spiritual growth.”

The reference to a “self-actualized person” in the quote at the beginning of this article is a term made popular by Abraham Maslow, who in other places Dyer refers to as one of his greatest teachers. (It is surprising that he doesn’t mention Maslow in his 1976 book.)

One of the best, or most important, chapters in Your Erroneous Zones is titled “The Useless Emotions—Guilt and Worry.” “Throughout life, the two most futile emotions are guilt for what has been done and worry about what might be done,” writes Dyer at the beginning of that chapter. 

He suggests strategies for eliminating both of those “erroneous zones” and then challenges his readers to learn to “live now and not waste your current moments in immobilizing thoughts about the past or future.”

The final chapter of his 1976 book is “Portrait of a Person Who Has Eliminated All Erroneous Zones.” It could also be taken as the portrait of a self-actualized person. That summary chapter is worth reading and considering at least once a year—if not once a month. 

According to Dyer, people who have eliminated all erroneous zones “are enthusiastic about life, and they want all that they can get out of it.” That statement reminds me of Jesus’ words: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly(John 10:10).

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Horace Mann, Champion of Public Education

It is a bit ironic to be posting this article in praise of public education from Japan, where I have come to help celebrate the centennial of Seinan Gakuin, the private school system founded by Baptist missionaries. Nevertheless, I am serious in what I write here about public education and its great nineteenth century champion, Horace Mann.
Some of my best memories from when I was a high school student are of going to nearby Maryville, Mo., for music contests. They were held at the school whose official name since 1972 has been Northwest Missouri State University.
One of the things I remember seeing on that campus as a high school student was a building bearing the name Horace Mann Laboratory School. At the time I didn’t know who Horace Mann was, but I later learned that he was one of the most important persons in the development of public education in the United States.
That school was founded 110 years ago, in June 1906. Interestingly, Mann was born 110 years before the beginning of that educational institution in Maryville that bears his name.
Born in Massachusetts on May 4, 1796, from ages ten to twenty Mann had no more than six weeks’ schooling during any year. He made use of the town library, though, and at the age of 20 he enrolled at Brown University, graduating in three years as valedictorian. He went on to become an outstanding educator and politician.
After graduating from Brown, Mann practiced law before winning a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he served from 1827 to 1833. Then he served in the Massachusetts Senate until he became the head of the nation’s first board of education in 1837. In his biography titled Horace Mann (1974), Robert B. Downs called Mann “a highly effective missionary for universal public education.”
In addition to the school in Maryville, Mo., there are more than 70 other Horace Mann schools scattered across the nation.
There were also people named after him. For example, recently I posted an article about Julian Bond (see here). His father’s name was Horace Mann Bond—and he also became a distinguished educator, serving as the first African-American president of Lincoln University (in Penn.) from 1957 to 1972.
Often called “the father of American public education,” Mann championed six innovative educational principles:
(1) the public should no longer remain ignorant; (2) that such education should be paid for, controlled, and sustained by an interested public; (3) that this education will be best provided in schools that embrace children from a variety of backgrounds; (4) that this education must be non-sectarian; (5) that this education must be taught by the spirit, methods, and discipline of a free society; and (6) that education should be provided by well-trained, professional teachers.
Perhaps the most controversial of Mann’s principles was that it be non-sectarian. That idea was opposed by clerics who thought that education should include religious indoctrination—something that was being done widely at the time, and which R.J. Rushdoony (introduced recently here) and his followers think ought to be done in home schools now.
Mann became the first president of Antioch College (Ohio) in 1852. There he employed the first woman faculty member to be paid on an equal basis with her male colleagues. Mann’s commencement message to the graduating class of 1859 included the words, “be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” 
Those words are still repeated at every commencement ceremony at Antioch College—and, indeed, they are words well worth considering.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

In Memory of Dr. Nagai

Some of you readers of this blog know Kathy Laffoon, my oldest daughter. Kathy and her family moved to Liberty in 2008 when she took a job as a gifted education teacher in the Liberty Public School. In the last few years she has been working with many of her middle school students doing National History Day (NHD) projects—and in recent years I have been a resource person or a mentor for some of those students.

This year two of Kathy’s students teamed up to do a NHD project on Dr. Takashi Nagai, who died 65 years ago on May 1, 1951.

I enjoyed meeting with those two boys a few times in connection with their project, and I was impressed to see how interested they were in learning about Nagai. They made a webpage (link to it here) in order to introduce him to other people.

Some of you may remember my mentioning Dr. Nagai in articles I posted on this blog last August. (See here and here.) He was a doctor who was teaching at the medical college in Nagasaki, Japan, at the time the atomic bomb was dropped on that city on August 9, 1945.

Nagai’s research specialty was radiology, and he had already contracted leukemia from his exposure to radiation. And then he was seriously injured by the bomb.

In spite of his illness and injuries, though, Nagai worked tirelessly to give medical assistance to many who were injured by the explosion and also to those who suffered long term health problems because of what came to be known as “radiation sickness.”

From July 1946 until his death, Nagai was confined to bed. He spent much of his time writing, and his best known and most powerful book is Bells of Nagasaki. He finished writing that book in 1946 but did not get permission from the American Occupation officials to publish it until 1949.

The English translation of Nagai’s book was published in 1994. It was done by William Johnston, an Irish-born Catholic missionary who arrived in Japan just in time to attend Nagai’s funeral in 1951.

The title of Nagai’s book refers to the bells of Urakami Cathedral, which at the time was the largest Christian church in Asia. Nagai was a member of that church, and, of course, grieved greatly at its destruction. It was very near the epicenter of the atomic explosion, and some of its remains can still be seen in the Nagasaki Peace Park.

In 1947, local Catholics built a simple two-tatami (about 36 sq. ft.) teahouse-like structure for Nagai. He named it Nyokodo (literally As-Yourself Hall,” after Jesus words, Love your neighbor as yourself”).

While bed-fast there in what he considered his hermitage, Nagai was visited many notable people, such as Helen Keller in 1948. The following year he was also visited there by Emperor Hirohito and by Cardinal Gilroy, as the emissary of Pope Pius XII.
Dr. Nagai with his children in Nyokodo
Many years ago I went with some of my Seinan Gakuin University students to visit Nyokodo, which with the addition of a library had become the Nagasaki City Nagai Takashi Memorial Museum in 1952. My visit there was before the English translation of Nagai’s book was published, and I hadn’t taken the time to read it in Japanese. Consequently, I didn’t appreciate it as much then as I would now.

If you would like to read more about Dr. Nagai, I recommend Paul Glynn’s fine book A Song for Nagasaki (1988), which Kathy’s students found to be very helpful in preparing their National History Day project.
Here is the link to a 5-minute radio interview with Dr. Nagai that was broadcast nationwide in Japan on Aug. 9, 1950. The interview is in Japanese, of course, but there is a brief English explanation worth reading. And those of you who can’t understand Japanese might still enjoy hearing his voice.