Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Tribute to F. Calvin Parker

Calvin Parker was one of my most esteemed missionary colleagues in Japan, a valuable mentor, and a dear friend. He passed away on December 22, and his memorial service is being held today in Mars Hill, North Carolina.
F. Calvin Parker (1926-2010)
I first met Calvin on September 1, 1966, the day June & I and our two children (at the time) arrived in Japan. For roughly the next two years we lived less than five minutes by car from where Calvin and his wife Harriett lived in Shibuya, Tokyo. They were our very helpful sempai (senior colleagues) during that time.
Calvin soon invited me to attend a monthly theological book discussion group with him. During the grueling time of language school, those meetings were one of the major highlights of each month for me, both because of the high quality of the discussions and because of the conversation with Calvin going and coming each time.
Calvin was a man of great integrity and humility, in the best sense of the word. And he was a scholar; he knew how to do research, how to write, and, most importantly, how to think, how to analyze and synthesize.
In the summer of 1968, June and I moved to Fukuoka in southwest Japan, but then in 1980 Calvin and Harriet moved to the same city. Calvin became my colleague in the Department of Theology at Seinan Gakuin University. His levelheaded participation in our faculty meetings was very helpful, and it was a real loss to our department when he retired in 1988.

Calvin was the author of several books. His most “academic” work was Jonathan Goble of Japan: Marine, Missionary, Maverick (1990), revised and published as Icon and Outcast: The Life of Jonathan Goble (2007). His books I appreciated the most are Christ in a Kimono (2003) and The Good Book Is Better Than It Used to Be: Eighty Years with the Bible (2009), which I had the privilege of reading in manuscript form and of writing a blurb for the back cover.

Earlier this year, even though his physical strength was waning, he read each chapter of The Limits of Liberalism, my new book, and I greatly appreciate the many helpful (mostly editorial) suggestions he made for each chapter. 

In November, Baptists Today featured Calvin and Harriett with their picture on the front of the issue and an article about them, featuring his 2009 book. I am grateful John Pierce was able to interview them back in July and to publish the results while Calvin had the opportunity to see that issue.

Sadness surrounds the death of most people, but it is truly sad with a person such as Calvin Parker passes. The world is certainly worse off without him. His insight and wisdom will continue to inspire many through his books. For those of us who had the privilege of knowing him personally, not only his memory but his considerable influence will also long remain in our minds and lives.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Re-Thinking Christmas as a Federal Holiday

Christmas Day (yesterday) this year was on Saturday, so it was not so important for it to be a federal holiday. But what about it? Should Christmas be a federal holiday? Probably not.

I am sure many who read this will disagree with me. So let me explain why I, one who has been an ordained Christian minister for more than fifty years and who served as a missionary for nearly four decades, question the legitimacy of Christmas being a federal holiday.

Last time I mentioned how Christmas is widely celebrated in Japan, especially by the merchants. But as you might expect, Christmas is not a holiday in Japan, or in most other countries where a majority of the citizens are not Christians and where Christianity has not been the primary shaper of the culture.

But that certainly does not mean that Christmas has no religious meaning in Japan. There are more people, including more non-Christians, who attend church services on the Sunday before Christmas and on Christmas Eve than any other time of the year.

Many Western Christians of the past, however, did not celebrate Christmas at all. Many Protestants, including those “illegal aliens of 1620” about whom I wrote last month, did not observe Christmas as a holiday. Those pious Pilgrims began building their first permanent houses in Plymouth Colony on December 25, 1621. And from 1659 to 1681 Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston.

During that same century, the Puritans who remained in England were also negative about celebrating Christmas. The name, after all, came from Christ’s mass, a Catholic practice which they referred to as “a popish festival with no biblical justification.” It was only after the monarchy was restored under King Charles II in 1660 that Christmas began to be celebrated again in England.

In this country now, many who would object to Christmas no longer being a federal holiday are also likely to advocate maintaining the original intent of the founding fathers of the nation. But during and after the Revolutionary War, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas which had again been popular there for a century. In fact, Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America’s new constitution.

Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday in the U.S. until 1870. One wonders if there was something of a compromise in that action. Before the Civil War, the North and South were divided on the issue of Christmas as well as on slavery. Many Northerners opposed the celebration of Christmas, but the first three States to make Christmas a legal holiday were in the South: Alabama in 1836 and Louisiana and Arkansas in 1838.

Now in our pluralistic nation at the end of 2010, perhaps it is time to re-think Christmas as a federal holiday. The demographics of the U.S. are much different now than 140, and more, years ago, so probably we should be following the stipulation of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

In spite of its secularization and commercialization, Christmas surely still has something to do with Christianity. Thus, changing Christmas so it is no longer a federal holiday is probably something that should be done sooner rather than later.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Re-Thinking Mary’s Song

Christmas is coming, and most of us are busy getting ready for a joyous time with family and friends. For weeks now we have heard the music of Christmas, including both the sacred carols and the secular songs that have become so much a part of the season. And we have seen the Christmas advertisements urging us to buy and buy for our loved ones.
The Christmas season has surely been engulfed by consumerism, and Christmas has largely become something far different from a religious holiday. Many who have little appreciation for the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth use Christmas as an excuse for marketing their wares, publicizing their entertainment, and enhancing their income.
Even in Japan, where fewer than 2% of the population are Christians, Christmas is widely celebrated. Department stores are filled with Christmas decorations and Christmas carols are heard almost everywhere. Years ago I even saw a sign in front of some dive advertising “Christmas Nudes.”
There is another side of the Christmas message that is not emphasized so much, especially in this country. This side of Christmas is expressed by Mary’s song as recorded in the first chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. That song has long been called the Magnificat, which is the first word of the Latin translation.
Numerous composers have written music for Mary’s song. For example, “The Magnificat in D Major” is a major vocal work of Johann Sebastian Bach, and Mozart, Vivaldi, and others wrote shorter musical pieces titled Magnificat. It has been said that there is no single passage of Scripture more frequently set to music.
Still, the content of Mary’s song has often been overlooked, although it has been widely emphasized in recent decades by many South American Christians. In his engaging book Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes (1984), theology professor Robert McAfee Brown (1920-2001) wrote about the political and economic significance of Mary’s song, which includes the words, “God has . . . brought down the rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53, NIV).
(Drawing by Dan Erlander; used with his permission.)
To those who are suffering from hunger and humiliation, those are hopeful words. And since there have been so many hurting people there, Brown wrote that in Latin America, “there are few biblical passages more widely used than Mary’s song.” He also declares that “Mary’s song is a call to revolutionary action.”
Several years earlier, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder (1927-97) wrote a book titled The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (1971). That original revolution, he states, is expressed in Mary’s song. The desired and decisive change, though, is not brought about by violence. Jesus, after all, was born as the “Prince of Peace.” Still, the central message of Mary’s song—and the central message of Christmas—is that Jesus’ birth was intended by God as good news for the poor.
How are we helping, how can we help, make Christmas what God intends for it to be?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What about the GNP (Grand “No” Party)?

In my previous posting, I referred to the Republican Party as the GNP (Grand “No” Party). The first comment received about that posting was from a Thinking Friend (now hopefully not a former friend!) who wrote, “. . . in my opinion it doesn't help any of your causes when you resort to immature comments like ‘the GNP (Grand "No" Party).’”
This blog was not intended to focus on politics: it is supposed to be about theological and ethical issues. But the latter cannot be divorced from politics, and whether “immature” or not, since it seems clear to me that in the last two years the Republican Party has consistently said “no” on significant ethical issues, it deserves the designation I used.
(During the last two years the GOP has often been called, mostly by Democrats of course, the “Party of No.” That sentiment is expressed well by the award-winning cartoonist John Sherffius. I thought maybe I was coining a new title by calling it the GNP, but after using that label I found numerous references to the “Grand No Party” on the Internet.)
The same TF went on to write, “With their super majority the DNC had plenty of time to force these issues through the legislative process starting 24 months ago but they have waited until now to jam them through when the American people voted in the recent elections for a different direction on some of these issues.
Yes, the Obama administration did use their super majority to enact health care legislation—and has been severely criticized by many for doing so. But that is when I first became aware that the GOP had become the GNP. Not a single Republican voted for the health care legislation.
Now this month, the Republicans are blocking the repeal of DADT, as I wrote about last time. They probably are going to kill the DREAM Act in the Senate. And even the very important START nuclear treaty with Russia may not get enough Republican votes to pass.
In spite of this country being a democracy, which generally means rule by a majority, on issue after issue, forty-one negative Republican Senators have repeatedly been able to defeat legislation or motions proposed by the administration. (And since it is a treaty, thirty-four negative votes can defeat START.)
My (former?) TF also wrote, “Finally the GOP is certainly not saying ‘no’ to the President’s recommendation to extend the Bush Tax Cuts.” But that is true only because, among other things, the GOP were adamant in saying ‘no’ to the extension of unemployment benefits unless the tax cuts were extended to everyone, millionaires included. In this case, being the GNP worked—but, I’m afraid, to the detriment of the country as a whole.
I long for the day when this country can be governed not by Democrats or by Republicans but by statesmen and stateswomen who truly seek to govern for the general welfare of all the people in the nation—and tilted toward those who are the neediest among us rather than the wealthiest two percent.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Today is Human Rights Day, about which I posted on December 10 last year. (I encourage you to read, or re-read, that posting.)
In this country, the human rights of most people are recognized to a fairly high degree. But there is one segment of our society which does not enjoy the dignity afforded to most people. Those are the gay/lesbian people in our midst. The latest issue of Intelligence Report, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, states, “Homosexuals are far more likely than any other minority group in the United States to be victimized by violent hate crime” (p. 29). (You can find a link to that issue here.)
In particular, the rights of gay/lesbian people in this country are being violated by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Since 1993, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) has been the official policy of the DoD, restricting the military from efforts to discover or reveal closeted gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members or applicants, while barring those who are openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual from military service.
It is long past time for DADT to be repealed, for it is clearly discriminatory against gay/lesbian persons. And repeal may, in fact, happen before long. On September 9, U.S. District Court Judge Virginia A. Phillips ruled that the DoD’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is unconstitutional.
Then on October 12, Judge Phillips issued a permanent worldwide injunction ordering the military immediately to “suspend and discontinue any investigation, or discharge, separation, or other proceeding, that may have been commenced” under “don't ask, don't tell.” But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stayed the injunction pending appeal.
It looked as if DADT would be repealed this month, but after the procedural vote in the Senate yesterday, that now looks doubtful. The GNP (Grand “No” Party) has again kept important legislation from passing.
As important as repeal of the DADT policy is, though, I am mainly interested in the DADT policy being changed in our churches. While conservative churches tend to be openly opposed to gay/lesbian persons, moderate churches, such as the one I am a member of, are more like to have an unwritten “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. That is, nothing negative is said, but neither is there the openness for practicing gays/lesbians to be honest at church about their sexual orientation.
A few months ago June and I joined the Kansas City Coalition for Welcoming Ministries, and we have attended most of the monthly meetings over the last few months. Only a few people gather. Some are “straight” and some are gay/lesbian; some are clergy and some are lay Christians. Several denominations are represented: Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Community of Christ, and Baptist.
The stated purpose of the KCCoalition is “. . . anticipating (and working toward) a time when all faith communities in the metropolitan Kansas City area will respect and welcome all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.” Is that too much to ask?
Surely it is better than the don’t ask, don’t tell stance of many churches now. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

When Did "Missionary" Become a Dirty Word?

When Sammy Davis, Jr., (1925-90) once heard someone complaining about discrimination, he said, “You got it easy. I’m a short, ugly, one-eyed, black Jew. What do you think it’s like for me?” It is not nearly as serious, but I can identify a little bit with Davis, for I am a retired, Southern Baptist missionary (and maybe ugly, too).
From time to time during these last several years, I have sensed some negativity because of being retired. People my age and older who are still in a full-time job are respected more highly, it seems, than those of us who are (basically) retired from similar positions.
And then if Christian has become a “dirty word,” as I wrote about on my October 20 posting, Southern Baptist is viewed even more negatively by many people. In fact, it is the fundamentalist bent of many contemporary Southern Baptist leaders that has helped tarnish the name Christian. I am no longer a Southern Baptist, partly for that reason, but that doesn’t change the past.
But perhaps the most negative of all is the designation missionary. I have felt some disdain even from fellow church members because of my having been a career missionary. And the word missionary is rarely used in church meetings any more, except for the ladies in Women on Mission.
My church is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which has a Global Missions program, but they send and support field personnel rather than missionaries. And our church has a Missions Support Committee and talks a lot about mission activities, which are usually activities in which members participate, but rarely about missionaries. For a long time now, the only positive thing I remember hearing said about missionaries was by the pastor of the First Haitian Baptist Church who preached last month and expressed appreciation for the missionaries who went to his country.
This is in the middle of the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering emphasis of the Southern Baptist Convention, and I feel rather nostalgic for the time when I could go to churches at this time of the year and talk about the joy of being a missionary and to thank them for their support of missionaries across the world, men and women who were seeking to be incarnational servants of Christ in other lands—as, indeed, Lottie Moon and many others were and are.
But through the years too many missionaries have been too closely aligned with colonialism and with imperialistic policies, of both church and state. And too many missionaries have been insensitive to local customs and culture, although perhaps there are not as many missionaries like that as some think.
In addition, the growing emphasis on religious pluralism and the postmodern emphasis on relativism have resulted in widespread negativity especially toward missionaries serving in evangelistic activities. If missionary work is approved at all, it is more and more only that which is directed toward meeting the physical needs of people and primarily by those who go on short mission trips.
I am sad that missionary, even more than Christian, has, alas, seemingly become a “dirty word” to many even within the church.