Thursday, May 30, 2013

An Odd Person to Remember on Memorial Day

Monday, May 27, was Memorial Day in the U.S. Since 1971 the observance of the holiday to honor especially those who have died in military service has been held on the last Monday in May.
For many years prior to that, though, Memorial Day was observed on May 30, and that is still said to be the “traditional date” for holiday.
It is somewhat ironic, then, that Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese pilot who led the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 died (in 1976 at the age of 73) on May 30.
On the very day that many people across the U.S. were honoring loved ones or friends who had been killed by Japanese bombs and bullets 35 years earlier, the life of the man who led the attack on that “day of infamy,” as President Roosevelt called it, came to an end from complications of diabetes.
But as I wrote on this blog last December, Fuchida’s life was greatly changed after he received a Christian tract from a Baptist missionary in October 1948.
That missionary was Timothy Pietsch, and I just learned earlier this month that his son Kelsey, when he was only five or six years old, would often go with his father and stand on a Jeep singing “Jesus Loves Me” in Japanese as his father passed out tracts.
They don’t know, of course, which day it was that Fuchida received the tract that was instrumental in changing his life.
Kelsey Pietsch’s mother was the only daughter of C. K. (Charles Kelsey) and Maude Dozier, a newly-wed couple who went as missionaries to Japan in 1906. Ten years later C. K. Dozier led in establishing what in Japan is called a “mission school.”
That school, which had only 104 junior high boys when it was opened in 1916, is now Seinan Gakuin, an educational institution that is comprised of a nursery school, kindergarten, elementary school, junior-senior high school, university, and graduate schools (including a law school). Altogether there are well over 10,000 students.
On May 15 of each year, Seinan Gakuin celebrates Founders Day, which I was able to attend this year. Kelsey Pietsch, the founder’s grandson who is now a pastor in California, was also there and was one of the speakers.
In his remarks, Pietsch briefly told the story of his father’s connection to Mitsuo Fuchida, and after the ceremony he showed me a picture of Fuchida and the Pietsch family in front of their home in Tokyo.
As some of you may remember, when I wrote about Fuchida last December, I introduced the book about him, published in 1990 under the title “God’s Samurai: Lead Pilot at Pearl Harbor.”

Mitsuo Fuchida in 1959

The author, Gordon W. Prange who was professor of history at the University of Maryland, called Fuchida “God’s samurai,” for after becoming a Christian, Fuchida soon began giving his testimony and later sailed with Timothy Pietsch to the United States where he spent several months, speaking in numerous churches and even being interviewed by Billy Graham.
So during this Memorial Day week as we honor those Americans who died in military service, maybe it is not so odd, after all, also to remember Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese war pilot turned Christian evangelist who happened to die on May 30.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Greetings from Seinan Gakuin

It is a beautiful May morning as I start this blog article, and I am writing this in Fukuoka, the city in southwest Japan where June and I lived for 36 years. So I send you warm greetings from Japan and from the campus of Seinan Gakuin University.
Having lived here for so long, it really seemed like I was coming home when I arrived back here on May 14. I had warm and nostalgic feelings much like I used to have years ago upon going back to where I grew up in north Missouri after having been in Japan for several years.
June and I last visited back in Fukuoka in 2010, and I am sorry she decided not to come with me this time—especially since we can’t celebrate our 56th wedding anniversary together tomorrow.
One of the first things that stuck me upon being back in Fukuoka was how little things have changed in the past three years. There used to be so much new construction taking place across the city all the time, but there seemingly has not been much since I was here last and there is not a lot that is visible now. That is, no doubt, largely due to the sluggish economy over the last many years.
On May 15, I attended the Founders Day ceremonies at the school system known as Seinan Gakuin (SG), which started as a small school for junior high school for boys in 1916. Now there are well over 10,000 students from the nursery school through the university that includes a law school.
And there has been, and is, new construction on campus. There is a beautiful new four-story Language Education Center at SGU, and a new administration building is currently being built.
Around 80% of the students at Seinan Gakuin are in the university, and that is where I taught for the 36 years we lived in Fukuoka. But this academic year, which began the first of April, marks the completion of the Seinan Gakuin Elementary School (SGES), which opened with grades one through three in 2010.
From 1996 to 2004 I had the privilege (and the heavy responsibility) of serving as the chancellor of Seinan Gakuin. In that capacity I was the one who proposed and then worked toward the founding of the SGES. It was a thrill to visit it the month after it opened in 2010, and it was a thrill for me again to attend the SGES chapel service this month with more than 400 students, from the first through the sixth grades, present.
I wish you could have heard the grade school students recite the Lord’s Prayer together. I venture to say you have never heard that prayer said as loudly or as clearly as I heard it in that chapel service. And the pupils were so quiet and well-behaved through the remainder of the service that I was much impressed.
Of all I tried to do in Japan through the years, I can’t help but think that perhaps my most significant accomplishment was laying the groundwork for the founding of Seinan Gakuin Elementary School.
Seinan Gakuin Elementary School (on left)
I thank God for the privilege of being able to serve as an educational missionary at Seinan Gakuin from 1968 to 2004 and for the blessing of being here again now and until the end of this merry month of May.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Who Speaks for God?

Yesterday, May 19, was a day of celebration for Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians. It was Pentecost Sunday, a day commemorating the Holy Spirit coming upon the followers of Jesus on the traditional Jewish festival day known as Pentecost.
The events on Pentecost roughly 50 days after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ brought about what is sometimes called the birthday of the Christian Church. Yesterday I had the privilege of preaching in a local church, talking some about its birth.
The Hirao Baptist Church was started by missionaries Bob and Kay Culpepper in the 1950s. The church’s first meeting place was in the upstairs of the missionary residence where June and I, and our two older children, moved in 1968 after the Culpeppers had moved to another part of the city.
Then in its own building, Hirao became our church home from 1968 until 1980, when we helped start the Fukuoka International Church under the sponsorship of Hirao Church. It was a real joy to have the privilege of preaching there again yesterday—in the fine new facilities built several years ago at the same location as their first building.
Hirao Baptist Church, Fukuoka City, Japan
My text was 1 Corinthians 14:1-5a and my emphasis was upon “prophesying.” 1 Cor. 14:1 says, Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy” (NRSV). In Eugene Peterson’s delightful Bible paraphrase known as “The Message,” this verse reads, Go after a life of love as if your life depended on it—because it does. Give yourselves to the gifts God gives you. Most of all, try to proclaim [God’s] truth.”
One of the main points of my message was that the thrust of that first Christian Pentecost was not the speaking in “tongues.” Rather, it was speaking/proclaiming God’s message. That is what needs to be emphasized now. And speaking/proclaiming God’s message is something that can and should be done by all Christian believers, not just by those who are pastors or missionaries.
Moreover, proclaiming God’s message is something that needs to be done by deeds as well as by words. Of course, for some groups, such as the Quakers and maybe many Mennonites, perhaps the emphasis needs to be on proclaiming God’s message by words as well as by deeds. (Long ago I heard of someone who said to a Quaker, “Why don’t you preach what you practice!”)
But who speaks for God? There are so many different voices all claiming to be speaking for God, how can we tell true “prophets” from false ones? This is no new problem. But it is still a problem, and it is a big problem.
The words of 1 Corinthians 14:3 are helpful here: “. . . the one who proclaims God’s message speaks to people and gives them help, encouragement, and comfort” (TEV). This is not the only guideline for discerning who speaks for God, but it is an important one.
Those who truly speak for God, proclaiming God’s truth, are those who speak words and do deeds that help, encourage, and comfort others—especially those who are hurting: the physically and spiritually needy, the exploited and discriminated against, and (among others) the victims of violence and the ravages of warfare.
Next month I will have the opportunity to speak at the dedication service of a new church building in Cambodia. Please pray that I may truly speak for God to people of that troubled country who have been hurting for such a long time and desperately need God’s word of help, encouragement, and comfort.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

“On the Fifteenth of May, in the Jungle of Nool”

Perhaps Dr. Seuss’s most noteworthy book is “Horton Hears a Who!” (1954). It begins,
On the fifteenth of May, in the jungle of Nool,   
In the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool,
He was splashing…enjoying the jungle’s great joys…
When Horton the elephant heard a small noise.
Many of you have read this book to your children or grandchildren, and perhaps some of you have watched the delightful 2008 movie version with them. But do you know that this and other Dr. Seuss books are the subject of theological and philosophical considerations?
In 2004, James W. Kemp, a retired Methodist pastor, published a book titled “The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss.” And Jacob M. Held, a philosophy professor at the University of Central Arkansas, is the editor of “Dr. Seuss and Philosophy,” a 260-page book published in 2011.
Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel, 1904-91) published 46 children’s books, and children across the country, as well as their parents and grandparents, have very much enjoyed the rhyming, rhythm, and rhetoric of those books as well as the illustrations, drawn by the author. And even though subtle, there is an important moral teaching in most of his books.
Sometimes the moral is misunderstood. The line "A person’s a person, no matter how small!!" from “Horton Hears a Who!” has been used as a slogan by the anti-abortion movement in the U.S.
While Geisel preferred to let his work speak for itself, he did occasionally speak out to protect his characters from exploitation. In 1986 when that line from “Horton” was first used by the pro-life movement, he demanded a retraction and received one.
Actually, “Horton Hears a Who!” is said to be an allegory for the Hiroshima bombing and the American post-war occupation of Japan, and it was dedicated to a Japanese friend.
Seuss wrote “Horton” after visiting Japan in 1953 and admitted that Who-ville was partially modeled on the country, which had just emerged from U.S. occupation at the time. The book’s dedication, “For My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura,” refers to a professor he met on that trip.
One of the philosophy professors, though, suggests a different underlying message in “Horton.” He says that “we must remember that Dr. Seuss published this story in 1954, in the midst of the civil rights movement.” That was when many Americans “remained ‘blind’ to the plight of African Americans” (“Dr. Seuss and Philosophy,” p. 130).
And some of the authors of the same book use “Horton” to explain the moral ideas of Immanuel Kant, one of the most difficult-to-understand German philosophers.
For example, the co-authors of the ninth chapter write, “Horton is promoting the view that all people matter. All people possess an inherent, inviolable value beyond any price or measure; all people possess dignity. Kant couldn’t have said it better” (p. 107).
“Horton Hears a Who!” is the seventh chapter in Kemp’s delightful book. He relates the theme of that Seuss story, “a person is a person, no matter how small,” to Psalm 24:1-2. Kemp contends that
we must, like Horton, hear the cries of other people, no matter how small or insignificant they may be in the world’s eyes. If anything, Scripture instructs us to take special care of those people—especially widows, orphans, and prisoners—who are downtrodden and have been marginalized from the spheres of influence in our society (p. 49).
And that is something worth considering on this fifteenth of May, even if you are not in the Jungle of Nool!