Monday, October 15, 2018

TTT #27 The New Testament Word for Success is Faithfulness

While I intend for my book Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now (TTT) to be relevant for everyone and not just for Christian believers, this article taken from the first part of the 27th chapter of TTT (and found in full here) is primarily about Christians (for good or for ill). But I trust it will also be of interest and instructive to those of other faiths, or of no faith.
Disliking Failure
Failure is a word we hate to hear. During their school days, little seemed worse for most people than getting an “F” on a test or on their report card.
And in real life, failure is a fear for those who go into business for themselves as well as for those who go into non-profit service activities. Failure for either usually means loss of income as well as loss of self-esteem.
Since in the world of religion this seems to be more of an issue for Christians than those of other faiths, this article/chapter is mostly about success and failure as related to Christianity.
Liking Success
Because of the fear of failure, through the years there has been a spate of books, many from a Christian or semi-Christian perspective, written about how to succeed. Some of the most widely read are Acres of Diamonds (1915), Think and Grow Rich (1937), The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), and The Success Principles (2005).
Success, as we who live in the United States all know, is often measured either in terms of dollars or in terms of numbers of people. In the business world no one who has not become fairly wealthy would be considered a success.
In the Christian world, successful churches are generally considered those that have had considerable numerical growth and boast large attendance at their regular meetings, and the pastors of such churches are generally considered successful.
Most people in the U.S., for example, would consider Joel Osteen, pastor of the Lakewood Church in Houston, a huge success.
The church of which Osteen (b. 1963) is pastor is the largest in the U.S. In 2017 the weekly attendance of his church was 43,500. Moreover, his ministry is said to reach over seven million broadcast media viewers weekly in over 100 nations around the world.
Not only is Osteen successful, but he seeks to help others achieve success also. He also has written several books and regularly posts articles on the Lakewood Church blog.
Some of his articles, especially in past years, were expressions of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” according to which financial success can be expected to result from proper or adequate faith—although many have serious questions about that understanding of success.
Being Faithful
Years ago I heard, and agreed, that the New Testament word for success is faithfulness. Certainly the NT does not speak about success as being defined the number of dollars one has made or the number of members attending a given church.
Many of the great Christian missionaries were quite “unsuccessful.” That is how Francis Xavier thought about his work in Japan in the years following his arrival there in 1549. (Many later missionaries, though, thought he was quite “successful.”)
For many years following his arrival in India in 1793, William Carey was “unsuccessful”—as were Adoniram and Ann Judson for years following their arrival in Burma in 1813.
But they all realized that the New Testament word for success is faithfulness—as did Mother Teresa of Calcutta. So I close this article with her oft-quoted words: 

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Don't Grieve, Give Thanks

Even though I had another article ready to post today, I decided to postpone it and instead to post the following reflections about my brief trip to Japan, which ends today. (I am scheduled to arrive back in Kansas City just after noon today.)

Grieving What Is No More
During my first and last full days in Japan, October 3 and 8, I experienced considerable sadness at the strong likelihood that this would be my last time in Japan. Especially on Monday evening I walked around familiar places with tears in my eyes because the next morning I was going to be leaving the place I have loved so much.
As I was jogging early Tuesday morning, though, I started thinking about the words that I had called to mind last week after visiting my good friend Otsuka Kumiko-san, who has terminal cancer: Don’t grieve over what is no more; rather, give thanks for what once was.
I began to apply those words to myself and my grieving because of leaving Japan for the last time.
Giving Thanks for What Once Was
So, yesterday morning I began to give thanks for each thing I had been feeling sad about, including the following:
** I am thankful for the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, as it was called then, for appointing June and me as missionaries to Japan in 1966 and for supporting us throughout our 38 years there. The Southen Baptist Convention has changed through the years and I am no longer able to be a Southern Baptist; nevertheless, I am deeply grateful for what once was.
** I am thankful for Seinan Gakuin, the school system in Fukuoka City that Southern Baptist missionaries founded in 1916, and for the trustees electing me to the university faculty 50 years ago. I am deeply grateful for the privilege of being able to teach there for 36 years and to serve as chancellor during my final eight years in Japan.
** I am thankful for Hirao Baptist Church, which June and I joined 50 years ago and which was our church home for twelve years. I am also thankful Hirao Church sponsored us in starting the Fukuoka International Church (FIC) and that I was able to serve for 24 years as part-time pastor of that church.
** I am thankful for many Japanese friends, mentors, and co-workers--especially Otsuka Kumiko-san (about whom I wrote, here, on Sept. 5) and Kaneko Sumio-sensei, who was the pastor of Hirao Church for most of the years we attended there. I am thankful for the good visits I had with Otsuka-san on Oct. 3-4  and with Kaneko-sensei on Oct. 5.
** I am thankful for the many former FIC congregants whom I fondly remember--and especially those I was able to visit with over a delicious meal on Oct. 6. That gathering was organized by Fukuoka Kikuko-san, who was the first person I had the privilege of baptizing as pastor of FIC.
** I am thankful for the many students that I had the privilege of teaching at Seinan Gakuin University and especially those with whom I still have contact--such as those I met with on the afternoon of Oct. 8 for a delightful two hours.
What a Difference It Makes!
At dusk on Monday when I left the gathering of former students just mentioned, I walked around familiar places for about two hours, grieving at having to leave Japan for the last time the next day. It was a sad time of thinking of what will be no more, at least of direct experience in Japan.
But Tuesday morning each time I began to have sad thoughts, I would give thanks for what has been--and what a difference that made in how I felt!
Thank you for allowing me to share some of my thoughts / experiences of the past week. In spite of this article being mostly about me, I hope many of you will remember, and profit from, the main point:
Don’t grieve over what is no more; rather, give thanks for what once was.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples' Day?

This coming Monday, October 8, is Columbus Day, a federal holiday in the United States. However, only about half of the states observe that day, and four states as well as many cities celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead.
The Issue
Columbus Day was first celebrated in the U.S. in 1792, and 100 years later President Harrison issued a proclamation encouraging Americans to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the “new world.”
Then in 1937 President Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day as a national holiday, largely as a result of lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, the Roman Catholic fraternal service organization that was founded in 1882 and named in honor of Christopher Columbus.
In recent decades, though, there has been growing opposition to Columbus’s undeniable connection to the oppression of indigenous peoples and the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade.
Beginning in 1992 (in Berkeley, Calif.), an increasing number of cities—as well as the states of Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and South Dakota—now celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the place of Columbus Day. (In S.D., though, the day is called Native American Day.)
So, which holiday should be celebrated next Monday?  
The Issue Intensified
There are those who see the mistreatment of indigenous people and slavery as two aspects of “America’s original sin,” in the title words of Jim Wallis’s 2016 book.
Wallis asserts that “the near genocide and historic oppression of America’s Native American peoples and the enslavement and debasing of African peoples for profit were both sins—America’s original sin” (p. 57).
True, the activity of Columbus in the last part of the 15th century may not be directly related to what happened in British North America beginning in the first part of the 17th century—but the latter is definitely rooted in the ethos of Columbus with regards to both the treatment of indigenous people and the enslaving of both people of the new world as well as of Africa.
In a previous blog article (see here) I introduced Miguel De La Torre, an acquaintance for whom I have great respect, even though I sometimes disagree with him. One of the most challenging books I have read in many years is his book Embracing Hopelessness (2017).
In the Introduction, De La Torre makes this hard-hitting assertion:
Christians are behind all of this nation’s atrocities—the genocide of the indigenous people to steal their land, the enslavement of Africans to work the stolen land, and the stealing of cheap labor and natural resources of Latin Americans under the guise of “gunboat diplomacy” to develop the land (p. 4). 
Then in his second chapter De La Torre writes compellingly about his visit to the site of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado. That tragic event was under the direction of U.S. Army Colonel John Chivington—while the Civil War was still being fought!
(When Chivington, 1821~94, was a young man, he was ordained to the Christian ministry and even served briefly as a missionary to the Wyandot Indians in Kansas—of particular interest to June and me since our church is in Wyandotte County.)
Responding to the Issue
Reading De La Torre’s chapter about the Sand Creek Massacre strengthened my resolve to push for the observance of Indigenous People’s Day in the U.S. on the second Monday of October from now on. 
People of goodwill need to work diligently to rid society of the highly detrimental results of America’s original sin, striving to combat the evil effects of white supremacy both with regard to the indigenous people of North America as well as to those who are the descendants of enslaved Africans.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

TTT #26 Prayer is More an Attitude and Action than Words

PRAYER IS A MATTER that I have long been interested in, for both theological and practical reasons. Those in faith traditions other than Christianity have perhaps been more concerned about meditation or other similar religious practices.
This article on prayer is taken from only one part of Chapter 26 in Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now (TTT). (I encourage you to read the other three parts by clicking here).
“Prayer is the Soul’s Breathing”
During a trip back to Japan in 2010, a Japanese friend gave me a little book that she had been reading. It was a book on prayer written by Ichiro Okumura, a Catholic priest. I read more than half of that delightful book before discovering that there is an English translation: Awakening to Prayer (1994).
I was struck by the words at the beginning of Okumura’s third chapter: “prayer is the soul’s breathing.” I had not remembered those words that he attributed to Augustine, but I have said, or thought, something quite similar from time to time. That is part of the reason I maintain that prayer is more an attitude and action than words.
While we generally do not think about breathing, our physical life depends on it. And while we may not always be conscious of praying, a healthy spiritual life is dependent upon being in an attitude of prayer continuously.
In recent years in this country, and from ancient times in Asia, considerable attention has been given by some people as to how they breathe. But most of the time, most of us breathe, of necessity, without giving much thought to it at all. Perhaps that is the way it is, or can be, or maybe even should be, with prayer. 
“Prayer without Ceasing”
There are times, and probably there should be more times, that we pray consciously, deliberately, and intentionally. But even more important is praying “without ceasing.”
Christians have often puzzled over the meaning of the words “pray without ceasing” in the New Testament (1 Thess. 5:17). But if prayer is like breathing, perhaps it is not so hard to understand—or to do.
We humans don’t find it hard to breathe without ceasing. Of course, we can hold our breath for a short time, but apart from those brief moments, to cease breathing is to cease living.
In a similar way, failure to pray without ceasing is detrimental to our spiritual life.
It is quite apparent that we cannot articulate prayers ceaselessly. But what if prayer is more an attitude than spoken words?
What if prayer is primarily a recognition that we are continually in the presence of God, always dependent on God, and that God’s Spirit is always around us and in us?
Prayer as “Being with God”
Mark E. Thibodeaux is a Jesuit priest who wrote Armchair Mystic: Easing Into Contemplative Prayer (2001). In that book, he explains the four stages of prayer: talking at God, talking to God, listening to God, and being with God.
True prayer is primarily what is experienced in Thibodeaux’s fourth stage. And that is what I mean by attitude: prayer is the attitude or sense of being with God and of God being with us.
Thus, whether working or playing, whether conversing or reading, whether eating or relaxing, all we do can be with an attitude of awareness of God’s presence.
Knowing that makes it possible to realize that we can, indeed, pray without ceasing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Are All White People Racist?

This is a hard article to write, for I am a white person who doesn’t want to be defensive—or racist. But last month I was a bit disconcerted when I saw that a respected acquaintance asserted on Facebook that all white folk are racist. (I assume he used the word racist as an adjective rather than as a noun.)
What is Racism?
Like most controversial terms, racism (or racist) is not easy to define to everyone’s satisfaction.
Here is the Oxford online dictionary definition of racist (as an adjective): “Showing or feeling discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or believing that a particular race is superior to another.”
In many circles today, racism is understood as racial prejudice plus power, and I think that is a helpful depiction of the issue. Racism is experienced negatively primarily by those who are minorities and without significant social or political power. 
Thus, racism is closely linked to both white supremacy and white privilege, with the latter being a by-product of the former. While many whites, such as I, may eschew the concept of white supremacy, it is undeniable that all of us whites benefit from white privilege.
Are All Whites Racist?
Two years ago I read and reviewed Leroy Barber’s new book, Embrace: God’s Radical Shalom for a Divided World. (Here is the link to my review of that book.) Then in November of last year, I was quite pleased when Barber, who is an African-American, was the guest preacher of the church where June and I are members.
Barber preached a good sermon, and after the worship service we had a restaurant meal with him, our pastor, and a few others. All of us were white except for Barber, but it seemed to be a good and cordial time.
Shortly after that, Barber and I (Leroy and Leroy) became Facebook friends, but soon I began to feel a little uneasy with some of his posts. They were mainly for his black friends, it seems.
So, it was with some consternation that I read a Barber FB post last month in which he asserted that “all white folk are racist.” (That posting, and the many comments on it, can be found here.)
It was disappointing to read Barber’s posting, for I thought he was working for reconciliation and that my pastor and many in our church, including me, were allies working with him in combating racism with the goal of full equality and mutual respect for all people.
Barber's blanket statement that all of us whites are racist was not helpful.
What Can We “Racist” Folk Do?
This coming weekend, Sept. 28~30, Rainbow Mennonite Church (RMC) will be holding a symposium on “The Ongoing White Supremacy of Our Everyday Lives: Consider, Confront, Change.”
Our guest speaker, who will deliver two keynote talks and the Sunday morning sermon, is Dr. Jalane Schmidt, a bi-racial professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Charlottesville.
It will be interesting to hear what she has to say to us RMC’s church members, most of whom are white, about being racist. It will also be interesting to hear what she will suggest about changes we need to make.
Perhaps all of us who benefit from white privilege are so much a part of the problem that there is little we can do to solve the persistent problem of racism.  
Maybe the best we whites can do is just to seek to understand the ravages of racism from the standpoint of people of color—and to keep trying to chip away the structures of white supremacy in American society.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

TTT #25 Love is More an Attitude and Action than a Feeling

This article is almost entirely from just one part of the 25th chapter of my as yet unpublished book Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now (TTT). After you finish reading this article, I encourage you to click here and read the other three parts of that chapter.
King’s Explanation
In the 22nd chapter of TTT, I referred to Martin Luther King Jr.’s book of sermons, Strength to Love. In the chapter titled “Loving Your Enemies,” King explains that “love is not to be confused with some sentimental outpouring.” What’s more, this love is “something much deeper than emotional bosh.”
After writing about the difference between the Greek term agape and two other Greek words translated love, King then seeks to make a clear distinction between the meaning of the English word like from the meaning of love as a translation of agape.
King notes that Jesus did not say, “Like your enemies”—which is a good thing, King emphasizes, since it is “almost impossible to like some people.” No, in commanding his followers to love, Jesus was speaking about agape, which is “creative, redemptive goodwill” for all people. Thus, it is entirely possible to love people we do not like.
A Woman’s Disagreement
Many years ago when I was explaining this in a sermon to a small congregation in Japan, one woman started shaking her head in disagreement. In discussing the matter with her later, she was adamant that loving is a feeling and basically the same thing as liking others.
But she was wrong—and it is very important to realize that agape is not a feeling or an emotion. It is an attitude and is expressed in action. Thus, that kind of love is something that can be commanded.
Although my parents reported that I was a rather “picky” eater as a child, for most of my adult life my dislikes have been few. But there is one food above all others that I have never liked: raw cucumbers.
My mother could have forced me to eat cucumbers; parents regularly devise ways to get children to eat more or a variety of food.
But what if she had demanded that I like cucumbers? That would have been an impossible demand. Somehow she might have been able to get me to eat cucumbers, but there is presumably nothing she could have done to make me like them.
Agape love, however, is something that can be commanded.
Jesus’ Command
If loving is an emotion, such as liking is an emotion, then Jesus’ command that his followers love others, even enemies, would have been impossible to carry out—and therefore meaningless.
One cannot command someone else to have certain emotions, feelings, or likes. But attitudes are different. We can change our attitudes by our willpower, and we can act on the basis of attitudes in ways that run contrary to our feelings.
If love is an attitude—if its nature is to value a person in such ways as actively to seek his or her deepest welfare and fulfillment—then, if we choose, we can will to love others, even our enemies.
Certainly, that is not easy to do; it is more natural to act upon our feelings—such as hatred, which is an emotion. 
The love Jesus commanded, though, is not a feeling. It is an attitude that can be chosen. But since it is easier to act upon our feelings than upon our attitudes, King wrote helpfully about the necessity of having the strength to love.
Just as physical strength increases by exercising, the strength to love increases by practicing it.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Honoring the Memory of W.E.B. Du Bois

Last month one of my blog articles (see here) was about a brilliant French woman who died 75 years ago. This article is about a brilliant African-American man who died 20 years later, in August 1963. This remarkable man was born when Andrew Johnson was President and died the year Lyndon Johnson became President.
A Brief Bio
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, born 150 years ago in February 1868, was the great-grandson of James Du Bois, a white plantation owner in the Bahamas. But W.E.B. pronounced his name “doo boyz” rather than with the French pronunciation.
When he was only 20, Du Bois graduated from Fisk University. He went on to study at Harvard, at the University of Berlin, and then in 1895 became the first African-American to be awarded the Ph.D. degree by Harvard.
In 1903 Du Bois published his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, a collection of 14 essays—and now, 115 years later it is still in print and relevant. 
One central point made on the book’s very first page seems, unfortunately, still to be true: “the problem of the Twentieth Century [and now the Twenty-first Century] is the problem of the color line.”
In that book, and consistently through the following years, Du Bois adamantly opposed the idea of biological white superiority. Partly for that reason, in 1909 he co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and long served as editor of its monthly magazine, The Crisis.
Du Bois taught at Atlanta University from 1897 to 1910, and then at the age of 66 he went back to that school and was chair of the department of sociology from 1934 to 1944.
During most of the 1950s, Du Bois was unable to travel outside the U.S. because of his alleged ties with Communist nations.
In 1961 Du Bois moved to Ghana—and later became a citizen of that country, where he died in 1963 at the age of 95.
A Critical Controversy
Although they were the two most important African-American leaders after Frederick Douglass, who died in 1895, there was an ongoing controversy between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, who was twelve years his senior.
Du Bois’s criticism of Washington was eloquently voiced in the third essay in The Souls of Black Folkand it lasted until Washington’s death in 1915. In what Du Bois called the “Atlanta Compromise,” Washington seemed to accept the view that blacks were inferior to whites.
Du Bois, however, strenuously objected to that idea and called for full equality of blacks and whites. He wanted complete rejection of all Jim Crow laws and ways of thinking. He favored confrontation rather than compromise in seeking to erase the problematic color line.
A Lasting Legacy
Through the years I never heard as much, or learned as much, about Du Bois as about other noted black leaders such as Douglass or Washington. Maybe that was partly because Du Bois leaned toward socialism, was prosecuted as a Red sympathizer in the 1950s, and did join the Communist Party in 1961.
Nevertheless, I have been deeply impressed by my recent reading of and about Du Bois, and I close with words Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke (and which can be read here) on the 100th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth.
King declared that Du Bois was “one of the most remarkable men of our time,” a scholar who “recognized that the keystone in the arch of oppression [of blacks] was the myth of inferiority” and who “dedicated his brilliant talents to demolish” that myth.
Du Bois’s legacy lives on—and his voice still needs to be heard today.

Monday, September 10, 2018

TTT #24 Who We Believe In is More Important than What We Believe

Although I have sought to make my as yet unpublished book Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now (TTT) of interest and of relevance to people who are not Christians as well as to those who are, this chapter speaks mainly to those who are (or have been) a part of the Christian faith.
Shifting Away from Jesus?
In recent years it seems that there has been an increasing shift away from the centrality of Jesus Christ in the thinking of some Christians.
It would seem that for Christianity to be considered as primarily about faith in Jesus would be a foregone conclusion, but there are now some Christians who seek to downplay the significance of Jesus for the sake of fostering better relations with people of other faith traditions
Christ and Christianity are largely relativized.
It is a shameful historical fact that Christians have often mistreated those of other religious faiths, and the move toward a position of respect for those who embrace different views is highly commendable.
But to what extent can one downplay the divinity or the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and still be a Christian in any meaningful sense?
Believing in Jesus
As I was working on this chapter, I just happened to read (again) the story of Augustine’s conversion. Upon hearing a child’s voice saying, “Take and read, take and read,” Augustine picked up the Bible and opened it at random to Romans 13:13-14. 
Those verses renounce the type of profligate life Augustine had lived for years. But they also, significantly, contain the words, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Augustine went on to become a committed Christian and then a great theologian. Some call him “the father of Western theology.” But his conversion experience was not nearly as so much in what he believed as in whom he believed.
His faith was “putting on” the Lord Jesus Christ. It was not his belief about Jesus but rather his belief (trust) in Jesus that formed the foundation for all he later wrote about belief about Christ.
When I was a teenager, I remember hearing Baptist preachers emphasize, fairly often it seems, the difference between believing in and believing that. The latter, of course, is about what we believe, but the former is about whom we believe.
Believing that has to do with intellectual assent to statements or propositions. Believing in has to do with trust in a person. That was, and is, an important thing to emphasize, and people still need to recognize that difference.
Trusting in Jesus
In many of those church services where believing in was emphasized, “Trust and Obey” was often sung as a congregational hymn. The words of that old hymn were based on a testimony given by a young man in an evangelistic meeting led by the famous evangelist Dwight L. Moody.
It was quite apparent from the young man’s words that he knew little about Christian doctrine, but he finished his testimony by saying, “I’m not quite sure—but I’m going to trust, and I’m going to obey.”
Belief that is merely intellectual assent and often has little relationship to how one actually lives. Belief equated with trust, however, is much different: it means commitment to the one in whom that trust is placed—and when belief is trust, it includes obeying.
For Christians, what they believe about Jesus—and the many other doctrines of the faith—is important. But as human beings, whether people believe/trust in Jesus or in some other savior, teacher, guru, or whomever is of the greatest importance.
Truly, who we believe in is more important than what we believe.
[Here is the link to the entire 24th chapter, which I encourage you to read.]

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

An Exciting Day

Last month I posted (here) a very personal blog article related to my 80th birthday. This new article is also a personal one; it is about a most memorable day 50 years ago.
A Much-Anticipated Day
The special day of which I write was September 1, 1968. That was my first day as a full-time professor at Seinan Gakuin University (SGU) in Fukuoka City, Japan.
For many years I had worked toward and looked forward to that day. In the summer of 1966, I had completed the grueling demands of doctoral studies. My main purpose for going to graduate school was to become qualified to teach at the college level.
A couple of months before completing my doctoral work, June and I had been appointed as missionaries to Japan. We sought missionary appointment with one major goal being my joining the faculty of SGU.
During our second year of language school in Tokyo, it was highly gratifying when the trustees of Seinan Gakuin elected me to the faculty. After the two challenging years of studying the Japanese language, we moved to Fukuoka City in July 1968.
So, you see why 9/1/68 was such an exciting day for me. The day I had labored for and looked forward to for so many years had finally arrived.
A Most Difficult Semester
Although my first classes didn’t begin until October, the beginning of the second semester in Japanese universities back then, I had to work very hard during September to prepare for my classes.
That first semester I was assigned three classes of Christian Studies II, which was a required course designed to be an introduction to Christian beliefs. It was a great help to have only one preparation, but even that was not easy.
Classes were 90 minutes long and there were 120 students (or more) in each class. Lecturing was the expected way for the class to be conducted, so reading lectures in Japanese for 90-minutes a time was, to say the least, quite difficult—both for me and, quite surely, for my students.
A Much-Appreciated Teacher-Helper
Otsuka Kumiko-san (2016)
The Japan Baptist Mission employed a “teacher-helper” for us missionary teachers, and I was fortunate to have Miss Kumiko Otsuka as my first teacher-helper. She had just returned to Japan after completing an MRE degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas.  
For that first year, and for my first few years, Otsuka-san was an invaluable teacher (of the Japanese language and of Japanese customs/mores), translator (of my lectures which I wrote in English), and general advisor. She became and has remained a close family friend for these 50 years. 
In July of this year, I received word from Otsuka-san that she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. According to that diagnosis, she might not live until her 85th birthday in January.
Although earlier this year I had decided not to make another trip to Japan, after hearing Otsuka-san's sad news, I decided to make one more trip. I now have tickets to fly from Kansas City to Osaka on October 1.
There are many people in Japan whom I want to see on this short trip of just eight days there. But my priority is to see Otsuka-san again and to thank her in person for her help and friendship through the years. To whatever extent my teaching career was a success, much of that is due to her assistance.

I am also thankful for many other Japanese friends, including former students and church members who have significantly enriched my life. I am also looking forward to seeing many of them on my brief trip back to Japan next month. 

Thursday, August 30, 2018

TTT #23 What We Do Is More Important than What We Believe

This new article is largely related to Christians and Christian theology—but not exclusively. In recent decades some Buddhist thinkers, such as the venerable Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, have emphasized “engaged Buddhism,” which is closely connected to the movement in Christian theology referenced here.
Emphasis on Orthodoxy
Orthodoxy is a word that has had a long and checkered history in the story of the Christian faith. While the idea of orthodoxy was not completely absent even in New Testament times, the emphasis on the importance of orthodoxy was not prevalent in Christianity until the fourth century.
The first Ecumenical Councils of the church, beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325, composed creeds which were intended to separate orthodoxy from heresy. More precisely, religious and political leaders sought to remove those deemed to be heretics from the orthodox within the Church.
Until about sixty years ago, the emphasis on orthodoxy was largely unchallenged in Christianity, although, to be sure, some small, “splinter” groups placed more emphasis on correct action than on correct belief.
For the church as a whole, however, the creeds were the focal point of correctness, and all who entered the Christian faith and sought to maintain good standing in that faith were expected to agree with the creeds.
Nevertheless, Christians, and all people, need to recognize that what they do is more important than what they believe.
The Contribution of Liberation Theology
That which is known as liberation theology has its strong supporters as well as severe critics. There are variations in all movements and schools of thought; some are more excessive in their emphases than others. That is true for liberation theology, too, of course.
Assuredly, there have been some statements made and some actions performed in the name of liberation theology that clearly have to be labeled as extreme. But there is much that is good and important in liberation theology.
Three distinct liberation theology movements began in the early 1970s. For many, though, liberation theology refers primarily to a theological movement whose roots go back to the late 1960s in South America.
Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez became the clear leader of that theological movement with his book A Theology of Liberation (1973), based on his theological proposals of 1968. 
Gutiérrez defines liberation theology as “a critical reflection on Christian praxis in light of the word of God.” He goes on to assert that “a principal task of ‘reflection on praxis in the light of faith’ will be to strengthen the necessary and fruitful links between orthopraxis and orthodoxy.”
Emphasis on Orthopraxy
But what is all this talk about praxis and orthopraxis? Praxis simply means action or practice, but it often has the connotation of being the practical application of a theory.
For religious people, praxis refers to the idea of putting faith into action. For Christians, it is particularly related to the idea that “faith without works is dead,” as found in the book of James. 
Orthopraxy, then, simply refers to right action. This concept stands over against orthodoxy, which means right belief. Gutiérrez says that the purpose of orthopraxis is to recognize “the importance of concrete behavior, of deeds, of action, of praxis in the Christian life.”
Given the wretched economic conditions of the masses of people in South America, the liberation theology developed in that continent spoke much about liberation from poverty, and “the preferential option for the poor” became a widely used, and often misunderstand, slogan. 
For all forms of liberation theology, though, action (praxis) is considered more important than words. That is the important point I am making here: what we do is more important than what we believe.

[Much more on this important topic can be found in the 23rd chapter of Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now (TTT), which can be accessed here.]

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Encountering the Enigmatic Simone Weil

Back in 1939 Winston Churchill referred to “the action of Russia” as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” That same description is apt for Simone Weil, a 30-year-old French woman who was living in Paris at that time.
Who Was Simone Weil?
Born in 1909 to secular Jewish parents, Simone Weil died 75 years ago (on Aug. 24, 1943) at the age of 34. Often described as a philosopher, mystic, and political activist, it is fitting to take some time to think about the life and work of this enigmatic person.  
Weil (pronounced “vey”) was a brilliant child and received a good education. At the age of 22 she finished her formal education, having majored in philosophy, and began her short teaching career.
The next year, 1932, she engaged in a demonstration for unemployed workers—and was transferred to another teaching position by school authorities. After teaching in three different schools in three years, in 1935 she took a leave of absence in order to work in factories.
Severe migraine headaches made it necessary for her to quit both manual work and teaching. In 1938 and the years following she had mystical experiences of God, but she was never baptized.
After living in the U.S. for a few months in 1942, Weil went to England to work with the Free French organization there. In April the next year she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and then died in August, partly (or largely) because of refusing to eat.  
What Did Simone Weil Emphasize?
From among many and varied matters Weil emphasized in her life and writings, let's consider briefly only the following three:
1) Attention
In preparing to write this article, I read Love in the Void (2018), a book of selected writings by Weil. In that book’s first paragraph by Weil, she asserts that “prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God.”
Early this week, June and I watched “An Encounter with Simone Weil,” an intriguing 2001 documentary by Julia Haslett. Early in the film are these striking statements by Weil:
Attention is the purest and rarest form of generosity.
Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention.
2) Identification
From childhood Simone had an exceedingly strong sense of identification or empathy / solidarity with others. Even as a five-year-old she refused to eat sugar because French soldiers fighting in WWI had none.
In her lectures on philosophy in 1933-34, she declared: “Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.”
Thus, as Laurie Gagne, the editor of Love in the Void, wrote, “Because of her great love for the oppressed, Simone Weil spent a good part of her life trying to comprehend their suffering, usually by attempting to share it in one way or another.” That is why she chose to work some in factories.
3) Affliction
“The Love of God and Affliction” is the last chapter of Love in the Void. Here Weil talks about the significance of affliction, which is extreme suffering that is both physical and psychological.
Affliction is of great importance to Weil because by it she came to understand the love of God seen in and through the passion of Christ. Affliction led her to experience God’s love deeplyand then to share that love.
In her introduction to Love in the Void, editor Gagne wrote that even though the attending physician declared Weil’s death a suicide because she refused to eat adequately, “we can say she died of an excess of love.”
Robert Coles, Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage (1987)
Stephen Plant, Simone Weil: A Brief Introduction (2007)
Eric O. Springsted, Simone Weil & the Suffering of Love (1986)

Monday, August 20, 2018

TTT #22 Jesus Expects His Followers to be Peacemakers

The 22nd chapter of Thirty True Things . . . (TTT) was not one of the chapters planned for that book. But in the process of writing the previous chapter, linked to in my Aug. 10 blog article, I became aware of how closely related are the ideas of simple living and peacemaking.
Simple Living and Peacemaking
In looking back at exemplary Christians through the centuries, most of those most interested in simple living were also interested in peacemaking, and many of those most interested in peacemaking were also interested in simple living.
In that connection, through the years I have also become increasingly cognizant of how there seems to be a significant economic factor behind most major historical events, including, and especially, wars. In spite of all the high-sounding rhetoric, wars are almost always fought for economic reasons, at least in part.
In his State of the Union message in January 2002, President George W. Bush referred to three countries as “the axis of evil.” Those three countries were Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. The next year war was launched against Iraq, and there have been repeated rumblings about a future war against Iran.
While the government of North Korea has often been renounced, until briefly in 2017 there had been little talk of going to war against that country. What is the difference? It is hard to deny that the abundance of oil in the Middle East and the scarcity of oil in North Korea was likely the major reason Iran and Iraq were targeted and North Korea was not.
If population pressures, the need for natural resources, the desire for markets are all factors lying behind most wars (a generalization that, admittedly, some historians would disagree with), it is not hard to understand that an emphasis on simple living is closely related to peacemaking.  
Peacemaking as Love in Action
One of Martin Luther King’s notable books contains fifteen sermons published under the title Strength to Love (1963). Two sermons appearing early in the book are “Love in Action” and “Love Your Enemies,” and then the final sermon is “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.”
Those sermons sum up well what everyone needs to realize about love, which is at the core of the Christian faith.
Christian pacifists, such as Francis of Assisi and the Anabaptists, do not base their peacemaking activities upon the optimistic belief that people are basically good and that peace can result from that goodness if people just tap into it and talk to each other in a rational manner.
No, Christian pacifism is primarily based on Jesus’ teachings about love.
Christian pacifism does not necessarily “work” in every case. You might say it didn’t “work” for Jesus. It didn’t work for numerous Christian martyrs through the centuries, people who out of obedience to Christ were willing to shed their own blood rather than to be engaged in killing other people.
And so to the present time, many of those who take Jesus’ teaching seriously refuse to support war, for they do not see how it would be possible to love their enemies if they were also seeking to kill them through warfare.
People like Dorothy Day, MLK, John Dear, and many others during my lifetime have made it quite clear that peacemaking is hard, dangerous work. And most of the people who want to be “good” Christians fall far short of the example that people like them have set.
But in a world where Christianity has often become entwined with war and warlike activities, people such as Day, King, and Dear challenge us to realize that Jesus expects his followers to be peacemakers.
[The entire chapter 22 of Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now (TTT) can be accessed here.]