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.