Lethbridge Japanese Garden is a pearl

NIKKA YUKO JAPANESE GARDEN

  • A PEARL OF FRIENDSHIP –

The idea of Nikka Yuko (Japan-Canada Friendship) Garden was inspired by Rev. Yutetsu Kawamura of the Buddhist Temple in Raymond. He believed that to heal the pain of injustice was a gesture of friendship for reconciliation not a demand for compensation nor revenge. The following is the story of another Japanese Canadian religious man who lived in Southern Alberta during the Second World War.

Rev. Jun Kabayama was removed from his church in Ocean Falls in the British Columbia in 1942 under War Measures Act which defined all Canadian citizens of Japanese descent as “Enemy Aliens. He was re-assigned by the United Church of Canada to begin a Japanese speaking congregation in Lethbridge. ” However, the law did not allow him to live in Lethbridge. So he and his family lived in Raymond.

My mother, Natsuno Mitsui, married Rev. Jun Kabayama in 1974. He lost his wife a few years previously, and my mother had been a widow for 20 years. When I came to Lethbridge to retire, I found that Rev. Kabayama was the founder of Japanese United Church here. I had run into him from time to time as a fellow United Church minister before. He came to visit us in Geneva in Switzerland as a newly married man to my mother in 1974. That was the only chance I had to get to know him. It was only a few days. By the time I returned to Canada from overseas service in 1980, Rev. Kabayama was recently deceased. So my knowledge of his life in Lethbridge was mainly from historical documents and other material like diaries of other United Church ministers. I only remember him as a stoic man of few words with a straight back; a Samurai from the country of Samurai, Satsuma; the Southern tip of the southmost island of Japanese archipelago, Kyushu.

Canadian Japanese clergy people struggled to begin their ministry in the new locations under difficult conditions. Many of them did not have cars as all cars and radios were confiscated when they were ordered to move out of the B.C. coast. Despite difficult conditions, when I came to Canada in 1957, eight years after they were allowed to return to the coat or to disperse across Canada, I had never sensed bitterness among them. It astonished me. I wondered if it was a manifestation of stoicism Japanese people grew up with. It is expressed in a familiar saying “Shikataganai.” It means, “You can not do anything about it. No use holding a grudge.” It is similar to the prayer of the Alcoholics Anonymous, “Lord, give us serenity to accept what we can not change; and courage to change what we can.”

I heard an amazing story of Rev. Kabayama’s difficult ministry in Southern Alberta, but not from him. He only spoke about good times filled with blessing. I learned about his difficulty, not only lack of mode of transport but also hostility he encountered not allowing him to live in Lethbridge, from a diary of another Japanese Canadian minister, Rev. Dr. Kosaburo Shimizu. In one of the entries about his visit to Alberta, he mentioned Kabayama’s bicycle. He was amazed how Kabayama travelled from Raymond to Lethbridge everyday on a bicycle, through rain, shine, and snow, 38 kilometres one way even in minus 20 degree temperature. He took the picture of Kabayama in his winter outfit. I found a picture of him with the bicycle in the 100th anniversary edition of the commemorative publication for Japanese United Churches. It is a picture of Kabayama all bundled up in layers. Shimizu’s comment was something like, “Strange creature!”

Kabayama covered the area from Coalhurst to Taber, Coaldale to Lethbridge from his home in Raymond. He rented spaces in Lethbridge United Churches to hold services on Sundays at Southminster United Church chapel and others. He visited other towns where people were relocated to work for sugar beat farms as often as he could on the bicycle. In those places he held monthly “Katei-shukai” – house church worship services. There is no record of the time when he was permitted to own a vehicle. But his bicycle ministry must have lasted for a few years. By the time he was reassigned by the Home Mission Board to Kelowna, B.C. he was driving his own car, in 1949.

When I think of Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden, I think of pearl; that beautiful jewel from the sea. Pearl is produced to ease the pain caused by a foreign object accidentally invading the shell fish like mollusk. It keeps excreting mucus to cope with the pain in stead of expelling the offending object. In the end, sticky substance coagulates into a hard object transforming itself into a beautiful jewel. That is Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden.

How to read the Bible – 2

HOW TO READ THE BIBLE – II

“Why it is so difficult to read the Bible?” Many of us do not read the Bible because it is the style of writing which does not attract our fancy as other books do. It is because it was written many centuries ago. We find it strange. It is so different from anything we read. Even if we decide to read a few lines, we do not understand them, except snappy teachings, like “Do not kill. Or “Do not commit adultery.” Yet strangely enough, there is no other book sold more copies than the Bible. Ironically “Thomas Nelson,” the biggest publisher of the Bible, prints it mostly in Communist China. Yet, few people who read the Bible. Most of them just sit on the book shelves collecting dust. Why is that?

The Bible is an ancient book written between 600 BC and 200 AD originally in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, and translated into hundreds of languages. No wonder it is difficult to understand. People who lived in those days, their minds and writings, were so different from us. However, we must make one thing quite clear: The Bible is the most important document for us who identify ourselves as Christians. Jews, Christians, and Muslims belong to the same family of religions and are called “People of the Book.” Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is the Holy book for all three religions. Christians added the New Testament and Muslims added Kor’an. All three revere the Bible.

Let me make it clear though. The Bible is not the word of God. It teaches us how people in history imagined what God could have said and acted. But it’s all imaginations. Perhaps it could be more serious attempts to find God than just “imagination.” The writers were all humans like us but want to find God in their history and in their experience of daily life. It is a collection of such writings by people who lived in the Middle East and the regions around the Mediterranean Sea between about 600 B.C. to 200 A.D. They are the record of their attempts to find God. Some of them may fit our situation in 21st Century because human conditions are often common and timeless. But in more often, conditions are totally out of our life experience. Even amongst them what the writers of the Bible wrote are often different from each other.

In addition to the above mentioned reason, it is a book written for people who lived a long time ago. What they were interested in were not the same as ours. The subject matters do not invite our interest. They were interested in devils not bacteria. Question of god does not keep us awake at night. But in ancient times, many things were out of their control. They were frightened of unknowns. In our times, many of the unknowns are resolved by ourselves thanks to science, and its application in medicine and technology that solve problems. However, we still don’t know many things. There are more unknown than known. Science is our way to find the unknown rather than faith in gods. There is a commonality between science and what ancient people tried to do: knowing the unknown. I am not trying to be too audacious, but the goal of religion and science is the same; knowing the unknowns.

Another question we have to be clear about the Bible is that books are often different and do not agree between them. They contain many contradicting view points. It is because they were written from their own unique situations in different places and different times. Even in the first chapter of the first book, Genesis, there are two different kinds of gods. Esther and Ruth have contradicting views about race. Paul and James in the New Testament are different in their view of faithfulness. No one can claim that there is a complete agreement in regards to what should be believed. It is impossible to have agreement in different places and times. You must read it with knowledge of their context of times and places.

For exercise, we read and examine the image of human being in the first three chapters of the Bible: Genesis chapters 1, 2 and 3.

As we noted, the first three chapters of Genesis contain two different ideas about human being. At the outset, we should know that Chapter one is based on the documents or tradition known as P – Priestly tradition and E – Elohim tradition. Chapters two and three are based on the document or tradition known among the scholars as “J” (or “Y” in Hebrew.) P-E tradition has entirely different views of humans from that of Y. It is interesting that the people who decided to bunch three documents (or traditions) together into one book to convey their view of the beginning of the world. Why did they do that? A good question.

It is obvious that E and P thought humans very highly. They thought that humans were like gods. They imagined that humans were created in “our (gods’) image.” The creators of P and E hoped that gods must be humans. That image is quite evidently different from the idea of humans who had not had the ability to know good from bad. It took the act of disobeying God’s command to acquire such a capability. In chapter two, the first human (a man: the creator of that image was obviously a male-chauvinist.) was formed from a handful of dirt. So the creator of J tradition did not have P – E’s enhanced image of god-like humans.

Another interesting point to realize is the different understandings of female and male in two traditions “E-P” in chapter one and “J” in chapter two and three. You will note that in E-P, female and male are equal: “humans are created male and female….and making them like me (god).” (1: 27) However, J tradition has the notion of the primacy of males over females. The first human was a male made from a hunk of dirt, and female was made from a part of a male body to be his companion. (1:7 and 18) “J” added the idea of the male first and female second pecking order. How does the party, who compiled such a conflicting order of priority into one document, expect us to interpret such an juxtaposition? Maybe they did not try to convey an unified monolithic view of human being.

Another interesting point is the number of days it took for God to create the world. It took six days for God to create everything in the world, and on the seventh day He rested. We are not literalists, so we don’t take it as the actual number of days of creation. Number always has had meaning. Romans did not have a concept of zero, because they did not know what void was. I don’t think we do either. Albert Einstein did not believe in nothingness, “there is no void.” So he created a notion of “ether” that fills the space where nothing exists. Or what does “one” mean? Many peoples of the world think “one” means unity; a good thing. In the Bible “one” means primacy. It is God. In the modern world we think “one” is pathetic because it is only one, when most of us believe more is better than one. In Hebrew understanding “seven” means “holy or complete” not necessarily number of seven items. In the Bible all numbers have meanings. When “E or P” said God created the world in seven days, they meant the world was perfect.

How to read the Bible – 1

HOW TO READ THE BIBLE – I

There are different ways to read the Bible. I can think of the following five that we do.

  1. COLD TURKEY: Read it straight, chapter by chapter, from Genesis to Revelation, book by book: that is the simplest way and the most painful way to read the whole Bible. It takes patience and tenacity. The beginning of our Bible Study group was an attempt to read the whole Bible cover to cover with a group of friends. It began around 2007, I think, by Corrine Steel and Tad Mitsui encouraged by Rev. Frank Lewis, to read the whole Bible cover to cover.

Frank was looking for someone who would take an initiative to follow the United Church program called “Read a Chapter a Day,” to read the whole of the Bible in a year. We met one Sunday at the Labyrinth Room with a few interested people who showed up after hearing the announcement at the Sunday worship. We talked about possibility of meeting on Saturdays once a months to talk about the chapters we read in one month. We agreed to meet for breakfast at the small dining room of Ramada Inn on Mayor Magrath. We read the Bible a chapter a day at home, and met once a month. About a dozen people endured till the end including a 14 year old Sarah Dalby.

I think it is worthwhile program to try again. Otherwise, reading the Bible “Cold Turkey” is not easy. I think we should do it at least once in a life time; reading the Bible Cold Turkey. When you do it that way, one thing we must be aware of. It is the fact that all the Bibles that we can buy are translations. It means there is no Bible available without prejudices and opinions of translators. Unless you read it in Aramaic, Hebrew, or Greek; that is. We should read the Bible in different translations and compare them sometime.

  1. LISTEN TO THE EXPERTS: Another way to read it is to rely on “experts.” We sit and listen to them basically. This is the most traditional way. That was the only way until a few centuries ago, because majority of people could not read. In the beginning the Bible was written for the educated elite. It was a job of those people to read it aloud and explain what it meant to the illiterate masses. “Experts,” or “learned people” were ministers, pastors, preachers, priests, and scholars, who were often the only persons who could read in a community. So Christians for most of their history were dependent on those people to acquire any knowledge of the Bible. Many people still do. That all changed with the Reformation of the 16th Century.
  2. EVERYBODY COULD READ NOW: Reformation in the 16th Century (1517) changed everything. More and more people could now read as Enlightenment made more people literate. Also the Bible became more easily available with the invention of printing press. Many people started to read on their own. Initially clergy and professional scholars were upset. They lost power and authority they used to have with an exclusive possession of knowledge. The Church therefore, for a while anyway, made it illegal to read the Bible on their own. But that did not stop people, even though printing the Bible without authorization was a capital offense. People like Tindal and Wickliffe dared to tell people the importance of reading it on their own. They paid the ultimate price: they were executed, burned at the stake.

But that didn’t stop people reading the Bible. There were not many books to read those days. So people were eager, just like people jump on to new media today.

  1. DIFFICULTY OF FINDING TRUE MESSAGE: The Bible is the collection of many books containing many different ideas of those who were seeking God. So it is natural that they contain different opinions, even contradicting each other. As someone said, “You can justify anything quoting the Bible verses. The devil can quote the Bible better than anyone.” It is dangerous to pick and choose chapters and verses you like to prove your point. This is where the authority to interpret the Bible has become an important question. But in democracy, nobody can stop anyone to read anything as he/she likes and interpret it anyway. Nobody will punish you. This is the reason why in the Protestant churches it is important for everybody to know the basics of the nature and the origin of the book, hence the importance of Christian education in the church.
  2. LECTIONARY: Since many people who attend the church depend on the worship service to know what’s in the Bible, many mainline churches around the world participate in what is known as “Common Lectionary.” It is the three year program (called Year A, B, C) to cover the whole Bible in the weekly lessons read in the Worship Service. Each Sunday, the churches read one common passage from the Old Testament, the Gospel, and the Letters of the New Testament. In three years, all the churches would have read all passages of the Bible. So if you attend all services for three years, you will have read and heard the exposition of the whole Bible.

Let us see how we can read the Bible differently through the very beginning of the Bible, Genesis “CREATION STORIES” from GENESIS CHAPTER 1:1 – 2:25

You may be shocked to find that you find two different gods in the Book of Genesis. It is because the creation story of the Hebrew Bible is a compellation of texts from a few different sources. Scholars who studied the original Hebrew texts found in Genesis texts from at least 3 different sources. One is named “Priestly” writing, another one “Elohim” writing, and the third “Yahweh.” Elohim is a generic word for god in Hebrew, and Yahweh is the name of the Jewish God referring to the God of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac. For convenience’s sake, they are identified as P, E, and J. (In Hebrew alphabet J and Y and the same.)

When you read the chapters 1 and 2 of the Book of Genesis, you will notice that they contain two different stories. Even God is referred to in two different ways. It is because the creation story of Genesis is made up of materials coming from at least two documental sources. The easiest way to distinguish them is to see the different ways God is referred to in English translation. Chapter one refers to god as just “God” while Chapter 2 uses the expression “Lord God.” God in the First chapter is the title, not a name, which can be applied to any god, like Hindhu God or Shinto God. In Hebrew the word is ‘elohim” simply “God” in English. In other words, it is a generic word. This is why it says God created humans “Like US (in plural).” (Verse 1:26)

In chapter 2, “Lord God” is the translation of the Hebrew word written as YHWH, which Jews have always pronounced as “adonai.” The word means “king” or “lord.” It was because the Jews were not allowed to say the name of their God, according to the Ten Commandments. “YHWH” is only consonants without vowels. In stead of pronouncing those consonants with proper vowels, they said, “Lord – Adonai.” Now we know YHWH should be Yahweh after an extensive research into ancient texts. So the translators into English respected the Hebrew tradition, and decided to write “Lord God.” Not only are the words for God is different between Genesis 1 and 2. The story lines are different between them. It can not be history.

Arts, Science, and Religion are not money making occupations

VOCATION

One famous music teacher reportedly always asked every applicant to study music under him, “What can you do to earn a living?” At the seminary in Tokyo, all of us were encouraged to take courses to qualify as teachers in the school system. We were not expected to make a decent living in the church work: Christians in Japan are a tiny minority. So often clergy men and women have other sources of income. My nephew, a minister of the United Church in Osaka, sings in night clubs and teaches part time in a high school.

Art, religion, and science are vocations. They don’t belong to the same category as income generating employment. Many monks and nuns have skills in secular employments like teaching and nursing. They pursue their spiritual vocations in contemplation, meditation, or community service, while earning their living in various occupations. Some monasteries operate industries. “Oka” cheese and “Chartreuse” liqueur are well known.

Science is vocation too: Albert Einstein was a civil servant working in the Patent Office in Zurich until he became known for his Theory of Relativity. Theoretical Physics is not a lucrative business. Likewise are many artists and musicians. I know artists and musicians with graduate degrees doing odd jobs to make living. Vocations in pursuit of beauty, truth, and answers to the mysteries of the universe do not necessarily provide decent living. Van Gogh, whose paintings now command millions of dollars, never made money from art. All his life he was supported by his brother Theo.

Religion is on the decline, because science solved many mysteries and problems of life. It lost the role as the stop-gap where science had no answer. As secularism becomes increasingly prevalent, some religious people are responding to their despair in fanaticism, fundamentalism and terrorism. They are trying to recover the former glory. It’s time to realize that for religions to seek power and wealth is a travesty of the vocation. When science had little influrnce, religions had enormous power. That was when religions were powerful and wealthy, and most corrupt. Then, the worst crimes were committed by Western Christian institutions by default or by participation: Crusade, colonialism, and Holocaust.

It is a travesty of vocation when power and wealth become its goal; like physicians treat patients for the interest of pharmaceutical industry. When religion follows its calling, they can be what they are.

LIVING WITH AMBIGUITY

Japanese people are sticklers for punctuality but they know how to live with ambiguity. We hate to say “No.” In stead, we say something like “Yeah, but.” Correct answer can wait if it breaks up relationship. Japanese language does not have definite article nor indefinite article. So I had no idea what the fuss was all about when elected delegates spent many hours debating passionately if the Bible is a foundation or the foundation of faith at a United Church’s highest decision making court – General Council. I am happy if it is approximately close to what-ever. I don’t apologize for my imprecise sloppy logic, because flexibility lets us avoid needless quarrel. We live in ambiguity for a while until mist dissipates and the answer presents itself. Time will tell. Why fight?

All is relative. A veterinarian’s examination room has a sign, “A year for a human is six years for a cat. When you go away for a week, your cat will suffer your absence for six weeks.” One minute is just like a flash. But two minute silence at Remembrance Day ceremony feels like eternity. When you get old, time passes very quickly. But when you are a teenager waiting for a girl friend, it feels like forever. It’s all relative. Or could it be time is uneven? There is no such thing as an absolutely straight line, because the earth is round. The shortest line between point A to point B is curved. What seems reality for you may not exist. A star you see could be billions of light-years away. So it could be billions of years old: It may no longer be there. Will the world exist after I die?

I think that over-emphasis on accuracy, correctness, or precision is a source of unnecessary anxiety and many disputes. We waste countless hours fighting over trivial things, causing break-up of relationships and hurting people. Fighting is even more serious when it comes to religious doctrine or government policy. Humans have killed each other over customs, policies, and religious doctrines, or even clothes, over stupid differences. It’s all because of our obsession with precision; like a or the. As time passes, many of those disputes begin to look silly. We are all living things on the same planet. Can we not live with ambiguity until you can see it more clearly in a bigger picture?

AGING IS NOT FOR A SISSY

ART OF GROWING OLD

In Asian culture, old people are honoured and respected. So when I was ordained to be a minister, I tried to look older. The tenet still dictates my consciousness. I don’t want to be young again with all that struggle with self-confidence and frustration. Nevertheless, getting old is never easy.

The ultimate insult for a Japanese man’s ego is having to ask for a fork at a Japanese restaurant. The muscles of my hands atrophied and can not handle chopsticks any more. I drop things. Body parts are replaced by artificial ones one by one. At the bottom of the staircase, I don’t remember why I came to the basement. “Aging isn’t for a SISSY.” said late Stuart McLean. The most difficult is to be honest with one’s conditions without self-pity and whingeing. Someone who is trying to help you is not insulting you. You must recognize reality with dignity and accept help gracefully.

Once, at a board meeting of a not-for-profit organization, the discussion focussed on the status of one person’s membership on the board, who had become a liability. He seemed to have joined the organization only for power and social standing. The question was: “Why should he stay with us when nobody can work with him?” No one could think of a good reason to keep him. But one person pointed out, “But he’s got money.” The board kept him on.

When libido recedes and stomach shrinks, you find yourself more desperate to hang on to the only thing left, pride. Some men become more greedy: yes, mostly men. There is no more pathetic person than a shrivelling old man obsessed with wealth and power. I notice that the rich and powerful die about the same age as average people. What they crave don’t seem to add even a year to their lifespan. Death lets us know that pleasure, money and power are only for what Japanese call “ukiyo” – the fleeting world. You can not take them with you once you leave this world. Then I have to ask myself, “What for?”

It’s good that I do not make unwise decisions as often as before. It seems accumulated pieces of knowledge have been sifted through a mesh. Trivial and unimportant junk seems to have been deleted with a click. It’s time to sit and wait for the spirit to catch up with me.

Danger of easy analysis

HAZARD OF SIMPLE ANALYSIS

When the bloody civil war broke out in Syria, I, like many Canadians, was against the brutal regime and cheered those brave Syrian rebels. Then we received a strong message from the Syrian Orthodox Church, a member of the World Council of Churches. They wanted us to tone down the rhetoric in support of the rebels. I realized then how hazardous it was to make a hasty judgement about the situation you really have no in-depth knowledge of.

I learned since that majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims. There are many minority groups like Kurds, Orthodox Christians, and Shia Muslims, etc. The current regime is a coalition of those minority ethnic and religious groups the father of the current dictator brought together to keep him in power. Meanwhile, among the rebels were ISIS, Jihadist Sunni. Even though it became clear that ISIS terrorists were a party in the rebel groups, the “West” was quick to reach a conclusion and threw their support to the rebels. The Syrian government called the conflict “fight against terrorism” because of the ISIS among the rebels. It resulted in consolidating Bashar al Assad’s hold on power with stronger Iranian and Russian presence. Many innocent people were caught in the middle and became refugees.

Hong Kong is a quagmire. The Western media try to tell us that it is a struggle between democracy and the Communist government, and men in black fighting demonstrators are agents of Beijing government. I don’t think it is that simple. Hong Kong was a British colony and has never been a democracy. I visited Hong Kong often during the late 1970’s while working for the World University Service at the International Office in Geneva Switzerland. My regular itinerary included two universities; the University of Hong Kong on the island and the Chinese University in Kowloon. The former was an English University with “Tea at the Senior Common Room.” Meanwhile the Chinese University was very much Chinese. I often needed an interpreter. Students were keen to learn Mandarin Chinese. They were preparing themselves for the return to the Chinese rule. Tension between two universities was high.

I firmly believe democracy is the best system existing today. But also I believe that it is foolhardy to assume that everybody agrees with me. Action based on simplistic analysis is dangerous in a complex situation.

I am worried about the situation in Hong Kong.

Hanukkah/Christmas

MANY MERRY CHRISTMAS

There are many ways to celebrate during Christmas time. At the kindergarten, an American teacher brought pieces of roasted turkey for us to find the “real taste of Christmas.” I was unimpressed; “What a boring tasteless meat!” At my father’s church, we had a huge pot of pork and vegetable miso stew for the Christmas party. Growing up in Japan, Christmas for me was Christmas Candle Light Service and the party afterward. Many Christians are converts, so they do not celebrate Christmas at home for other family members are not Christians. Christmas presents were exchanged between church members. Santa did not come to homes; he sold merchandise at department stores.

When I lived in Switzerland on the first week of Advent, we got together at the church with mulled wine, oranges and walnuts, and enjoyed conversation. In South Africa and Lesotho, we had “Carols and Candle Lights” at the soccer pitch and other outdoor venues. Christmas in Southern hemisphere comes in the middle of summer, so you get out into the cool of the night and sing Carols and watch Christmas Pageant. Too hot to roast turkey in 40 C.

At drinking joints in Tokyo, you hear “Merry Christmas” more often than any other places. No wife, no kids, just buddies from work. Most of them are non-Christians. Christmas Eve is the time of serious boozing. They take home cakes to appease unhappy wives. In Lesotho, when you hear “Merry Christmas,” you see an extended hand. It’s a tradition missionaries started. They had no family Christmas, so only thing they saw with the word “Christmas” was charity handout. Watching how Europeans celebrated Christmas they learned drinking and fighting. Christmas was the busiest day at the hospital; many broken ribs and cracked heads.

We go to Toronto for a combined Christmas/Hanukkah celebration. We light Menorah and eat turkey. Once we found a whole family of in-laws in my daughters house escaping the cold dark home due to the power failure by ice storm. My son-in-law had to go to a drug store on Christmas Eve, only stored still open, and bought presents for the children from Jewish side of the family. Theirs were not under the tree; not their custom.

Christmas season is the time of love and togetherness. It’s called in different names, and people greet differently. Even among Christians they do differently. But the spirit of the season binds us together. Let us adapt and celebrate .

FAKE NEWS OR GOSPEL

FAKE NEWS OR GOSPEL

Hitler’s chief propagandist Joseph Goebbles said, “A lie told once remains a lie. Repeated ten thousand times, people will believe it’s true. Then it’s the truth.” People who watch Fox News believe that CNN and Washington Post are “fake news.” They know their tribe is always right and facts are wrong.

Humans are the only organism that impose code of ethics based on ideas like ideology and religion. Arguably it is for the well-being of people. The fact is often, it is a way for the powerful to keep their power. Karl Marx called it “super structure” created by those who own “means of production.” So he called religion “opium of people.” Japanese historical novelist Ryotaro Shiba called it “Kyokoh” – “artificial systems of thoughts.” Napoleon Bonaparte called it “Pack of lies agreed upon.”

Yuval Noah Harari, a historian at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem puts a positive spin on those sets of ideas. He says “Gossips helped us to cooperate. Mythology maintained law and order. Money gave us something we can trust. Contradictions created culture.” Only humans act on mentally conceived ideas. They enable us act voluntarily against natural instinct, making us distinct from other animals. Could it be the result of eating the forbidden fruit?

Money, for example, is powerful because people have faith in its value. Its importance surpassed religion for many people. But fact is; it is amorphous imagination held commonly. It’s based its worth on trust. Its value is dependent on faith in what’s on paper. “Bit Coin” is such a system invented recently, worth billions of dollars traded publicly. Once that trust is lost, it’s worthless like Venezuelan and Zimbabwean currencies. ‘Nation’ as a concept has the power to bind people together, to create laws and transform bunch of strangers into a cohesive entity called “country.” But it is an artificial notion that is based on the history agreed upon and the myths commonly shared.

Harari helped me to rejuvenate my belief in the importance of art, music, myths and religion. They make us think and give us ideas. Ideas are powerful and can bring benefits to the real world. They can delude us too, like opium. Since the beginning of civilization, humans fought over differences in doctrines and ideologies. Millions died for them. How do we distinguish Gospel from fake news? It requires wisdom. What is wisdom then? Good question!

JESUS TAUGHT IN PARABLES

REFLECTIONS ON PARABLES

Greek Lexicon says, “parable” – “paraboleh in Greek” is the story to compare with reality.

In 1968, I went to Africa with a newly acquired graduate degree in theology. So I was sure of the quality of my theology. However, when I delivered my first sermon in Sesotho, my language teacher James Tente said, “Your sermon may be a good theology but I didn’t understand anything. Tell us stories like Jesus.” James, school principal, the best educated man in the village, did not understand anything I said! I was crushed; I thought I had solid theological education. However, I heard James and began to tell stories to preach. People began to appreciate the message though my grammar and pronunciation were atrocious. That was how I learned to preach in stories. Sermon is milk and honey of nourishment, not acid test of correct doctrine.

We are people of stories. Legends, myths, and parables shape our identity and create community: like the Baby Jesus, wise men from the East and shepherds. We sing “Silent Night.” Scientific research denies historicity of Christmas story as myth. But it establishes our identity as Christians as we share it. Our identity comes from the shared stories that have been told in churches for millennia, like a story told repeatedly in the family. They are mixture of facts and fading memories, even some exaggerated brags. Mark Twain said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” A bunch of individuals become a community of people when they share and own the same story. Jesus taught in parables. (Mark 4) His intention was not to lecture in history or science. He was telling us who we are, so we become one people who share the same story.

Of course science is important. It tells us objective facts. Let the scientists tell us the truth in biology, chemistry, history, mathematics, and physics; or textual analysis. But let us speak about our spiritual life in stories that are preserved in legends and myths, in dreams and visions. Language of empiricism is too restricted and shallow to describe profound human reality.

I did my seven year course designed for candidates for ministry at a theological seminary. There were 36 students in my class. By the time I finished Bachelor of Divinity (B.D.), after seven years, there were only six of us left. Rigorous theological examination of your faith does not stand if it is not grounded emotionally on the level deeper than mere reason. Theology is not fertilizer for faith; it is a critical scientific analytical test the authenticity of your spirituality. Myths and stories strengthen faith and let us withstand rigorous scrutiny of theology.

You can analyse parables and stories scientifically. But when you do, you must realize that you are not exactly dealing with the living faith; you are reading the written record of the past faith journey. If you want to look at life, do not cut it up to look inside while it is alive. It will die if you do. When I was a child, I got a biology tool set and dissected a live frog. Of course, the poor thing died on the table. Don’t let scientific truth kill a beautiful living faith: you can kill life sustained by myths and stories with science. Faith is different reality from empirical phenomena.

In Biblical Theology, you examine letters and texts, that have been dead and expired. When you kill myths you grew up with, you kill your soul. Take the case of the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. Though it is a myth and you know it might not have happened that way as you read in the Bible, don’t abolish Christmas and don’t stop singing “Silent Night.” It’s part of us. Primarily, spiritualty is not nurtured by scientific analysis and research. Spirituality belongs to the world of deep consciousness, emotion, imagination, inspiration, passion, and soul. Do not dismiss them because they are without historically and scientifically demonstrable evidence. They belong to the realm of art, music, and poetry; felt in emotion, seen in dreams and visions.

When it comes to your sense of yourself and self-esteem, you more often than not find them in legends and myths of your community, family, and nation than historical and scientific facts. None of the drop-outs from my seminary class gave up the career in ministry because of theological challenge. They left because of lack of emotional community support. Never let theologians tell you that your faith is inferior to theirs because you have not read theology. Faith is maintained by community support. Community support comes from the group of people who share same stories.

Jesus told stories and taught in enigmatic parables, intentionally to confuse scholarly Pharisees, because his message is the matter of faith not of reason. This explains his mysterious comments. Jesus said to Pharisees (lawyers) and scribes (scholars), “Only those with ears can hear it.” In other words, he told them: “You may know dead letters well, but don’t have ear to hear the voice of the living faith.”

Myths and stories bind people emotionally and spiritually together and give them “(spiritual) ear to hear.” Some myths are fantastic stories of dragons, gods and heroes; wizards and witches. But Jesus told parables from ordinary life experience like bread, lost coins, robbers, lost sheep, seeds, father and son, vineyard owners and workers, and yeast.

Jesus’ parables appear only in three books in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, and Luke: mainly in Matthew and Luke. Mark, which provides the source material for the Matthew and Luke, is primarily interested in deeds of Jesus, while Matthew and Luke added another source material that provides Jesus’ words. Even in reporting the same Jesus’ parables, there are differences. It is no use to try to define the authentic original words of Jesus. The Gospels are not too interested in historical facts.

Also, though the first three Gospels are using the same source material, each of them has a specific message. Mark was targeting none-Jewish Christians, Matthew the Jewish Christians, and Luke for the people of the whole world. The writers freely interpreted the original source material and reported differently on purpose to suite their audience, like the notion of “poor” Matthew and Luke. Gospels are different because their readers were different, and the writers’ messages were different accordingly. Variation was intentional not mistake. Stories vary not by mistake but by design, because the situations where readers lived were different.

Exercise: PARABLE AS ALLEGORY : Take each character in the parable of “Good Samaritan” Luke 10 : 25-37, and ask, “When was I like a robber or a Levite (etc.) and how?”