My Theological Reunion in Sendai, Japan

17 03 2011

Until recently, hardly anyone outside of Japan had heard of Sendai—now its on everyone’s radar.  Every major media network in the world is camping out in Sendai. 

As we have all watched the devastation of the 8.9 earthquake (9.0 by some recent reports) and subsequent tsunami in Japan, our hearts are deeply grieved.  My heart is especially broken for Sendai, the largest city near the epicenter of the earthquake.  The coastal towns in and around Sendai were the hardest hit by the tsunami, and the estimates today are that more than 10,000 may have died. 

Over two million people have been without water and/or electricity since the earthquake and tsunami hit.  Over 170,000 have been evacuated near the Fukushima Nuclear Plant.  Thousands have been evacuated and recently reported, “a third reactor at a nuclear power plant lost its cooling capacity, raising fears of a meltdown, while the stock market plunged over the likelihood of huge losses by Japanese industries including big names such as Toyota and Honda.” According to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, this is the “worst disaster to hit Japan since World War II.”  He might be right.

Sendai, Japan has a special place in my heart.  It was in the mid 80’s that I was asked by the leadership of Campus Crusade for Christ to speak at an evangelistic crusade in this city.  It was the culmination of a summer outreach to college students.  The summer project and the evangelistic crusade were organized by a group of pastors who had a heart for college students. 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was to be a kind of theological reunion for me.

I grew up in a Lutheran home.  Since my dad was a pastor, my childhood was filled up with all things Lutheran:  baptized as an infant (wearing a dress! Not kidding, but give me a break, I was only six weeks old), catechized at 16, a crucifer as a teen (which means I carried the cross, cross-handed into the service-Braveheart style) and drank real wine in communion. 

It was in the Lutheran church that I grew up under the watchful gaze of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. My dad knew his church history and theology well and we often had “table talk” discussions over the 95 Theses, Reformation in Europe, and the great debate at Worms. We also had our own freewheeling debates over infant baptism, the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and just how one gets saved.

I received my introduction to grace, love and baptism through my Lutheran parents and the church they loved. It was in the womb of Lutheranism that my heart was pre-warmed and prepared for the new birth. 

It was during the fall of my freshman year at the University of Georgia, after an ugly athletic injury, that a staff person with Campus Crusade shared with me a clear presentation of the Gospel.  Through that simple explanation of the cross and resurrection, I finally put together all the missing parts.  The theological dots were connected and Jesus fully and completely gave me the grace to say yes to Him.

Six years later I found myself as a missionary in Japan. It was while studying Japanese that I was asked to take a train up to the northeastern coast of Japan, to the city of Sendai.  I had never heard of the place and had to pull out a map of Japan to see where I was going.

It was in Sendai that I was met at the train station by a group of energetic pastors.  They were excited about the crusade and fired up to meet me.  Over sushi and seaweed that night, I was delighted to hang out with a group of grace-filled, evangelistically bold, theologically grounded men who shared of the miracles God was performing in Sendai.  And then I learned that they were all Lutheran pastors! 

What a shock to my little conservative evangelical system.  They were theologically conservative, drank wine and loved evangelism. I had not met such Lutherans before.  And they were pastors!

The Lutherans I had known in the U.S. were more of the neo-orthodox type.  The wine was fine, but it seemed that our paths seemed to head off in different doctrinal directions after that.  My father and mother, who loved Jesus, had theological leanings that were often the bane of our discussions. 
But here I was in Sendai, Japan, enjoying a deeper than average theological unity with a group of Spirit-filled Lutheran pastors.  We were all excited to see what God would do to touch the lives of these college students.  And God showed up mightily. 

The Lutheran pastors in Sendai gave me far more than I gave them.  It was on the train back to Tokyo that I realized the significance of my time in Sendai.  It was a theological reunion. It was the marriage of my Lutheran roots with my evangelistic zeal.  I do recall that I thought about my dad and his passion for Jesus; I also thought about Martin Luther and his boldness against man-made religion.  On that train ride home, I thanked God for sending me to Sendai. 

So, join me in praying for the believers and the many pre-believers of Sendai.  It might be that the little Lutheran church building that I visited twenty-five years ago has been destroyed—possibly swept off into the ocean.  But I’m convinced that the faith, perseverance and passion of the Lutheran believers in Sendai is rock solid.  May they be a “bulwark never failing” in the dark days ahead.  Pray for Sendai, Japan.



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