THE GOSPEL NEVER GROWS OLD
Having been given the honor and privilege to serve as a missionary to Europe and Asia, I have always had a soft spot for stories from the mission field. But many that I read were from the 19th and 20th Centuries. So it is a joy to find one from our own day and age. I hope you enjoy this one written by Joanna Reed Shelton.
She begins with by saying she couldn’t believe it when she opened her email. There was an invitation to the 120th-anniversary celebration of a church in Osaka, Japan – a church founded by her great-grandfather, Thomas Theron Alexander, a 19th-century Presbyterian missionary. When she read the email, she felt something pulling her toward Japan and the recognition of her great-grandfather’s struggles and triumphs there. Before long – and against all odds – his example helped her launch her own journey of faith.
Joanna was born in Texas, in the far southeastern corner near the Gulf Coast and Louisiana. Although not particularly religious, her parents occasionally took her and her brother to church. She remembered sitting with her parents in the sanctuary at the beginning of each service. But soon all the kids were herded down to a basement room filled with pictures, books, games, and colorful objects designed to appeal to young children like her.
Sitting in a semi-circle on the floor, they would crane their necks upward at their teacher, who tried to keep them interested using stories of Jesus and His miracles. But what stood out for her in the picture books held by the teacher was the barren wasteland of desert sand, camels ridden by one-dimensional figures in heat-trapping robes, and a sprinkling of palm trees. While the pictures entertained the kids, the books’ messages were completely lost in the process.
By the time she was 13 or 14 her interest in church began to increase, but the family lived too far away to walk, and her parents did not want to get up and take her there. From then on her life was preoccupied with college, graduate school, and a high-flying career as an international economist and trade negotiator in Washington, DC. During those years she held religion firmly at arm’s length. When she saw all the divisiveness caused by some and the hypocrisy of others among the so-called faithful, she felt it wasn’t for her.
Although she considered herself a spiritual person, she shunned most of the practices and beliefs associated with organized religion. Sometimes, though, she longed for an outlet for spiritual feelings that she harbored deep inside. So after receiving the surprise email from Japan, she flew to Osaka to take part in Sunday worship and an afternoon anniversary celebration at the church founded by her great-grandfather.
As she listened to the minister’s preaching, her gaze fell on the organist. She thought about her great-grandfather’s struggles to control his emotions during Sunday services following the sudden death of her aunty Ella who was only 14-years-old at the time. Ella played the organ at that same church. The day before the church’s anniversary celebration, she visited Ella’s grave. They recited the Lord’s Prayer and sang “Amazing Grace” as a final tribute. Afterwards, they washed the headstone in Japanese tradition, carefully scrubbing moss and dirt from the crevices of Ella’s name and epitaph.
More visits to Japan followed, bringing new friends and further discoveries. She spoke at the anniversary celebration of another church her great-grandfather founded in Osaka and delved deeper into his work as a writer and theologian at Meiji Gakuin University. Over time, she gained a clearer picture of how he influenced the people he served.
All of this inspired her to write a book about her great-grandfather. She knew that if she hoped to understand what drew him into ministry in Japan, she needed to learn more about Christianity. So, for the first time, she began to read the Bible. As she did a long-suppressed inner flame began to burn brighter as she read and contemplated the Scriptures.
Several verses, in particular, spoke to her. In Luke 17:20–21, when Jesus is asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God is coming, He replies: “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed; nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” And in John 14:9, Jesus says, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
For the first time, she felt she understood the true meaning of faith, as a hope in things unseen. She also realized that Jesus taught us what it means to be God’s people, loving one another as we love ourselves. Only through love can we help bring God’s kingdom to life on earth as it is in heaven.
When she saw the enduring faith of Japanese Christians whose ancestors were taught by missionaries like her great-grandfather, the spiritual yearning she felt much of her life gained a new focus. Her great-grandfather’s hand, lying still for over 100 years, seemed to beckon her. So in 2007, she joined a small Presbyterian church in northwestern Montana. For the last six years, she has served faithfully, keeping the same vows her great-grandfather took: to trust in Jesus Christ as her Savior, to acknowledge Him as Lord of all and head of the church. She said: “You might say I’m the latest convert of a man whose work clearly was not done when he died more than a century ago.”
How true then are the words of God to the prophet Isaiah when He said: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”1 If you are or have been, a missionary, minister, teacher, layman, Sunday School teacher, or one who witnesses to those around you about the goodness of God and His grace that brings salvation to a lost and dying world, keep this in mind: Long after you may be gone what you said may still find root and produce another living soul for the kingdom of God. So never get tired or grow weary. God will take care of every seed you plant. – Dr. Robert R Seyda
1 Isaiah 55:11