A while back I read a very boring book that was written by a most interesting man. I had heard much over the years about a Japanese Christian named Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960), and when I ran across a book by him in a used book store I picked it up. The Law of Love was the name of the book, and I was expecting it to be quite good. But when I read it I was disappointed. There was nothing wrong with what he said. It was basic, traditional Christian teaching, but the writing was quite dull. I did read the entire book only because it wasn’t very long, but I won’t be reading anything else by him.
Reading the book reminded me of a story about Kagawa that I heard several years ago. He was in the United States for a few weeks, speaking at several universities. After one of his speeches one college student said to another, “He didn’t say much, did he?” And the other college student replied, “Well, when you are on a cross you don’t have to say anything at all.”
The first young man was unimpressed with the speech, just as I was unimpressed by the book. But the second young man knew something of Kagawa’s life of suffering to serve others. He knew that Kagawa’s life was inspiring, even though his words were not. And he knew that a life of great deeds done even though accompanied by dull speech, is far better than the most powerful speech if it is not ever followed by any kind of service to others. Jesus Christ was the inspiration behind all what Kagawa did in his life, and though Kagawa was not literally put on a cross like Jesus, he bore many crosses and suffered much in his life of service to the poor.
In 1909 Kagawa began studying at the Kobe Theological Seminary. The classroom study of the Bible led many of Kagawa’s classmates into endless theological discussions and debates about ever more precise academic definitions and distinctions. But Kagawa had little time for that. He was interested in living like Jesus, not merely discussing Jesus and debating about what his life meant. So quite early in his seminary career Kagawa decided to leave his comfortable campus rooms and move into the slums of Kobe, Japan. There he would live among the poor, serving them for Jesus’ sake. He rented a small apartment about the size of an average bedroom. There he continued his studies, along with helping anyone who crossed his path and who needed help. And there were many needs in that run-down part of the city. Pretty soon his small apartment, hardly big enough for himself, became a temporary residence for all sorts of people; the sick, the dying, orphans, the homeless, alcoholics trying to sober up, ex-convicts trying to stay out of trouble, and whoever else wandered in from the street. And Kagawa did what he could to help them all. His life of service became a beacon of hope in a most hopeless part of the city. All this was because he wanted to pattern his life after the life of Jesus, and not just talk about Jesus.
Kagawa’s favorite Bible story was the story of the Good Samaritan in which Jesus took a lawyer’s speculative question about serving others and turned it into a lesson about just simply doing the right thing at the right time. He would have liked what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in a sermon about the parable of the Good Samaritan: “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But… the good Samaritan reversed the question, asking, ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”
Kagawa summarized his approach to life in these words: “I read in a book that a man called Christ went about doing good. It is very disconcerting to me that I am so easily satisfied with just going about.”
Not everyone is called to serve Jesus in the exact same way as Kagawa, but we are all called to follow the example of Jesus in our lives. Something as simple as those WWJD bracelets have the same intent. The idea of the bracelet was to be a reminder to ask that question “What Would Jesus Do?’ in all our actions and decisions and even words. It is not always easy to determine what Jesus would do in any given situation. But oftentimes it is not very difficult at all, and our lives would be much better for ourselves and those around us if we at least made the attempt. I never had a WWJD bracelet, but I know I am better off when I remember to ask myself what would be the most Christ-like way for me to respond in any given situation– in conversation, in my work, in the way I spend my money, in the way I respond to others, and so forth.
It was that desire to follow Jesus that inspired Toyohiko Kagawa to live among the poor. It can in the same way inspire us to tell the truth, be honest in our dealings with others, be charitable in our understanding of the faults of others, and forgiving of the ways they wrong us. It can also inspire us to follow Jesus by keeping our promises, living up to our commitments, being grateful to God for what we’ve been given, and cherishing the time God has given us. There are all sorts of ways to follow and obey Jesus, just as there are all sorts of ways to disobey him and go our own way. One way to get it right is to ask, as did Toyohiko Kagawa, “What would Jesus do?”
Philippians 2:1-8 — Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
O Master, let me walk with you, In lowly paths of service true;
Tell me your secret; help me bear, The strain of toil, the fret of care.
— From a hymn by Washington Gladden (1836-1918)