What I Learned in Hiroshima-A Personal Pilgrimage

My family with the A-Bomb Dome in the background
My family with the A-Bomb Dome in the background

I am proud of my Japanese-American heritage.

My grandfather, Ichimatsu Kihara, emigrated to Seattle in the early 20th century. He and his brothers formed Main Fish Company, a seafood wholesaler. They had the first non-Anglo owned business on the Seattle waterfront. My mother was born in Seattle, but was sent with her mother and siblings to live in Hiroshima in 1933 as my grandfather guided Main Fish through the depression. My mother lived there until 1947.

My mother recently took my brother, sister and I, along with our spouses, on a pilgrimage of sorts to Japan. I had never been. It is a beautiful country with extremely gracious people. The most significant experience was visiting the Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum. I knew about the A-bomb, but the visit sparked feelings I didn’t know I had.

Here are my reflections.

The consequences of our decisions are often unforeseen.

In August 1945, the city of Hiroshima was creating fire breaks to prepare for bombing attacks. Most city buildings were made of wood, so fires created by an air raid could create massive damage. Fire breaks could limit the damage.

Most men were in the military. Women, and even older teenagers, worked in the

People saying a prayer at the memorial for children killed by the Hiroshima bomb
People saying a prayer at the memorial for children killed by the Hiroshima bomb

factories to support the war effort. Creating the fire breaks included work by school children, mostly 12 and 13 year-olds. Their job was to assist with clearing demolition debris. On August 6, 1945 there was a large demolition project scheduled requiring 8500 school children.

The project was less than 1000 meters from ground zero.

The fact that 2200 of those children survived seems miraculous. The force of the blast leveled everything within a mile and the ground temperature exceeded 3600 degrees farenheit for as long as three seconds.

Civilian casualties are a part of war. When President Harry Truman approved the use of the A-bomb, he knew that civilians would die. But he couldn’t possibly know that on the day the Enola Gay dropped the bomb, thousands more students than normal would be in harm’s way.

War is hell. Truman agonized over the decision to drop the bomb. When it comes down to it, he had to focus on military and political objectives. Even so, thousands of children died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The A-Bomb was a game-changer

It seems obvious to say, but we don’t realize how unthinkable such a weapon was at the time. Changes like this don’t happen often. But think 9/11. Prior to that day, one could not imagine a hijacker using a plane as a weapon of mass-destruction.

How did Japan respond to this paradigm shift? By developing Three Non-Nuclear Principles: to never possess, manufacture or allow the introduction of nuclear weapons into the nation.

Think about how counter-intuitive this was. Instead of trying to fight fire with fire, Japan responded with non-proliferation. This made (and makes) them extremely dependent on the US and extremely vulnerable to threats from North Korea and China. Yet, their prime minister declared as recently as last month that they would maintain these principles.

Jesus said when we are struck, to turn the other cheek. He also said to pray for our enemies. There is something redemptive about responding to violence with peace and prayer. The result is not death, but new life.

Nuclear weapons are a fact of life today. Most people hardly notice when North Korea conducts a nuclear test, which they’ve done twice in 2016 (once within the last month). Yet, Japan maintains its stance.

Events that create a paradigm shift require leaders to navigate uncharted territory. Nobody asks for this. But it’s true, nonetheless. And the path is often the one that seems least likely.

Forgiveness and Hope are powerful forces

My grandmother went back to the US in 1936. My mother and her siblings wanted to stay in Japan. When my grandparents heard about the bomb, they thought that all but my mom’s youngest sister were killed. It was the other way around.

By circumstance, perhaps providence, my mom was not in Hiroshima the day of the blast. The day before, she had gone to a friend’s in another town to get rice for her family. It was wartime and food was scarce, so when her friend told her there was rice, she went right away. She came back the next day, walking through the devastated city with a bag of rice on her shoulder.

My Mom at ground zero
My Mom at ground zero

Her youngest sister, Nobu, was 15. Normally she would take the train to work in the factory. That would have taken her out of the blast area. But she missed the train and had to take a streetcar which took her right through town. They never found her.

My mom recounts all of these events with sadness and occasional anger. But she always comes back to the fact that the bomb ended the war. She does not say that the end justifies the means. In typical Japanese fashion, she accepts what is for what is.

When you visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial you get this sense. There is no bitterness. Only the resolve to build a new and better future.

I call this forgiveness and hope.

Some of our messes we create ourselves, but much of what we face we can’t control. Regardless, this idea that the past can’t be changed and we can only work toward a better future creates room for God to work.

When Jesus was crucified, the disciples were a mess. It was his appearance to them that gave them hope. And they went and changed the world.

I’ve heard my mother’s stories for most of my life. I’m grateful that we could visit Japan together with my siblings. It has brought my Japanese heritage and my Christian faith together.

Questions for reflection:

How do you respond when there are unforeseen consequences to a decision you’ve made?

What do you do when there is a paradigm shift?

How are you a messenger of forgiveness and hope?

Why People Bug You (and Why They Shouldn’t)

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5 (NRSV)

I’ve often said if the church didn’t have people it would be perfect. People mess things up all the time. So what does a Christian leader do about it?

Cut them some slack.

It’s helpful to understand the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE).

We make the Fundamental Attribution Error when we attribute other people’s actions to their character or personality. Conversely, we explain our own actions in terms of situational factors.

When someone cuts you off in traffic, they’re a jerk.

When you cut someone off in traffic, you couldn’t help it. You were running late and you looked before you changed lanes. You just didn’t see the other car.

How about a church example? When someone misses a church meeting because they forgot, you decide they just don’t care about God’s work in the church. Or that they’re unorganized. Or that they have their priorities out of line. Or all three.

When you miss a meeting because you forgot, it’s because you had way too much going on. There was that project to finish, your aging mother called and talked for 30 minutes and then you got distracted by an article in the paper about how hover boards catch on fire. But you’re a good person and you care about God’s work.

What the FAE points out is that human behavior is largely influenced by situational factors.

We understand that for ourselves. But we don’t give others a break.

As Dan & Chip Heath state in their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, “What looks like a person problem is (often) a situation problem.”

They cite a 2002 study by Brian Wansink from Cornell University. Moviegoers were randomly given medium or large containers of free popcorn that was either fresh or stale. The result: container size was a direct influence on popcorn consumption. Moviegoers ate 45.3% more fresh popcorn when given larger containers. Even more surprising was that they ate 33.6% more stale popcorn (14 days old) when given larger containers.

Or, as the Heath brothers comment, those with larger buckets were transformed into “popcorn-gorging gluttons” as a result of their situation.

What if we took seriously the idea that we will be judged in the same way that we judge others, as Jesus says in Matthew 7:2?

Perhaps we would look at the situation of others to try to explain their behavior instead of being critical of their character or personality. Perhaps we would cut them some slack.

As I’ve mentored pastors over the years, my family systems training has taught me to ask one question when someone starts to act up in the church. “What’s going on in their personal life?” More often than not, when a Christian leader has come to me with a problem in the church it’s a situation problem, not a person a problem.

More importantly, when we start to look at how people behave in terms of the situation, we have a much greater opportunity to find ways to lead change.

What would you rather do, try to change people or try to change the situation?

For example, let’s say that you have families in church that come some of the time, but often miss church for several weeks at a time. Or the parents drop off their kids to Sunday School, but rarely come to church. The FAE would cause us to think that these parents are not committed to their own spiritual growth and/or to modeling a commitment to God for their children.

Understanding the FAE would cause us to dig deeper. To ask, “What are the situational factors that contribute to this lack of commitment?”

What we may find is that Sundays are one of the few days when they get a break. They’re tired and it’s a challenge to get kids ready for church, bring them to Sunday School, then stay for an hour of church. They may also have activities such as sports or the arts that they have to get to on Sunday afternoons. The bottom line: they’d like to be more committed but it’s a really hard.

Understanding this, some churches have decided to offer a worship service that runs concurrently with the Sunday School hour. All of a sudden, parents can come to church and worship without having to supervise their kids AND their kids are getting a Christian education. If the service is early enough, say no later than 10am, they can be on their way to Sunday afternoon activities without missing a beat. 

What we thought was a person problem was really a situation problem.

Understanding the Fundamental Attribution Error can help us to see things in ways that make us more effective leaders.

Reflection Questions:

How do you explain your behaviors in terms of situational factors?

How do you explain others’ behaviors in terms of character or personality?

What would it look like in the church if we looked at others’ behaviors as we do our own?

Small Actions Can Lead to Big Change

Give generously, for your gifts will return to you later. 2 Divide your gifts among many, for you do not know what risks might lie ahead. 3 When the clouds are heavy, the rains come down. When a tree falls, whether south or north, there it lies. 4 If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done. 5 God’s ways are as hard to discern as the pathways of the wind, and as mysterious as a tiny baby being formed in a mother’s womb. 6 Be sure to stay busy and plant a variety of crops, for you never know which will grow — perhaps they all will.
(Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 NLT)

I try to avoid sports or military metaphors. It’s not that I don’t like them. Not everybody can relate. As far as I know, Jesus never used any (though Paul did). My post about adaptive leadership used a metaphor that I much prefer: wine.

Side note: Here was the conversation after my wife, Jodi, read that post:

“You didn’t tell them what to do.”

“Yes, I did. I told them to make lots off wine.”


So here’s the follow up. Jim Collins and Morten Hansen came up with a pretty good military metaphor in their book, Great by Choice.

Fire bullets, before cannonballs.

Bullets are low risk, low cost, low distraction efforts that help test the validity of a new initiative. It’s trying something out, without investing a lot of time, energy, resources or risk. You fire a bullet and see what happens. Then you adjust your aim.

Cannonballs are higher risk, business defining ventures. Uncalibrated cannonballs are high risk gambles. Calibrated cannonballs are calculated risks taken after rigorous testing (firing lots of bullets).

Collins and Hansen aren’t saying that you shouldn’t fire cannonballs. In fact, they say that organizational greatness depends on these types of large scale initiatives. But the great organizations go about it a certain way.

If you fire a bullet first, you use less “gunpowder” and you can test your aim. Gunpowder is time (or distraction) and money. For the church I would note that gunpowder also includes political capital. And we only have so much gunpowder.

So you fire a bullet, see what happens. Adjust your aim, fire another. Adjust again. At some point you have enough information to really go for it (fire a cannonball) or to look for another target. Notice this is not machine gun fire. That’s neither rigorous nor calibrated and uses nearly as much gunpowder as a cannonball.

So, ready, fire, aim works much better with bullets than cannonballs.

In Ecclesiastes the metaphor is agricultural, not military.

If you stand around observing the weather, waiting for the right time to plant, you’ll never do anything (vv3-4). You can spend a lot of time planning, but if you never act, nothing will happen. When you plant a crop, there are a lot of variables that determine the harvest: soil, weather, seed quality, weeds, etc. One thing is certain. If you don’t sow any seed, you won’t have any harvest.

So The Teacher tells us to diversify. Plant a variety of crops. Some may grow. Perhaps they will all grow. We don’t know. Using the bullet metaphor, conserving our gunpowder allows us to try more things…to diversify.

In the late 1990’s I was a pastor in Chesapeake City, MD. I had several people, including my daughter, approach me to say that we needed to start a youth center. It wasn’t my vision, but I’m no dummy. I could tell God was working on these folks.

We did three things that were low risk, low distraction and low cost:

• We formed a team to pray about it.
• We decided to go to the ecumenical association so that we could work with other local churches.
• We tried “something.”

That “something” was a Friday night coffee house in the Episcopal church fellowship hall. We did it once and it seemed well-received. So we did it again. And again. Each time we learned something.

We ultimately opened the Generation Station Youth Center, a ministry of the Chesapeake City Ecumenical Association, in the fall of 1999. The “Station’s” primary function is an after school program for at-risk kids. It has served hundreds of students over its 17 years.

All because we did “something.” God can use that. God rarely uses inaction.

Making a difference means we have to be willing to act. But doing it wisely is the difference between mediocre (or worse) and really making an impact. Try something. Test it out. Make an adjustment. Try it again. Make an adjustment or shut it down. You do this enough and you will see God do amazing things.

How is planning like standing around watching the weather?

What is the balance between planning and acting?

What little initiatives can you try, that could lead to something big?

If you found this helpful, please share it with someone else that might benefit. Thanks!

Christian Leaders Embrace the Adaptive Challenge

The biggest challenge for the church today may be figuring out how to adapt to a changing society. Some will say, “The gospel is the same now and as it always was.” Yes…but Paul also said, “I will be all things to all people so that I can save some.” (1 Cor 9:22)

Adapting to changing circumstances is not giving up your principles. It’s not selling out. It’s acknowledging that the situation has changed and so must our approach. Continue reading “Christian Leaders Embrace the Adaptive Challenge”