But only after I went to Japan in search of his life story.

I couldn’t believe it when I opened my email.

Inside my inbox was an invitation to the 120th anniversary celebration of a church in Osaka—a church founded by my great-grandfather, a 19th-century Presbyterian missionary. The minister had Googled my great-grandfather’s name, and apparently my own name had popped up, along with the text of a speech I had given in Tokyo a few years earlier just after leaving my job as a top official of an international organization in Paris. The topic was “National Identity and International Pressures: Are they compatible?”

I had given hundreds of speeches during my diplomatic career without mentioning my great-grandfather, the Reverend Thomas Theron Alexander. But the challenge of maintaining a cultural identity in the face of a rapidly shrinking world was something he and his adopted countrymen surely would have understood. My hosts posted the speech online, forever linking my name with my great-grandfather’s in cyberspace.

When I read the email, I felt something pulling me toward Japan and the story of my great-grandfather’s struggles and triumphs there. Before long—and against all odds—his example would help launch my own journey of faith.

Shunning Religion

I was born in the flat lowlands of Texas, in the far southeastern corner near the Gulf Coast and Louisiana. My family moved often, going wherever my father’s career as a chemical engineer took us.

Although not particularly religious, my parents occasionally took my brother and me to church. Both had been raised in the church and felt they should expose their children to the Bible and religion.

I remember sitting with my parents in the sanctuary during the beginning of each service, …

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