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Weaknesses and Strengths

A letter from Tom Goetz serving in Japan

May 2015

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Individuals: Give online to E074285 for Thomas Goetz’s sending and support

“Shine like stars in the dark world” not only is the school motto for Hokusei Gakuen University, but it is also a famous quote from Paul the Apostle. In his letter to the Christians in Philippi he told them to be blameless and innocent, as children are before God. In that way are we to “shine like stars in the world” (Phil 2:15c NRSV). And in all aspects we, as a university community, are walking our talk. In this message I wish to focus on what is going on in one aspect.

Hebrews 4:14-16:
Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

We should be proud when we consider our regard for students with disabilities, both physical and mental.

I am a member of the School of Social Welfare faculty. While I do not teach social welfare studies, I do have an overlapping background with an undergraduate degree in psychology, and a master’s degree in theology, along with a master’s in education. These three degrees combined to make a good fit for what I do.

Our students take classes that build up a sense of empathy. They take turns sitting in wheelchairs, for example, experiencing firsthand what it is to be paralyzed. We offer a counseling clinic in which professors prepare our Social Welfare majors for just about anything that is out in the real world that needs attention. Whether it is how to find funding for and administer a group home, operating a counseling clinic, or working in hospitals, you will find Hokusei graduates in positions of leadership and responsibility. But I wonder about one thing. There is one aspect of our social welfare curriculum that seems to be lacking, I’m thinking about something more subtle: dyslexia.

In a now discredited article* the author concluded that since Japanese is an idiographic and syllable- based language, unlike the languages that use an alphabet, Japanese was somehow immune to dyslexia in this exam-centered educational culture. Naturally teaching children for the purpose of taking increasingly significant exams made sense.goetz_1505-1

In order for the entrance exam system to work, you need winners and you need losers.

While everybody wants to be a winner, the group of winners will be self-selected. However, where do the losers come from? How about from the group of children who are learning-disabled? How about those with dyslexia, for example?

What is dyslexia? In short it is a general term that involves difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but without affecting general intelligence.

Disproportionately high in Japan among those who do not succeed within the educational system are students with dyslexia. With the falling birthrate and a stagnant economy, Japanese parents are more likely to invest in a college education for their children as a way to help their children succeed in life. The chances of entering a good university are better than before. The chances of entering any university are 100 percent. Those of us who teach language and have an awareness of dyslexia probably sense that we have more students with dyslexia than in the past.

And it’s not just limited to dyslexia; we now have young adults who struggled with ADHD, Asperger’s syndrome, or another childhood mental problem, all of which are treatable. Are we ready as professors? I would like to think so, but the use of the bell curve when assessing final grades remains a disturbing reality. Once again young adults who struggled with learning disabilities as children are pushed to the bottom. For some, they cannot escape the cycle. They go on academic leave or drop out of school altogether. But those who do graduate eventually find jobs where their gifts will be welcomed.

What needs to happen is an awareness that students with learning disabilities have gifts and insights, otherwise known as their “seas of strengths,” to offer. For example, when people with dyslexia read, they read in the same way that we typically read maps. They do a lot of skimming and scanning. Those of us who teach reading skills are often frustrated by how many of our students do not skim and scan at all and therefore are unable to make reasonable and informed inferences about the text they are reading. They read the way they’ve always read. They read the way they’ve always been taught, one word at a time in the next phrase, in the next sentence, and in the next. Let’s build a paragraph. Dyslexics often read faster, but they do not pick up as much detail. They tend to be happy with the big picture. Sadly, this is the fact that sets them up for disaster on entrance exams, where reading for detailed information, bottom-up processing, is the main point, not reading for the big picture, top-down processing.

There are famous people who suffered from learning disabilities as children. Have you heard of Bill Gates? He had Asperger’s syndrome. Many American lawyers and company presidents had and have dyslexia. Their skimming and scanning abilities enable them to read through hundreds, if not thousands, of legal cases and remember them. President Kennedy was famous for having had a photographic memory. People with dyslexia often say that they remember pictures better than words.goetz_1505-1

In Hebrews 4:14-16 the writer of the letter to the Hebrews is telling us that Jesus, the son of God, in addition to being a great guy, achieved even greater status not only by being without sin, but by being able to sympathize with our weakness. The lesson here is for us to pick up and set into action Jesus’ ability to make good from any and all weaknesses, to find the many and various seas of strengths in the people around us.

Jesus did this repeatedly during his ministry. We are to do likewise. As Jesus did, we are to sympathize with the many weaknesses of others. I talked about people who live with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia and Asperger’s syndrome. But there is more. One would think that Jesus would have won some kind of Nobel Prize. He never won such an earthly prize. Instead, he was hung on a cross to die. Was that the end of him? Not at all. God, on the third day, raised Jesus from the grave, up to heaven, allowing him for a time to appear before his disciples, telling them to go into the world and do what he has done.

In short, setting into action the Love of God as demonstrated by Jesus Christ is the best thing about PC(USA) worldwide mission.

A mission colleague of mine recently reported that “every few years we get to attend a ‘sharing conference,’ where PC(USA) mission co-workers gather to learn about what their fellow co-workers are doing around the world.  I am always amazed at the richness of this group.  These are salt-of-the-world people: deeply committed to Christ, highly educated, sincere, competent, spiritual, intelligent, sacrificial and loving.  They are doctors, scientists, professors, farmers, pastors, teachers, artists, lawyers, administrators, activists and engineers. Some work in very difficult and dangerous conditions to bring hope, healing, peace and justice to their neighbors. The work they are doing throughout the world is Good News.  It is amazing grace.  I am so thankful for them” (Prof. Bernard Adeney-Risakotta, Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies, Graduate School, Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia).

He continues to say, and I fully agree, that the work of PC(USA) World Mission transcends all the differences that exist in the church.  Whether they are liberal, conservative, progressive, evangelical, establishment, radical, or all of the above, PC(USA) mission co-workers are motivated by loving service to God and to the world.  They are worth more than all the church buildings in the PC(USA).  They are bringing life and peace to the world.

Recently it has been reported that there is a substantial shortfall in financial support for long-term mission co-workers.  Some are being called back to the U.S.A. because there is not enough money.  We can address this. I invite you to support the PC(USA) in your prayers and with your gifts. A gift from you will help continue the work of sharing good news, overcoming poverty, touching the lives of those who are stigmatized by being labeled learning-disabled, and joining in efforts to build peace and reconciliation among all people.  No gift is too small or too large:

If you would like to give to PC(USA) World Mission online, please go to Make a gift to World Mission at: pcusa.org/give/E132192

Ubi caritas, et amor, Deus ibi est. Where there is caring and love, God is always there.

Tom

*Makita, K., “The rarity of reading difficulty in Japanese children,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 38, 599-614, 1968

The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 247


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