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by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” - Mother Teresa

February, 2002

In his book, 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions, Kenji Kawakami describes the fascination with complicated inventions designed to solve simple problems. While this phenomenon is not limited to Japan, nonetheless Japanese inventors have embraced the idea with particular zeal. Mr. Kawakami refers to this notion as the art of  "Chindogu," which literally means an odd or distorted tool. They are inventions or gadgets that seem as if they should fill a need but -- on closer examination -- don't. He gives such examples as eyeglasses with funnels in place of lenses, to make it easier to use eye drops; slippers with whisk brooms and dust pans attached, so that a person can clean up litter and dust without bending over; and tiny dust mop booties for house cats, so that kitty can dust the floors as she scampers about the house. This is similar to many such products we see advertised on television, except that the true practitioner of "Chindogu," or "Chindoguist," according to Mr. Kawakami, creates his inventions for their own sake and never to sell. (We might wish sometimes the inventors of some of the products on television had a similar philosophy.)

The cartoons of the late Rube Goldberg from the earlier half of the 1900's reflect a similar idea. An engineer as well as an artist, Goldberg satirized the tendency to create complicated solutions to simple problems, which was one of the side effects of the so-called "machine age." In Goldberg's time, the U.S. Patent Office had applications on file for inventions as ridiculous as automatic hat-tippers. Our modern technological society shares this tendency. If you're too young to know who Rube Goldberg was, think of the board game Mouse Trap, which is based on his work. Clearly, boots, bathtubs, bowling balls, and such have nothing to do with catching mice, which is the point. It also makes the game fun. But a real device made like the one in Mouse Trap would be far too complicated to work.

In his letter to Philemon, Paul told the slave owner regarding his slave Onesimus, " I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)" (Philem. 1:10-11 RSV). The concept of a "useless" slave might seem odd: who would want or keep such a slave? Onesimus may indeed have been a valuable slave but he had not always been a Christian; this was what Paul meant by calling him "useless." But then he became "useful" to Paul and to Philemon -- and to God -- when Christ came into his life. Paul reminded Philemon that he should consider Onesimus "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, . . . in the Lord." (Philem. 1:16 RSV). Before he became a Christian, Onesimus was a "distorted tool." He appeared to be useful, just as any other slave, but spiritually, he was useless to Philemon, to Paul, and to God.

In Genesis, we read that after the creation, the Earth and the life on it -- plants and animals, fish and birds, men and women -- was "good" or useful (Gen.1:11-31). But through sin, men and women became "useless" to God (Gen. 2:25-3:19). And if we are not living for God, we are "distorted tools" too. We may appear useful on the outside, at first glance, like Chindogu, but to God, we are "useless," distorted, and imperfect. God told the Israelites that they were "not useful" (Eze. 15:1-8). They became useless to God by their unfaithfulness (Eze. 15:8). If we are not faithful, how can we expect to be useful to God?

How can we be "useful" to God? Paul wrote to Timothy that a person can be useful if he "purifies himself from what is ignoble," (2 Tim. 2:21a RSV). If unfaithfulness makes us useless, then faithfulness can make us useful. One way we can be faithful is to share our God with those around us. Every day, we meet people who seem to be useful but are not, who seem whole but are "distorted." They need to be made useful and whole through God's power to transform lives. We can tell them -- and show them -- how to become useful. We can lead them to the master inventor, the one who can make them work well and do good.

"In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and earthenware, and some for noble use, some for ignoble. If any one purifies himself from what is ignoble, then he will be a vessel for noble use, consecrated and useful to the master of the house, ready for any good work. So shun youthful passions and aim at righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call upon the Lord from a pure heart." (2 Tim. 2:20-22 RSV).

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Copyright © 2002 by David Phelps