Pratt Dean, a retired missionary to Japan, holds a vase with a Chinese character on each side that tells the story of the Trinity.
Photo by Grace Thornton

Retired Alabama missionary to Japan creates vase to share Trinity story

When Pratt Dean watched men walk on the moon for the first time in 1969, he’d already taken a big step of his own — he had up and moved to serve God as a missionary to Japan, a whole world away from where he grew up in the U.S.

And when he got there, he found God had a lot of good things waiting for him — a wife, a 32-year missions tenure and a new passion that would become a big part of his ministry.

Dean met his wife, Rita, who was serving as a missionary to Taiwan, and the two wrote letters and married not too long after. She moved to Japan to serve alongside him.

And along the way, someone put a book in Dean’s hands that would become a new fascination — a book about Chinese characters, which are also used in the Japanese language.

“I knew that many of them uncannily lend themselves to illustrating Bible truth,” he said.

Plain messages

The book explained how dozens of Chinese characters seem to have been invented to tell the story of Genesis 1–11, Dean said.

As he continued his research, he learned three Chinese characters specifically seemed to represent the Trinity.

All three of them had the yoh character, which means “sheep,” as their top half.

“Sheep are choice animal sacrifices for sins and symbolize the sacrificial love of God who gave His unique Son, Jesus Christ, as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,’” Dean said, quoting John 1:29.

Then underneath the yoh, the bottom of each of the three words was a picture of something else unique to each Person of the Trinity, he said.

Profound meaning

The bottom portion of the character for “beauty” — or bi — was the dai character, which means “big.” To Dean, that represents God the Father — the immeasurable Creator of beauty.

The bottom portion of the character for “righteousness” — or gi — was made up of three characters. The first, ga, means “I” or “me.” The second, te, means “hand,” and the third, hoko, is a long weapon for killing.

This had profound meaning for Dean, the idea that the character for “righteousness” would be made up of a lamb paired with “me,” a hand and an instrument of death.

“Christians have long noted that this portrays exactly the idea of righteousness — covered by the sacrificed Lamb,” he said.

For Dean, this easily represented Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. He saw the Holy Spirit represented by the character zen, which means “goodness.”

“It is the word yoh or ‘sheep’ (on top) plus gen (on the bottom) which means ‘word,’ written twice,” Dean said. “That represents the Holy Spirit — the communicator of the Trinity.”

The Holy Spirit helps people understand the things of the Father and the Son and helps people communicate with God in prayer and praise and communicate God’s Word to others, he said.

Dean decided that a great way to highlight these three Chinese characters and use them as a tool to share the gospel would be to have them imprinted on three-sided vases. And he knew just the person to do it.

Over the years he had developed a friendship with a Japanese native he knew as Mr. Eguchi, a former kamikaze flight engineer who had owned a big pottery business and was visited once by Helen Keller, an Alabamian who was both blind and deaf.

Keller had run her fingers over one of the vases and been so fascinated by its beauty that she asked to see it again years later.

Ministry born

Keller’s reaction to the vase touched the potter so much that he decided to sell his business, buy some property and turn it into an institute to help people with disabilities produce fine Sansai pottery.

Residents of that institute now craft what Dean calls the Trinity vase. It has been a ministry and a witness in many ways, he said, even now after he’s retired.

“We pray that many Japanese, Chinese and others who have interest in Chinese writing will hear the gospel because they understand the message the vases symbolize,” said Dean, now a member of Church on the Bluff in Hoover.

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