Monday, April 02, 2007

Ten Things I Think I Think (South Korea Version)

Ten Things I Think I Think (South Korea Version)

As a part of my year-long intensive doctoral program, I am currently in Seoul, South Korea, where the largest Methodist and Presbyterian churches, and the largest church, the Yoido Full Gospel (over 750,000 members) are all located. We’re here at the behest of the Kwanglim Methodist Church, whose Senior Pastor, Chung Sook Kim, is a Beeson Pastor (96-97) himself.

1) The trip over here has been interesting, to say the least. For more info on the first two days, just check out the last post. I’ll pick up things up Day Three, which saw us make the trek up to the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone). For those not old enough to have watched M.A.S.H., or who have forgotten their 20th century history, as a result of WWII, Korea was split between the Communists and the Free World nations, creating two separate countries, North and South Korea. In 1950, Communist China made the decision to unify the two Koreas, initiating a war that the United States made a decision to get involved in. By 1953, the war had bogged down into a stalemate, and as a result of the peace accord, a stretch of land at the 38th parallel across the Korean peninsula is a big no-man’s land (the DMZ) between the two countries where human feet largely do not tread. We went to go see it.

2) The weird thing about the DMZ isn’t the level of military presence (although if you’ve never been in the military, or lived near a base, it is a bit unsettling), but rather that the South Koreans have (how could I make this up?) attempted to develop it as a tourist attraction. There are three visitors centers. At one place, there is a museum dedicated to the entire saga of the war and its aftermath (which included a skirmish in the mid-seventies where 26 men lost their lives after fighting ensued between North and South Korean soldiers because the South Koreans tried to cut down a Poplar Tree in the DMZ that interfered with the site line of the American army base) and a tour you can take of one of the four North Korean constructed tunnels the South Koreans have discovered that run under the DMZ into their country.

At museum, a seven minute video on a wrap around screen was shown that is supposed to be a history of the experience. But, instead, it basically talks about how the DMZ, after the 2000 accord, is now becoming the center and symbol for peace in the world…. which given the recent tension over the North Korean’s testing nuclear weapons just seems bizarre. That and the soundtrack to the video was a re-incarnation of bad 80’s American Hair Metal. It was the most unsettling piece of propaganda I’ve ever seen.

3) The second visitor center we were able to see (a third was closed because of tension over the center and symbol of peace in the world) was an observation post where you can stand on a big platform and see the DMZ. Unfortunately, it was foggy, so all the stuff I wanted to see (particularly Propaganda City, which is a fake town built by the North Koreans in the DMZ right after the war that nobody lived in until about three or four years ago) wasn't visable. Of course, because I’m me, standing on that platform, I took out my camera to start videoing the foggy scene, when I thought better of it, and put my camera away. Good thing, because apparently the guy at the door who was supposed to tell me not to take pictures of the DMZ wasn’t around as I walked outside (I was one of the last folks out cause I was asking a tour guide some questions). Of course, two minutes later, a South Korean soldier asked to see my camera, and after my showing him many of the pictures on the memory chip, he finally let me go. Of course everyone enjoyed watching me almost go to prison. Randy Jessen, the program director, said that he had composed a letter to Aimee on this very subject before he left on the trip, because he thought the possibility of my imprisonment while here to be high. Such is my stellar reputation.

4) After narrowing escaping a South Korean jail and discovering that the “center and symbol of peace in the world” is one of the most heavily land-mined spaces anywhere we went shopping where a bunch of us bought tailored suits…….

Yeah, it was a surreal kind of day… the realization of nuclear annihilation and Abercrombie and Fitch knock offs connected by one two hour bus ride.

Apparently, at some point, Beeson Pastors started going to a particular tailor (one of hundreds) in Seoul to buy tailored suits. I’m not sure how or why this started, or who in the world even dreamed up such a possibility, but the tradition remains. And after haggling with the tailor, I ended up getting measured for a new charcoal grey suit. It will supposedly be ready by Tuesday, and we’ll take them back with us to the states.

The rest of the day I spent looking for gifts for Aimee and the boys, drinking Starbucks coffee (it’s three stories high, and was packed…. Koreans must love strong coffee). I also found out that they make a lot of luggage, handbags, backpacks and pocketbooks over here. Never in my life had I had so many people try to sell me a Louis Vitton or Burberry purse. I also saw a lot of (Marco) Polo jeans (that’s how they were labeled). They like to haggle here which is a pain in that if you leave a store without buying something, you always feel like a schmuck who just stoned the best efforts of people working hard to make the sale. And if you do buy something, you always think you get taken, so either way it's not that enjoyable. I did manage to find yo-yos that come with a CD-ROM (???) for the boys. Can't wait to see how the CD-ROM and the yo-yo go together.

5) After a good night’s sleep, we spent all day today (Sunday) in church. We started at Kwanglim Methodist Church (where I begged someone to get me to a computer so I could follow the end of the Buckeyes big win over Georgetown in the NCAA tourney – more on that later) where we were split up and sent to observe various Sunday School classrooms. I am pleased to announce that 5th and 6th grade boys are the same, everywhere. They can’t sit still, they can’t keep their hands off their neighbor, and they are violent. Watching them this morning sit through a twenty minute sermon from one of the church’s 25 pastors brought back lots of great (when I was their age) and trying (when I was their youth pastor) memories. The experience just re-iterated to me that I was not called to be an elementary school teacher, and that elementary school teachers are underpaid.

6) We then worshipped at the 11am service at KMC as honored guests of Pastor Kim, who, if you remember, is a Beeson Pastor himself. Hence the affinity he has for our kind, and the church’s willingness to host us (including paying virtually all expenses except for our airfare) during this experience. The service was very traditional. Hymns, liturgy, choir, orchestra, organ, lots of standing and sitting at the right times…. It basically reminded me of my upbringing at Trinity UMC in Lima (including the choir not singing in English). It was a trip down memory lane, just minus me helping take up the offering and slipping out the back door with a few buddies to get breakfast during the sermon. Now that I’m older and don’t get to hear first class classical orchestra and a choir numbering in the hundreds singing classical pieces, I appreciated the change of pace. I did note, however, that the average age of the congregation had to be in the fifties. More on this later.

7) Pastor Kim’s sermon was interesting in and of itself. Since today is Palm Sunday, he focused on the text in Matthew where Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. He compared that to how a Roman soldier would ride into town on a huge horse. In one case, the man on the horse inflicts his will by force, while in the other case, the man on the donkey chooses to express himself through humility. He then promptly drew an analogy to the political situation here by comparing North Korea, which likes to show off its military might on a regular basis, and South Korea which would lose a war with the North in no time if it weren’t for the fact that the United States has its back. This, Kim said, is the reason the South will ultimately win out in the reunification process.

I don’t think you can possibly realize how much this conflict shapes this nation unless you experience it first-hand. The peninsula can’t be, size wise, much bigger than a few states in the Midwest, and yet 13 million people in Seoul live with the reality that nuclear missiles in mountains not more than 100 kilometers away are pointed straight at their head. Couple that with the fact that the soldiers who will launch the missiles are relatives that haven’t been seen in generations, and you can get some idea as to how deep this conflict goes. That this moment in Kim’s sermon received by far the loudest “Amen” of the sermon, goes to how desperately folks here want this thing to end, and how earnestly they beseech God to make that a reality.

My theory is that in the end, the country who makes DVD players, watches American Idol, and who sports citizens who carry cell phones always, in the end wins these kinds of battles. While ideology can inspire a degree of loyalty, and coercion can keep everyone else in line, hunger has a way of overcoming ideas and guns. That’s what ultimately sunk Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, and despite their best efforts to cut their people off from the world in the hope they’ll never know a better life exists, what will also sink the North Koreans. Such is the power of freedom, which I believe to be great gift from God. Don’t’ underestimate the role the spiritual dimension associated with these things plays, particularly when it comes to Christians facing a seemingly “godless nation”. Pray enough to God for this particular ending to this story, and more often than not, its what comes to pass. Don’t ask me to explain it. It’s just one of the dynamics of prayer we don’t really understand.

8. The Koreans believe in prayer. I'm not sure if this is the legacy of the teaching of the missionaries, or a connection to the ancestor worship and Confuscionism that shaped this nation for generations. A general message we hear from every pastor is that belief in Jesus will bring a happy, blessed life, and peace, which sounds suspiciously like the kind of folk religion connected to animinism. But it's impossible I think to peer into the human heart and discern its intent. All you can assume is that if people wholly devote themselves to Jesus, that to Jesus they will be devoted.

That said, the Korean fascination with prayer, regardless of wherever it comes from, is absolutely amazing. Prayer services are offered at multiple times every day of the week. I'm typing this right now from a huge retreat center dedicated wholly to encouraging constant prayer from those who attend, and it's packed every day of the year. What's more, every large church in Korea has a retreat center like this one, and they're all booked. At Yoido yesterday, a group of teens (about 100) were leaving for Yoido's prayer retreat center to for a week-long prayer retreat.

Here this: they missed school for a week to go pray. And this isn't an isolated occurence.

The results are that there are a lot of hardworking and believing Christian people in this country. Korean churches are filled with folks ready and eager to go all over the world to share the Gospel. They are afraid of nothing, and ready to tackle the world. They not only believe they will reunite the Koreas, and eventually win the entire world for Jesus Christ. It's an amazing kind of faith that's really humbling.

9. That being said, the same kinds of erosion we're seeing in the United States to the basic foundation of spiritual belief and Christian influence is operating too here in Korea. Secularism, materialism, and a growing belief in the power of the sciences (natural and social) to solve all ills are claiming more adherants, particularly among the young, each and every year. While about 30% of the nation claims Christianity (30% also claim to be Buddhist) the fast growing segment of the population in Korea are those who claim to be nothing. And the younger the demographic, the greater the percentage (to the point that pastors we've talked to believe that less than 20% of people under the age of thirty claim Christianity. It is a strange dynamic, at work here, but as the country westernizes, moving even more solidly in the affluent first world of nations, spiritual faith of all kinds continues to diminish. What challenges this will present to the church over here are unknown, but I suspect the same kind of post-modern "question why everything is the way it is" and a growing fascination with the rest of world will leave pastors scratching their heads, much like most of us are doing in the US. But such is life in this day and age, where the young are seen flocking to Starbucks, even in Seoul, South Korea, while churches wonder what they need to do in order to reach them.

10. And finally, be it known that I am rooming with a University of Florida graduate, Aaron Wymer. Given that OSU has to play Florida, again, for another National Championship, I'm wondering what lesson it is God is trying to teach me in this experience. Here's hoping that it's not that I need to become even more humble through additional humiliation of watching the Buckeyes lose, again. Although "watching" is just a euphanism. I'll actually be in a bible study with about 4000 other people. I'm sure the rest of Buckeye nation will pick up the slack of my absence.

On that note, tonight I will be engaged in prayer for family, friends, our congregation, and the world. I've have tried to remember as many of your needs as I could. As I seek the mystery that is in the power of prayer, may you be blessed in the midst of it.

1 comment:

Tina Dietsch said...

Bryan, thanks for taking the time to share your experiences in S. Korea. You have to be exhausted and busy and overwhelmed by all that is going on, yet you still remain faithful to your blogging audience. We appreciate it!

I am so sorry you had to share the game with a Florida person. How did they do that to us twice, in just a few months timespan? Now that is what I call shock and awe! The horrendous torture. The sound of weeping and gnashing of teeth is loud in C-bus tonight!!!

Safe and blessed travels, friend!