My Spiritual Journey
Sermon by Shinwook Kang
Good morning! First, I want to express my special thanks to Weldon Nisly and other SMC members for giving me a chance to tell my story here. This is my first chance to share my story at a public worship service. So, I am a little bit nervous to be here, speaking English as a second language in front of native speakers. I will be speaking from my personal experience, and some of my ideas and opinions may be surprising. All I can say here is, May God be present here and fulfill his or her will through my stories.
I am from Korea. Korea was divided in 1945 by the two superpowers, the US and Soviet Union without consulting the Korean people. At that time the Korean people were filled with expectations for a new country liberated from Japanese colonialism. By dividing Korea into two parts for their own strategic interests, the two superpowers planted the seeds of the Korean War. Since then, the two Koreas have been in a severely hostile relationship and, since 1945, the United States has dominated South Korea. I think South Korea is still an ‘invisible colony’ of the US. And, unfortunately, I am not the only person who thinks like that.
I’m telling you this because my spiritual journey has been closely related with these historical tragedies. When I was born in a small rural village in 1961, my father and mother were poor peasants with around 1.5 acres of land. And in that year, General Park Jeong-hee overthrew the democratic government of Korea by military coup and began his 18-year military dictatorship. At home, from time to time, I heard about my father’s tragic and miserable experiences under the Japanese colonization and the Korean war. My mother passed away when I was just 8 years old, and after that, my father began to tell me more of his stories. Of the many he told me, the most shocking one was about my father’s younger brother. No sooner had General Park come to power than he began a purge of people with communist connections. Any family connection with a communist could ruin a person’s life and career. One thing I didn’t know growing up was that my family had a communist connection. My uncle had been involved with communist activity during the Korean war. He had disappeared, and we didn’t find out anything about him until many years later.
Then, one day, about 2 or 3 months before my uncle died, my father received news through an unofficial source that his younger brother had been imprisoned and had been living under an assumed name for about 25 years. In order to save his family members, my uncle had never disclosed his identity to the authorities. He was buried anonymously, and his family members could not bring his body home. When he disappeared, my uncle had left behind his young wife, a daughter and two sons. Contrary to his hopes and expectations, his family faced suffering, sorrow, and poverty for a long time, and even relatives would have been risking their lives to help them. Naturally, the hurt caused by this situation left an unbridgeable gulf of suffering between family members. This conflict in my personal background has made me think about ideologies and their victims with an open-minded and compassionate attitude rather than a narrow-minded and hostile view.
“The Work of God Be Displayed in His Life”
John 9:1-3; Luke 10:25-37
In Korea, it’s a cultural tradition to show respect to our ancestors by bowing down before a well-prepared banquet or our ancestors’ tombs on national holidays such as New Year’s Day and Harvest Day. Such a tradition is important in reminding Korean people of their family values and social ties. However, most protestant church members in Korea have rejected that tradition, insisting that it’s a kind of idol worship which is forbidden by the Ten Commandments. This anti-traditional attitude has turned many Korean people against Christianity.
One of my uncle’s children (that uncle) was so strict and stubborn in keeping his rule of faith that he refused to join us to pay respect to our ancestors. Such an experience made my father view Christianity and Church community very critically. He was not willing to allow his children to go to church. Therefore, it was really ironical that, a few years later, it was my father who recommended for me to go.
Just before and after my entrance exam for high school, I began to feel a serious pain at the hip joint. I was determined to pass the exam, and I had been overworking seriously. I think this caused me to get sick. To me and my father’s surprise and disappointment, that symptom got worse day after day. In the beginning of the first year of high school, it was very difficult for me to go to school. I could hardly walk by myself. But I could not bear to think about stopping school. In the early morning, I went to school with the help of my younger brother and came back home riding on my older brother’s back. We didn’t have a car; no one in our village did. And, at that time, there was not any doctor in Korea who could treat that disease. About ten years later, I came to know that the title of my disease was ankylosing spondylitis.
Anyway, my disease was a big problem for me and my family. One night, all of a sudden, my father suggested to me that I go to church with a hope for healing of my disease by the power of Jesus. Thereafter, I made it a rule of my daily life to visit the church and pray for my health. If I had been healthy, it would have taken me 25 minutes to go from my home to the church. But at that time, it took me about two-and-half hours. Taking rest from time to time on the grass growing beside the road or the bank of a creek, I came back home along a stony road, wrestling with my heavy bag and dragging my sick body and tired spirit.
After stabilizing for one and a half years, my health began to deteriorate again as a result of more overwork in preparing for the entrance exam to university. It was during summer vacation of my sophomore year that my health collapsed completely. After finishing two-years of campus life, I had to stop and go back to my hometown. In April of the next year, I made up my mind to have an operation on my spine.
I managed to get back into a different university. I was on a new campus as a freshman again the next year. It was really difficult for me to take regular classes. Without lots of kind help from my colleagues, I could not have finished undergraduate courses. Particularly, I cannot forget the compassionate feelings and heart-warming help given to me by older women. Even though there was no family relationship between us, they were always ready to be good Samaritans to me as soon as they realized that I was in need of some help. I didn’t know how to express my gratitude.
As you can guess, I’ve been discouraged and disappointed many times in my life, and exposed to prejudice and maltreatment because of ill health. But meeting such good Samaritans, I have learned how to face such psychological problems, and little by little, I have become ready to “Go and do likewise.” I think this is the first landmark of my spiritual journey.
“Great Sorrow and Unceasing Anguish for My Brothers”
As I explained above, I have a lot of interest in the history of Korea and the world. I think it is natural for a member of a country colonized by a foreign power to get that orientation. General Chon Doo-hwan came to power through a military coup in December of 1979 and the Kwangju Massacre happened in May of 1980. At that time, I was just finishing high school and struggling to get used to a campus life which was absolutely different from my former school experience. Meanwhile, youths of my generation were thrown into the movement for the democratization and reunification of Korea just as our parents had been forced to face colonization and war. The Kwangju Massacre, in particular, was an earthquake in our consciousness. The more brutally the authorities tried to control the Korean people, the more protests against them were organized. And in the process of this kind of dramatic changes of Korean history, I met another landmark in my spiritual journey.
Some members of a Christian club I belonged to gathered to discuss how to view the student movement against the contemporary regime. The temporary conclusion of that discussion, based on scriptural interpretation, was that we Christians should not take part in the movement. Even if General Chon was really a military dictator, we had to pray for him rather than to protest against him.
This did not seem reasonable to me. Most Korean people knew that General Chon was responsible for the Kwangju Massacre. So, from that time on, I began to seriously doubt the biblical text. Furthermore, around that time, many leaders of the Korean Christian church got together in morning prayer meetings with General Chon as a special guest and publicly prayed for him and blessed his regime. Of course, such behaviors of church leaders greatly disappointed me and my doubt about the role of Church in Korean society got deeper and deeper.
Meanwhile, I discovered Minjung Theology, a native Korean theology. It was like a rain in the desert for me. Minjung Theology is very similar to Liberation Theology. Now, I was greatly moved reading theological books. I had read the Bible from beginning to end several times, but I could not agree with parts of it. However, reading books about Minjung Theology made a huge difference. It felt like meeting a living Jesus, not a ‘stuffed’ one. So, I made up my mind to stop going to the church I had attended for ten years. I became a member of Chonju Confession Church, which was famous for their social activism in that region. I have been happy worshiping there. Even though it is a small church, their spirituality is firmly rooted in the reality of Korean society. The pastor of this church is a very well-known social activist.
As part of my church’s peacemaking activities, I had a chance to participate in a program to visit regularly and take care of so called long-term prisoners living in near my hometown. Long-term prisoners are people who took part in communist activities as secret agents of North Korea or guerrillas during and after the Korean War. Meeting these long-term prisoners has been a good chance for me to learn the hidden or forgotten tragedies of many Koreans more realistically. When I listened to their life stories, I would imagine what my younger uncle’s life and death could have been like.
I remember the case of Maeng Ki-nam. He was over 80 years old. He always kept his possessions in a couple of travel bags and was ready to go back North. Sadly, I heard that he finally passed away last spring, never realizing his dream.
We know that our life is a never-ending pilgrimage. But thinking about the case of long-term prisoners, I cannot help feeling, like Apostle Paul, “great sorrow and unceasing anguish …for brothers, those of my own race,” who are all victims of colonizations and the Korean war.
“Blessed are the peacemakers”
T.S. Elliot says in his poem Four Quartets ,
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Considering my spiritual experiences in Seattle for the past one-and-a half years, I think this poetic phrase epitomizes them. Without hesitation, I call them the third landmark of my spiritual journey. A series of discoveries began which were accidental on the surface, but providential on a deeper level.
I was in a bookstore and came across a book entitled, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman. I read the introduction of that book, and I stretched out my two arms in the air and shouted “Hallelujah,” “Thank God!!!!” I had found a theologian whose viewpoint about the Bible was what I had been thinking about for a long time.
After that, an older Korean American woman introduced me to Thomas Merton. Merton is a good example for helping us keep balance between spiritual reflection and social praxis. Later, reading Albert Nolan’s Jesus before Christianity , I realized the political meaning of Jesus’s greatly exciting challenge to side with the oppressed. Reading together with my English teacher Bill Ames Views from the Edge: Provocative Thoughts on Tough Issues published by Mars Hill Graduate School, we were so happy to discover thinkers whose ideas spoke so clearly to our hearts that we could not stop the giggles and digressions.
Nowadays, we are reading Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution: living as an ordinary radical . In addition, Bill had told me about the Great Courses, where one can order university courses from a catalogue. From that source, I listened to Ehrman’s lectures about “New Testament” and “The Historical Jesus”. These lectures were wonderful in that they helped me to understand Jesus’s ministry and Jesus himself in their original context.
The famous Korean fairy tale writer and essayist Kwon Jeong-saeng put the last piece of the puzzle into place and completed my current view about what Korean churches should do. He reminds us of the Christian social message. I will cherish him as one of the mentors in my spiritual journey from now on.
I don’t consider myself an orthodoxy Christian. I usually call myself a “plastic” Christian. For a long time, I have not trusted Christians who do not value doubt in their spiritual journey. These days, I push myself and my doubt to the edge because I know from my experience that it’s a more effective way for me to test the reality of my faith. In Theodore Roethke’s poetic words, “I learn by going where I have to go.” Even though I fail in the process from time to time, I really do want to be a true follower of Jesus Christ.
Oh, yes! Another important discovery for me was you, the Seattle Mennonite Church and its members. I first heard about the Mennonite church about 4 years ago from my friend who studied in Iowa. So, before meeting you here, I had held a one-sided love for you for a long time. Since I came here, I have always been happy to worship with you. Your freedom in worship style, heart-warming hospitality, sincere concern and care for each community member, honest presentation of views, respect for diversity, volunteer service for the local community, serious interest and participation in the peacemaking program, and unexpected humor are very good to see. You let me know that there is not only religion ABOUT Jesus but also religion OF Jesus. Therefore, whenever I have a chance to talk about Christian culture, I will always recommend you as a good model. I am really proud of you!!!,
Thank God and Thank you!!!