May 2016

On May 3, Jubilee, Justus and I will be traveling to Korea for three weeks, in handcuffs. Ever since I broke the news, Justus has been proselytizing to his classmates about having fun in Korea — theme parks, toy shopping, and the whole shebang. His enthusiasm has prompted his teacher to plan a farewell party for him, taking the opportunity to educate the class on the Korean culture and society. I am equally elated about the trip, especially the prospect of trying different types of deliriously tasty food. Exploring the cities I have not yet visited is also part of the plan, which includes a two-and-a-half hour flight to Taiwan, an island roughly the size of West Virginia where I had spent part of my childhood from age nine to twelve.

Traveling to the country of my birth is always enjoyable. It also feels both familiar and foreign. Part of the enjoyment comes from my familiarity with the Korean society and culture. I also enjoy Korea’s high-tech public transportation, which makes traveling in Korea super easy. I plan to take full advantage of their efficient transit system to take excursions to the places I’ve been meaning to visit.

Visiting Korea, however, can also be baffling at times, mainly because I’ve long forgotten some of the cultural nuances. Years ago, for instance, while saying “hello,” I made a gesture of a slight bow to an older family friend. The problem was that I forgot to take my hat off (this is acceptable among peers, but not when bowing to elders). Thankfully, no one gave me an icy stare. On another occasion, my uncle tried to hold my hand in public. In that instant, I became nauseated. Before he tried to grab my hand, I quickly escaped into a convenience store while mumbling something about how thirsty I was.

Also, many Korean expats returning to Korea admit to having had a Twilight Zone-esque experience. While here in the U.S. it is not uncommon for octogenarians to reminisce about their visits to the homes where they spent their childhood, in Korea, even those in their forties like myself might have difficulty recognizing the neighborhoods where they grew up — this is one of the results of the economic development on steroids in the decades following the war. While it’s cool to witness the ever-expanding glitz and glamour of the modern metropolis, it is somewhat lamentable to see old neighborhoods disappear.

I am also looking forward to meeting with my cousin to discuss our shared conviction about rediscovering the sacred in secular spaces. The last time we met, I was not a Presbyterian minister and he was not yet a Catholic priest. From his interviews I’ve learned that he now heads the Korean Catholic Cultural Affairs, which is tasked with identifying and accentuating the sediments of gospel values in the broader culture — art, music and films — beyond the limits of typical religious markers — a takedown of the enduring, age-old divide between body and soul, secular and sacred.
I can think of two essential elements that make a trip a memorable one — the fun factor and new discoveries. I anticipate both.

April 2016

The Session has decided to celebrate weekly Communion throughout the Easter Season, including the two subsequent Sundays, May 15, the Day of Pentecost and May 22, the Trinity Sunday. “Are we becoming Catholic?” or “But, it won’t feel special anymore,” are the two most oft-cited complaints against a more frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper.

Here’s the short answer. We are indeed not becoming Catholic. In fact, John Calvin, the father of Protestantism (also known as the founder of Presbyterianism) had actually recommended weekly Communion (or as often as Christians meet for worship) long before the Catholic Church began celebrating the Blessed Sacrament at every Mass as an integral part of their worship — at a time when the medieval Church offered Communion only once or twice a year. So, to answer the question Are we becoming Catholic? we are, by celebrating the Holy Communion more often, actually strengthening our Protestant heritage. Also, more importantly, by observing weekly Communion we are reclaiming the practice of the early Christian community.

If we operate under the non-biblical principle, “familiarity breeds contempt,” then indeed, having Communion weekly “won’t feel special anymore.” Thankfully, Calvin’s proposal for a more frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper was not grounded in memes; it was firmly rooted in Scripture: “For it is evident from St. Luke in the Book of Acts that communion was much more frequently celebrated in the primitive Church…” (Letter to the Magistrates of Berne, 1555.)

Ultimately, Calvin’s push for a more frequent celebration was propelled by the special quality of the Lord’s Supper, which, according to Calvin, is “an external sign, by which the Lord seals on our consciences… in order to sustain the weakness of our faith, and we in our turn testify our piety towards him… a visible form of an invisible grace” (Institutes of Christian Religion IV. xvii. 1.)

Calvin again writes:

“It would be desirable that the Holy Supper of Jesus Christ be in use at least once every Sunday when the congregation is assembled… In fact, our Lord did not institute it to be commemorated two or three times a year, but for a frequent exercise of our faith and love which the Christian congregation is to use whenever it is assembled.” (Articles presented to the Geneva Council in 1537; italics added for emphasis.)

Time is a double-edged sword. It heals all wounds — a great blessing. But it also has the power to consecrate our habits and rituals, including frivolous ones — a frequent complaint of Jesus throughout his earthly ministry. Minimizing the possibility of causing grievance for our Lord Jesus, by allowing Scripture to inform our thoughts, words, and actions, would be another way to bring glory to God.

March 2016

Irrespective of race, hip hop/rap music is the most popular genre among teens and young adults, including many Millennials and Gen Xers. I don’t often listen to music, but when I do listen, my taste in music ranges from classical music to jazz to Gregorian chant to–brace yourself–hip hop (did I make you wince?). While working out or doing the dishes, I plug in my earbuds and listen to Korean hip-hop/pop such as MFBTY, G-Dragon and the like, which for years, catapulted by YouTube, have been wildly popular throughout the world.

Part of the reason why hip-hop gets a bad press is due to its projected image. Gangster persona has become an emblem of the hip-hop industry, dissuading talented artists from producing wholesome music, as that wouldn’t be considered “swag,” failing to make a profit. This is unfortunate; unlike Socrates, the hip-hop ethos, I believe, is not entirely faultless in corrupting the young impressionable minds. Uninterrupted exposure to rappers preaching about violence, misogyny and lawlessness will take its toll, I think. That said, I am, however, not prepared to make a preposterous insinuation suggesting that rap music and the hip-hop culture are partly to blame for unemployment (Christian leaders have made such claims) and violence (police officers frequently mention rap music as one of the contributing factors for violence, as was the case at the 2014 City Council meeting here in Williamsport).

Regrettably, the carefully-orchestrated image of hip-hop–abrasive mannerism and attires–is often used as easy fodder for the unthinking folks to explain away social problems (just as video games are frequently cited as the prime suspect for the systemic gun-related deaths); this allows prejudice to hijack inquiring minds, giving voice to fanaticism instead of committing to the task of fact-finding, diverting the public’s attention from the real contributing factors. Such a superimposed reality, originating from personal leanings, is nothing more than an illusion. Moreover, in facing reality, aside from being a tactical misstep concerning identifying and addressing the problems, at a deeper level, casting aspersions on those linked to the hip-hop culture (or other cultures for that matter) corrodes Christianity’s core conviction.

Perhaps I’m naive; I presumed that those who work with the poor and vulnerable people would have a knack for understanding how the formidable social, political and economic forces might stymie the underprivileged people: their inability to secure low percentage loans; lack of employment opportunities in decrepit neighborhoods. Furthermore, even if one is fortunate enough to secure a job, he/she might be faced with yet another formidable barrier: transportation. Lack of disposal income, high-interest rates, and high auto insurance rate serve as roadblocks to acquiring his/her own vehicle, forcing the individual to rely on public transit.

It is well documented that in many cities the areas with the lousiest access to public transportation are the poorest communities; beyond mere convenience factor, this has far reaching consequences. Last year, a study from Harvard found that geographic mobility was indeed linked to economic mobility. This meant that for low-income people, deficient transit system frustrated upward mobility, preventing access to jobs, quality food, and reasonably priced goods, healthcare, and schooling. Every time I visit South Korea (officially, the Republic of Korea; North Korea goes by the farcical term, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), I am most impressed with their highly efficient and modern yet relatively low-cost public transit system: natural gas powered hybrid buses arriving in sync with the digital display at bus stops; high-speed trains that take just a fraction of the time to drive from point A to point B; an integrated subway system where trains run every few minutes throughout the complex, cobweb-like network, allowing exploration of the city’s every nook and cranny attainable . This makes it possible to permit everyone, regardless of income, to have equal access to many benefits and perks of urban living. It serves as the great equalizer.

Ample investment from both the public and private sector is desperately needed to remedy the problem of the shoddy public transit system in poor neighborhoods. But, insufficient investment in impoverished communities is yet another formidable social barrier. Sometime last year, I read an article, featured on a Korean news website, that hailed the economic pact established between the City of Baltimore and one of the cities in South Korea during Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and his Korean-American wife Yumi’s visit to Korea. Hogan’s commitment to bilateral prosperity, however, at least on the domestic front, seemed to have stalled, when, months later, his administration became mired in legal woes facing allegations that the governor’s decision to cancel the proposed rail line and shift hundreds of millions of dollars that had been slated for the rail line into highway projects around the state had a disparate impact on African-American Baltimoreans, further contending that whites will receive most of the benefits of the new road spending while African-Americans living in Baltimore will face longer transit rides as a result of the rail project’s cancellation. No matter what the legal outcome may be (it’s still pending), the fact is, America’s recent history is replete with such scandalous incidents. In light of this, it’s worth repeating: rap music/hip-hop, warts and all, is not the primary culprit for unemployment and poverty, which in turn spawns violence. (Sebastien Elkouby offers thoughtful commentaries on hip-hop.)

Contrary to endogenously-manufactured superimposed reality, the real, formidable social forces that are out there, which could effectively squelch desperate attempts to build a better life, are, like the resurrection of Jesus, not a myth. Paul, having figuratively died and rose again with Christ, demonstrates a profound change in his outlook. Armed with a transformed mindset, the once vitriolic man who had been possessed by the demonic “Us vs. Them” mentality, goes on to champion unity and equality–“In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal” (Galatians. 3:28; The Message). He then implores fellow Christians to defy conformity, exhorting them to be transformed by gauging their values against the credo that holds ultimate significance–the will of God, which Micah defines as acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God (Romans 12:2; Micah 6:8).

Enamored with the rich and famous and wishing to propagate the narrative that certifies the American Dream, we readily accept Forbes’ unproven claim that of the nation’s riches 400, 70 percent “made their fortunes entirely from scratch,” despite the fact that based on investigation of Forbes’ misleading claim, “most of our super rich were born on third base and think they hit a triple.” We, as a society, are quick to give the benefit of the doubt to the rich; it’s a pity the same cannot be said about the poor.

Jesus had a habit of adding a preliminary remark prior to giving a lesson: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” He was under no illusion that his listeners, though openly aligned with him, would incontrovertibly be receptive to the “new” teaching (the Sermon on the Mount), which defied social mandates that gave meaning to their existence. Then as now, life was not fair, which explains why Jesus also was not fair in his treatment of his compatriots; he engaged in unashamed, preferential treatment for the poor both in his teaching and his lifestyle. (In fact, given the polarization of the Sermon on the Mount–“blessed are you who are poor… who are hungry now… who weep now,” and “woe to you who are rich… who are full now… who are laughing now”–had Jesus lived in the 50s he would not have survived the McCarthy era).

Weighed in light of our entrenched logic–“pull yourself up by your bootstraps”–Jesus’s parable of the workers, rooted in kingdom logic, seems unsettling to us (Matt. 20:1-6). Unable to free ourselves from the prolonged spell of our culture-induced, non-biblical moral code, we interject every discourse surrounding unemployment and poverty by throwing into the mix the undisputed claim that one must “earn one’s keep.” However, “earning one’s keep,” according to Jesus, is not part of the kingdom ethics, while demonstrating undeserved compassion and love, are, as exemplified by his life, teaching, and his death.

Instead of extending grace and showing empathy, we’d rather reprimand and talk some sense into the “needy slacker” who wears his pants well below the waist. But, the truth is, even the slacker’s lackadaisical attempt to work hard or find a job (who knows what he/she has been through in life?) does not cancel out the grace of God (a huge relief, even for those who feel they’ve contributed more than their fair share, since no amount of hard work, as Paul said, would pass muster with God). Lack of evidence for one’s efficacy also does not nullify God’s demand that we show grace to undeserving people (making us wince, though, unlike Jonah, not angry enough to die.). As the Scriptures testify, we’ve all benefited from God’s irrational (or offensive) behavior of “[putting] his love on the line for us… while we were of no use whatever to him” (Romans 5:8; The Message). Yet we look for excuses to jettison our call to extend God’s unconditional love, forgetting that in all that we do, we are to dispense God’s grace to others deemed unworthy or undeserving.

To be sure, practicing grace will not churn out “welfare queens,” nor will it “bankrupt our government.” Demonstrating compassionate care for those in need through sharing of our resources–regardless of both our perception and their reality–won’t lead to insolvency. Rather, putting the needs of others (even if the person is a vagabond from behind the enemy line) before our own needs (even in complete bankruptcy) will shockingly and illogically lead to prosperity and life! (1 Kings 17:7-16)–is not this the crux of the gospel? The prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane reveals his desperate longing for self-preservation; yet, in the end, he opts to die for all those deemed unworthy. In a culture rampant with overactive imaginations, eager to play the game of free association, branding the poor and the vulnerable as undeserving and suspect, that is a lesson worth learning.

February 2016

Growing up “low” church Korean Presbyterian, Ash Wednesday was no different from any other Wednesday. Every year, the day went by without having to pause to ponder its significance. I have no recollection of engaging in any type of ritual observance designed specifically for Ash Wednesday. Lenten discipline was condensed to fasting on Good Friday, then, traveling at light speed (warp speed is the preferred term if you’re a quasi-Star Trek fan like me) I’d be in the middle of Easter celebration — no Ash Wednesday to usher in the Season of Lent; no mulling over the vanity and frailty of human existence; no dark night of mortification or introspection. It wasn’t devoid of logic, however. Why, for instance, would any Christian want to dwell on dreary thoughts? After all, we know how the story ends: Jesus is risen; thanks to his resurrection, we’re saved!

The first time I saw people with ashes on their foreheads I wondered what kind of cultic practice they participated in. The practice seemed ritualistic, almost vestigial, like a Medieval relic retained just to assuage people’s unfounded fear, not unlike the way people used to treat “holy water.” All too often, a practice, regardless of its theological validity, takes on a sacramental quality as it develops into an ingrained habit, which, over a sustained period of time further morphs into a sort of hallowed tradition that is considered untouchable. At that point, our sanctified tradition, in spite of our denial, acquires the unholy power to eclipse even the will of God, to which Jesus laments, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (Mark 7:8).

Our silly, perfunctory devotion to favored customs becomes the primary determinant of our religious ideals, even acquiring the power to alienate overarching biblical claims. Such irrational attachment to certain practices is, in fact, one of the often-mentioned frustrations of pastors. Pastors, of course, are not unaffected by such

irrationality, which is why in the early days of my ministry, though I conceded, on theological grounds, that having ashes smeared on the forehead in the shape of a cross was a meaningful practice, I wasn’t so inclined to adopt the exotic practice. It took some theological maturation and prolonged, deliberate exposure to the foreign practice for me to better appreciate the depth of its significance.

Everyone’s truths have blind spots. Being open to unfamiliar perspectives and pietistic practices is not about being politically correct; it is a matter of theological correctness. Our strivings for a meaningful, spiritual experience and understanding through worship, prayers, readings and reflections on the Word of God, done within the familiar confines of our tradition, are merely the first tentative step toward understanding nuanced and multilayered biblical claims. This humble acknowledgment fuels our ecumenical and interfaith efforts, putting us on the right trajectory to expand our understanding and to consolidate our fragmented efforts toward advancing peace and unity amid rampant violence and bitter divisions we see in our nation and the world.

Humility not only helps to expand our knowledge but also serves as a corrective tool for our spiritual development. The cryptic nature of Saint Paul’s unresolved affliction (a thorn in the flesh) — obtained not while he was “lost,” prior to his encounter with Jesus, but after — speaks to the angst inherent in earthly life — notwithstanding one’s buoyant disposition or overall satisfaction with life or elevated spiritual status. Whenever Paul’s ego became overinflated (he had every reason to), the prickly thorn, I presume, deflated his ego. Humility, I believe, is the single word that best captures the definition of a saint. Have you ever met an arrogant saint?

Our inherent imperfections — vulnerability to sin and deficient knowledge — ought to serve as a constant reminder that humility is not next to godliness but superior to it. There is no better time to elevate the spiritual discipline of humility than the Season of Lent.

During this Lenten Season, therefore, — as a way of detoxifying our mind and soul of the sediments of hate speech we Americans have had to endure recently — let us practice shedding arrogance and aim to clothe ourselves with humility (Colossians 3:12).

January 2016

I’ve always been reasonably cognizant of my responsibilities as a consumer in our complex web of globalized economy. Though it’s not always easy to turn a deaf ear to “cheap premium” products calling my name, I, like many others, have been trying to see the big picture, reminding myself that people far away, many of them children, continue to endure blood, sweat and tears just to put a smile on this shopper’s face. Coffee is one of those commodities.

My recent preoccupation with finding ways to brew great tasting coffee at home has made me inattentive to the underbelly of the global coffee trade. I have long suspected foul play, but I was prepared to forego politics because, I reasoned, enjoying your daily cup of coffee shouldn’t oblige you to undergo self-flagellation, having to brave accusations of complicity in unethical, let alone criminal endeavor.

I enjoy a good cup of coffee; it’s a daily ritual I cannot do without. By the time you read this, with anticipation I’ll be grinding coffee beans in my new $20 burr grinder from Amazon. The pleasure however might be cut short as Song will undoubtedly gripe about my undisciplined shopping habit on coffee products, grumbling, “You’ve bought another thing for coffee? Again?!” (In addition to my recently purchased and often used French Press, I also have a Keurig and Mr. Coffee, which, contrary to Song’s allegation, have not been abandoned but are taking an extended hiatus.)

Though I was perfectly poised to allow my taste bud to override my brain, my recent surge of interest in coffee has, by accident, led me to the politics of coffee, rekindling my resolve to enjoy my cup of coffee without “the bitter taste” in my mouth. I’ve learned that coffee is the world’s second most valuable traded commodity (first is oil). It was traditionally developed as a colonial cash crop, planted by serfs or wage laborers. It seems not much has changed concerning the second largest traded commodity. Coffee producers, like most agricultural workers around the world, are kept in a cycle of poverty and debt by the current global economy designed to exploit cheap labor and keep consumer prices low. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, coffee is produced with forced labor and with child labor. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are 250 million working children, 120 million of whom work full time (no school), in order to provide for their struggling families. But it’s not all bad news. In 2000, the U.S. imported around 4.3 million pounds of Fair Trade Certified coffee. Ten years later, the amount increased to almost 109 million pounds.

Presbyterians Today has put out a special January/February 2016 issue that focuses on human trafficking (modern slavery)–“Children of God-not for sale.” It’s a troubling expose of an interconnected mechanism that could even turn someone who might be appalled at the mere mention of slavery into an unsuspecting accomplice; think coffee. Patrick David Heery, the editor of Presbyterians Today, however, reminds us that awareness, not guilt, can be a source of empowerment:

We often think of trafficking as something that someone else does somewhere else. The truth, however, is that it’s happening in each of our communities, and we helped put it there.

I don’t say this to make us feel guilty; your guilt does little

good to anyone. Rather, by recognizing our role in the root

causes of trafficking, we are empowered to make a dent in

modern slavery. Each of us alone will not put an end to this

$32 billion industry. But we can make a difference…

Whether watching Joseph at the Sight and Sound Millennium Theater or reading about him in the Bible, we are accustomed to condemning Joseph’s brothers. The hard truth, the painful truth, however, is that “we”–as Heery correctly states–“like Joseph’s brothers, sell the people we are supposed to love,” in our innocuous quest for a great tasting cup of coffee, if we’re not mindful. Surely, it’s not about guilt; it’s about awareness. Intentional lifestyle changes that stem from this awareness can alleviate the suffering of our neighbors who live thousands of miles away. Let us join our fellow Presbyterians and conscientious partners in imitating foolishness, welcoming inconvenience (search for Fair Trade commodities) and sacrifice (not exactly a bargain), to fight human trafficking and forced labor, to offer abundant life to all.