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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Continuing reflections on South Korea

As I'm sure is true for my fellow pilgrims, the trip to South Korea continues to stir my thoughts about faith and the church. Three practices of the South Korean church continue to provoke me - the practices of prayer, evangelism and hospitality. I plan to keep writing on these practices, along with the matter of ongoing Christian formation that is present in the Korean Methodist Church. I continue to wrestle with what translates across culture and what seems bound in the culture. And I don't think the issue is either/or but rather both/and. Some aspects of the practices of faith in the KMC are culturally bound but aspects of those practices clearly translate across culture.

Take prayer, for example. There is a deep commitment to the practice of prayer. Thousands and thousands of people show up every morning in churches across the nation to pray. This is a country who's largest church approaches 1 million members (Yoido Full Gospel - the sanctuary holds over 26,000 people!) The commitment to prayer - the willingness for so many to gather in community for prayer - is to be admired and even emulated. We as United Methodists have something to learn here.

But as We Chang notes in his comment on my previous post, many times prayer in the Korean church is tied to and affirms a system of oppression and materialism. The advantage of traveling as a pilgrim to another country is that often you can see things with greater clarity than you can when looking at your own culture - which in turn then allows you to see you own culture more clearly. In South Korea, at least in many of the places and in much of the narrative we heard, Caesar is closely aligned with the Church - if not in bed with then at least sharing the same chambers. Many celebrate U.S. intervention in the 1950's, a war which resulted in the democratic nation of South Korea, but at the same time fail to recognize the role the U.S. and other countries played that helped create the conflict to begin with. As for the church, it reflects the patriarchal society in which it exists and is only just beginning to deal with inequities related to gender. The authority that clergy seem to have over church members is overwhelming - and from the U.S. perspective, completely unbalanced.

The church in USAmerica has long struggled with sharing bed covers with Caesar. The narrative of what it means to be a good Christian and what it means to be a good citizen have been (and in some circles, still are) one and the same. The church's complicity in racism and militarism is well established in our nation's history. I'm reading Tavis Smiley's book on Martin Luther King Jr, a reflection on the last year of King's life. King's words from the 1960's continue to challenge us: "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

All of which sends me back to the practice of prayer - of the ongoing need to "learn to pray with Jesus" - for the community of Jesus followers to allow Jesus to inform the content of prayer. Reading Matthew 5 and 6 these last few weeks has been challenging, and in light of the trip to South Korea, informative. The two chapters are closely linked. The teaching of prayer in ch. 6 is tied to the Sermon on the Mount which is tied to the call to fasting and cautions against storing up treasures. When the community of faith leans into prayer that is shaped by the teachings of Jesus, it can't help but challenge the culture around it. As Hauerwas writes, "Christians do not seek to be subversives; it just turns out that living according to the Sermon on the Mount cannot help but challenge the way things are." (Brazos Commentary on Matthew)

So there is a need for our churches to move more deeply into prayer as communities of faith, that much is clear. But the shape of that prayer is important. To repeat from my previous post, there is the ongoing to need to see prayer as joining Jesus in struggling against the powers of this world. I wonder: is there is a connection between the demise of the traditional church in America and it's failure to join Jesus in the struggle?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Collision of ideas

The group has returned from South Korea. I don't know about the rest of the group, but for me today was definitely a tough day of transition. My body and brain wasn't quite ready to do what I wanted it to do. Therefore, except for a few moments of activity, I've been taking it easy.

Got to my devotions late this afternoon - I've been reading Stanley Hauerwas' commentary on the book of Matthew - and it only took one sentence before there was a collision of ideas - a sentence that stopped me cold and sent me to this blog. I'm in the 6th chapter, which comes on the heels of a very famous chapter that includes the Beatitudes. But ch. 6 is really a continuation of what we read in the Sermon on the Mount. Chapter 6 is where things get put into play - where action is required. And the most important action is prayer. Boom! Collision!

Here's the sentence: "Learning to pray with Jesus, therefore, is to become part of his struggle with the powers of this world."

Maybe it doesn't hit you the same way it hits me. But then again, you may not have been in South Korea this week. In South Korea, we were up every day at 5 a.m. to join 1000 other people in prayer. Loud prayer! Earnest prayer! Hand clapping, arm shaking, shouting prayer. I'll probably never pray like that. Even after a week of immersion with the church in South Korea, it is unlikely that Tong Sung Kido will become an natural, authentic expression of prayer for me. But here's what I will take away: Prayer is not tame. Prayer is not innocent. Prayer, at least prayer that joins Jesus, is earth shattering - transformative - a whole body experience.

"Learning to pray with Jesus, therefore, is to become part of his struggle with the powers of this world."

In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray: "Our Father...." This is where we learn to pray with Jesus. For many months now I've been using the Lord's Prayer as a template for my own prayer. Each phrase becomes a way of expressing the deep truths of the prayer - the holiness of God, the reality of God's reign filling the whole earth, the need for daily sustenance, the need for forgiveness, etc.

To think that this is also a prayer about struggling with the "powers of this world." Gives me pause.

So as I learn/relearn to pray, I'l be praying so that the dominant thought of our world - retributive violence - will be set aside. I'l be praying that I and the community I'm part of can offer another way. Retributive violence believes that if we can just snuff out the haters/violent actors/terrorists, then all will be well. (Almost a direct quote from one of our leaders in Washington, by the way). I'll be praying for the way of Jesus - a refusal to use violence as a means to an end.

I'm praying for the kingdom and against the ways of revenge.
I'm praying for peace and against division and violence
I'm learning to pray with Jesus.

If the trip to South Korea taught me anything, it taught me the real power of prayer. Prayer matters. Prayer matters because it gets God into me. It doesn't get God to do what I want God to do. It gets God into me. It gets the ways of the kingdom into me. Prayer gets love into me. Prayer gets forgiveness into me. It's a collision between the kingdom of God and my own tendency to love the ways of the world. It's a collision of ideas. I pray that I can live into a new pattern of prayer - a pattern that continues to crash me into God so that God - the reign of God - the beauty of God - will continue to shape me and mold me into the likeness of Jesus.

That's a collision to which I can look forward.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Things to remember

Today's post is a simple one. I've been thinking about the moments we've had, moments I will remember from our time in South Korea, in no particular order:

  • incredible hospitality!!! ( see Erica's post ( for a great theological reflection on that)
  • great food (kimchee, kangaroo tail, sushi, octopus, grilled toothfish, pickled radish, escargot, beef tartare, oysters, duck, and much more!)
  • the song leader in morning prayer banging out the beat on the lecturn
  • the rapid pace of those songs!
  • always dressing up for church (at least for clergy)
  • the roof top garden area
  • being bleary eyed those early days of the trip
  • the high level of urgency around sharing faith
  • the incredible commitment by congregation to prayer, generosity and hospitality
  • that this church's budget is as large as our entire Annual Conference budget and there are less than 1/10 the people (thanks again to Erica for that insight)
  • the cacophony of morning prayer
  • traffic!
  • the huge sanctuaries

Friday, September 26, 2014

To fully rely on God

Today's adventure in South Korea included another couple of new church starts. We keep hearing stories of these starts that turn into churches with an average of 2000-3000 or more people in worship attendance.  In addition, they usually started with the planter and maybe one other person. Such was the case today. It finally occurred to me to ask the planting pastor: how did you live in the early days? The answer? Prayer. Even though he had been sent out of a mother church (our host church, Bupyeong), he never asked for help. Never. Never called to say he needed food or money or anything  He simply trusted that what he and his family needed would be provided when it was needed. He prayed daily at length.  And at the right time money or food would show up. Every time. They understand that planting a church is an act of faith and if they are listening properly after spending the necessary time in prayer, (which is lengthy, let me assure you!), they trust that God will provide. 

It was an incredible testimony, a powerful witness of what it really means to depend on God. How many of us can say we live with such a sense of dependence? I confess my own failure in this regard. I can remember a time in my ministry when I did - when I trusted God would provide the means for me to feed my family, provide support or resources I needed. But that sense of dependence has waned over the years. My tendency toward self-sufficiency, shaped by the culture I've grown up in, moves to the front. 

What would it take to lean into God in that way again? How can I live with a greater sense of freedom knowing God will provide my "daily bread," not to surplus but to sufficiency?  How about you? What would it look like for you? Your church? 

It's been another day with the Holy Spirit poking and prodding, inviting me to consider the church with fresh eyes. My prayer is that these new insights bear fruit in New England, bringing a new level of health and vitality. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

It's leadership...

Yesterday I reflected on the call to churches to live out the core practices of faith - a commitment to prayer, generosity, and gathering for worship and in small groups. Today (Thursday) we visited more churches, and one in particular, Doonsan first Methodist in Daejon City, causes me to think about the call on pastors.  This church started in 1993. Today 5,000 mostly young adults gather weekly for worship and to meet in cell groups. They too embody the practices mentioned above, but today I was reminded of what a pastor does. A pastor leads. 

There are many things that go into leadership but today a few practices stood out. First, the pastor leads through strong preaching and teaching. There is the need for a compelling message, a sharing of the power of the gospel, embedded in a worship experience during which those who gather encounter the living God. That means Saturday night specials don't cut it. Last minute scribbles supposedly coming from the Spirit are inadequate and too often an excuse for poor preparation.  The pastor at Doonsan spends at least 2 hours a day crafting his message so that by the weekend, there is a fully developed message that helps connect scripture to life and life to scripture, a message that is relevant and helps the listener understand how they fit into the story of God revealed in Christ. As I said, this message is embedded in a worship event during which participants experience the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. The pilgrims from New England today simply watched a video of this church's experience and the group was moved to tears, shouting, clapping and anointing. It was incredible! The presence of God was palpable! We drank from the well of living water like people who'd been wandering for days in a desert!

Second, there is the need to develop and implement a comprehensive discipleship system. Most churches in New England know our mission (to make disciples of Jesus Christ) but don't have any idea how to move someone forward in their walk with Christ. Doonsan has developed a clear, concise system that teaches someone who is completely unfamiliar with the Christian faith, guiding him/her to a place where they come to know and love God, to profess Christ as Savior and live their lives in light of that new relationship. This is supported through the ongoing practices of small groups, worship and so on. The pastor trains the congregation in discipleship and raises up leaders to continue the work so that in time, a disciple is someone who, along with living out the core practices of the faith, is also making new disciples. 

What would happen if all of our pastors devoted this kind of preparation to weekly messages, taking responsibility to teach, cast vision, and help the congregation experience the power and presence of God through preaching? That even part-time pastor ensured that their best was given to preaching and teaching and left congregational care to the congregation? What would happen if pastors helped design a vital worship experience during which the congregation anticipated experiencing the presence of God, an experience that connects with the hearts and minds of the unchurched? What if each congregation, under the guidance of a skilled practitioner/pastor, developed and implemented a comprehensive system of spiritual formation, helping each person, young and old, to grow in love of God and neighbor?

We may not see people come to Christ in numbers like we've seen in South Korea (though after this experience I'm not so sure - all things are possible) but one thing is clear. Many expressions of church in USAmerica are church in form only, lacking the substance, the commitment to core practices, and commitment to leadership focused on intentional discipleship making. There is much to learn from brothers and sisters in South Korea. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Some things translate

Yesterday our group toured a couple of large churches here in South Korea - one Methodist, the other Presbyterian. ( By large I mean, at least for the Presb church, 50,000 members!) With any cross-cultural xperience, there are things that don't translate to your own context. Every church emerges out of its own place and time, influenced by the unique circumstances of the country, culture and history. This is true for the church in South Korea.

What is more striking are the things that do translate, and some things do. For example, here in the churches of South Korea, there is a deep commitment to the core practices of faith. First, to prayer: though the particular way the comminties pray might be different from most US expressions, there is a clear commitment to be in prayer here. Here at Bupyeong, a congregation of about 3,000, over 500 people gather every morning at 5 a.m. for prayer. 30 minutes of the time (and for many, more that that!) is given to personal prayer.  This is not a quiet time - hundreds are crying out to God, seeking God's presence, calling on God's power for their lives.

Second, generosity. The church continues to stress the discipline of giving - that the norm is the Biblical tithe - and that in response to God's generosity with us in Jesus Christ, we respond with generosity with God. Because of this generosity, the church is able to make a significant impact on the world, supporting missionaries, creating ministries that support people of very generation, and much, much more.

Third, gathering with others, both in corporate worship. With over 3,000 people gathering for worship each weekend, and hundreds gathering each morning for prayer, Bupyeong also has 490 class meetings (small groups of 4-6 people) meeting each week for prayer, study and mutual support. It is the Wesleyan DNA being lived out.

What would it mean for our churches in NE to commit to the core practices of faith, a commitment to prayer, generosity, and gathering weekly as God's expression of a called-out people? How would things change if we understood that these practices are not something done to somehow win God's favor, or that they are done out of some sense of duty/obligation but instead are lived out because we know the church is called to be salt and light to the world, an alternative community in contrast to the ways of the world.

The church in South Korea is not perfect. It is influenced by the hierarchical, patriarchical society out of which it emerges. There are things that make many of us uncomfortable theologically and ecclesiolocially.

But some things do translate. Some things have always translated. The Jesus community, whether it gathers in buildings that seat 6,500 for worship or gathers around a kitchen table seating only 6, is a community that gathers, that prays, and that gives generously.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

SK Update

Well our time in South Korea is off to a full start! After getting into Bupyeong yesterday, and receiving a warm welcome from our hosts at the Bupyeong Meothodist Church, we were able to take a couple of much-needed hours to regroup.  After that we were treated to a nice dinner at a restaurant in Incheon, with choices of a food a mix of Korean and American style.

We did not have to get up early for morning prayer at 5 a.m. this morning (though some in the group did!). This morning, breakfast was prepared by volunteers from the church, with an amazing assortment of choices. Then it was a full morning of Korean history followed by an amazing tour of the Bupyeong Methodist Church facility. I think everyone in the group has been impressed by the radical hospitality we are enjoying, and the faculty tour was no less impressive. I'd attach a few pics but wifi is being difficult. Maybe tomorrow....

Here's one little tidbit: the underground garage was cleaner than most people's kitchens. The floor is painted green - almost like a waxed gym floor - and spotless. You can only imagine the shine of the Italian marble on the main floor if the garage looks like that!

There are several things that stand out from today's learning, but one stands out the most for me. South Korea is about the same size as the state of Kentucky (though a different shape). The population of Kentucky is just over 4 million. The population of SK is nearly 50 million, and 70% of the land can't be developed for homes because of mountainous geography. That's a lot of people in a small amount of land. Driving around so far you can see this reality - many, many people living in a small area. It creates a definite energy!

Well the day has been long and we ARE getting up for prayer at 5 a.m. tomorrow so that's it for now. Grace and peace.