Before beginning his work as a pastor and then missionary, my father had completed a Masters in Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. In the years that followed, our missionary organization (the Christian & Missionary Alliance) had recognized my father’s gifting in teaching, language and leadership and had marked him for further study. With the completion of our four-year term in South Korea, the C&MA felt it was time to further his studies and suggested he attend Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Fuller, at the time, had one of the premier programs in Church Growth and some of the best Missiologists or teachers in missions. The expectation was that after he had completed his doctorate, the door to return to South Korea would be open and if not, he would serve somewhere else, most likely in a seminary capacity.
My mother was also interested in furthering her studies. Over a decade earlier, she had walked away from her dream of earning a Ph.D. in linguistics in order to marry my father. Throughout my father’s years at seminary, as a pastor in Oklahoma and on the mission field in South Korea, Mom had quietly and faithfully served by raising us children, leading children’s groups and having women’s Bible studies. But her desire and leading was to be a true partner in her husband’s ministry. Some people assume that living abroad alone is preparation enough for cross-cultural ministry but that is rarely the case. Even though Mom had lived in Germany, Great Britain and Korea, had learned several languages, and had completed thirty units of Bible and Theology, she still had many lingering questions and relished the idea of being properly trained for ministry. While the C&MA would not pay for her schooling, Fuller offered a grant of nearly matching funds to couples that wished to study and serve together, and Mom enrolled as a student as well.
By this time, Dad was already well-acquainted with theology and theological interpretation. His seminary in the 1970s, Dallas Theological Seminary, had been a vanguard in premillennial dispensational theology and was one of the most theologically conservative seminaries in the nation. Fuller Theological Seminary, by comparison, was on the other end of the theological spectrum and his courses would be far more ecumenical. Dad said he got the best of both worlds – a thorough grounding in theology, Greek and Hebrew from Dallas and a wider exposure to Christian traditions and perspectives at Fuller. Compared to Dallas at the time, Fuller also supported women in Christian ministry, providing Dad and Mom the opportunity to share many courses in missions and ministry together.
Anyone who knows my parents knows their insatiable desire for knowledge. From the moment they started their studies at Fuller, they dove wholeheartedly into their books, papers and classes. Sitting down at the dinner table each night, Mom and Dad would ask how our day had gone and then the conversation would slowly shift into an intense discussion about different periods of church history, how ethnocentrism affected mission efforts and the testimony of the Ethiopian bishop. We kids would start separate conversations of our own or raise our hands to interrupt their enraptured discussion, and then, after dinner, the house would settle down and our parents would be back to their studies once more. In the midst of our busy schedules, Saturday mornings were the times that our family would take a break and relax. We would sleep in a little later, have a relaxed breakfast, and we kids would sit down and watch Saturday morning cartoons while my parents talked, read the paper and got ready for their day. After a respite of several hours, my parents would to need to head off to the library for their research materials. While my brother and sister were old enough to be left behind at the house, I was not, and with the distinct lack of interest by either of my siblings to supervise me, it was off to the library for me. For whatever reason, the Fuller seminary library was devoid of a kids section and any of the usual boyish antics were highly frowned upon. Needing something to do, my parents enlisted my help with their efforts. Around the house were stacks of books with pieces of paper sticking out of them noting specific quotes and ideas they needed to build the thesis of the particular paper they were working on. These piles would accompany us to the library, where I would be put to work carefully photocopying each tagged page. The books could then be returned, with the pertinent information for their papers in still in hand. Other times I would be asked to help them find a list of books. I would walk over to the comparatively tall rows (for a ten-year-old) of wooden card files with a list of titles and authors. Sorting through the musty beige 3×5” cards, I would find the correct card and write the Dewey decimal number down next to the title. Once the list was compiled, I would search the library for the books or return to Mom to lament my presence at the library. But the most exciting library activity for me was using the microfiche system. In the days before internet catalogs, magazines were reduced to small black and white film cartridges. After finding the correct cartridge, you would load it into the microfiche machine, a glorified mechanical projector, and rifle through the pages using a joystick. With a whir of the motor, the pages would blur. Stopping intermittently, I would check to see how close I was to the intended article, and tilting the joystick, the pages would blur once again. Finding the correct article, you could zoom in or out and try to frame the screen to the text you needed. Finally, you could print out the image on the screen (at a charge of course), and in the days that far predated the PDF file, the technology was amazing.
Returning home, my parents took turns spending hours typing out their papers, rifling through their notes, photocopies and books as they went. With as much as my parents wrote, it was important for them to have a professional writing tool. They had purchased a computer complete with a 20 MB hard drive, an amber monitor, a 5.5” floppy drive, and MS DOS Word 5.0 (loaded from a floppy of course). With literally their entire work literally on the line, Dad meticulously backed up their files to an entire case full of floppy discs in their sleeves. When the papers were finally complete, they would print them out on our dot matrix printer using entire boxes of continuous feed paper. On occasion, I would assist them in the only ways that I could – changing the printer ribbon, loading a new box of paper, taking care to line up the holes on both sides of the printer paper to feed it correctly, and tearing off the perforated sides, tops and bottoms of the papers to organize them into a neatly stacked paper. Dad had also purchased a Greek font for the computer, but unfortunately, it did not include a final sigma; so he had to fix that problem by hand by meticulously applying whiteout to the top of all final zetas.
Towards the end of each semester, my parents’ enthusiasm for their studies would wane under the stress load of their assignments. They could have easily stopped short, made compromises and passed; but something within them would not let them. They were academics in the purest sense of the word. In their desire for knowledge, their ability to research, and their desire to produce the best quality they could achieve, even I as a child recognized that the cart was pulling the horse in their studies. By the end of our third year, now living in the Lambert house, my father had passed his doctoral entrance exams and was completing tutorials in theology, ethnolinguistics and Chinese religions for his PhD. Mom had finished her Master’s Degree and was still eager to learn more. Making God’s purposes clear for the future, my parents both became teaching assistants – Mom with Dudley Woodberry and Dad with Paul Hiebert. It was through these experiences of research, writing and grading that they began to be prepared for a future in academics. As time progressed, their discussions at the dinner table changed their own thoughts to trying to read out the thoughts and understanding of others from their papers. Sitting across from each other, both grading papers, Dad would look up and begin to comment “this student thinks,” and after a short pause, they would both shake their heads in bewilderment or nod in affirmation. In the act of being faithful students themselves, God was now using them to prepare others.
Besides their studies, and perhaps most importantly, they were learning from the experiences and testimonies of other Christians. Since Fuller welcomed men and women from many different countries and denominations, Mom and Dad had many opportunities to learn from people of different backgrounds. In classes and over meals they shared stories of Christian suffering, survival, and grace. They met converts from other religions, heard their testimonies, and learned from other missionaries, including Korean pastors’ widows, whose husbands had died on the field. According to Mom, it was like being at a large international Christian camp, hearing testimonies from all over the world, learning from great teachers, singing hymns and praying with Christians in many different languages. “Multiply that by four years then you have some idea of what it meant to us,“ she said.
Mom shared with me one of her stories. “I was studying Greek in a summer class with a Korean-American youth pastor when he asked me to pray for one of his teens. Bonnie, it seems, was in the hospital, dying, and they could find no medical explanation. Dad and I began to pray for her but her condition grew worse. Several days later the pastor showed me her photo. She was lovely but her printed testimony was clearly that of a young girl more concerned about her appearance than her walk with God. I began to grieve for her, praying for her spiritual life and also that she would live for God’s purposes. Not long after, I was praying for Bonnie doing dishes when suddenly I saw a vision of heaven. It was a glorious city radiating light and beauty! Then I heard a voice say, lovingly, intensely, “All this I have done for Bonnie!” I knew at once that God was going to heal her. Confirming this, the Spirit told me not to pray for her any longer but only to give thanks for all God had done. The next day in class my friend ran up to me to tell me her condition had changed. At the same time as the Korean deacons and many of us had been praying, Bonnie had opened her eyes and asked for her Bible! The class had a wonderful time giving praise.”
One of the most important insights from their time at Fuller was the topic of contextualization. Contextualization, loosely put, is the recognition that different cultures have different frameworks of meaning. To translate an idea from one culture to another, the communicator must be aware of framework of the home culture and that of the person they are trying to reach. When Mom was still in high school, she was part of a student exchange program in Germany. One evening after eating dinner, she tried out her German language skills with her host family and said “Thank you, I am full.” Her host family looked at her with wide eyes. She soon learned that how she had said the phrase meant “I am full with child.” While these types of mistakes are often humorous, they can be disastrous when trying to communicate a story or concept from the Bible. In South Korea, conversations would often began with the question, “How old are you?” While in the US this might not be considered polite, in Korea old age was highly valued. They used different words out of respect with an older person than they would with a younger person or an equal. One person could hardly speak with another without knowing which one was older and therefore, which form of language and signs of respect to use. So when trying to communicate a Bible story, it was important to understand the ages of the people involved and use the proper forms of respect that their ages carried. In fact, Bible translation involves the use of three cultural contexts–the meaning of a concept in the original Hebrew or Greek, its meaning in the translator’s context and its meaning to the indigenous people. Without good contextualization, the concept might be poorly understood or not understood at all. Dr. Woodberry and Hiebert had both been working on what mission work should look like among different indigenous people using contextualization, as well as its dangers and pitfalls. Studying this topic not only helped Mom and Dad to understand their mistakes in Korea but also how to teach it to others.
Studying full-time did not preclude Mom and Dad, and occasionally the entire family, from participating in ministry activities on the home front, often sharing about our time in South Korea in C&MA churches. Dad would speak at camps during the summer and at district churches several weekends a month, while stayed home and Mom “kept the home fires burning.” Dad’s most interesting speaking tour was among C&MA Cambodian churches in Southern California. He remembers the delicious foods, the warm times of fellowship, and one congregation’s poignant hymn from a Thai refugee camp sung in Khmer tonal harmony. One night he chose to speak from Genesis 1-3 on the story of human sin, the penalty of death, and God’s loving response. “He did not abandon us”, Dad said, “but He came after us calling, ’Where are you?” The rest of the Bible, Dad told them, is the continuation of that call through the ages and through the Cross; God’s offer of reconciliation and redemption. Unknown to Dad and his translator, a Cambodian shaman was present in the audience, and approaching the deacons afterward, he said he wanted to follow Christ and to give a missionary offering!
Once a year, my parents would leave us kids to attend General Council – a week-long gathering of C&MA pastors, invited international guests, missionaries on furlough, and interested lay people from the churches. There would be luncheons with guest speakers, business meetings, elections for positions within the C&MA, as well as sermons and missionary speakers each night. Mom was invited to speak at one of these sessions in front of thousands of people and remembers that the pulpit was so high, she could hardly see over it. During her speech, the TV camera had to move to the side so that people could see her behind the pulpit and avoid the impression of her being a disembodied speaker. It was also an opportunity for my parents to meet with people from the C&MA or other missionaries spread across the world. They would enjoy seeing old friends once again and making new acquaintances.
But many of my memories of our families ministry States side were of our family’s fundraising events at C&MA churches. Fundraising was an important part of being back in America, not just for the sake of our family, but for all C&MA missionaries. Once or twice a year, C&MA churches would set aside a week for a Missions Conference, during which people would come to hear about the work being done by C&MA missionaries. In the days before blog posts and Facebook updates, these meetings were an important way of communicating the work that was being done on the mission field with churches supporting the effort States side. The money raised during this time, often in the form of yearly pledges, was paid into the Great Commission Fund – a fund that supported not just our family, but hundreds of C&MA missionaries around the world. Preparations for these events would begin at home, with Mom and Dad pulling out our beige Kodak projector and the several boxes of slides they had amassed over the years in South Korea. They would talk about what stories they were going to tell and sort through the stacks of slides to find the particular pictures they were looking for. Carefully, each slide would be loaded into the round carousel in correct order for the speech. Arriving at the church, we would show up early to meet our contacts, setup the projector and make sure everything was ready. Many of our meetings began with an “international potluck” preceding our presentation. There would be large casseroles, a lot of meat, Jell-O salads and only a small helping of rice, if any. Most of the time the meals would be anything but international, but it did give us kids a chance to become accustomed to American potluck food. Our family would be introduced and then we kids would go back and sit in a pew for the presentation. There would be slides and stories about what life was like in Seoul, why we went to South Korea, what we did there, and the problems we faced. Sometimes there would be stories about us kids, too, with varying degrees of pride or embarrassment. Watching the presentation and seeing the slides was often educational, not just for the audience, but for me as well. Because I was so young when we went to South Korea, I would hear stories and see pictures of events that I was unaware of and many of my “memories” of South Korea became tied to the stories and photos from those presentations. Dad would always fit in a wonderful speech about the purpose of the Great Commission in the Bible – that we as Christians were charged with the responsibility to go out into all of the world and preach the Good news of eternal life and reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ. And after the speech, there would normally be an offering where people could pledge or donate money in special Great Commission Fund envelopes. Following a final prayer, there would be a time for questions. Sometimes this time was long and involved and at other times, no one would raise their hand at all. After people were dismissed, however, many people would often come to talk to us one on one. As Mom recalls, “Some people were hesitant to ask questions in public but were eager to share after the formal meeting had closed. There were Korean War veterans wanting to talk about their experiences, and Korean-American wives who needed encouragement. At other times people were interested in Korean politics or had a spiritual question.” Occasionally, Mom would call me over during the middle of one of her conversations. “Honey, can you show us your back?” The story of how God had saved my life and provided for our family’s needs when I burned my back were a somewhat regular topic, and showing my still partially scarred but amazingly healed back normally accompanied the telling of the story. Sometimes people would gather around our “curio” table at the front of the church and ask us questions about the Korean flag, the coins, or the places on the South Korean map. While I always looked forward to the food, stories and attention at these events, my patience would begin to wane after several hours. There were some people that could talk for hours, socially unaware of the other people still waiting for their turn. Eventually, the event would end and we would help clean up the room, pack up our display and begin the long drive home – satisfied with meeting new people, but emotionally drained from the experience. The speeches at churches became a regular theme each summer and we fell into a rhythm of what needed to get done and in what order. Sometimes it was a short presentation during a Sunday sermon, sometimes it was a shared presentation with other missionaries, and sometimes it was our long presentation, but we were all part of the ministry.
Over the years and in many different settings, I was well trained in being a gracious guest at people’s homes and during meals, but there were certain times that I remember failing. One time our family was invited out to dinner as a treat by another family. Given that the other family was paying for the cost, my parents wanted to be reasonable and made sure we picked from menu items that weren’t too expensive. After the meal, my brother had remembered a desert on the menu that he wanted and asked the group if he could order it. Asking for desert was against the “rules,” and my parents started to dissuade my brother when our hosts responded that “it was no problem and he could order the desert.” With the desert door wide open, I asked if I could order a desert as well, and was quickly shut down by my parents. “You can share with your brother,” they politely responded. The problem is, I didn’t want what my brother had ordered, I wanted something else. I pressed my luck and asked again only to be shut down with the wide-eyed and tilted-faced nod that parents can make to say “drop it or else.” For all of my forgiving attitudes in the past, this one injustice – where my brother got what he wanted and I did not – was just intolerable. As if returning to my toddler years, my tunnel vision focused on correcting this singular problem that represented all of the injustice that occurred in the world, I threw myself into a tantrum. Threats about discipline at home went unacknowledged as Mom graciously thanked our hosts and excused herself and me to the car. At the car, I was rightly scolded for my behavior, but I was adamant about the unfairness of the situation – that my brother got something and I didn’t – and that my parents were siding with my brother; they were always siding with my brother! When the rest of the family arrived, Mom told Dad that my attitude hadn’t changed and Dad asked me to be silent on the seemingly endless drive home. For almost all of my childhood spankings, I can remember accepting them as a deserved act, but this time I remained in defiance, unrepentant for my actions. It took years for my heart to change on the matter, and I still remember how powerful emotions were on that day. Eventually my heart changed focusing on the disrespect shown to our hosts instead of the injustice of desert – as it should have been all along – and today is on the list of the top five regrettable choices of my childhood. In life we all have to make choices about when to let things slide and when to fight, and in this instance, I had chosen… poorly (said in the voice of the old knight from the “Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark” movie when the wrong goblet was chosen).
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