{South Korea} The Second House

{South Korea} The Second House

Up the road and clearly visible through the window of our first house was a mountain often covered in the rolling mist indicative of most Korean mountains.  Ahn mountain, was a constant backdrop of our childhood experiences in South Korea, where at its base we lived in two different homes as well as attended two different schools; Seoul Foreign School and Yonsei University.  The mountain, located at the northern reaches of Seoul at the time of the Korean War, played host to continuous battles from both sides.  Soldiers from Communist China, Russia and the ethnic Chinese Koreans that made up the Korean People’s Army (KPA) would push south, and take portions of the mountain while South Koreans and its allies, from 21 other nations including the US and Australia would push north to retake the mountain.  Heros were made and many died during the attacks, adding to the thick history and mystique of the area.  Continue reading “{South Korea} The Second House”

{South Korea} Memories of Church

{South Korea} Memories of Church

1982-1986 Seoul, Korea

During our time in South Korea my parents attended, spoke and taught at many different churches. Within the first week or so of arriving we were invited to a rural church situated next to a stream. Since the service had already begun, our family slipped in quietly and sat in a pew at the back next to the door. We listened while the congregation sang, recognizing several of the hymns, and then the pastor rang a little bell on the podium. Apparently, that was the signal for the beginning of the prayer time. Unexpectedly, everyone in the congregation began to shout in a universal discord “Yea-su, Yea-su, Yea-su!” My siblings and I, afraid of what terror would cause an entire congregation to burst out shouting, bolted through the doors and outside! Our parents quickly followed and tried to calm us down. It took awhile for them to assure us that this was “normal; that it was just a different way of praying” and that nothing bad was happening. When the praying stopped, we finally went back into the church, comforted to see that the congregation had returned to normal. While this was the pattern in all the South Korean churches we visited, it was a definite “we are not in Kansas anymore” (or Oklahoma in our case) moments.  Over the next several months, I became accustomed to the “new normal,” but I’ve always had sensitive ears and would often put my hands over my ears in anticipation of prayer time. Continue reading “{South Korea} Memories of Church”

{South Korea} Finding God in Rough Places

{South Korea} Finding God in Rough Places

November 15, 1983   Seoul, South Korea

Boiling water. It is such a mesmerizing thing…. watching a myriad of tiny bubbles form out of nothing from the bottom of the pan, billowing up through the water column with dozens of its friends and bursting forth with a puff of steam in its dying moment. It is one of the many reasons that since as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to watching things happen the kitchen. I would love to watch Mom cut with a knife, mix bread with her doughy hands, and cook things in steaming pots. It was a full sensory experience punctuated by the skill of a talented cook. The sound of a knife bearing down through a crisp carrot; the vivid palate of onions, leafy vegetables, eggplant, carrots, squash and potatoes diced and splayed for the pan; the lifting aroma of garlic, onion and grated ginger sautéing in a roasted sesame seed oil.  And the taste… the taste! There are few human pleasures quite as desirable as an excellent meal.

So one fateful evening, Mom had started to cook dinner after a busy day in language school and left for a moment to go check on something elsewhere in the house.  I knew that I was not allowed to be next to the stove, especially unattended, but my desire to see the cooking in action was greater than my three-year-old will to follow the rules.  I fetched a three legged stool, pushed it over to the stove and carefully climbed up to the top of the stool where took my usual Korean position of squatting.  As I was squatting there, watching the boiling action in the pan before me, I heard Mom’s voice call out from behind.  “Joel David!”  Quickly, and without thought, I tried to hop off the stool. Unfortunately, this was a three legged stool, and as I jumped, the stool simply fell out from under me.  I found myself in free fall, and in an instant, one of my arms caught the pot handle slightly sticking out over the edge of the stove.  A split second later, I landed chest first on the kitchen floor with the boiling contents of water and macaroni spilling onto my back. “DAVID!” Mom called out with one of those other-than-human sounds that imprint the emotion of the moment into your memory. Dad rushed in and took note of what happened.  In one fell swoop he picked me up and charged to the bathroom, turning on the shower and plugging the bathtub to fill with cold water.  The boiling water had soaked into my shirt and pants, and Dad quickly removed my shirt as the cold water poured down on top of me.  I protested my father’s actions! First I was burned and now I was going to be thrown into a freezing cold bath, and I didn’t see the point of needing an ice bath at this moment in time at all.  I remember hitting the water and taking the short stuttered breaths that accompany a dive into cold water.  I struggled to escape, but Dad was unrelenting.  He pushed and held me down into the water even as the spigot flowed more cold water into the tub.  Then suddenly, in a mixture of boiling, freezing and pain, I passed out.  We would find out later, that Dad’s act was instrumental in saving my life, the first of several circumstances God would use to save me. Continue reading “{South Korea} Finding God in Rough Places”

{South Korea} Our Ministry

{South Korea} Our Ministry

1982-1986  Seoul, South Korea

If anyone had asked the four-year-old me why we moved to South Korea, I would have simply responded, “My parents are missionaries – and missionaries live overseas.”  I gave little thought to why we moved there, and even what my parents did there.  Apart from the fact that they learned the language and worked with pastors, even into my youth I never inquired as to our purpose there; at least until recently.  My parents, however, thought about it a lot.  In the 1980’s, the South Korean church was already mature, with red crosses glowing atop steeples throughout all of the major cities; and Seoul was full of churches, including the largest church in the world on Yoido Island.  Christian schools, seminaries and ministries were also in full swing.  Mom and Dad were not needed as church planters, that was for sure.  Rather, the Korean denomination that contacted us wanted partners in faith and mission; people who could link their Korean congregations with the C&MA and further their missionary vision.  A type of ambassador of missions, if you will.  Continue reading “{South Korea} Our Ministry”

{South Korea} Language & Gender

{South Korea} Language & Gender

Seoul, South Korea 1982

One of the most difficult things for a Westerner moving to Korea was learning the language.  Most of the world’s major languages use a Cyrillic alphabet (or variant), but Korean uses a semanto-phonetic compound. Each hangul stroke or letter describes a syllable or one sound. The strokes or letters are grouped into blocks to form words. These blocks are then arranged horizontally from left to right or vertically from top to bottom as writing. Commissioned by King Sejong and completed in 1443, this orthography made reading and writing Korean possible for the illiterate masses—previously one would have had to learn Chinese and many of its characters to be literate. The difficulty of Korean is compounded by vocabulary and endings that reflect differences in age, status, rank, profession, and relationship between two speakers as well as four levels of speech ranging from polite formal to intimate. Mom and Dad were also taught the rudiments of a fifth level of speech, reserved for God and the king—a form they used especially in prayer.   Continue reading “{South Korea} Language & Gender”

Arriving in South Korea

Arriving in South Korea

April 16, 1982

My Mom recalled “it was early March as we circled Kimpo Airport and prepared to land.  Looking down on the bleak grey landscape we could see sandbag emplacements and barbed wire fences surrounding the airport below.  We were warned not to take photos.  Disembarking, weary and worn, we were met by our Canadian field directors, and a contingent of pastors and leaders from the seminary and churches we were meant to serve.  You did not remember this but there were bows all around.  The house had been kindly prepared and decorated for our arrival; balloons hung on the door and the heating was on.  Mixed packages of what we decided were dried soup were in the larder and milk and eggs were in the fridge.  We brought some dried soy milk with us for you, like bringing coals to Newcastle.  You quickly swarmed the house with your siblings, opening and closing the rice paper doors, running up and down the stairs to the basement and lying on the soft yos and quilts on your bedroom floor.  As I remember, the pastors had lovingly contributed a few toys, as well.  For many of them even cheaply made toys would have been a luxury.  Even coming out of winter and with the ondol floors the house was cold.  We bundled up as well as we could and tried to adjust to the jet lag.”  Continue reading “Arriving in South Korea”

Midwest

Midwest

After completing his four-year tour in the Navy, Dad flew his young family from Honolulu to Dallas.  He took up a job as a security guard that provided a meager income while he attended studies at Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS).  My parents and my brother lived in a rather run-down apartment complex that was undergoing renovation.  The buildings were two stories tall and shaped into a horseshoe surrounding a grassy courtyard.  Four large trees provided shade during the hot, humid Texas summers and my brother would go out and play among them in what he called “the forest.”  A group of gypsies were squatting in several of the apartments across the courtyard of the complex.  The manager, who was also a student at DTS and a former bar bouncer, asked my parents to pray while he confronted them and asked them to vacate.  When it came time, my parents watched and prayed from the porch as the manager knocked on the door.  The leader of the group, a wizened older man appeared. He scowled at the manager’s request to leave and it looked for a moment as if a fight might break out.  But suddenly, the old man’s visage changed; he shook his head and agreed to go.  My parents watched in amazement as the group began to pile bags, chickens and even a rocking chair into their cars.  Only later did my parents discover the cause of their hasty departure.  A Mexican mariachi player living above their apartment had overheard their conversation with the manager, and decided to help. Leaning against the balcony, his rifle pointed in the direction of the confrontation, he assured the gypsy that it was time to move on.  Mom said “God, it seems, works in many ways.”   Continue reading “Midwest”

A Calling to Missions

A Calling to Missions

 

“Many missionaries will talk about a “call” to missions and ministry.   This is, as they describe it, the firm conviction that God would have them serve Him, first, and second, a willingness to go where He sends them.” -Mom

Dad’s position aboard the submarine was to be the Supply Officer.  It was his responsibility to keep track of all the inventory aboard ship from food for the kitchen to spare parts for the engine.  He would compile the information and determine the nature and quantity of items that needed to be stocked aboard ship before heading out to sea.  “You never wanted to run out of toilet paper,” he would joke.  It would seem that going into the Navy would be one of the least likely options for growing one’s faith, but God has His ways.  Dad had originally requested the Mediterranean as his place of service, but when his assignment was announced, it was to be aboard the fast-attack submarine USS Pogy, stationed out of Honolulu, Hawaii.  Dad was amazed; his father had served aboard the Pogy’s diesel counterpart in WWII.  It was not only an unexpected link with a father he loved and admired but a continuing connection with the Asian culture he had learned to enjoy at UCLA.

After flying half way across the Pacific Ocean, Mom and Dad landed in Honolulu.  Settling into a motel while they awaited housing, Mom and Dad became familiar with the base and the local mall before attending a welcome aboard dinner given by the ships’ officers.  It was there that the next step unfolded in their call to ministry—an unexpected opportunity.  Dad was seated next to the executive officer’s wife, a self-described atheist.  When the subject of religion was broached, Dad suggested that “we simply do not have enough information to determine there is no God. The most someone could be was an agnostic”, he said.  The conversation was low key and the topic was easily dropped for less controversial themes but his thoughtfulness had its effect.  The following day, when he reported for duty aboard the submarine, Dad was surprised to discover that in addition to his duties as Supply Officer, he had also been appointed the Protestant Lay Leader.  Unlike other ships that carry one or more full time chaplains, submarines carry only essential crew.  On submarines, two of the existing crew members would be assigned collateral duties as non-ordained clergy, or lay pastors – one Protestant and one Catholic.  Despite little formal training for this position, they were expected to take on the role of clergy aboard ship – from sermons to counseling.  Dad accepted this assignment and delved into the study of scripture and reading books about the Christian faith.  Working alongside the Catholic lay leader, he and other spiritually-keen men aboard ship held Sunday and midweek services, retiring to pray in the quiet space next to the diesel generator.  Seeking guidance from chaplains on larger ships whenever they were in port, Dad steadily grew in knowledge and faith, and the change was evident to those around him. Continue reading “A Calling to Missions”

Parents

Parents

It goes without saying that a child with a divergent life only does so on account of having divergent parents.  Adventure, it seems was always part of their blood line.  My mother was born to a second-generation German immigrant and the daughter of a Texas pioneer.  Her father, who spoke Pennsylvanian German in the home, ran a modest variety store where my Mom and her siblings worked growing up.  I can only recall a few stories she told of her childhood; it was normally something she didn’t talk about.  What I do know is that she did very well academically.  During high school she was selected for an education exchange program and began her world travels at the age of sixteen by studying for a term in northern Germany.  She stayed with a German host family, went to a German public school and toured parts of the country on bicycle.  This experience whetted her appetite to know even more about world cultures and languages.  Returning home to the United States, Mom graduated from high school and dreamed of going to college, knowing that she could not afford to.  However, her family attended church regularly and her mother believed in the power of prayer, so they started praying.  God’s answer came in the form of a letter from the University of California waiting for her one day after school.  She ecstatically opened the letter and read that she had been accepted into the University and granted a large scholarship.  This was a dream come true, but it was also confusing for she had never applied to that campus before.  Still, the opportunity was too good to pass up.  She drove from her Southern California home up to the admissions office and presented the letter she had received to the clerk.  “I am here to accept my scholarship,” she stated.  The clerk asked her to wait for a moment while she went to get her file.  A short time later the clerk returned confused and stated: “I’m sorry, it appears that we do not have your application.”  Responding quickly, my mother replied, “if you have one available I could fill it out now.”  She was handed the application, sat down in the lobby, and filled it out then and there.  The clerk accepted her application and an admissions packet arrived in the mail several weeks later.   Come the Fall, my mother began attending the University of California Santa Barbra, knowing full well the miracle that God had provided her.

With a love of linguistics, Mom chose to major in English and did very well in her studies.  Her senior year, she had the honor to be elected the Mortar Board president.  The Mortar Board was an all female honor society whose purpose was to recognize outstanding students “dedicated to the values of scholarship, leadership and service.”  She was excited about the opportunity and looking forward to the year ahead.  Soon after, however, she was stopped in a hallway by a man she did not know who suggested she apply for the University of California (UC) education abroad program.  She had not thought about this opportunity before.  Mom asked the Lord to guide her; should she spend a year studying abroad or serve the University through Mortar Board?  It was a difficult choice, but her love of cross cultural experiences led her to apply for the education abroad program and she was accepted a short time later.  That fall, she attended St. Andrews University in Scotland.  My mother has a great many memories of her time in Scotland.  I remember her telling us stories about her British and international friends, her studies in Anglo-Saxon language and literature and of the blackout curtains they used to sleep through the long daylight hours of late summer.  Despite coming from a humble family, without resources, her hard work, God’s providence, and her interest in traveling had already taken her to Europe, twice. Continue reading “Parents”

introduction

introduction

 a  di·ver·gent  life  

/dəˈvərjənt,dīˈvərjənt/

 adjective

  1. tending to be different or develop in different directions

synonyms: differing, varying, different, dissimilar, unalike, disparate, contrasting, contrastive.

My name is Joel, and I have lived a divergent life; a life characterized by living in lands dissimilar to my homeland.  It is a story about being a raised as a missionary kid in a foreign land with all of its benefits and pitfalls.  A story about growing up and finding one’s identity when it is spread across the globe.  It is a story about faith, family, marriage, parenting and friendship.  It is our story of life.

My intent in this story is to recall events chronologically, which means starting from the point at which my memories are few and inaccurate.  Childhood memories are a fickle thing, based somewhere between the land of fantasy and reality.  Because our infantile understanding of the world, our memories may be vastly different from those of adults even when they concern the same event.  Never is this truer than when sitting down with my parents now as an adult and describing to them my memories and emotions from a childhood experience. When I contrast it to their memories it is not uncommon to find that there are glaring inaccuracies; my memory of one event is actually melded from two completely different times and places, my opinions of circumstances are badly mistaken, and I have vivid memories of events that likely never took place.  Regardless of these glaring inaccuracies, to me, as a child, these memories are still very real and crucially important.  When we attempt to draw upon memories to build a perspective for the world around us, it is these very memories that we use to construct our understanding.  It would be easy to document and recount my childhood memories with all their inherent inaccuracies.  It would also be easy to document my parents’ memories, which seem to abound with perspective and rationality. But I intend to do neither. Instead, I hope to document my memories from the context of a child and supplement them with a healthy dose of perspective provided by my parents; thereby recounting both the memories that shaped my thinking and the added details that help me make since of them as an adult.

So why am I writing the tale of my divergent life, you ask?  First, because I enjoy writing.  Ironically, I can thank Facebook for helping me this interest.  After several years of documenting carefully crafted snippets of my life to display to the world around me, I developed a distaste for the largely disingenuous nature of it all.  I began to transition to writing a private journal, not pressured by the opinions of others or the ever increasing word count.  I started to take joy in writing down more than just the plot, but also the settings and senses.  Aside from documenting the events and thoughts currently taking place around me, I became interested in documenting the experiences that have helped shape me.  It seems important for me to recall and recount the good times as well as the bad and lay them all bare for reflection and review.  This space will become a home for that dream.

Second, I want to share the stories of my adventures with others who can appreciate them.  Growing up, I largely read books about history and science, along with the occasional biography.  I was a non-fiction kid. “Why read stuff that people have made up,” I thought, “when the real world around us is already so interesting?” My first literary memories were about missionary doctors struggling to live and work in the jungle, Charles Lindbergh flying across the Atlantic and Neil Armstrong and his flight to the Moon. These stories nourished my interest in adventure and the human experience and helped develop my own interest in reading.  One day, I hope my writings may do the same for someone else.

Third, I would like to preserve the memories of our family. It is an unwritten rule that whenever we get together as a family, we share stories of our experiences; of memories that blur with time and seem as fanciful to us now as when we experienced them so many years ago.  As my parents have gotten older, I have watched them make an effort to re-discover their own lives; to take an inventory of their experiences and adventures. Theirs is a reflection on a life well lived; on the suffering and trials they endured.  It is also a reflection on God’s grace and providence in its entirety.  I want to preserve our family’s memories – for us, for our future generations and for others to enjoy.

Finally, I want to preserve our stories to provide faith and encouragement for today. Being a missionary or a person in ministry is hard work. It wavers on the border between humanity and God – for often God places us in circumstances where we have no choice but to trust Him. What we are called to do often makes no earthly sense, inasmuch as the timing seems disastrous and the finances are always lacking. For most people, this is a horrible way to live, but in God’s perspective, it is the only way to help us recognize that we are powerless without his power, mute without his message, penniless without his wealth. What we’ve discovered in our own lives is that God always comes through – even if it is not in the ways that we had expected.  So hopefully these experiences will help encourage people in their own faith, understanding that no matter how bleak the circumstances may appear, God is in control.  He has a purpose for our suffering as well as our times of plenty.