November 10, 2014, on flight between Seoul and Tokyo
You know you’re a missionary when you have a photo card for friends’ refrigerators, sent from “the field.” After Donna’s and my first two weeks in Chuncheon, South Korea in our new five-year term with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), finally, a little breathing space to reflect. Beginning with those 6 bags.
After 14 years in Durham, we left with our life packed in only six bags. Behind were good jobs. Our three children on U.S. soil. Our beloved home, emptied and rented. Goodbye to beloved friends and our church. Rich farewells with friends, church, and Duke Divinity School. Ten years of Center for Reconciliation work, with a U.S. and international ministry extending far beyond what I ever imagined. Waiting on the Korean side, so many huge unknowns: Setting up a new Korea office and base for MCC’s Northeast Asia work. Not knowing where we would live, who our colleagues would be. For me, yes, a return “home” after growing up in Korea. But for Donna? A wild array of more unknowns.
Two “Ms” have driven this move, the first being madness. Many days it took steely determination to put one foot in front of the other. What … are … we … doing. Yet another “M” kept us moving forward, somehow.
A friend who teaches political science has said that Chris Rice retreats more than the French army. Well, it’s the only way I know of being “re-fit” into God’s strange rationality. In September Donna and I tore ourselves away from the piles of endless details for a night at a North Carolina retreat center. There in the stillness and grass and fall warmth, eventually, I found myself in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20, thinking about God’s new creation in Christ and the ministry of reconciliation, a text shaping so much of my life and work.
But my attention was drawn to the words a few verses earlier: “For the love of Christ compels us.” Not our love for Christ. Not our love for Christ or our action for the world. Christ’s action. Christ’s love for us. That is what compels us, what “fits” us, to receive the madness of God’s new creation. Getting Christ’s love deep into our bones.
I became overwhelmed with gratitude for the love God poured out on us over 14 years in Durham and at Duke. Poured out in unexpected companions from Durham to across the world. The madness of our decision was met by a deep sense of a second “M”: miracles. Returning to the land of my upbringing! A formal partnership being put in place between Duke and the MCC, with Duke’s emerging Northeast Asia reconciliation initiative integral to my work with MCC, and with a continuing affiliation with Duke as Senior Fellow for Northeast Asia. As co-founder (better yet, “co-beginner”) of the Center for Reconciliation, receiving deep peace with the founder’s responsibility to know when to let go, to give our place to others, and seek the next song for our lives. Being in New York City with Donna in August, calling on all skills possible over an hour with North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the UN, introducing ourselves. Above all, sharing this with my new daily ministry companion—my wife! She moved from the first call with MCC in December (“North Korea? Are you kidding me? Of course my husband would want to have a job that takes us to North Korea!”) to a faith that still astounds me. After 27 years of marriage she remains a mystery to me! Both madness and miracles have driven this decision. Yet the miracles have transcended the madness, and in them Donna and I have received a profound anointing for this new chapter.
If we left treasures in Durham, we have tasted the gifts of Chuncheon: A livable city of 300,000 surrounded by mountains and lakes only an hour high-speed train from Seoul. A couple who welcomed us into their home for our first 10 days, anointing us with new Korean names. Celebrating the 13th anniversary of the Korean Anabaptist Center, a key hosting partner here. Invited to offer the sermon in our first Sunday at church, Donna and me side-by-side, speaking together for the first time. And finding an apartment after everything seemed to have fallen through, with space for hospitality and only a ten-minute walk from our office and the train station. And now we head to Japan for a week to join colleagues from the region to plan our second Christian Forum for Reconciliation in Northeast Asia, 2015 in Nagasaki.
We arrived with only 6 bags. But there is already the sound of a new song to sing. One of my favorite poems gets to the heart of it.
by Denise Levertov
All which, because it was
flame and song and granted us
joy, we thought we’d do, be, revisit,
turns out to have been what it was
that once, only; every initiation
did not begin
a series, a build-up: the marvelous
did happen in our lives, our stories
are not drab with its absence: but don’t
expect now to return for more. Whatever more
there will be will be
unique as those were unique. Try
to acknowledge the next
song in its body-halo of flames as utterly
present, as now or never.
The 26th annual CCDA conference opened last night just down the road in Raleigh. The highlight for Donna and me was a brief but rich visit with our beloved mentors John and Vera Mae Perkins. Being with them ignited wisdom they taught us in Mississippi about the true nature of deep leadership and change. At Voice of Calvary we claimed a poem which embodied this wisdom, written in 6th century B.C. by Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching:
“Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say ‘We have done this ourselves.’”
These words inspire us as we think ahead to being with new companions in Northeast Asia with the Mennonite Central Committee. If I were to humbly suggest one addition, it would be “… Love them. Be loved by them.”
A friend who teaches political science once joked, “Chris Rice retreats more than the French army.” For me, at least, getting God’s love deep into my bones requires learning, as Mary Oliver writes, to “never hurry through the world, but walk slowly, and bow often.” Donna and I took a day at St. Francis Springs prayer center in northern NC to pray and prepare for our new call to Northeast Asia. Dedicated to St. Francis, the center is full of art which inspired us to remember as we begin this work, that the psalmist did not say “Be busy and know that I am God.”
Do you believe in miracles? I do. I have come to depend on them. Our decision to leave 14 years in Durham and begin a new chapter in Korea and Northeast Asia with the Mennonite Central Committee has tested my and Donna’s faith. But last week I walked down the street to church in the small Vermont town where my parents live. During the special music, an old friend asked me and my parents forward and dedicated this Matt Redman song to me and Donna, which he proceeded to sing. I hope these words of speak to you as well:
“Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did you leave us on our own
You are faithful, God you are faithful”
“Expect revelation,” said Madeline L’Engle; the words were exactly that.
Before departing South Korea after his visit last week, during worship, Pope Francis made a prophetic call to reconciliation (see full text). His homily made profound connections between peace and prayer, Jesus’ call to radical conversion and forgiveness (“impractical and at times repugnant”), resistance to social competition, active concern for the marginalized, and the power of the cross of Christ. The divide between North and South Korea is not natural or acceptable, he said. A few excerpts:
“Today’s Mass is first and foremost a prayer for reconciliation in this Korean family.”
“God’s gifts of reconciliation, unity and peace are inseparably linked to the grace of conversion, a change of heart which can alter the course of our lives and our history, as individuals and as a people.”
“This challenges each of you to reflect on the extent to which you, as individuals and communities, show evangelical concern for the less fortunate, the marginalized, those without work and those who do not share in the prosperity of the many.”
“In obedience to [Jesus’ command to forgive 70 times 7] weask our heavenly Father daily to forgive us our sins, ‘as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Unless we are prepared to do this, how can we honestly pray for peace and reconciliation?”
“Jesus asks us to believe that forgiveness is the door which leads to reconciliation. In telling us to forgive our brothers unreservedly, he is asking us to do something utterly radical, but he also gives us the grace to do it. What appears, from a human perspective, to be impossible, impractical and even at times repugnant, he makes possible and fruitful through the infinite power of his cross. The cross of Christ reveals the power of God to bridge every division, to heal every wound, and to reestablish the original bonds of brotherly love.”
“Let us pray, then, for the emergence of new opportunities for dialogue, encounter and the resolution of differences, for continued generosity in providing humanitarian assistance to those in need, and for an ever greater recognition that all Koreans are brothers and sisters, members of one family, one people.”
”Becoming a guardian of justice means achieving solidarity with the people who live on the margins of society to make manifest our prophetic witness,” the pope said. “The Catholic Church has prospered in Korea. However, since the priests are living in the middle of a very secular and materialistic society, they are tempted to adopt lifestyles and patterns of thinking that imitate secular standards and corporate efficiency.”
At my first Mennonite Central Committee orientation last week, a lengthy brochure described their identity, purpose, vision, priorities, and approaches. Out of curiosity, I inserted this information in a word cloud program, and the result is depicted. Good news friends: God is bigger than MCC (!). So is Jesus. In the key words that popped up and the connections between them, if this is what MCC believes, I’m on board. An interesting experiment to test the organizations you work for and/or support around the language they use regarding what’s prominent, what’s missing. Language matters.