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6 Bags Full of Madness and Miracles

November 10, 2014

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.

Once Only

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.


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