Sabbatical 4


I must confess that I hardly attended church while on sabbatical, until Kathleen and I started attending VEV again in late July. I also did not have my regular devotional times for a full month, something that had not occurred in my 40 plus years of following Jesus. Nevertheless, I felt it was in obedience to the Holy Spirit. I did journal each day and I meditated on various one-sentence sayings of Lady Julian of Norwich – a medieval mystic who served as the anchoress of a parish church in Norwich, England in the 13th century, who had received a download from heaven. My phrase for the first week of the sabbatical was, “Nothing less than God can satisfy us.”

In spite of this change in my devotional routine, my whole life felt like prayer – like I was having the Sabbatical with Jesus. I quickly discovered that “Sabbath” is not first of all, what you do (or don’t do), or where you go; rather, it is about who you are with. The tangible sense of having this sabbatical with Jesus gave me the true rest I was longing for (see Matthew 11:28-30). 

This rich sense of God’s presence that seemed so constant and without effort for me, more than made up for the frequent times over the past decade that I had felt so dry and had preached, prayed, loved, and served until my heart had felt completely wrung out. It comforted me for all those times I had studied, meditated, and wrestled in prayer over a sermon for 10-20 hours in a given week, only to preach my heart out to half the congregation on Sunday  – the other half deciding not to come that week! For a small congregation that is remarkably faithful in these distracting and stressful times, sometimes a lot of people went away at the same time! It sometimes felt that Jesus had decided not to come either!

As a pastor, this comes with the territory. I was struck that Jesus himself knew what it meant to feel that “he had labored in vain – to have spent his strength for nothing at all…” (see Isaiah 49:4a). I, along with anyone who leads, often feel this way, but this rich sense of Jesus being with me during the sabbatical gave me rest for my journey and nourished my soul with the encouragement and hope that, “… what is due me is in the Lord’s hand and my reward is with my God” (Isaiah 49:4b).

One of the few times Kathleen and I did go to church was on our first Sunday on sabbatical in Korea. After all, we were in Seoul, the site of the world’s largest church, Yoiddo Full Gospel Central. This church is part of the denomination I grew up in, and I remember hearing stories about it, even as a child. In an earlier blog article, I wrote about my first visit to this church with a group of friends in 1985. This time, I wanted to go again, and take Kathleen to experience it, as she was not with me on my first visit.

I was a little more discerning this time as the megachurches of Korea (and there are many) had not received a good review from our Korean homestay students. They felt that the sheer size, power, and money contained within these churches (many with over 100,000 attendees) had resulted in much corruption, including undue influence on governments and elections. At best, our homestays were more positive about Catholic churches and smaller Protestant congregations like ours. Many of our homestays attended and loved VEV when they were with us. Nevertheless, because Kathleen hadn’t seen Yoiddo, I felt it was important to take her at least once. There were seven services for us to choose from on that Sunday. There was seating for 25,000 (including overflow areas), with over 200,000 attending over the weekend in multiple services.

We opted for the 1pm service but after a hilarious misadventure of taking the wrong train (our “Angel,” Kyung Jin was leading worship at her own church, so she couldn’t rescue us this time), we arrived to Yoiddo Island quite late. The island, a business and political centre of Seoul, had a cherry blossom festival in “full bloom,” so it was very congested. Nevertheless, after walking along the Han River, and enjoying the sites and festivities, we arrived half-way through the service. We were quickly ushered in by friendly and helpful ushers into a balcony area and given translation headsets. To our amazement and delight, Yonggi Cho, the founding pastor, whom we knew to be retired, was preaching! I’d actually met him 30 years ago, but had never heard him preach live, so this was a real treat, both for me and Kathleen. I have attached a copy of his teaching notes below.

When I first visited Yoiddo Full Gospel Church in 1985, I was completely overwhelmed by the passion and intensity of the people’s prayer life. Prayer was constant and ongoing, during all the service times (any pause or break resulted in a loud eruption of prayer), before and after the services, during the week and early morning. Thousands were always fasting and praying 3 days at a time on Prayer Mountain, up close to the North Korean border and demilitarized zone. I’m sure there was still a lot of prayer this time, but I didn’t see it as much. Sure, after the service, a few sat and quietly prayed, but things had definitely changed. Why was this? Had power and prosperity reduced their sense of desperation and need for prayer that they had felt after the devastation and suffering of the Korean War?  Had they become just like us in North America, that is, if we don’t have God, there’s lots of other things to satisfy us now? I don’t want to be overly critical, because they still pray a lot more than we do. I was just struck by the contrast between 1985 and now, 2015.

Nevertheless, hearing Cho preach was very moving. He was lively and engaging. His gentle humour drew much laughter from the crowd of 25,000, and we were blessed to be able to see and hear him in person. For all his troubles, and he has had some, I still hold a high degree of respect for him. He still lives in a simple apartment and has chosen never to upgrade his lifestyle to opulence and excess, in spite of the remarkable numerical and financial growth of his church.

After this church service, we next journeyed by train directly across the Han River to the Jeoldusan Martyrs Shrine. “Jeoldusan” sounds quite melodic in English, but in Korean, it literally means “beheading mountain.” In the 19th century, thousands of Korean Catholics, the first Christian converts, were beheaded because of their Catholic faith which regarded all people as friends and equals, in defiance and rejection of the elitism and class hierarchy of the Choson societal system. The Yangban, the upper class elite who converted to Christ, worshipped and ate with peasants, slaves and commoners. This was so offensive to the prevailing culture, that they were brutally persecuted and killed in the hundreds at this very spot.

As I stood in that shrine, now a beautiful garden honoring these brave women and men, I thought: “This is who we are and what we are about!  This is the Good News that we proclaim, the Good News that Jesus died for, and what they died for.” There were so many of their names listed and you can read them at this site on Wikipedia.

As I stood on the edge of the cliff, over which their headless bodies were ruthlessly thrown, I noticed, to my wonder and amazement, that right across the river, clearly in view was a huge white cross! It was mounted on the main building of Yoiddo Full Gospel Church! As these martyrs died, despised and alone, did they have any idea that 200 years later, the very site where they died would be in viewing distance of the world’s largest Christian Church? More importantly, did they know how much their witness would inspire Korean Catholics to provide so much influence and leadership to movements of democracy and human rights in Korea since that time?
"The blood of the martyrs
is the seed of the church"
The world's largest church, within view
of "Beheading Hill," the martyrs shrine.

As I stood there, I felt I heard the Father’s encouraging whisper to me. “I did not forget the offering of these brave martyrs, nor was it in vain. See? And, in the same way, I have not forgotten your suffering, and offering of faith in obedience to Me, week after week, year after year, decade after decade. It’s a different kind of suffering – it is easier in some ways, in other ways it is harder, but I have not forgotten. Nor, have I forgotten the faithfulness of those in your church family, who, with so many distractions, continue to choose me as their highest joy, even when they see no obvious and immediate fruit, as with the Jeoldusan martyrs.

And, as if to underscore the point, we went for supper later that evening with Eunsoo one more time, one of our homestay daughters who I introduced you to in my last blog. This time, she introduced us to her boyfriend, Joon Ho. Again, it was just so delightful. This time, I refused to let them pay. They’re both students, for goodness’ sake. I wrote in my journal the next morning, “So, so precious. I love these wonderful young people and I want to give my life for them.”

Wade Pallister