Sabbatical 7


After a three hour foggy rainy bus ride from Jeonju through the misty mountains of southern Korea, Kathleen and I arrived in the beach city of Busan, the second largest city in Korea, with a metro population of 8 million people. (Seoul has 25 million). Yet, in spite of its size, Busan’s beauty is comparable to Vancouver’s, surrounded by lovely tree-covered mountains and waterways. Historically, Busan was the last and only city to remain under South Korean and allied control when Soviet-backed North Korean troops invaded, in 1950. It became a base for allied operations until a counter-attack was organized under General Douglas MacArthur, that regained the peninsula.

When we arrived in Busan, we got on a series of trains that transported us to our hotel located at a popular resort area called Hyundae Beach. For navigational help, a “gang” of Korean senior women took us under their wing when Kathleen offered one of them her seat and they observed my attempts to speak Korean to them. They immediately became our chaperones, helping us to make the right connections to our desired destination with lots of joyful interaction on the way. Our hotel, which I’d randomly booked through, was so beautiful, we both cried when we entered our room. At the rate of a 2-3 star hotel in Canada, we pretty much had a 5 star as for some unknown reason, they gave us a free upgrade when we arrived. Our 15th floor room gave us a spectacular view of Hyundae Beach and the East China Sea. It had a large Jacuzzi bath. There was a separate sitting area where we could read and write while overlooking the beach below. It was like a honeymoon suite. The weather turned hot and sunny all week. It was April but it felt like June. Like every other place in Korea we had already been, we fell completely in love with Busan.

After a highly social weekend in Jeonju, God was so good to provide us with yet another week of contemplative stillness and marital retreat in Busan. We had lots of walks, enjoying the scenery and the buskers along Hyundae Beach, the beautiful forested parks, and the traditional Korean Markets. We had already been writing postcards to family and friends back home, but in Busan, we increased the frequency, as we knew our time in Korea was coming to a close. We particularly wanted to make a special effort to send one to our dear “Oma Nim” Konju (Esther Moon) who faithfully sits at the front every Sunday in church, unless her handy dart is late! Busan was her home city, the city of her birth. As a young woman, Esther emigrated from Korea to Germany to become a nurse. The story of the wave of Korean immigrants, post-Korean war, to Germany is documented in the powerful movie, “International Markets,” which we highly recommend if you want a moving summary of the last 50 years in Korea. Have your Kleenex ready! This was Esther’s story. After living in Germany for a number of years, she moved to Canada – Toronto first, then Vancouver, where by God’s wonderful mercy, she became part of our church family at VEV. There was no describing how moving it was to be in the city of Esther’s birth, and to be able to send her our love with a postcard along with a Facebook post which Joanna and Kim faithfully passed on to her. We heard back that she was equally emotionally moved. We are so much more inter-connected as human beings than we can ever imagine.

Not unrelated to this, the next day, we visited a spectacular Buddhist temple, high in the mountains surrounding Busan. As beautiful as the setting and architecture were, I was mostly impacted by the devotion and passion of the Buddhists at prayer. They were shameless in their public devotion, with their body language of bowing face down on their knees. I could see the influence of the Buddhist culture on the devotion and passion of the Korean Christians. Buddhism has a long history in Korea. The country is now about 23 percent Buddhist, 48 percent claim no religion, and, another 29 percent Christian (about 16 percent Protestant, and 13 percent Catholic).

I was mindful of C.S. Lewis’s approach to other religions. Lewis was one of the greatest Christian apologists of all time. As an academic at Oxford, he came to Christ after resisting Christianity as an atheist and literary critic for most of his adult life. One of the difficulties he struggled with on his road to faith was the issue of other religions. He had difficulty with the claim of Christianity that there was only one way to God, namely Jesus Christ. One thing that helped him come to Christ was when he came to the conclusion that all religions pointed to Jesus. Rather than saying that other religions were “wrong,” he saw them as incomplete, but still pointing to Jesus, similar to the way the Old Testament did for the Jewish people in the Bible. Lewis would have seen Buddhism and Islam as the “Old Testament” for the many cultures where they were practiced. In that Buddhist temple, I found myself praying, “Lord, with the growing number of Buddhists in Vancouver, show me how Buddhism points people to you.” Indeed, I went beyond that to asking, “What can I learn from them regarding their devotion and capacity to be contemplative?” Of course, I’m not advocating syncretism or the worship of other gods, but I was mindful of Paul, who admired the devotion and worship of the Athenians in their altar “to the unknown God” (Acts 17:23ff), even though their search for the true God was yet incomplete. But there is a difference between being incomplete and being wrong. The awareness that we are all on a journey and that none of us has fully arrived, protects us from arrogance, and keeps us engaged in what John Stackhouse calls, “humble apologetics” when dialoging with people of other faiths.

On our last night in Busan, we went on a hilarious adventure to a seafood restaurant on the waterfront in the Hyundae Beach area. No one at the restaurant spoke English so we had to order by pointing at aquariums full of aquatic creatures swimming around, saying “Egaw jusayo” (this please, that please). I’m still not sure what we all ate but soju (strong Korean beer) again helped us wash it all down. We had a hilarious sitcom type of episode when I tried to get our server to write in Korean what we had eaten so we could brag to our Korean friends about how brave we were. He thought we were complaining about the bill. It took an emergency phone call to our angel in Seoul (Kyung Jin) to settle all the concerns and rescue us from certain deportation! We laughed our heads off. Yes, we laughed so much on this trip. We cannot describe the nurturing, replenishing balm of laughter that we experienced over and over again. I remember a newcomer to VEV one once saying to me that this was a distinctive characteristic they observed about our church – that we laughed a lot. What a gift that is.

On the day we departed from Busan, we met up with Sam, Joanna’s cousin who had married a Korean and was living in Busan, teaching English. His love for Korea was completely obvious and we totally identified with the passion he exhibited for the Korean people. However, I must confess that we met him at a “Dunkin’ Donuts” outlet at the train station. Ok, there are limits to cross-cultural idealism!

We said farewell to Sam after a delightful visit, and then took the KTX, a high-speed bullet train from Busan to Seoul. It travelled so fast at 200 km/hour that the cars on the freeways seemed to stand still as we passed them. The ride was so smooth that we felt we were in an airplane. As the train headed back to Seoul, a wave of emotion again overwhelmed us, a combination of gratitude and grief in contemplating that this would be our last weekend in Korea. I had known we were going to enjoy and love Korea. But, it turned out being ten times better than I had expected. What a precious gift we had been given in this beautiful land – such a balance of rest, marital enrichment, and connections with people we loved so much. In addition, to top it off, we were getting reports from back home about how wonderfully our church family was taking care of each other. It all couldn’t have been any closer to... perfect!
Wade Pallister