Identifying with Christ

First World problems, dealt in a First World way – via a WP blog. I hope this doesn’t turn out to be just another tirade, but a thoughtful reflection while letting go of another vexing thought.

It seems I have a unique skill of finding myself as an outsider. As of 2019, I live in a State where Asians make up only 1.7% of the total population. My family were at a nearly all-white, conservative church for nearly 6 years, and my wife did not have anyone who really wanted to get to know her. Looking back, it was probably a simple problem of her name. For an average American it’s something hard to remember and pronounce. It’s something akin to “Eu-eong.” Frankly, I think church members were afraid of mispronouncing her name or asking her name N-th time again, so, the best thing they decided to do was simply not approach her. Of course, there was one brave, blonde lady in the congregation, who approached my wife without fear and dared to ask her to pronounce her name many times over. She quickly became my wife’s friend, but sadly, she had to leave to another state only after about a year of knowing my wife due to some family issues. In this area, I sometimes find people who’ve never talked or worked with an Asian person before. At the workplace, a new IT director, I helped to hire because he was native to this area – I thought it’d be better for the company – came onboard offending not just every non-white person, but everyone in the development team by announcing, “I’m going to build an American software,” as if somehow the existing systems were all built by non-Americans. The subtle games he’s been playing from the beginning has been enough to cause me a serious ulcer, but decided to let go it for my own mental health sake. Mind you, he’s probably the best director we’ve ever had, and I force myself to think best of intentions for him, but what an insular, (bleep) of a town.

Once, when I was in Chicacgo, it was at a church where key decision-makers were all related somehow as relatives in a large family. Of course, they didn’t make it apparent and having practically a no ear for gossips and rumors and working only with the youth members of the church, I had no idea for many years of serving there. It was a medium-sized church of about 100 or so members. The senior pastor was a proud graduate of Calvin Theological Seminary, and simply forced me to teach Westminster Confession of Faith after about a year of serving. It was good that he provided the curriculi, albeit many decades old. When you’re a youth pastor, you have very little choice but to follow the senior pastor who is supposed to set direction of the educational ministry at the church in spite of the fact that youth members started to resist and yawn. Yes, there’s a possibility that the growth to that point wasn’t really a growth that the senior pastor wanted to see, since more kids were coming to church compared to adults, and it had more to do with my own preaching and the dedicated worship team I discipled every Saturday. Then, the senior pastor started showing sharp attitude with me, although he’s usually a nice person, especially during staff meetings. It started to be more salient when I tried to have an open dialogue with the pastor about a troublesome teacher (who happened to be a son of an older church member), and then about how I dealt with a sexually promiscuous youth leader. I removed her from leadership without stating a concrete reason, and the pastor, who was annoyed with a constant pestering of a church lay leader who also happened to be the grandmother of the girl I had removed from the leadership, simply decided to accuse me of inexplicably ruining her life. If she had shown even just a little bit of remorse, or repentance, I don’t think I would’ve been so cut and dry about my decision, but she was adamant about her inappropriate behavior. What was apparent was the typical Korean grandparents’ response of “protecting my precious granddaughter,” not from sexually promiscuous culture, but from an aggressive youth pastor who is out to ruin her life by exposing her sin. I didn’t. My conscience couldn’t allow my own youth ministry leader to continue in sin while pretending herself that everything was okay. I told her not to come to Saturday leadership meetings anymore and that she was off of the praise team temporarily. I gave her time to reflect and repent of her sinful behavior. However, it was her who simply stopped coming to church and put herself in a teary mode for many days as if her life was about to end. I guess I overestimated a teenager’s maturity in this regard. In midst of this turmoil of human drama, the senior pastor had the guts to, in a calculated manner, state a proposal to financial help an young adult member of the church who was about to enter a seminary. He, of course, had to throw a statement about how it’d be easier to help this new guy if he was a youth pastor, but since I was already one, the church would have to find an alternative way. This was in a context of my own life, which also was on a struggle with financial hardship, trying to finish seminary, working full-time, three children, and a youth ministry on top of all that. The church merely provided a very tiny stipend every month, which was all used up on the youth ministry with no reimbursements. At that point, I decided to leave the church as he wished. Soon after, it was obvious from the Facebook posting of youth members, the younger guy took over the youth ministry. That younger guy was a son of the founding Elder of that church.

Then rushing to the present, I find myself at a Korean Methodist church. And long and behold, here comes a newcomer who also happens to be a graduate of the same Korean seminary that the pastor had attended. The support, of course, is channeled to her, with a more push for a change from the pastor that I’ve ever seen in last 3 years of being here. I really don’t have a problem with this oncoming pastor being supported by church. It’s good that we support someone more educated, and more dedicated, to be used for the body of Christ. However, the label “Baptist” started to precede the title of jundosa (a term for pastor trainee in Korean churches) for me as if I do not belong to this pastor’s Methodist church. He states it ever so more clearly and emphatically when people are around as if he’s stating something novel and interesting. Yes, I’ve gone to schools that more closely align themselves with Baptist theology, but I’ve never actually served at a Baptist church but for just first two year of being a jundosa 24 years ago. None of the schools, nor the churches I’ve attended since then ever claimed any direct Baptist affiliation whatsoever. Does a Baptist have a personal preference for liturgical worship? Does a Baptist pray in tongues, or sometimes pray with κομποσκοίνι? These are personal preferences, of course, but I guess it was because I had once told him that the schools I had attended had closer alignments to what Baptist teaches. As for the timing of him labeing me as such can only be idiotic unless he wants to make me feel more alienated than I already am. Regardless, it’s only natural thing for a person, especially for that of a Korean person, to show more favor to someone who is younger and originating from the same hometown or same school. I haven’t forgotten how, in spite of people today voicing opinions against oligarchy, they themselves tend towards one simply out of their own proclivities. After all, it’s a Methodist pastor helping another Methodist pastor — what could possibly be wrong with that? I know I’m just not Methodist enough, but why is this pastor trying to make me feel more alienated than I already am? I’m surrounded by first-generation Korean immigrants, with no like-minded peers. The little that we have in the same age-group are either preoccupied with accumulating wealth for a more comfortable life here, to prepare their old age, and there is very little else. The precious, little spare time they have is for themselves, not for any service for the greater purpose outside of their couches. I’m just doing my best to serve the body of Christ, and if that turns out to serve the denomination, fine, but my heart is for feeding the body of Christ, not some specific denomination. Are all Methodists this proud of being Methodists? Whatever happened to being a mere Christian? A mere Christ-follower? Why so proud of schools they’ve graduated? It may have made sense up until 1940s, but Harvard, Princeton, and other Ivy-League schools are no longer schools you go to learn the Bible properly, but in certain denominations pastors proudly carry those school logo as if it means something in the kingdom of God. They have indeed worked hard to gain worldly credence in a world of lost public confidence for church leaderships, however, one has to ask at what cost have these pastors done so? If it happens to have a worldly label, fine, that can be put aside as a none issue, but why are these leaders of church, while preaching love, love, love, ad infinitum, so unloving towards someone like me who has no honorary title, wealth, power, or influence? Maybe, they simply aren’t listening, or they’re just repeating the treatment they had received as ex-jundosas themselves — is “treat your jundosas like shit” one of the bullet points posted in a repository of best-practice manual for Korean pastors? Giving credit to where credit is due, the Methodist pastor is the least tyrannical of pastors I’ve served with. Irony of ironies, instead of churches, the collective body of Christ, reflecting the character of my Lord and my Savior, I find myself wishing to stay away this religiously proud corpus of so human of institution. In spite of such overpowering sentiment, I take heed of Nouwen’s advice to be listening to the church, thereby listening to the Lord of the church.

Jesus came to his own people as a Jew, and to many, a poor rabbi at that. Actually, he bore no worldly, honorary official title whatsoever. People simply called him by his first name as was the custom of the day: “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus of the Trash Dump, the commonly known slogan of Nazareth at the time. Yet, his own people went to the point of crucifying him on the cross, and here I am complaining about my first world problem of having my own boat shaken up a bit and hurt feelings. But I had to get that out of my chest, else, I’ll keep digging up more stories while connecting the dots and become embittered about all of these. My tooth is getting too long to keep pushing people away without long-term consequences. For these reasons and more, I find much solace in Jesus’ answer to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36). Truly, this world isn’t my home, but I’m just passing through. My reward isn’t some tiny stipend from church or a denomination of this world, or some honorary title, or anything material, but only my Lord Jesus Christ, my Jesus of Trash Dump. He will be my only prize, and my reward. As for the turmoils of this luxurious U.S. life, I really don’t think it’d be much different when I leave this country for a missiological life once kids are out of school, but preparation, and this journey never stops.