Tuesday, 21 April 2009

A week in Seoul

We arrived back in Scotland from Korea last Friday evening and reached home on Saturday morning. Although we were only in Seoul for a week, I suspect it will turn out to be one of the most important weeks in my life. Time will tell!

It was a busy week. I had to preach four sermons, take part in other services, attend meetings of the hosting presbytery, and give a lecture on the spirituality of the Free Church of Scotland to one of the classes (about 300 students) in the denominational theological seminary. I also said a few words at the seminary's chapel service at which 1,600 students were present. Of course, a Korean pastor put my efforts in perspective when he casually remarked that he preached nine sermons a week and has not had a day off this year. Later, I asked him if he had heard of ministerial burnout, and he looked at me with that strange look one gives to those who refer to theological novelties.

It was an informative week. In addition to the above activities, we visited some of the historical sights in Seoul: palaces and other important buildings where leaders once held sway. I like wandering around such places. Doing so in Seoul was slightly different because in it the ideas of the past have been replaced by the Christian faith in the outlook of a large proportion of its inhabitants (the opposite of what has occurred in Britain).

It was a tasteful week. Every day I was introduced to a different feature of Korean cooking, and I can assure you it was all wonderful. Those that know me will respond by saying I would say that about any meal I have eaten. Whatever! The next time I see a Korean restaurant, I am heading into it.

It was a realistic week. I should not have been surprised to find in one museum bookshop a book on display detailing the suffering of the Christian church during the Japanese occupation connected to the Second World War. Needless to say, I bought it. Mentioning that period of suffering is also a reminder that the church in Korea has known martydoms during the last 120 years. It was very moving to visit the special memorial building to those who gave their lives in Korea in modern times for the Christian faith.

It was a spiritually challenging week, especially in three ways. First, there is the emphasis on prayer by the churches. I don't know why I used to wonder why the church in Korea has had such blessing. Once I saw their emphasis on prayer and their practice of prayer, the answer to my puzzlement is obvious. Second, there is the attentiveness of the congregations to the ministry of the Word. They listen to what is said. Third, there is the overflowing kindness of both the pastors and the people. I was made to feel as if they had known me all my life.

Will I be different Christian, more devoted to Christ? Ask my wife in a year's time. But I certainly hope so.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Reflections on a Visit to South Korea

A colleague and I are going to Seoul later this week as delegates from our Presbytery to a Korean Presbytery. As is generally known, the church in South Korea in the last few decades has experienced large growth in church attendance, with this growth covering a wide divergence of denominations with various theological beliefs. This will be my first visit to South Korea and I am looking forward to observing the goings on in a country that has seen so much evidence of the Lord's gracious power in recent years.

One obvious difficulty for me is that I am not able to understand Korean. I will be dependant on a Korean translator for what I will hear and for what I will say. While this may prevent me fully grasping what is taking place in the various services in which I will participate, I don't think it will mean I cannot enjoy the services. A few years ago, my wife and I were walking through the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem when we came across a group of tourists from the Far East singing a song of praise to Christ in their native language. Although we did not understand the words they were singing, their joy was contagious and their devotion to and delight in Christ was obvious and overwhelming. We knew in our hearts that the singers were our brothers and sisters. I am sure that we will experience something similar in the Christian gatherings we will attend in Korea (my wife is coming with us).

The Sunday that we will be in Seoul is Resurrection Sunday, the day of the year on which the Lord Jesus rose from the dead. For some reason, the day is passed unnoticed in the churches in Scotland which I have attended. I am aware that we are not told in the New Testament to focus on an annual commemoration of his resurrection, but instead to do so each Lord's Day. I have been told that it is different in Korea, and that this coming Lord's Day is very important for the churches there. So I am looking forward to watching and hearing large Korean congregations singing joyfully to the Conqueror of death.

It will also be a time for reflecting on the contribution made by a fellow Highlander whose name is largely forgotten today. John Ross from Nigg (near Tain) is known as 'the father of the Korean church'. He was a missionary in Manchuria in the last decades of the nineteenth century, in an area that bordered Korea. Because many Koreans were living in that area of Manchuria, he resolved to translate the New Testament into Korean (unlike me, he knew eleven languages), which he did by 1886. His translation was taken into Korea (it was then a closed country to Westerners) by Koreans and the outcome was that groups of Christians appeared in various parts of the country. Ross' own estimation was that several thousand Koreans were converted in this way. Eventually Ross returned to Edinburgh in 1910, where he is buried. But the seeds that were sown through his translation of the New Testament are still producing a harvest.

Apparently thousands of Koreans have followed Ross' example and taken the gospel to other countries, including ones to which access is denied for Westerners. I have met some Korean missionaries in Scotland. I don't know if Ross ever imagined that one consequence of his work for Korea would be Christians from there coming to his own country to evangelise it. But God knew. And Ross' story is a reminder that God can do through us, as well as for us, much more than we can even imagine.