I never thought I’d say this, but being in Seoul has been so good for my soul (snicker), mostly because so many of my days here have been spent in quiet reflection. The city is as bustling as ever, but I’ve been afforded the luxury of stealing away long bouts of silence throughout each day (well, silence in the midst of loud city noise, that is).
We’ve been staying with Tina’s aunt and grandmother, and their hospitality has been nothing short of amazing. Staying rent-free in a relatively comfortable and quiet neighborhood is a gift I have not taken for granted, and emo and halmoni have fed us well and been as supportive and kind as family can be.
You might also be surprised to hear that my father is also in Seoul, speaking at different churches and revival meetings for days on end, and he lives in a more remote area of the city about an hour away via subway. In recent weeks, he and I have had some great heart to heart talks over korean bbq, and it’s really been a wondrous time for us to talk about our lives past, present, and future.
I certainly do miss New York and New Life, though. This has been the longest I’ve been away from NYC & NLF in ten years (six weeks), and easily the longest break I’ve had from working life.
Which brings me to the topic I’d like to talk about – pressure.
To be quite honest, these long agenda-less days are tortuous as much as they are pleasurable, boredom having officially crept in after the first week I got here.
Even though we had the great joy of hanging out with Eugene and Paul for two weeks (and Minjue for a couple of days), there’s a tinge of boredom that settles into me at least twice a day.
I need something to do in the worst way.
I’ve wondered where this drive comes from, and I think being in Seoul has been a revelation of sorts.
Seoul is like most big cities, full of energy and humanity at every turn, and there’s certainly a hint of familiarity I feel with so many people who look like me (the similarities end there, as Koreans are shocked to hear my horrifying accent).
In recent days, there’s been a rash of suicides in South Korea, continuing a trend as the world’s leader in suicides. Each death is sobering, and whether it’s news of a student, anchorwoman, athlete, or politician, the news is heartbreaking to hear. The NY Times recently published a story about one elite university in particular where suicides have become far too common.
The pressure to get good grades so that one can get a good job so that one can get a good spouse so that one can garner a good name for the family is quite suffocating. Starting at a young age, kids are in school or tutoring sessions for long portions of the day (sixteen hours in high school), leaving very little free time for play or fun.
The competition is so steep and the spots are so few here. Meanwhile, everything feels like a fishbowl because the country is so small. If the formula for good school, good job, good spouse, good name is somehow broken or unfulfilled, the shame and guilt can be felt in every story of depression and heartache.
On the good side, the culture cultivates a solid work ethic – the ability to tirelessly work long hours and be relentless in training.
But on the flip side, the pressure to work and produce and perform is killing people. Every night – and I’m talking about well past midnight – there are substantial numbers of people going out with their co-workers and getting absolutely hammered before the cycle of tomorrow begins.
Men and women, pushing their bodies to exhaustion and going out and drinking the night away to release the stress built up by so much… pressure.
If you throw in the different filial responsibilities, and the dutiful fulfilling of roles between those older, younger, senior at work, richer, etc, there’s another dose of expectations to fuel the pressure tank.
And then there’s the plastic surgery. The pressure to sustain a certain type of “beauty”, the crazed obsession with altering one’s appearance and slimming down to fit a paragon made up by the Lord knows who…
And then there’s my dad, speaking 5-6 times a week, writing at every open opportunity, trying to pump out five more books in the next ten years to add to his twenty already written. This pressure comes in the name of God. I admire my dad in so many ways. I worry about his health and well-being, though.
Even as I’ve visited churches (Seoul is home to many of the largest mega-churches in the world), I’ve seen the tireless culture found in churches, from early morning prayer meetings to multiple services to succumbing to the hard-charging direction of senior leaders. Pressure. I feel it everywhere.
One of my mentors, Pete Scazzero wrote a great blog post on the Tiger Pastor, a play on Amy Chua’s recent controversial book on parenting (As a sidenote, I think Chua’s book and perspective has largely been misrepresented and isn’t an entirely accurate representation of what most Asian-Americans think about parenting – see Danny’s post for some interesting reflections). Pete’s blog post about pastors certainly struck a nerve for me (If you’ve read Pete’s book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, a book I highly recommend, you’d see why I’m really fortunate to have worked and learned from the Scazzeros).
If you examine the list he laid out, much of it is all about pressure. Drivenness, workaholism, busy-bodies – these are all a result of some sort of pressure, intangible or not, that drives people to an insufferable lifestyle.
I’ve been reflecting on my own heritage and the unspoken pressures that pound my head to work, succeed, and compete, and it’s not much different than the drive that’s oozing through this country.
Even my impulse to do something right now, anything right now, is as conscious to me as ever during these past few weeks of inactivity.
I’ve started connecting the dots of my own journey to the one inextricably tied to this country.
I’ve wept a few times for Korea the past few weeks.
I’ve wept because I want the Korean people to know and experience God more deeply.
I want the people here to meet a God who commands us to rest, to sleep, to trust, to play games and to hang out with friends and family over long dinner parties.
I want family members here to meet a God who tells them that they can shed the decorum – that they can laugh and shout and become convinced that they are infinitely valuable beyond how they look or how much money they make.
I want Christians here to meet a God who delights in them more than He demands things from them.
I want Koreans to hear the liberating message of Jesus, not yet another suffocating message of endless expectations.
I’ve wept because I want to know this God deep in my bones, too.
Tina and I took her cousin ChunJoe out to lunch on Sunday. He’s a cousin who’s become a good friend – one who’s taught me how to watch NBA playoff games online for free, and one who has clued us in on how to order a good bowl of jjajjangmyen.
We shared the gospel (he’s not a Christian) with him over waffles and coffee at the end of the meal (a rather ubiquitous combination in Seoul) and I felt myself getting a bit teary.
I shared about a Jesus who loves us more than we can tell, a Jesus who relieves us of our greatest pressures because He has taken all the pressure upon Himself.
This Jesus tells us that we’re valuable despite the ways we feel like we might not measure up or the ways we feel like we’re lacking.
This Jesus tells us it’s okay to take breaks and to rest and to not have to prove anything to anyone.
This Jesus is the most liberating person in the whole world, and this is the best news a person could possibly hear.
As I was sharing, trying to hold back tears, I realized that this is the best news I’ve ever heard, and this news has saved my life in more ways than I can possibly tell…
“That’s really cool,” Chunjoe said.
“Yeah, really, really cool,” I replied, taking the time to compose myself.
“Christianity is so, so cool.”
Then I reached over and dipped the remaining waffle square in some honey and fresh whipped cream.
The waffle tasted absolutely delicious.