South Korea, 2009

I’m writing this on the plane returning from South Korea.  Once again we feel overwhelmed with Asian hospitality.  They put us in fine hotels, attended to our every need, and gave us gifts wherever we went.  (Anyone want a box of Ginseng tea?  Or was that one of the gifts we left for the hotel maids?)  Asian hosts don’t let you pay for anything, carry anything, or make any arrangements on your own.  The downside is that they think it’s a crime to leave you alone for more than 30 seconds, which gets very draining after a while.  Still, we were treated like royalty.

We got a good dose of the thriving Korean church.  I had 17 main speaking engagements and a few breakfast/luncheon/interview type things.  To give you one example, three of the talks were at a medium-sized Presbyterian church (65,000 members!) in Seoul, a conference for pastors and Christian leaders involving me, Richard Foster, and John Burke of the Gateway Church in Austin, TX.  (I’m only half-joking about 65,000 being medium-sized, as the largest church in Seoul has 700,000 members.)  The registrations sold out at 3,200, and they had quality music that rivaled the Chicago Symphony and Chorus, including an oboe concerto and an opera singer backed by a choir of 200.  After each talk they have an extended prayer time, which in Korea is something to see and hear.  All 3,200 pray aloud, at once, for 30 minutes or so, with the sound rising and falling, cued by soft background music.  Of course we did not know what they were praying, but many were openly weeping.  You experience something like that and wonder why they bring over American speakers to train them, rather than vice versa.

So many times we’re invited on these trips, which do indeed take a toll, ostensibly to encourage and inspire the church overseas and end up being the ones encouraged and inspired.  Certainly that was true here.

We also had some “off” time, after much begging and pleading (never alone, of course).  We spent a sobering day at the DMZ, the heavily armed border with North Korea, and did an engagement on JeJu Island, a volcanic island at the extreme southern tip of Korea which resembles Hawaii in many ways.  We climbed a volcano through gorgeous fall-color forest and dodged thousands of fellow hikers fully outfitted with hats, masks (to protect against H1N1 virus, I suppose) and hiking poles.

We go to some places that face major challenges, and it was refreshing to be in such an upbeat country.  Seoul is far more technologically advanced than any US city, amazing in view of the fact that hardly a building stood after the Korean War 60 years ago.  And it was thrilling to be among upbeat Christians, who now number more than 30 percent of the population and have many leadership positions in government and industry.

Copyright © 2009 by Philip Yancey