A Third Visit to Korea
Tuesday 20th February was a crisp winter day in Seoul and my body clock was slowly adjusting to a new place. I left London at 10.30, taking the bus and then the tube to Heathrow Terminal 5. Everything went swiftly. I never spoke to anyone, even when attaching my baggage label to my suitcase and printing out my boarding pass. Then I walked and kept walking through security and on to the gate. I had no time for anything else. I had to sit for ten minutes and line up for another twenty before shuffling along onto the plane.
The seat was uncomfortable, hard, and in the middle with people on either side. I had asked for more leg room but there was a wall in front of me and it was impossible to fully stretch out my knees. I failed to sleep. It was a long night, eleven hours sitting in the plane before we touched down in Seoul. I tried to watch a harmless film on Christopher Robin, but the meal came in the middle of it and so I lost the plot. The flight was a bit tedious but I was safe and warm and one has to bite the bullet and endure it with as much Christian contentment as possible. I’d preached on Sunday morning on Acts 27 and Paul travelling to Rome — my journey was sheer luxury compared to his.
When I arrived, immigration was the normal, long shuffling queues (though my actual contact with the official hardly lasted a minute) and my case was one of the first on the carousel — I had successfully attached the tag! An old friend was awaiting me, a pastor I had preached for on my previous two visits. He had studied at the London Seminary and also in Union, and knew many of the things that were happening in the UK.
Arriving in Seoul
It was a bright, sunny day, but there was ice on the ponds and we drove through two hours of heavy traffic to Seoul, talking away. We finally came to a hotel, the Olympia, built for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. I had rooms on the sixteenth floor, overlooking the Olympics park. There was a monster of a TV with several BBC and American English channels. and of course, there was plenty of coverage of the Winter Olympics.
I slept, deeply and weakly, for a couple of hours. I had wanted to stay awake for the next three or four hours to allow a better pattern of sleep for that night and the next day. I was left there for myself for 24 hours. The pastor came at five on Wednesday to pick me up and take me to the church for the first of three messages on Scripture that I was giving his people. He interpreted for me.
I read and wrote my letters and thought of all that was lovely to me almost eight thousand miles away, but I have letter contact. How small the world has become.
Later, I went out for a walk in the Olympia park but the hill in the centre was very steep and the temperature was freezing. The brook that ran through it was a trickle, and there was ice all along the edges. Two herons looked dejected as they crouched, gazing at the water. There were plenty of people walking about but I was glad to turn around and get back to the hotel. I slept on the settee for an hour and was ready for the senior pastor to pick me up and take me to the evening meeting.
My dear friend Chang Won Shu was that organiser of this trip to Korea and it was he who picked me up. He travels too, he had recently returned from Sri Lanka and soon we were joined by the pastor of the church where I was to be preaching that night and the following two nights. They took me for a Korean meal. I guess the waitress brought twenty different dishes to the table, many of which were quite delicious. Then we went to the church. What an experience!
They are in the last stages of erecting a two thousand seat auditorium. At present, they have four congregations of 500 people each Sunday. Within a couple of months, they will have just this large one. The building has eight stories, four of which are underground car parks. I stood in the pulpit in the half-completed building (no seating yet and concrete everywhere) and quotes loudly from Ephesians 2 then prayed.
Downstairs, the large auditorium held about five hundred. It was pretty full and I had much liberty and peace in preaching — through Chang Won Shu — on ‘No man spake like this man.’ There were lovely waves of amens as I preached on Christ’s authority, claims, and promises. It was a happy start for me and I was not long back in my hotel room before I was overwhelmed with tiredness. But alas, by 2.30 I was alert again. So I write a letter and hoped that I would soon feel sleepy.
There was nothing to do the next day until 7.30pm when I preached my second message on Scripture, this time its sufficiency. But I had happy thoughts and planned for the spring, seeing my way out of one particular little log jam. I will be glad to have completed my month in the USA in March and April. No translators needed there!
On Friday, I woke to see a carpet of snow everywhere: a beautiful sight. The conference finished that evening and the following day we would travel two hundred miles to a remote part of Korea where there has been snot for much of the Winter, to the church where Chang Won Shu has been the pastor for about a year. Then we would drive all the way back to Seoul on Monday for the main conference.
The church building where the meetings were held, as I said, was very impressive. There were 300-400 at both services and one night the choir sang, as well as a group of about fifty tiny children, and in the second meeting a man sang ‘Amazing Grace’ with a teenage choir. A girl asked me afterwards to sign a Korean translation of my book on Killing Remaining Sin. It was twice the size of the USA edition as it had English on one side and Korean on the other page and was nicely published. I did not know that it had been translated into Korean.
The preaching was well received. I preached for fifty minutes with the interpreter. Chang does very well but there are bits, about twice in each sermon, when he cannot understand me. My fault! Then there were the waves of amens that often roll across the congregation (made up of 70% women). They were a well-to-do group, well dressed and looking fashionable. They listened intently and all showed respect to me as the aged preacher.
When I got into the hotel elevator at the end of the day, the automatic voice seemed to say, ‘Winifred Attewell.’ Of course, she was not saying that. She was saying ‘The doors are closing’ in Korean, but it sounds like the name of the ragtime piano player of the fifties.
A pale sun continued to look down over the brook and the carpet of snow the following day. I did not go out again until the final meeting.
So the first conference on Scripture had come and gone, and I thought that the weakest of the messages was the one on the infallibility of Christ and the Bible. There were many fine features, for example, the same sized crowd of 300 or more, came each night although we had competition from the Olympics. The crowds kept coming, and it was the first time they had had a non-Korean speaker in the pulpit and had had to listen through a translator. They sang translations of Sankey hymns, such as ‘Sing Them Over Again to Me, Wonderful Words of Life’ and I could join in and sing the English words. We had two choir items and earnest prayer. The pastor spoke for a long time afterwards and then they were all asked to show their appreciation of me in a long burst of applause. Lots of people took my photo with their children; I was quite touched.
A Trip South
Saturday morning, we were off at 6am. We drove 180 miles south-east to the small town where Chang Won Shu is the new pastor. We had to get there by 9.15 because he had to take the funeral of a young woman at 10.30. We made it, travelling at a steady 80mph, even with a break for some breakfast.
I was anticipating the next day when I would preach in the local church, the first time for them, once again, when they would hear a non-Korean preach in the pulpit. Then on the Monday, we would return to Seoul and I would preach ten times, I think, over the three days.
On Sunday morning, we arrived at church and it was very impressive — 350 filled the place. Good singing too, they didn’t play the guitars or the drums, the pastor has inherited them. He is in his first year, and maybe he used me to dispense with them. We used the traditional way of worship and the preachers and leaders took our shoes off before going up the steps to the pulpit, preaching in our socks, and standing on large cushions.
The pastor told me he had enjoyed hearing me preach a message on the rich man and Lazarus and asked if I would preach it again that morning. I preached a new one in the evening. Once again, we sang the song ‘I am so Glad that Jesus Loves Me’. There was excellent hearing and lots of photos with families afterwards, then we all stayed in the vast dining room for lunch. It was something they do every Sunday but no one hung around, they ate and went home pronto. A woman with Alzheimer’s and her husband asked to see me for prayer.
Back to Seoul
Monday was an eventful day. I woke at 3am and could not sleep again any more than a half hour snooze. We breakfasted at 7.30am and then drove the 180 miles back to Seoul, I sitting in the front seat with Chang Won and his wife in the back. We spoke until we were about 45 minutes from our destination where the traffic was bumper to bumper and he grew tense. He had a faculty meeting at 11.30, reviewing his tenure as professor. We seemed bound to be twenty minutes late but eventually got there spot on.
After his satisfactory ten minute interview, we had some food and then I gave the first address on the family at two thirty. For the first half hour I was ok, but then I became quite ill. I came out in a sweat. I threw off my coat but it got worse. I tried to preach sitting down, but to no improvement and, sweating profusely, I lost consciousness for a few seconds.
The folk gathered round very sympathetically and after ten minutes I got to the faculty room. They had a bed there and then the paramedics arrived. My blood pressure was normal. A doctor, a young woman in the conference, turned up and was easy to understand. I told her is had had these attacks before but not for a few years. So they left me to rest on the bed for a couple of hours and my strength returned. I ate a plate of fruit and was ready by the time I had to give the second address, the first on the three offices of Christ — the lamb of God. I almost made it to the end but then I felt I was going to be sick and said amen and hurried out, joined by Chang Won. The nausea and weakness went very quickly and in thirty minutes we arrived in another fine hotel. The preaching, I think, had gone well.
The conference went well but was crazily busy. I had four sermons to preach on the Tuesday and also on Wednesday. I had preached two on the Monday — ten in that conference plus the two on Sunday, and three in the previous week’s conference, fifteen in all. Six were on the Christian family, three on the work of Christ, three on Scripture, and three inspirational sermons — all through an interpreter. I can’t remember when I last preached four fifty minute sermons in a day, and certainly never doing the same the next day, but I felt fine. I am a preacher, it is what I have done for over fifty years. I had a wobble on the Monday, a combination of a bug which had weakened me a few weeks previously, and a vasavagal attack. But I was surrounded by friends. What if it had happened in a shop or an airport and no one knew me?
The rogues slipped in a sixth sermon on the family and so I split the fifth into two. We stopped a little early, and there was consternation all over the face of the chairman. ‘It is only 10.40 and we are not to finish for another half an hour.’ Horrors! I told him we could have Q& A and start the next session early. He seemed unimpressed, but Chang Won Shu came along and that is precisely what we did.
At the end of the second session we actually had the question session. What questions! An older man talked of the Korean custom of the oldest son caring for his parents, but his wife didn’t get on with his parents. What should he do? Then his second question was that they had adopted an orphan, but his wife did not get on with him either. I told him his prime duty in that case was to his wife, but felt sorry for this man and his parents and adopted son. At one point there was a question about celibacy, and another on domineering wives, and another on husbands who would not act as heads of their wives.
March 1st, St David’s Day, was my one empty day at the end of the conference. I spent it at the 60th birthday of Chang Won Shu’s wife. It was held in a restaurant with a dozen courses of food followed by Happy Birthday in English and blowing out candles and cutting the cake. Then I called in at a shop, and spent the evening with Chang Won Shu’s daughter and her husband who took me to the airport on Friday morning. Looking back the time flew by.
Reflections and a Cause for Rejoicing
Korea is so like the UK in many ways. The people are so like us and their way of life as Christians so like ours, our desires and enthusiasms and joys. Apart from the language barrier I was immediately at home. They also have the same pressures of materialism.
There are the same family problems with bored teenagers not attending services and the temptations of the flesh that some respond to with self-harming; there is the same decline of the evening service and the mid-week meeting and in observing the Lord’s Day. Those vapid hopes and promises in Church Growth suggestions to increase the numbers in congregations are given serious contemplation and application, to the same non-effect and disappointment; there is the same drum kit everywhere in churches but here they announce they are made by Yamaha. There is the same personality cult of the big preachers. I was told that when John Piper went there he was disgusted with the promotion of him and his personality that had been used in the advertising and his presentation in church meetings, and he vowed he would not return to such worldliness — and hasn’t. I wonder is that true? There are not many awakening ministries. They are like us.
There are differences too. The currency, for example. There are 1200 won for a pound. Working out the prices of things need a GCSE in maths. There are the vast impersonal tower blocks of flats, maybe half a million of them, maybe double that, forests of skyscrapers for a thousand square miles. They are the homes of the ten million people living in Seoul. No terraced houses or detached homes. Just the ubiquitous flats. When the lift broke down in Chang Won Shu’s apartment block he had to climb up 23 storeys and his cases had to be carried up all that way. The roads are magnificent, often eight lane highways, and many tunnels through the mountains. In the city there are miles of high glass and perspex screen the keep the noise of the traffic from the apartment blocks. It is like driving through a massive greenhouse. There are no potholes In the roads and the weather is marked by more extremes than ours. What do our local governments do with the millions in fines it takes from us for minor traffic violations? Why doesn’t it repair our roads? *Heavy sigh of exasperation.*
How elegant the people of Korea are dressed and how attractive they look: the shops are like the West End and they bustle. There are all the big designer stores in Seoul. There are bi-lingual New Testaments in the hotel rooms too. The congregations for the morning services are bigger than in the U.K. The denomination of Presbyterian churches whose pastors I was preaching for has three million members, more that the entire population of Wales, and it has 12,000 churches. There are more Presbyterians in Korea than Roman Catholics. There are 52 million people living in South Korea, and they hosted the Winter Olympics with much success. Yet there are warning signs that all is not well, hence their decision to ask me to speak six times on the family. The death rate is now larger than the birth rate as the average size of the children of a family shrinks to just over one.
Yet there is a wonderful godliness and hunger for Christ like living among the remnant, just as there is in Britain, and I was refreshed to be there on my third visit. To sing metrical psalms with them from the Geneva Hymnal and also to sing gospel songs was a special delight. I met a wonderful couple again with whom I had spent some days three years ago. She was then disconsolate because they could have no children, and I had sought to lift up the downcast. She came to the service on Wednesday night carrying their baby girl. I rejoiced with them.
I was a recipient of so much kindness and love from them it was, to use that hackneyed word, awesome. They love the Lord.
I was thrilled when an English professor talked to me and told me he was anxious to translate my book on the Holy Spirit into Korean. What an honour! Chang Won Shu, who again organised it all, is a wonderful man and a superb translator. He bought a ticket to fly to Llanelli last month to be present at the funeral service of his friend Dr. Eifion Evans whom he respected so much. Eifion had help support him when he studied for three years in Edinburgh. I hope we will always be friends. I owe him much, and I had not taken him a bar of chocolate . . .
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Amen — ‘A Sound Like Thunder’ 4 February 2020
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