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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sermon, Ephesians 4:6-10

This is not my usual kind of post. It is a reworking of a sermon I prepared for services at Redeemer ICC, Busan, on June 25th, 2017. I had six weeks to prepare, and I used them well. I consulted a lot with my friend Rick VanManen, prayed lots, studied lots, and thought lots. It was the most thoroughly prepared sermon I have ever delivered. In an attempt to make up for the nuances and gestures that come with a sermon delivered to a congregation. I am using one trick that I would not normally use in writing: during the sermon I used three different accents to portray different roles. I have represented those accents here by using different fonts. In addition, I have used bold-faced type whenever I am quoting scripture, and italics when I am using words in Hebrew.

I feel the need to emphasize that this is not my usual writing style, because it was not written to be read, but heard. I have tried to figure out how to make it work on the page/screen, but I'm still not really satisfied with it.  So here is a link to the video of me giving the sermon. It opens in a separate window, in case you want to listen as you read. The sound quality is good, and I managed to stay within the visual field the whole time, for your viewing pleasure.

Gifts Throughout All Generations
June 25th, 2017

Hi! My name is Rob Sack. I come from Kansas, in the United States. as in "Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more." I've lived in Busan for about 15 of the last 20 years. Whoever is reading this, I pray that God's Word would shine out through this message as you read, and that the Word would move with power, changing changing you, drawing you closer to Jesus. Even my atheist friends out there. I know you all don't mind.

7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 9 (in saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) Ephesians 4:7-10

A few weeks ago I had a bicycle accident. It was not very serious, a few scrapes that have for the most part healed. Then just over a week ago, Maxine fell down while running around outside at school. Twice, I believe. She got a little scraping of her own, and I had the opportunity to return the favor of applying iodine to her injury. If you have not had iodine solution applied to a scrape, you are missing out on a uniquely painful experience. I suggest that you try to avoid it. At bedtime that night, Maxine asked me if I had cried after my accident. I replied honestly that I had not, as the pain was not very intense, but that I had indeed cried four or five times during the past month. She asked me when, and I told her that one was after I said goodbye to my friend Rick. One time was while we were singing "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" at church. And one time that I cried might have been watching Wonder Woman. I mean, finally DC manages to produce a good superhero movie! With a female lead! Who wouldn’t be moved to tears? 

Two times were with two different friends. They were in very different situations, but both had felt a combination of betrayal, loss, and being let down by people they had trusted. I felt their pain, and wept with them. Since my conversation with Maxine, we have had American Father’s Day. There were many joyful posts on Facebook, but also many friends who mourn a father-shaped hole in their hearts on this day.

Sometimes life just seems to pile on us, burying us so that we can’t breathe or see the light. All we can smell is the smoke of a fire that has destroyed the homes of friends and family. All we can see are chalk outlines on the ground. All we can feel is the emptiness left when a loved one has died. We can so easily think that everything is being taken away. When we are suffering it can be hard to even look at scripture like the one in front of us today. So we come together, and together we call on God, and together we read God’s Word. And together we try to understand.

The first thing I noticed was that verse seven starts with the word “but.” Why the “but?” What’s so different between the previous verses and this one? Let’s take a look at verses 4 through 6:

There is one body and one Spirit-just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

These verses focus on grace given to the one body, the Church. The collective us. The next set of verses get into the nature of those individual gifts, with the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers. Now we are making a minor transition back to us as individuals, as in the first three verses of Ephesians 4. Now verse 7 tells us this:

But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (v7)

In other words, we each, as individuals, receive the full measure of God’s grace. Not just as a group. Christ’s gift in verse 7 is the gift of His own life to save us. Grace comes to us because of that gift, and to each of us, regardless of how low we have been, the grace we receive is measured by that sacrifice. And that is amazing. That God’s full measure of forgiveness is given to me! That’s God’s full measure of grace is given to you! 

A couple of weeks ago Matthew told us that physics doesn’t work so well on faith and God, and this is an example of how math doesn’t work: the grace that I have received from God is not the answer to “God’s total grace divided by the number of people to whom it has been given.” It’s not a division problem. The answer is, God gives me all of it! And God gives YOU all of it! And God gives the full measure of peace to YOU! And God gives the full measure of Joy in all things to YOU! All of God’s love is poured into EACH. ONE. OF. YOU.

Of course, this also means that you have no excuses. If you think that you can just BE in church, as a spectator, watching from the sidelines, Paul is delivering you a kick in the pants. You have received an amazing gift. Use it. Moving on to verse 8:

Verse 8: Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”

What does “he ascended” mean? It is pretty clearly The Ascension. After the resurrection, Jesus spent 40 days on Earth before being “taken up into heaven.” (Luke 24:51) We’ll talk more about this in relation to verse 10. Let’s move on to “A host of captives?” Who are these captives? The bad guys? Herod? Pilate? No, of course not. This is no superhero movie. The captives are sin and death. The gifts that God gave to men will be covered in next week’s sermon, but if you don’t mind spoilers, you can just read on through verse 16. I am sure that if you do so, you will still be able to enjoy next week’s sermon.

But the key word in verse 8 is “it”, as in “Therefore it says.” Paul is clearly quoting something. He’s stepping outside of himself, calling on a higher authority. He’s doing something he hasn’t done yet in Ephesians, though he will do it again one more time. 

Once again let me say, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore. Of course, this is a quote from a movie called “The Wizard of Oz.” Dorothy has just arrived in a magical land. She walks out of her home, which is in black and white, and into a world of color. You should keep in mind that many people watching this in movie theaters back in 1939 were seeing color on the screen for the very first time! Before this, movies were all in black and white!

Why am I bringing this up? Because I am doing something similar to what Paul did in verse 8. It is similar in four ways I can see:
  1. Paul I are quoting something familiar to some, if not most of our audience.
  2. You can look it up easily, and become more familiar with if you wish to.
  3. The quote we are using is not exactly right.
  4. We are both doing it to help you understand a deeper point, as well as to shake you up a bit.
We will discover Paul’s deeper point as we work through the passage. But my deeper point is one which I often refer to in my preaching: casting ourselves into the Bible, not just looking into the Bible, but looking out at the world through the Bible. And so today I intend to help you hear these words as Paul’s original congregation at Ephesus may have heard them. In other words, we’re not in Kansas anymore. Or even Korea. We’re in Ephesus.

It has been a generation since Jesus rose from the dead and went to Heaven. There are still people alive who met him, but none in this congregation. Paul came and started this church not too many years ago. Now we continue to meet. We pray. We read the scriptures aloud and discuss them. We break bread together in remembrance of Jesus’ last night with His disciples.

And when we receive a letter from Paul, one of us reads it out loud to the whole group. Maybe straight through without stopping the first time, because it’s so exciting to hear from him. And those of you who met him can testify, reading his words is like hearing his voice, am I right? But later, we stop and talk as we read, maybe taking a few meetings to get all the way through it. This time we stop when the reader says: Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (Ephesians 4:8) And someone asks, “Where do I know that from? Paul is definitely quoting something. It’s so familiar!”

Now I need to drag you back to the real world, here in Busan. In 2017. What is the “it” that Paul is quoting here? It is, in fact, Psalm 68. Before we go on, this could get very confusing as we jump back and forth between now and back then, so I am going to refer to the separate times as "layers." Here and now is Layer 1, reality. The church in Ephesus, around A.D. 62, is Layer 2. So now back into Layer 2:

Someone says, “It’s from the Jewish Bible, right?” And someone else chimes in “You know, I think it’s a verse from Psalm 68.” Right! Psalm 68 is song called “God Shall Scatter His Enemies,” one of David’s rousing, foot pounding numbers. Like a first century version of “Onward Christian Soldiers”. Here’s a sampling:

God shall arise, his enemies be scattered;
Those who hate him shall flee!
But the righteous shall be glad;
And jubilant before God!
(Psalm 68:1,3 modified)
God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered;
And those who hate him shall flee before him
But the righteous shall be glad;
They shall exult before God;
They shall be jubilant with joy!
(original Psalm 68:1,3)

The entire song is about God’s power, and how the enemies of God will submit or meet a gruesome end. It’s a lot more intense than the kind of praise song you hear back in Layer 1. Take time to read it this week, let me know what you think on the Face-to-Face-Conversation (because here in Layer 2 the Internet hasn’t been invented yet, much less Facebook).

You’ve been studying us Ephesians for a while now. What do you know about us, based on Paul’s letter so far? Of course! Most of us are Gentiles! So how would a bunch of first century Gentiles be familiar with the Jewish Bible? We learned it from the earliest Christians, who were all originally Jewish of course! Think of what Paul wrote to Timothy:

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)

What does he mean by scripture? We in Layer 2 are reading this before the New Testament will be compiled in the form you know in Layer 1. Paul is referring to the Jewish Bible, what you call the Old Testament. And at our church in Ephesus would are somewhat familiar with the Jewish Bible, so we noticed the connection. We do not have individual Bibles as you do in Layer 1, much less electronic, cross-referenced, pocket-sized versions. For that matter, none of us have a single book called a “Bible” at all. Collectively we have copies of the gospels (including Acts), and some of the early letters, of Paul and John, maybe James. We have copies of some of the Old Testament books, but almost certainly not all of them. Paper is expensive, as is the expertise to copy a scroll with no errors. I believe that compared to you, in Layer 1, we are much more likely to have large portions of scripture memorized, as books are so expensive here. So we depend on each other to make, and share, connections between what was written in the letters and gospels to the Hebrew Bible. Much like what you do in your Life Groups, I’m sure. We notice this connection, but no one in our congregation is really an expert on Psalm 68. We kick it around for a while, try to remember all the words, and do some research, but Wikipedia is taking an extremely long time to load. So we go to the local synagogue and ask the Rabbi to help us understand Psalm 68.

Welcome!” says the Rabbi. “So you don’t know from Psalm 68? I think that I can help you. Let’s take a look.” He finds the right scroll and reads from it:

You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious, that the LORD God may dwell there. Psalm 68:18

Wait a minute! Paul got something wrong! His letter says:

Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” Ephesians 10:8

We ask the Rabbi a key question: who is the he in this verse?

King David, of course!” says the Rabbi. “He was a conquering hero! Of course his people gave him the best of the spoils of the battle!”

We are all struck by the differences: the earthly king David taking tribute, the heavenly king Jesus giving gifts. The earthly king David taking human captives, the heavenly king Jesus making captives of sin and death! Yet both are God’s emissaries. What else can we learn from this tradition? We ask the priest, what spoils? What battle?

The priest sets aside the Psalm and says, “The answer is here in The Chronicles of Israel, though you can also find the same story in the Book of the Kings of Israel.” He opens the scroll of 1 Chronicles and reads:

So David and the elders of Israel and the commanders of thousands went to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD from the house of Obed-edom with rejoicing. And because God helped the Levites who were carrying the ark of the covenant of the LORD, they sacrificed seven bulls and seven rams. David was clothed with a robe of fine linen, as also were all the Levites who were carrying the ark, and the singers and Chenaniah the leader of the music of the singers. And David wore a linen ephod. So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the LORD with shouting, to the sound of the horn, trumpets, and cymbals, and made loud music on harps and lyres. 1 Chronicles 15:25-28

The Rabbi tells us to imagine Jerusalem, the City of David, almost a thousand years ago. And with that, he takes us into Layer 3, almost 3,000 years before your Layer 1.

We are standing on top of the gate to the city that we instantly recognize as Jerusalem. Though it is only half the size it will be in Layer two, it seems to have twice as many people! They line the road leading into town, and fill the streets inside the walls. We are standing with an old man wearing the robes of a priest. You picked the best possible day to be here,” he says. 

We see a procession coming down the road. Men carrying a large box that brilliantly reflects the golden rays of the sun as they slowly make their way to the city. It is a parade like no other.

The old priest continues: “The men carrying the Ark are Levites who have been consecrated, ceremonially purified, so that they may approach the seat of Adonai, and touch it without dying. Adonai is the giver of gifts, but He demands respect. Israel will surely be blessed by the return of the Most High. Baruch Hashem.” (Blessed be God)

The procession draws closer. We see people dancing, playing instruments and singing. Leading the procession is a dancer who seems to be challenging all of the others to keep up with his energy and feeling. He is breathing heavily, and the sweat pours off of him, but he continues, his every move sending a message of joy that we clearly receive, even from up on the wall. His clothes are disheveled, and he appears half mad with adoration. We ask the old priest, “Who is that dancer in front of the others?”

That is his royal majesty, King David, appointed by the prophet Sh’mu’el (Samuel), slayer of tens of thousands, ruler of all Israel in the name of Adonai.

When we express our surprise, he laughs. “I know. One expects dignity from a King, but David has always been willing to humble himself before The Lord. And the return of the Ark of the Covenant is a gift like none other. Not since we were delivered from Egypt …”

The old priest attempts to take us down into Layer 4, to show us the Exodus. God rescuing, redeeming his people Israel from Egypt, when they had done nothing to deserve such a gift. From there we could easily slip into Layer 5, to witness God granting to Jacob the gift of sons who would found the 12 tribes of Israel, including his son Joseph who would save them all from starvation in Canaan. From Layer 5 to Layer 6, where God gives Abram and Sarai new names, and children that outnumber the stars. To Layer 7, in which God gives Noah and his family the gift of life when the world deserves nothing but death. Until we finally reach the lowest Layer, the Foundation in which God gives The Word.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. John 1:1

Then God said, “Let there be light”’ and there was light. Genesis 1:3

We have returned to Ephesus, recovering in awe from the journey we’ve been on. It all comes back to Jesus. All the gifts of God throughout the ages, the greatest gift being Jesus himself. Suddenly we understand why Paul has used this line from Psalm 68. We remember the words of Luke, the healer, in his book about the life and death of Jesus. In it, Jesus said to them,

These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44)

Paul is helping us to see that all of history has led inevitably to this ultimate gift. He has gotten his deeper point across.

And we, back here in Layer 1, the 21st century, realize that we are not really so far removed from the church at Ephesus in the first century. So that was verse 8. Let’s move on to verse 9.

Verse 9: (in saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?

Well, what does it mean that Jesus descended to Earth? It means the incarnation of God. God taking human form, walking with us physically. Feeling what we feel. Making friends. Being hungry. Laughing. Being tempted. God giving God’s self to us. The gift that literally never stops giving.

Verse 10: He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

Jesus was incarnated, died, was resurrected, then returned to Heaven: The Ascension. Some people brush past the Ascension, which is an understandable mistake: the Gospels of Matthew and John don’t mention it directly at all. But the Ascension of Jesus is very important. Jesus says so himself in the gospel of John:

Let not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” John 14:1-4

So Jesus ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. To clarify this one, all we need to do is back up to Ephesians chapter 3 verse 19:

and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:19)

We are being filled with the fullness of God: God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s wisdom, God’s gifts. Jesus is filling all things because He returned to God. As beautiful as it must have been to be with Jesus on Earth, as much good as he did, and could have continued to do, Jesus could only complete His work after His return to heaven: As our scripture today reads, he ascended so that he would be able to fill each of us with the fullness of God.

I have two applications for you in this coming week. One is a daily, and the other is a one shot. I don’t want you to be distracted by having too many things to do. The one time application is to read Psalm 68 all the way through. Try to imagine how it reads from Layers 2 and 3 rather than just how we see it from here in Layer 1. It's a big one, and it might take you awhile to get through it, but don't give up!

The other application is a daily one: I want you to search for the gifts of God in every situation that you find yourself in. Write down what you see, or tell someone about them. Or both. The Church at Ephesus no doubt came to better recognize the gift of Jesus through Paul’s letter.

When Dorothy returns to Kansas at the end of The Wizard of Oz, she finds that the dear friends she made in the magical land are her friends from the farm where she lived all along. Though she does end up back in Kansas, Oz is still with her. Though she no longer has the Ruby Slippers, she still has the gift of the friendships she built. She found the gift.

In the past month I received a rare gift: the return of a friend from far away. Many of you met Rick, and saw the two of us laughing at each other’s dumb jokes, watching superhero movies together, and eating way more than we should have. When he emailed me to say that he was visiting Korea earlier this year,, I was like a kid waiting for Christmas morning. As a grown up, I rarely get excited over receiving things, and when I do that excitement does not last. But I recognized that this would be a gift to remember, a true blessing from God. Goodbyes have been a part of my life for so very long, but they only become easy when I don’t let people into my heart. It’s not worth avoiding the heartbreak, so I still let people in, though I know there are always more goodbyes coming.

God’s gifts are not just coming at some future time. They have been arriving throughout all generations, and will continue, forever and ever. Look for the joy hidden in your heartache. Remember that heartache comes from trust, and trust comes through love, and all love comes from God. When you feel betrayed remember that Jesus faced betrayal on his path to the cross, but that path led to the heavens. If you’ve lost something, remember that you can’t grab something new while holding on to something old. Remember that when you bought a ticket for Suicide Squad you were actually paying for Wonder Woman.

I challenge you to notice and give thanks for one gift every day. Just sit down at the end of the day and remember, pray, read your Bible, and give thanks for that gift. It doesn’t have to be a genuine, certified miracle. It can be something small. Being thankful is a good habit.

And if all the gifts you can think of have turned out to be empty boxes, amusing for a short time then thrown out with the trash, maybe it’s time to accept the one gift that is forever: the gift of God’s grace. Pray about it. Send me a message on Facebook (or the old school Face to Face conversation), or drop in on my Life Group. Or talk to someone here that you feel comfortable with. Whatever you do, don’t let one more day go by without opening yourself up to God’s amazing gifts, prepared for you from the beginning of time! Today I’ve tried to give you a glimpse through Paul’s words of how God has given so much to his people throughout history. And like any gift, it can be refused. But why would you refuse it? Why not accept life?

Let us pray.

Dear Jesus, thank you for the gifts that you continue to give to us. Thank you for your grace that sets us free from sin and death. Thank you for your rich and beautiful Word, the Bible, that helps us to better understand you and your will for our lives. Awaken in each of us a hunger to have more of it. Help us all to get into our Bibles so that we can look out at the world more like you do. We pray in your name, the one who fills us with the fullness of God, Amen.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

The Best Birthday Present

My second best birthday present this year was a pocket watch. It's a bit sad that it came in second, especially since I picked it out myself. And paid for it myself. And opened it all by myself. It is mechanical, with crystal front and back so you can see the works, and a wood ring in the cover. I made the mistake of searching for an online photo instead of just taking a picture myself, and found that I could have purchased it for much less than I did. Thanks, China.

It's a wind-up, so no battery to replace. It looks nice, but the face is too busy, and the hands too scrolly, making it a bit hard to read, especially in dim light. It's really more of a show piece than a time piece, so I'm not sure how long I will use it. But it's nice, nonetheless.

The best birthday present this year will stick with me quite a while. Though it is impossible to say whether it will outlive the watch, I suspect that it will still have life long after the watch and I have parted company. My birthday was on Tuesday, and I was teaching a class at Kyungsung right after lunch*. This semester Tuesday is my first day with classes at the university, so it has a Mondayish vibe to it. Not as bad as a real Monday, but I still had that just-woke-up feeling, compounded by making a cross-town trip to drop off library books during my two-hour lunch break. One of my best students in that class, I'll call her Jackie** was sitting in the front row drinking a soda in class. Something about that soda was nagging at my Mondayeque mind as we worked through the vocabulary for the lesson. At one point in my powerpoint, there was an example sentence: "The students cut class to drink beer. Bad students!"

That's when the lightening struck me, right in the figuratively: that soda was not a soda. It was a can, like soda, but much taller. I stopped teaching, and pointed at it, and asked the traditional question for seeking clarification: "Whaaaaaat....?" Quickly followed by, "Is that......?" I picked up the can, observed that it was about 2/3 full, and smelled it, on the off chance that she had rinsed it out and filled it with cold, pure, innocent water. It smelled more like debauchery.† In my classroom. On a desk. In the front row. I then moved in for the verbal kill. "Why do you have beer in my class?"

Jackie informed me that she was thirsty.

This reminded me of a lesson which I constantly drill into my students: you should construct your question based on the answer that you are hoping to hear. Of course, I had had no such answer in mind, and cannot even now imagine an answer that would be satisfactory.††

One key to being a good teacher is having an automatic set of responses to given circumstances. When a student is playing with their phone, I first make eye contact or tap their desk, going for subtle, then mention it in front of the class for the second offense, then take it away if they do so again, forcing them to come talk to me after class.‡

Somehow, in my fifteen years of teaching in Korea, I had never thought of how I would respond to that particular circumstance, so I'm afraid that I may have been a bit incoherent in dealing with it. Eventually it occurred to me to move the offensive can out of site, so I did. Then I continued teaching, with no more than a dozen call-backs to the beer in class during the final twenty minutes of class. When class was finished we had a little talk, which included promises and apologies: she apologized for ruining my birthday, and I promised to show up drunk at her next family reunion by way of returning the favor.‡‡

The gift that keeps on giving is a good story. I love this story because I spent the afternoon of my birthday laughing about it, as well as a hefty portion of that class time. And if you, dear reader, have laughed at any point in reading this story, then it was definitely the best birthday present ever.

* For some reason, the university still refuses to make my birthday an official holiday.
** A bright, bouncy name, which matches her personality, but has no phonetic similarity to her actual name, for reasons which will become clear in the next paragraph.
† Which smells remarkably like beer and lip gloss.
†† "That's not mine!" would likely come the closest, followed closely by, "I thought you were thirsty."
‡ Because who would leave behind that significant portion of their soul?
‡‡ No, I didn't.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Return to Korea

The plane lands, and taxis to the gate. At the moment the fasten seatbelts light turns off, a man sprints past me. We are sitting in the fifth row from the tail of the plane. He makes it forward about five more rows before he is slowed, if not stopped, by everyone else springing up to get their luggage from the overhead bins and secure their place in the queue to escape the flying death lozenge.

We are definitely back in Korea. This is our sixth flight, three to get to Kansas, three to get back, and this is the only time I've seen the passengers go nuts as though there were special prizes for those first off the plane, rather than the same interminable waits (immigration, baggage claim, customs) that we will all endure. And this is after the announcement that we will be taking busses through the rain to get to the terminal!

I don't even wake the kids up until the people behind us are starting to move. We're the last ones off the plane, exhausted, red-eyed, stiff and sore. But the flight crew doesn't seem to mind. They know how far we've come, why we act like zombies, eyes laced with sand, bodies beaten down, tears of departure dried on our cheeks, and stomachs heavy yet jittery with airline food and too much coffee. They know for the same reason the crews of the two previous flights knew: I said so in our thank you card.

While preparing for this trip I found myself with a small problem: I had purchased a ton* of hard candies to give to my students after finishing their oral exams. I then neglected to bring the bag of candy with me on the two days with the most testing, so I was left with a lot more candy than I like to have around.** So I bought some gift boxes on which were written some clever thank you puns in Korean.***

On the first flight, I gave it to an attendant at the very end, then we went off to find our next flight. But on the 11 hour haul from Tokyo to Dallas, Quinten and I went to the back and handed it to some of them in the middle of the flight. I explained the Korean pun on the package, and told them that I really appreciate how strenuous their job is, and how it often appears thankless. Then we sat back down.

Some time later they brought me ice cream. The kids were asleep or they would have gotten some, too. Real ice cream, with hot fudge sauce, in a glass cup, a little taste of first class, I guess. Later they brought me four little hospitality bags, the kind they used to give to everyone who flew. There was a little toothbrush and toothpaste, socks, a blindfold, lotion, mouthwash, and a pen. The bag itself was real, if a bit cheap. It made a good replacement for the ziplock I had been using to carry our little medicine kit.

And that stuff was nice enough, but what struck me most was that at some point I think every member of the flight crew stopped by to say thank you. This happened on every flight in which I gave our gift early, though I can't be sure that every crew member talked to us every time. On the Tokyo to Dallas flight, the lead crew member herself came and talked to me, close to tears. She told me that people like us are the reason most of them get into this career: they like to help people get through a time that can be stressful and unpleasant.

I didn't witness any horror stories on our six flights, but we all know that they happen. I remember only one crying baby from the entire trip, but I've been on long international flights with children who definitely did not want to be there. My kids both hurled on the Tokyo to Dallas flight. I managed to mobilize the airsickness bags in time, but you know that there can't be a 100% success rate with that sort of thing. People on planes are sometimes deep down scared, which leads them to make poor choices. And even if everything else goes well, the crew is working an eleven hour shift, with nowhere to be away from the job.

Before the return flight I bought a mix of American candy, and had the kids prepare cards to go in the gift bags. In fact, I'm planning do this on every international flight we take. Not for the ice cream, or the thank yous, but because it feels good to let people know that they are valued, and this is a behavior I absolutely want to model for my kids.

I hope that you will take the opportunity to make someone feel valued. And for what it's worth, you could do a lot worse than giving them candy!

* Assuming that each piece of candy weighed about five pounds each.

** I will happily eat chocolate every day for the rest of my life, but I cannot easily set aside the fact that a hard candy is basically a little lump of refined sugar.

*** A picture of four persimmons, which sounds like "thank you" in Korean if you fudge the grammar a little bit.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Boy's Life--a book review

A few months ago my Aunt Becky recommended a book to me, Boy's Life by Robert McCammon. I popped over to (click here to buy the book) and bought it on sale for $2.99. Definitely a bargain. As I was reading it I made a mental note to thank my aunt, which I did. Then I made a mental note to recommend it to others, which I didn't, because by the end I decided that I had to push this book harder than a blurt on Facebook.

So I will link to this review from Facebook, where I will post a much, much shorter review and Amazon link.

But for you, my loyal Roblog readers, an excerpt. This is the last page of the prologue. The narrator is talking about his home town of Zephyr, Alabama.

          We had a dark queen who was one hundred and six years old. We had a gunfighter who saved the life of Wyatt Earp at the O.K. Corral. We had a monster in the river, and a secret in the lake. We had a ghost that haunted the road behind the wheel of a black dragster with flames on the hood. We had a Gabriel and a Lucifer, and a rebel that rose from the dead. We had an alien invader, a boy with a perfect arm, and we had a dinosaur loose on Merchants Street.
          It was a magic place.
          In me are the memories of a boy's life, spent in that realm of enchantments.
          I remember.
          These are the things I want to tell you.

I love this introduction: It freely gives away massively tantalizing hints without spoiling a bit of the story, and let's you know that the writing will be so rich and succulent that you will feel like licking your fingers after you put the book down.

There is something about his storytelling that reminds me of Stephen King, though with a much lower fatality rate. McCammon paints lovely, believable pictures quickly and efficiently, but not so sketchily that you get confused. As you can see above, there are times when he waxes lyrical, almost poetic, but with none of the pretension of poetry.

McCammon has a large body of work available in electronic form, so I can buy them easily for my Kindle, but I'm not going to rush into them: I want to take my time to digest each one, like a fine meal. You don't go out for an expensive steak when you had a Chinese buffet for lunch, and there are some bits of Boy's Life that will stay with me for years: the first day of summer vacation, the narrow escapes, the release from pain carried for so long.

This book reads like a memoir, but with elements of fantasy expertly woven in. It made me wonder if perhaps my childhood held similar miracles and terrors, memories later driven out and replaced by sitcom memories, long days in boring classrooms, the only magic left restricted to the silver screen.

Last summer I watched the movie "Selma" on t.v. Maxine watched some of it with me, and we had a couple of conversations about racism, and why someone would blow up a church, killing four little girls. My kids are aware of what it means to be different from everyone else, but I am very grateful that they do not face challenges like those.

Boy's Life is set in the late 60s. The civil rights struggle and racism of that time infuse the whole story, sometimes fighting in the middle of the stage, sometimes scratching around the edges of the scenery, almost never completely out of sight. I was born in 1970, so I didn't witness that era, but books like this help me to wrap my brain around what it must have been like. Yes, it is fiction, and yes, the author is white. I would not count on a book like this as a primary source, but it adds another viewpoint to my limited vision of where the United States of America has been, and where it is going.

I should also note that Boy's Life won the 1992 World Fantasy Award for best novel. It does not feel like a 15-year-old book to me, but then again I didn't feel like a 46-year-old after reading it.

If you've read it, I'd love to hear what you thought in the comments. 

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Well Earned Tears

First grade is hard the same way the ocean is wet. There is only so much newness that one can take in before one is overwhelmed, and the only response is to break down a bit. For example, today was a normal day, with our standard lesson and activities. One activity that I particularly enjoy is when our teacher sings to us. She has a beautiful voice, and I don't know about everybody else, but I always feel like she is singing for me.

Today when she started to sing, it was a new song for our class. New, but somehow familiar to me. At first I hummed along, without even knowing how I knew the tune, then an old door creaked open in the back of my mind, and the memory came spilling out: it was a warm, dark, safe place, with Mommy. She was holding me in her arms, and singing the same song. I remembered it so hard that for a moment I was there in Mommy's arms, without the words to express the joy I felt at falling asleep in this perfect place hearing this perfect song, that reminded me of an even more perfect place, hearing the song of Mommy's heartbeat and breathing, surrounded by her.

For a moment the memory was a perfect crystal, more beautiful than anything I've ever held. Then it melted into the here and now, and my cheeks were wet with the past. I realized that I was back in a world where sometimes I got to spend no time with Mommy. I could't remember the last time she had sung to me, and it sat on my chest like a gorilla. I sobbed, mourning the changes in my life this past year, and fearing what was to come.

My teacher asked what was wrong, and I told her that she had sung a song of my infancy, now further away than the stars, and even more impossible to reach. I asked her to hold me, and she did. It wasn't the same as being with Mommy, but it was okay. I sat on her lap and let my anguish flow until all that was left was the memory itself, now tinged with sadness.

I got up off of her lap and returned to my seat. I could see my pain reflected in the faces of my classmates. No doubt some of them were sampling their own bittersweet memories. Maybe some of them were reawakening to the blessings that they had tuned out due to familiarity. I saw no contempt, no mockery. We can be so cruel when we see our classmates in tears, especially when we believe they are unearned. That day all of them knew that I had earned my tears, and some of them joined me in weeping for the lost past. Then I noticed that same pain reflected in the eyes of my teacher. I realized at that moment that she loved me. All of us, really. Of course not as deeply as Mommy loves me, but with a real love. A love that is there every day, ready to pick you up and brush you off when you fall down, ready to wipe your nose, and willing to help you better yourself. But more importantly, she loved me even though a year ago she hadn't even met me. I realized that love can be found outside of those who have known you your whole life: it's ready to grow into any crack in your life.

Everyone says that I am too young to be nostalgic, longing for what has gone. I say that a lifetime ago is a long time, whether your lifetime is seven or one hundred seven years. Learn to love the time you are in now, but don't let go of your past. Rather, use it as an anchor as you search for the love that will inevitably be found in your future.

Quinten with a bear. Not his teacher.

[This story is third hand, based on what Horyon told me of a text message received from Quinten's teacher. As such, I have taken some liberties in imagining what happened at the time, and assuming Quinten's point of view, and expanding his vocabulary somewhat. I don't believe I am breaking any rules in this, but feel free to contact the authorities if you disagree.]

Sunday, November 06, 2016

A Moving Story

"It looks like they are not going to try to rent out our old apartment, so we will have to pay the rent on it until it gets torn down next June," said my wife, while simultaneously feeding me lead shot from the freezer, or so my gut was telling me.

We broke our contract, seven months into a two-year contract. First question: what is the penalty clause for breaking a contract like this? Answer: technically, there is no penalty clause, because you can't break the contract. As long as no one is living in that apartment, you are responsible for paying the rent, and you sure don't get your deposit back. There are supposed to be rules, like the owner can't raise the rent, making it less likely for a new tenant to move in. But otherwise it is a system that just assumes someone will move in. Our old neighborhood had a stretch of ten real estate agencies lining one side of the road, broken up only by a phone store and a dietary supplement store.

We had understood that we would be paying rent on both places until someone moved in, which would make our budget tight for a month or two. But now it was scary: Horyon checked and found that our old apartment was not being listed for sale! The real estate agent had told the apartment owner that she did not have to do anything, because she would keep getting rent whether someone new moved in or not. And frankly, wouldn't she rather avoid dealing with all that registration nonsense, and the transferring of key money, and all the little clean up stuff, like putting up new wallpaper over the old cracks (which I am sure are no indication that the building is close to falling down on its own, much less with the help of an earthquake or two).

Context time: in September the southern part of Korea has been the epicenter of a few little earthquakes, measuring: 5.1 and 5.8 within an hour of each other on September 12th, then a week later a 4.5, a 3.5 two days after that, then a 3.1 on the 28th. October 2nd offered up a 3.0, barely noticeable after the previous excitement, and followed by a typhoon on the 5th that killed a few people. And another earthquake on Monday October 10th. Looks like Monday is our regular earthquake day.

Anyway, the old building was constantly shedding bits of concrete, and the safety railings were all loose. The elevator was out of order anytime there was enough rain to flood the basement, but even when it did work you had to take half a flight of stairs to get to your floor. It was slow to get to the ninth floor, but once it got there you had to get the heck out in a hurry, because the doors would close three seconds after opening. That elevator nailed me a few times

It was a nice neighborhood, though. A five minute walk from Horyon's parents, a ten minute walk from the subway, a real French bakery just down the street, and Gwanganli Beach only a 20 minute walk away.

On the other hand, it was only a five minute walk from Horyon's parents, people whom I love and respect and don't want to wander into my home at random hours when I may or may not be wearing pants.

We were happy to be out, even paying two rents each month for a month or two. But that horrid sinking feeling dragged on my gut for a couple of days. It felt like a hopeless situation, but neither of us realized that the sleeping dragon had been awakened, and was even then doing battle. Horyon's mother never liked our real estate agent, and didn't trust her. When she found out how we were being used, she started making calls and visiting friends and kicking up a mess. Over the weekend she managed to find someone who would rent our old apartment. Not just move in, but take over the key money as well as the full rent!

The problem was that we couldn't reach the apartment owner to seal the deal. The real estate agent had told the owner to not answer the phone. At this point in the story, I am not sure what the various motivations were. Why would the real estate agent want to make our lives miserable? Why would she not want to get another tenant into the apartment, thereby earning some sort of commision? Why hadn't she just listed the apartment? I don't know. Why would the apartment owner not answer her phone? I don't know. But my mother-in-law sent her a text message that basically threatened to sue her if she didn't deal with us, so she finally picked up. Within three days, a contract was signed. By the end of the week, we had our deposit money back.

I don't like to admit it, but for those few days I was starting to resurrect some of my old feelings about Korea. The feelings I had back in 2007 when we moved back to the states. The feeling that this society is built on disrespect, and that the Confucianism at the root of Korean society had grown into a big, ugly, repressive monster that only benefited those at the top. We moved to America in 2007 partly because we wanted a good future and competent schools for our children, but also partly because I was no longer able to go about my daily life without an inner raging against my host country. My attitude was completely unfair, and reflected more about myself than Korea. Korea is not perfect, and the cultural differences between here and the midwestern United States are very real. But my concept of what the midwestern United States is actually like to live in had only the most tenuous connection to the actual experience of living there.

Long story short: I learned to love Korea by leaving it for four years. I still love the United States, but it lost some of it's shininess during that four years. And wherever you go, there you are.

Fortunately, those negative feelings about Korea did not have much chance to germinate, and were quickly uprooted. I am still aware that there are individuals out there who will do mean things and treat you unkindly, but for the most part people aren't interested in making life worse for others. Most people will be kind, given the opportunity, because it makes them feel better about themselves. As long as there is not too much at stake, anyway.

Enough philosophical musings, let's get down to brass tacks:

The new apartment is a downsize for us, from 34 to 25 pyeong* (~1200 sq ft to 890 sq ft). So we lost about a quarter of our old floor space. To be fair, some of what we lost was a hallway, in which we hung coats on the wall and piled bags and stuff on the floor. We're better off without that. We think that we also lost some communal space, like the hall outside leading to the elevator. We lost a bit in the living room, but the old one was more space than we needed. The most painful loss was the kitchen/dining room. It is now much more difficult for us to sit down together to eat a meal. When we do, it's impossible to walk through the kitchen.

But the kids now have their own bedrooms. Quinten's room is big enough for his bed and some shelves. He doesn't do much other than sleep in there because there's not room for even a little person like himself to play. I am proud of how quickly he has adjusted to sleeping in there by himself, though.

Maxine loves having her own room, and has already taken to shutting herself in to read, draw, and grow that icky shell thing that teenagers get.** She has about half again as much space as Quinten, so there is a desk and bookshelf, a tall chest of drawers, and her bed in there. She is so happy to have her own desk and office chair!

Horyon and I are in the master bedroom, where we have some lovely built-in closets that were a present from her parents. For the first time in five years I have all of my clothes in the same room, and it's the room where I sleep! I've also got a combination desk/bookshelf and a rolling office chair. Mine is more expensive than Maxine's, of course: you have to pay for the kind of quality that can hold me.

Of course, one aspect of downsizing was that we had to get rid of stuff. Which we did. Certainly not all of the useless stuff, but a lot of it. And now I have three or four plastic bins full of stuff that I couldn't bear to part with, and now barely look at because they are in plastic bins on the verandah. Occasionally I miss something and go out to find it. Eventually I really need to go through those bins and toss out everything that is left.

We acquired some cool stuff in the move from friends that were also moving. The two big ones are a sofa and an electric piano. Both are old, and show it. They survived a little girl's childhood, and have the marker stains to prove it. The sofa sits lower than it should in some places, and the arm rest is a tiny bit wiggly, but when we haven't piled laundry and books and toys all over it, it is perfect for a nap. The electric piano is a little scuffed up, and the buttons are all labeled in Korean, but it sounds good. When we got it, it was capable of playing more loudly than the neighbors would appreciate. Thankfully, Quinten fixed that by dropping a screw into one of the headphone jacks. How clever is my boy? Now you have to turn the volume all the way up to hear it, and I have to figure out how to fish a screw out of a headphone jack. Ah well, idle hands and all that.

A couple of weeks after getting the piano I was out with Quinten and we passed the Alladin used book store in Seomyeon (which is not bad for English readers: there are a few shelves of English novels, as well as CDs and DVDs if you still like your media to have a physical presence). I went in, dragging my poor, bored child with me, and asked if they had piano music. They did! I spent about $10 and got half a dozen books of music, ranging from Maxine level to slightly above mine. Since then I have spent some time playing the electric piano, and really enjoying it. I honestly can't remember why I took piano lessons back in middle school, but I suspect my mother was the motivating force. Whether or not that is true, my parents at the very least paid for my lessons and drove me to them. Thank you Mom and Dad!

One other good thing about the piano is that Maxine spends a lot of time on it. She took piano lessons for about three years, then got bumped. I guess the teacher had some better students lined up. Anyway, she enjoys it, and knows enough to not get quickly frustrated and quit. I think we will be setting her up with lessons next spring. Maybe by then we will be settled enough to consider that.

This post has gone on long enough. I have delayed with the intention of taking photos and including them, but clearly that is not going to happen. Perhaps I will shoehorn them in at some point.

* I just now learned that the pyeong has Chinese origins, which shouldn't be surprising considering that China has always been just sort of monstrously there, hovering over Korea, breathing yellow dust down its back and leaking culture all over the place.

** Sorry. Just realized that I was thinking of a caterpillar becoming a chrysalis. Looks different, acts different... are butterflies sullen, by any chance?

A Brief Introduction

Roblog is my writing lab. It is my goal to not let seven days pass without a new post. I welcome your criticism, as I cannot improve on my own.

Here is a link to my cung post, which remains the only word which I have ever invented, and which has not, as far as I know, caught on. Yet.