Final reflections on Korea

Treasured friends,

Representatives of around 30 churches in the International Lutheran Council (ILC) said their good-byes today in Seoul, Korea, beginning around 5:30 a.m. as the first buses left to take them to the airport. We just concluded a week’s worth of meetings in what is called the ILC’s “World Conference,” now scheduled to happen every three years.

For Gail and me, this was a first trip to Asia in general and to Korea in particular. Seoul is a massive city, hard to even get your mind around. They told me 10 million residents in the city proper, and 22 million if you add all its surrounding suburbs. It takes forever to get from one end of it to the other, despite the wide and modern expressways. You’re often wise to schedule two hours if you’re traveling somewhere on the “far side” from where you began. Despite all the driving we did around Seoul, I don’t recall seeing a single detached family house. Massive apartment blocks are everywhere, often stretching as far as the eye can see, each building obviously housing hundreds of people. (It actually made Toronto look small, which is quite an achievement!) I was not surprised to be told that many Koreans struggle with a sense of isolation and loneliness in this environment, and that suicide was identified as a serious social problem.

President Um of the Lutheran Church of Korea is a delightful host. Not only was he gentle and helpful in explaining everything to us foreigners, but he personally guided the tours of Luther Seminary, their growing Lutheran university, and of the city of Seoul when we spent Saturday looking around. The staff from his office gave so much of themselves during our conference days, making themselves available from early morning until late at night to see that visitors got all the assistance they needed. He and his co-workers lined up outside our buses as we departed, bowing deeply and giving us a very ceremonial send-off. When we arrived at Incheon airport to leave the country, we saw other groups of Koreans standing in lines with costumes and flowers, treating even ordinary people the same way, as though they were just concluding a “state” visit! When our Korean Airlines plane arrived in Chicago, again, the full crew of that 747 jumbo jet stood at the exits and along the jetway in lines, bowing and thanking us for being with them. Courtesy looms large in Korea! And it’s not merely an idle custom! It really DOES make you feel as though you matter to these folks! Is there a lesson for God’s people in Canada to learn here? Hmm…

A real highlight of this week was the visit Gail and I made to a young mission congregation, “Clear Spring Water Lutheran Church,” in a northwestern suburb of Seoul. This congregation, begun just six years ago, meets in rented rooms in the basement level of an office/apartment building. Each week when the service is ended, the members ALWAYS stay and have dinner together, I’m told. Their church was the farthest from our conference site, and so our little LCC delegation (a.k.a. Gail and I) were the only foreign visitors to this particular worshipping community. The service is very reverent, as pastor and deacon remove their shoes before entering the chancel area, donning little slippers for that part of God’s House. During the Old Testament and Epistle readings (done by the deacon), the pastor sits in his chancel chair, slippered feet on a pillow, with his eyes shut tight as he listens very attentively to God’s Word and by his body language sets a strong example for the worshippers to follow. The singing is rich and full for such a small group. Afterward they made elaborate preparations for a special dinner to honour us, complete with a “rice cake,” topped with little green peas forming the Korean lettering for “Welcome”. (Never compare these to the snacks WE call rice cakes from the supermarket. This was a filling dessert!)

A surprising and happy feature of the ILC conference is to see how many Latin Americans were there, since Biblical Lutheran churches are springing up all over the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking lands of this world region. And how heartwarming to see how our sister church in Brazil, a Portuguese-speaking nation, sent a missionary back to the ancestral “homeland” to get Lutheran mission starts going in Portugal!

I may have more to say on the International Lutheran Council itself in another post, but let these reflections be enough for now while impressions are still so fresh in my mind. I’m so grateful to God that our Lutheran Church-Canada is part of this strong and very loving family. It’s also heartwarming to see how our leaders of days gone by, Presidents Lehman and Mayan, represented us so well and carved out a big place for the Canadian church in the hearts of these brothers and sisters.

Gail and Robert Bugbee

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