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My second blog of 2018. I’m on a roll now. Don’t hold your breath, it may be my last. 

For those interested I’m listening to Lord Huron’s album Mighty as I write this. I feel a bit of shame for admitting how I first came across them, but here it is nonetheless. I first learned of them while watching the first season of the controversial 13 Reasons Why Netflix show, and their song The Night We Met was prominently  featured in it. I didn’t like the show or the even the song that much, but I wanted to know more about the band and I ended up enjoying their Strange Trails album on the whole. Since then I watched their NPR tiny desk concert and have listened to their older stuff from time to time to see if I enjoy it. I think it’s OK. 

While discussing video games with my students the nature of rites of passage came up. Video games are huge anywhere internet technology is, and in South Korea, which boasts some of the fastest internet speeds in the world and a massive professional and recreational gaming culture, they are big deal. Another thing about much of the developed and developing world is that many local traditions are fading out and giving way to more transient lifestyles, global networks, and the quest for upward mobility. On a bit of a side note, I thought senator Ben Sasse’s conversation with Stephen Colbert about this kind of thing in a recent interview was really well put. My students and I discussed the fact that for many youth, especially the lads, video games are replacing the identity formation mechanisms that were well established in their culture since ancient times. 

I reflected with them on my own formation into adulthood and realized how many markers there were for me along the way. As a southerner I was given a gun by age 8, and taught hunt shortly after I had learned to ride a bike without training wheels. By the time I was 16 I was deer hunting alone, driving, and speaking in front of modest sized crowds at church. I was also working during summers and many weekends. I say none of this to brag, I actually don’t think about it that often except when I want to get my West Coast friends to laugh about my redneck roots. I’m also in favor of stricter gun laws, for anyone wondering, especially regarding assault rifles. I’d like to think of myself as political hybrid of moderate redneck and moderate city dweller. I’m mostly appalled when I read news by just about everything. But in the context of this conversation I reflected on the portion of my life that was pre-internet and pre-cellphone and realized that for all its faults my local, rural, country life was filled with meaning and markers for identity formation into adulthood. Some of it was cultural, some spiritual. It wasn’t perfect, but as I survey my students and many regions of the world I come in contact with I realized that I had something I simply see missing today, especially with my students. There’s a family decay, a community decay, a relational decay, and don’t get me started on the spiritual decay. I don’t have the energy left in my day to process that with you now.

With my students there is a craving to know when one has traversed childhood into adulthood, from boyhood into manhood, girlhood into womanhood, something beyond they studied their eyes bloody and took a big test. Right now many of them are turning to games which have missions and teamwork and levels and markers for development. I wonder how families, churches and schools can recover what was lost, or adapt to something improved in order to more holistically form students and society into something other than depersonalized pieces on a market gaming board. 

That’s all I got for now, I’m tapped. I wish you well, dear reader. 

My first blog of 2018. I’m really good at blogging. If you’re looking for an example, look no further. For those interested I’m listening to Lauren Daigle’s new album, Look Up Child, as I write this. I know nothing about her other than she apparently reemerged on the music scene recently and sounds a bit like Adele, and I think I read somewhere she’s a Christian. I peruse Amazon’s streaming music selection to see what I can listen to on my Prime membership and she was front and center featured. So far her music seems to carry meaningful themes, and she’s clearly an amazing singer, but it’s just not my jam. I’m from the bluegrass state, I’m minimalist in my music taste, just rednecks who’ve tied strings to a shovel to pluck at and sing with accents that nobody outside a 100 mile radius can understand suits me just fine. But I also really like trying new things, so I’m content for now. 

I’m rounding the corner to three-and-a-half years living as an American expat in South Korea. I don’t know that I’d say I have more to say than non-expats or those with otherwise “normal” lives, but I would say that living abroad provides a friction that makes you notice your life differently, and perhaps more, than those who do not. It’s like the difference between driving normally inside a car, and being tied behind the car with a rope and dragged on your hind parts. Both are traveling, but one is experiencing it….more, you might say. It’s not really that bad, but working cross-culturally is no joke. Sometimes it’s the challenge I signed up for, and I embrace it. Sometimes it’s the challenge that has been thrust upon me and I question everything. Often both are happening at the same time.

In many ways I’m enjoying life to its fullest. My wife and I live and work on the same campus. We’re both doing what we went to graduate school to do. We love foreign food and experiences. We really enjoy movies and Korea boasts some of the most innovative theater tech in the world. Last Friday we saw Crimes of Grindelwald at a ScreenX theater where the movie will get projected all the way around the walls of the theater during certain high-flying scenes. It was awesome though I was very skeptical when my students recommended it. The movie itself was a disappointment as it seems the narrative is getting a bit unwieldy and simply not making much sense. Hopefully Rowling will recover. I’m also getting a lot more opportunities to preach at international congregations here, and at English services in Korean churches, both of which I feel very honored to do. Last Sunday I preached at an English service in a Korean church. Lots of Cambodian and Thai university students attend as well. I take a lot of joy in communicating across cultures and then getting to have conversations afterwards where I learn a lot about how people think and process, and how we are all learning about faith in so many different ways. After church one of my wife’s colleague’s, his two sons, and a Korean church member went out for bossam, steamed pork, and kalguksu, a chicken and noodle soup. The bossam was covered in garlic and served with many awesome side dishes. The soup had wild sesame in it and had this incredible earthy flavor to it. It was great. 

In other ways the struggle of working everyday before a massive cultural gap, that I will never cross even if I master the language and get a visa that allowed me to vote, wears me down. My work involves Bible education and Christian spiritual formation. Just this week my seniors are in mental recovery after they have taken the Korean SAT, which is the closest thing to a god in neo-Confucian Korean secularism that exists. Many lives are sacrificed upon its altar. My units take a turn towards easy street this time of year because many of the near-graduates just can’t be bothered to give a crap about anything other than which university will welcome them into their glorious ranks. I created a new unit on the Ethics of Entertainment, which is aimed at forming a distinctive Christian way of thinking about the creation, consumption and worldview of various entertainment media. It has been quite a popular unit for the most part. Naturally, being in Korea, KPOP culture was considered and I asked what the students had been taught in their churches about how to engage culture. To my dismay a good number of them had been told that the Illuminati uses KPOP to control the masses and that that was why they should not listen to it. I paused, looked them each directly in the eye, and told them in no uncertain terms, that that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard, and that it was no wonder youth are fleeing the churches in masses. I’m certainly no fan of KPOP. It’s shallow and empty like so much of pop culture around the world. But Christian leaders need to do much better than conspiracy theories and fear tactics to steer their youth in a wholesome and holy direction. My students were offended I disrespected their pastors, yet another great cultural error that will go against my permanent record, God and Confucius forgive me. It’s not all churches or pastors here, and it’s most definitely not just a problem in churches on this peninsula, but lazy thinking with absolutely no nuance is killing the church, and is pastoral malpractice in my opinion. This is but one example in my developing story here, and only the latest, surely not to be the last. 

Well, there’s my mental vomit for now. Daigle just started singing Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus to me, the second to last song on this album. Her stock is rising in my music market. In many ways it’s an appropriate prophetic word to me in this season (and any season really). I can be a bit of a Puddleglum, and I need more Jesus at every turn. Whoever you are, I hope you found something I wrote useful and I wish you well. 

Every year at least once, sometimes two, three or ten times, I rewatch Lord of the Rings with my wife and/or friends. This year I managed to watch the extended additions with her and showing significant portions of the theatrical version of the first two films to all six of my classes while they were given time to finish their final projects in the last weeks of school. We suffered a pretty major earthquake a couple of months ago, so the whole school is in what I call an “earthquake grace” mode, giving a bit of mercy all around. Lord of the Rings and class time to finish projects felt like an appropriate mix of therapy without sacrificing my educational agenda. It’s on Netflix in Korea so there are Korean subtitles, and surprisingly many of my students had never seen it, or only seen it once when they were much younger. Few to none properly understood the themes nor the source material or any information on the source himself, Tolkien. I was able to educate them properly, having haphazardly put the movie on at first, I’m now planning an Inklings club for next year to make sure the Korean youth in my care do not escape their educational experience without proper and full immersion into Narnia and Middle Earth. God forbid!

This time watching it I was also in the middle of assessing the spiritual formation efforts at our school, and in general I tend to think about pastoral care as I go about my business day to day. My dad is a pastor, and even though I’m adopted I think it’s safe to say it’s in my blood. Watching LOTR over and over with my classes and then at home while thinking about spiritual formation, for some reason I singled out the storyline of Frodo in my mind. While watching Fellowship of the Ring a few of my classes happened to end when Frodo was in Rivendell taking up the mantle of ringbearer while the pantheon of warriors fought with each other. My students were positively transfixed (and angry about having to wait until the next class to continue on). They feel small and powerless, and now understanding the context of the story and who the author was, and what the Hobbits represented, it honestly inspired them. Many of them have suffered severe spiritual abuse from family and churches. There are many awesome Christian people in Korea, and many wonderful pastors. But there are also regular scandals that would make the worst of the western evangelical industrial complex  blush. Regularly in the news are things like pastors killing people including family members, fist fighting during meetings, embezzling money, having affairs with significantly younger women, so on and so forth. One student told me about an article that detailed a pastor bringing a gun (illegal to own in Korea) to a meeting and hiring mafia bodyguards to intimidate his own elders at a meeting. Aside from the inspiration for a film script that I hope to submit to Netflix, I was stunned and completely ashamed this behavior was associated with church leaders here. The impact has been huge, and in this neo-confucian culture a lot of times they deal with shame by erasing it as quickly as possible, not processing it at all. This has left many of the youth very unsure about how to move forward with their faith, or if their faith is secure, with their churches. I’m sure many of my western readers of faith (or of former faith) will have little trouble relating to that. Just imagine if our culture was built on collectivist honor and shame more than individualist innocence and guilt, and try to process how a child would navigate these issues. How do you trust spiritual authority? How do you process the evil in your own life when such evil is dominate in those who are supposed to be guiding us into the light?

Enter Frodo. The humble among the powerful know they can’t handle the ring’s power, starting with Gandalf and ending with Galadriel. The scene when Galadriel was tempted by the ring had my students convinced she was evil. When I explained her backstory and what that scene was really showing, that even though she was good she could be corrupted, they expressed tangible fear and dread, and remained glued to the story. How could Frodo withstand the temptation? How could he carry such evil to its destruction when all the high ranking and powerful characters could not?

These little souls carry many burdens and they are desperate to share them. When they do, they give the listener power. This is part of the pastoral experience and a big part of the life of a Christian community. If we don’t have openness and honesty coupled with wisdom, love, humility and care, we have serious danger. With each relationship and each conversation, little rings of power are being handed over to those in leadership. Those in pastoral care are trusting those doing pastoral care to help them destroy the evil in their lives, whatever form it may be, not to use it against them. And yet even Frodo faltered at the end, but he had his Fellowship, and the one remaining member with him, Sam, to get to the precipice. Even then, without a demon creature to exploit Frodo’s weakness with his pure rage, no goodness from within Frodo would have finished the job. It took a divine plan from outside of him to properly do what needed done, and in ways that none of the Fellowship would have planned or thought of.

As I watched this year I thought of how I want our spiritual formation at the school to look a lot more like Frodo. We aren’t wizards or kings or warriors. We’re common people with an uncommon task. I wish more pastors felt this way, and more training was done in this tone. For now I know I can’t leave my students with swords and shields and traditional forms of power, but with the apostles teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Somehow, in unexpected ways, through these means the light reaches into the darkness, and evils are vanquished.