Month: April 2012

Saying goodbye [and hello] to my father

A few weeks ago, on Wednesday, April 11, I received a phone call from my mother at 6:30am.  She never calls that early so when I saw her name on the caller ID, I figured it was important.  Groggy and still half asleep, I picked up.  She said my name, slowly and deliberately.  I could tell something was wrong.  Tension and anxiety were on the rise.  As though the cadence and tone of each word mattered more than anything else in the world at that moment, my mother said to me, “Your father died.”

You must know a bit about my history to understand why my father’s passing was an odd and confusing situation for me.  I was born in 1979 in a city called Incheon, South Korea to a man named Won Sik Kim and his wife Young Soon.  Won Sik was a kind man whose weaknesses were alcohol and gambling.  His weaknesses became demons right around the time I was born and my mother struggled to fight them for her husband but sadly he chose not to fight and eventually crumbled beneath the weight of his vices.  After a few destructive years of major dysfunction and pain, my mother packed our bags and we moved to California.  While I don’t remember leaving, the move left me with an impression of my father.  All my life, I’ve thought of him as an absent, negligent, selfish man who didn’t care enough to be present as a dad or husband.

I’ve heard that we often learn more about a person in their dying than in their living.  This has been completely true for me regarding my father.  Just 24 hours after learning that he had passed, my mother and I were on a plane to Korea.  For the next two days we spent time with family we hadn’t seen in years, most of whom I didn’t recognize at all.  I listened as they shared stories of my father.  They painted a picture of him that was vastly different than the one I’ve carried around in my head all these years.  They talked about how compassionate and gentle he was, how he’d always laugh the loudest when something was funny and cry the hardest when something was sad.  I saw old pictures of much happier times.  For the first time I saw pictures of my parents’ wedding day and pictures of my father as a young man, free spirited, goofy, handsome, and optimistic.  I found notes he’d written on the back of old baby pictures of me that he’d kept.  One of my aunts told me about a running joke in the family that my father was constantly ruining wedding pictures because of his love of photography.  He’d always get in the way of the professional photographers with his own camera, fighting for a better angle.  I learned that my father was a fiercely loyal friend, always happy to be a listening ear over a few beers and grilled meat.  I found out that a number of years ago he battled and beat stomach cancer only to be met with the news a short while later that he was suffering from lung cancer.  Years of abuse to his body took their toll and he couldn’t fight any longer.

It’s a strange thing, meeting your father for the first time in his passing.  But that’s exactly how I feel.  In his dying, I was introduced to a man I never knew before.  And in some ways, I was introduced to myself.  I am more like my father than I ever realized.  We share the same personality and the same artistic tendencies.  For a short while I wanted to become a filmmaker.  So did he.  Eventually I dove into music and guitars.  He dove into photography.  We are both avid readers, content to lose ourselves for hours in the pages of an interesting story.  We are both fanatical sports fans.  I know now why the combination of good beer and grilled meat is the best way to win me over.  I am indeed my father’s son.

I was surprised when a pastor from a local church, along with about twenty congregants, came to my father’s memorial service.  My mother and I weren’t aware that he had any connection to a church, much less that he was a Christian.  The pastor told us that my father had been diligently attending his church, each and every Sunday, sitting quietly in the front pew, for the past five years.  When he first started attending the church, he told his pastor, “My son’s a pastor too.  In America, actually.  So I figured, if my son’s a pastor, I should start attending church.”  Shortly after that, my father encountered Jesus and spent the final years of his life discovering God’s love for him, praying diligently for me, and giving himself to the local church.

It’s difficult to describe in words how shaken and moved I am by this part of my father’s story.  I am grateful that God would weave his grace and love into a story as tattered and torn as that of my father and me.  But this is how our God works.  He takes the most broken, mends things together, and redeems the rubble into the most beautiful mosaic.  And so today I remember that my father, despite the mess he made of life, was a good man, kind and compassionate, loved by God and family and friends.  I remember that in spite of his absence, he has been and will continue to be a massive part of who I am, a backdrop against which to color the story of my own life, within the lines of his successes and outside the lines of his failures.  Most importantly, I remember that he is my father, I am his son, and we are both children of the Most High, rescued by love, redeemed by grace, remade into the sons of God neither of us could ever become on our own.

Easter, coffee, and the present future

What a God we have!  And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus!  Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven – and the future starts now!  God is keeping careful watch over us and the future.  The Day is coming when you’ll have it all – life healed and whole. - 1 Peter 1:3-5 (The Message)

I love these words from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of 1 Peter because of their eternal resonance.  I love them because they cause me to pause and reflect on the ever increasing value of the gift offered at the cross and the never ending power of the Resurrection story.  Today, Easter Sunday, we celebrate when light broke the darkness and the grave lost its grip on humanity because a Jewish carpenter killed death.  We remember on this day that God showed himself to be the perfect collision of justice and mercy, of righteousness and grace.  We run to the empty tomb and remember that it is indeed still empty.  We are reminded that it is not only void of a body but also void of any power over us.

This morning, my wife and I enjoyed our first cups of coffee in six and a half weeks.  In giving up coffee for Lent and then celebrating the Resurrection by treating ourselves to the best coffee in town, we put ourselves in a position to taste anew the goodness that is coffee.  Coffee is always good but never has it been quite as good as it was this morning.  As we both received our long awaited treasures from our barista, neither of us spoke.  We simply drank.  We drank in the goodness and felt the rush of caffeine course through our bodies, jolting us to life and invigorating us with vitality and warmth.  I know this description seems incredibly dramatic but it’s no exaggeration.  It was euphoric.  This is why we fast during Lent.  We fast because, as we arrive at Easter morning, it reminds us that the Resurrection gave us the greatest gift ever and its goodness must never be forgotten.  We fast because it reorients our hearts to experience anew the goodness and delight afresh in the grace of the gift of new life.  We fast because it enlightens us to our deep hunger and thirst for this new life here and now, in our every day moments, and not just packed away somewhere, to be redeemed upon death.  On Easter Sunday, we awake to the reminder that eternity invades our present.

As Peterson puts it, the future starts now!  In the resurrection, as light conquers darkness, time and space bend inward so that what is to come is in fact here already.  Heaven caves in on the earth, the temple curtain rips in two, the glory of God floods the world, and the new washes over the old.  This is the promise and power of Easter.  It is the promise of new birth into eternity and it is the power of heaven conquering the fragile realities of our earthly existence so that we no longer have to live in fear, enslaved to the temporary circumstances of our human conditions.  Instead, we can live in the freedom of heaven itself.  We can enjoy and embrace the present, knowing that our stories will run right through the grave and on into forever.  This makes for a truly Happy Easter.  So grab a great cup of coffee, remember the gift you’ve been given, and enjoy every moment, because, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

Happy Easter.

Good Friday reminds us to be human

Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”  Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”  – Matthew 26:38-39 (NIV)

Strangely, I have always found immense comfort in the scene of Jesus’ dark hour in the garden at Gethsemane.  It is here that he seems most human to me.  He is in anguish, overwhelmed with sorrow and grief.  He prays to his Father and asks if there’s a way out.  He wants to explore other options.  He knows why he’s come and what he must do and yet when the hour draws near, Jesus is tormented by the thought of going to the cross.  He is God and holds power over death.  But he is also human and wrestling with the thought of dying is grueling.  His humanity is on display in its fullness and frailty here like it is nowhere else.

I am so grateful that Matthew included this scene in his narrative.  Rather than paint a picture of Jesus facing his darkest hour with a detached stoicism, Matthew presents an emotional, tired, weary, [dare I say it] even fearful Christ.  Good Friday is a reminder that what Jesus did for us on the cross was more than just about paying the debt for our sins or defeating death and the grave.  In doing such things, he also reminded us that being human means being honest about our fears and anxieties.  Jesus bore the cross with sorrow and anguish.  He was wrapped in pain that ran deeper than skin.  His heart grieved at the loss of life – his own.  These are all incredibly human responses to a call as great as giving up one’s life for the sake of others.  In seeing God himself respond in the most human of ways, we are encouraged to live into our own humanity as well.  We need not put up a facade of control and strength when our hearts are weak and our spirits are broken.  We need not try so hard to keep others out of the mess of our lives.  We need not hold back from saying to God, “May this cup be taken from me.”

I believe it is in our honesty with God that we find the strength of resolve to say, with Jesus, “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”  I believe Jesus was able to conclude his prayer that way because he was first able to release the anguish and sorrow in his heart in an honest and genuine way, trusting that his Father would not admonish or ridicule him for his expression of anxiety and hesitation.  We can do the same.  Good Friday reminds us that God is big enough, his grace wide enough, his love expansive enough to carry the full weight of our doubts, reservations, questions, and hesitations.  So come before him, wherever you are in life, with an honest heart, speak freely, know that he hears you, and ultimately find your hope in the reality that in the end, even death can’t keep you from him.