Pastor Lim’s Ray of Light

Originally posted at Convivium.ca on August 14, 2017.

For several days now, against the backdrop of escalating rhetoric between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Premier Kim Jong-un, mainstream and social media have been teeming with stories about a particular ray of light shining in the publicly intensifying political darkness.

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Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim was set free from a North Korean prison on Thursday. He had served less than two years of a life sentence for subversion of the government through religion, a crime to which Lim had proffered a state-televised public confession. Detained in February 2015, life sentence decreed that December, Lim was suddenly a free man.

Concern developed when the official reason for release was stated as “sick bail” on humanitarian grounds. This was amplified when Lim’s family issued an early statement asking for privacy until his medical condition could be assessed. The world was well aware that just weeks ago, American Otto Warmbier had returned home from a North Korean prison in a walking coma, death arriving a few days later.

Apprehension abated somewhat when video emerged of the sixty-two year old Lim walking about in conversation on an airport runway in Japan, after disembarking an RCAF passenger jet. He looked leaner and somewhat aged from his last recorded appearance, but in apparent good health.

The consistent thread running through the reporting of this story, whether relaying the narrative of Lim’s personal health or the tale of secretive diplomacy, is that Hyeon Soo Lim is the pastor of one of Canada’s largest churches.

Initial scant reports on Lim’s release were followed by longer stories, several claiming to describe the inner political workings of international prisoner releases by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the nation established on the northern part of the Korean peninsula as one of several political divisions by Allied forces following WWII. As the ally then with authority over the DPRK (North Korea), the Soviet Union’s communist government installed as leader Kim Il-sung, father of his successor Kim Jong-il and grandfather of current Supreme Leader , Kim Jong-un. Without a diplomatic mission in North Korea, the Canadian government worked with a contemporary ally, Sweden. Reportedly, through the negotiation by the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, secret meetings with North Korean representatives at the United Nations headquarters in New York and a Sunday afternoon foreign minister to foreign minister conversation in Manila, a deal was struck.

Tuesday, a Canadian diplomatic team hurried to Pyongyang, with an envoy said to be carrying a personal letter from Prime Minister Trudeau to Premier Kim. Thursday, Lim was on the plane with them headed home. Saturday, he again descended the small jet’s steps in his own strength at CFB Trenton before hugging his wife, then lifting his nearly one-year-old granddaughter in his arms. His desired next stop? Tim Horton’s on the drive home!

The consistent thread running through the reporting of this story, whether relaying the narrative of Lim’s personal health or the tale of secretive diplomacy, is that Hyeon Soo Lim is the pastor of one of Canada’s largest churches. Reverend Lim had travelled to North Korea more than one hundred times over the last two decades. Born in Seoul a decade after Korea was divided into South and North, Lim knew the risks. So, why endanger his life on more than one hundred occasions? Particularly after American missionary Kenneth Bae (also born in South Korea) was detained and sentenced in North Korea on similar grounds in April 2013?

Lim was on a personal humanitarian mission, motivated by his Christian faith and his Korean origins.

Lim appreciates the people, whether living in the North or South, are his Korean cousins, and that they are imago Dei , created in the image of God. He understands Christians are obliged by Scripture to engage in works demonstrative of our faith (James 2:14-22) and to be ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). Called to lead in the Korean diaspora, Lim found himself also drawn to serve as an ambassador of good works. Beginning with relief efforts following the North Korean famine in 1996, Lim initiated activity that has met real needs of real people in the northern part of his divided homeland. He engaged in food sustainability initiatives, as well as establishing a nursery, orphanage and home for the elderly among other humanitarian endeavours for which he raised tens of millions of dollars.

Hyeon Soo Lim understands what Jesus Christ and His earliest followers relayed in words, both spoken and written, and displayed in their daily lives. A faith that is focused on loving God compels loving our neighbours, both near and far, as well. Christ, the Light of the World (John 8:12) challenges us to also let our light shine (Matthew 5:16), assessing and accepting attendant risk.

Following Lim’s detention and sentencing, Christians in Canada and around the world, mobilized in prayer, and in practical pressure on the Canadian government, as meaningful service to Pastor Lim and his family, in the effort to secure his release.

Whether Premier Kim responded to Divine or diplomatic intervention, or some combination, we may never know. Neither will we know whether Kim’s act was a humanitarian goodwill gesture or motivated by sufficient awareness of Christianity that he preferred a South Korean born Canadian pastor praying from Toronto to the potential of a martyr inspiring North Korean Christians to greater works, greater boldness and greater numerical growth. What we do know is, in the midst of a war of words between Premier Kim and President Trump that has cast a threatening political shadow over the globe, there shines a ray of light in the release of a compassionate man who for two decades brought his own ray of Light into the darkness of people in need.

Hyeon Soo Lim understands what Jesus Christ and His earliest followers relayed in words, both spoken and written, and displayed in their daily lives.

Sunday morning, Pastor Lim arrived at Light Presbyterian Church to a crush of media, along with parishioners and visitors. Later, he stood in the pulpit to share about his ordeal and how it propelled him to a more intimate relationship with Jesus. He closed the meeting with prayer in his native Korean. I’m told he prayed for his adopted country of Canada, for the people of North Korea, and for peace.

Welcome home, Reverend Lim. We join you in that prayer.

A jealous mistress, a jealous God and strange bedfellows

“The law is a jealous mistress.” If a student hasn’t heard that quote before arriving in the hallowed hallways of her law school, she is likely to hear it on her very first day. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story coined the term in the talk he gave when he became a professor at Harvard University in 1829. Law students have been hearing it ever since. Story was noting the law, as study and profession, is demanding of time, thoughts and energy. Some have said, the law is all consuming.

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If married, be assured your spouse will not be enamoured of the idea that you have a mistress, whether another woman, the law or any other obsession, particularly a mistress jealous of other interests or pursuits in your life.

Stipulating ten life-enriching commandments to the nation of Israel, God doubled down on recognition he is the only true God before bridging to the other eight directives. In doing so, he referred to himself as “a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4). Jesus was unwavering on this point, stating the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with the four alls of our existence – all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength (Luke 10:27). That’s the covenant.

It was in 1870 that Charles Dudley Warner turned the phrase, “politics makes strange bedfellows.” Warner was comparing an American political situation with his summer garden. The intermingling of untended berry plants led him to riff off of William Shakespeare, who wrote in The Tempest (Act 2, Scene 2) that “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” Whether facing life’s storms or seeking to escape them, people not expected to cooperate with one another may end up doing so for a variety of unintended reasons, particularly when it comes to politics.

The danger with a strange bedfellow is one’s unintended bedmate may well become one’s jealous mistress. An interest in politics can easily become overly partisan, inflaming a desire to make law with one another. In the grips of such passion, we are tempted to set aside an earlier covenant made with someone else. Politics, as hobby or profession, may entice any one of us away from Jesus, who loves us, gave himself for us, and requires from us all, all, all, all.

Manifest political partisanship seductively woos us to regard one political leader as saviour, and another as devil. Both are simply human. Neither is to be to us an idol.

It seems our forgetfulness of actual Saviour and Devil may rival the impetuous collective amnesia of the Israelites who demanded a golden calf be fashioned as their god, despite having been clearly told not to do so. And then doing it within clear sight of a cloud-cloaked mountain where Moses was meeting with the Lord their God, who had only recently delivered them by the hundreds of thousands from centuries of captivity in a foreign land.

I cannot imagine that all of the two million-plus people at the base of Mount Sinai cried out for the calf. More likely, a vocal few rallied part of the crowd – some with convictions on the issue, others less so but inclined to go with the flow of friends or family – and the ensuing mob action pressured Aaron. There were, no doubt, a large number who looked to Aaron, a recognized leader in their community, for guidance. Aaron instead acted on the opinion of the enraged crowd, however misshapen or misleading. Aaron, a spiritual leader of the people, allowed intimidation to steer him to do something other than trust God’s word.

Today’s rallying cries may come through social media memes, tweets, blogs and videos or public statements by people we are convinced can be trusted. Perhaps, they are on the saviour’s team. Maybe they’re on the Saviour’s team, too. We need to dispassionately assess whether their agitation is intended to arouse in us desires that would lure us to join in the pursuit of a contemporary golden calf. What’s their motivation? Who do they want us to align ourselves with? Where will following lead us? We are to embrace neither idols, other gods nor a different saviour. We have one God. And he has commissioned us to be his ambassadors, ambassadors of reconciliation, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).

The authors of the New Testament inspire our participation in society as good citizens. In a democracy, rendering unto Caesar (Matthew 22:21a) means our participation can extend to any and all stages of political involvement, but as Christians our participation must be accompanied by rendering unto God the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:21b).

Before we take action that will lead others who trust our voice, whether through speech, tweet or post, it’s our responsibility to ascertain if the expression is suitable to be shared by an ambassador of reconciliation? Or does the message originate from the tantalizing quest of a jealous mistress or strange bedfellow to stimulate within us a craving for their recommended golden calf?

The Lord our God is a jealous God. He encourages our contribution to the good of the world around us, and endorses no competitors for his tender affections.

Canadian Values. What are they?

Canadian values. That two-word phrase is so well undefined it can fuel a debate between just about any pair of Canadians. Sometimes only one is required.

Our Prime Minister recently apologized for laying claim to an understanding of Canadian values that resulted in providing a response in French to a question asked in English at a town hall meeting in Quebec. His understanding has since shifted with the realization that asked in English would better have been answered in English, just as in Alberta asked in French would be better answered in French.

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The phrase isn’t just employed by politicians.

Of late, Canadian values has been too frequently used as a phrase to hurl at adversaries as an allegation of bigotry and abject failure of character, or as words to hail claim to (y)our side’s genuine Canadian-ness. But what exactly are these values we Canadians hurl or hail?

Publicly touted as at or near the top of any list of Canadian values are tolerance and diversity.

Tolerance was once societally defined and understood. Rather than to assail contrary speech or beliefs, tolerance equipped Canadians to respectfully and peacefully disagree. Tolerance started with acceptance of one another as people. There was acknowledgment that civil dialogue, even debate, might not bring agreement. And that’s why tolerance was required.

In those (good old?) days, my parents’ Bajan accents were heard in conversation with the diverse collection of other Canadians’ accents on the street or over the backyard fence, not always in pleasant conversation but civil enough. I don’t recall hearing anyone being told to go back where they came from. Their kids, me among them, were even allowed to play together.

In twenty-first century Canada, tolerance is too often self-defined by the person/group claiming to be tolerant. The tolerance claim is almost as often made in conjunction with the assertion that those who disagree are intolerant. And frequently accompanied by an ad hominem attack stating opponents are evil, phobic or both.

Diversity is today also most often declared to be as defined by the person or group claiming it. The opinions or beliefs of others are rejected solely because they diverge from those of the diversity claiming claimant. Emphasis is, again, placed on the evil or phobic nature of any person or identifiable group of people whose opinion differs.

Human rights legislation developed to protect individuals and minority groups as a shield from abuse is today being asserted instead as sword. Select individuals and groups advance rights-oriented arguments decrying those who do not conform as being unworthy to belong in a democratic society or in need of re-education. Of course the danger in striking with a sword is that swordsmanship prescribes a strike be met with a block and counter-strike. The public square thus becomes a battlefield rather than its intended place for dialogue and the free exchange of ideas.

In the name of free speech, tolerance and diversity, increasing numbers of individuals and groups now threaten or engage in actual violence – against police officers, elected officials and other alleged adversaries – ostensibly in order to prevent peaceful presentation of differing ideas in the public square.

The concepts of tolerance and diversity that were once used to build societal bridges have been re-engineered by the new brand of activists to erect walls of societal division.

The Supreme Court of Canada has considered these assertions in the light of our constitution, declaring that in a free and democratic society… we all belong. The Court has dared suggest that tolerance is not about exclusion or forced inclusion but acceptance of difference. And diversity does not require compliance or conformity with another’s beliefs or demands. However, the Court’s words are at variance with the positions of many new philosopher-activists, who have chosen neither to welcome the Court’s words nor heed them.

More is required of us as Canadians if we are going to engage in meaningful conversation, conversation not just about what we have in common but accommodation of our differences. Isn’t that the kind of conversation vital to living life together in the shared space that is Canada?

Genuine tolerance leaves little room for allegations it is intolerant of others to peaceably disagree. Authentic diversity has little space for the assertion that those who are not like us don’t belong. There is not a sincere understanding of either that can legitimately suggest violence as the way to secure one, the other or both.

First century author Paul of Tarsus offers these still relevant words of advice, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” (Galatians 5:13-15)

Blessed are those who mourn

Today is my Dad’s birthday. I spoke at the memorial service for a friend’s father on the weekend. I’ve modified those words slightly, but thought I would share them with you. Miss you, Dad.

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In January 2014 I enjoyed the privilege of my first visit to Israel. One of many special experiences was time to reflect while visiting the Church of the Beatitudes, located at the top of the mount where Jesus of Nazareth spoke to thousands assembled down the sides of the big hill.

Matthew 5 records the event, with these opening words:

Seeing the crowds, he [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted…”

This talk was shared with what was perhaps the largest gathering of people ever to hear Jesus speak. It kind of makes you wonder, why would Jesus start perhaps the most significant public talk he ever gave with words of blessing for the poor in spirit and those who mourn?

The Teacher begins his monumentally important message, delivered from high above the shore of Galilee, with words of promise for those wrestling with the realities of life’s challenges, including some of life’s most difficult questions.

“Why has this happened?” “Why did events unfold the way they did?” “Why do I feel so powerless?” “What can I do about it now?”

It may seem little consolation to know that we live in an imperfect world, where difficulties and death are very real parts of life. Even for those who accept the story of a long ago garden where the first sin plunged our world into disarray, it may be of little comfort to consider the truth that our lives are daily impacted by the brokenness of living in a fallen world. That truth is most difficult to grasp when the brokenness is directly impacting us in ways that cause almost uncontrollable emotion within us.

The pain, questions, even feelings of helplessness are balanced by one thing. Realizing that God is Lord over all of it. He knows. He knows us. He knows what we are experiencing. In and through it all, He remains God. The God who is ready, willing and waiting for us.

Remarkably, He is a God – He is the God – who hurts. He hurts with us, and hurts for us, in our difficulties. He doesn’t back away from us in our struggles and imperfections. He draws nearer with words that remind us that our weakness is known to Him; and, He responds to us in our weakness.

Do you remember the shortest verse in the Bible? It’s just two words. “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

Jesus’ friend had died. Jesus wept.

Jesus knew He was about to perform an amazing miracle that would bring his friend Lazarus back to life. But, He wept.

Why?

Did Jesus miss His friend? Or, were those tears for Lazarus’ family and friends? Tears of empathy and understanding in their loss.

God knows when we are hurting. He knows each of us is hurting with varying degrees of hurt. God knows that it is the rare death where the survivors, those who remain to carry on, don’t have regrets about words unspoken or deeds undone – whether their own words or deeds or those they hoped for from the deceased. But, time ran out. The words remained unsaid. The deeds undone. Future plans not able to be fulfilled.

The question is, “Are we willing to admit that we’re hurting?” God isn’t just aware of the hurt, He feels the hurt right along with us. He knows we need reassurance in our time of loss, and He offers it. He guaranteed it in public before thousands of witnesses.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

We. Will. Be. Comforted. But, only if we let Him comfort us.

I’ve spoken at a lot of funerals. I didn’t know the man whose funeral I spoke at on the weekend and I don’t know most of you, your life’s story. I do know that when death intervenes, you will consider that your relationship with your loved one or friend could likely have been better than it was, and also had some shining moments you hope you will never forget. And, I know that there are and will be moments when you will need a sense of comfort as you reflect on the relationship. Those moments continue long after you think they should have come to an end.

God has promised His comfort. But, only if we let Him comfort us.

More than comfort alone, God Who is empathetic and understanding is also loving and wise. If we trust Him, He will make use of the troubles of life, and the mourning that comes with life’s ending, to meet with us and build into our lives something good that wasn’t there before. Although, often we won’t realize it until sometime later. If we’re not looking for Him, we might not even realize it was God who met us in our moment of need.

For now, let me encourage you to rest in the simple understanding that God is good, even when life seems bad. He cares for us, even when we don’t know He’s there. He has promised to comfort those who mourn. He keeps His word. He is committed to connect with those who admit their need of His love and care, and to build a relationship with us when we do.

Hope lost. Can hope be found?

It was my privilege to share this message with the staff and students of Redeemer Christian High School in Ottawa on May 18, 2016.

Hope.

News media report that hope lost has led to a continuing epidemic of teen suicide in Atawapiskat, Ontario.

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This same concept of lost hope has been identified as the cause of teen suicide across Canada, not just in one remote community.

In reporting this phenomenon, an assumption has been made. It is assumed that we know what hope is; and how to lose it.

When I was 15 years old, I lost hope – at least, I thought I did.

My parents had divorced ten years earlier, but I was just a little kid at the time so I didn’t really know that it was unusual for a child to spend the summer with his Dad and the school year with his Mum. My Dad remarried when I was 9. Still, I had this idea that my parents might get back together. After all, my Dad had left my Mum, my two older sisters and me, right? He could leave his new wife and little girl, right?

But when I was 15, Mum remarried. A few months later, I left to spend my summer with Dad. Shortly after I got home I was struck with the awareness that my parents were not going to get back together. I was also awakening to the fact that my family was different from my friends’ families. And, I lost hope. Or, at least I think I did.

What is hope? How is it lost? And, perhaps more importantly, how can hope be found again?

First, what hope is not.

German theologian Jürgen Moltmann recently celebrated his 90th birthday. (I know that seems a lot older to some of you than it does to me.)

In his book Theology of Hope, Moltmann suggests that, in the 21st century, we have confused optimism with hope. And, as a result, many people no longer understand hope.

Another theologian, Miroslav Volf from Yale University’s Center for Faith and Culture, saves us all a bit of reading by summarizing Moltmann’s key concepts in the book A Public Faith. Volf writes:

In Theology of Hope Jürgen Moltmann famously distinguishes between hope and optimism. Both have to do with positive expectation, and yet the two are very different. Optimism has to do with good things in the future that are latent in the past and the present; the future associated with optimism – Moltmann calls it futurum – is an unfolding of what is already there. We survey the past and the present, extrapolate about what is likely to happen in the future, and if the prospects are good, become optimistic.

Optimism, then, is the positive expectation that our past and our present will likely result in our good future.

So, what is hope?

Volf continues:

Hope, on the other hand, has to do with good things in the future that come to us from “outside,” from God; the future associated with hope – Moltman calls it adventus – is a gift of something new. We hear the word of divine promise, and because God is love we trust in God’s faithfulness. God then brings about “a new thing”: aged Sarah, barren of womb, gives birth to a son (Gen. 21:1-2; Rom. 4:18-21); the crucified Christ is raised from the dead (Acts 2:22-36); a mighty Babylon falls and a new Jerusalem comes down from heaven (Rev. 18:1-24; 21:1-5); more generally, the good that seemed impossible becomes not just possible but real.

The expectation of good things that come from God – that is hope.

Perhaps, what I lost at 15 wasn’t hope after all; but, optimism. I had let go of the idea that my family could be like my friends’ families if… if my parents could only re-find the love that had gone missing in their relationship. Clearly they now loved other people.

I had also come to the realization that I could not make it happen. I could not fix my broken and altogether different family.

That may suggest the best summary for lost optimism, “I cannot.” My past and present tell me “I cannot.”

Lost hope is more than that. Lost hope is more than “I can’t.”

Lost hope is a belief and feeling of being disconnected. Disconnected from friends. Disconnected from family. Disconnected from the world around me. Coupled with a sense that I don’t know how to re-connect and thoughts that maybe I should just disconnect permanently. Yes, I’ve been there too, at times.

When we can’t look back at the past or look at our today and believe, or feel, that something good will come from that, we need something more.

I like Moltman’s choice of adventus to describe that “something more” we need. We need something from outside of ourselves to reconnect.

When I hear the Latin word adventus, my first thoughts turn to Advent – the celebration of the coming of Jesus into the world. The season of waiting for the celebration of His birth. Even if we are unable to capture all of the anticipation in waiting for the baby to be born, we can get pretty excited thinking about what gifts we’ll rip into on Christmas, or the looks on the faces of those to whom we give gifts.

Adventus is that something that has to come from outside our own expectations and abilities, then meets us at our point of need. That’s what the true story of Jesus is all about. God giving His all to meet us at our point of need.

The people of Israel had been waiting. Waiting expectantly. Waiting for their Messiah, the Anointed One of God, to come. They had endured defeat at the hands of their enemies. They had endured being shipped off to other countries as refugees, and then gradually filtering back home to a land their Roman conquerors renamed Palestine.

Then came Jesus – breaking in from outside. They wanted a superhero Deliverer, but he was more like a friend who comes alongside to comfort and encourage.

History has shown that Jesus was, and is, the Anointed One. In the Hebrew language, “Anointed One” is translated “Messiah.” In Greek, “Anointed One” is translated “Christ.”

Jesus was, and is, the Christ.

After His death, Jesus’ followers waited in Jerusalem until God’s Holy Spirit was released upon them – that’s the Pentecost the Church celebrated worldwide a few Sundays ago, God’s Spirit being poured out on all who believe in Jesus. And some time after Pentecost, at Antioch, the Jesus followers were first called “Christians.” “Christians” actually means “little Anointed Ones.” A friend of mine says we Christians are “anointlings,” little anointed ones; not to be confused with “annoyings.” Although, we probably all know some annoying Christians.

As anointlings we have something unique to offer the world, including those who may have lost hope, even our friends who may need something from outside of them to help them reconnect in life. As anointlings, we are like “Jesus with skin on.”

We know that God is a spiritual Being. We know that He came into the world as a baby, lived, was crucified and raised to life again on the third day before ascending into heaven. But sometimes we need more than what we know. Sometimes, we need Jesus with skin on.

When, as a teenager, I became depressed – wallowing in my music, television and thoughts of my own uselessness – God blessed me with friends who would work their way past my mother at the door, down the steps to my room at the back of the basement and drag me out of the house to play ball hockey, baseball, football or RISK. Sometimes it was annoying! But, they didn’t put me down. They pulled me up.

I think our world needs more of that. Our world needs Christians who know they are anointlings, Jesus with skin on. If you think you’ve lost hope, remember you are surrounded by anointlings. Invite them into your world.

Maybe, you know someone who needs a little anointling – maybe even some annoying anointling. I encourage you, be the anointling you are. Be kind. In Jesus’ name.