Monday, May 30, 2011

The Fullness of Time

The light in the room filters in from the bright florescent bulbs in the kitchen, blocked faintly by the opaque wooden entry door. A small pile of unwanted clothing sits quietly in the shredded armchair across from the bed, the feline claws which usually snag into its fleshy leather now more than twelve hours gone. Astride its weary companion, a makeshift dresser stands slightly askew but ready, attentive to the contents of its still-full drawers.

On the armchair's other side rests a stunted fridge, empty but for expired, frozen noodles and cold onion husks. To mirror this emptiness, the only kitchen cabinet in the unit fills itself with one shiny metal kettle, three pans, and a sprouting bag of potatoes. Above, where the dishes are kept, rest two lonely plates and one spoon, fork, and knife each. Just enough for one last meal: breakfast.

Tomorrow's moving day.

As I sit here in the quiet dimness, the air still without Frankie's shrill bellows, it's hard to take in what I know the morrow surely brings. The abortion of a school year, just three months into its gestation. Fractured trust from parents and staff alike. A cancellation of a contract so newly signed. Oh what shattering news comes swiftly in a fortnight!

Two Mondays ago, the sixteenth, I was still oblivious to the financial storm clouds looming over my tiny hagwon. My plan then, as I had so recently informed my Texas family, was to see them in three months after working through my final summer in Korea. I had known I was coming home; I just thought it would be a little further away than now.

Two days later, the message trickled down from management that the worst had hit: Barely afloat for the last several months as students oozed through our cracks and into other hagwons, Apple Tree could no longer afford to keep from drowning in its overhead costs. Its captain would let it sink on the 31. And my apartment would go down with it.

The news didn't hit me as tragically as it had some. If my manager had called me into her office to tell me lunch was ready, I'd have felt the same. What has replaced the sense of devastation is instead this feeling of expectancy.

Just the night before I had explained to a close friend about my apprehensiveness of the hagwon's current progress and its plans to revamp the curriculum. And as soon as I told her the news, the friend quietly replied, "Wow! ...God does indeed have plans for you to come home early." And I have to agree that she's right. True, losing one's job, one's place to live, and one's alien registration within two weeks is an unstable position at best. But no matter what others might say, I can see the hand of God even through the uncertainty.

I see Him opening doors for me to participate in a missions trip to Thailand that I wouldn't have ever tried to plan on my own. I see Him strategically placing me in a country town with a woman who unknowingly desires the blessings of the LORD, to witness of His great love and His gospel. And I see Him giving me opportunity to pray over and speak life into those He brings across my path. I saw the LORD guiding me even as I came to Korea, and I marvel at His hand over me now.

The thing that amazes me the most at the close of my time here is the willingness of those whom God has deliberately put in my path to go out of their way to provide for me: Already I've had three close friends in Dongtan volunteer their homes for the next three weeks, one of them visibly concerned about where I would store my luggage. Yet another woman has suggested I stay the weekend with her in Hongcheon. Still a third couple suggested I could crash at their place for a day or two if I needed to head down to Chungju. As I hear the offers spoken, I cannot help but know that these are urgings from the Holy Spirit and I cannot help but feel the LORD's great love for me throughout them.

It is the fullness of His time.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sketty on the Barbie

"We need to make dinners," I cooed to Frankie as I finished folding my laundry tonight. I walked over to where my cell phone lay to check the time: twelve minutes till eight, one hour past supper. "How about we make some dinners?"

I poked my head into the refrigerator and remembered the three small chicken breasts I had bought from Home Plus the day before. "We could have Chicken Parmesan," I suggested to my cat, "and I wouldn't even have to thaw the chicken!" Gingerly, I placed an onion--what was left of my fresh vegetables--onto the meat's plastic trough and carried the two toward the kitchen.

Just moments before, I had pulled out my package of long spaghetti noodles, along with my packet of Hunts mushroom spaghetti sauce, and had placed them on the lip of my range top, which served as my only counter space. Arriving with the chicken, I set the meat in its pan and took out my cutting board, chopping the onion in smallish squares. I then spiced the meat with a generous helping of pepper, garlic powder, and some all purpose seasoning.

"Wanna come over for dinner?" I asked Holly over Skype while the meat and onions sizzled.

"Haha," she laughed. "Right now? What's for dinner?"

By this time I had torn open the aluminum sac of sauce and had poured its reddish, viscous liquid over the onions, waiting for it to heat through so that I could transfer the herbed chicken to the saucepan to finish cooking. It was too smooth a texture for tomato sauce, I reasoned--and much too thick. It also looked darker than traditional tomato-based sauces. I dabbed a finger onto the still-wet sac and brought it to my lips.

I had already known from previous experience that Korean-brand spaghetti sauces were notoriously sweet. However, American syndicates should have been different. "Why is it sweet?" I wondered aloud.

"Chicken Parmesan," I typed back to my friend on Skype-- "without the Parmesan, and 'American' spaghetti sauce that's too sweet."

"Yum! That sounds great!" Holly offered. I returned to the kitchen to transfer the meat into the other pan.

With the chicken cooking in the saucepan, I now had room on my two-burner stove for the next step: the noodles. As I watched them cook, I kept the sauce going to ensure no pinkness remained in the chicken. Steam steadily rose from the mixture as, second by second, the sauce began to cook down and its water vapor drifted away.

Trying to cover the overpowering sweet taste of the Hunts sauce, I added pepper, cilantro, garlic, and rosemary to the pan--the makings of a fine mesquite barbecue flavor. Now that the onions had started to caramelize and the concoction to thicken, my dinner was slowly beginning to morph into sauce of a different kind.

"My spaghetti sauce looks a little too much like Texas bbq if you ask me," I wrote to Holly dismally.

"Haha--interesting," she replied. "I didn't know spaghetti could look like barbecue!"

"Well it's not supposed to!"

A little disheartened, I turned back to my dinner to finish preparations and--saucy spaghetti, peppery chicken, and cold garlic-y spinach in hand--deliberately sat down to enjoy it. My heart sank even further when I noticed that, by the light of my studio room, the sauce was even browner than in the kitchen.

One spoonful of pasta confirmed all of my dire predictions: Instantly, my taste buds were assaulted with sweet spice, soft onions, and spaghetti noodles. Together. It was a flavor-texture clash I just could not handle.

"Totally sounds like something I would do!" a friend commented the instant I posted my reaction to Facebook. "So... did you like it?"

The story came spilling out after that, the sweetness, the spice, the chicken-marinade. "I'd say it turned out to be decent barbecue," I told her. "Were it not for the fact that I was going for Chicken Parmesan."

Birthday Wishes

The woman's voice through the loud speakers suddenly registered in my ears, her words a crisp, clear English that carried over the drum of the thousands come to pay their respects that day. "The washing ceremony of the Baby Buddha is going on right now," she announced. "It cleanses us from our anger, bitterness, and harmful thoughts." She then listed other activities around the sacred site which the foreigner could pleasantly engage in, such as writing prayers to hang from paper lanterns.

I glanced to my right at the long row of fold-out tables resting along one side of the broad, walled-in footpath that led to the inner courts of the temple. There, the colorful, flat lamps sat collected in piles, waiting for prayers and wishes to fill them. I noted the profusion of plainly clothed, smiling workers stationed behind the mounds. "Volunteers are here to help you along the front gate," the announcer reminded us. "We are here today to celebrate and honor the work of the Buddha in the world. We hope you have a meaningful day."

Warily, I crept closer to the inner sanctum, resistant to the idea of having visited a Buddhist temple on the Buddha's birthday. Walking through the entrance, I passed tables of men selling tiny piggy-bank-like plastic figures and piles of bags of rice and other sustenance, offerings for the statues which would undoubtedly be found inside. I followed the footsteps of my adventuresome acquaintance, one of the four in our group, which led me up the steps and into Buddha's wide, covered courtyard.

Idolatry dripped like the rain droplets which fell from each lantern strung low over our heads. Wishing lanterns, these were: each a perfect red sphere with four or five bright green leaves and a swaying white paper attached to its bottom. Unlike the hexagonal prayer lamps which hung in the outer courts, these were the same color because they were the same price. The multi-colored ones were different prices, I was told.

You have to pay to leave prayers for your god? I thought. I wondered where the proceeds from the sale of such communication went.

Underneath the damp canopy stood a trio of lines a few yards away, the view of which was cluttered by ladders and other superfluous equipment in front of them. The middle line protruded directly in front of me and led to an attendant helping temple-goers with lighted candles. The outer two queues were for parishioners waiting for the cleansing ceremony: At the front of them stood two foot-tall gold statuettes of baby Buddha, which participants poured water on from something that looked like a tin camping mug.

Why is it that your god needs washing? I wondered again. And how is it that this is all that is needed to take away the blood-red stain of sin?

"It's the same reason Catholics kiss the feet of Jesus," I heard my companion say. What I failed to tell her is that I wasn't Catholic. Nor was my God still wounded on a Cross.

"I assume you don't want to stand in line," she continued, sensing our group's collective hesitancy to participate in the idol worship. "We can walk around the temple to the other statues," she suggested. Together, the four of us nervously passed by the lines of the faithful and out toward the soggy grounds.

As we walked, I noted with sadness the short scaffolding set up to receive the myriad prayer lanterns, its tight string filled to brimming with the colorful, swaying shapes. As we continued walking, still more scaffolding presented itself--this time waiting to be filled. Who will read them? I thought. Will the Buddha breathe life into one of his statues and come down? Will he then read all these prayers?

We passed another statue toward the temple's exit, and at the sight of this my acquaintance stood ecstatic. "Guanyin! That's the other one who's here!" she exclaimed. When asked who it was, she mentioned that this was the "Buddhist statue of mercy," and jubilantly walked across the bridge to where it sat.

On an island in the middle of a small pond, the statue rose high above its disciples, bags of rice, stacks of apples, and other edible offerings at its feet. My heart sank as I watched the scene, knowing with growing lament that humans would collect those gifts after the faithful disappeared. Why worship a god who is not even able to receive your worship to him? I questioned. Why worship something which cannot see, hear, feel, speak, or help?

As I sit reflecting on the scene from yesterday, I'm reminded of the sovereignty and power of my God. He does not sleep nor does He slumber, and every prayer and offering I give Him He both hears and receives. I do not wash Him, but He reaches down and washes me. "Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy," reads Leviticus 20, "--for I AM the LORD your God... I am the LORD who sanctifies you" (7-8).