New Testament Reading is from Ephesians Chapter 2, Verses 4-9:
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. [NIV]
On this Thanksgiving Sunday, I would like to share with you the evolution of my understanding of the god of Jesus Christ from my childhood to the present.
When I was a child, my god was an old man with gray hair falling down to his shoulders. His eyes were narrow and straight like a ruler. His face was covered with wrinkles, and that face never smiled. His eyes followed my every move so that he could catch my mistakes and throw me into a burning hell.
Hell was a very hot place. I saw a mile long track laid with red hot charcoal. I saw naked people walking on the red hot charcoal with bare feet. They screamed and wailed, pleading to jump off the track, but the horned devils would not let them.
I was scared to end up in Hell. In order not to go Hell, I had to be a good Christian boy. The church elders told me, to be a good Christian boy, I had to obey the ten commandments. So I made a great effort. I worshipped the God of Jesus as my god. I did not swear like my classmates. I went to church every Sunday. On Sunday I did not play with my friends because Sunday was a holy day to honor God, not to jump around with my friends. I obeyed my father and mother. I did not kill. I did not steal. I tried not to be envious when my friend had a nice pair of sneakers. I said nice things about my friends.
But I did not worry about the 7th commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” because Mother said I was too young to worry about it.
The problem that I had was the 2nd commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…. Thou shalt worship the God of Moses alone. But how could I follow the 2nd commandment when my Japanese teachers took us to the Shinto shrine to bow to the picture of the Japanese emperor whether I wanted to go or not? Mother said that God would understand my problem, but I was still worried of going to Hell.
The strange thing about my childhood was that I was taught that Jesus loved me. I sang, ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the bible tells me so…’ I recited, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.’ But instead of feeling loved by God, I was really afraid of God because I thought that God loved me as long as I obeyed his commandments. There was always that but. B.U.T. God loves you, but if you lie, you will go to Hell. God loves you, but if you do not go to church on Sunday, you will go to Hell… So I lived with fear in my heart while acting happy and thankful outside.
As a teenager, I had a list of things to follow to be a good Christian boy:
I read the bible and prayed every day- kneeling on the floor with my hands clasped.
Went to church on Sundays.
Smiled and was nice to people whether I felt like it or not.
Did not smoke and drink because smoking and drinking would defile my body that was God’s temple.
Stayed away from the opposite sex to avoid having any fornicating thoughts.
I followed those rules with utmost seriousness, but a question kept popping up: “I read and hear that those who believe in Jesus and follow his commandments will find joy and peace in their hearts. Then how come I do not find peace and joy in my heart? Instead, my heart feels always uneasy and fearful. Why?”
When I was at college in Austin, Texas, I joined a group called Christian Faith and Life Community. There, about fifty students lived in a dorm-like setting and studied Christian theology and philosophy. I was introduced to the writings of Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebur, Rudolf Bonhoeffer, Soren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, and many others. The two years at the Christian Faith and Life Community were the most intellectually stimulating period of my life. There I said, ‘Good bye’ to my childhood god whose love for me was conditional. I left the community with the knowledge that
God accepted me totally and unconditionally.
God accepted me, not because I was a good person, but because God was love.
God’s love was like the sunshine that shone on all the living creatures on the earth. But to experience his warmth, I had to break open my cocoon and walk out to the open meadow and let God’s sunshine engulf my being.
When I left the community, the unsmiling childhood god who checked on my every move no longer scared me. The mile long track laid with the red hot charcoal in Hell no longer bothered me. But I still did not find the peace and freedom that came to those who surrendered their lives to God’s unconditional love. My head accepted God’s unconditional love, but my heart felt uncomfortable and uneasy. I did not know why. I just shoved this uneasy feeling in the dark chamber of unconsciousness and kept myself busy with my work and my family.
On a warm spring day in 1989, I was walking on the hill near our house, feeling fortunate and grateful. I was in my fiftieth. I had survived through WWII under Japan and the Korean War. I had survived the pain of losing three of my loved ones within a span of five years: my father and my two brothers because of the wars. When I was sixteen years old during the Korean War in 1953, my mother put me on a boat heading for America so that I would be safe and get a good education. Alone, without money, with a poor command of English, the first seven years in America was tougher than the first 16 years in Korea. But I persisted. Now I had a wonderful family, good friends, a great place to live, and a wonderful job. What more could I want? I felt I was the luckiest person on the earth.
Then soon afterward, I had a series of fainting spells. I felt numbing pain throughout my entire body from my toes to my head for 24 hours a day. When I got out of the bed in the morning, I found my pillow soaked in sweat. I went to a doctor for check up. After giving me all kinds of fancy tests, the doctor pronounced that he found nothing wrong with me. As I was about to leave his office, he gave me a pamphlet to read after I went home.
On the way out of the doctor’s office, I looked at the pamphlet. The title was depression.
Who? Me depressed? A self-made man? Who survived through the two wars in Korea and years of struggle in America to be where I am? Who does he think I am? A weakling? I felt insulted. I threw the pamphlet into a trash can.
Unfortunately, the fainting spells and the numbing pain continued, draining every ounce of my energy in each passing day. Also I felt terribly alone. I saw myself standing all alone on a huge empty desert with the moon and stars looking down at me. I prayed to God to help me from this agony. But God seemed to say, “That’s your problem to take care of.” Finally I succumbed to see a therapist.
After listening to me, the doctor said, “Your problem is that as a good preacher’s son, you ignored all the negative feelings swirling around your heart. You have lived the fifty plus years of your life like a robot driven by your head, and you ignored your feelings. Remember: Man has a head to think and the heart to feel. To lead a full life, you must not only use your head to think but feel the feeling in your heart. To be healed from your depression, you have to let out the negative feelings within you.” The doctor’s words made sense. I shared my inner most feelings that I had kept to myself since childhood. I shared my childhood concept of god. I shared my feeling toward the church in my childhood that trapped me in the bondage of fear. I shared my deep emotional trauma losing my loved ones during the wars. It was like going to a priest for confession. During one of those sessions, I realized that I had carried a deep guilt and worthlessness for not helping to save my father who was taken away by the communists during the Korean War. I was a 14 year old boy then. I just stood and saw Father taken away. When I recalled the scene, I started to cry aloud asking Father for forgiveness. My crying turned to a groan. The therapist kept handing me a tissue after tissue, letting me cry and groan. After a while, my groaning and crying stopped. I sensed something strange in my heart. For the first time since childhood, I felt the peace and freedom that I had never thought possible to experience in this world.
In the doctor’s office, I experienced God’s amazing grace. This happened in 1990. This peace and freedom are still within me to this day -2013.
As John Newton, a slave trader, who experienced God’s grace in a stormy sea, and later wrote the lyric of the hymn, Amazing Grace, I can say,
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that gave me a new life. I was once lost, but now I am found. Was blind, but now I see.
Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. ‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far. And grace will lead me home.