This spring, I have the privilege of living and working in Seoul, Korea with my wife Dr. Samjung Kang-Hamilton. Our apartment overlooks the Han River in the western part of this great city of almost 25,000,000 people, the sixth largest metropolitan area in the world. The energy of a city that never sleeps (or even dozes) makes life here the very opposite of dull.
What does one do on a sabbatical in Seoul? For my part, I am teaching five courses on four campuses of three different universities. Two of those courses are at our host institution, Korea Christian University, where I teach one class on Israelite history and another on Old Testament theology. At the Presbyterian University and Theological Seminary, I am privileged to offer a doctoral seminar on divine kingship, working with excellent PhD students. And at Yonsei University, I teach an undergraduate course in Israelite religion on the main campus in downtown Seoul and a graduate (master’s and doctoral students in practical theology) course on Job and the Literature of Faith and Doubt (one of my ACU standbys) at an experimental seminary in the brand-new city of Songdo, involving a dozen or so students from many parts of the world. The teaching load, plus the hours of riding buses and subways to get from one place to another, makes for a busy week, but a very fulfilling one. It is always a privilege to be able to use one’s gifts fully. In addition to the (almost) daily teaching, I have given two major public lectures, one on Jonah and Lamentations at the Presbyterian University and the other on Psalms 93-100 for the Korean Society of Old Testament Studies, meeting this semester at the Seoul Theological University. I have also preached several Sundays at a number of congregations.
Teaching students outside one’s native culture forces a teacher to work hard on his or her craft, to be disciplined not only with respect to content (which should always represented the state of the art), but also with respect to method. Good teachers are never satisfied with their work and always look for new ways to help students learn, and I have sought to do this as well as possible.
Teaching biblical history and theology at three institutions in one of the world’s great cities offers a marvelous opportunity to gain a very broad picture of the possibilities of Christian education today. The old boundaries of denomination and heritage matter far less than the common interests and challenges we all face. And learning alongside such a wide range of people verifies the statement of Thomas Campbell two centuries ago:
[A]ll that are enabled, thro’ grace, to make such a profession, and to manifest the reality of it in their tempers and conduct, should consider each other as the precious saints of God, should love each other as brethren, children of the same family and father, temples of the same spirit, members of the same body, subjects of the same grace, objects of the same divine love, bought with the same price, and joint heirs of the same inheritance. Whom God hath thus joined together, no man should dare to put asunder. (Declaration & Address, Proposition 9)
Surely this vision, so central to our identity in Churches of Christ, is true, and it is important that we both believe it and act upon it. Living in a city in which God clearly works inspires us to think about how we are doing our part.
During this time, Samjung has also been teaching courses at Korea Christian University in childhood development and multicultural education. For me, probably the greatest joy of this entire trip is the opportunity to see her use her gifts fully to make a difference in the mindset of students. It has been a pleasure to see her receive the honor and respect that her work deserves. In addition, she has also spoken in churches and exerted a positive influence on a wide range of people. And later this month, we will give a speech on theological aspects of immigration together at a conference of the East-West Theological Forum, an international group of researchers meeting this year in Seoul. Again, we have stayed busy.
Yet, staying busy is not really the goal of life, nor is it the real purpose of a sabbatical. The main goal is to learn. One does this by meeting many new people, listening to their questions and ideas and concerns, and opening up one’s own mind to the possibilities of new ways of thinking. Living in a foreign country in which many things are unfamiliar is of course an excellent way to learn new ways of thinking, because the only way to avoid learning is to work very hard to stay in the old patterns of thinking. Learning simply is the course of least resistance. I have been privileged this semester to meet students, professors, church leaders, and just plain regular people who have tried to teach me not just a little more Korean, but also how to relate to a culture with different rules than my own.
A sabbatical of this sort, most of all, teaches many lessons about faith. The vulnerability that comes from being outside our comfort zone at almost all times forces a close examination of the shape ministry is the ministry itself – the work, the plans, the goals, the big ideas driving everything – or the One whom we trust with our entire lives. If we really believe that God’s strength is shown most perfectly through our weakness, we must confront our own mixed motives, fears, excessive deference to other people, unreasonable expectations, and pride. None of this is easy. But it can be done.
So, does our sabbatical resemble a vacation? Not really. But it has been something much more valuable – a time of renewal. For that I am truly grateful.
–Mark W. Hamilton