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“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” — John 13:34

Theological Reflection

by Irene Pak

This theological reflection was prepared for the Pastor Theologian consultation held in October 20-22, 2010, Colorado Springs, sponsored by the Office of Theology and Worship.  This particular consultation invited 13 Korean American pastors representing generations and gender.  The theological engagement focused on the event at the 219th General Assembly held in Minneapolis that led to the defeat of the motion to create another Korean language presbytery.

Irene Pak was born and raised in the wild west state of Utah in a smaller city called Ogden. She is a cradle Presbyterian and did her undergraduate work at Weber State University (also in Ogden, Utah) with a B.A. in Communications/Public Relations and a minor in Music playing cello. She graduated with her M.Div. at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and worked one year as an intern in the Office of Racial Justice and Advocacy at the Presbyterian Center in Louisville, Ky. For the past two years, Irene has been serving as the Associate Pastor of Christian Education at Daesung Presbyterian Church in Sunnyvale, California (although that job title really translates into anything related to English and Youth & Children's Ministries). Recently, she attended her fifth General Assembly but the first as a commissioner and served as vice-moderator of committee on theological issues and institutions. She recently went skydiving plummeting to the earth at 120 miles and hour at 15,000 feet and had the thrill of her life. She loves to read, play music, and is becoming a "foodie". She loves to travel and tries to go somewhere new at least once a year.

Luke 13:10-17

10 Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.  12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment."  13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.  14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day."  15 But the Lord answered him and said, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?  16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?"  17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

“Wow, you’re tall,” has been a common phrase directed at me by astute observers throughout my life.  I have always been tall—for an Asian American woman. I guess it’s because my parents are pretty tall for Korean folk and I don’t know what in the world happened, but in elementary school, I was unfortunately “blessed” with a growth spurt before everyone in my class. In my 6th grade class picture, you can find me dead center on the back row a full head taller than the tallest boy. His name was Andrew Lovejoy and he so hated that I was that much taller than him that his pose is him standing sideways with chest out and I remember glimpsing down at his feet to see him on his tippy toes. As the only person of color in that classroom (and in the entire school besides my younger sister and brother), this only produced more ridicule than I was already receiving as the super tall “oriental” girl, who, by the way, was also a Presbyterian Christian among a sea of Mormons. Perhaps my self-esteem was doomed from the beginning growing up in that context nicknamed the “Jolly Green Giant” and the “Empire State Building,” and being ridiculed for being “different.”  I learned at a young age to literally and figuratively “bend over” or “bend down” so I could attempt to blend in. I tried to make myself as “white/American” as possible in speech, attitude, clothing, anything…and as I got older, I refused to wear heels or anything that would help me to stand up straight and up above anyone.  I grew up feeling ashamed to being Korean, to being tall, to being different. I so devalued my own identity and sense of self that I distinctly remember believing that if only I was white, blond haired and blue eyed that boys would like me and if I was Mormon that I would have so many more friends.

Imagine then my own sense of shock and fear when I first felt that call of God on my life to go into ministry as a teenager. You should have heard that prayer…“Uh God? I’m not sure if you’ve got the right person. Pastors are old, they’re mostly white, they’re men, and they’re super holy. I am not any of those things. I think you’ve got the wrong person.” And I bent back down into trying to blend in. Although God drew me into following that call despite my bent state, it really wasn’t until I was into my twenties that God gave me the freedom to stand.

Here was a woman with a self-image and spirit that had crippled her for more than eighteen years. She was bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. Maybe her self-esteem was so damaged by eighteen years of being put down, misunderstood, and ridiculed that she felt she didn't deserve to stand tall. She definitely didn't feel like she could ask Jesus to heal her. He had to be the one who made the first move. And thank goodness he did.

When Jesus saw her, when he noticed her, when he paid attention to her in the middle of his busy life and schedule—in the middle of a sermon, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free, you are set free, you are set free from your ailment.” And then he touched her life, he touched her heart, he looked into her eyes and helped her to start looking up and not to the ground—he lifted her gaze toward him, toward God and released her from her fear, from those things that were literally tying her down, from the pressures of conforming to the world, and he helped her look up, to stand tall, to be proud, to live into the wholeness and the fullness of who God created her to be…and slowly but surely, she stood up straight. She was healed. She was changed and she was transformed from the inside out…she had become a new person, but more importantly, she had become the person that God created her to be in the first place. Then and only then—when she was healed and free from the things that were tying her down—could she really begin praising God with all of who she was and not only with part of who she was.
This isn’t just my story and it isn’t only the story of the woman in Luke’s gospel. In some ways, this is part of a broader story.  There are things that tie us down, that bind us up, and Christ brings an amazing freedom and unbinding that can unleash amazing praise. I have witnessed that and have participated in it. It is good news for all of us!

What strikes me in this story is that this healing and unbending also produces a strange fear among some of the people. I can hear the negative whispers and worry… “She’s “supposed” to be bent over—what is she doing? There are other days, other times, other venues for healing…why would Jesus do this today?” When someone finds that full freedom in Christ like the woman in the story, they are a transformed and changed person, and this can freak people out. They might change in ways that we’re not comfortable with…and they might change things that we are comfortable with.

The leader of the synagogue can’t see the overarching miracle that has happened because he’s so focused on the technicalities of when and how. He’s not saying she cannot be healed, he’s just saying it’s not the time for it today. The leader is not saying she is not welcome, but to keep her the way she is for now. We’re not ready for her to stand up and praise in that way. Too often, this message is the underlying message that I hear within the context of the church I currently serve.

It is a strange juxtaposition when one says, “Be with us, you are a part of us and our community of worship” and “You are supposed to stay bent over for now, it is not time yet for healing…”
Within the context of the Korean American church, I wonder when we will come to a point where we stop confusing Confuciansim with Christianity…respect with disempowerment.

The phrase, “I’m sorry, but women must be considered last” when it comes to nominating elders within some Korean churches, even if I “understand” it culturally does not make it okay. Actually, the fact that I “understand” it is what bothers me the most. When I as the pastor have to fight over and over for youth who come to church every week to be full members of the church with the full right to vote in congregational meetings (let alone be considered for nomination to any leadership role) frustrates me to no end.  How long do we remain silent? How long do we remain patient? How long do we remain bent? How long is it okay to keep others bent? The disconnect I am seeing between this ‘welcome’ and making sure many are still bent is shocking. I hear the questions, “Where are the second and third generations going? Why can’t we get them to come to church? Why can’t we get them to come back to the Korean church after they go off to college?”  It is becoming more and more clear to me that it is because they do not see it as their church. There is no ownership, little empowerment, little room for young people and for women to express the freedom they have found in Christ. Even as I love the church I currently serve, I am convinced that I would not have been nurtured as a young leader or woman had I felt that call of God on my life in this context.

Living in a culture and world where women are still unequal…where as an Asian American woman I am sexualized into a submissive caricature, where as a pastor I still don’t think of an Asian woman when I think of the word “pastor”—getting the courage to stand up at General Assembly to speak against the formation of another same language (Korean) presbytery was something I literally had to psyche myself into doing. I accepted this calling to ministry knowing it would be difficult, yet struggling with the fact that I am still a voice crying out in the wilderness…I wanted to be Sarah and not Hagar.  To be heard on that floor along with two other Korean American clergywomen and seeing the vote swing like that on that day shocked me. I couldn’t really feel the joy that others were proclaiming because I was suddenly deeply afraid and I wanted to bend down again, hoping to go unnoticed. Even as I can testify boldly to the freedom I have in Christ, there are times I still struggle to stand to my full height because I too am afraid of the fearful whispers and shame that I may bring to myself, the church I serve and to my family.

But I know I need to stand. I need to stand not only for myself, but for the cloud of witnesses that have gone before me and paved that road or literally broke down the roof that kept them bent so I could stand taller. I need to stand for the young Korean American girl who doesn’t know where it’s coming from but senses a call to ministry but doesn’t think it’s possible because she’s never seen anyone like her in that role. I need to stand from the roots of my faith and my theological perspective for the one who is thirsting for God but afraid there is only one way to drink deeply from the well…a way he or she cannot draw from. But most of all, I need to stand because Jesus saw me when I was bent.  He came and laid his hands upon me and through his life he gave me freedom. If I truly believe that I am free in Christ, then I need to stand full height in that freedom and give praise to God. Even when that freedom scares myself and scares others because I can no longer and they can no longer control what I do living in that freedom that comes from God.

It is still difficult at times and I am still on the journey, but I now stand tall to my full height, (I even wear heels now) and I am proud of who God has created me to be, fully as I am as a Korean American, as a Christian, as a woman, as a pastor and as a daughter of God.

My prayer is that all of God’s created will find the freedom to stand tall and into whom they are created to be. I pray that all of us would be able to be the presence of Christ for those who are currently bent over, to untie and unloose those bonds that hold people down. And I pray that if we are the ones keeping people bent down placing our traditions and laws above the healing of people that we would dare to repent. Because ultimately, it really isn’t about the rules, cultures or what we’re comfortable with, but that all that we are, all that we do, is so that all praise would go to God our Creator.  Standing tall, my prayer is that we can praise God with the fullness of who we are and bring others rejoicing with us.

"Love does not just happen. Love is a choice - not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile. Love is a conversion to humanity -- a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives."
-- Carter Heyward


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