My time in Seoul has been a rich, rewarding and inspiring one. So many highlights, but one experience that seemed to bring them all together and into focus.
Yesterday I stood in the Yanghwajin Foreign Missionary Cemetery (양화진), and on reading one epitaph found my breath taken away, tears stinging my eyes.
"If I had a thousand lives to give, Korea should have them all" Ruby Kendrick.
Ruby was a young woman from Texas, who went to Korea as a missionary and died at the age of 25 in 1908, less than a year after arriving in Korea. Her investment of life proved to be short but bright. At her memorial service in Texas, 12 other young women volunteered to take her place in Korea.
Missionaries often take the place in narratives (at least in the UK), of imperialist colonisers; easily despised and made the scape goats of anti religious zeal. I pondered for a while on why the disjunction between that negative narrative and this young woman's profound commitment, evoked such deep emotions in me.
I think it unearthed some deep things in me, appraising my own life and commitments, and the narratives of my own life and those I perceive around me in my own mission field.
This epitaph did not speak the usual currency of life, which is for 'living'. Ruby's confession confronts me with the claim that the one life I have is for giving, not living. 'If I had a thousand lives to live, I would live them all in Korea' is not what Ruby might have said with more modern tastes and sensibilities.
And the result of that giving for Ruby was a very short life indeed. But that embodied desire and investment of her short life revealed a fecundity of the Kingdom that reached across over 100 years, deep into my ambitions and hopes and understanding of life. As it has with so many others.
I felt a deep tiredness, all the way down into my bones, of the pull to 'live' life instead of give it. The gospel for 'living' that has replaced the gospel of 'giving'.
I'm tired of the gospel that;
…Has a sneer on its lip and soul, seeing commitment as sentimental zeal and something to be cynically despised.
…Parcels out the giving of myself based on what is left over, seems enjoyable, doable, exciting, and what is the most interesting option.
…Justifies putting myself before all others: the giving of myself to myself, restrained behind the sophisticated therapeutic rhetoric of self expression and finding myself.
…Allows me to discipline myself around the lifestyles of 'living' that atrophies the lifestyle of 'giving'.
…Funds its imagination, language, and stories from almost anything other than a life lived before Jesus, with others for others.
…Locates the measure of life within an economy that only values length, location, opportunities, and experiences
…Conserves, preserves, and translates me into a story of non involvement and engagement
…Takes its inspiration and certitude from cynicism and the perfidy of doubt, fearful of the mystery and uncertainty of radical commitment
Ruby likely packed her possessions for her journey to Korea, into a wooden box that would serve as her coffin (as many missionaries did). For travelling into mission was known to be a one way journey and likely death. Perhaps an image and an experience for Ruby of her baptismal vows, her family and friends waving goodbye at the docks releasing her into a gospel of giving. And watching as her baptismal ship carried her into the brightest experience of living.
Ruby's life is part of the Hebrew's 12 witness that surrounds me, draws me into the Gospel seizing all my being. Where baptism is my rite of passage, the packing of my life into the gospel coffin that I will be buried in and raised from.
And bids me to answer a question, if I had a thousand lives to live, what would I give them to?