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The shepherd of North Korea

194-25-7.jpgFrom my childhood, I remember the iconic picture of Jesus that glossed the inside of our family Bible, wayward lamb astride his shoulder.


Throughout my life, I have made my way through different framings of that image, traversing various seasons of relative “lost-ness” and “found-ness.” Over time, and given enough doses of the parable of the prodigal son to balance, I thought that while God loves us, it is a sober, pastoral love of a shepherd that calmly waits for the sheep to return, repenting its waywardness.


How woefully deficient my understanding has been.


I received my real education on Jesus’ words only after our family moved to Seoul, South Korea, to do ministry. My first “lesson” came at the hands of a near tragedy. Our family was in a local open-air market, taking in the sights and sounds of our new home. The narrow alleyways of the market barely allowed the movement of mobs either selling or shopping. We paused at an interesting looking shop, and my wife and I discussed whether we would enter. It only took a moment for me to realize that my daughter wasn’t holding my hand anymore. After about five nightmarish minutes of what I can only describe as hell, wherein I was sure that my heart was going to give, we found her. My lost, crying little girl was blessedly found.


God loves us, but that love is not sober, nor is it pastoral, calm, detached, or even remotely rational. Rejoice with me …


My education did not stop there. A little over a year ago, our ministry team began a monthly outreach to the children of the Samheung school in Seoul. The Samheung school is a boarding school that serves North Korean refugee children and their families. The school began its work two years ago, and the sacrificial giving of the North Korean refugee community, alone, maintains it. The school is an amazing feat of love, dedication, and tenacity. I honestly believe that the school and its children have blessed us more than we have them.


It was at the Samheung school that I met a 9-year-old boy whom I will call “Amos.” Interestingly, Amos did not gain entry to the South via China. It turns out that Amos’ father escaped a North Korean labor camp about 10 years ago and ended up in a major city in Russia. Amos’ father was “illegal” and lived under the constant threat of repatriation if discovered. Time moved on, and Amos’ father fell in love with a Russian woman. Unable to marry for fear that registering the marriage would lead to the discovery of his origins, Amos’ father and mother remained unmarried.


Amos was born a little while later. Unfortunately, Amos’ mother died a couple of years after she gave birth. Because Amos’ father was not married to Amos’ mother and was not registered on the birth certificate as the father (again, fear of repatriation), the authorities quickly moved in and took Amos into custody. The authorities placed Amos in an orphanage.


Amos’ father had no option but to watch from afar. He followed his son to the orphanage. He moved into a nearby apartment and kept an eye on Amos while also struggling to feed himself. The authorities moved Amos to a different orphanage sometime later, and so Amos’ father followed his beloved son to the new location. This pattern repeated again, and at the final orphanage, Amos’ father learned that a couple from Los Angeles had chosen Amos for adoption.


Amos’ father had run out of options. The couple was coming to get Amos in 30 days. In a desperate and irrational bid to stay with his son, Amos’ father turned himself into the South Korean embassy in the city. Because of the delicacy of this diplomatic conundrum, I cannot describe to you what took place after this. Nevertheless, the father’s one-in-a-million gambit paid off, and both father and son now live in Seoul. There are still struggles, but when Amos stayed with our family one weekend while his dad was working, I secretly rejoiced to hear him talk to his father over the phone and make plans for a future outing.


God is the good shepherd who risks, sacrifices all things to redeem the one, wayward sheep. Rejoice with me…


Nowadays when I read the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, or the parable of the prodigal son, I cannot help but hear a refrain from the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:22-39. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? … I am convinced that … [nothing] … will be able to separate us … .” Not only does the shepherd know the sheep, there isn’t much that will keep the shepherd away either.


As a father and a pastor, I have beheld shadows of the divine love present in my and others’ love. What I have seen convinces me that we are failures at understanding that love. As the body of Christ, we often distort that love into palatable images that fit our limited perspective. Like my family Bible image of Jesus, we grasp at straws to read our perceived status before God into the image instead of taking a close look at the fact that it is we who are firmly grasped.


It is God who rejoices at the discovery, we the object of joy. Congratulating ourselves on our “standards,” “essentials” or sanctity-over-and-against-another is to fail to marvel at the fact that we have been found at all, and that we belong to a finding God.


SAMUEL WEDDINGTON, a teaching elder, is director of English ministries at Presbyterian Church of the Lord (Ju Nim Whe Gyo He) in Seoul, South Korea. You can reach him by email.