I need to say this. I hated you for a long time.
Not at first, though. Certainly not when I was a little kid, black hair neatly parted on the side and skinny legs swinging from the pews. Back then, I respected you. It was respect mixed with fear.
I respected you because you were a man of God. I respected you because this is what good Korean children must do. Even if I was in the middle of pretending to be a Power Ranger or professional wrestler with my friends in the church basement, if you walked into the room, I stopped and bowed my head to you, greeted you in formal Korean.
I was a little afraid of you, too. Afraid of the way you screamed from the pulpit, the way the veins in your neck expanded like small arms underneath your skin, the way the spit would spray from your lips, the thunder clap of your hand on the pulpit. I believed your hand was made of harder material than the wood itself.
One night you caught me and my friends doing something wrong. I remember you lining us up in the parking lot after we had done something that kids do—throwing a tennis ball against the church wall or roof, or romping around in the woods, or being outside when we should have been inside. You walked down the line, and with your third knuckle, knocked each one of us on the forehead. When I felt the crack on my skull, I winced, clenched my jaw, and continued to stare straight ahead. Good Korean kids accept their punishment, sorry and stoic.
Moments like that are why I was afraid of you, but not why I hated you.
One day, you preached a sermon to a small group of congregants, maybe twenty.
In the course of your exhorting and expounding, your preaching and prodding, you brought up divorce.
You said that divorce was evil in the eyes of God. That it was ugly. The lines in your face hardened. Your sculpted hair came undone as you shook in righteous anger. And in a voice that boomed over the gold-lined pages of your bible, you said, “Anyone who divorces and remarries is under a curse from God."
The words barely had time to bounce across the walls and ceiling and back to you before you added, “And any children they have are cursed by God."
Some people nodded their heads in agreement. Some said “Amen” out loud. Empowered, emboldened, you continued your sermon, your work of truth and love.
Sometimes a few quotations of scripture and some encouragement from a few in the congregation are enough to make us smile at ourselves. We have had the courage to tell the truth, the compassion to warn these good Christian people so that they will never make the mistake of divorcing, or remarrying, or having children after all that and incur the wrath of the curse of God.
And all the good Christian people say, “Amen."
You probably didn’t notice the silence from the fifth row of pews. The same pew, the same spot, where a good Christian boy and his mother and father sat in every single Sunday. The boy whose father divorced his first wife. The boy whose divorced father remarried his mother. The boy who was conceived from that remarriage.
The boy you proclaimed was cursed by God.
The boy who stopped breathing as the word cursed crept like cold poison through his veins.
The boy who did not, could not know better but to believe you.
But you didn’t know that, did you? Many pastors don't--the momentum of their monologues moves them swiftly over the silent people who are crushed under the weight of their heavy words.
That was me, Pastor. Run over by the freight train of your Truth. And even then, I did not hate you.
I could not know to hate you. You were God’s voice to me. You were Truth.
So I believed. Oh, I believed you and your Truth.
I believed God created the universe. I believed in heaven and hell. I believed in Jesus. I believe he was born of the virgin Mary, that he was without sin, that he died and rose again for my sins. I believed all good things came from God. And I believed that God had cursed me and my existence.
Unfortunately, sometimes we live the words that hurt the most.
I believed God loved everyone, but I believed he no longer loved me. Maybe that he had never loved me at all. I believed that everything I touched, everything I did, everything I dreamed was destined to wither, to crumble, to fail. I believed it was what I deserved. I believed my only option was to try to work my way into God’s favor. I believed there was maybe an outside shot he might forgive me for what my parents did if I could prove to him that I could be a good person.
Do you remember, Pastor, how you used to hand out awards for reading the Bible the whole way through? Do you remember when I did that three times in one year? Do you remember shaking my hand? Do you remember how you smiled and said, “Good job, son”? Do you remember handing me my new Bible and my certificate? Do you remember how I smiled back, and bowed my head, and said nothing?
Did you know that I wanted to ask you if my curse was lifted yet? If it was enough?
Did you know that every single time I failed, I counted it as evidence that I was cursed?
Did you know that I believed for years that my body was part of God's curse? That I would writhe around in my bed at night, disgusted with myself and my bones and my ribs, and I would ask God why I was born in the first place?
Did you know I used to ask God why I would be born, why live, why dream, why love—when it was all cursed from the start?
Fortunately, Pastor, not all of those days spent in scripture were lost on me. I kept reading about how I was fearfully and wonderfully made, and how God had a plan for me, and that I was a new creation, and that nothing would separate me from God’s love.
The more I read, the more I grew and developed and matured, the more I became suspicious about this “curse.” It just didn't jive with what I had come to know of God.
And that’s when I started to hate you, Pastor.
That’s when I realized that this curse—the one that haunted me, bound me in iron shackles, crippled my dreams—was your false idea, not truth. I remember, when I was in high school, sitting on the couch with my mom, and we talked about you. My fists clenched and eyes full of tears, I told her how much I hated you. I told her how I would march into that church and unload fist and fury and all my hate. It didn’t matter if you throttled me or not—I wanted you to know how much you messed me up.
That is not what good Koreans do. My mother told me no matter how much I hated you, no matter what you had said or done in the past, that I shouldn't even think of questioning you. You were God’s chosen one. To question you would be to question God himself and in so doing, I would bring God’s wrath upon myself. Sounded familiar to me. I never did confront you about it. I never said anything. (That was for my mom, not for you.)
But I want you to know that no matter how hard you smacked that pulpit, no matter how loudly you shouted, no matter how right you thought you were in your head--you were wrong. Screaming scripture out of context doesn't make whatever you say true. It made me believe you for a time, but it didn't make it true.
For years afterward, I did the work that Sleeping At Last sings about:
Keep your chin up as you untangle God from cold blood and bruises
It's what I've had to do--separate the truth from the lies, sift the rocks and dirt to find the gold. It's what many people have had to do after church has run them off the road and into a telephone pole, bent and twisted around splintered pillars of pseudo-truths.
I want you to know, Pastor, that I don't hate you anymore.
I want you to know that when I think of you, I remember the guy who cultivated my skills in music. Who was there time and time again for my father. Who taught me how to drive when I was sixteen. Who taught me how to be humble when I was wild and proud. Who I believe in my heart cared for me.
I want you to know I can do that because of grace.
It's the same grace that has redefined the word "mistake" for me. The mistakes my father made in his life didn't produce another--they produced me.
I am not a mistake.
I am not the sum of anyone's errors--including my own.
I am not a curse.
I am not destruction. I am creation.
I am redemption wrapped in flesh and blood.
I am grace--a recipient, and a vessel.
And despite everything, Pastor, so are you.
I believe grace can do that. It lifts our curses. Even the ones we've created ourselves.