“So Abraham Went” -Genesis 12. Sermon on All Saints Day Eve 2017/ 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation


Truett seminary hosted a preaching conference. All the sermons were to find their basis in Genesis. I preached earlier today, which happens to be Halloween (All Saints Day Eve), and the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 thesis to the castle church in Wittenberg. My text was Genesis 12 (the whole chapter).

Here is the video followed by the sermon text.

“So Abraham Went”

A friend once told me that in America 50 miles is nothing and 50 years is a long time, while elsewhere 50 miles is a long distance and 50 years is nothing. I saw this well in Korea when I taught English. Mr. Lee, or Peter as he told me to call him was my co-teacher. My first semester he picked me up and dropped me off from school. Once we talked of our homes. We spoke of what an American suburban neighborhood looked like, what it’s like to live in a city compared to a small town. We spoke of his chickens which lay blue eggs, and how he used to work in a big bank in Seoul. I asked what caused him to return to such a small town, one without so much as a movie theater. His response: “Of course I returned. My family has lived in my house for 500 years.” As someone who had not been in a city which had existed for 500 years until I was 21, such an attachment to land was unfathomable.

Around the small garlic farming town in which I taught, I could be instantly identified by children I never met. “Mom! Foreigner! English teacher!” toddlers would shout to their parents. There was no doubt of my foreigner status, however privileged or welcome I was. One surely sticks out.

And so, it was for Abraham—amplified by a hundred-fold. “By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents,” the sermon to the Hebrews said, he and his descendants both “heirs of promise.” As Walter Brueggemann notes, Hope required risk, and becoming a foreigner. He was to sojourn in a land which he would inhibit be promised. Sarah, we were told just before, is barren. There is no foreseeable future; there is no human power to invent a future except that God spoke to Abraham. God speaks, Abraham and Sarah go, as Calvin said, “with closed eyes… until having renounced thy country, thou shalt have given thyself wholly to God” As Paul says in Romans, Abraham is the one who “…who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rm 4:17). The word of God brings forth life, where there was none.[1]

Abraham is a picture of faith. Augustine asks, “Was Abraham ever in a position to say to God, “I will believe you, because you promised me that and paid up”? No, he believed from the very first command given.” Going involved renunciation of self, as it does for us.

 The call is not for Abraham and Sarah alone. There is inclusivity and exclusivity to the call which promises Abraham he will be blessed and be a blessing to all generations. Devotion is to God alone. And the blessing will be extended to all people: those who bless Abraham will be blessed; those who curse, cursed.

A sojourner in the land, among Canaanites, amidst temptations to live and provide in other ways, Abraham built an altar and invoked the name of the Lord. On the day of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it’s appropriate to note Luther: “Whatever your heart clings to and relies upon is properly your God.” The human heart, said Calvin, is an idol factory.  God’s call into the unknown does not always chart for us a clear path. In fact, it may provide anything but. But God’s faithfulness to the one responding in faith is sure.

William Carey’s famous call resounded and launched a movement “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God!” He spent 40 years in India, without furlough. His stay was not without personal difficulty. Of his early poverty in India: “I am in a strange land,” he wrote, “no Christian friend, a large family, and nothing to supply their wants.” But he also retained hope: “Well, I have God, and his word is sure.”[2]

It was 7 years before his first convert. His translations sparked a literary revival in Bengali and other languages. He revolutionized bottom-up missions, and it is because of Carey’s efforts that most Christians in India belong to the “outcasts.” He founded Serampore College, sought social reform to end widow burning, infanticide, and inspired literacy in dozens of languages with full translations in Bengali, Oriya, Marathi, Hindi, Assamese, and Sanskrit of varying quality.

He inspired much of the modern missions movement. As Sociologist Robert D. Woodberry, at Baylor University, observed “conversionary protestants catalyzed mass education, mass printing, and civil society–hampering elite attempts to monopolize these resources.” While excesses and abuses existed, in most places leadership is now indigenous– and the people themselves took over the churches, leading to the rise of Christianity in the Global South we see today. Where there was no visible church, God called out new life.

Carey had his critics, saying he spent too much time translating Indian religious texts and learning about his environment and not enough time in the task of conversion.  Similarly, Korean Christians, like others, have grapple with this same question of how to interact with culture. We’re about a month away from the Fall harvest festival. In Korean, it’s called Chuseok. The Buddhist family I lived with held a traditional observance of Chuseok and the lunar new year, Seollal.

At Chuseok, the family lit candles and offered food in front of banners with their lineage on them—the Hong family’s history spanning back to China. They brought me along as they visited their ancestor’s burial mounds, and poured out alcohol and left offerings there. For Catholic Christians, much of this could be appropriated. For the large Presbyterian Korean contingent, some of these accommodations to culture could not be allowed. Bowing in front of one’s living ancestors was a sign of respect. Offerings and other elements of the ceremony, my Presbyterian Korean friends warned were nothing less ancestor worship. Catholics would counter they were only continuing to honor their ancestors after death.

The question of how to live faithfully as sojourners is one not just for missionaries, but all followers of God. Abraham’s faithfulness is not all we can see in him. Famine hits. God’s gifts do not seem to provide. He goes to Egypt. Didymus the Blind claims it is not Abraham’s “vice that leads them there but the fulfillment of a divine plan. The virtuous man enters into Egypt in the sense that he makes use of foreign culture to draw something useful out of it,” such as when Paul cites the Greek poet Aratus saying, “for we are indeed his offspring.” Living as sojourners, relationship to “the world” can be complicated—used for good or ill. Didymus thinks Abraham knowingly acted virtuously for God’s cause[3].

Here, I think Didymus gives Abraham a little too much credit. However sympathetic his situation is, Abraham lies and schemes to win the favor of an ignorant and benevolent Pharaoh. Yes, inscrutably, Abraham is protected. Yes, God’s plan prevails. But  Abraham brings a curse on Pharaoh for through his own deceit, and attempt to provide apart from God’s plan. In a bizarre Exodus, Abraham is brought out of Egypt, delivered from his own fault alongside blessings his works did not deserve.

In his first response to the call of God Abram fails in response. Pharaoh asks the same question that God asks Eve in the garden, “What is this you have done” (Gn. 3:13). Abraham, like Eve, had no response. He has only silence. And Sarah, core to the scene and prominent in the Genesis narrative, here, is completely silent.

Abraham is a picture of faithful response, worthy of emulation by all seeking to journey unto holiness. He is also an example of the reality of human faithlessness. Entrusted with a great promise, our faithfulness or faithlessness affects not only us but those around. Just as Sarah is silenced, so was William Carey’s wife—Dorothy Carey.

Historian Ruth Tucker noted Carey’s concern for his work, the mission to which he was called, could leave casualties. She noted women like Dorothy, as throughout much of history, had little agency. Part of the nature of the Careys’ relationship included the realities of the day. As Sir William Blackstone said: “The husband and wife are one, and the husband is that one.” William’s decision to go abroad came suddenly—not at home with Dorothy at his side, but at a Baptist Missionary meeting.[4]

On April 4, 1793, William Carey abandoned his pregnant wife and two little children and boarded the Oxford on the Thames to begin his voyage to India. That trip soon ended when his colleague John Thomas had to settle debts. Carey wrote to again attempt to convince his wife: “If I had all the world I would freely give it all to have you and my dear children with me” Thomas was more harsh warning that if she didn’t go “she would repent it as long as she lived.”

While in India, Dorothy had another child, her sister married robbing her of companionship, her five-year-old son, Peter, died and she became increasingly prone to delusions. Several years later, she was confined to a room in the house. Carey poured hours into his translations while, as one observer said, “an insane wife, frequently wrought up to a state of most distressing excitement, was in the next room” locked inside. She came hardly of her own will, and suffered a complete breakdown.

Christians themselves are confronted with the blessed and marred examples, past and present. We stand on the shoulders of giants, yet those giants are not giants simply because they are paragons of virtue. It is All Saints Day, it is also the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We’re faced with questions: what of these figures, our sordid and sanctified forebearers?

In Abraham and Carey, we see both the great fruits of faithfulness extend generations beyond their lives. We also see their own concerns, their reliance on their own efforts, trap others and even curse them. Similarly, we cannot ignore the antisemitism of Luther, or the various and horrible wars and killings of perceived heretics on all sides of the Reformations. This day is All Saints Day Eve, and All Saints are Sinners.

God is not a stranger, nor, frankly all that surprised by human failing–the sins of women and men– as much as God hates Sin. We face twin temptations, equal and opposite possible faults. Either we ignore the faults of those who came before and fall into ancestor worship. Or we ignore what they have to teach us completely, and engage in chronologically snobbery and, invariably, worship of the present.

We can afford neither. The notion of simul iustus et peccator simultaneously a sinner and justified should be applied to the Luther, the Reformers, and all of us. As Paul says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.” Let there be no mistake, it is not just those in the past in danger of silencing others and imposing our will to supposedly achieve God’s ends.

No, it is all of us who need to be reminded of this heart of Evangelical faith: God rectifies, justifies, not the righteous but the ungodly.

God speaks life, and speaks eternally the eternal word, God provides Sarah and Abraham a name, a son, a nation, and makes them a blessing; and this blessing has come to us in the Father’s own Son who did all that was necessary and himself was the perfect sacrifice who was obedient in our place where we could not and did not—obedient in life and death, even death on a cross.

Jesus established a new people, a new covenant, a church. With no fewer problems now than in the past, and no less cared for, love, and no less under the liberating bonds of grace.

As Theologian Stephen Holmes clearly lays out, Baptists generally accept the Reformation objections have objected to the cult of saints: the idea that those undergoing purgation intercede for the church and can be called upon. Yet, we still have our own Sanctoral of sorts– our own “saints”.

Beyond Foxe’s book of martyrs, or Lottie Moon’s offering, or the stories of Carey, we have memories in our churches. In San Antonio, you find art commemorating the first mass celebrated. Across the street, at 7th and James Baptist Church where I serve, you find a plaque commemorating the first sermon ever preached. We have institutional memory! Imagine moving a couch in any Baptist church youth room. Someone may well comment about it, and tell you exactly who donated it and when!

As Holmes notes, perhaps our notion of Holiness, as saints in covenant to walk together and watch over each other, entails remembering not just individuals of prominent status but entire communities. All Saints day is a fine occasion for remembering, as is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but so is Church anniversary.[5]

In the Gospel of Luke, we are reminded of this example of Abraham. In the healing of a crippled woman, cursed for 18 years, called by Jesus a “daughter of Abraham.” Lazarus, not the rich man, in Luke is the one who is with Father Abraham. The outsiders are blessed through him. Zacchaeus, the tax collector too is called the “son of Abraham.”  Abraham is the prototype of all the disciples who forsake everything and follow (Mark 10:28).

We too may be daughters and sons of Abraham by faith. Simultaneously justified and sinner. Following in the footsteps of faith, and heeding the warnings of forcing our wills over God’s own—and, hopefully, by God’s grace, resisting the temptation to secure our prominence, security, and blessing by silencing, deceiving, or overpowering our neighbor.

When Peter and John healed a man in Solomon’s portico, they responded to baffled, crowd “You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your descendants, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” (Acts 3:25-26).

It is through Abraham’s descendent we have been blessed. All ungodly Saints are called onto a journey of Holiness, revealed by faith and for faith in Christ: absolute promise, and a sure gift.
God spoke to Abraham, so Abraham went. God speaks today, what will you do?

[1] Walter Bruggeman has approved especially instructive particularly in his preaching commentary: Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: a Bible commentary for teaching and preaching. John Knox Press, 1982.

[2] Galli, Mark, and Ted Olsen. 131 Christians everyone should know. Broadman & Holman, 2000. section on William Carey

[3] Sheridan, Mark, and Thomas Clark Oden. Genesis 12-50. InterVarsity Press, 2012

[4] Tucker, Ruth A. “William Carey’s Less-than-Perfect Family Life.” Christian History, 1992, http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-36/william-careys-less-than-perfect-family-life.html.

[5] “A Baptist Sanctoral Cycle?” Shored Fragments , The Blog of Stephen R. Holmes, 15 Aug. 2011, steverholmes.org.uk/blog/?p=697.


Where does Truett seminary stand Theologically? A description by Dean Todd Still

Dean Todd Still gives the opening convocation address at Truett Theological seminary August 22nd, 2017. Source: @TruettSeminary


The entire opening convocation was a wonderful way to begin my second year of seminary. We all gathered together as a seminary, faculty and students, new and old, worshipped God, and heard an address by our Dean, Todd Still. We awarded scholarships for women in ministry, and given as gifts by Truett alumni. And all this took less than an hour.

While noting views can be diverse, and he was not speaking ex cathedra or in a way suggesting laying down some special law, he gave a description of who Truett Seminary is as a gathered seminary. He ended by asking if we, with all our differences, from progressives to conservatives–and a host of other binaries– could stand together in a world where the “deep middle” is eroding, and we increasingly see people regarding those as ideological others with suspicion, rather than humility, humanity, and genuine engagement.

In short, I appreciated his words greatly. I encourage you to view his address, “Here We Stand” (August 22nd, 2017) Truett Seminary’s Fall Convocation. If you haven’t the time, please take a look at this extended rush transcript of the middle section of the address I typed up:

Baylor’s Truett Seminary has been, and remains, a centrist, orthodox, evangelical seminary within the Baptist tradition. Rejecting both a fundamentalism of the right, and its arid positivism, and a fundamentalism of the left and its vapid relativism, we continue to position ourselves in what may be thought of and spoken of as the ‘deep middle’ of the Christian Tradition. Someone, somewhere said, ‘Mere Christianity.’

Over the sweep of her short history, Truett seminary has tended to embrace and espouse what most Christians, in most places, and in most times, have embraced and espoused. As such, we’re centrist and orthodox. All the while, we have an evangelical orientation and passion with a decidedly, though not exclusively, Baptist stamp, as both a seminary community and as individuals which comprise the same. We’ve been grasped by God and the Gospel. We’ve been given new life in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We’ve been plunged into a watery grave. And we’ve been raised to walk in newness of life with other believer priests.

While we categorically reject indoctrination, we warmly welcome and embrace a common confession of essential doctrines and regard it and both our role and responsibility to contend for the faith which was once, for all entrusted to the saints.

It has sometimes been said that if you stand for nothing, then you will fall for everything. So the question comes our way today, where do we stand theologically as a seminary? This is a wholly appropriate, and an important question, even a pressing question to ask. Not least because we are Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological seminary.

First of all, we stand under scripture even as we seek to understand it. The Bible, we have said, when properly interpreted, is authoritative for matters of faith and practice. It is the norming norm. It is the standard by which we measure our beliefs and our lives. Even though no creed but the Bible is too simple of a slogan, and too shallow of a shibboleth, to capture adequately the theological complexities that attend our work and witness, it does nonetheless convey the belief that the bible serves as our convictional guide and our doctrinal core.

Such a high view of scripture does not preclude higher criticism. Indeed, we welcome such here. The Bible does not interpret itself. It must be interpreted. The so-called “plain sense of scripture” must seek to make sense of a biblical text both in its ancient and contemporary contexts. As it happens, every seminary course you take, in one way or another, will require you to interpret and interact with scripture. Here, that is as it should be.

Additionally, one who holds the Bible as trustworthy, and inspired by God, need not fall prey to bibliolatry, nor feel compelled to subscribe to some sort of rigid inerrancy. Rather, that for which we seek and aspire is a hermeneutics of trust that sees the thrust of scripture in none other than Jesus the Christ. We do not commend a flat-footed, wooden literalism with respect to biblical interpretation. Instead, we encourage a commitment to approach God’s word, both in public and in private, with all the tools as one’s disposal and with an attitude of chastened curiosity and reverent humility as we struggle, wrestle, grapple, and see if but in a glass dimly. The text is truth, and truth in the text, which will in turn serve to us as lamp and light. ‘Where do we stand theologically at Truett seminary?,’ people wonder. [We respond] under scripture.

I would also say that we stand amazed. We stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene. At Truett seminary, our focus rightly falls upon Christ Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, His matchless life, vicarious death, glorious resolution, present reign and promised return. We life high our Lord, who was lifted up, so that all people might be drawn to him. Wounded was he for our, and for all, transgressions. Crushed was he for our, and all, iniquities. We herald a Gospel of a crucified, reconciling Christ, who calls us to a cruciform life and to a ministry of reconciliation. Inviting those who are far away to come and see and encouraging those who are near to go and tell, for whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord, they’ll be saved. And we are to call on him, while he may be found.

At Truett, we encourage one another to cultivate a meaningful, vital, relationship with God through Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit in the context of community. The divine summons upon our lives in Christ is to be more fully formed into his image and likeness. Here, we are deeply committed to know more about Jesus, even as we are desirous of knowing Jesus more. This occurs in classrooms, covenant groups, chapel services, the offices of faculty and staff, in lectures, fellowship times, hallway conversations, ministry placements—and more. Because here Christ plays in 10,000 places.

To say Truett is Christo-centric is, I trust, true, but it is in no way meant to be trite. We want to continue to make much of the one who accepts us and saves us as we are, but loves us too much to leave us as He found us. We want to follow faithfully and fully the one who has called us to deny self, take up cross daily, and follow him.

In addition to standing under scripture amazed at what Jesus has saved us from and for, since its inception, Truett has been a community of sinner-saints who are seeking understanding. ‘Fides quaerens intellectum,’ as Anselm put it. In this place, we strive in the words of J.B. Lightfoot toward the Highest Reason and the Fullest Faith.

Although we affiliate and cooperate with various congregations and denominations, especially the Baptist General Convention of Texas, we are neither a church, nor a denominational body. Rather, we are an educational institution that values academic rigor….

[A]ll of your professors are not only interested in, and committed to, informing you that you might understand, they are also equally, and simultaneously, interested in cultivating your faith. What is more, they themselves are devoted to loving their lord with heart and head, mind and soul. At Truett you will be challenged academically, have you heard the name Dr. Ngan? You will also be encouraged spiritually. You will be both informed and formed.

If it sounds too good to be true, come and see a place which has one foot firmly in the academy, while simultaneously playing another further, and firmly, in ministry. There are very few places like it…. It’s a gift that must be stewarded, it’s a trust that we regard as sacred.

Like the Reformers, and other believers throughout the sweep of Christian history for that matter, we stress scripture, grace, and faith. We stand under scripture even as we seek understanding as those who love and trust the one who first loved us, by living a faithful life, and by dying a faithful if fateful death….

-Dean Todd Still,

George W. Truett Theological Seminary

August 22nd, 2017, Fall Convocation

I’m happy to be here learning under academically rigorous and faithful Christian scholars, alongside students with with whom I’m happy to encourage, talk to, and–occassionally!– engage in friendly (if impassioned) debate, and to serve and grow in church ministry all the while.

It’s the opportunity of a life time.


MLK day, Two Views review on “Words about God,” and more.

  1. Happy MLK, Jr. day. I hope we can spend the day wrestling  with and furthering the as-of-yet-unrealized dream Martin Luther King, Jr. shared. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” should be required reading for all Americans, especially Christians. As a seminary student, I’m taking pains to remember the letter begins “My fellow clergyman.” King wrote the letter to white Alabama clergyman whom were critical of him. Their criticism of King sounds familiar: many agreed with his aims but not his tone, action, or so-called impatience. They called their criticism “A call for Unity.”
  2. My friend and fellow Truett student is launching a book review blog today: “Words about God.” I have reviewed Zondervan’s “Two Views of Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church.” I recommend the volume. If any of my summaries of the arguments seem odd, please note that space constraints make it difficult. I hoped to give a preview of the types of points being made without indicating which arguments I found convincing. Here is an excerpt of my review:

    Zondervan’s Two Views of Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church (edited by Preston Sprinkle), is worth your time because it does two difficult things successfully. First, it provides approachable essays by committed Christians and academics which present the two major views of the church’s practice as it relates to same-sex unions. Secondly, the book refuses to relegate this topic to the theoretical or abstract. The work recognizes the real pastoral concerns and persons affected by these questions.

  3. Silence, the Martin Scorsese film based on Shusaku Endo’s novel, is released to a wider audience day. I plan on seeing it and hope to finish the novel soon. One of my favorite Twitter voices, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, wrote a wonderful piece on the film for The Washington Post. Her theological reflection on the film by way of the Donatist controversy is spot-on, in my opinion. We will see if I agree with her assessment of the film.

    Most Christians in the West have never had to choose between martyrdom and apostasy, though the persecution and murder of Christians for their faith still continues in the world today. Among those there may be some who apostatize under pain of death and privately repent. Unlike those commentators noted above, I don’t think the final point of “Silence” is that apostasy is sometimes approved by God. The message is even more difficult to accept: Apostasy is sometimes forgiven by God. That the creator of the universe would love weak and fragile creatures so much as to forgive their direct rejection of him is, indeed, shocking — but it is also the promise of the faith. That it requires so much convincing to get across more than justifies Endo’s novel and Scorsese’s beautiful film. -Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

The Rev. Mrs. Fleming Rutledge on Justification

Rev. Fleming Rutledge. Her book on the crucifixion won Christianity Today’s Book of the Year of 2017 and Catholic Bishop Robert Barron called it the best work on the subject he has read in a decade.

“God is using you in spite of yourself. We aren’t responsible for making progress. Whatever progress is made will be the gift of God. Jesus said, “Fear not, little flock. For it is the Father’s pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” [Luke 12:32] Who will ascend into heaven to bring Christ down? Who will descend into the abyss to bring Christ up? The Word is near you on your lips and in your heart: The Word of faith which we Apostles preach. The Christian life is not a staircase or progress spiritual or otherwise. . . .

It would be a great benefit us and the church if we hold on to this great biblical insight of the Reformation. The Christian life is not one of spiritual and moral progress. The grace of God is new for us every morning, because we are just as incapable today as we were yesterday. . . There is great comfort in knowing that we are just as incapable yesterday as we are today especially, let me tell you, when you get really old. There is great, great comfort in knowing God knows our incapacity and it is His good pleasure to work through us just the same.

Gnosis, spiritual knowledge, is a treacherous concept leading to a lot of problems for the church and for individual Christians. I’ve seen it over and over Christians worry that they simply aren’t good enough, or spiritual enough, or persevering enough or gifted enough to be even remotely like St. Francis or Mother Theresa or that person in the prayer group who seems to be so far ahead of somebody else. Concerning this problem, Paul writes to the Corinthians about his own ministry. Such is the confidence we have through Christ toward God not that we are competent within ourselves to claim anything– our competence is from God who has made us component. Such is the competence that we have. [2 Corinthians 3]”

Rev. Mrs. Fleming Rutledge, November 3rd, 2015


Stephen Speers and I explore Jungwon (Fulbright: 1 Year Since)

For those of you who have been following my blog, you know that there is not much to follow.

In short, this grant year, I have done horribly at documenting what I have done on this blog.

Therefore, I’m starting a new series “Fulbright Korea: 1 year after.” Basically, I’m using TimeHop to post about what I did exactly 1 year before.

This works well because while my blog presence was lacking my facebook presence…wasn’t. I facebooked. Oh my, did I facebook….

AND this way you get the added commentary and benefit my hindsight provides. That way you can see how I have revised my own history realized the significance of the events as time has passed.

I did update during orientation so this actually overlaps. 

What I didn’t mention in my post 1 year ago was that on July, 13, 2015, I first really spent with Stephen Speers.

Stephen took the photo of me and the knock off-Mickey.

Stephen and I are good friends now. We first bonded over realizing we had not left Jungwon at all for 3 days. In fact, I had not spent much time with anyone yet–other than my roommate Abhik. Then, Stephen and I decided to explore.

We looked at all the unusual sights around Jungwon. Stephen was particularly fond of the dinosaur statue and life-size jet plane model. He studied education in college so we spoke about teaching some as well. It was impossible not to note how often he mentioned Asheville and North Carolina. I was probably just as bad, if not worse, with my storytelling about Kentucky, Ohio, and my first year teaching.


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Bryan Betts was there and took some pictures with a pretty nice camera. None of those pictures can be found here.

That night, I remember telling Kendall about Stephen on a video call. She remarked, “He sounds like your opposite.” And he’s certainly one to wear his emotions on his sleeve. Later, our small group of guys which bonded over winter vacation travels, would poke fun at his hyperbolic proclamations. We joked that if Stephen had a travel show, every place would be “[expletive] TERRIBLE” or “[expletive] AMAZING!”

Just as he called the Jungwon statues “The GREATEST” he had ever seen, many of the restaurants we travelled too were the “Best” or “Worst” thing ever (with some more colorful words added in as superlatives.

He’s also a very caring friend. While I barely ever use my phone as a phone, just yesterday I called him. We spoke about the frustrations and excitement and oddities of wrapping up the grant year. I sat in a Korean coffee shop in Uiseong. He was on his way to Mom’s touch: New Orleans Style Chicken and Pizza in Gyeongju. And we talked about everything from stingy landlords who wanted him not to use hot water or A/C for his last week to telephone companies which would only allow you to terminated service same day you requested a cancellation (no waiting until the end of the month. It means we’ll be going to the airport with no cell phone service).

And, somehow, it seemed a natural end to the beginnings of our friendship marvelling at dinosaur statues in a college town in the middle of South Korea, spending our days in Korean classes, seminars, and school visits wondering what the future would bring.

me and stephen baseball game
2nd semester. Stephen and I at a Samsung Lions game on Children’s day. Also, a laudable photo-bomber.

I can’t think of a better place to start a friendship. We will still marvelling at tiny differences in culture and things that seemed strange. Still navigating and trying to be good “cultural ambassadors,” but now we were a bit more confident.

I had stayed at his apartment in Gyeongju, travelled with him to Vietnam and Thailand (and let him do all the planning), went to my first Korean baseball game, and enjoyed his friendship throughout the year. I laughed with,at, and because of him more times than I can count. I’m grateful for his friendship. But there will be other times to post about that.

For now, let me say, it all started on a hot July day in Geosan, July 15th, 2015.
That was one year ago today.



Visiting Gwangju: Mid-term school observation trip report.

My principal gave me mid-terms off to travel to Gwangju, under the condition that I write a report and take pictures about what I saw.
So, I thought, let’s kill the blog bird and the school requirement bird with one report stone. Idioms. How fun. I wonder if that idiom is on the walls of Sarah’s school? (Read on and you’ll find out what I mean).

Travelling to Gwangju

Travelling to Gwangju was no easy task. Though similar distances, Seoul is a much easier trip with fewer transfers. In order to go to Seoul, one simply takes the Uiseong bus to Seoul available more than 5 times a day–even from a smaller town like Uiseong.

Gwangju was more difficult to travel to than Seoul.

I have heard many reasons cited for this. Some say the mountains make this difficult (though there are mountains on the way to Seoul as well). Others say that the political and cultural divides between the regions mean that development has not taken place to speed travel. Over the course of my travel I did not come across a definitive answer.

Whatever the reason, the travel consisted of first a bus to Buk Daegu. I left at 9a.m. Wednesday. Then, I had to take a intra-city bus from Buk Daegu bus terminal to Sobu Daegu bus terminal. From Sobu Daegu bus terminal, I left at 10:42am for Gwangju. There were many stops along the way. And the journey was much longer than the 3.5 hour trip to Seoul.

Some kind ajummas on the bus insisted I eat their kimbab and peanut-coated duk. I suppose they were concerned because it was a long bus ride and we had no time for lunch. I arrived in Gwangju at around 4p.m. or 4:30 pm. It took me almost a full school day just to travel to Gwangju!


Cultural exchange

Wednesday ended with me visiting the homestay family of my friend, Taylor Kuramoto (she updates her blog very often–check it out!). She is also a Fulbright foreign English teacher. She has a good relationship with her host family and has many conversations with her host siblings–especially the host brother named Tae Jun. He is in 2nd grade middle school and attends the same middle school at which Taylor teaches.

Taylor’s host family had me over to their apartment. Taylor and I made chili. The whole family enjoyed it. The host mother even asked me for the recipe!

I made chili (an American food influenced by Texan and Mexican cooking). It is a thick soup with ground beef, chili, chili powder (pepper and cumin), tomato sauce, onions, and crushed red peppers. It is a popular dish in my hometown in America. We also made grilled cheese sandwiches to eat with the chili. We also put crackers and shredded cheese in the chili.

The family really enjoyed it. The host mother even asked me for the recipe. Unfortunately, chili beans are very difficult to find in Korea. The can of chili beans I used was mailed to me from America by my parents.

Tae Jun is a bright and funny, albeit slightly mischievous, student. He enjoyed the American food I made (chili) very much.



I asked Tae Jun about his school life. He said sometimes he became bored in classes, but he liked seeing his friends. He had come home late for dinner because of an after-school punishment. He had to write the same sentence repeatedly. This punishment sometimes exists in America too. You can see it in the show The Simpsons, when Bart Simpson is writing a sentence repeatedly on the chalkboard in the opening scene of the television show.

Tae Jun told me about his travels and studies in English. His family is Catholic and he went to America for three weeks through a program operated by the Catholic church. Two weeks were spent in English study and one week was for sight-seeing. Tae Jun’s English was quite advanced. I was very surprised that Taylor did not slow down her speaking at all when talking to him. He was very willing to speak and to interact with both me and Taylor. He was a slightly mischievous, but very funny and bright young student.


Thursday- School Visit with Sarah Hulsman at Jeonnam Middle School

On Thursday, I went to the school at which Sarah Hulsman teaches. She is another Fulbright English teaching assistant. She teaches at Jeonnam Middle School which has around 800 students.

The grounds of Jeonnam Middle School which houses 3 grades and around 800 students. Gwangju. Sarah Hulsman is the resident Fulbright English Teaching Assistant here.

Sarah teaches 3rd grade weekly and 1st and 2nd grade every other week (biweekly).

Her office is not just an English office. There is also a Chinese teacher and a foreign Chinese teacher (two days a week). All third grade students take Chinese as well as English language classes. There are around 800 students in the school. Another interesting fact about the school is it has a very competitive swimming team.

One of the classes I observed was a 2nd grade co-ed (boys and girls) class. It had 28 students.

The students were well-behaved and many were at a fairly high level. Sarah does not travel to other classroom. She teaches exclusively in the English multimedia room.

Sarah Hulsman teaches her 2nd grade co-ed English class. The pictures on the board represent sandpaper (sand + paper). Side note (not included in the report): students at both schools frequently inquired if I was Sarah or Taylor’s boyfriend. A boy and a girl FRIENDS? That’s madness.

Here is an outline of what occurred during class.

Warm-up activity: Students began in pairs at tables. The teacher instructed one person at the table to get supplies. The supplies included a white board and markers. This was for the warm-up activity.

The warm-up activity included showing compound words to answer the pictures’ suggestions.

For example, a picture of a chair, and that of a wheel were shown. The answer was the compound word: wheel chair. Other words included lipstick and screwdriver among others.


Some students made “smart errors.” These are errors which are logically understandable. For example, instead of “screwdriver” one team said “nail car.” Instead of “toothpaste” one team wrote “teethpaste.” These errors make sense, but are still errors.

This was a warm up to “get the students thinking in English,” Sarah explained.

speak of the devil cropped
The stairwells of Sarah’s school are filled with English idioms and translations. Some, like this “Speak of the Devil” are relatively conventional. Others are more unique (Ex: “He has a big belly”) or old-fashioned (“Mend the barn after the horse is stolen.”)

Main lesson: Direction and location.

The teacher introduced vocabulary, next to, beside, near, in front of, behind, across from, etc.


The teacher showed examples to demonstrate the vocabulary.

Sarah’s office. It houses a Chinese teacher, Sarah, and Sarah’s co-teacher. Unlike my school which uses desktops in every teacher office and classroom, Sarah carries a laptop between her school office and her classroom. Neither Sarah or Taylor travel to student’s homerooms.

The co-teacher translated–focusing on words that students were less likely to know. Sarah has the same co-teacher for all of her classes.

Sarah, similar to my own Balmer Bucks system, offered a “dollar” reward system after guided practice. That is, students answered questions and received a dollar which can later be redeemed for a reward.


Main activity: Where’s Waldo? (Waldo has a different name in Korea).

Students were to write 3 sentences on where Waldo is.

The first team to write correctly received “Sarah Stacks” (money reward system).

Students rushed to the board to find Waldo. Then they rushed back to write their sentences.

This was done around 5 times.


The final check for the activity was a drawing activity. This checked student’s understanding on locations words. The teacher said things like “Draw a triangle inside the circle.” By the end, students were supposed to have drawn a smiley face. The teacher checked for understanding, revealed the answer, and dismissed class.



Friday- School visit with Taylor Kuramoto at Jongwon Middle School

Taylor and her students after lunch. You can see a new apartment building being built in the background, as this area of Gwangju is growing.

On Friday, I saw my friend Taylor again. She teaches and Jongwon Middle school. It is a Buddhist-affiliated middle school next to a private Buddhist-affiliated high school.

It has around 650 students. Taylor teaches 2nd and 3rd grade only.

Taylor also does not travel to student’s classrooms or have an office with the teachers. She spends all of her time in her classroom.

Taylor has 5 different co-teachers, 4 women and 1 man. There are a large number of younger teachers at her school.

I visited her lunch conversation class. It had about 25 students.  They asked questions about me and I asked questions about their school and their interests.

Taylor’s English classroom. Taylor does not have a desk in a teacher’s office. She spends her whole day in her classroom.

The school has meditation classes taught by a school Buddhist monk. The school has a large soccer field shared with the high school and a school store frequented by students. Decorations were being put up in commemoration of the Buddha’s birthday which is upcoming. A statue of Admiral Yi Sun Sin was near the edge of campus.

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Reflection: It was very interesting to see a very different part of Korea, as I had never been to the East. I learned about the Gwangju unique political culture, I learned of Kia motors and other large industries, and I had the opportunity to see school life and lessons in larger middle schools–both regular public school and a Buddhist school. The trip was very educational, as a language teacher and as someone learning about Korean culture.

What I did not include in the report:

I had a great time visiting Taylor and Sarah (and Jenna–she was at dinner one night with us though I could not visit her school!).

Also, I went the wrong way on the bus on the way to Taylor’s school. I had to ride through 57 stops and finally got to her school around lunch. But that was the only travel snag over the whole trip, so I consider myself pretty successful.

Then, during the weekend, I visited my friend Abhik in Daejon. We saw Captain America: Civil War in IMAX (a full week before America gets it!). Here are some select pictures.



What have I been doing?


Things went dark around here after week 3.5 in orientation.
Turns out Fulbright Korea Orientation gets pretty busy.

Perhaps, around April, I will post about that. Just in time for the new crop of grantees to become notified of their status and frantically Google to discover just what they got themselves into.

For the rest of the semester, I don’t really have an excuse. Uh. Sorry?
The past has passed. I have a whole semester to re-cap on. This may take several posts. For this one: let me give you a picture of a week in the life of a Fulbright ETA (Uiseong, Gyeonsangbukdo, fall semester edition).


Roll out of bed at 7 am looking fresh. Or, you know, dreadfully tired.
It’s a toss up, really.

Shower, dress, eat breakfast (anything from last night’s dinner again, to cereal, maybe an apple, or the staple: rice).

Uiseong boys middle school.jpg

Early in the semester Mr. Lee (a co-teacher) drove me to school. Later, I rode a bike. It’s Samchon’s bike; (“uncle” 삼촌). Oh, I live with a host family. There’s also 이모 (Imo, “aunt”) and their twin boys—who are just out of 6th grade and will be joining me at the boys middle school this semester.

This day I have 3 classes. One in each grade. The 3rd grade class in the afternoon is rowdy. The rest or relatively uneventful. Usually, my lesson has hiccups and Thursday definitely
gets the best lessons. Monday gets the “beta test version.” I wish that wasn’t the case.

Monday nights I have ENGLISH DINNER CONVERSATION GROUP. What is that, you ask because I put the question in your mouth (metaphorically)?

Essentially this: four nice teachers, all women in their 30s, with already very competent English abilities decided they wanted to practice English.
They asked me to help.

English conversation dinner group
Three of the four teachers in my English conversation group. By profession, they include a high school special education and a high school history teacher, a middle school art teacher, and a middle school special education teacher.

Bad news: I cannot accept payment, contractually.
Bad news (unrelated): I am a picky eater.
Good news (now related): They offer to buy me dinner at a restaurant I like each week in exchange for a short lesson from an EBS (English Broadcasting channel) lesson book and general English conversation.

Hi, I’m Jonathan Balmer. And I will teach English for food palatable to a picky American.

They have taught me much about Korea. It’s been one of the highlights of my week.


Three classes again! Around 20-30% of the time I may have changed one of my lessons completely. Lunch is not always good. Mr. Lee sometimes gives me some of his meat at lunch because of what a depressingly poor eater I am. I always tell him not to. He is too nice.  (Lately, I have finished food I don’t like by keeping fruit on hand. One bite, suck on an apple. Another bite, eat a piece of the apple. Repeat until finished).

In the evenings, I used to do English activities with the twins in my host family. These fell out of favor. They were fun while they lasted: we had a whole fake restaurant and store to practice English going on for one activity!

Tuesday is the most common day I video chat my parents.


I go to the (soon to be closed!) Anpyeong middle school on Wednesdays. It is 20 minutes by bus. There are more faculty than students (of which there are 14) at this school. It is a easy-going day and the students are generally joys to have in class. I typically used a modified version of my big-class lesson. Often, I removed team activities because I had classes of two or three.

Sometimes, I would have the whole class play the team game, but draw a monster on a board with an RPG style health bar. Instead of competing against one another, their points depleted the “health” of the monster. This created a more collaborate, rather than competitive, environment without seeming too “kumbaya”fluffy.

As I left, grade 2—consisting of two girls—was in gym class. How do you have gym class with two middle school girls? Mostly, they seemed to each have a Frisbee, throw it, then walk across the field to retrieve and repeat. It was strange. And comical. And strangely comical.

Anpyeong middle
My co-teacher, Mr. Go, and the 1st grade class plays an English game. The boys and girls self-segregated in this class. Anpyeong, a very small school, was co-ed unlike my middle school in Uiseong.


Four classes on this day, hands-down my busiest day. I have two first grade (7th grade) classes. The class captain in one sometimes has the whole class bow to me at the end. Generally, the first graders are polite students. I feel the worst when one of my classes do not go well with them.
In some classes, students de-rail or do everything in their power to stare out the window at other boys playing soccer pining (after soccer) or just refuse to participate.
In the first grade classes, they are slightly more attentive and I feel it is more my fault if things do not go well.

As well, for whatever reason, that I have never figured out, I go to the students classrooms on this day. Usually, they go to one of two English classrooms.
This can complicate my lessons.

On Thursday evening, I go with Rebecca (Fulbright teacher, Uiseong elementary) and Kevin (EPIK teacher, in Uiseong for 3 years) to the Uiseong orphanage. We play with the younger children. The orphanage feeds us dinner.
The social worker is always VERY glad to see us: (“HELLO! NICE TO MEET YOU AGAIN!” is his refrain). One week we made kimchi, another cookies, another abract ink art, another we played games, another they made Christmas cards. They’re really adorable.

{I don’t have much storage space on WordPress, so here’s a only a few pics: more from my semester on flickr. Game for pedants: there’s 1 historical inaccuracy in the slide show. Find it, and you get bragging rights. But nothing else.}

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Back to three classes. These classes seem most likely to get cancelled. My lowest level and most non-participatory classes are on this day. I feel so bad for the three students who try in my Friday class last period. Their fellow students give them a poor learning environment, and I often seem ineffective at improving it.

But it is not all bad. In fact, Fridays can have some good moments even in those classes. Not to mention, when it is warmer, I can sometimes go outside with students after lunch. Students get an hour for lunch here.

Finally, If I haven’t video chatted Kendall by this day, I start whining to her in Google Hangouts messenger about what a sorry state of affairs it is.
That is how I end my weekdays.

The weekend

Sometimes I visit my friend Victoria in Andong. Sometimes, I go work on Infusion literary magazine at which I’m managing editor. Other times, I stay in Uiseong.

Saturday and Sunday
Call me boring but, if I spend the weekend in my favorite garlic farming town, I typically relax, read, and go to church.

Then, I go to a “young persons'” service on Saturday. Or church on Sunday at Uiseong Presbyterian Church. Probably both, because the Elder’s wife texts me in Korean wondering where I am on Sundays if I just to go the Saturday service.

A kind guy named Kibu often translates for me (double major in Chinese and Engineering, y’all). And, if not him, Jake does. Jake is a Korean soldier who grew up since middle school in America. Sometimes I am startled to hear “Hey Jon” in an American accent. Then, I realize, it is him. Despite my (nearly non-existent) Korean, it’s a very hospitable place.

-“Learn more Korean. Then, after seminary, come back and you can do an English language service and work at a Korean church. Are you Presbyterian?”

I have heard this phrase more than once at the church, after they find out my post-Korea plans of persuing an M.Div.

Saturday night is one of the few times I see people anywhere near my age. Korean urban flight is so real.

By Saturday, I should have e-mailed my lesson plans to my co-teacher, Ms. Kang as well.

Ah, I’ve referenced many topics. More detail later.
For now, that’s a typical week last semester.

Post ideas/ questions below so I have direction for further posts!