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Love is Life


Seeking and Finding

October 06, 2013

Bible Reading

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will you give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

(Matthew 7:7-11)


This sermon has been edited for publication, with transitional notes in italics. (Thanks to Messenger editor Herb Ziegler for the transitional notes.)

The Rev. Junchol Lee has a relaxed, conversational manner. He connects with worshipers by speaking without notes, looking directly at individuals. His message is laced with self-deprecating humor and wry observations about his life. In his opening, Junchol explained that he does not write out his sermons; he conceives them and then speaks from his mental notes. He also explained that he is a highly organized person, preparing for future events and commitments long before the event. Naturally, then, he prepared not one, but two

. . . good, rational, intellectual, well-thought-out sermons, one based on the Bible, another on Swedenborg. I thought, “I’ll just choose one.”

Explaining his daily practice of meditation, he related how he was meditating the day before arriving in Seattle.

. . . and something almost like a thunderbolt hit my heart, and I felt those two sermons I had prepared disappearing from my memory—now they’re gone, so I have nothing to say!

Well—no; God doesn’t work that way, right? So, God was telling me, “You should tell your friends, your brothers and sisters, about your life.”

You may wonder how an Asian guy ended up standing here. I was born in South Korea. I hated English throughout my entire school life in Korea. Did you know that? In all my classes in English, from middle school through college, I never got higher than a C minus—solid C minus all the way.

Doesn’t that tell you something? And I’m here preaching in English. Odd—God really works in odd ways, but that really brings us miracles. It changes our attitudes, and you’ll never know where you’ll end up.

Junchol shared that the first time he thought, “Why was I born?” he was only six years old. But why this thought at such a young age? His parents had divorced when he was three. They were too involved with themselves to pay attention to him, so he spent much time with his grandparents. But he was stuck between two families pointing at each other and blaming the divorce on the other’s child.

So one family told me, “Your dad is horrible,” while the other said, “Your mom is . . . .”—I can’t repeat it. I found myself trapped between those angry, sad families. I was just trying to say I didn’t choose to be born here. And so, I was six years old, sitting on a hill in the village where my grandparents were living. I felt no love—just looking at the sky—and I thought, “Why am I here? Why was I born? What should I do?” Honestly, I wanted to stop existing at that moment—and I was only six. But that was the beginning of my spiritual journey.

I’ve read a lot of books. If you check out my bookshelves, you will not know what my profession is. I read business, literature, history, psychology, science books about the human brain, and even books written by atheists. Why?

My subject has been and still is the human. Growing up in such a dysfunctional family and encountering so many self-destructive adults persuaded me to pursue the study of the human. Why do we do things in certain ways, and why don’t we do what we’re supposed to do? And why, sometimes, can we not love the ones we should love?

Life seems so complicated, but it is so simple. All the leaders of all religions tell us, “Live your love and love one another.” Is it easy? No, it’s hard. And there’s another consideration: you can live your love, but are you sure you’re not hurting anybody by doing so? Amazingly, we assume so many things to be true simply because “it is true in my head.” I tried to avoid being trapped in such misery, but later I had to discover that I too am merely human.

When I was nineteen, after studying Confucianism and Buddhism, I decided to become a Taoist. I was determined to eliminate every conscious emotional feeling because emotions seemed to be totally useless. Why? They seemed to bring only one thing: pain. And all the emotions I felt seemed to work in negative ways. So I worked hard to transform my mind into a machine by using meditation techniques that I had learned from Buddhism. It took me many years, but I was quite successful at the end. I felt invincible and somehow peaceful. How sad.

That’s when I came to America.

I started to read Swedenborg at Bryn Athyn College, and he gave me something strange—he showed me God. This God does not judge, and does exactly as he says, and—this is the best part—this God simply welcomes you and accepts you, wherever you are. You don’t have to prove anything. You don’t have to be better to be loved by God.

And I thought, “Wow.”

And I got in trouble. I had this well-built defense system that was protecting and defending me, and Swedenborg was telling me that I had to tear it down. I was scared to death. Why? I didn’t know what was out there. What I knew was it was safe in here. It took me many years of sorting, meditating, and praying to be willing to try to trust just one person.

The Old Testament says, “I brought you up from Egypt, brought you into the land that I had promised to your ancestors.” See?

A personal connection: God was telling me, “I brought you here; I want to liberate you from your dungeon.” But I was saying to God, “Who are you? Do I even know you? Can I really trust you?” It took me five years.

The turnaround occurred during my second year at the Swedenborg School of Religion. I locked myself in my room—I’m extroverted, by the way. So, an extroverted guy was sitting in his room meditating all day every day for a week.

Why? There was a task that I had been working on very hard. Then, one day, after meditating for perhaps two hours, I felt like I was in a dark, narrow tunnel. It seemed I had been walking in the tunnel for a while. A voice kept whispering, “You have to keep walking.”

I said, “Why? I’m tired. I want to go back.” This was not fun. I had to continue walking through the long and dark passageway. And who knew whether what was at the other end was better than where I started? However, as I neared the end of the tunnel, I saw light, and I felt very strange and uncomfortable. At that point I turned around and went back to my safe haven.

You know, our spiritual growth does not happen like it does in novels or movies. It doesn’t happen overnight—you read a book, then you are a different person—it doesn’t happen that way. It takes a long period of conscious effort, not to change to be someone else, but to change who you are—more precisely, your perception of what you are. That’s what God was telling me: “Junchol, you deserve better than this. You’re hiding in the cave for too long. Come out.”

After a few months, I finally made it out.

Wow! The world looked different: bright and shining—amazing. And I felt peaceful, very peaceful. I cannot describe all the wonders that I felt, but that’s the reason I’m standing here today as a Swedenborgian minister. If that hadn’t happened, I’m quite sure I would have quit that “boring school” and done something else. What happened to me was I read Swedenborg, prayed with it, and God came to me. Wow. It’s real, not just a story in books.

Of course, God cannot be found in books. Books serve only as a connector. What is essential in those books is not what’s written in them but what we hope to gain from them. In other words, we are the igniters of miracles prepared by God since the beginning.

What I had been doing was trying to forge my own god out of my intellectual search. I needed my version of God instead of finding the real God. And if you find yourself in the same circumstances, my recommendation is to do a very simple thing: pray to the real God. That might sound kind of lame, I know, but pray. It works, but only if you believe in it.

I felt peace, and can you guess what happened next? “Hey, I get one step up—I’m good”—ego. This thing almost never dies. Whenever there’s an opportunity, it rises, sneaks up, and tells you, “You’re good, you’re better.” So, I was in a peaceful place, but my ego was coming up and . . . I got married.

I was thirty-five years old at that point, and I had conducted more than 100 weddings and counseled more than fifty wedding couples; I had read I don’t know how many books about marriage and . . . see where this is going now? I thought, “Hey, I know everything about marriage. I won’t have any problem in my marriage.” Wonderful, isn’t it? The married life has taught me a lot of things in the past five years.

Above all, what I have learned and am still learning is what love is, and what it means to love somebody else. Today, and probably almost every Sunday morning, we read together the Affirmation of Faith as it is written in the program: we love each other as ourselves. “What a lie,” I thought after the marriage. A truth unsealed in my mind that I was not even able to love my own wife as myself. If that is my limit, how true would it be when I say that I love you as myself? However, the beauty of love is that it’s noncontrolling and accepting—and above all, it’s just there. Sometimes you don’t have to do anything.

I have observed man times that my American friends seem to be scared in relationships, probably feeling that they are constantly being pushed to do something—just keep moving and thinking. Do you feel that you cannot sit still, but you have to do something, either to make your relationship work or to improve it? My suggestion is that one day you may want to just sit by your loved ones, relaxing your brain and mind, and simply enjoy their presence and their love for you. Also, if you can, try to bring out your love to be present with them. When this happened to me, I felt that my heart was actually moving (I mean being alive!), and that was for me the second big step.

Junchol illustrated how his normal emotional state is a flat line. He explained that what sometimes sounds like passion from him is just passion of the voice, reminding us that he has read thousands of books. His wife, however, experiences peaks and valleys of emotions, “. . . and I like it.” At first he wanted to fix her by smoothing out the peaks and valleys, and she tried to fix him. Together they found a balance.

I call her my heart. Her joy is my joy. That’s why I am saying this amazing power of love is real. It is good to love and to be loved. I thought, “It is wonderful.”

And then, a son was born to us. I call him my miracle. I never pictured myself a father. The first happy and loving family I ever experienced was Barb Halle’s family, with whom I stayed when I was twenty-six. Think about it—I hadn’t seen a single good family until I was twenty-six years old! I had no plans ever to have children or even to get married. I had no idea how to be a father and still am not sure how to be a good father. I saw my father only four times after I was four years old. Nobody wanted me as a son.

When my son was zero days old, I held him in my arms and looked at him, but somehow I wasn’t scared. I felt that something big was just added to my heart. He was and still is a living miracle from God. And my wife is the best gift my God has given me.

Think about it. Where do you think you find love? Don’t try the Bible. It’s not in there. Don’t try one of Swedenborg’s books either, because it’s not in there. Where is it? It doesn’t happen in your brain, either. So seeing it doesn’t matter; your heart has to feel it and be moved by it. And if it happens to you for the first time, you will be scared to death; you don’t know what it is. “Oh, my goodness, am I dying?” was my first reaction to it. God is calling all of us in that love that you can find in your heart because of others.

My wife did not hand over love to me, nor did my son. Something happened in my heart: walls were broken; I was pouring this thing out—and it was not from me, it was from God. I believe in my God, who is explained by Swedenborg, and I’m proud to be a Swedenborgian minister. And I hope you are proud of what you believe in. Why? It is a real thing. Believe—it will come.


Lord Jesus,
write your truth in my mind,
your joy in my heart,
and your love in my life;
that, when I am filled with truth,
possessed by joy,
and living in love,
your integrity,
your humor,
and your compassion
might be born again in me.

- Frank Topping, 2000

Rev. Junchol Lee