On the Mind of the the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Jan 26, 2024

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about what makes for a meaningful life.

There have been a few reasons for this. Partially, it’s because we just did our “Wrap Up” for the book study on “Life Worth Living.” I was also thinking about it in light of our liturgical calendar, and the celebration of St. John Chrysostom, whose feast day is tomorrow. John is known by many as the greatest preacher in the history of the Christian church, but spent most of his last years in prison and in exile. He died in relative obscurity on the side of a road while being shuttled to a second banishment in an unknown hamlet by the Black Sea. While that likely seems to most of us a tragic end, John’s final words were: “Glory to God, in all things.” In all things. And I’ve been thinking a lot about that “all things.”

And I’ve been thinking this, most of all, because my grandmother, Yo-Soon Lee, passed away this week. She would have been 95 years old today. She lived a long, full life. That said, her life was marked by very few of the sorts of accomplishments that (if I’m honest) I spend most of my time trying to achieve. She never got a college degree. There is next to nothing on her resume. Though she lived almost half her life in the United States, she never learned the language. She was relatively small in stature, not the sort of person you would even notice in a crowded room.

So what did she do? She took care of people. In the 1950’s, my grandparents were one of the wealthiest citizens in the Jeolla Province of Korea. However, they were so generous and hospitable to the poor in that region–never hesitating to open their home or their dining table to any who were in need–that, when there was a revolution of the poor against the rich during the Korean war, our family remained untouched.

Later, in the 1960’s, a military coup d’etat led to a change in fortune and a change in health for our family. My grandparents lost everything, and at the same time, both my grandfather and my grandmother’s mother became very ill–punctuated, eventually, by them both experiencing a series of strokes. Because of this, my grandmother, Yo-Soon, spent most of the next two decades caring for an ill husband and an ill mother, while already raising eight children–all in a place of near destitution.

Fearing the family’s financial decline would affect her children’s confidence and ability to succeed, she worked herself to the bone. They had very little, but she made sure they had everything they needed. She experienced an unfathomable amount of hardship taking care of the sick and struggling to put food on the table. She would plant, raise, and sell all that she could–from eggs to vegetables from the garden. My uncles tell stories of how the skin on her hands always appeared broken and rough from working in the field or collecting firewood. Frost byte during cold months was all too common while preparing meals for the family or hand washing their clothes–much of which was sewn together from scraps of old garments.

She did all of this, without a complaint or regret, and not in the hopes that any would notice–for who would?–but purely out of heart of love.

Some of you know, my father went on to become a four time world champion in Taekwondo, and is now in the Taekwondo “Hall of Fame.” His five brothers also followed him on that path, and together, the “Lee Brothers” are among the best known and influential martial artists in the world. They each individually, and together as a family, have been featured in movies, graced the covers of important periodicals, and grown worldwide Taekwondo empires. They are not the sort of people you would fail to notice in a crowded room.

But those close to our family know that each of these giants in the world of Taekwondo are standing on the shoulders of the true giant–the diminutive woman who, by the size of her heart and the force of her will, pulled them all out of poverty and despair. The world knows them. It does not know her. The world will remember them. It will not remember her.

But can anyone doubt what her life means?

Jesus seems to suggest that the kingdom of God will also be a place where this is no longer doubted, when he says that those deemed “least” here will be considered “greatest” there. As I’ve reflected on these words this week, I’ve been imagining a day when we are all standing together around the throne of God, and we find that it is not those who we considered the great heroes of the faith–not the great bishops, or theologians, or martyrs, or saints–who have the seats of honor. Rather, it is those like Yo-Soon, and the countless others like her, who made possible the lives of others.

And imagining this, I can’t help but wonder: How might we live in to that truth now? How might we shape our lives today, so that they reflect that kind of meaning?