Family meetings are common in the Cho household. I playfully have to remind the kids who their daddy is.
However, I knew one particular family meeting on a summer evening in 2009 would be difficult and emotional. There would not be a lot of joking around. I had more lowlights to share than highlights. Actually, I had only lowlights to share. (Maybe the heat wave had something to do with it. Yes, it actually does happen in Seattle. When temperatures hit the nineties, the entire city freaks out. Some even stop recycling when a heat wave strikes. Trust me—that’s serious for my city.)
The events that led up to this family meeting transpired quickly. It was almost as if my wife, Minhee, and I were just coming to terms with the news ourselves as we announced it to our children.
Minhee and I ushered our three children into our bedroom that Wednesday evening. The kids knew Mom and Dad had been under some stress—despite our best efforts to play it cool and composed—and I could tell they were apprehensive.
I didn’t quite know how to articulate it, so I told them, plain and simple:
Kids … first, we want you to know that Mom and Dad love you all very much. So very much. As you know, our family made a commitment, to God and to people, to donate one year of our wages to help people who are extremely poor around the world, by starting a new organization called One Day’s Wages. Unfortunately, we’re struggling a bit and have fallen short of our goal. We need to come up with some money. So, we really need your understanding. We need to leave our home for about ten weeks. We need to clean the house because … we’re leaving in two days. Everyone gets to take one bag, so go to your rooms tonight and start packing. We’re not sure exactly where we’ll be staying, but we’ll figure it out.
Our eldest daughter, Jubilee, just eleven years old at the time, burst into tears. She was convinced we were going bankrupt (even though she was clueless to the meaning of the word). She bluntly asked, “Are we becoming homeless?”
Our middle child, Trinity, age nine, was very anxious and nervous about the idea. Not knowing exactly what all this meant, tears welled in her eyes.
Our seven-year-old son, Jedi, on the other hand, thought it might be fun because he could only equate this to a very long sleepover. He simply asked if we could take our Nintendo Wii console. God bless Jedi. (The force is strong with this little one.)
As for Minhee … you could say that she was not pleased.
Yes, you can say that.
Just the day before, I listed our family home as a short-term rental without conferring with my wife. Yes, that was not a typo.
I was both bored and desperate, and in that perfect convergence of boredom, desperation, “what if” thinking, and crazy faith, I crafted an ad on Craigslist to sublet our home for $10,000—thinking, Who would pay $10,000 for two months?
Did I mention that I did this without first consulting my wife, because seriously, Who would pay that much?
(Note: Don’t put an ad on Craigslist to sublet your home without first consulting your spouse. And if you do, do not mention my name or this book.)
And guess what? Lo and behold, a businessman from the United Kingdom replied to the ad within an hour. (Kudos to Craigslist!) He was excited and asked to see the house as soon as possible.
Gulp. Breathe in. Breathe out.
“I love the house,” he said after a brief tour the day after I posted the ad. “And I’m ready to sign the lease and give you a check. But I have one request: My wife and I and our young child need to move in by this Friday.”
“Wait. This Friday? As in two days?”
“Yes, this Friday. If you can’t make it happen, we’ll have to look at other options.”
Double gulp. Breathe in. Breathe out.
You can probably imagine the difficult conversation I had with my wife that evening. She was on board with living a life of obedience to Christ and pursuing our convictions, but to allow strangers to move into our home, to move out with our kids and go “couch surfing” for ten weeks, and to make this decision in two days?
Yes, there were some glares, elevated voices, and there may or may not have been a tear or two, or several. Even then, we both prayed about it and agreed to move forward.
At that moment, I came to a deeper and more painful realization of something that was becoming evident. I was more enamored with the idea of changing the world and less enamored with actually doing it. I didn’t want to leave my comfort for the sake of my commitments.
God, this is not what I signed up for. In my mind, I questioned God and I questioned myself: How did it ever come to this?
Two years prior to this family meeting, I found myself in a village in a remote area of the jungle in Myanmar (otherwise known as Burma). United Nations officials had deemed the genocide in certain parts of Burma as equal to if not worse than that of the crisis in Darfur in the 1990s—but it had been widely forgotten in the global media.
On that trip I visited a makeshift school that sat in the middle of the jungle. It was obviously unlike any of the schools my children attend.
Imagine a shack, with old wooden desks and chairs, overused by a couple of decades, and a deeply scratched-up chalkboard. When I walked into the classroom—meant for about fifteen first through fifth graders—the desks, chairs, and chalkboard weren’t really what caught my attention. Rather, it was a poster taped on the chalkboard that captured me, because, to put it bluntly, it was disgusting—unlike anything I have ever seen.
The poster featured a collage of photos of numerous men, women, and children with missing limbs. A few photos showed, in graphic detail, oozing, bloody body parts. I’m not a teacher and have no experience with what should or should not be placed on the walls of a typical classroom, but this was clearly inappropriate.
I tried to remain unfazed, but when my hosts from this village sensed my horror, they invited me to step up to the chalkboard and have a closer look at the poster. With reluctance, I took a couple of steps closer, and it was then that my host pointed to the bottom of the poster.
“Pastor Cho. These”—he pointed to a row of greenish contraptions—“are land mines. We must teach our children how to avoid land mines.”
My mind blown.
My heart wrecked.
Take a moment and let this story sink in …
Later, in conversation with one of the village elders, I learned of their many challenges as a result of living in constant fear of their oppressive military government. This government has been known by many in the global community for its reputation of suppressing dissent and perpetuating human-rights abuses, and its persecution of minority ethnic groups in Burma, including the Karen people.
This village—comprising mostly Karen internally displaced refugees, or IDPs—like many others, didn’t even have a name because its residents often had to pack up quickly to flee when they heard news of an imminent government attack; the village was simply designated by a number. Despite the hardships and challenges the villagers faced, I was genuinely compelled by their sense of hope and courage.
I asked, “What are your biggest challenges?”
“Schools. Teachers. Paying teachers hard,” replied one of the village elders in broken English, knowing that I had visited one of their makeshift schools earlier in the day.
The school couldn’t hold on to its teachers because they kept leaving to take jobs across the border in Thailand, where schools offered higher salaries. Out of curiosity, I asked this village elder about the salary of their teachers.
“About forty dollars,” he responded.
Without even thinking, I replied, “Forty dollars a day?”
He laughed and then shook his head.
Embarrassed, I said, “I’m sorry. Forty dollars a week?”
There was no laugh this time. He just shook his head. What? Oh my goodness. How could their salaries be forty dollars per month?
“Forty dollars a month?” I asked.
While I expected an affirmation, the elder shook his head again, and I couldn’t fathom the possibility of my next guess being accurate.
With hesitation and incredulity, I asked, “Forty dollars a year?”
And he finally nodded his head.
Forty dollars a year!
I couldn’t believe it. That’s what I’d spend on a cheap date night with my wife, a few books, a cell phone bill, or a tank of gas. But forty dollars prevented this village from keeping their teachers around.
To some degree, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I already knew about global poverty, knew the numbers, knew them by heart, in fact, because I memorized many of them for the talks I did at churches, universities, and conferences. But now that I was seeing the people behind the statistics, it wrecked me.
We couldn’t sit around and go back to life as usual. Convicted and moved, Minhee and I decided we had to do something. We would ask people to give up what they earned for just one day’s work—about 0.4 percent of their annual salary—and that money would change lives in real ways. This became One Day’s Wages (ODW), a grassroots movement of people, stories, and action to alleviate extreme global poverty.
However, this wasn’t just about starting something. It wasn’t just about doing something. There was more. By far, more dangerous and uncomfortable. God was challenging us not just to “change the world”; He was inviting us to change. You see, it’s easier to talk about wanting to change the world; to talk about the need to change this and change that; to start this movement and start that organization. But if I’m honest, we don’t always do it, and we don’t always want to think that we, ourselves, have to change in the process.
This notion is succinctly captured by a quote from nineteenth-century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy:
Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.
As Minhee and I spent time discussing how to respond to the convictions of our hearts, we prayed for direction, vision, and clarity.
What we sensed was not pleasant. Not pleasant at all. At least for me. It wasn’t what I had in mind. Maybe I could craft a nice thirty-minute sermon, write a series of blog posts, or recommend books and links for people to check out on Facebook. But isn’t that what makes discipleship so uncomfortable and challenging? God often leads us on journeys we would never go on if it were up to us. It’s our ideas versus God’s will. It’s our agendas versus God’s will. It’s our plans versus God’s will.
In prayer, both Minhee and I sensed an invitation from the Holy Spirit to give up an entire year’s salary. Minhee was then a homemaker and thus the CEO of the Cho clan, and I am a full-time pastor. Our yearly salary was $68,000.
Now, I’ll share more about this in the next chapter, but let me just make this clear. It’s not an easy admission a pastor—apart from perhaps a prosperity theology pastor—should make, but here it is: I like my money.
There, I said it.
Also, I like my stuff. I like upgrading things. I feel as though I’ve earned my paycheck. I pride myself in caring for and providing for my family. These are the reasons why this conviction was so challenging and uncomfortable.
Thus our journey began, but I began this quest, in part, because I sensed I could do it. However, Minhee and I had no idea exactly how difficult this conviction would be to live out.
Since we didn’t have $68,000 in cash stashed under our mattress or in an offshore Cayman account, we began what eventually became a three-year journey. We made a family decision to buy only essentials and groceries. We decided to put on hold things such as piano lessons for our children. (Thankfully, our kids aren’t musical prodigies!) Soccer and basketball camps were put on hiatus. Minhee gave up shopping for clothing and accessories. And since we’re being honest, I gave up my accessories too. I had to part with my midlife crisis car, which I referred to as “Blue Thunder”—my 1991 Mazda Miata, painted radiant blue. And yes, I really did call it Blue Thunder. I’ll share more about the legend of this car in the next chapter.
So after nearly three laborious years of scraping and saving, we were still short $10,000. And that leads me back to the story of the Craigslist ad.
We had only a few months left on the timetable to come up with the total sum. We deliberated. We prayed. We fasted. We talked. We sought counsel. We went for many walks. What should we do? Take a little more time?
We had done our best; that was good enough, right? But the Holy Spirit kept prompting us forward. While we were emotionally drained and at times experienced doubt and questioned our sanity, we sensed the Holy Spirit pushing us to be faithful and honor the convictions we clearly sensed from God three years prior. In short, we sensed God exhorting us to not quit, to remain steadfast and tenacious, and that God was not yet done with us. Clinging on to only these things, Minhee and I sat down with the kids. We told them we had decided to sublet our home, not for the eight weeks that I had initially advertised on Craigslist but for ten weeks, and that within forty-eight hours, we would pack up a few things and stay with some friends.
Our instructions to ourselves and our children were simple:
Everyone gets to pack one bag. Pack your essential clothes, a couple of books, and, kids, you can take your favorite toy. One bag.
The night I told our kids about the plan, I did my best to remain composed and in control. Later that evening, after our nightly family prayer and after tucking the kids into their beds, I could no longer stay composed. In the privacy of my office, I wept like a baby. This wasn’t what I’d signed up for. I couldn’t believe that at the age of thirty-eight, I had placed my wife and children in this situation.
I felt as if I’d failed my family and that I was the worst husband and father; a deadbeat; an absolute failure.
Needless to say, it was a humbling moment. Had I foreseen it, there is no way in hades I would have gone forward with our pledge. It really is God’s grace that He doesn’t reveal the entirety of our futures all at once. If we knew what we’d have to face in the future, we’d all likely run the other way—like Jonah.
Our family spent the next ten weeks with friends, staying in guest rooms and on couches. Though we were a little embarrassed and bruised, I was reminded that our hope was not in a vision, a donor, a website, an idea, or a strategy, but in the Lord Himself. Our hope was in the Lord who loves my family more than I could ever imagine.
What I learned (again!) is that despite our best-laid plans and intentions, things don’t always work out the way we envision—and that’s okay. God is in control. His love for us does not waver. If anything, God loves us so profoundly that He’s willing to journey with us through our deserts and valleys so that we become more defined and refined in His purposes and character.
We live in a world and culture in which—both out of privilege and conviction—many want to make an impact.
It is true: Many want to change the world.
The statistics prove only that we are living among generations—in a time, context, and culture—who want to make a difference. As such, I often hear our generations being heralded: “This is the generation that will accomplish something extraordinary.” Praises such as “game changers,” “history makers,” and “world changers” are lavished upon people. I suspect that versions of such statements have been said of generations past and will be said of future generations as well.
Truthfully, these statements make for good motivational talks. They make for good sermons and conference speeches.
But let’s take a moment to pause.
We need to be wise.
We need to pray for wisdom.
We need to engage a posture of humility.
While I want to applaud (really!) the desire and sincerity of people wanting to change the world, I fear that if we’re not careful, we might become … the most overrated generation.
I fear that we might be more in love with the idea of changing the world than actually changing the world.
I fear that we might be more enamored with the idea of changing the world and are neglecting to allow ourselves to be changed.
I fear that we have an unrealistic and glamorous perception of what it means to follow Christ and what it means to pursue justice. In truth, we have not taken the time to count the costs of following Jesus.
I fear that we might be tempted to compartmentalize the action of changing the world rather than seeing it as a key part of our discipleship journey that will impact the whole of our lives.
I fear that we’re asking God to move mountains, forgetting that God also wants to move us. And in fact, it may be possible that we are the mountains that need to be moved.
We live in extraordinary times. Those of us in the Western world live with extraordinary resources and privileges. In Luke 12:48, we’re given these words of truth: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.”
We have been given much. Approximately 80 percent of the world lives on less than ten American dollars a day, so by comparison, most of us are part of the richest 1 percent in the world.
But it’s not just wealth. We have resources, access, and the privilege of vast opportunities. We live in a context where we can entertain, explore, and pray through career choices, options, entrepreneurial thoughts, and business ideas.
Yet I think our wealth of resources and opportunities lends itself to this theory that we may be part of the most overrated generation in human history—because we have access to so much data, info, resources, modes of communication … but we end up doing so little. We tweet, blog, talk, preach, retweet, share, like, and click incessantly. While I’m not implying that the aforementioned things aren’t actions, what do those actions actually cost us? How are we sacrificing? In fact, recent research even indicates that people who demonstrate support for causes and organizations on social media, such as Facebook, actually do less in real life. They are less likely to donate their money or volunteer their time.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia compared how volunteers behaved after public displays of support (like Facebook liking and pin-wearing) and private actions (like signing a petition). People making public displays were less likely to donate money or time at a later date.
So, I ask again:
How are we truly changing the world?
How are we deeply engaging in what God is already doing in the world?
How are we listening to the Holy Spirit?
And how are we being changed ourselves?
How am I being changed?
I am a preacher.
I am a teacher.
I am a blogger and writer.
I am a public speaker.
Over the years I’ve gained a reputation of being deeply passionate about justice, mercy, and compassion; of being an agent of change, a catalyst of justice.
And that’s what I convinced myself too. In other words, I believed in what people were saying of me. I believed in my own hype.
It wasn’t until this surprising season of my life that I arrived at an incredibly painful realization that while my heart might have had good intentions, I was more in love with the idea of changing the world.
Is this perhaps your confession too?