Part I (written by Mark)
Elysabeth sat in the corner of the dorm room. Her long wavy black hair settled on the shoulder of her black shirt while a turquoise beaded necklace slank down from her neck. Perched on the corner of the dorm’s only bed, she sat cross-legged in a pair of faded denim shorts with her flip-flops resting below on the carpeted floor. She looked nervous but amused. The wide-eyed freshman took in the scene of red cups being handed out and drinks being poured in a dorm room. She had just heard the rules about “extracurricular” activities in the dorms. Yet here she was, watching as her new friends broke those rules when some guys walked into the room.
Well, scratch that, the second I walked into the room.
“Close the windows, shut the curtains, and turn the music on!” I proclaimed as I stomped in with my three buddies right behind. “Trust me. I’m a second year, I know how this works.”
Everyone gave a little “hoo-raw” after that entrance. All but Elysabeth, that is. She didn’t move a muscle. Her body seemed frozen to that seat on the bed. And her smile stayed plastered to her face while her eyes warily surveyed the now crowded dorm.
The moment I entered the room, I looked straight at her. And the moment I made eye contact, I quickly looked away. Girls like Elysabeth rarely talked to me. She was beautiful, smart, and a straight-laced Asian girl.
All that to say, she was out of my league. So, like any other time that situation arose, I avoided embarrassment by not talking to her.
The dorm room festivities only lasted for about 30 minutes. We disposed of the cups, packed away the drinks, and stormed out of the door en route to the “Welcome Week” dance party on campus.
of the cups, packed away the drinks, and stormed out of the door en route to the “Welcome Week” dance party on campus. Our group of nine college
knuckleheads boisterously stomped from one end of the University of California, Irvine (UCI), to the other.
I have always known my way around a dance floor. Ever since high school, I was called the “Dance Machine”. So on that September night at an outdoor dance party, I did what was expected. I danced.
But what happened after about the third song was very...unexpected.
“I kept wanting to dance with you,” Elysabeth tells me. “And we started dancing and it was really good. We vibed. We started dancing really well together. We got a little close, and then after a little bit of dancing...I kissed you. I just went for it. And that was the first day…”
This moment catapulted me and Elysabeth into four years of college dating. Saying we had ups and downs would be an understatement. At times, we skipped along the shores of Newport Beach, California under moonlight, holding hands and professing undying love for each other. But, at other times, words of disgust would be spat back and forth before one person threatened to end it all.
We had a solid relationship by college standards. However, immaturity mixed with partying and school-related stress constantly stood in the way of us seeing the other person for who he or she really was: a best friend. We always saw each other as boyfriend and girlfriend, and that always left the door open for a break-up. And we stepped through that door several times. Four breakups, to be exact, and countless threats in between.
However (and this is a big however), at each low point in the first four years of the relationship, one of us would look over at the other and say these words: “I am not sure why, but I feel like we are supposed to stay together.”
words: “I am not sure why, but I feel like we are supposed to stay together.”
And from the day we met to the day Elysabeth graduated in 2010, we did.
Part II (written by Elysabeth)
Sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, Mark, outfitted with a vintage t-shirt, an afro that screamed “Free spirit!”, and jeans, looked over at me and asked, “So, do you believe in God?” Taken aback by the forwardness of his question (we were on our second date), I fumbled around for an answer. What could I say? Yes, but I haven’t decided if I want to further my walk with Jesus right now? Yes, but I kinda want to party and experience this newfound freedom I have? Yes, but…not really?
“Yes, I do,” I responded, slowly, methodically, buying time to formulate the next part. “But I’m putting my faith aside for now. I feel like there’s a lot for me to learn and experience.”
He nodded casually. “I believe in God too,” he told me. He grew up Catholic, but he didn’t really follow that lifestyle of faith anymore, either.
Up until that point, I hadn’t quite decided what I wanted to do about my identity as a Christian. I grew up in the youth group at church, even singing on the worship team every week. But my faith in God didn’t extend much further than that. In high school, even though I’d show up to church on Wednesday nights, Sunday mornings, and Sunday evenings, outside of those four walls, I snuck around, lied to my parents, and hung out with whichever boy I was interested in at that time.
So by the time I moved into the freshmen dorms at UCI, I knew I no longer had to behave like a Christian. With my new independence, if I wanted to shed that façade of faith, I could. So, I did.
For the next four years, I continued going to church on Sundays with my family. I thought that if I showed up every weekend, perhaps my parents wouldn’t suspect that I had drunk the night before. For the next four years, I found my confidence, my identity, my purpose in others, especially in Mark. And for those four years, I waited for God to judge me for turning away from Him, perhaps in the form of a car accident or getting struck by lightning.
But as I approached graduation in 2010, after doing whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, something in me began to itch. Something familiar. Something I had spent four years desperately suppressing. An interest in Jesus. To know Him more. To talk to Him again. I missed Him.
And He missed me. He didn’t strike me with lightning or force my car into a tree. Rather, it was as if He simply waited for me until I was ready. And His opportunity to romance me came in the form of a six-week road trip across the United States.
“As you were on the road trip, you were just with your family a lot,” Mark tells me. “And your family has such pure hearts. I think that something stirred in you being around them. You were recognizing that you had lost some of that purity and some of that joy throughout college...And so, as you were going through that road trip, I think that your heart started to open up to God again.”
Upon returning from the road trip, Mark and I started making plans for our scheduled move to Seoul, South Korea. We had planned it for awhile: we were to go to Korea, work and live abroad for a year, and return with a once-in-a-lifetime experience under our belts.
Yet, I returned from the road trip...different. Something in me hungered for more than next weekend’s party and, dare I say, my relationship with Mark.
more than next weekend’s party and, dare I say, my relationship with Mark. Deep down, I loved Mark. We proudly claimed a long and dramatic four-year history that centered on our love for each other. But as hard as I tried to resist, I began to love Jesus more. And without Mark loving Him in the same way, I knew I couldn’t split my heart between the two.
“Slowly but surely, you were growing away from me,” Mark explains. “I was growing in one direction, as in I was going to transition to a new career path. I was going to transition into a new country, and my whole focus was on that. And you were growing in a relationship with God. And so we were growing in two different directions.”
As my focus changed and Mark’s focus centered around everything related to Korea, we began to drift. And so, I was left with the only choice I could think of.
I broke up with Mark.
It was mid-September in 2010, just a couple weeks before our scheduled departure to Seoul. I drove up to his workplace in Newport Beach. I asked if I could talk to him in a different room.
With my heart pounding and feeling as if I were no longer in control of my own body, I told Mark, “I’m really sorry but I can’t date you anymore. I can’t be with someone who doesn’t love God.
“It just doesn’t work.”
“But I thought I was being wise and mature and immediately thought, ‘Ok, this is just cold feet. She’s about to make a big move in her life. She’s only 21. That’s fine. We’ll let her go through a couple days of not being boyfriend and girlfriend, that’s fine. So I said, ‘I understand,’ and you drove away.”
Surprised by how easily Mark took the news, I drove away devastated and angry.
angry. Is this what God really wants? Does He want me to be unhappy? And why was it so easy for Mark to accept it? Does he even care? Does he think
I’m not serious?
For the next two weeks, I did what I could to stay distracted. With errands to run and goodbye parties to attend, the break-up got buried under the list of things I needed to do. So when Mark showed up at my door with flowers in hand to celebrate our four-year anniversary, I knew that what I had shared days prior meant nothing to him.
“I was really excited because I was going to surprise you on our fourth year anniversary,” Mark remembers. “And I get up to your house and I knock on your door and you let me into the kitchen area. And you looked at me with a straight cold face, and you said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I said, ‘Happy anniversary! It’s four years...Here’s your flowers.’ And you said, 'We’re not dating anymore.’ I was like, ‘Ohhhhh.’ And it started to really hit me that this was real.”
Part III (written by Mark)
Seoul had two important distinctions when I first arrived. One, every Korean person seemed to be staring at me. And two, the smell. Big city gutter stench mixed with roasted garlic and the fermented cabbage (more widely known as “kimchi”) settled in the air.
The only sensation that came over me as I experienced these two things was love. I loved it from night one. That was the smell of a new life.
The high, however, quickly got squashed and replaced with anxiety as the conversation with Elysabeth loomed. A plan to meet up had been established but a plan for reconciliation seemed far from view.
but a plan for reconciliation seemed far from view.
We finally met at a café to talk in October about two weeks after arriving in Seoul. We both ordered drinks we didn’t drink, and eye contact came slowly. But finally, after pointless small talk, we talked about us.
“I just knew it wouldn’t work,” Elysabeth says. “We didn’t have the same beliefs, we didn’t have the same faith. But I missed you. So we set some boundaries, and I think that was hard for you to accept, but you received it really well.”
After four years of constant commitment and sacrifice, I knew what it took to keep the girl of my dreams. Even if that meant changing my entire perspective on the world. At that point, I knew I needed this woman to be with me until we were old, wrinkly grumps, shuffling along a park path with a cane in one hand and holding hands with the other.
“I am open to the whole God thing,” I said. “But you have to be patient. Because of my past, it may take me some time to really believe this stuff.”
That past includes bitterness birthed from some unsavory moments I observed growing up. People I knew, family members I loved, and others around me that seemingly told me one thing and did the exact other. And for me, that birthed a bitterness toward the Church and eventually evolved into a genuine unbelief in anything related to God or religion.
Elysabeth knew this. The conversation of God came up from time to time throughout our first four years, but nothing ever came of it. This time was different, though.
Over the next six months, we visited multiple English-speaking churches throughout Seoul. In each sanctuary, I did the same thing. With arms crossed, shoulders slunk, and body slouched, I questioned every single word spoken from the pulpit.
“What about drinking?” I would ask Elysabeth after service. “If I drink, am I going to go to hell? Did you hear that girl say she was attacked by the devil? I don’t know if I really dig that stuff.”
Elysabeth rarely responded to my protests. She simply looked forward as we walked back to the subway, silently asking God to reveal Himself to me. Throughout this time, Elysabeth prayed for my heart to open. She never told me about this but almost daily she would pray.
“Whether it was on the bus or in my apartment journaling,” Elysabeth says, “I would just pray one thing to God. And it was, ‘Lord, I just want Mark to fall deeply, deeply in love with You.’”
Then, in January of 2011, we walked into New Philadelphia Church. It had two campuses at that time, and as we entered the sanctuary at the Itaewon campus, I was confused. After the music stopped and a pastor went up to pray, everyone in the room began shouting their prayers. The noise level jumped, and my heart sank. Oh great, a bunch of loonies, I thought. The sermon came next, and it touched on things I eagerly waited to disagree with.
But when service ended, my rant had to wait because the guy directly in front of us turned around and stuck his hand into mine, firmly shaking it while introducing himself. This guy, Noble, asked us questions about our lives. He made a joke or two and laughed at mine. After the brief conversation, I went back in for a handshake only to have it be dismissed by a bear hug. As we talked and walked back to the subway, Elysabeth made a keen observation.
“Mark,” she interrupted, “you haven’t talked about anything but that guy Noble.”
“Oh,” I muttered back. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Well, I liked him. He was actually pretty normal…”
was actually pretty normal…”
Not too long after we stumbled into the subway, I expressed how I wanted to go back to church next weekend. I mean, if I had to go to a church, I might as well go somewhere with people I liked, I thought.
Little did I know that God had something special planned for next week. If I would have known, I probably would not have gone.
We strolled into the sanctuary and sat towards the back of the chairs. The lights turned off, and the music began. I didn’t sing too much, but everyone else in the room did. Then, after about 20 minutes of watching the band, the lead pastor, Christian Lee, strolled to the stage, mic in hand.
“Chris, come up the to the altar. I want to pray for you,” he said. And a guy from the crowd walked up and stood in front of him. “And I think there is someone by the name of Liz here. If you are here, come up to the front. I want to pray for you.”
Elysabeth and I both did a double take. She hesitated, obviously not sure if she was the “Liz” he mentioned. But nobody else stood up. Shock ran across her face as she stood up and walked to the front. Pastor Christian prayed for the other guy first and then moved over to Elysabeth.
“He prayed a prophetic prayer over me that was so accurate and it just broke me,” Elysabeth says to me. “He talked about how I had some issues and how the Father loved me. And basically he was praying things that only you knew about. Things that I had only talked about with you...And then he said another thing, that my written word would reach thousands. And I was amazed by that.
“And in that moment I knew that every prayer I was lifting up to God, He was listening.”
Her drenched cheeks were the first thing I noticed as she walked back. Tears rolled down past her chin and dropped to the floor, leaving a trail as she walked. Elysabeth didn’t look at me as she approached her seat. She wanted the tears to stop and knew looking at me would only provoke more to come. Then, after about ten seconds of being next to me, she looked up at me. I looked back, completely wide-eyed and confused. She gave one look at my dumbfounded face and laughed. I laughed too. What just happened was unreal.
I then turned back in my seat and faced forward. I don’t remember anything else that happened on that Sunday in January. All I remember doing after that prayer was looking up toward the ceiling and silently asking, God, are You real? Does this mean that You are real?
He responded with a very simple...yes.
Part IV (written by Elysabeth)
January 23, 2011 marked the beginning of a rapid transformation for the two of us. As soon as God had revealed Himself in a tangible way to Mark, he was all in. Within months, we became members of New Philadelphia Church and signed up for leadership training. In April, Mark volunteered to partake in a week-long fast to pray for North Korea. A month later, he signed up to go on a short-term mission trip to Bangladesh.
“After I had my moment of realization, I got so excited to have a very tangible, real moment with God that I just kind of went after it,” Mark says. “And I didn’t stop. I just really drank it up. It was a pretty radical change of perspective in my life. I viewed the world in a different way.”
In preparation for his trip, Mark listened to a teaching from Pastor Christian on the importance of confessing sin. Growing up in the Catholic church, he knew this practice all too well. But this particular teaching gave new meaning. Rather than being a religious ritual, Pastor Christian explained, confessing sin provides an opportunity for an individual to be free from shame, to pray with a pure heart, and to experience true freedom.
When Mark heard that, a particular memory surfaced: a mistake he had made two years prior during our relationship. At a New Year’s Eve party, he got belligerently drunk and ended up kissing another girl. After remembering this, he immediately pulled one of the pastors aside and confessed. They prayed together, and Mark walked away feeling relieved.
But a couple days later, that same pastor called Mark and said, “I think you really need to tell Elysabeth. You owe her this. As your future wife, she needs to know about these kinds of things.”
Mark agreed and chose a random weeknight in June 2011 to come clean. As he walked from the subway station to my apartment, he began getting nervous, so he prayed, “Lord, help me.”
“And immediately, images of much more came up in my head. Immediately, I saw all these different things I was participating in during our relationship. It was things like going to strip clubs. It was things like interacting with other females inappropriately. It was things like getting blackout drunk. Just making a mistake. A lot of different things came up and God said, ‘Mark, you have to confess everything.’ I’m not really one to sit here and say I hear God all the time. That’s not really something that happens in my life. But on that night, I heard it very clear. He said, ‘Mark, you have to confess everything.’ And I stopped. I said, ‘I don’t know if I could do that. I know Liz. I know her heart. And it’s gonna break.’”
That Thursday night wasn’t particularly special. We ate some food, talked about our days, and just hung out. As I sat on my apartment floor, though, Mark sat down across from me and said, “We need to talk.” By his tone alone, I knew it was serious. My stomach began turning. Knots started to form in my throat.
“I need to confess some things to you…”
He began with the girl he kissed at the New Year’s Eve party. Then, he listed the rest. I began to sob.
Yet, I too had something to confess. I had kissed someone else while we were broken up before Korea. Although Mark and I weren’t technically together, I felt unfaithful and hypocritical for doing that in the midst of my growing “closer” to God.
And so, at the end of that night, both of us felt freer because the burden of those secrets could no longer weigh us down.
But the following morning, I woke up crying. Sure, we felt free, but I also felt betrayed. And the four-and-a-half years of trust we built evaporated in less than 12 hours.
My best friend was someone I could no longer trust. The man I thought I would someday marry was a stranger I could no longer look at.
“The next morning, you gave me a call and I was at work and I went outside,” Mark recalls. “You were just crying, like the hardest cry I have ever heard. It was a very deep cry, and I knew it was not ok...All I could do was give you your space. All I could do was say, ‘I’m sorry.’”
For four days straight, I cried in my apartment with curtains drawn. Although though one of my closest friends lived in Seoul at the time, I was too embarrassed to tell her what had happened.
embarrassed to tell her what had happened. With no one else to turn to, I turned to God. I journaled, with tears blotting the ink, God, comfort me. I need to feel Your tangible arms wrapped around me. Please.
So He did. As I wept for four days, I felt as if I were being held in a father’s embrace. I prayed that if God wanted me and Mark to be together, He would have to expedite the healing to make that possible because I couldn’t do it on my own.
After a week, I met up with Mark. I told him how the week went, what God had done, where I was now.
“I’m open to continuing this if you’re willing to build this relationship from the ground up,” I told him. He nodded.
Three weeks later, he asked me to marry him. I said “yes”.
“I proposed and you said ‘yes’ and man, it was intense after that,” Mark says to me. “It was just straight up refinement. I had to refine my character. I had to mature very quickly. I had to change a lot of bad habits because, all of a sudden, I was about to have a wife in 10 months, and I was still operating in a lot of ways like a single college kid.
“And, man, that had to change, and it was a really intense process. Not only in our relationship but also with God.”
Over the course of the next 12 months, God healed our past hurts, gave us a fresh start, and even turned our very source of shame into a strength.
In September 2011, Mark joined Unearthed Seoul, a prayer ministry committed to seeing the sex industry in Korea come to an end. Weeks later, I joined. And each week, a team of individuals walked through the biggest, oldest, and busiest red light districts of Seoul to pray.
It was the combination of Unearthed and joining the leadership at New Philadelphia that taught me and Mark how to pray.
Philadelphia that taught me and Mark how to pray. We learned how to choose hope despite the grim circumstances. We witnessed the tangible power of God and knew there was no turning back.
On June 2, 2012, Mark and Elysabeth became husband and wife. A couple months later, they invited their pastors, Christian and Erin Lee, over for dinner. Amid talk about life and their futures, Elysabeth mentioned how she wanted to go back to America to start a magazine. Both Mark and Elysabeth studied journalism and worked at publications before moving to Korea. Mark’s focus turned primarily to teaching in Korea, while Elysabeth freelanced for Yonhap News Agency and worked as a reporter for the local radio station. However, she had been wanting to write more substantial stories than her usual work. Thus, a desire to start a publication kept surfacing.
As Pastor Christian listened, he nodded and simply asked, “Why not now?”
This simple question launched Elysabeth into a process of developing a magazine that featured people’s stories. On December 20, 2012, Elysabeth published the first issue of re.write magazine. Two weeks later, Mark wrote the second story.
Working together has its ecstatic highs and its tense-filled lows. But unlike every element of their relationship before Jesus, Mark and Elysabeth no longer rely on each other to be happy.
Rather, they look to God first.
“When we dated, Elysabeth was the center of my life...the one I loved the most,” Mark says.
most,” Mark says. “I had to learn how to love God more than her, and it was difficult. But in the process, I discovered that as I fell deeper in love with God, my love for Elysabeth also grew deeper. More than it could have by my own effort.”
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