Earlier today, this essay originally posted as “Only by Grace” on Afrik Advantage, my friend Robyn Afrik’s ministry blog. Robyn speaks publicly on issues of multiculturalism, reconciliation, identity formation and adoption. At her invitation, I wrote this.
Since I was very small watching Sesame Street, I knew it. I knew it again as my elementary school celebrated the craze of “We are the World.” And I knew it as an idealistic teenager plastering the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights on my bedroom wall. Every human being is meant to belong to each other. We are meant to care and love one another. We are meant to be brothers and sisters all of us. We are intertwined and intended to be One. And we are; we truly are all this in Christ!
The first time I truly realized this–feeling it down to my bones, deep within my soul and heart–was not when I toured the United Nations in New York or Geneva. It was not I went to summer conferences with other Taiwanese American kids like myself. It was not when I went to college and made the bulk of my lifelong friends. I was at a church called All Soul’s. I felt this deeply sitting directly behind a column propping up the balcony. Service had just ended, and as people left the sanctuary, I sat unable to move, my heart overflowing and tears running down my face. The whole service, I saw mostly this plain white column–it was the only seat left that day on the floor–and the periphery, what a periphery! The neat pews filled with a diversity of people I had never seen all together and in one place. Women and men in jeans, t-shirts and backpacks, in African headdresses, in business suits and Easter dresses with various mannerisms and smells. One man wore a heavily ornamented sash. His presence especially pronounced: they said he was the Mayor of London. By contrast, the sermon and its preacher were rather plain, but what subtle underlying power, a power that came from somewhere else. As the late John Stott summarized Luke’s message—Jesus is the savior of the whole world—I turned my head and looked around: this church was like no church I had been to in the United States. Here was indeed a sampling of the whole world, saved by Jesus, praising and worshipping Jesus.
I remember being struck: here were my brothers and sisters, a hundredfold, as Jesus promised! And I felt, for the first time, that I belonged. Here, I belonged to God’s whole world. I, and everyone else, had an important place in it. I knew it, I knew that we were all meant to be one! God had only become real to me less than three years before, coming most alive to me as I reflected on New Testament passages about unity and his beautiful church. Now in the summer of 1997, almost a college senior, the fullness and diversity and beauty and wonder of the Body of Christ flowered into the main passion of my heart. He must have planted a seed long ago, even before I was aware of him.
Six months or so later, there was a strange lump in my throat, and time stilled again. I was sitting at my desk reading a forward of a forward of a forwarded email about the death of Spencer Perkins. Who was this, I remember wondering, and then as I read, I remembered vaguely hearing the name only once before. He was a black man, and with Chris Rice, a white man, they led a community whose purpose was to reconcile black and white, aiming towards the Bible’s call of unity. When I first heard of their undertaking, I didn’t know what to think of it. I was neither white nor black. And despite their earnest sacrifice and commitment, their work seemed to be for hardly anything at all. They described progress as taking twenty steps back, to go forward only one. But reading this email, reading of reconciliation’s sobering cost and sacrifice, I felt a lump form in my throat and time slowed. I had this feeling that this was what my life was to be about. God would work it out, but my life at its core was to be about reconciliation.
Fifteen years later, and I’m not far along at all. I suppose God is still working it out, working first in me, to realize we’re not so far along at all. And when I say “we,” I very much include “me.” In the last fifteen years, I’ve seen more than I wanted to see. I’ve been discouraged and disillusioned, depressed even by the church, both worldwide and all-too-local. We are far from being that city on a hill, a place known for its love, a place deserving of all that God gloats of in his Scriptures. I’ve seen instead a lot of unacknowledged brokenness, unchecked abuses of power, people not cared for or prioritized. Blinded by both our puffed up and our too small sense of self, we hold on to how we think things should be. We put ourselves over relationships, convienence over service, time over love. We prioritize ourselves over God. We rationalize idols and unwittingly deny God’s activity, preaching an incomplete Gospel. We’re not so much as willful, but we are the worst: lukewarm.
I am guilty, too. In the last fifteen years, deflated by what I see of the Church, I have been wondering about the verity of my call. More times than I can remember, I have not felt like I belonged. I’ve felt ignored, dismissed, disempowered. It’s been a crucible of sorts–in my own learning curve and in the learning curve of others. I have died many times in my heart to what I thought God wanted and how I thought life was suppose to be. I have died and am still dying. I am still learning how much is my part as I push others away or avoid them in my dislike of feeling awkward and uncomfortable, in my fears of being misunderstood and rejected, in my past hurt and in my own lack of self-worth.
Time and time again, God comes. Not always in the way I’d like, or as quickly, Jesus comes and meets me where I’m at. Sitting in his kind love, I realized that my disappointment in the church was because I loved it. It bothered so much, because it mattered so much. It mattered so much because I cared–I knew as even non- Christians know–how we human beings were meant to get along, how things were really meant to be, God’s shalom.
I realized too that what upset me was that I thought the church would be further along, as many think it to be. We are not that far along in terms of getting together, getting along, growing and making disciples, and becoming One. Really knowing this sets up better expectations, making it much easier to extend mercy, grace and forgiveness to others and ourselves. True community and unity are not a given; they are not something to expect out of church. They are a gift every time, a literal grace that reminds us that God is indeed renewing all things, making us and all of his creation more his. It is a grace that reminds us that while Heaven is not yet here, Jesus has also ushered in his Kingdom, and it breaks through into our present.
It is this grace that makes moments when we experience true community, when we see the Body of Christ wondrously together, all the more a gift; it is blessing. These times, these tastes spur me on, cultivating and fruiting faith, love and hope in Christ. My fifteen years were not all desert. Some African American brothers and sisters taught me how to pick my battles and forgive. Their songs gave me permission and voice to the depths of my soul sustaining me on many a dark season to persist and hold on. Some Asian American brothers and sisters blessed me with sweet Sabbath rest in their presence, allowing me to be, ministering to my needs even when words refused to come. Some white American brothers and sisters encouraged me to lift my head and speak up, and be triumphant in the Lord! A gathering of Southeast Asian Americans in 2010, their wholehearted, lived-out love for Jesus renewed my hope and convinced me that involving myself in Asian American ministries was more than a worthwhile undertaking.
“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” 1 Corinthians 13:12
True community where we are known and loved, true deep-down-to-the soul unity: these mini sights and tastes are signs of what is to come. This is what I’m learning to trust and treasure, like that pearl of great price. It is worth selling your whole field, and like Perkins and Rice, devoting your whole life–even it just seems to everyone else around you that you’re just taking nineteen steps back.
Deep down, we know, as even the world knows, we are meant for so much more. In his image, God created all of us to be One.