Sometimes, finding acceptance in a place where it’s usually found — church or an Asian community — is just as hard as elsewhere.
HAVE YOU EVER been rejected by a church?
The first stop on my month-long Asia trip: Shanghai. It was a beautiful Sunday morning. You could actually see the sky through the unusual thin layer of haze, but I was especially excited for two reasons.
One, I would get to go to church with my eldest daughter, Bonita. She had been living and working in Shanghai for over a year, and I really missed seeing herw. Two, I don't usually get a Sunday preaching break, especially on my Asia tour. It was hot in Shanghai, so I opted for casual dress (T-shirt, shorts, and sandals), as a way of giving myself a break.
I took the MRT (the local metro) to meet with Bonita and her seeker friend (who wore clothing similar to mine). As we turned into the church courtyard, an usher (I think he was a deacon or some kind of leader) approached me. My immediate reaction was to open up my iPad bag for a security inspection.
He motioned and pointed at my feet, "No! No! You can't wear sandals here." I apologized in perfect Mandarin, "I'm sorry, we didn't know. This is our first time here." Using a bit of my charm and skill in persuasion, I thought this guy would budge. However, he replied, "You can't go inside the church. If you want, you can stay on the outside of the church and look in from the windows."
"You can't go inside the church. If you want, you can stay on the outside of the church and look in from the windows."
I thought, "Am I an uncircumcised Gentile who has to stay in the outer court?" I was furious, then a more pleasurable thought came to mind, "Wow, what a great experience for a sermon illustration!"
But my bruised ego and self-righteousness spoke up, "What if this pair of sandals was my only pair of footwear? What would the non-believing friend — along with a generation of T-shirt, shorts, and sandal-wearers — think about the church?" The fire came back and I turned to the same man and declared, "Jesus wore sandals, too."
That's when the usher became quite irritated with me and forcefully said, "That was 2,000 years ago. This is our church and you follow our rules." I was angry. I started to look for money changers and tables to turn. That was when my daughter and her non-believing friend tried to calm me down.
I've never felt so humiliated by a church. How does a Chinese American pastor get kicked out of a Chinese church? How can we redeem this in front of our non-believing friend? Was I a good testimony? This was completely foreign to me.
I've never felt so humiliated by a church. How does a Chinese American pastor get kicked out of a Chinese church?
After a lengthy discussion on where else to go for service, we reluctantly decided to go watch a movie instead of finding another service. The movie and the lunch after brought comfort and relief to my conflicted soul. Later, we decided to go back and attend the 4 o'clock English service — another bizarre experience. No one greeted us or noticed my distaste in "Sunday best". Did they know that I was kicked out earlier? It was actually a different church using the same building — and they didn't care what I wore.
what does it all mean?
On our way to the movie theater, I posted my experience on Facebook to find some solace from friends far away. I was overwhelmed by the plethora of responses immediately coming out of the theatre. I responded to and "liked" all the posts that expressed disgust, while ignoring those that shared another perspective. When I got back to my hotel, I even posted a picture of my sandals and captioned it: "the guilty pair". I wasn't suggesting that the sandals were guilty, but highlighting the pair of eyes that judged quickly without mercy. An experience this powerful needed to be shared. I became a man on a mission, on my mission trip.
After a week in China, I went to Taiwan. There, I attended and hosted the ninth Chinese Congress on World Evangelism. I was the chairperson for the English track, and the interpreter during the opening and closing ceremonies. On the last day, an opportunity came for me to speak at a prayer session, on "the impact of postmodernity on modern day Europe". Typically, this talk addresses how a post-Christian society and the postmodern movement changed the face of 21st century Europe. The rise of cultural and religious pluralism, and in particular, the rise of Islam, is attributed to postmodernity.
But this time, I felt the need to share my story. Knowing the potential for adverse response, I hesitated but was later convicted by God. So, with a bit of trepidation and insecurity, I boldly declared in front of 1,300-plus global delegates:
"Postmodernity is not a phenomenon exclusive to Europe, it is everywhere. It is in America and in all major cities in Asia. The legislative debate surrounding gender-specific marriage, the decline of American denominational churches, and the revision of traditional values are all attributed to postmodernity.
"And it's not all bad. It questions the very fabric of our societal constructs, our values, and presuppositions. It also allows us to ask ourselves, 'Why do we do what we do?'"
My recommendation of how to combat the sloppy practice of modernity was to be more critical of it — getting back to a solid exegesis of Scripture, our culture, and even our churches. The postmodernists don't want to know what is true, because they've been told that all their lives. They want to know what is real. "Because I said so" or "The Bible said so" doesn't work anymore. The post-information era produced generations of people who no longer worship knowledge like the modernists, but want genuine experience instead. They want demonstration, not indoctrination.
Toward the end, I asked the leaders to think about the sandals in their eyes. How do their own preconceived notions of irrefutable truth, acceptable practice, and objectionable behavior become a barrier for the gospel of grace and love?
How do their own preconceived notions of irrefutable truth, acceptable practice, and objectionable behavior become a barrier for the gospel of grace and love?
The talk was challenging, but divisive. For many, it was the elephant in the room. Several attendees praised me for the insight and challenge I brought to the congress. I was surprised to receive invitations to speak at universities and seminaries, which I later did in the Philippines.
One young lady from mainland China came up to me to explain why they had the same requirement at her church. It was to teach the mainlanders to have the right attitude coming into the presence of God. I agreed, saying that it is one way to train the locals on the heart for God. However, shouldn't it be done after they come into the church, and not at the door? Of course, what you wear is probably most observable, but does it represent your heart for the Lord or for pleasing people?
The strict observance of things like "Sunday best" have a tendency to drive the church into spiritual-externalism, which Jesus criticized harshly, concerning the religious leaders of his day. Again, a matter of the heart is an issue of maturity, not a barrier for entry.
The strict observance of things like "Sunday best" have a tendency to drive the church into spiritual-externalism.
I learned later that many of the older pastors were offended by my talk and wanted nothing to do with a "radical" like me. I was disappointed, especially in light of our theme at CCOWE — "The Glory and Mission of God: Becoming Radical Disciples of Christ". I became known as the "Sandals Guy".
the sandals story continued
Since that day, I told the story a few more times in different circles and circumstances in Asia. As I prepared for each of the lectures, I wrestled with my own idiosyncrasies, quirks, and preferences. Were my ways biblical? Were they substantial? How would I speak to the postmodern generation? So I asked myself, "Do I have the right to critique, the competence to nuance, the trustworthiness to offer an alternative? How do I communicate the unconditional love of God in a conditional world?"
"How do I communicate the unconditional love of God in a conditional world?"
I thought about the incarnational ministry of Jesus — how He came into our world, dressed in human apparel, ate our food, spoke our language, and learned our silly ways.
All of this was contrasted to His heavenly dwelling and ways, of course. Jesus came with a human identity, so He had the right to critique our earthly ways. For Jesus was human in every way. He also had enough experience with His own struggles that He could nuance our culture with competence. For Jesus struggled with human sin and death, yet was victorious. And He had our trust when He died for our sins on the cross. With that, He offered an alternative to our earthly life — the kingdom life — living here on earth with the authority and freedom from heaven.
It's not just a thing in Los Angeles. Jesus wore sandals, too.
Dear friends, what are the sandals in your eyes? In what ways are you struggling to love like Jesus?