the worst place to feel alone

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I visited a church today in my new town.  They say their vision is to connect people with God, and to reach out to the community, so I was excited to try it out.  I got there a little early, and honestly, I didn’t know where to go until the doors opened.  So I sat by myself on a bench beside the sanctuary and waited.

While I waited, people passed.  So many people passed.  Pastors, worship team members, regular attenders, and yes, greeters and welcomers.  I tried to look up and make eye contact so that I could make some connections with people.  But no one said anything to me.  No one stopped.  No one even smiled in my direction.  I know this is not absurd or abnormal.  But, you know what?  It kind of hurt.

I felt sad inside.  I felt awkward.  Part of me wanted to walk right back to my car.  Part of me didn’t even want to give that church a chance.  And all of me was missing the places I’ve left, who know my name and who are happy to see me and who welcome me with open arms.

And hey, for me, I’ll get over it.  I know that people get nervous to say hi to someone new.  I know that not all churches are good at that stuff.  I know that sometimes you have to push your way into a new community.  I know that Jesus is bigger than all of that.

But, for some people, it matters more.  Some people come to church, and they’re desperate and hurting and broken.  Some people come to church and they don’t know much about God or worship or how to “do” church.  Some people come, and they’re scared and they’re prepared to be rejected.  And some people, like me, come and they already know Jesus, but could really use a friend.

Jesus said that the world will know we belong to Him by our love for one another (Jn. 13:35).  I was talking with a friend just last week about how hard it is sometimes to feel loved in a community of Christians.  In my life, the two places I’ve felt most left out were both Christian communities.  And usually, it was during the hardest times in life that I felt the least welcomed and cared for.

“It’s never intentional,” my friend said.

And that’s exactly it.

So many communities aren’t intentional.  Not intentionally welcoming, not intentionally helpful, not intentionally going out of their own comfort zones to show Jesus’ love to others.  It’s not just a problem for churches, it’s everywhere.  Small groups and Bible studies, Christian organizations and institutions, circles of friends, everywhere.

And actually, I think I know why it’s like that.  Because LOVE changes things.  Love is powerful.  If you’ve ever been in a community where Jesus’ love is real among you, you know what I mean.  So no wonder.  No wonder that’s the thing that is so often stolen by fear or insecurity or pride.  No wonder that’s often the thing that falls to the wayside. Oh Lord, help us to combat the opposition and learn to love anyway.  Let’s be more about seeing God’s Kingdom grow than protecting our own little social group.  Let’s give people a chance – whether we’ve left others out or we’ve been left out.  Let’s believe better things for the Church, and be part of the change.

That was my favorite thing about my church in Bangkok.  We were all about loving people toward God.  We were a strange mix of every nationality and personality and style, and we definitely didn’t love everyone perfectly, but we sure did our best.

I’ll probably go back next week and give that church another try. They seem to be about Jesus in what they do, and I’m sure there are some wonderful people there. (And this town definitely has its share of welcoming churches too, please know.)

But next time we go to church, or are in any Christian community, or any place of belonging for that matter, and we see someone sitting there alone, maybe we should just go and talk to them.  Who knows how God might use that.

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Asia is in me. …And I can’t do a thing about it.

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People sometimes ask me how it feels to be adopted.  And usually I say to them, I don’t really know.  Imagine growing up, and instead of being told that babies come from mommy’s tummies, you were told that sometimes babies come on airplanes from faraway places.  Imagine looking through your baby album and instead of seeing Mommy holding you for the first time in the hospital, you see pictures of Mommy holding you for the first time at a crowded airport. Imagine if your family that looks nothing like you is the only family you’ve ever known.

Then imagine how surprising it would be, after loving your mom and dad and brother since before you can remember, being asked for the first time, “So where is your real mom?”

But it’s not just my family — it’s my culture, my identity, my values.  I never grew up dreaming of Korea.  I dreamed of Disneyland, like every other California kid.  I never noticed that my baby dolls didn’t look like me, or that no one in the movies looked like me either.  I never thought there was anything in me but America.

Fast forward to 2009.  I move to Asia.  (And for the record, it wasn’t my idea, totally God’s!)  And in Asia, people see things from a whole different viewpoint.  In Asian culture (I’m generalizing, here), if you’re Asian, you are Asian.  And being Asian trumps everything else.  I am asked daily where I come from, and when I tell people America, they 1) tell me I don’t look American 2) shake their head and look at me funny or 3) on rare occurrences, they might even scoff or laugh.  Thais have told me since I moved here that people will feel more comfortable around me and relate to me more simply because I’m Asian.  I think it even causes people to have different expectations for me, and how I will act, and what I will say.  Sometimes this makes me feel misunderstood, and it makes me fear that I am disappointing people.

While my family and community back home made me feel special for looking the way I do, now I feel grouped into one huge mass of people I don’t even really know well.  Imagine being identified every day by your ethnic background, after never thinking twice about it your whole life long.  While back home, no one ever questioned my American status or made me feel like an outsider,  all of a sudden, in Asia, I’ve realized that the rest of the world sees me in a totally different light.

And do you want to know the worst part?

Sometimes…they’re right.

I can’t change the fact that I was born in Korea.  I can’t change that I have Asian eyes, and Asian hair, and Asian blood.  I can’t change that I even have some Asian personality traits — I’m slow to react emotionally, I seek unity in groups, I am careful to blend in with whoever I’m around. Shoot, I’m even good at math.  Okay, you got me, I’m Asian.  And I certainly can’t change that the rest of the world will recognize that part of me and view me differently because of it.

I know this sounds funny, but for months, I’ve been wrestling with this very thing, because everything I’ve been saying is true.  I’m definitely Asian…and yet, I’m definitely not.  So these are my seemingly obvious but hard-to-really-believe conclusions: Maybe being Asian doesn’t make me any less American, or any less a part of my not-so-Asian family.  Maybe being Asian doesn’t mean I have to compromise who I am or change the ways I don’t fit in here.  Maybe being Asian does mean I have a special connection to this part of the world, and that God will use it for marvelous things.

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My friend, Clare, and I took a trip to China last week.  It was ah-maaaaazing.  Our favorite part — not surprisingly — was hiking along The Great Wall.  And on that glorious day, we had the privilege of running into a couple from America who was in the country to pick up their newly adopted Chinese daughters.  They said it was God who moved their hearts, and led them to China, and gave them love for two children they’ve never even met.  Oh, to think of the story those little girls will carry, and the way that this family is touching a culture by bringing a piece home to embrace as their own.

It made me think that maybe my own story, cultural confusion and all, will turn out to be a testimony that crosses the borders of culture and color.  And if those new parents asked me for a word of wisdom, after all I’ve been learning and observing, I would tell them this: “Love Asia, because you love them, and Asia is in them.  And because they love you, they’ll love Asia too.”