1137839It was a key moment in the relationship. I needed to know that she didn’t love me just for my looks. I removed my dentures. And smiled at her.

OK, readers of this column who actually know me will know there was never any danger that Bernice or anyone would love me for my looks. In fact whenever I meet old friends these days, they will invariably say “wah, prosperous-ah” which is local code language for “you have put on weight ah-pui (fat guy).”

There is a small select group out there who know that I lost two of my front teeth in my first year in dental school. It was the first and last time I played field hockey. Yes, file under “I” for irony.

What it means is, unless you are a dental professional, seeing me without my dentures is a highly traumatic negative experience. We dental professionals are trained not to wince or gasp. (The surgical mask helps when our professional control slips.)

Which brings me to the question of acceptance and unconditional love. Sometimes I have the privilege of hearing the stories of close friends and other folks I am ministering to. Some of these stories break my heart. There is just so much brokenness and pain in life.

During such moments I feel overwhelmed by many feelings. Foremost among them is the feeling of privilege. My friends feel safe enough with me to share some of the most intimate and painful details of their lives. They feel safe enough with me to do the equivalent of “taking off their dentures.” Or should I say they feel safe enough to come out from behind their masks. I am blown away by the privilege.

Truth is we are all broken in various ways and in different places. But we soon learn that the world finds failure unattractive. And so we learn early to put on masks and make sure that the face we show to the world is always our pretty I-have-got-it-all-together face. You need to file this under “I” for irony too since behind our masks we are all broken in some way.

We live in a day and age when churches begin to look more and more like corporations and businesses. I never grow tired of reminding folks, and myself, that the church is first and foremost family and that intimate personal relationships are a non-negotiable for authentic church life.

But I am no romantic Pollyanna where relationships between the saints are concerned. That is because I know that the “saints” are all works-in-progress and that there is still much that is un-polished and un-sanctified in all of us. And so the closer we get to each other, the more transparent our relationships — the more our ugliness will show and the more we will be in each others’ faces.

Sometimes it is hard to accept the ugliness and brokenness in others because it reminds us too much of our own state. Therefore the ability of the church community to accept one another must come from a source outside of themselves. It can only come from God.

We can only live with ourselves and with others in all our imperfections because we know that God first loved us. One of the most incredible passages in Scripture is Romans 5:6-8:

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Nothing is hidden from God. He knows the true extent of our moral and spiritual ugliness. But He didn’t wait until we got our act together before He loved us. While we were still sinners, Jesus died for us. This is grace.

Deep down we all want to be loved and accepted. We need the healing affirmation that comes when someone knows the real me, dentures and all, and still loves me. Deep down we are so tired of having to wear masks.

The good news is that God knows precisely who we are. Yet He loved us enough to die for us. He continues to love us as we are, even as He helps us to be what we should be. One of our most important duties in the family of God is to incarnate that acceptance and encouragement to each other. And this, we are told, brings praise to God.

When I smiled at Bernice without my dentures, she said “You think I scared-ah?” I knew it was true love.

Your brother,
Soo-Inn Tan