Friendship: The Grace to Be a Spiritual Friend

“You and I are here, and I hope that Christ is between us as a third.”

Thus begins the opening dialog in St. Aelred’s classic, Spiritual Friendship. Written in the early 12th century by the highly reputable Cistercian abbot, Spiritual Friendship is a short treatise on the universal experience of human friendship and the value of relatedness through common affection and goodwill. Few would deny that friendships bring comfort, companionship, and courage to the afflicted and contented. Yet for all its good, true friendship is difficult to attain on this broken earth. Why is that? Why are good friends so hard to find?

Looking back on my short life, I can count numerous friendships that started off as “close” but now have faded over time and circumstances. And as I have aged, new friendships feel tentative and fragile. Gone are the youthful ideals of forging bonds that can withstand all the storms of life. Perhaps we have Facebook to thank for that. We can fill our social media feeds with acquaintances and strangers, buying into the illusion of tribal bonds based on common interests and political leanings. Sharing life is a news feed. Or perhaps in our busy schedules we have less energy and time to devote in knowing someone well. Or it’s the consequence of a transient society as people move from place to place. But that still doesn’t explain why making good friends, friends that are cherished in this life and in the next, can be an arduous task.

What makes a spiritual friend? According to Aelred, a spiritual friend is one whom you share a common bond with Christ. Spiritual friendships are the truest of friends that find their origin in divine love and are maintained by it. All others are deemed carnal or worldly and such are not real friends.  To differentiate, friendships ought to be tested for its trustworthiness and consistency. Loyalty is the “nurse and guardian of friendship itself,” and “proves itself a comrade in everything.” No matter if times are difficult or prosperous, friends are friends for its own good and not for what it can give. This undoubtedly weeds out the fair-weather friends, the friends of convenience, and the social-climber friends (particularly when they have surpassed your life station). So it would seem that friendships are formed through trial and, most bothersome, through time.

Who has time these days? And if they do they must not be all that productive. But everyone makes time for what they care about or what they are committed to. Even in an instant-gratification culture, one still has to devote the time to be immediately satisfied.  Friendship needs that time to grow, like proofing bread dough for that soft and flavorful texture. Time is what’s required, but who gives? And if one does have the time, as yours truly, then what gives?

The inevitable question we come to after some consideration of our friendships is whether we can pass the test ourselves. Who have I been a spiritual friend to? Am I a true friend in all times, good and ill? In all honesty, I think I’ve come to the sobering conclusion that I’m a deeply selfish person. The primary person that I want to see happy is me and I’m happy being an emotionally limited person. I would like to be a good friend to everyone, but I’m reaching that stage in life where in order for me to be a good friend to some I have to be a fair-weather one to others. I know others have done the same, which is a relief. But at the end of the day, when my usefulness to people wanes, I wonder who would be around to appreciate my friendship just for friendship’s sake.

Nothing in human life is hungered for with more holiness, nothing is sought with more utility, nothing is found with more difficulty, nothing is experienced with more pleasure and nothing is posses with more fruitfulness. Friendship bears fruit in our present life and in the next (Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship).

Now here’s a sobering thought: our earthly friendships somehow matter beyond our earthly deaths. This isn’t about being best friends forever, but how good friendships change who we are. How twisted, jaded and bitter I would be if not for my friends. How scornful, conceited, and smug I would be if not for being a friend to others. Instead I am bearing witness that the love of a friend changes everything; it changes our reality.

Finding good friends is hard because I have to be that good friend. Oh Lord, have mercy. I need grace to extend beyond my self-imposed limitations and to not buy into the lie that friendship uses up time, but to know that time was meant for real friendship.

You and I are here, and so is love.  May we give true friendships the time it deserves.


This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.



On Self-Regulation

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

–Gal 5:22-23

This past week I was in an ordination workshop. The class was made up of people in the process of being recognized as set apart for the ministry of shepherding God’s flock. What this all means is still being worked out both for me and for my church. For the record, I have no actual agricultural experience. The closest is of the gardening variety and pet-sitting. I feel unqualified and doubtful most of the time. Nonetheless, it’s a journey worth traveling, even if it is rather daunting and lonely.

Daunting because of the weight of responsibility (wandering sheep, wolves, treacherous terrain). Lonely because of the self-sacrifice that’s required (sleepless nights, vigilance, few social benefits). Don’t get me wrong; being a pastor isn’t the only role that’s demanding. Perhaps I’ve wallowed on rusting grass while gazing longingly at green fields a bit too often. Truth is, life can be daunting and lonely for anyone, especially at a time with a great deal of uncertainty and social anxiety.

The backdrop to our preparations is the ongoing turmoil we see evident on our social media and news. What’s happening south to our borders is impacting Canadian ministries and congregations. As a pastor I find that I have to tread a fine line between engaging in what I believe to be important social issues and not alienating those who may hold different viewpoints, especially those within my congregation. In calmer times, there is already enough diversity within the Church to cause division. But with recent events and the unfettered access to un-vetted, un-loving opinions we are seeing the proliferation of fear, disdain, and hostility. It is so tempting for me to drop a comment or two (or three or four) in attempts to defend people, to stand for righteousness, and to silence offensive voices. And when I get the “likes” I inwardly seek, it feeds into my sense of right-ness.

And it’s precisely in these kinds of moments when God’s word breathes life into my soul. Galatians 5 has been foremost in my mind in the area of self-regulation or self-control. In contrast to slavery, God’s Spirit gives us freedom. Freedom to make choices not out of fear of punishment, but out of joy and hope in Christ who reconciles all things through His body and blood. And we are to use that freedom carefully, to serve and to love, not to provoke or exasperate. If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other – Paul’s words, not mine.

As Christ followers, we can feel secure and we can say “no” to our impulses that find root in barren soil. I wonder how we would all behave if we truly believe that God loves the whole world and wants to save it. For many of us who exist on the margins, whether it’s because of our gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc, we have to work out where we place our source of affirmation. We don’t have the benefit of social privilege. For others gifted with power and privilege, we have to take care not to become conceited or unrestrained, especially when that privilege actually means dying-to-self.

I hope that as leaders, we can reflect on what it means to say “no” to ourselves on behalf of those we serve and have influence on. And to take a step further, to see this as gift. Perhaps it means being aware of the stressors that deplete our capacity to love others, and ourselves, well. Or perhaps it means you have been blessed with enough security in Christ that you can extend grace to those who don’t. Or perhaps it means avoiding vanity by living sacrificially and creating space for dialogue and engagement (i.e. Get out of the armchair and into the fray). I do believe that out of that self-control is greater freedom and capacity to love.

We live in fretful times and even the most faithful of us can feel threatened by what the future may hold. And yet, we continue because we feel life is worthwhile somehow. Maybe it’s finding fellow weary travelers. Maybe it’s the lure of greener pastures. Hopefully, it’s the vision of finding a place within God’s Kingdom and sharing it. No, not proselyting, but saying, “Here, take and eat. I’ve already had my fill.”

This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.

EDIT: This was reprinted by Christianity Today on April 17, 2017



Overdue post…and epic failure

I never did get around to posting my new year’s contribution to AAWOL, and suddenly it’s Spring. Well here it is, on resolutions. The spoiler: my freezer is still full –  of mostly new things. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Here we go again…

It’s that time of year again. The beginning of the year when we feel the slate is clean and fresh. When we traditionally make decisions to improve ourselves and find the resolve to implement them. When it comes to New Year’s resolutions though, I fail every time: Lose ten pounds. Get fit. Spend less. Do my daily devotions. Blah, blah, blah. After so many failures I decided to quit making promises of self-improvement a few years back. Yet this year I found myself declaring a new resolution. A resolution that, unbeknownst to me while making it, is a “SMART” goal; It is specific, measureable, achievable, results-oriented, and time-bound. Hence all the elements that can guarantee success are there and I can look forward to feeling satisfied instead of guilt and disappointment.

My goal, simply put, is to use up or eat all the items in my kitchen freezer. Granted, I haven’t set a time frame, but I think it’s a reasonable goal to achieve in the immediate future. But isn’t this goal a bit….pathetic? Shouldn’t I expect more of myself? Will you, dear readers of AAWOL, judge me for a silly resolution of freezer-bag proportions?

Well, this decision isn’t so vacuous as you may think. First off, to eat everything in the freezer requires me to stop adding more things to the freezer. This goes against every immigrant-vein in my body. My ancestors taught me to save, to hoard, to never throw anything usable out, ESPECIALLY uneaten food. Using up these frozen morsels is to dig into my reserves and to live by faith that the good Lord will provide. Secondly, to clean out my freezer means thinking creatively how to use each item, which also means making an inventory of what I actually have. And if I know what I have, then I am obliged not to buy more of the same item (even if it’s on sale). So in one stroke I’m being creative, organized, and frugal. I’m simplifying my life one frozen pea at a time. Thirdly, eating food at home means less eating out. I’ve already had a friend over for dinner, which helped me get rid of soup broth, beet sauce, and a pork roast. I’m exercising hospitality, eating healthily, and saving money! Not bad for a lowly goal.

I do have a confession though. My inspiration for this resolution didn’t come from a place of deep prayer. It came about when I couldn’t add more things to my freezer. My initial thought was that my freezer is too small. Then I realized – this is ridiculous, I have things in here that I haven’t touched in over a year. Something had to change. The freezer was meant to store perishable foods so that they could be later consumed, not to keep mementoes of a bygone time. And so when a practice no longer fulfills the intended purpose, then one needs to re-evaluate that practice. The question is not: how can I put more food in the freezer but why do I have so much food?! As Simon Sinek would say, leadership needs to “start with why” not with the “how” or “what.” We’ve disastrously tried to simplify Christian living into a list of what to do and what not to do when all the while God is constantly engaging in the “why” of our lives.

Why do we consume so much? Why do we need to protect ourselves? Why do we fear people who are different? Why do I do what I do? Why did I make so much beet sauce? Some “whys” will take much more than a resolution to get to an answer. And sometimes the answer is not anything more than, “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Which, it turns out, is not a bad way to start 2016.

This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.


Conversation with my dad

My father is a man of few words. Because we live in different cities now, our interactions have been reduced to short, simple sentences flung back and forth through cyberspace.

“ How are you?”

“ Still kicking”

“ Anything new?”

“ Same old, same old.”

I remember getting early morning car rides with my father to the inner city train station. He was heading to work, and I to the university. The rides were blanketed in that familiar silence. Some days I would try to spice things up with a question.

“ When did Grandpa first come to Canada?”

“ I don’t remember.”

“ What was it like when you came to Canada?

“ It wasn’t easy.”

Over the years, I’ve managed to draw out more of my family’s story from my father. But his silence has worked its strength as a barrier against unpleasant memories and painful losses. Downstream, life continued with adult children leaving home, grandchildren, and retirement. Why open the dam when there’s still plenty of fishing on a calm, tranquil lake?

When I was younger I had interpreted my father’s lack of words as rejection. He rarely said anything harsh, but neither did he say anything encouraging. Surprisingly, I never acted out to gain his attention. I had two older brothers to watch over me. However, brothers are a poor substitute for a father. So too, as I later discovered, are boyfriends.

But my father, with all his limitations as a fallible human being, also carries kindness. When my pet budgie suddenly died, my young heart broke. Unable to bear the sobbing of his eight-year-old daughter, he immediately purchased another budgie without saying a single word. His kindness also looked like working long shifts to feed the family, fixing up an old tricycle for my first bike, and teaching me how to use power tools.

I may have longed for a different father. A father that looked more like an 80s sitcom dad: white, funny, and physically affectionate. Instead I was given a sullen, Chinese man who never knew how to fully express himself and who never seemed fully content except when holding a fishing rod in one hand and a freshly-caught trout in the other.  I may have used the Heavenly Father as an alternative for my earthly father…. but I am too much like my Baba to deny the resemblance.

When I had decided to go into ministry I told myself I didn’t need my father’s blessing. I braced for his anger. While I didn’t get the verbal acceptance I secretly wanted, he helped load my possessions into his van and a rented trailer. He and my mother drove it for several days to set up their daughter in a new city, a city where she would eventually stay to work for the Church that he has distrusted all his life.

I can now say I never needed another father. He was there and he never left. Though I may still desire his approval for the work that I do, I no longer fear losing his love. I fear losing against time. In the years that I’ve been away from home, my father goes fishing a little less and moves a little slower. I think of that time in the near future when there will be no more fish to catch and no water to float on. Will that dam finally crumble? Or will we sit in silence with all the things we wish we could say?

This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.

Getting Wisdom

Wisdom cries out in the street;
                        in the squares she raises her voice.
            At the busiest corner she cries out;
                        at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
            “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
            How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
                        and fools hate knowledge? 
                                                                 –Proverbs 1:20-22 (NRSV)

Ignorance is bliss, so they say. Watching the news while eating dinner can leave one feeling disgusted and nauseous. War, destruction, violence, hunger, fear… the list goes on. There are some things that I’d rather not know, some things that I’d rather not deal with.

Then there are things that we know that are pointless. Like why do some see blue and black and not white and gold? And which celebrity is dating who? Or what’s the latest video to go viral on YouTube? You know, thought-provoking stuff.

While discussing a sermon (ok, it was my sermon) on Proverbs 8, someone asked what our reaction would be to seeing a woman on the street, yelling to random people as they pass by, “How long, stupid, how long will you ignore wisdom?!” How many of us would hurriedly walk by or call the police? How many of us would actually pay attention?

It got me thinking, how would Woman Wisdom look to us today? A TED talk? A well-written article or a yoga retreat? Or would she look more like our mother or grandmother? Our sister or aunt? Our pastor or teacher? Our friend?

Because, if Wisdom was a person, I would have to take time to get to know her. I would have to speak to her and have a conversation. Maybe I would have her over for a meal or share a cup of tea. I would have to listen to her story and tell my own. Maybe we will struggle at times to understand each other, but if love prevails, there will eventually be peace.

In Proverbs, the young Israelite men are supposed to call Wisdom their sister-bride and sit at her door. They are to choose her over all other enticing, seductive women. That’s no easy choice, especially when immediate pleasure is available. Can I blame those men for ignoring her? Especially when I would cross over to the other side of the street just to avoid a confrontation with Wisdom. She’s just so… intense.

Wisdom is like that good friend who asks difficult questions that you would rather not answer. Or that preacher who points out something you’ve forgotten about God. Or that mother who reminds you what you have neglected to do. Wisdom speaks. But who will listen? Who will pay the cost to answer her call?

Ignorance is bliss, but it is our eventual downfall if we don’t heed Wisdom’s voice. I’m on a journey to get wisdom — God’s wisdom. Lord knows I need her, because I often think I don’t. Thankfully, she delights in us like a mother with her baby. May we also delight in her.

This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.

In Praise of Women

For the life of me, I cannot stomach watching shows like The Real Housewives of Some North-American City.

I find them odious and glorifying the worst in human relationships. Jealousy, envy, pride, and gluttony all mashed together in artificially constructed female fraternity. Please pass the trashcan. Other shows do marginally better in depicting “real” women’s lives. But if I pay attention, I do not often find stories of strong female characters relating well to other strong female characters.

I am also hard-pressed to find examples of female friendships in the bible that is not somehow connected by a father, husband, or son. There is no story equivalent to David and Jonathon, Elijah and Elisha, or Job and friends (I didn’t say they had to be good friendships). The closest would be Naomi and Ruth, the mother and daughter-in-law caught in a tragic loss. Their story tells of a friendship forged out of hardship. Yet their healing and restoration came through the actions of a godly man, Boaz, whom Ruth marries. I can’t think of a biblical story of two women, independent of husband(s) or son(s), who are friends. Can you?

From an early age I had developed close female friends, a fortunate thing especially when I had no sisters. I think my mother intentionally had me spend time with other girls so I would not feel isolated. I have always sought female friends because I knew I needed them. There is a particular group of girlfriends who are like sisters to me because they have known me for so long. But I have lost several female friends along the way as well. Some moved away, some grew distant, and some simply rejected my friendship.

It is a curious dynamic when women do not get along with each other. Sometimes it is out of personality clashes and difference in values. Other times, in my observation, it is out of insecurity and an unconscious tendency to compete with one another, whether it is for male attention, for success in careers, or for success in motherhood. We judge each other’s clothing or method of housekeeping. We compare and find that we are either satisfied with our own level of competency, or become dissatisfied…. and the race continues.

Why this sense of competition? Why can we not mutually admire and praise each other? Why can we not celebrate the goodness and uniqueness of the other? And if we are rooted in the love of Christ, should we not help each other to succeed instead of striving for ourselves?

Women are capable of incredible friendships and I lament that the stories we share from the bible often depict women at odds with other women. However, this is not surprising given the patriarchal setting of the ancient world. What is remarkable is the eventual rise of monastic communities of women bound by a shared devotion to Christ. In these communities, women worked together, taught each other, and were educated. They were also freed from unwanted marriages and family constraints. I have no doubt that every community, religious or non, had its share of conflicts and problems, but it is not often that we pay attention to healthy kinship between women.

Perhaps then I should express my admiration of women more openly. Like the friend who has fought cancer and survived. Or the friend who manages a household under financial constraints and the stress of raising young children. Or the friend who overcame trauma and illness. Or the friend who was vulnerable and asked for prayer. Or the many friends who have shown sisterly love to me. Simply put, in every situation of life, I have been blessed by remarkable women because of who they are and their friendship to me.

Upon further reflection, there is the story of Mary and Elizabeth. Young, pregnant Mary goes to visit her much older, pregnant cousin Elizabeth. It is an occasion of joy, of shared delight of what God was doing in their lives (by bearing a son). There is no bickering or comparison, but affirmation between these two women. They were drawn together by common life-circumstances, and maybe that is enough.

But silent are the stories of women who share life together beyond the realm of marriage and motherhood; these need to be told and remembered because they are still a part of the larger Story. They are our stories. If God is in the business of forming a people for Himself, then our character and ethics matter. How we treat each other matters because it is only in relation to the other that we can be kind, loving, gracious, and forgiving. The real reality, the Kingdom of God, resides in relationships, not least of these between women.

This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.

A Prayer For The Journey

This prayer continues to haunt me, after first encountering it many years ago. May it be so.

Archbishop Oscar Romero Prayer: A Step Along The Way

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw

*This prayer was composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, drafted for a homily by Card. John Dearden in Nov. 1979 for a celebration of departed priests. As a reflection on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Bishop Romero, Bishop Untener included in a reflection book a passage titled “The mystery of the Romero Prayer.” The mystery is that the words of the prayer are attributed to Oscar Romero, but they were never spoken by him.