Faith and the Single Pastor

I’ve had several friends remark to me, “I’m glad I don’t have your job.” I take it as a backhanded compliment from people who have experienced enough of church life to know the demands and expectations placed on pastors. But having worked in secular industry and having friends in all sorts of jobs, I know that stress comes in all shapes and sizes.

However, there’s a particular kind of burden placed on pastors when they’re called to shepherd God’s flock. We are called to care for people’s souls. Before being a pastor, I’ve never had to consider the deep implications of spiritual formation in the life of a community. I didn’t have to address questions like: What kind of people are we shaping with the weekly practices of prayer, fellowship, and worship? What do we say when only men serve as elders or that the communion table is fenced off from seekers? What does it mean if a child never sees a woman preaching from the pulpit or only married persons as pastors?

Prior to being a pastor, I didn’t have to consider the impact of my words or the weight of my own spiritual health. It was much easier to separate the private from the public when I was in secular work. When your main work is to embody theology, however, there’s no hiding from who you really are. My identity, or the formation of my identity, becomes the pivot point in how I do theology and in how I care for others. In order to see the belovedness of people, and to invite them into relationship with God, I need to see my own belovedness to God.

So there’s no escaping from dealing with personal issues like my sexuality and relational history. I am a heterosexual, single woman. These adjectives can mean something. To some it means I am deficient and should be barred from leadership. To others it means that I am a threat to their marriage. To me, it means a mode of life that I had little control over but one that I’m slowly learning to navigate with.

It also means that I have a rare opportunity to effect change just by being who I am. For the children in my congregation, they will grow up seeing a single woman preach, pray, and lead a community. They will become teenagers who will think nothing of gender and marital status as qualifiers for ministry. They will become adults who will value men and women working together in partnership, rather than in competition.

Yet I still struggle with the loneliness and isolation that comes from being a pastor and being single. Whether it is to hold people’s stories in confidence, or to make unpopular decisions, or to live faithfully in a sexually-saturated society, I am learning that this calling has a price. God, in His grace, didn’t fully reveal that price to me at the start of my journey. I think I might have laughed like Sarah and found a wife, er… husband. Or maybe I might have taken to the high seas like Jonah and go on the run.

Do I still choose this road? Even when it becomes harder? Even when God never answers my prayers for a partner? Do I settle in for the long haul?

The answer lies not in making one vow, but making small choices day by day. In the words of Eugene Peterson, it’s to obey in the same direction while knowing that each day we are being preserved by God. There are days when I question my abilities as a pastor, and there are days when I can’t imagine doing anything else.  The truth is, every day that I am sustained is a grace and a gift. Especially when I can say in response, “I’m glad I don’t have your job either.”

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

Advertisements

Let Me Be

There’s a passage in the gospel of John that has often been used to exemplify the compassion and righteousness of Christ towards his sinful followers. In John 7:53-8:11, we read the story of a woman caught in adultery. The religious authorities (a group of men) brought her to the temple courts where Jesus was teaching. By law, a woman such as her should have been stoned to death. Would Jesus condemn the woman or break God’s law? As usual, Jesus did nothing they expected. He said, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7b, NIV). One by one, they left, having been confronted by their own hypocrisy. They meant to trap him, but Jesus stumped them and the woman was saved from certain death.

I was taught that we all are like this woman. Caught in sin, deserving of condemnation, but alive in Christ. And when it comes to judging others, be warned! Who are we to cast a stone when our own hands are weighted with guilt?

Lesson taught and received, so I thought – until I began to realize that I had internalized this story and made it my own. I am that adulterous woman (though I’ve never committed any acts of adultery). This is how the Church sees me. And I’m saved only by the good graces of Jesus when really I should be condemned for my seductive, feminine ways.

As I grew older, I learned that the stories of women in the Bible were far more diverse and interesting than what I was first taught; that “biblical women” weren’t just competitive mothers and unsavory singles (except Mary the virgin, but she was avoided because it was too Catholic to call her the Mother of God). There were women teaching men, women giving prophecy, women believing the Son of God well before any man did.

I’m realizing that I had fallen into the trap that happens to most marginalized people: you believe the press. You believe the labels given by the powerful because those labels seem to make sense of your own powerlessness: Asians are the model minority? But of course we are, we’re successful and have perfect families. All of us! Asians are the foreigners? Yes, and we’re taking over your country! Asian women are lotus blossoms or tigers? Um sure, as soon as I fit into my size 2 dress that I’ve never owned and beat my non-existent husband and children into submission.

Labels also keep me, and others, from walking forward in the Church.  I shouldn’t be a pastor because I’m a woman and Jesus was a white male (actually a Jew but let’s not think about that). I shouldn’t be in ministry because Asians should be successful doctors, engineers, or lawyers. I shouldn’t be happy because I’m single and my supposed purpose and calling in life is to be a wife and mother.

Jesus knows better. Jesus, as our source of life, knows how incredibly capable, gifted, talented, and diverse we are. Jesus knows how incredibly akin we are as well.  He didn’t fall into the trap that would have kept him in his place. Instead he pointed out the common humanity between the accusers and the accused. By doing so he resisted the condemnation and labels we place on one another. He refused the labels placed on the woman.

He told the woman that she too could move on and that it was within her ability to live a life of fullness and love. She could live. She could be.

In the end, it’s still true. We are all like this woman… and we are all like those religious authorities. Labels, stereotypes, condemnation abound, but they don’t have to. They will end when we choose to resist and see each other for who we are.

We can all have life. We can be who we are in Christ. Let no one tell you otherwise, least of all yourself.

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

[Edit: I messed up with the reblogging attempt.. so I did end up cutting and pasting anyways!]

Embracing our Grandmothers

Poh PohI did not know my maternal grandmother well. Come to think of it, I did not know any of my grandparents well. Both my grandfathers died when I was young, and language barriers kept me from conversing with my paternal grandmother, even though she was present throughout most of my life.

My mother’s mother, Poh Poh as I would call her, came into my life in the early 90s. She followed the path set by my two uncles as they both brought their families to Canada from Hong Kong. Until that point, I had no relationship with Poh Poh, and not much of one there after.

Again, language barriers did not help. I with my broken Cantonese could barely string together a sentence and she could hardly speak a word of English. But language was not the sole barrier. She treated my brothers and I like someone else’s family. We did not belong to her because we did not come from her sons. We came from her eldest daughter.

I knew and accepted that implicit rejection. I did not mind because I never needed her approval. She was Poh Poh; an eccentric old woman who loved Mah Jong, who at times drove people crazy, but was kind in heart and strong in will.

It was not until her recent death that I began to consider the spiritual and emotional impact of my grandmother. On the surface it would seem that there would not be much of one. She came from rural China. Patriarchy, ancestral worship, superstition were all parts and parcels of being Chinese. These were elements that influenced my upbringing but were eventually erased from my identity as I embraced a western Christ. I was so different from her, so foreign. There was no relatedness other than through blood.

But as I watched my mother struggle with her mother’s approval and acceptance, I realized that I have been carrying the same burden. We long for our mother’s embrace; we long to identify with the one who has shaped our meaning of what it means to be a woman. We long to stand in line with our foremothers who have endured tremendous hardship, suffered deep losses, and triumphed in creating beauty in midst of tragedy.

So I began to listen for my grandmother’s story and try to patch together what I knew of her and what I could understand. I used to feel disdain for her apparent ignorance and blatant favoritism towards male family members. But she was a product of her environment and so am I. Despite the differences, I began to appreciate her story and now I marvel at the distance between hers and mine. I have become so much because of the opportunities I have had here in North America. But if it were not for my grandmother, my mother would not be who she is. And if it were not for my mother, I would not be who I am.

A friend who is pregnant with her second child (a girl), shared with me that the baby is now just past the point where she has developed all the eggs she will ever have. Therefore, my friend is also carrying her possible future grandchildren. This thought floored me. It meant that at one point in my pre-history, I was in my grandmother’s womb.

Though biologically life seems to pass down through generations, spiritually the pattern is reversed. I was the first to become a follower of Christ, my mother second, and at last my grandmother who made a confession of faith on her deathbed. This is God’s redemptive power mysteriously at work and which continues to surprise me with hope. Hope that one day I will see my grandmother’s face again. Hope that I will see her and I will know her, and she will know me.  Those feelings of foreignness and distance will finally be erased by the common bond of God’s love and friendship. And without any need for more words, we will be embraced.

 

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

A Power that Gives Life

“….whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” Mark 10:43b-44

The past few days I’ve been thinking of the sad story of a young girl who recently died by suicide as a result of peer abuse. Her story is told in her own words in a youtube video that she posted just over a month ago. While it raises a lot of questions about the roles of authority figures in her life (where were her parents, teachers, and extended family?), it is hard to ignore the sad reality that Amanda Todd was the victim of sexual predators, social ostracism, and mental illness.

She was rendered completely powerless. Powerless to change her situation. Powerless to change her psychological state. Powerless to change her past. In her desperation for love and affection, she became vulnerable. And instead of finding an advocate, she became an easy target for those needing to wield their power.

I understand that feeling of powerlessness and vulnerability. In my early teens I had my first taste of rejection, betrayal, and social ostracism, or what we like to call “bullying.” It wasn’t until I experienced it that I realized that I had participated in bullying others (I promptly apologized to a girl that I had bullied and experienced for the first time what it meant to be forgiven). I’m starting to learn now the dynamics of power in all relationships; the effects of having power taken from me; and the weight of my power as a healthy, educated, resourceful woman serving as a pastor.

From these experiences of powerlessness, my gut reaction to those words of Jesus about becoming a slave swings between rebellion and resignation. Rebellion because I don’t want power to be taken from me, especially when I have already experienced marginalization in multifaceted ways.  But neither do I desire greatness. I’ll let the extroverts and those out to prove something to somebody to obtain it. Leave me alone to do my work. I already serve others. I’ve already given up dreams, career, and rootedness to follow Christ. Must I stoop even lower? Must I be crushed?

And then resignation hits. Fine. My feelings of “rebellion” must be a sign of pride and selfishness. What else do you want to take from me, God? What lesson am I supposed to learn in this unjust game of life in which I am destined to lose anyways? You’re sovereign and all-powerful, so who am I to complain? I’m just a servant. I’ll just be a tool for your use. This is the way to humility, right?

Neither of these reactions are healthy or the way of shalom. They’re a sign of a hurting heart, bleeding from wounds caused by others and weakened by a poor understanding of who God is and His work in our lives. It’s also a result of a poor understanding of biblical context. Jesus was speaking to his disciples who’ve been arguing over position and prominence, and who’ve been completely oblivious to how Jesus served the most vulnerable in society. He called the privileged to account and invited them to give away everything. He brought in the excluded and established their inclusion into the Kingdom. In other words he restored humans to their humanity, as neither gods nor objects.

I am both powerful and weak. Both saint and sinner.  These particular words about servanthood speak to the parts of me with privilege and influence. These words remind me that I have a duty to serve my sisters and brothers.  To speak on behalf of others who are silenced. To listen when others need to be heard. To use what I have been given to give to others.

To the parts of me that struggle for dignity and acceptance, I hear instead the words that Jesus spoke soon after.  To the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, he said, “Go, your faith has healed you.” You are free now. You have the privilege of sight. You have power that you didn’t think you had before.

What did Bartimaeus do with this new-found privilege? He chose to follow Jesus along on the road to Jerusalem. With his new eyes he likely witnessed the unjust suffering of Christ on the cross. He saw a Savior without power. Scorned, mocked, and hated, for no reason other than being who he is.

But maybe he saw a resurrected Savior full of glory and grace. Maybe he saw the reality of God’s Kingdom on earth, a Kingdom to which he belonged. Maybe he saw a power that was greater than the darkness, a power that gives life rather than takes it.

We may be living in dark times, but we have seen the light. Go, Church, your faith has healed you. Go where Christ leads. Don’t shut your eyes to the injustices. Don’t believe you are without power. But don’t think that power is meant for you alone.

Woe to those who take power for themselves and dehumanize others.

And mercy, oh Lord have mercy, to those who cannot see their God-given worth.
This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.

A Voice in the Silence

Thanks AAWOL for the encouragement to speak: http://aawolsisters.com/2012/08/21/a-voice-in-the-silence/

I’ve always struggled with prayer. I still remember the first time I prayed out loud with someone. It terrified me. I felt like I did it all wrong and the corresponding prayer from the older woman confirmed my feelings. She prayed for my spiritual maturity and growth. After all, I only prayed for God to bless me (and only me). Of course, I was a young girl and a young Christian. No one sat down with me and taught me how to pray. Instead, I listened to other people’s prayers. Over time, I learned how to mimic other people’s prayers and use the same vocabulary. I learned formulas and categories of prayer. I learned that one should pray every morning and every evening, and if they’re really holy, they should pray ALL THE TIME.


I wasn’t really holy.

In recent years, I struggled particularly with hearing from God. I struggled with knowing what His voice sounded like and how to recognize it. I envied other people who seemed to have God speaking to them on a regular basis. They could speak in tongues, receive visions and dreams. They received “words” from other people. But with me, all I heard was the sound of my own longings. Why was God so silent?
In time I realized that I was interpreting God’s silence as anger or as distance. I felt that I had either disappointed God or made Him feel ashamed. His silence was a sign of disapproval or apathy. Funny how it seemed rather similar to my relationship with my father.

This silence matched my time of depression, a time marked by my inability to express grief, loss, and anger at being hurt by people. A time when I silenced myself as any good Asian woman would.

I can’t give a particular moment when God’s silence began speaking to me. Was it when I stopped comparing myself to other people, and comparing my prayer life to their prayer lives? Or when I began to protest and express my anger not only to God but also towards God? Or when I simply began talking to Him as I would to a friend, in trust that though He is quiet, He still hears.

His silence began to feel lighter like cooling summer breezes instead of scorching desert winds. His silence became more like an invitation to be more real rather than a rejection of who I am. His silence allowed me to present my innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires to Him. His silence gave me space to kneel and to outstretch my arms to the infinite and holy. His silence gave me my voice.

Then I am silent….

And it is He who speaks all the time.

Shameless self-promotion

In a very non-Asian move, I’m shamelessly promoting what felt like a self-absorbed post (if you’re going to break cultural taboos, then you might as well do as many as you can). At the API Women in Leadership Conference, I met some very cool people. One of them was the contributor to Mirrored Reflections: Reframing Biblical Characters and the editor of AAWOL. I was quite surprised when she asked me to contribute to AAWOL. Here’s my first entry for them, and you can read more insightful entries from Asian American Women leaders at http://aawolsisters.com/

On a side note, my hope is that someone, who perhaps is going through or has gone through similar experiences would know that they’re not alone. That just because they don’t see the possibilities, doesn’t mean that it is impossible.

********

This wasn’t my dream.

If you had asked me five years ago what I would be doing in five year’s time, I would have given you a blank, helpless look. What I did know was that I was coming to a crossroads and a choice had to be made. My passion was for the Church but my paycheck came from my day job. For years I had been deeply dissatisfied with what I was doing, but I had no idea what else I could do. I had no vision of what my life could or should be.

Thoughts of going into seminary kept returning to me. If full-time ministry was a goal, it seemed logical to acquire theological training. But I didn’t even know what kind of ministry I wanted to do. The available and acceptable positions I saw for a young woman at that time were for children or youth ministry. Were there no other possibilities? The Chinese church where I came to faith in had no female elders and no female pastors, at least until the time I began considering seminary for they had just hired a female children’s pastor. They rarely had female speakers and when they did, the women “shared” instead of preached. I was discouraged, by people in authority, from considering seminary on account of being a woman. Ministry would be too difficult, they said, because the opportunities would be so few. It seemed that life would be simpler if I just stuck to my job. Still, there was a restlessness in my spirit.

Eventually, after much questioning and probing, I made the jump. In 2008, I quit my work and moved to Vancouver to attend graduate Christian theological studies. I went into the MDiv program because I thought it would open more doors. While studying, to my surprise, I began to receive a call into pastoral ministry. I reacted in panic and terror. It dawned on me that I was the only Canadian Asian woman in the MDiv program. Not only that, I still didn’t know of any Asian Canadian women pastors. I felt alone and the thought of trail-blazing into the battlefields of ministry was anything but encouraging.

What settled my heart was repeated assurance from God. Assurance that I have been called. Assurance that women were welcomed by Jesus. Assurance that my identity as a Chinese-Canadian woman was not a problem for God, but a gift from Him.

So it is with a strange and wonderful sense of awe that I can be composing this post for AAWOL. I am now a newly-installed pastor of a local community church. I haven’t been alone for I have been supported by mentors, friends, and family. Five years ago, I could not dream that I would be here and doing what I’ve been grown to love. This wasn’t my dream, but I have a suspicion that it has been God’s dream and God’s doing all along.