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.

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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.

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.

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.