The Gift of Presence

“I have no profound pastoral words, but I have fish tacos,” I said to a few friends as we gathered in a park to be together after receiving some distressing news.

I have found myself, as one who keeps a pen and paper on me at all times, often wordless these days. So much death, sickness, injustice. I want to be a part of bringing healing, but words are not my only avenue for influence. Sometimes my calling is to just show up…and be.

As I drove up to LA to be with my friends, fish tacos in hand, I thought of Jesus eating fish on the beach with his disciples after they just experienced their worst nightmare (John 21:9). His most healing gift to them was his presence.

When I lived next to UCLA, every evening I would make the twenty minute hike up a hill from my apartment to the residence halls, not knowing who I would encounter or what I would say. I just knew I had to be there….physically. Ministry was all about showing up. It was about bringing my body into the room and looking for Jesus.

After a rich time of sharing in each other’s grief at the park the other day with my friends, I began to feel angry. The anger was saying, “you’re not being present to me!” I looked for someone to blame, but soon realized the accusation was directed towards myself. In the midst of caring for others, I too, needed attentive, loving, presence…from within. I took some time to offer that gift to my own body.

I will write more about how I did this in my next post.

Who in your life might need the gift of presence this week? How has the pandemic affected your ability to offer presence to others? What emotions does that evoke in you? What is your version of showing up with fish tacos?

*Fish tacos were from “El Taco Veloz” in Santa Ana. Highly recommend!

What to do with your white guilt when you want to dismantle white supremacy

Eight people, six of whom were Asian American women (Soon C. Park, Suncha Kim, Yong A. Yue, Hyun Jeong Park Grant, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, and Delaina Ashley Yaun) were murdered this week by the hands of a white terrorist.

(image from @therealphilliplim)

It was evil, racist, sexist, and another one of the 3800+ hate crimes committed towards the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community this year alone. The murder itself and the dialogue from authorities that ensued soon after, contribute to a much larger narrative that says whiteness determines whose life is dignified, whose story is centered, and who gets to live.

In response, Asian American Christian leaders are urging faith leaders (and specifically white leaders) to “step in” and to own our history and participation in shaping the theology and culture that leads to racial and sexual violence. They are calling us into resilience: to “not allow paralysis from blame and shame to prevent us from inaction, and to not grow weary in well doing” (paraphrased from Vivian Mabuni and Dr. Jeff Liou in Christianity Today).

So how do we, as white people, own our collective and individual sin while also not letting shame and guilt weary us in doing what is right? What do we do with our white guilt?

The answer is rather simple. We have to feel it. Just like any other emotion — anger, sadness, joy — guilt it is there to teach us something. And the best thing we can do with the guilt is to welcome it. And to listen.

I am taking a class right now on BioSpiritual Focusing (taught by lovely Irish Jesuits), and in my last class we talked about the psychological term, “process skipping.” The idea is that, with any emotion, rather than going all the way through the process of feeling the emotion, down into our bodies, we skip over the process with quick fixes, cheating ourselves from experiencing wholeness.

My version of process skipping when I feel white guilt, is being an inclusive, responsible, communicator (my top 3 strengths). I text all my friends and ask if they are ok. I write blogs and sermons. I post on Instagram. When I do these things, there is a temporary relief from the guilt. Even though it is great to use my strengths, I deceive myself in thinking “I’ve done my part. I don’t have to feel bad anymore.”

There are many ways we, as white people, process skip. We say “Jesus has forgiven me so I’m good…right?” Or we look to a Person of Color to validate that we are “woke.” Or, worse, we dismiss stories of suffering and re-write them so we feel better about ourselves.

We will never be whole until we stop trying to get rid of our guilt and start listening to it. Underneath the emotion of guilt is a deeper story within us that deserves attention. There is a story of our collective history and our relationship to power and privilege. Perhaps there is a narrative we have internalized about our lack of worthiness, our terror in receiving correction, or our desperate need for approval.

Ignoring the guilt will not make the story go away. It is only when we stop long enough to hear that deeper story within us, that our whole selves can come to Jesus. It is from this acknowledgement of emotion, and of our whole story, where repentance and healing are birthed.

And as we do the work of bringing our whole selves to Jesus, we are freed up to bring our whole selves to our Asian American siblings (and to Black, Indigenous, People of Color), without getting stuck in our own emotional paralysis.

Questions for Reflection:

What is your default way of responding to guilt or shame? Where do you carry it in your body? How do you need to recognize it and allow it to speak to you? How do you sense Jesus’ care for you as you hold those emotions?

What are your strengths? How can you bring your whole self to your Asian American friends and family right now? (not out of a need to feel better about yourself, but out of a shared desire for Jesus’ thriving wholeness?) Here are a few invitations to start:

  1. Watch the PBS documentary “Asian Americans” and learn more history.
  2. Learn the stories and names of the people who died this week. Consider contributing to the families left behind.
  3. Support an InterVarsity Asian American woman minister. (I know many I can connect you to!) They are working overtime right now ministering to so many people. Invest in their long term thriving in ministry.
  4. If you hear racist or sexist language or jokes, or bad theology, say something!

Have you ever had a God moment?

A couple years ago, I was sitting in a church pew thinking about what I would eat for lunch as the service was ending. The stage was lined with prayer ministers ready to pray for people, as was the case every week. Somewhat out of the blue, I heard a voice deep in my soul say, “Go get prayer. Ask them to pray for you to have a baby. Go. Now.” Babies were not at the front of my mind that morning, and the idea of standing up in front of hundreds of people to admit that I had a need made my stomach turn, but I felt so strongly that that is what I was supposed to do, so I went.

My turn came for prayer and when I told the prayer minister that we were struggling to get pregnant, she began to cry! She said, “My husband and I have been trying for kids for several years now. This morning I was feeling so down, I wasn’t even sure I had it in me to pray for people today, but this…this is something I can pray for.” God’s compassion poured over both of us through our shared tears. We were seen.

That same prayer minister, who has since become our friend, preached the (online) sermon on Valentine’s Day. Our eyes were glued to the screen, jaws dropped, as she shared in detail her fertility journey. She was describing our lives. Not once in my thirty-five years of church-going have I ever heard a Sunday sermon all about struggles with infertility (let alone on Valentine’s Day). And here was this sermon coming to us just a few days after our second round of failed fertility treatments.

Coincidence? You could say so. But that same part of me that felt so confident that I was supposed to go get prayer that Sunday morning two years ago, is confidently telling me now that this is Jesus. This is Jesus saying to me and Mike, “Your story matters enough to be center-staged.” This is Jesus saying, “I see you.” This is Jesus saying, “I love you.”

Have you ever had a God moment like that? Have you ever had a time where you just knew that God loved you? Take a moment right now to remember that moment. How did it make you feel in your body? Thank God aloud for who he was to you in that moment. How can you carry the feeling of that memory into the things you’re holding today?

Your life begins with mystery

“It’s a good thing he has an element of mystery to you, otherwise you would try to manipulate him.” My spiritual director said this to me when I was deciding if I should marry Mike. My director’s words were wise. My constant need for more knowledge was actually a dangerous hunger for control. I wanted to know everything about how Mike was wired before I married him, because then there would be no surprises. I would be in control. The problem was, I was marrying a living human being, not a machine.

God brought those same words back to my mind as we’ve been trying to have a child. No matter how much progress we have made in science, there is still so much mystery as to how a child is conceived. When we do the math, the odds tell us we should have a baby by now. I desperately want to know why it is not working. Is that not the story of motherhood? Parents can do everything right, follow the rules perfectly, but there is always mystery. Children are not meant to be controlled. They are to be nurtured. If we knew everything about them, then that temptation to manipulate would be that much stronger.

From the very moment life begins, there is mystery.

The same is true with God. Richard Foster writes that, with God, “we are entering into a living relationship that begins and develops in mutual freedom. God grants us perfect freedom because he desires creatures who freely choose to be in relationship with him. Through (prayer) we are learning to give God the same freedom. Relationships of this kind can never be manipulated or forced.”*

God is not a machine. I will never know why he chooses to answer some prayers and not others. I love that he is safe and good and I can tell him everything. I love that he sometimes changes his mind when I pray.** And I am learning to love his mystery. For it is that mystery that prevents me from trying to control God. It is that mystery that reminds me that God is living, and that the freedom in our relationship goes two-ways.

What are some areas of your life where you are hungering for control? Spend a few minutes pondering the mystery of God. How might that mystery actually be a gift to you?

*Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992), 19.

**Exodus 32:14

Wishing you could see the future?

Security is not dependent upon the certainty of fulfilled desires. True security is found when we know we are heard. The greatest feeling of safety comes not when we can predict our own future, but in our process of longing.

I remember driving up to Ventura for a day away to pray. I was 30 and single and desiring to be married. I sat on a park bench and pictured Jesus sitting there next to me. I looked out at the children riding their tricycles, and started to tell God how much I wanted to have a family. As I prayed, I sensed Jesus’ ears perking up and his eyes focusing intently on me. I had his full attention. My expression of honest desire drew Jesus in closer, and the closer he got, the more I felt safe.

Jesus did fulfill my desire to be married (and in a way better way than I could ever have imagined), but the knowledge of how and when he would answer was not a prerequisite to my sense of safety. In this new stage of life, I find myself checking my phone, searching for some sort of assurance that my future is secure. My search history is filled with things like “signs you are pregnant” and Redfin house hunts. But even if Google could outline exactly how my future would unfold, there is never safety there. What my soul really needs is responsiveness. I need to know that Jesus hears my deepest longings and is actively responding to me. I need to know I have his full attention.

When I was little, I was silent in public and chatted my mom’s ears off at home. When she would start to lose energy, I would grab her cheeks and say “Mom! Listen to me!” I had a million things that were important enough to talk about, but what mattered the most was that I had my mom’s attention. If my mom, who loved me and took great care of me, was focused on me…then I was safe.

Jesus is focused on you. You have his full attention. Take some time right now to be honest with him about your desires. What’s on your heart and mind? Imagine Jesus looking into your eyes and responding to you. How does his responsiveness to you give you security, even without having all the answers?

“But he went on asking, looking around to see who had done it. The woman, knowing what had happened, knowing she was the one, stepped up in fear and trembling, knelt before him, and gave him the whole story.” – Mark 5:32- 33 (MSG)

Whole: Healing for the Fractured Self

In my last post, I wrote about how God cares about us as whole people, not disembodied souls. God’s plan for humanity is “thriving wholeness” or “shalom.” This thriving wholeness is for all of creation and community, and is dependent on the protection and care for the most vulnerable. In this post, I will zoom in from the big story of Jesus’ shalom, and share more personally how Jesus has been making me whole.

Mike and I have been trying to have a baby for thirty months now. This last cycle of hope and disappointment was the hardest. It was the first time we tried fertility treatment and, after several procedures and lots of side effects from meds, we learned the treatment was unsuccessful.

After we got the news we weren’t pregnant, I went to my spiritual director. She led me through a time of prayer, and I became aware that my body felt detached from itself. The fertility treatment process made me feel like all the parts of my body were in a relay race, sprinting all out, but the last runner (my womb) couldn’t do its part and lost the race for the whole team. I had failed myself.

In Romans 6, Paul describes our bodies as having the potential to be “weapons for justice and goodness.” He also says that the body wages war against itself. One part may want to do one thing and the other wants to do the opposite. Jesus makes us whole by reconciling those parts to each other, starting with the most vulnerable.

I needed Jesus to tend to the most vulnerable part of me — the part that felt like it had failed and was paralyzed to go further. I didn’t need Jesus to fix that part of me or correct me. I just needed Jesus to be with that part of me. So I sat with that part for a while. Like a mom holding her hurting child, I assured that part of me that I wasn’t going to leave it behind and that it was worth suffering for.

As that vulnerable part in me began to feel loved and worthy, its confidence grew. I left that prayer time feeling whole and motivated to go through the treatment process again.

How do you need Jesus to make you whole? What is a vulnerable part within you that feels detached from the rest of you? Take some time with Jesus to be with that part. Maybe put a hand on the part the hurts the most. Resist the urge to fix. Just listen: How does that part need loving affection? Is there anything else it wants to say to you?

Whole: Embodied Salvation

Last week, Rev. Raphael Warnock became the first Black Senator in Georgia, thanks to the tireless efforts of Black women like Stacey Abrams and LaTosha Brown fighting against voter suppression. On the same day, the U.S. Capitol was stormed by white supremacists. I’ve been reflecting on the contrast. Some are building a world where “82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton (can go) to the polls and pick her youngest son to be a United States senator.” Others are waving “Jesus is my Savior” flags alongside nooses while violently trying to hang onto power.* I see in them the fruits of two different gospels. The latter has no idea what Jesus’ salvation really means. This is a strong statement, so let me explain.

One of the Bible’s primary images of salvation is this word “shalom.” Shalom is often translated “peace,” but it means more than what our English word connotes. A better translation is “a thriving whole.” The Bible starts with depictions of shalom in Genesis 1 and 2: the flourishing world that God created where every part of creation lives together in harmonious, mutually beneficial relationships. The prophecies of Jesus proclaim that Jesus will be a “Prince of Peace (shalom).” Jesus elaborates on this with his inaugural address in Luke 4:18-19, quoting a picture of shalom in Isaiah 61, where the poor, prisoners, and oppressed are set free. Peter also paints this picture of salvation, “But we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which justice and righteousness will be at home” and he urges us to live at peace (shalom) with him (2 Peter 3:13-14).

This picture of salvation is different from the Sunday-school version of salvation, where we say the “sinner’s prayer” and try to be nice to each other so that our souls can float to Heaven someday. Jesus is not interested in saving disembodied souls. Jesus is concerned with whole people — people who need to eat and have a home and know their families will be safe. Jesus doesn’t just want us to be nice to each other and get along. He wants a flourishing world where Black people don’t have to worry about dying young, where immigrant families stay together, where the powerful get on their knees and serve with joy.

The gospel of Jesus is a gospel of wholeness, of “shalom,” that actively fights for the well-being of the vulnerable. Anything short of that has dangerous consequences. We cannot preach a gospel that cares about saving souls but has no regard for the beaten down bodies and minds of the oppressed.

How has Jesus been expanding your picture of salvation? How does that picture affect the way you live?

In my next post I will share a personal story of experiencing wholeness from Jesus.


This post was written in collaboration with Jon Ball, ministry coordinator for theological formation in InterVarsity. See his website at:

*Rev. Raphael Warnock quoted in the Washington Post: Timothy Bella and Tim Elfrink, “Warnock, Georgia’s first Black senator, honors mother and ‘the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton’”, Washington Post, Jan 6, 2021.

*Gina Ciliberto, “They invaded the capitol saying ‘Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President’“, Sojourners, Jan 6, 2021.

Vision you can Taste

“I pray you can eat chocolate brownies with your husband someday.” My sister said this to me when I was 30, single, and on a strict diet in order to starve four different parasites in my intestines. Her words had power over me. Chocolate brownies and a husband felt so far from my current reality and also summarized my deeper desires so tangibly. My sister’s image became the catalyst to my prayers. When my husband made me chocolate brownies for my 35th birthday last week, I paused in amazement.

God’s vision of liberation for the Israelites was “a land flowing with milk and honey” (found in the Bible twenty times, starting in Exodus 3:8). God gave them a vision that made them salivate. And to an enslaved people, with stability and abundance so far from their line of sight, a stirring of all the senses was required for vision to survive. They needed a vision sticky enough to hold onto through an increase of oppression, forty years of waiting, and several wars with their neighbors.

When I first came on staff with InterVarsity, my leaders were asking God to give us a vision that would make us salivate. We wanted God to revive the lives of students and faculty and all of Los Angeles, but that was not a vision. There was no sign for us as to when revival would have occurred. So we waited on God for many years. And he gave us the vision of the 70: To see a witnessing community on all 70 college campuses in Greater Los Angeles. We will know it when it happens and we are committed to seeking God for it until it does, because the thought of it captivates all of our senses and imaginations.

As you think about the coming new year, what vision is God giving you and your community?

Maybe you want to become a better person. But don’t let your vision stop there. What will be the tangible sign that you’ve taken steps of growth? How will you know when that vision is realized?

Maybe you’re praying for systemic change. What versions of “milk and honey” have you already heard expressed from those who are suffering? What is it that you and your community are longing to see God do that would taste so so good?

Maybe you have a personal desire — for a relationship, a family, a job, or physical healing. What is the vision of hope that God wants to give you to fuel your prayers this year?

If you’re unsure of a vision, don’t be discouraged. Sometimes it takes a while for it to come. But start by asking the questions and don’t settle until you’re salivating.

“I’m Proud of You”

I recently received a score of 100% in a ten-week seminary class, with a really nice note from my professor about my writing. My husband’s proud response to my perfect score was, “Don’t worry, you’ll do better next time.” We chuckled for a moment and then I moved on to the next thing on my to-do list. Don’t get big-headed about this. My prof. must be an easy grader. My “humble” self-talk turned critical quickly: Writing is one thing, but doing is another. I’ll bet you can’t practice what you preach. Some theologian you are…

Christians can have a strange way of interacting with accomplishment. Our attempt to live out the virtue of humility often leads us down a rabbit trail of self-criticism and, ironically, unhelpful self-focus. We don’t want to become prideful so we spend all our energy shaming ourselves instead. We starve ourselves of affirmation and then strive harder to obtain what we will never allow ourselves to receive. A merciless cycle.

But there is a more effective way of quieting that voice that longs so badly for affirmation. That is, to give it what it wants. The need to hear those four powerful words, “I’m proud of you” is not just some temptation to lure us into the trap of becoming prideful. It is an innate desire, given to us by our Creator, to foster intimacy between us and our God who loves to get googly-eyed with delight over his children.

As I found myself trying to shove away my desire to acknowledge my grades, I felt God inviting me to pause. Kelly, I am so proud of you. Celebrate! Be encouraged! Then I texted my mom and a father-like-figure and shared with them the note from my professor. My inner-child smiled real big. That’s all she needed. Content on the inside, my focus shifted back to caring for other people, this time with less striving and more child-like courage.

How do you need to allow yourself to receive words of affirmation? How might God want to tell you he is proud of you? This may be hard, but make a list of thirty ways God is proud of you. Yes, I said thirty. Don’t dwell too hard on whether or not it is from God. God has more thoughts towards you than sand on a seashore so there’s a high chance your tiny list overlaps with his vast delight for you (Psalm 139:18). How did that make you feel to write it down? How can you make that a regular rhythm in your life?

Two Types of Nurture

“Nurture” and “fix” are often synonyms in my dictionary. Something hurts? Go to the doctor. Have a problem? Find a solution. Strategy, responsibility, and practicality are my default ways of expressing care. It is part of what makes me love coaching. I believe people can move forward and make progress and I love helping them get past their hurdles and reach their goals.

But there is another type of nurture. It has nothing to do with fixing. It’s a type of nurture that is not interested in outcome, but is more concerned with presence. It’s the type of nurture a mother gives her child when he skins his knees. A gentle touch. A loving kiss. A cuddle. Sometimes what we need as much as a solution, is acknowledgment of our pain and an assurance of loving presence.

Both types of nurture are necessary in helping someone feel whole. And often, the second type is what catalyzes the first. Being seen and loved is often the pre-requisite for all kinds of creative problem-solving.

I struggle with recurring sinus and throat pain. Recently, my spiritual director asked me how much I have paid attention to the escalating pain from the past couple months. I confessed I had been attempting to ignore it. She told me to gently put my hand on my throat and just stay with the pain for a while. I began to speak to myself as if I were a child, I’m so sorry, Kel. I know it hurts so badly. It’s been hurting for a long time. I know. I am here. And then I just stayed there a while, listening to what else my body might be wanting to tell me.

This whole exercise took all of ten minutes, but I could feel something changing in my soul. I had been craving nurture, as much as, if not more than, I had been craving relief. And I wasn’t even aware of it until I took some space to just be present to myself.

Soon after, I continued my journey of looking for help. I reached out to a few doctors and to friends and am not giving up trying to find solutions. That part of care is crucial as well. But too often I underestimate the healing power of attentiveness and acknowledgment.

Take a few minutes right now and practice being attentive to yourself. What is your body trying to say to you? Are there parts of you that have been craving nurture? Ask Jesus to show you how to speak lovingly to those parts of yourself. Practice just staying there for a bit without needing to fix anything.

For more on this type of prayer, look up BioSpiritual Focusing, a practice that was developed by two Jesuits: