The 3 best leadership gifts my dad gave me before he died

It’s graduation season. I love seeing the celebratory photos of kindergarten and college diplomas. I love telling students they are upperclassmen now and are being entrusted with greater leadership in the ministry.

Father’s Day got me thinking about one of my biggest transitions in leadership. Unbeknownst to any of us, during my first year of college, my dad — my teacher and spiritual mentor — was about to die. But before he did, he left me with three of the most valuable gifts for my growth as a leader.

  1. Vulnerability: My dad’s life exuded stability. He was a disciplined and effective leader with a PhD, several patents, and a wide spiritual influence. But one of the best things he ever did for me was let me know that he worried. I remember him telling me his favorite Bible story was when Jesus said “Do not worry” (Matthew 6:25). And I remember thinking, what in the world could you possibly have to worry about? But now, 16 years later, I am so glad I knew that my dad had anxieties too. Even the best of leaders struggle. I needed to know that.

  2. Confidence: One of my very last conversations with my dad was at Jerry’s Deli in Westwood after watching a UCLA basketball game together. I was telling him about an evangelistic conversation I was having with someone in my dorm. As I often did, I was looking for feedback in my leadership. Did I do it right? Did I say the right things? I remember being surprised by his answer. He didn’t give me any feedback — nothing positive or negative. Just a silent nod that said, “You can do this without me, Kel. You don’t need my approval to be a good leader.” As someone who often struggles with unhealthily attaching my confidence to the opinions of authority, this was a powerful lesson for me.

  3. Commissioning: Two nights before my dad died, I was having dinner in the college cafeteria with him and my roommate, Alicia. We were talking about who we wanted to be when we grew up. My dad looked at me with total certainty and said, “Kelly, you will be a writer.” In the moment I rolled my eyes and thought, no, dad, I’m going to be an InterVarsity staff. But now I look back at that as a commissioning. I was thinking about job titles but he was blessing me to use my strengths. Now as I am beginning to write a second book (using my dad’s print-on-demand publishing technology), I hold onto that blessing, amazed that he saw in me what I couldn’t yet see in myself.

Who is someone you are influencing right now? How might you offer these gifts to them in this transitional season? How have you received these gifts in your own leadership by people who have led you?

How to keep hoping when you aren’t getting what you want

“We let our expectations die and embrace expectancy.”

James Choung and Ryan Pfeiffer, Longing for Revival: From Holy Discontent to Breakthrough Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020), 52.

3 years, 75 hours at a fertility clinic, $4000 of copays, 3 surgeries and 9 procedures later, and still no baby to show for it all. Our fertility specialist says our next step is to pay $25,000, decide on a whole host of ethical questions, have a major surgery…all to increase the odds for one more roll of the dice in getting pregnant.

As Mike and I have been processing this news, a friend of mine prayed over me. The word that came to her in prayer was the quote above from the book “Longing for Revival.”

My expectations for my future have done a 180. Initially I expected to get pregnant right away, buy a nice home, and be having our second child by now. Now my expectation is for my money, time and body to be forever depleted with no return on the investment. Jesus is inviting me to surrender all of my expectations — the positive and the negative. I have no control over how tomorrow will go, and trying to predict the future is a breeding ground for anxiety and resentment.

Instead of riding the emotional roller coaster of expectations, I want to be stabilized in the expectancy that comes by knowing God’s character and track-record of faithfulness. I cannot tell you if we will get pregnant or adopt or have kids in some other way. I can’t tell you the timeline of how soon it will happen or how much money we will have left in the bank when it does. But I do know that Jesus has proved himself trustworthy. And whether or not I see it in this moment, I have known him to be the God who is lavishly generous, full of surprises, and willing to do the impossible because he loves his kids.

So that’s what I’m choosing to hang onto.

We are still lamenting as well as making plans (starting with a couple months of rest), but I want to hold those plans loosely. Not out of a place of guardedness so as not to be heartbroken again, but out of a place of genuine expectancy that God is up to something really really good, and he can do it however he chooses.

How have your expectations held up or let you down? What areas of your life are you wanting to cultivate expectancy, grounded in God’s character?

Having social anxiety after isolation?

The day finally arrived: two weeks after vaccination! I envisioned fireworks, chocolate fountains, a giant party . . . instead I celebrated my end of isolation with a quiet walk through Hobby Lobby.

With so much of the world still in crisis, and half of my community unvaccinated, it wasn’t the climactic ending to a terrible year that I had hoped for. Still, I was so excited to finally get to hug some of my friends again. I soon got to work texting them, setting up times to hang out.

Quickly, the anxieties hit me. I haven’t used my communication muscles for a very long time. What if all my friends want to hang out at once, and I have to decide who gets priority? Or worse, what if my friends don’t want to hang out with me? Although I tried to keep some connection during the pandemic, what if it wasn’t enough? What if they judge me for how cautious I lived? Or for not being cautious enough? Can we recover from our pandemic-related tensions?

Still deeper sensitivities stirred in me. This hasn’t just been a year of a pandemic but a year of racial reckoning. Can I share with my friends honestly how I’ve been doing with that? Will they feel safe to share their pain with me? Do I even remember how to be cross-cultural apart from posting on Instagram? What if I say something unhelpful . . . will they still be my friend?

When I finally did get to see some of my friends, although I savored every moment, I spent hours afterward analyzing everything that I said and did, combing through every sentence, looking for ways my friends might judge me . . . or hate me. What was I thinking? Why did I say that?

You may not be a naturally paranoid person like me (Enneagram 6), but having a certain level of social anxiety after a year-plus of isolation is to be expected. Some of you are about to go back to campus or start working in-person for the first time in a long while. That’s a really big change! And anxiety is normal.

What do we do when anxiety comes? Here are a few suggestions: 

  1. Notice & Nurture: In my last couple posts, I’ve written about the idea of noticing and nurturing (a concept taken from the founders of The Institute for Bio-Spiritual Research). When you feel anxiety or paranoia, notice it. Pay attention to where you carry it in your body.

    Then bring some affection to that place. We can learn from Jesus who verbally and physically expressed his compassion for the socially rejected (Mark 1:41), and ask the Holy Spirit to help us bring that same affection to the hurting places within us. Maybe put a hand on that spot in your body, where you are carrying the anxiety and speak kindly: Of course, you feel anxious. It’s been a long time since you’ve socialized. I am with you. I won’t leave you. Rather than trying to curse or shame your anxiety away, just bring it some loving attention and be kind to yourself.

  2. Give Yourself Time: The amount of trauma and disruption that’s occurred in the last 15 months isn’t going to be healed overnight. Even if the world eventually opens up and life “goes back to normal,” it will not feel normal right away. Healing takes a long time.

    Remind yourself that you don’t need to immediately bounce back. Go at the pace your body is ready to go. If that means not attending every large group or worship service just yet, that’s just fine. If it means you can’t plan the perfect outreach in the fall, that’s okay. And it’s even okay if you cannot immediately reconcile with every single friend. Give yourself time.

  3. Extend a LOT of grace. Remember that you’re not the only one going through some anxiety right now. Your friends and classmates may feel the same way. They may be upset with themselves about something they said to you, wondering why they can’t seem to hold a conversation anymore. This year has been a year of exposure, and we have all experienced a taste of ourselves at our worst. Keep extending grace, starting with yourself.

  4. Find a Counselor: If you need help finding a godly counselor, reach out to a local InterVarsity campus minister or pastor and ask for some referrals.

Anxiety is often correlated with fatigue. And though you can celebrate when you get to be with friends again, the pandemic and chaos in the world is not over. The fatigue from past and ongoing suffering is real. And we need an extra dose of compassion.

“The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness” (Psalm 103:8).

How do you relate to having anxiety in this season? What else has helped you?

*Dr. Edwin M. McMahon and Dr. Peter A. Campbell, Rediscovering the Lost Body-Connection within Christian Spirituality, Minneapolis, MN: Tasora Books 2010, pg 78.

Loving Yourself through Affectionate Presence

When my seventeen-month-old nephew, Zachary, is having trouble sleeping at night, my brother pats him on his back gently and says, “I know, I know.” The other day, Zachary was awake and alone in his crib saying to himself, “I know, I know.”

From a very young age, kids learn how to soothe themselves. They recognize affection and imitate it, nurturing their own bodies. Adults have a much harder time doing this.

Drs. McMahon and Campbell, ordained Jesuits and psychologists, explain that we all have “affection teachers” in our lives that help us to nurture the hurting places within us. They write:

“Your Affection Teacher can become the practical, physically felt Loving Presence of God in your own body….With a quiet inner presence, you can talk to your body in pain…expressing to your body how sorry you are that it hurts so much. Allow your pain-filled place to know you won’t neglect or abandon it. Promise to be a good friend, remaining as long as it needs you.”

Dr. Edwin M. McMahon and Dr. Peter A. Campbell, Rediscovering the Lost Body-Connection within Christian Spirituality, Minneapolis, MN: Tasora Books 2010.

In my last blog, I wrote about the gift of presence — and how sometimes just showing up and being present can be the greatest form of comfort to those who are grieving. In the same way, we can offer that gift of loving, attentive presence to our own bodies.

Zachary’s “I know, I know” has been my affection teacher these days:

When tightness came in my chest as I went to a grocery store for the first time in the pandemic, I put my hand on my chest and listened to the anxiety there and, said “I know. I know, Kel. I see you.”

When I woke up multiple times in the night with itchy and swollen ankles, rather than trying to understand why this was happening, I just put a loving hand on my ankles and said, “I know, I know. I am so sorry.”

After extending much leadership to a grieving team in a suffering world, I put a hand on my shoulders and said, “I know. I know. The world is a mess. This is so heavy.”

What is an affection teacher in your life? Maybe it was a moment when you noticed a parent holding their screaming child. Or you saw a plant being watered. Or you held onto a stuffed animal that gave you a sense of safety. Try to remember what that did for you in your body and bring that same kind of affection, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to your innermost parts.

There is nothing magical about this practice. It’s something that we were created to do. Kids do it instinctively. But sometimes we have been so out of touch with the kindness of our creator that we need a little re-training.

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?