A spiritual friendship across time and generations

Emilyn Tan // December 11, 2018, 6:03 pm


Love actually: God-ordained ties bind the intergenerational friendship shared by Nancy Lim (seated left), Teo Hung Noi (standing) and Mdm Tan Chwee Cheng (seated right). Photo courtesy of Teo Hung Noi.

“Take this lady under you.”

The words were spoken in a still, small voice (1 Kings 19:12) – not in any great wind, nor earthquake, nor fire.

There were no dramatics. Yet, the command was unequivocal.

Nancy Lim watched the woman across the room and noted the disparity between them: “She is a high-class, well-dressed lady. I’m a small fry. How to? I’m not up to her standard.”

Just to be sure, she asked the Lord: “What do you mean, ‘Take this lady under you?’ ”

“I don’t know how we clicked”

The year was 2007. The issue for Nancy, 59 at the time, was not what makes a mentor but Who.

The career missionary had already traversed the globe for nearly 30 years, serving long-term in Pakistan, India and South Africa, and knew by now that He who called her would be true to His Word to keep her (Jude 24).

She also knew that the different road ahead would not be easy.

New to Victory Family Centre (VFC), the Bible college graduate had stepped forward to serve and was given the role of Area Minister. 

The issue was not what makes a mentor but Who.

Teo Hung Noi, the lady in question, was a co-Area Minister and nine years younger. They would begin to see each other regularly at meetings with their Net Pastor.

“Somehow – I don’t know how – we could click,” Nancy muses. The initial clincher was missions.

VFC’s vision of sending out church planting teams had long been weighing on Noi’s mind and, as Nancy was a retired missionary, Noi sought her advice about serving in Brazil.

“I had known her for only a few months,” Nancy recalls. “The Lord gave me the courage and I told her very sincerely, ‘Noi, I don’t think God has called you to be a full-time missionary.’ She was not happy.”

Sweet secrets: Nancy and Hung Noi have learned to trust each other implicitly.

Sweet secrets: Nancy and Hung Noi have learned to trust each other implicitly. Photo courtesy of Teo Hung Noi.

It was especially uncomfortable when there came another woman God had told Nancy to mentor, but for this woman “the Lord told me to train her, and that she would be a full-time missionary”.

Nancy says: “I told Noi, There are certain people God will ask to go for one year, but not full-time.”

Circumstance would allow their relationship to be tested and proven, and it soon became clear to both that “the Lord had put Noi in my heart”.

“I gave her advice and reiterated, ‘The calling is not full-time.’ It was hard for her, but she accepted it.”

Thus began a deep spiritual friendship that would not only span the matter of time, but eventually also generations.

Chased out of the house 

Nancy’s faith journey involved a road typical of one designed by God – straight here, curved there, dark at times, unpaved many portions of the way.

Her family had been staunch believers of another religion, and fear of divine retribution preserved her piety to their gods.

One of 14 children of a seaman with two wives, she was a skilled gambler by age nine. By 12, she was stealing to fund her habits and feed her emptiness.

One of 14 children of a seaman with two wives, she was stealing to feed her emptiness by age 12.

She was also failing in school and did not make it through her first attempt at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).

Two things jump-started her momentum towards a crossroad.

“I used to go with my grandmother to buy joss sticks and the items for special festivals. There used to be a shop on North Bridge Road.

“I saw a man in the front of the shop, sitting down, making a god. I saw colour pencils, I saw wire, I saw cement.

“I was so shocked that a god could be man-made. I was thinking: They have no eyes, they have no mouth, they have no nothing.”

Secondly, when she was 13, a neighbour committed suicide after failing his ‘O’ levels.

“He talked to me in the morning. In the evening, after dinner, I was at the kitchen window and suddenly I saw something coming down.

“I looked down. It was him. I was so scared. I screamed, ‘楼上跳楼’ (literally: ‘upstairs jump down’). After that, I wondered, ‘Where do you go? Is life like that?’ I had just seen him in the morning.”

If not for a random invitation to a church youth fellowship Christmas party when she was 14, she might never have found some answers.

At first, she went to their regular Sunday sessions for the games and gifts and took little notice of the sermons. Until a baptism service was conducted.

“They were able to talk about God, what God did for them. And I really envied them.”

Nancy was cut to the heart when the baptised youths shared their testimonies. “They were all my age. I was surprised that they were able to talk about God, what God did for them.

“I really envied them. At that time, I really was very deep in gambling, lying and things like that.

“I still remember – on August 23, 1963 – I looked up at the word ‘Jesus’ in the church and just said, ‘Hey Jesus! Okay! I believe in you lah! If you are real, please save me!’

“Then I started crying.”

She said the sinner’s prayer that day. Yet, it was only when she was subsequently confronted by her father that the magnitude of what she had done hit her – literally.

For the first time in her life, he slapped her, and she was chased out of the house.

“That was the day I really became a Christian.”

She lived with an aunt for three months. When allowed to return home, she was not permitted to go anywhere except school and, for two years, there was no pocket money.

“But then they realised I was very changed. I could say ‘thank you’, I could say ‘sorry’. I helped to clean up the house, I didn’t gamble anymore.”

Over the years, one thing led to another, and miraculously, one of her stepbrothers, a gangster and drug addict, came to Christ while undergoing rehabilitation at The Hiding Place.

“He was so changed, and that was the turning point (for my family).”

Cookie Jam and or nee

Godly friendship knows no bounds. (John 13:35)

Nancy’s friendship with Noi includes Noi’s widowed mother, Madam Tan Chwee Cheng, now 102 years old.

Nancy developed a rapport with the Teochew-speaking Mdm Tan and did not baulk when Noi, hoping to spend 2013 in Brazil, asked if Nancy would take care of her mother for a year.

“Somehow, I said okay,” laughs Nancy. “I knew the Lord wanted me to support Noi in this way, so that she could be free to concentrate.

More than good rapport: Nancy and her “adopted mum” grew close in the year of mutual care. Photo courtesy of Teo Hung Noi.

“Noi had full confidence in me. That’s very important. She trusted me.”

For years Mdm Tan, who used to be from another religion, had obligingly followed Noi to VFC’s services. But “she did not really accept (the faith)”, says Noi.

In 2001, Mdm Tan’s sister-in-law died of cancer and – to their surprise – had a Christian funeral. Noi took the opportunity to say to her mother: “See, your sister-in-law and your brother have also accepted Christ!”

Soon afterward, a nephew fell ill and they visited him with a friend who shared the Gospel. “On our way home, I was just telling her: ‘Mum, you know, why don’t you accept Jesus, He is so good.’

“And she said, ‘Okay, I accept Jesus!’

“I just pulled the car over, along the side of the highway, and said, ‘Okay, now we say the prayer!’

“So she said the salvation prayer in the car on the highway on the way back to Simei!”

“There must be absolute trust, and a knowing that it’s God’s arrangement.”

Several falls have rendered Mdm Tan too frail for crowded Sunday services, but she attends the church-sponsored elderly activity centre on Tuesdays to Fridays.

When Noi was away in Brazil, it was Nancy who ferried her there.

Nancy recalls: “Noi gave me her room and I was able to stay with her mother. Slowly God put a (sense of) responsibility in me.”

Besides going out together, they filled their year together watching TV, singing and praying.

Nancy taught the unschooled Mdm Tan how to play the phone game Cookie Jam. In turn, Mdm Tan taught her how to make traditional or-nee (a yam-paste dessert).

“We grew together spiritually,” Nancy smiles. “There must be absolute trust, and a knowing that it’s God’s arrangement, even though I may not have been the perfect person for her.”

Noi confirms God’s hand in the intergenerational relationship. She shares: “God told Nancy to mentor me. She ‘adopted’ me just before I went to Brazil, and ‘adopted’ my mum as her mum.”

Sisters for life

Nancy and Noi have built their friendship on a bedrock of faith and humility.

“You must be willing to be transparent. It is a responsibility, in that you are accountable to God,” says Nancy, who is 70 this year.

Noi, now a newly minted freelance trainer, pursued certification so as “to go back to prison (ministry) to teach the inmates” and boost their employability.

Maternal instincts: Any sort of ice cream is still the best treat for Hung Noi and Mum. Photo courtesy of Nancy Lim.

“Nancy played a big part. She encouraged me a lot in this stage of my life.”

Nancy is deferential. “I told Noi, ‘You have to learn to trust God and not worry.

“I cannot live the faith for you. You just tell the Lord, ‘I want to be close to You.’

“I always tell the girls I mentor that if I can do it, you can do it. There are certain things they can do on their own, and I will tell them, ‘You have to go and wait upon the Lord yourself.’ ”

Reflecting on the work of mentoring, Nancy says: “(The mentor) must be very sensitive to God. When God leads you to the person He wants you to mentor, He will open the way. If not, you can’t.

“It is not a burden. You do it because you love the Lord. When you accept that it’s God’s arrangement, everything turns out okay.”

The priority always is to draw one another closer to God, but the work encompasses more than just the spiritual aspect of life.

“It’s the total person. You care for the person overall,” Nancy says.

About the author

Emilyn Tan

Emilyn once spent morning, noon and night in a newsroom in the US, as well as in the Mediacorp office in Singapore. She gave it up to spend morning, noon and night at home, in the hope that someday she’d have an epiphany of God with His hands in the suds, washing the dishes too.