The Slow Work of God

Merton once told me to quit trying so hard in prayer. He said: ‘How does an apple ripen? It just sits in the sun.’ A small green apple cannot ripen in one night by tightening all its muscles, squinting its eyes and tightening its jaw in order to find itself the next morning miraculously large, red, ripe, and juicy beside its small green counterparts. Like the birth of a baby or the opening of a rose, the birth of true self takes place in God’s time. We must wait for God, we must be awake; we must trust in his hidden action within us.

Merton’s Palace of Nowhere, James Finley


During a discerning prayer time for friends of mine, another friend brought up the “slow work of God” – that is, how God’s timetable is often longer than we hope, takes us on unexpected twists and turns, and leads us to surprising places.  My internal response was, “Noooooooooo.” This was one of those moments in which it is instantaneously clear that what has been said is both true and unfortunate.  God, microwaves cook food in 4 minutes.  A 5 second page load takes forever.  A plane can travel thousands of miles in a matter of hours. If friends don’t respond to text messages within a few hours, I get worried that they might not be ok.  God, are you ignoring your notifications?  You’re getting my calls, yeah? So what is taking so long?

Babies take 40 weeks to gestate.  It’s good that the process takes this long to build a living being.  Dividing cells at faster rates is called cancer and it doesn’t turn out well, take it from my personal experience. The best alcohol, cheese, and dough starter is aged and cultured before it is considered any good.  If good things take a while to develop and unfold, why am I in such a rush?

I am the least patient person I know.  After planting seeds, I checked every day for their progress.  After a few weeks, it looked like this:
And the little seeds persisted, pushing through to the surface, drawing life from the mostly bad soil.  Then my landlord weed-whacked the tall, almost-budding flowers.  That is probably a spiritual metaphor but, frankly, I am too sad about that loss to write about it.

Despite my helicopter-mom attentiveness to this small patch of dirt, the seeds continued to grow as they pleased.  A little while later, the patch looked like this:

Despite the weed-whacking setback, these wildflowers decided to keep on keepin’ on. Cornflowers, mystery rose, lupin, icelandic poppies, and flax emerged.  Not much time had passed, but it felt like an eternity to me.  I’d been waiting and watching and waiting and willing the plants to rise from the ground.  It’s so much better to have flowers than a patch of dirt.  But flowers don’t materialize from thin air; they need time.

Pretty for a season, the flowers wilted and died in the heat wave.  Some will return next year, having dropped seeds in preparation for their apocalyptic end.  I have more seeds for the spring, and have bulbs for the winter ahead.  The same renewal and replanting process will happen again: in hope of flowers, I’ll dig up weeds, hack apart damaged soil, add fertilizer, and water.  I hope I am able to submit, someday, to the long process of planting and growing without expectation of an instant result.

What would it take to have a spirituality of seasonality?  What will it take to teach me to be patient, to trust, to submit to the systems and seasons the Lord has in place to grow things on His earth?  When will I submit to His slow work with gratitude, joy, and eager anticipation?

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When was the last time you felt it-your own longing, that is? Your longing for love, your longing for God, your longing to live your life as it is meant to be lived in God? When was the last time you felt a longing for healing and fundamental change groaning within you? Do not rush past this question; it may be the most important question you ever ask. But this is hard, I know. In religious circles we are much more accustomed to silencing our desire, distancing ourselves from it, because we are suspicious and afraid of its power. Isn’t there something better I should be doing with my time? We ask ourselves. Something thing a little less dangerous and unpredictable? Something more selfless and spiritual?

And besides, desire is such a volatile thing. Are not my desires sires shot through with human deception and sinful urges? What if they overtake me and propel me down a path I ought not travel? Worse yet, what if I touch that place of longing and desire within me and let myself really feel how deep it goes, only to discover that those desires cannot be met? What will I do with myself then? How will I live with desire that is awake and alive rather than asleep and repressed?

Ruth Haley Barton. Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (Kindle Locations 165-172). Kindle Edition.

Given the last paragraph, I’m 90% sure that RHB is an Enneagram 1. One major characteristic of 1s is suppression of desire: not trusting internal desires as good, or permissible, or useful for direction, or trustworthy.

As I enter another season of discernment, my 1-ness becomes a hindrance.  Trusting my own desires as good and influenced/given by God isn’t natural MO.  When I get asked, “What do you want?” I hesitate.  Is following Jesus really about what I want?  Today what I want is to sit on the porch and to drink a cold beer.  That’s not a great long-term plan.

“What do you want?”

I don’t know.  Do I have to know?  I mean, I have some ideas. But are any of those good ideas?  The “right” idea?  The “right” path? Does whatever-is-next have to be the “right thing?”  What if there are many right things?

30s-discernment feels much more open-ended and complex.



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I am small.

How can a person be born again? Nicodemus once famously asked.

Try moving to an entirely new context and, as a full-grown adult, learn a new language and new customs.  Enter as a baby.  A college-educated, previously independent… baby.

How you bathe and use the toilet: different.  Food: different.  Weather: different.  How and what is communicated: different.  Worship: different.  Who is worshipped: different.  Transportation: different.  Plants: different.  How time is used: different.  Holidays & celebrations: different.  Me: different??

Most of myself was stripped away during my transition to Thailand.  I was still me, but I was also not me.  In developing a bi-cultural identity, ponderous questions appeared:
1. What is the good news of Jesus?
2. What do I understand of Jesus outside my cultural context?
3. How do I communicate?  How do I understand how others express themselves?  How do I express myself?  Is what I am intending to communicate being communicated?  Is what this other person is communicating what they intend?  Do I understand their intent?
4. Biblical value or American value or Thai value?  Where do they intersect?

Displacement has many, many blessings, but also high costs.  The rebirthing process was destructive down to the foundation.  You’re carrying a lot of cultural values that don’t translate here.  What it means to be a woman, what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be single without children, what it means to be late-20s, what it means to be a non-profit employee, what it means to be a person living in community, what it means to be a foreigner – all those identities have different meanings, values, and expressions here.

My prayer times became inquisitive.  Who are You, God?  Who are You, here?  Who am I, here?  Why is Thai food so good?  Did you divinely inspire Thais in their flavor combinations?

In quiet, God revealed His vastness – beyond culture, beyond time – His steadiness, His gloriousness, His largeness.  It was unending, unyielding, unwavering.  O Lord God Almighty, who is like You? You are mighty, O Lord, and your faithfulness surrounds you… the heavens are yours, and yours also the earth; you founded the world and all that is in it [Thais and Americans alike].”

And there was deep comfort and safety in my smallness, engulfed by all that He is, and all about Him that was unknown.  Thunderstorms at two AM would easily wake me, and I would stare out the window at the storm, watching lightning in the clouds for hours.  Who is like You, Mighty God?  Who controls the wind, the clouds, the energy coursing through the sky, the beams of light, the water pounding the tin roof?  Who is like You?

Everything was different, I was different, and He remained the same.

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Life Plans


Heart and Brain on

I’m a firm believer that a comic can be pithier and deeper than a philosophical quotation or dissertation.



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1168640_1661053884153784_1971903738_nJoshua Phillips on Instagram

Oh Holy Night is an Advent song, a traditional hymn proclaiming the goodness and fulfillment of Christ’s coming.  Sing it at Christmas, shelve it for the rest of the year.

It seems oddly appropriate for Lent, too. Long lay the world, in sin and error pining. Waiting for Christ’s redemption that comes through the darkest night, bittersweetly named “Good Friday.”  Lent calls us to fast, to let our desire for God grow – Lent calls us to pine.

Pining is another hunger in us, a longing for the restoration to what we were meant to be.  We pine away for a Creator and His healed world, for true justice, peace, and love to reign again in the personhood of Jesus.  We pine for fully satisfied relationship with Jesus in which we are joyfully united as a bride with the bridegroom.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, we know deep down that the world as it is, is not the world it should be.  Long lay the world, in sin and error pining.

Lent may call for us to fast from food or distraction, but this Lenten season I was hoping I could fast from pining, to distance myself from the deeply felt longing for the world to be made right again.  I feel the sin and error much more acutely; Jesus, don’t leave us in this sorry state!  The longing is killing me, Jesus.  Can’t I just silence the longing with distractions and bury it deep?

Lent calls us to align ourselves with the world’s longing.  Here we are, Lord!  Longing for your redemption! Here we are, Lord, tired!  It’s tiring to wait, Jesus!

When, God, will You appear, that we will know our true selves, the Bride, in the light of the Bridegroom’s glory?  Breathe new life and hope into our weary bodies, let it restore our hope and bring joy to crushed spirits.

O Holy night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Til He appeared and the soul felt it’s worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn
Fall on your knees
O hear the angel voices
O night divine!
O night when Christ was born
O night divine!
O night, o night divine!
And in His Name, all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us praise his holy name
Christ is the Lord!
Their name forever praise we
Noel, Noel
O night, o night Divine
Noel, Noel
O night, o night Divine
Noel, Noel
O night, o holy Divine
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D-Day, one year out

Divided in Korea.  My first ever bathroom selfie

Asiana’s delicious food with REAL silverware

Wednesday night I picked up a friend from the airport. No big deal, except for the fact that exactly one year ago, on a Wednesday morning, she picked me up from the airport immediately after I was deported from Thailand. D – Day. I like the parallelisms. I even wore the same sweater.

This sweater was the warmest thing I had passing through Korea at 22°F (note the flip flops in the photo), landing in Los Angeles at a frigid 60°F.  I made it as far as seeing her at the Tom Bradley international terminal before bursting into a fresh round of tears.  How did I have any liquid left in my body?  I had cried most of my last day in Thailand – ugly crying, tears of shock, of stress.

Sometimes I am speechless, but very rarely am I ever thoughtless, unable to think. Nothing on my mind. But the flight leaving Bangkok that got me home to Los Angeles was absolutely, utterly thoughtless. I couldn’t process what had just happened. 12 hours prior I have been sitting in immigration, all my paperwork tidily organized, on what I thought was a routine trip. Two visas: the correct visa, I’m sorry to say this, you’ve overstayed. You have to leave the country. 

“You’ll be banned for a year.”  When the Thai government clerk noticed my look of confusion and shock (which is distressing for Thais – you only display (sadaeng auk) positive smiles, not negative emotions), he tsked me with a “It’s only a year!  It’ll fly by!” I had already paid for a visa already stamped in my passport in meticulous Thai script.  He scratched it out and wrote void as I watched.  Well, that’s ugly.

It’s only a year?  Are you kidding me?  I gave up a life in Los Angeles and started over in a totally foreign context; I’ve been building a life here for a year and a half, and you’re telling me to wait, to let that small little life atrophy for a year, since it’ll fly by?  I better not ‘sadaeng auk’ a very un-Thai angry face.  

Devastated. Only a year? Build what is only seedlings of a new life, and now you’re telling me to step away? Be in limbo for a year? You can’t be serious. My work was in Thailand. My life was in Thailand. A conscious choice to move to a totally foreign place, root myself, make these people my people, give my heart to them. Give myself the place. And now you’re telling me, it’s no big deal, only a year.

It’s hard to articulate the feelings that run through your heart in a situation so intense and fast as the day I got deported.  What did I do wrong?  What will happen if I can’t return for a year?  Will I be able to return after that, or am I looking at a totally closed door?  Cold fear, adrenaline, disbelief, dread, disconnectedness, anger, shock, stomach pains, locked muscles, dry mouth, not hearing what people are saying, cold cold cold. After a day saying quick goodbyes and packing a bag, I had to walk through the airport, to immigration and overstays, alone. See the clerk frown at me in disapproval, even with my letter from the immigration headquarters.  “You shouldn’t have done this. You overstayed. We have rules about this.” “Yes, that was not my intention.  See my year visa in my passport? We all thought this was my valid visa.  See, it expires today?  That’s why I went to immigration this morning.  All my paperwork was in order to renew.”  I watched her stamp my passport with the ban as I handed over baht for the fine (yeah. It was not cheap).  “Cannot re-enter before 1 year from this date,” it read. “Go.” “Yes ma’am, thank you.”

I walked past duty-free luxury shops, blinking under the bright terminal lights.  How different this is from where I woke up – my home in the slums! I stared at the foreigners, wondering where they were from.  Spoke to the Taiwanese flight attendants in Thai, much to everyone’s confusion.  Thoughtless.  Cold. Woke up on the plane, woke up in America.  I am not in control of my life, but I know Who is.

I had cold sweats and serious dehydration from ugly crying for hours.  It was intensely lonely and confusing, drifting in and out of sleep, forgetting what had happened only to wake up and have to remember again that I was on a plane, bound for the U.S.

my inquiring new interim housemate. well, I was the new housemate.

Housemate the elder, scoping out the newcomer.

Then I found myself cold, in America, out of place.  Lord, what is happening?  What do I do now?  Why did I pack two swimsuits for early spring in LA?

I crashed on a friend’s floor for a month – a comforting reminder of my mat-bed in Bangkok – and was comforted by their family’s rhythms, and by time with their children who often fell over themselves laughing as they did yoga stretches with me.  A pretty bad launch from Thailand was smoothed by a soft landing in Los Angeles.

What a year it’s been. I turned 30 just a few weeks after deportation, so my new decade of life has started off quite unexpectedly.  I am not in control of my life; God is. I have more questions than answers, I feel my emotions much more quickly and keenly, but most importantly, through all the upset, I am deeply grateful for what God has done in this year.  It gives me great hope for what He will do and is capable of doing, and though I don’t know what’s ahead, I know with Whom I go.

A year out, I sometimes wish I had more answers, more control, a game plan, some logical explanation of how this last year fits in with my life trajectory and calling.  I don’t.  But I don’t need to have those things all settled, crossed Ts and dotted Is. I know Who goes with me. Who I am following, Who may only be giving me one next step, but He lights the way.

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Didn’t go as planned / Expect the unexpected

Amtrak is always a gamble.  Some trips are smooth; other trips, no matter how prepared you are or what you planned, turn out to be something wholly other.  This post is a mediocre comparison of my Amtrak trip for Thanksgiving and my arrival and departure from Bangkok.

My train ride to visit my parents for Thanksgiving was perhaps the smoothest I have ever had – all the passengers showed up, and so the bus to Bakersfield left five minutes early.  I had no seatmate; somehow I usually attract manspreaders or chatty Kathys, so this was a welcome reprieve.  Last trip, simultaneously everyone decided to eat their Subway sandwiches, which filled the bus with that unmistakably unique odor of the sandwich chain.  This time, peace.  No loud music, no traffic, smooth sailing to Bakersfield.  Empty train without any delays or prolonged stops.  I showed up in my hometown exactly when the train schedule said I would.



The return trip, however, starts with an angry woman cursing at the underpaid train station clerk (that woman was not me. I was the woman behind Angry Woman in line).  Since it is an early, crowded train, the tone s subdued, still waking up in the weak November light. I experience the meaning of the expression, “the unwashed masses,” as this car has the unmistakable smell of musty, sleepy bodies.

The train fills; loud phone conversations, crinkling plastic bags, and tinny headphones creates an unpleasant din. Four hours to Los Angeles and home. I feet slightly ill, my stomach unable to keep pace with the irregular jolting stops. We stop for 15 minutes without announcement in Corcoran, minutes from the station. And wait. Not unusual for Amtrak. “There’s a delay,” the conductor announces. They still have human conductors, not robots, as I initially hope. Robot train conductors would not make their first appearances on the San Joaquin 717 train, I reason. Definitely Japan.

The masses grow restless. The wifi has gone out, so we are clearly moments from a civil uprising. Just kidding. No wifi – how could we tweet about it? Folks from Corcoran argue with the conductors, asking to be let off the train. They can’t, we are too high off the ground, the conductors retort. Maybe they are robots. But I feel robots would come up with a much better solution than just say no.

Another hour passes. “We can’t move. An ammonia truck overturned and ammonia is spilling out of the truck. We have to back the train up. We are considering alternative transit options. The fire department must wait for the ammonia to completely drain before   they are able to clear the area.  We are sorry for the delay.  We have some options folks, but it’s looking like we will bring the buses up from Bakersfield.”

I begin dramatically texting friends and snap a photo of the llama watching the train with extreme blasé. Llamas aren’t that weird in the Central Valley. Breadbasket of America. Llamabasket of America. Why don’t we eat llama?


The train conductor is working up a sweat as she paces the cars, her radio cracking with distant, stressed voices.

I do the math. Two hours for the ammonia to completely drain before they can clear the tracks = a lot of Windex evaporating into the air.  I take a deep breath. Have they shut off the airflow?  THEY HAVE. It is warming up, the air grows pungent with greasy food purchased from the meal car. The buses could make it here and back in less than two hours.

The conductors announce their apologies and offer free snack packs from the cafe car.  A PLOY, distracting us from the fact that they are not sending the buses and we will wait it out. Devious, Amtrak. Wily. The snack pack has a fig bar so I am surprisingly ok with the deception.

A local man rides by on a horse.  He must be just as curious about the ammonia spill.  I hope ammonia dissipates quickly in the open air, because he and the horse he rode in on might have some problems.  Unless they are both robots.  We already have robot horses, so I reason the odds are good that he in fact has a robot horse and thus is immune to the ammonia vapors.  Have some of the vapors made their way into my cabin?

The train lurches as the conductor makes an announcement with obvious relief.  “We’re moving again, folks, sorry about the delay.”

Sorry?  We’ve been in Corcoran exactly 3 hours longer than anyone has ever wanted to be in Corcoran, on the map only because it has a state prison.  The train brakes squeal as we slow near the overturned truck, allowing every Amtrak passenger a long look at the source of our dismay.

I arrive in Los Angeles 4 hours after the intended arrival, as we hit traffic I had so optimistically hoped an earlier bus ticket would avoid.  This trip did not go as planned.

Getting to Bangkok was pretty smooth, all things considered.  I went fully funded, packed, having said my goodbyes, having closed well with various leadership and job roles.  Wrapped up tidy.  Ready for the next thing.

Returning from Bangkok was an unplanned departure with random items hastily thrown in a duffel (why did I think I needed both my swimsuits… in March?), eyes puffy from crying, exhausted from the day’s events.  No robots that I am aware of.  Didn’t go as planned.  Came out of nowhere and landed in Los Angeles dazed and shocked.

Then again, when does anything in life really go as we plan it?

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