UNOH Klong Toey, Bangkok, Thailand
Waiting. Maybe I was never very good at it, but I seem absolutely terrible at it now. I find my thoughts flitting away to anxious places: ‘When will I know what to do? How do I speak? When will I be useful? When will I see any of the fruit of my labours?’ I see a confusing mass of possible responses and actions that I long to rush into… and then remember again that my language skills here in Thailand prohibit all the simplest interactions. Waiting.
Elise and I, with our sons Elliot and Sam, have been living in the Klong Toey community for very nearly one year already. This is our mission. God has put us here for a reason, and he called us out of a very different setting back in the UK. I am used to being clearly understood and understanding others deeply – that was my training as a GP in the UK. I am used to being useful and appreciated. I am used to knowing what to do in most situations, most days. But here, God has stripped all of that away and I find myself unable to communicate, unable to let others know that I understand them. I am a misunderstood and clumsy version of myself and I am watched as an oddity, an outsider in this beautiful culture that I am not yet part of.
Some of these thoughts were sharpened for me recently because we are preparing to move to a new neighbourhood in Klong Toey: Rim Klong Wat Saphan – the community on the edge of the waterway by Saphan temple. While doing some work on a house for us to live in, I’ve been attempting to get to know the neighbours. But Pi Oi speaks extremely fast in slum slang that is way beyond me, the man who makes knives next door mumbles and doesn’t smile when
I say that I can’t understand, and the old man two doors down has no teeth. This makes communicating in Thai all the more difficult.
I was feeling intensely frustrated, useless and angry with myself again when I had a sudden realisation that I had been viewing our house move as the marker of when I would become useful, when I would be able to ‘do it’. After all, we will have been here a whole year!
Do what? The mission God has called me to? Am I not doing that already? But I’m not useful, I am not ‘productive’! This eyes-open moment of my own self-importance has humbled me. I have become aware of my worldly measures that I apply to God’s work, my own values of productivity that I apply to the spreading of God’s gospel and the growing of God’s kingdom. In reality, God is on His mission and my uselessness will not get in
But perhaps rushing into action might. A pastor recently reminded me to the story of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 16. Abraham and Sarah had received a promise and acted on it. They had been waiting 10 years in the land, and they still had no son. So they rushed to provide earthly solutions – Sarah gave her servant Hagar as Abraham’s second wife and he got her pregnant. And then comes mess and curse and pain.
And more than that, the abused Hagar runs away into the wilderness to die. It is then that God speaks. He sees, he knows, he cares. God names her son Ishmael – ‘God sees’. Then she names the God who has met her:
So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” (Genesis 16:13).
Or literally in Hebrew: ‘Have I really seen him here who sees me?’ or ‘Would I have looked here for the one who sees me?’
Who looks in the wilderness, in the place of rejection and suffering, to find God?
Who goes to places of uselessness to look for God? For that is where God speaks and reveals himself.
So far in my story, God has not spoken.
God, hold me back from rushing to earthly solutions. Help me to wait with patience.
God, teach me not to scorn the uselessness, the frustration, the misunderstanding. Help me to embrace this waiting, this mission with all of its mystery.