You know how wonderful it is to be caught by surprise. Here, red-tape and waiting becomes the rhythm of the life. Every now and again, the mundane becomes something unexpected. In that moment, you could never guess how much you needed the mundane to be transformed into something fresh. Those moments that stand out and say to your soul, “God is here” if you are looking for him. We experienced an adventure of unexpected moments recently.
Every year, and sometimes more frequently than once a year, we compile paper work and information required for visas. The rules and requirements frequently change. I don’t know what we would do without kind government officials, our wonderful secretary Fan, and Able Sairattanyu the Chairman of the Youth Development Foundation (YDF) of Chiang Mai. Generally, I look at the requirements each year and say “how high” when asked to jump, because jump we will and with pleasure. It's way easier on my blood pressure.
Two days before presenting our combined four inches of paper work, David went to stand in line at 5 a.m. to get a queue number for immigration. Yes, you have to stand in a line to get a number to stand in line later. This year, 5 a.m. wasn’t early enough. He came home without a number.
It occurred to me that I had never worried about our visas. In 29 years of ministry overseas, I had with child-like assurance expected that eventually all would work out.
I asked God if my attitude all these years was taking him for granted? Was it a sign of a faithful heart or a heart asleep? I pondered this before the Lord.
I truly believe we all have areas where our faith is strong, and we have tender areas that Satan attacks. Those areas are different for different people. What may cause anxiety for one person, may not cause anxiety for another. The same is true with frustration and patience. When you live cross-culturally for any significant amount of time, you realize others may need a kind response while dealing with the challenges of life. Only Christ knows the battle within another person. Although I had not responded to visa challenges with anxiety all these years, there were other aspects of cross-cultural living that could bring discomfort and unease. Just as I am aware that those discomforts do not produce the same effect in others.
Reflecting on this, I simply asked God to be present to me throughout the day and particularly in the visa situation. I asked for simple affirmations. I asked to see God afresh. Nothing else was on the table. No manipulative requests, no crystal ball prayers, only to simply see God’s hand.
We set off at midnight to claim a spot in the queue to get a queue number, and arrived close to one o’clock in the morning. There were a few stools with water bottles holding spots and a few guardians of said water bottles asleep on the ledge near the stools. We took our place behind them and relaxed with some snacks, determined to make the most of the adventure. By dawns arrival, the lines began to fill out and down the parking lot. The eldest grandmother in our midst warned off patrons that parking was prohibited in the queue area. A motley crew of students arrived doing their best imitation of the musical “Grease” with tricked-out cars, cigarettes, and obligatory fashionistas. Only one line-jumper tried to switch lines at the last minute, and found himself the focus of loud complaint among the patient crowd.
At seven o’clock the queue numbers were given out, and one by one recorded in a ledger. There were only a handful of people in front of our line, and we were advised to return by eight-thirty. We opted to get breakfast around the corner and returned straight away. We didn’t want to chance missing our appointed queue while stuck in traffic.
We settled in to wait as the morning progressed slowly. We were seen around 11 o’clock. A few typos were caught, although official didn’t anticipate them being a problem with her supervisor. She had just stamped David’s visa when her superior returned with his paper work. A different government agency had miss-spelled the name of the chairman of YDF of Chiang Mai in its confirmation letter for the foundation. The letter would not be accepted. As I kept up with the dialogue between the official and her supervisor, my heart quickened its pace and I began to think of possible scenarios: quick trips to the border, unexpected travel costs and fees, and possible consequences to our long term schedules.
The Immigration officer was wonderful. She quickly offered us the option, “Get the other office to write a letter saying they are in the process of fixing the mistake.” As well as reprint a few pages with minor corrections.
We would have to get it all turned in before four o’clock or they would cancel David’s newly stamped visa. All the paperwork we had prepared would not be accepted for either of us until the other government office wrote the letter. Our one-year visa renewal might be lost and we would have to start over.
Sounds like an easy fix, right? Only one letter, how difficult could that be?
Rarely, if ever, do those kinds of things get done in one day let alone in a few hours. It was noon. The day before Thai Mother’s Day. All offices would be closed the next day. We had four hours at most to get the letter, from the other side of town through rush hour traffic. I asked God, “What’s the game plan Lord, what’s up?... Ok, Lord, it’s all yours”.
My phone had died already, and Dave’s was plugged into a back-up battery (Thank you Rich Kemper!). Quick phone calls were made, the immigration officer explained to our secretary Fan what was needed. Our chairman was contacted. Dave’s sister, our co-worker, Carmen helped drive Fan to the other agency on the other side of town to get them to write the letter. Fan’s sister watched her baby. Our Chairman came out to immigration to authenticate the letter, and to vouch for us.
ALL of this was the backdrop. Imagine a flurry behind the scenes to get the visa needs accomplished, and many people globally praying for our visas in real time. I was sitting still in a crowded office while all the players around me scrambled and blurred. There was nothing else to “do” but wait.
Time seemed to stand still.
A young woman enters. She sits beside me in the last row of chairs in the waiting area.
I open my laptop and briefly think of working, but decide I am too preoccupied. I open Solitaire and then close it. On a whim I distract myself with Mahjong. The young woman curiously looks at my laptop and exclaims in English, “Oh, you are playing Mahjong!”. I smile and answer in the affirmative. I return to my game and continue to play. Again she looks over and beams, “That’s Chinese!”. I smile and said to her, “Yes, it is”. Again, I return to playing but opt for a more difficult level. She turns to me and says, “I’m Chinese!” and nods vigorously for emphasis.
I turned my lap top off, and decided to give her my full attention. Someone willing to interrupt you three times and enthusiastically beams at you deserves your full attention.
It reminded me of being stuck in an airport and having one of those enjoyable conversations with a complete stranger. We covered the usual questions, the ‘warm ups’ to getting to know each other. I found out she was an exchange student learning Thai, where she had visited, her favorites experiences, her least favorites etc. She was delightful.
The conversation turned to my occupation, education, where I worked, my family, children and grandchildren. Very quickly God entered the conversation. We talked about the differences between East and West cultures in raising families, how the approaches may be different but that every parent cares for what is best for their children. I gave her the roots of grace in how I raised my children with the equipping of their potential, and the release to pursue what God had called them to do. I gave her the example of my mother who released me to follow where God led me rather than keeping me close, and how we look forward to the times together.
We talked about faith, and her “no faith”. Her experience with Thai teachers who did not believe that she had “no faith”. They told her she had to believe in something. The request for information by her Thai teachers puzzled her, and she was surprised by the many beliefs represented in Thailand. We briefly touched on the different beliefs she had become acquainted with, and then we talked about evolution and atheism. We discussed intelligent design, irreducible complexity, how a human being is too complex to have evolved, and how such “evolution” would lead to death of an organism not a “new” type of organism.
I shared with her about my professors in the anthropology department who looked to evolution as their God. I told her that when I see the world and all its complexity, I see the hand of God. I could not believe that it was just chance or the product of evolution when I considered DNA, and how only what is in the DNA develops. I simply shared with her of my faith in Christ.
It was not pushy. I just put it out there with the things I had considered about faith and God, and the vast universe that God has created. I paused and let her ponder. She kept turning towards me as she thought. So I made a simple out loud prayer of sorts. I told her I hoped that she would seek the truth. I told her I hoped that she would get to know God herself, and that she may see his hand in her life. My sentences were simple, and gently expressed. Her countenance displayed deep thought. After a bit more of a pause, I told her I was thankful that she had a great experience in Thailand and I wished her a safe journey, and that I prayed that God would bless her.
Just as I said the last phrase, David placed his hand on my shoulder. All the paper work had arrived. Our two-and-a-half-hour conversation felt like only a few minutes had passed.
My attention was drawn elsewhere as I bid her farewell. The blur became more focused and time began to run again as all the players once again joined the activity.
Visas were granted. Feathers smoothed, and gratitude expressed. Reassurances made to everyone. The Immigration official was very kind all in all. An hour and a half later the correct one-year visa was stamped in my passport, then a multiple entry permission granted, and a 90-day report made.
In the midst of those last two necessary items, the young woman came up to me smiling and reminded me not to leave my lunch bag and water. She came up twice more to say goodbye as we were finishing up.
I saw God move afresh in the smile of a stranger. A seed of truth planted. I pray that it would be watered and guarded as God grows her awareness of him in her life. May God’s Word bear fruit in her life!
Oh, and we got our visas too after 15 hours at immigration!
If everything had gone smoothly, I would never have had the chance to have such a wonderful conversation with the unknown young woman. In that unexpected moment, God was seen afresh. There, my assurance that all would work out was affirmed. There, the pleasure of being in the presence of God was celebrated. There, truth was spoken and seeds planted. Everything else was just the backdrop for the real purpose of the day, and I left light-hearted.
Grace and Peace!