The Slow and Inefficient Work of God

Some days, it is hard enough to get me out of bed for church – let alone drive anything over an hour to go. But when my friend Susan asked me to attend the Holy Week services at her church in South Pasadena, I was more than willing to trek the 62.4 miles (one way) from my South Orange County abode. And to do it several times this week. Susan’s church seemed similar to St. B’s, plus I’d get to escape the OC bubble all week. And of course, I wanted to be very intentional about listening to what God is telling me during this season of renewal.

As I wrote in the previous note, Palm Sunday was the official beginning of Holy Week. I went to St. James’ evening service – a sparsely attended service lit mainly by the glow of candles. I took my seat next to Susan in an old, wooden pew and looked up at the light fixture above me. The light fixture above me was identical to the ones at St. B’s.

I grinned as I sang.

Standing up during the rest of the songs, I allowed my hands to grasp the back of the pew in front of me, feeling each and every crack in the smooth wood. I wondered how many people have clinched this pew because of how lonely they were, just waiting to hear something – anything – from God.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I imagine a nervous mom who’s worried about her son rubbing her thumbs across the top, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I imagine a girl new to LA, trying to find work and praying she doesn’t lose her apartment. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I imagine a husband whose wife has just passed, leaving him and their children behind. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I think of the person who just found out the test came back positive with cancer. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

No doubt, this pew had received its share of sweaty palms and fingers over its day. The wood was smooth and worn because of human flesh, slowly, weekly, perhaps daily, rubbing over it desperately, grasping for anything.

The priest stood up to share on Matthew. If you’re not familiar with liturgical tradition, there typically is no 30-minute “how-to” sermon. It’s more of a reflection on the liturgy for that day and leading into that week. He spoke about Jesus’ last week (which I found interesting given I had just written about it hours before), and then he said a phrase that has forever lodged into my head:

The Slow & Inefficient Work of God.

He illustrated it with waves of the ocean, moment by moment moving in from the vast sea to land. In one wave, this motion does nothing. But slowly and inefficiently, whatever is in the ocean’s way becomes worn smooth.

I thought back to Sunset Beach on Saturday night – the sand was smooth…so remarkably smooth. The closer to the ocean I got, the smoother it got until it felt as if I were walking on silk.

The slow and inefficient work of God.

I thought about the pew in front of me, worn and glassy. Those who had rubbed past the gloss, through the stain, and worn the wood down to satin in their desperate fingers.

The slow and inefficient work of God.

I thought about my heart. It’s crag-like and rough. If you were to walk on it, there are sharp edges that would cut your feet. I want God to change my heart. Now. I want him to take away my impatience, my entitlement to not feel lonely sometimes, the way I can impose on others. Take it away, God. Now?

He gently says no as one, single wave of his grace washes over.

And then another.

And then another.

I could move my heart farther from the ocean and let it live untouched and unbothered by this seemingly unproductive task. I could build a dam around it and not let the waters in. Or I could simply sit and let the waters of grace slowly, moment by moment, smooth my heart out.

The slow and inefficient work of God.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

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Anne Marie Miller
Anne Marie Miller (formerly Jackson) is a writer, speaker, and social change activist who lives in Orange County, California. She also holds the position of Storyteller at Visioneering Studios Architecture.