Dean Lloyd: “Waiting”
Imagine that you enter a room and find on a table a beautifully wrapped Christmas present, with a note attached that says, “This present is for you but don’t open it now… wait.” I suspect that seeing that might evoke several responses: a sense of surprise and intrigue, and anticipation, but also a sense of frustration or irritation. Why wait? Now here’s the real question: How many of you think you would obey the command and actually wait?
I vividly remember as a boy, with Christmas drawing near, dying to know what was inside that large wrapped box under the tree with my name on it. I would join in the general pleading with the parents to let us open just one present early—always to no avail. And I have to admit that on one occasion I might have pulled back the tape a bit when no one was looking to see if I could figure out what was there.
Truth is, I never did like waiting. And my guess is waiting doesn’t come naturally to most of you either. And that puts us at odds with this Advent season that insists on waiting. Just when everyone around us is getting in the swing of all those Christmas songs like “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” and is ready to sing “Silent Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” we come to church to wait, and we even sing songs about waiting like, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” or “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” How’s that? Two hymns basically about a Messiah who’s running late and we wish would hurry.
The lessons of the Advent season are all about people who are waiting. The passage from Isaiah we often hear, “Comfort, comfort my people” is addressed to the people of Israel who have been living in exile in Babylon for 70 years. That’s a lot of waiting. In our lesson today from the prophet Baruch people are waiting with yearning too: “Arise, O Jerusalem … see your children gathered from west to east rejoicing that God has remembered them.”
You hear this waiting in our gospel lesson about that strange prophet John the Baptist in the wilderness calling out, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The people he’s talking to have been expecting the Messiah to come for decades, even centuries. Now, John says, your waiting is about to end.
And in a couple of weeks Advent will take us to a young woman named Mary, who has been told that she is pregnant with God’s own child, and she is facing nine months of waiting and preparing for a birth she never imagined.
The great American rabbi of the twentieth century, Abraham Heschel, once wrote, “The inner history of Israel is a history of waiting for God, of waiting for His arrival.”
No wonder Advent isn’t many people’s favorite part of the year. After all, who loves waiting? It’s not something that comes naturally to us. I came across not long ago a book called In Praise of Slowness. The author, a journalist named Carl Honoré, describes the moment in his fast-moving life when he realized something was wrong. He was in a long line at the airport with nothing to do but wait. Being unable to stand there and do nothing, he started skimming a newspaper and came on an article called “The One-Minute Bedtime Story.” To help parents deal with their time-consuming youngsters, the authors had condensed classic fairy tales into 60-second sound bites. Sort of “executive summaries,” you might say. At first it sounded good, given his habit of trying to steer his two-year-old son toward the shortest book to read. His son would often say, “You’re going too fast” or “I want another story!” But he knew he was eager to get to supper, emails, reading, bills, checking the late news on TV and the internet.
Then he said that as he began to wonder how fast Amazon could ship him the full collection of one-minute stories, it hit him. “Have I gone completely insane?” he asked, and began to think, “My whole life has turned into an exercise in hurry, in packing more and more into every hour. I am Scrooge with a stopwatch.”
There’s nothing wrong with speed, Honoré says. The problem is the way speed becomes an addiction, an idolatry. “No time for that novel you got at Christmas? Learn to speed-read. Diet not working? Try liposuction. Too busy to cook? Buy a microwave.”
And he recites the human cost: insomnia, migraines, hypertension, ulcers, burnout. And it has other costs. The average working parent in Britain spends twice as long dealing with email at home as playing with his or her children.
We’ve lost the art of anticipating, of waiting for something that takes time, of looking forward to something. All we care about is ripping open the gift the future holds and enjoying it right now. We don’t seem to know how to be in the moment, and we’ve lost the willingness to relish an experience after it has happened before we move on. In short, we want instant gratification, and we measure every moment for its cost-benefit ratio of satisfaction.
It’s a part of our national personality, too. Several weeks ago many of us were here in this Cathedral for a forum focusing on the American role in Afghanistan. In it the Scottish diplomat Rory Stewart, who spent more than a year walking across Afghanistan and remains deeply involved there, expressed his hope that the U.S. would not launch a major new military operation there, and his reason was fascinating. “I believe Afghanistan is going to need a low-level presence of American forces for decades to come to help them stabilize. But America historically has not had the patience for that. It tends to rush in to try to fix something, then gets frustrated, and ends up abandoning the whole project.” America isn’t very good at waiting.
The assumption behind all of this, of course, is that we are what we do and accomplish, and anything that slows down and gets in the way of our doing what we think needs to be done is an affront. We are solo achievers, with the world on our shoulders, and the measure of our worth is the measure of what we accomplish.
But what if we have some foundational things completely wrong? What if our real significance has to do with our involvement in the lives of others? What if we are meant to be not just achievers but also receivers, people created for responsiveness and relationship?
Waiting isn’t an unfortunate, accidental piece of life, but something at the center of what it means to be human. How can we have a genuine conversation if we’re not willing to wait for the other to speak? If we are made for mutuality and relationship, then waiting is going to be at its center. If we love someone, we have to be willing to be receivers, partners, collaborators.
Waiting calls for the capacity to live fully in the present, without always pushing toward a future that we somehow believe will bring us the fulfillment we want. It means accepting what the mystics call “the gift of the moment.” If we are pressing constantly toward the future, we lose the gift of what is here in front of us just now: the child in our household, the colleague or the challenge at work, the beauty of a day, the support of friends.
Much of the life of faith is about waiting, too. The psalms speak constantly of waiting for God. “My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning,” says Psalm 130. “For God alone my soul in silence waits,” Psalm 62 says. “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,” the prophet Isaiah says.
Waiting for God is an essential part of Christian faith. The reality is that we don’t possess and can’t control God. In fact, a great deal of damage has been done in the world by people who are sure they can possess God. Abraham Heschel says the religious history of the Jews is waiting for God, but that’s true of all of us. Virtually every person of faith I have known has felt at times a sense of God’s absence, doubts about God’s closeness, confusion about where God is. And everyone I know has had a sense of searching for God, listening for God, longing to draw close. And everyone I know experiences their lives at times as broken, lost, empty, or lonely in ways they can’t fix and that won’t go away. In a time of joblessness and fear and people losing their homes, many are struggling. It can feel like waiting for God, longing for God’s guidance and healing and strength. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
And far from our own comfortable experience, think of the billions whose waiting for God is immediate and even desperate: the child in the Sudanese refugee camp, the mother watching her child die of malaria, the grandmother walking 20 miles a day to carry water back to her family, the Afghan father wondering in this war what side to choose that will most protect his children.
Our waiting for God is intended to be both patient and impatient. The waiting of the pregnant Mary must have been charged with anticipation but also involves a patient trust. Sometimes we simply have to wait in a mode of expecting, but not knowing what to expect. The poet T.S. Eliot in his Four Quartets described that kind of waiting this way:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith,
But the faith and the love and the hope are in the waiting.
Sometimes all we can do is move forward not knowing what God will do with where we are, but trusting in God to open a way. A long journey through disease, a long search for a job that hasn’t brought results—in the face of these we live in the moment, we lean into a future we can’t see, and we trust.
Then sometimes we should be waiting impatiently, like John the Baptist when he says, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill made low.” Get ready, he says. Do what you would do for any king coming into your territory—go out ahead and smooth the road and get ready to receive your leader. In short, get busy. Start living for the future that you trust is coming.
If you are longing for a world that is not headed toward an environmental disaster, get to work now making that new world a reality now—driving less, conserving more, using local markets, pressuring the Congress. Start living the future you’re waiting for now.
If you are longing for a school system and a health-care system worthy of the richest country on earth—start working now to bring that future into the present. If you are waiting for a world less driven, less exhausting, less tense than this one, start living that world now. If you are waiting for a life with more depth, for a sense of purpose to guide you, if you’re tired of feeling cut off from life and from God, start living that future now. Prepare the way of the Lord by taking the time to sit quietly—15 minutes a day—and name what you are waiting for, where it is you need Christ to come into your life in this season, and pray “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”
Of course, the strange fact of our lives is that the God we are waiting for has already come. The birth we anticipate in Bethlehem has already happened, and Christ’s own life fills every corner of the universe. Christ is active everywhere, because without him the earth wouldn’t turn, the snow wouldn’t fall, the oceans wouldn’t surge. Without him there would be no Handel’s Messiah, no Gothic cathedrals, no universities or hospitals or charities that care for the poor. And without him we wouldn’t be here today, gathered to experience his presence and to sense his life going on in us right now. No, you can’t touch him as his mother did, or hear him as his disciples did, or feast with him as strangers did. But he is here, drawing us into his life in this Advent season.
Just a few weeks ago I caught a glimpse of Advent waiting and Christmas joy all wrapped into one evening. It was a going away party that friends were having for their 29-year old daughter with Downs Syndrome, who was finally and with immense excitement moving into a group home where she could have what she felt would be a more adult life. Her parents had put on a black tie dinner with sixty or seventy friends to mark this major step. Their daughter beamed in her beautiful dress and was the queen of the evening. She was, as she always is, as exuberantly warm and loving as anyone I have ever met. There were speeches and toasts and many hugs for this remarkable young woman.
As my wife Marguerite and I made our way out into the night we marveled at what the constant love those parents had given their daughter had produced. Twenty-nine years of active, hardworking, endlessly patient waiting for their daughter to find her own life. Advent waiting had given way to Christmas joy. You couldn’t miss the sense of Christ in their household that evening.
Let us wait, patiently and impatiently. Prepare the way of the Lord.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.
(Thanks to Paula Gooder in The Meaning Is in the Waiting for the opening scenario.)