Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Advent Reflection: Waiting

Children longingly anticipate Christmas day when they can open their presents. They wait with excitement. Not all waiting is filled with excitement. Sometimes our waiting is punctuated with anxiety and fear. Such is often the case with those who are unemployed, waiting for meaningful work. Or with the one waiting for the results of a full body scan after enduring a grueling round of chemotherapy. Or the waiting of a childless couple who so much want to start a family. 

When the prophet addresses the covenant people in Isaiah 40, there were those in Israel who had been waiting for the end of the Babylonian Captivity and the return of the glory of the Lord to the land of Israel. Many had died in exile, without seeing that hope realized, but they clung to the promise that one day their suffering would end. 

All true waiting is a waiting with a sense of promise. For Christians, it’s a promise that we already, in part, have entered into. The Apostle Paul speaks of the Spirit as an earnest, a deposit, a promise and pledge of fullness of life to come, but a fullness that we have already partially experienced. What Paul calls eternal life is simply the continuation of life in the Spirit begun now. Henry Nouwen put it this way: “Waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something more.” 

The Word of God that comes through the prophet, announcing the end of the time of suffering and the manifestation of God’s glory, is nothing less than the active power and presence of God working for our good. It is the practical equivalent of the Spirit of God working within creation, within our communities, and our individual lives—wooing us to accept and return God’s love, luring us to choose what is compassionate, good, and right, nudging us to pursue peace and reconciliation, inspiring us to forgive those who have hurt us, prompting us to lift up and identify with the disenfranchised and marginalized, and empowering us to act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. 

True Christian waiting is a patient waiting for the fulfillment of a promise that we already experience through the Word and Spirit of God. In addition, all true waiting involves a waiting in humility. We know that the promise will not be realized through innate human ingenuity and problem-solving. God, most certainly, incorporates many human elements in its realization, but ultimately it is God working in and through human beings and the creation. 

Episcopal priest, Martha Sterne, tells about being in her local county Domestic Court as part of the mission of the local Ecumenical Council to have a clergy presence there, and this was her day to serve. Mostly, she says, she just sits and prays. It’s so chaotic. Trials get set time and time again. Victims don’t show up, either because they don’t want to prosecute or are scarred to. People sit in little clumps scattered around the room, and after a while it becomes apparent which clumps are furious with the other ones. She says that it is a difficult place to gather a lot of hope for the human condition. 

This particular morning, the head public defender approached the judge with some papers and said: “Your honor, I hate to bring this up, but Mrs. Smith called me and she said she was kind of wondering why she was still in jail after you said you’d let her out. And I checked around and it looks like you put the wrong case number on the discharge papers.” The judge looked at the paper and looked at the lawyer, and frowned a fierce kind of frown and said, “Well, now let me tell you that I am just mightily sick and tired of having my mistakes brought to my attention.” 

That’s a great line isn’t it? It’s not easy facing all our failures and shortcomings. Some folks find it easier to live in denial. Some become intoxicated with feelings of superiority and look down on those who just happened to have lacked the kind of opportunities or privileges they have enjoyed. Other folks can’t seem to get past their insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and wallow around in self-pity and self-condemnation. 

True humility restores to us a sense of balance. In one sense, we are all “nobodies.” Sometimes when I start to think that I am more important than what I am, I simply tell myself, “Chuck, all you are is a little shit.” It restores my balance. That’s all I really am. 

And yet, on the other hand, I am also God’s beloved. I am loved by God, accepted by God, called by God, commissioned by God, indwelt by God, and an heir of God. We all are. One of the things I love about the passage in Isaiah 40 is the chord of universality that is struck. The prophet says, “And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.” All true prophetic vision includes the good, well-being, and redemption of all people. We are all God’s children. Now, of course, all do not know that yet. All have not claimed their relationship with God, which is why Christians need to function as the salt and light of the world. 

When we come to experience God’s forgiveness and love, our waiting can be more open-ended. Spiritual waiting is not to be equated with wish fulfillment. When we put too much stock in our wishes, when we want the future to go in a particular direction, this almost always leads to disappointment. We get anxious about trying to manage and manipulate people and events to get the future to go our way. True Christian waiting is open to many possibilities, freeing us from the need to control people and circumstances

As one great Christian mystic proclaimed: All will be well. I don’t know how to imagine the afterlife, but I think Paul was right when he said that what God has in store for God’s children is more than we can think or imagine. 

When I pastored in Waldorf, Maryland, I had the opportunity to visit with Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie, who was then Chaplain of the Senate. I asked him what he thought was the greatest spiritual need in our country. He said, hardly without a pause: For religious people to know God. There are a lot of religious (Christian) people, who are exclusivistic, judgmental, bitter, self-righteous, who think they are the only ones who have the truth and who use the Bible as a weapon to label and condemn others not in their group. (We are all a little bit like that some of the time; but some people are like that most of the time.) Do you know what they need? It’s what we all need? To experience God. They may talk about God, but they haven’t experienced God.

When one experiences God, the heart grows, like the Grinch on that day when he realized what Christmas was really about. Once we experience how wide and deep and great is the love of God, then we know that it is all going to be good, and it makes us better. It inspires us to wait patiently, humbly, openly, knowing that the Word and glory of the Lord that appeared in Jesus of Nazareth is with us and for us.  

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