The good work of waiting

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This is not quite the “waiting” I had in mind in this post, but I do a lot of this kind of waiting, too, these days. Good thing I have my 16-year-old chauffeur, plenty of portable writing work–and, sometimes, beautiful sunsets!

Most stories related in Scripture are quick—we rush through years in just a few verses. As a result, the emotions we experience as we read these stories don’t follow those of the people within them. We move straight from the “oh no” of the problem to the rejoicing of the climax: with Joseph over his success as the Pharaoh’s right-hand man; with the Israelites over their exodus from Egypt; with Hannah over the birth of Samuel; with Sarah and Abraham over the birth of Isaac; …

And in doing so we often glide right through the waiting period. We don’t recognize and sit in the grief, fear, doubt, and even anger of the loooong limbo that came before the climax.

I think we need to pay more attention to the waiting in the Bible—there’s quite a bit of it! The descendants of Jacob were enslaved for generations before the dramatic plagues that resulted in their rescue. Joseph, imprisoned after his double betrayal, must have eventually accepted his lot—until the cupbearer promised he would try to get him released. Joseph’s heart surely soared—and then descended to the depths when he realized the cupbearer failed him. The waiting years that followed must have been filled with some bitterness and wrestling—and lots of questions. Sarah chose against patient waiting; she worked and connived to get the fulfillment of God’s promise, but when she realized the folly and futility of her own way, she settled, opting for the numb loss of hope rather than the pain of expectant waiting. Hannah endured years of taunting by her husband’s other wife (who probably felt unloved by their husband) while Hannah prayed and cried for a son.

We read these stories and move from problem to answer in words and phrases. From the perspective of those living in the story, though, the climaxes did not come quickly. And often, when a climax did come, it was followed by more waiting.

Much, if not most, of our lives is spent waiting.

And waiting is hard.

A book that is on my summer reading list is The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. In it Alan Kreider argues that the early church saw patient waiting as one of its primary works. After all, the Church then saw itself as being in the already-and-not-yet time between Christ’s inauguration of the Kingdom and its complete fulfillment. We are in the same time! Waiting is an integral part of our lives as believers; it is, in a sense, one of the defining marks of our Christian faith.

Kreider believes the early Church grew and thrived through its focus on and development of patience; patience, he says, was a huge topic among the early church writers. They emphasized the use of prayer, catechesis*, and worship to help the church develop patient reflexes. And they saw that patience not only was work; it did work: good work.

We can and should develop expectant patience in the same ways; and some of our study should focus on God’s story as it wove through Israel’s history, was fulfilled in Christ, and is continuing to weave through the history of the Church. When we do this we realize, as the early church did, that our waiting is not new; waiting has always been required; and waiting does good work in those who accept it with patient expectation in God.

How do we do this? We can reflect on stories that had long lag times between the conflict and the resolution. Rather than gliding over the waiting verses, we can press into them; we can emphasize the in-between period more; we can wonder what sustained the biblical characters during this time.

We can also tell stories of our own waiting more often. Too often we only tell our fulfilled stories, our stories of answered prayer. Maybe we need to share our stories even while we are still in the waiting time; maybe we need to share the prayers we pray that are as yet unfulfilled. And we definitely need to affirm the good work all this waiting does in us; we need to examine it in ourselves and point out the growth waiting has accomplished/is accomplishing in others.

I waited and waited and waited for God. At last he looked; finally he listened. He lifted me out of the ditch, pulled me from deep mud. He stood me up on a solid rock to make sure I wouldn’t slip. He taught me how to sing the latest God-song, a praise-song to our God. More and more people are seeing this: they enter the mystery, abandoning themselves to God. Psalm 40:1-3, the Message (the link takes you to this verse side by side in Message and NIV)

Wait on the Lord; his day is near.Wait on the Lord; be strong, take heart.  (These are the words to a Taize song that I often sing to myself when the waiting [for whatever] seems long and hard. The link is to a beautiful rendition of it on Youtube.)

*instruction given to a person in preparation for Christian baptism or confirmation—basically, the teaching of the faith.

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