We do not like to wait. Most people are impatient with the idea that taking time is important. For many, waiting can become synonymous with waste. In a culture where doing is more important than being, and achieving is more important than maturing, perhaps that is not surprising?
Henri Nouwen writes powerfully of the challenges and the blessings of learning to wait in ‘A Spirituality of Waiting’ (see The Weavings Reader, ed. by John S. Mogabgab. Published in 1993 by Upper Room Books). He suggests that fear is one of the great opponents of waiting. He writes, ‘Fearful people have a hard time waiting because when we are afraid we want to get away from where we are.’ It strikes me that this can be true of us as individuals, as families, as communities and churches, and as nations. When fear shapes our discourse, as individuals, or as families, or as communities, dangerous things can happen. We often make bad decisions when they are motivated by fear, or by impatience. The more fear we feel, the harder it is to wait.
Yet, Advent reminds us that so much of the life of faith is about waiting. We cannot hurry God, and we should not be impatient with Him. The Birth Narratives of Christ are full of waiting. Shepherds, Wise Men, Simeon, Anna, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, Israel, the world…us.
The life of faith must also learn to wait. The Bible is full of reminders of this. Hosea 12:6; Isaiah 30:18, 40:29-31; James 5:7-8; Romans 8:23, and many of the Psalms (5, 25, 27,33, 39, 123, 145 to name but a few) tell us that waiting is part of trusting. So rather than running from it, how we do we learn to do it?
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.Isaiah 40:29-31 , NRSV
Waiting is easier when we have a promise to hold on to. Such promises are given to Mary and Elizabeth, to Zechariah and to Jospeph. They must hold the promise as they wait for its fulfilment. Anna and Simeon have waited many years to see the ‘Consolation of Israel’. These two older people held the mast of God’s whispered promise to them through years of storms. They learned to hold on to God’s Word. Perhaps that will help us too? Perhaps there are promises that will anchor us as we weather the storms and wait for their fulfilment? We hold the seed of the promise – we have something to cling to, and we await its fulfilment – we have something to hope for. This means, I think, that the seed that is planted in us, is given time to grow in us and through us. If that is true, then waiting can become a gifted time, sacred time, when roots break through our hard soil, and shoots push through our crusty lives. Waiting does us good, even if we struggle with it.
Waiting is not a passive thing. The least active form of waiting is, in a sense, done in the ‘middle voice’. We cooperate with the wait, we enter it, and we let it enter us. It strikes me that the most difficult form of waiting is a waiting that we resent, that we reject, that we run from. This form of waiting can do us harm. Cooperating with the wait, learning how to enter it, to reflect on it, to let it change us – this can do us good. For waiting to be active, we must be present in it. Listening for the changes in our soul, the re-orientation of our perspectives, the exposure of our frailties and our uncertainties. To wait actively is to allow yourself to be changed as you wait, to enter into the possibility that even the waiting is a gift. I am not sure we are very good at this?
Does waiting also create a space in us for new possibility? I wonder does it force us to accept that what lies ahead might be different to our perfect plan? Maybe waiting means that we learn that ‘Plan B’ can be as beautiful and meaningful as ‘Plan A’? Maybe it helps to discover that even the most catastrophic events in our lives can somehow become moments where we learn and grow? I am not sure of the fatalism of some of the language that Christians use around God’s sovereignty. It leaves me wondering whether we prefer to systematise out the mystery and dark shadows of life rather than walk through them. Waiting helps me to discover that God is present in the unknowing as well as in the knowing. I can meet Him in absence as well as in presence. Answered prayer and unanswered pray can lead me to Christ and expose my soul to new life. But only if I am willing to experience it. If I spend my life running away from ‘now’, I will never be able to enter ‘ then’.
Waiting sharpens my hope. It strips it bare, exposes my assumptions to be the idols that they are, and helps me to discover that when I put my hope in God for Who God is rather than for what I demand God does, then my life begins to find a New Centre. Waiting enables me to step off the throne of my own desires and longings, and allows God to take His rightful place at the very centre of my life.
I think perhaps, we rush past Advent toward Christmas precisely because we do not want to wait. All this waiting demands reflection, quietness, humility, honesty and trust. It requires me to think through my life, to examine my expectations, to allow God to continue His work in me. It is not a surprise to me that we have eschewed Advent (and Lent) because we do not want to face the mystery of Christ, the darkness of the longing, the uncertainty of having to trust His timing.
To wait is to be willing to be changed and to discover more about ourselves and our assumptions about God. It is to let God peel back another layer of our brokenness so that God can bring another layer of healing and hopefulness to our souls.
Where do you need to wait? What areas of your life do you need to slow down? How can you enter the mystery of becoming attentive in your waiting this Advent. As the new Christian Year opens before you, where do you need to let God expose your assumptions or brokenness and bring another layer of healing and hopefulness?
(C) Malcolm. J Duncan (Advent 2019)