What are you WAITING for?
WHAT are you waiting for?
And why…why are you…why am I…waiting at all?
Shouldn’t Amazon Prime and Netflix and InstaCart have eliminated waiting from our lives by now?
Many think religion ought to get on the bandwagon of instant gratification, too. More God, more quickly, more conveniently…please and thanks.
And yet, we’re so often told that Advent is, in its essence, a waiting game.
Hurry up and wait.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
But you see: I’ve just about had enough of it. I’m tired of waiting. Because waiting just doesn’t feel like much of a virtue these days.
So many people are just waiting for things to change. Wanting things to be different than they are. And the combination of wishful thinking and the imagined virtuousness of patient waiting means that we wait, and wait, and wait. And all this waiting just doesn’t seem to get us anywhere. So why on Earth would we devote a whole church season to it? Is there really any wisdom in waiting?
For the past month or so, I have been waiting for my grandma to die. Ever since she received a terminal diagnosis: stage 4 colon cancer. My grandma decided against treatment, which resulted in a move from the Cleveland Clinic’s intensive care unit into residential hospice. My family has spent A LOT of time in waiting rooms since my grandma first got sick over the summer. And as we’ve been saying for the past few days since her death, it feels bizarre to no longer be waiting, to not be spending all of our time in waiting rooms. Because, for a time, waiting–and waiting rooms– had become our whole lives.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about waiting and waiting rooms. Wondering: Why do we have waiting rooms?
What are they really for? Ultimately: they’re human holding pens, aren’t they? Waiting rooms exist when one person’s time is considered more valuable than another’s. When people have expertise or prestige that we want…
they can make us wait.
So…waiting is a form of control. More powerful and important people can make less powerful and important people wait. And we have largely accepted this as natural. Demand exceeds supply. Scarcity feels inevitable. There is never enough of what we need. So we must wait. But what if this is just a story we’ve learned to tell?A story we use to manage our disappointment and frustration, to help us cope with the feeling that nothing ever really changes, and that there’s nothing much we can do about it?
We spend so much of our time waiting. And we manage to turn all kinds of rooms into waiting rooms. Whenever we wait for somebody else to do something. Whenever we rely on experts to solve all of our problems. Whenever we use magazines and talk shows and iPhones and Keurigs to help us to manage the sting of powerlessness.
So I worry, sometimes, that church can be a waiting room, too. A place where we wait for something spiritual to happen. Wait for someone else to join that new committee. Wait or the world to change because we’ve prayed for it to be so. But the church isn’t a waiting room. It’s meant to be a laboratory. A laboratory where we use one another as test cases for how to live the costly love to which Jesus calls us.
So this Advent, I really want to reject waiting. Or at least the passive kind of waiting most of us are accustomed to. Yet still, the Scriptures, again and again, call us to wait: “we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home,” says 2nd Peter. Is this what you’re waiting for? A new heavens and a new earth? “Isn’t that a bit much,” you may ask? “We’re just waiting for the baby Jesus to get his butt back in the manger.” Jesus would be ever so surprised by what we’re up to, I think. Because Jesus…Jesus was waiting for SO much more. Hoping, and praying, and acting toward so much more: toward everything – everything – being made new. Heaven, earth…me, you. Awaiting the end of the world as we know it, and the beginning of the world as God has always known it. John came to prepare the way for Jesus. And Jesus came to prepare the way for a new heavens and a new earth. A new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is FINALLY at home.
So, if we dare, how can we begin to prepare for a new heavens and a new earth? For the in-breaking of God’s reality into time and space? 2nd Peter wonders with us: “What sort of persons ought [we be] in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God?” And make no mistake, 2nd Peter is asking this question in all seriousness. What sort of persons ought we be? What _sort_ of persons? Apparently, persons leading lives of holiness and godliness.It sounds so quaint, at first. So old-fashioned. So conservative, even. Is holiness something we can even really hope to attain? And if so, where do we begin?
Perhaps, I might suggest, with hope, peace, joy, and love–the traditional themes of Advent. Hope, peace, joy, love. Of course, these themes are so big and so abstract that they can end up feeling almost empty and meaningless. Too difficult to pin down. And even harder to incarnate.
But maybe just choose one. Perhaps the one that’s most challenging for you. And explore what it would look like to have a bit more of it in your life. Hope, peace, joy, love.
Take joy, for instance. Joy can be the hardest for me. I recently saw the movie The Man Who Invented Christmas, which is a fictionalized account of Charles Dickens’ process of writing A Christmas Carol. As I watched, I identified not so much with Scrooge’s blatant joylessness, but moreso with Dickens’ struggle…his struggle to craft a story with enough room for joy, a struggle shaped by the difficulties of his childhood. In particular, the movie portrays Dickens’ painful experiences after his father was taken to debtors prison, which forced him, as a child of 11, into hard factory work. According to the movie, Dickens was initially going to let Tiny Tim die,and portray a Scrooge who never overcomes his selfishness. At first, Dickens couldn’t quite find room in his heart for redemption, for joy. And, as we witness Dickens’ struggling to write, we see that telling a different kind of story, a kind new story, a story with room for joy…takes discipline, takes courage, takes persistence.
We so often think that joy just happens. And if it’s not happening, we tend to think we’re unlucky, or we don’t deserve it, or that we are somehow impervious to it. Cultivating joy…working at joy…somehow seems inauthentic.
And so, if we’re not easily and organically experiencing joy, we presume that it’s just not meant for us.But I think this is wrong.I, for one, must actively pursue joy. Search diligently for it. Gather up bits and pieces of it wherever they might be found. Because I have found joy – real joy–to be, more often than not, quite elusive. And not only elusive, but also difficult to speak of after-the-fact. Difficult to coax linguistically into recurrence. Yehuda Amichai explores of this phenomenon in his poem, The Precision of Pain and the Blurriness of Joy, from which I quote:
The precision of pain and the blurriness of joy. I’m thinking
how precise people are when they describe their pain
in a doctor’s office.
Even those who haven’t learned to read and write are precise:
“This one’s a throbbing pain, that one’s a wrenching pain,
this one gnaws, that one burns, this is a sharp pain
and that–a dull one. Right here. Precisely here,
yes, yes.” Joy blurs everything. I’ve heard people say
after nights of love and feasting, “It was great,
I was in seventh heaven.” Even the spaceman who floated
in outer space, tethered to a spaceship, could say only, “Great,
wonderful, I have no words.”
The blurriness of joy and the precision of pain—
I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness
and blurry joy. I learned to speak among the pains.”
Don’t we all learn to speak among the pains?
We don’t always have the words to help show one another where we’ve found joy, where we’ve tasted transcendence. We can’t always find the way back ourselves. Can’t always find words rich and voluptuous enough to encompass the infinitesimal glory of our joy.
And so we wait. Holy waiting. Expectant waiting. Attentive anticipation. A kind of listening, really. Like hope, and peace, and love…. real joy is worth waiting for, searching for, yearning for. It’s worth trying to articulate,even when words fail us again and again. Because joy can be so small, so fleeting. And yet, so real. So sustaining, even in tiny doses. Like manna in the wilderness, you can’t keep hold of joy. You have to be willing to let it go, with the faith that it will return, somehow, someway.
So this Advent, let us wait upon joy. And let us wait upon hope, peace, and love, too. Wait upon them like our lives depend on it. For they are heralds of a new heaven and a new earth. Where righteousness is at home. They are the gifts of God for the people of God. Holy things for holy people.
Holy, holy, holy. Amen.