This morning I want to reflect with you on the experience of waiting. It may seem like a trivial thing, waiting. Everybody does it; pretty much everyday. What could be more ordinary? And, yet, the quality of our waiting is significant, even revelatory. The quality of our waiting can teach us a lot about God and about ourselves.
What is the quality of your waiting? Recall the last time you were in a waiting room, a space set aside specifically for the purpose of waiting, and consider how you waited. How would you rate your wait? Was the wait a time that you embraced, or a time through which you raced, or paced, or cursed, or worse?
Waiting can be daily, as in waiting in traffic during the commute to work or school. It can be seasonal: waiting in line at the gift wrapping counter or the post office. Perhaps more often than we might like, waiting marks the most important moments in our lives: waiting for a lab result; waiting for a tour of duty in Iraq to end; waiting for a call back after a job interview; waiting in that space between the marriage proposal and the response; standing in the circle waiting for everyone to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion.
The quality of our waiting matters. And waiting well seems increasingly hard to do in our over-scheduled, often hurried, and, if we are honest, ego-driven lives. Waiting is the enemy in a culture devoted to instant communication and immediate gratification. Success is defined, in part, by the capacity to make others wait for us. Waiting is for losers, or so we are told.
Is that what we really believe? As Christians, we’d like to think not, but our actions sometimes tell a different tale. Recently, in a state of morning grouchiness, reinforced by preoccupation with my mental to-do list and general sense of self-importance, I found myself trying to hurry my son, Nehemiah, out the door to school. I pulled the car out of our parking spot in the garage, and was waiting for Nehemiah to open the garage door.
As usual, he was skipping along, singing, and swinging his brown-bag lunch around; wondrously oblivious to the ticking clock as only a nine year-old boy can be. As someone famous once said, unless you become like children, you cannot enter the kingdom of God. Nehemiah’s lunch bag ripped apart as he was swinging it, of course, and spilled the contents on to the floor.
Rather than park the car and assist my son, I rolled down the window and barked, “Put your lunch in the car. If you hadn’t been swinging it around, the bag wouldn’t have broken. Now we are going to have to waste time getting you another bag.” Nehemiah, head downcast, murmured, “I can’t help it if the bag is fragile.” “That is precisely why you shouldn’t be swinging it around!” I replied. “Just get in the car!”
The result: Nehemiah and I both got to where we needed to go on time. I felt angry, then embarrassed by my anger. Nehemiah felt judged and shamed. It took as much time for me to apologize as it would have taken to stop and help him clean up from this very minor accident.
Now, rewind back a few days earlier to a very different experience of waiting. It was another morning, and I was equally flustered and hurried. I’d overslept and rushed through my morning routine. After a quick shower, I was preparing a bite of early lunch before heading off to a noon meeting. I had to eat, back my bag, and be out the door in 20 minutes.
In the middle of my preparations, by husband walked in the door with some grocery bags. He began to get in my way in the kitchen. While unpacking bags he starts amiably chatting about his podiatry appointment earlier and how the rest of his morning had been. I was mentally calculating how fast I could drive, trying to keep calm and pretend that I was paying attention.
But then I stopped myself. I made a conscious effort to pay attention to my husband and to enjoy a brief moment of intimacy, recognizing how precious and few such moments seem to be. The result: I still managed to get to my appointment on time, and Andrew and I were able to connect about our day in the middle of our coming and going. Andrew felt heard and respected rather than dismissed, and I felt grateful for the opportunity to be present to my experience rather than anxious about the future.
I share these unremarkable vignettes because they illustrate the subtle way in which the quality of our waiting radiates out, connecting our inner life to everyday activities. The spiritual life is simply life lived with awareness. And so how we inhabit the time of waiting can be a spiritual discipline, an opportunity to become fully present, at home in the moment, able to see possibilities that would otherwise remain hidden from us.
In my interaction with Nehemiah the quality of my waiting was self-centered and anxious. Waiting upon my son was “wasted time,” when it could have been an opportunity to be of service and to reduce the toxicity of shame that can sit so heavily upon children when they fail to meet their parent’s expectations. Contrast that to my interaction with Andrew, where the quality of waiting became patient and receptive. Waiting upon Andrew was an opportunity to deepen relationship, to let go of ego and make room for another.
The quality of our waiting, when marked by patience, opens us to the flow of life in ways that allow us to give and receive unexpected gifts. When we are open in this way, rather than trying to impose our agenda and control everything, a whole new perspective can come into view.
I take this to be the point of Jesus’ response to John’s disciples when they asked him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” As was so often the case, Jesus didn’t directly answer their question. Rather, he pointed them to their own experience. What do you see and hear? “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matt. 11:5-6)
Jesus reframes the question about waiting, which was rooted in anxiety and fear, and invites John’s disciples to examine the quality of their waiting. What is going on in the present moment? Do you not see the signs of God’s reign, the experience of healing and reconciliation and new life that is available already, right now? Jesus cautions John’s disciples not to be offended by his invitation to let go of their expectations and egos so that they can appreciate and participate in what is.
When our waiting is a straining to anticipate an unknowable future, we miss what is going on right in front of us. Jesus reorients our waiting away from the future toward the present. Why do we wait anxiously, when everything we need is already right here, right now?
For John, who was in prison, this was a very serious question. In his present circumstance, the quality of his waiting was an urgent spiritual matter. Sitting in his cell, he no doubt struggled to wait patiently with hope rather than capitulate to fear and despair. From his vantage point, he was unable to see what his disciples were experiencing.
So often we find ourselves situated like John, in a prison of ego, or suffering, or fear, whether imposed upon us or of our own making or, most likely, some combination of the two. When life seems reduced to our little, isolated, prison cell, we become blind to what is going on beyond the range of our narrow concern, and so waiting can seem unbearable.
John, very wisely, responded to this circumstance by asking for help. He sent his disciples to Jesus to help him see what John was unable to see for himself: whether or not there was any meaning to his experience of waiting. John understood that connection, relationship, was the antidote to his isolation, uncertainty and fear. He entrusted himself to others and to God, when his experience of waiting became too much for him alone. Just because John was unable to see the signs of God’s presence, didn’t mean that they weren’t there. He simply needed the help of others to get some perspective.
John realized that the sometimes painful quality of our waiting need not cut us off from others, from those who can help us see the seeds of healing taking root in the present moment. “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.” (James 5:7-8) As Christians we are called to practice waiting together, so that together we can discern clearly the movement of God in the world and become one with the flow of divine love that sustains all things in all circumstances. All else is ego and illusion.
To borrow a phrase from James Alison, the “strangeness of this passivity,” this waiting, is that it slowly works on our fear and grandiosity, so that we can, little by little, let go of our illusions and projects and all the ways we try to secure ourselves through manipulation and control, instead relaxing into the presence of God, whose loving regard reveals that we are secure already, and so can make space for others in ways that bring freedom and joy.
Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” While this is funny in its way, it is also rank heresy. Far better would be, “Jesus is coming. You can relax now.” You are loved and forgiven already. There is nothing left to do or prove. There is only the love of the One who is coming again and again until we embrace this love and accept the invitation to participate in the new creation that God is offering us with each breath. Amen.