Monday, December 2, 2013

Waiting

You can get so confused
that you'll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place...

...for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or the waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for the wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

NO!
That's not for you!

                                                                        - Oh, the Places You’ll Go
                                                                        Dr. Suess


Oh, the Places You’ll Go is probably my favorite of all the books I read with my children. I love it because it is exciting to think about all the places my children will go in their lives; the decisions they’ll make, the things they’ll do, the ways that their lives will become uniquely their own apart from me. I also like that the book points out that things don’t always go so smoothly. While it celebrates all the great things we can do with our lives, it also acknowledges that there are always set backs and difficulties along the way. “Bangups and hangups can happen to you” it says.

But there is a particular part of the book that has been prominent in my mind over this last year of our lives: the lines that I’ve quoted above. Our family has found itself in this “waiting place” for much of this past year. It started last October as we waited for Esther to be born 11 days past her due date. In November, I submitted my applications to doctoral programs and began waiting for an answer. Hints of an answer would come in February as I was accepted to one school and on the waiting list at another but the final answer would not come until April. I wish I could say that I was calm and collected during this nearly half a year, trusting that God would provide no matter the circumstance but that simply wasn’t the case. I was wracked with anxiety like few other times in my life, not only wondering whether I would get in anywhere but wondering where we might be moving our family if we moved at all.

But that waiting already seems a distant memory because of what has happened since. It is difficult to even remember just how stressful that time was because the months that followed were a whole new level of stress and anxiety. On May 26, my dad suffered a stroke. The next three weeks were filled with waiting and wondering; waiting to see how long it would take my dad to recover, how much he might recover, or if he would recover at all. One day would bring reports of improvement, the next day reports of concern. Every day there was nothing to do but wait; wait to see if the swelling in his brain would go down, wait to see if his cognition improved, wait to see if he could swallow food. On June 14, the waiting ended as my dad entered his eternal rest.

The day after my dad’s funeral, my mom called to tell me that my grandmother, my only living grandparent and the only one I had known into my adult life, had been taken to the hospital. So now we would wait for the results of her tests. A week later we found out that she had stage 4 cancer in several organs and that she had a couple weeks to a couple of months to live. So we waited. We let her know that we loved her in all the ways we could and we waited for the inevitable. On August 4, my grandmother’s waiting ended.

In the time between my dad’s and grandmother’s deaths, we relocated our family from Illinois to Massachusetts so that I could begin my ThD program at BU. This brought its own forms of waiting; waiting to settle into a routine after uprooting our children from the only home they have ever known, waiting to get over the continuous string of illnesses that has come from being in a new place, waiting for the grief from too many losses too close together to become anything other than numbness and exhaustion.

And the waiting continues even now over a year since it all began. We are still waiting on our house in Illinois to sell. We are still waiting to get into our own home here. We are waiting to see if Jess will eventually have a full time teaching job. We are waiting for some order to emerge from the chaos.

All of this waiting has made me keenly aware of just how little waiting I’ve done in my life. We live in a culture that does its best to eliminate waiting from our lives.  The fast food drive thru, every searchable fact available at lightning speed in the palm of our hand, and stores open on Thanksgiving Day already decorated for Christmas have conditioned us to expect that anything worth having ought to be available simultaneous with the moment our desire arises. Generally speaking, we are not a people accustomed to waiting. Given the opportunity, we will eliminate all the waiting we possibly can from our lives because, as Dr. Seuss says, the waiting place is “a most useless place.” Time spent waiting, we often think, is time wasted. Time we could have spent doing something more enjoyable or more important.

I think we often carry this same view over into our thoughts about God and God’s work in our lives. God has a plan for each one of us, we proclaim, and our task is to get in line with that plan as quickly and smoothly as possible. We have an “Oh, the Places You’ll Go with God” theology. God wants to do great and exciting things in your life. And sure, there will be set backs along the way. That happens to all of us. But don’t get stuck too long because time spent waiting is time wasted; time you could have spent getting on with God’s plan for your life.

It is no wonder then that we have great difficulty with Advent; a season defined by waiting. For four weeks leading up to Christmas, the Church says “Wait”. Right at the time when our culture is working itself into its annual holiday frenzy of shopping, scheduling, and socializing, the Church asks us to remember what it means to wait. We remember Israel’s centuries long waiting for its Messiah. We remember that we are waiting for the world to be set right. For one month every year, our task is not to do or accomplish or follow a plan but only to wait.

In fact, the Church’s year begins here. Advent is the first season of the Christian calendar. Waiting is not one stance among others for us. It is our first stance. It is where our worship begins. Before Christ is born at Christmas, before his kingdom is proclaimed in Epiphany, before the journey to the cross in Lent, before the new life of Easter and the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, before all of it, the very first movement of the Church’s life every year is to take up a posture of waiting. It may well be that centuries of Christian wisdom found that this posture was the one in which we could most readily come to know the savior celebrated in all the other seasons. The Church calendar, patterned as it is after the life of Christ, easily could have started with Jesus’ birth at Christmas. Instead, we confess that in order for the story of Christ to be properly told and lived it must begin with a season of waiting. Rather than counting time spent waiting as time wasted, the Church confesses that time spent waiting is essential to truly seeing and knowing Jesus.

This is what I wish to confess as well. This year of waiting for various things has caused me to see Jesus more clearly. And that clearer vision is of a Jesus who waits with us; whose priority isn’t as much plans and proper decisions, as it is presence.

I’ve been reminded in all these times of waiting that we wait for those we love. The times when we have a choice in the matter, we choose to wait for those about whom we care. We wait in a hospital room with those who are dying because simply being with them is more important than anything else we could be doing. We wait to start a meal until everyone is present because eating with those we love is as important as eating. We wait for marriage because the health of our relationship with this one person is more important than gratifying our sexual desires. When we wait for someone, we are saying that their presence is more important than whatever else we might be doing at that moment or whatever else we might get from them. In relationships of love, presence takes precedence over plans.

I imagine that it is not so different in our relationship with God. Karl Barth wrote that “The will of God is Jesus Christ.” I’m not certain about everything that Barth meant by that sentence but it at least might suggest that God’s will for our lives isn’t so much a plan as a person. What God wills more than anything else is not that we accomplish certain things or go certain places in life or make exactly the right decisions. God’s will for us is Jesus; that in Jesus we will know the presence of God in our very own flesh.

I think of all the people I know who are waiting or have waited for something for so long. Friends who have waited to have children. Who are waiting for a job. Waiting for an opportunity. Who are waiting for healing. Who are waiting for an inevitable death. Who are waiting for that special someone. Some who are waiting for purpose or direction. Some who are waiting for justice. Some who are waiting for some wholeness and peace. Just waiting for some order to emerge from the chaos. It seems like everyone close to me is waiting for something.

I’d be the last person to say that all our waiting will work out just fine in the end. It doesn’t always. I won’t say that the waiting isn’t painful, sometimes agonizing. We may very well plead with God to bring our waiting to an end. Jess and I have done just that many times over. Given the chance, we would have happily traded in all of our waiting many months ago before the worst of it had even began. But I will say that all our waiting and pleading is not in vain. It is not time wasted, whatever the outcome, if in our waiting we aim to encounter Jesus. For, as Pope Francis recently said, “The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms." 


May your season of waiting, whether it be these four weeks of Advent or a much longer time than that, be one in which you encounter a savior who is with us in all our waiting and who waits for you with open arms. 

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