I am writing this as I wait – on an airport runway. My equanimity held up pretty well as I waited an hour and a half to board a plane that was late getting in; but when we got out on the tarmac and were told that we needed to wait another ninety minutes, the persona of patience among the passengers began to unravel.
I don’t like to wait. Most of us don’t like to wait. But we do. Or at least we have to. We wait in traffic; we wait in line; and as we wait we get edgy, if not testy, about not being in control – and about what we are missing. I read somewhere that a cottage industry has developed in which people can pay someone to do the waiting for them. At frustrating moments – like the one I am in at this moment; that sounds like a good idea; but for the life of me I don’t know how it can apply to air travel.
We are in the season of Advent -- which is the season of waiting. And most of us are ambivalent about it. We are liturgically waiting for the One who is coming, but in real time we either fill these four weeks with more activity than at nearly any other season of the year – or approach panic about the time we don’t have.
In the Christian faith, waiting is not about getting something done – or arriving somewhere. It is about being with God. Waiting with God. Years ago, a reporter asked Mother Teresa of Calcutta what she did during prayer. “I listen for God,” she replied. What does God say? - she was then asked. “Oh, God is listening, too.”
I would call that holy waiting. Waiting with the earth in its deepening darkness for the light that is coming. Waiting for the light of clarity and hope; waiting for the promise which comes in a divine descent as the Prince of Peace.
Of course, there are some things for which we are reminded we cannot wait. Martin Luther King’s refusal to wait for justice landed him in a Birmingham jail in 1963. From that prison and, as it turns out, monastic cell, Dr. King wrote to a group of local clergy who wanted him to wait to advance his civil rights agenda: “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro (sic) with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant 'Never’. We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
But Martin Luther King did wait. He waited with scripture on a regular basis; and in that holy waiting he was filled with insights, clarity -- and an urgency for justice that would not be bound by political expediency.
Desmond Tutu did not wait for the people of privilege to bring about the end of apartheid. But like Mother Teresa, Archbishop Tutu had – and has, a daily discipline of waiting in prayer and in silence, which, as we have seen, has kindled resistance to an unjust system, and has created an urgency for justice that would not be bound by economic anxiety.
Jesus’ ministry could be described visually as a series of triptychs: action panels variously involving healing, confronting, teaching and inviting – which flank the center panel that always depicts Jesus in prayer. It turns out that Jesus never did anything without waiting with God first.
The edginess of waiting in line or in traffic --or on the tarmac, generates a reaction of anxiety – about me and my schedule, and my need for control. Holy waiting produces resolve. Resolve for God and justice in God’s Creation. Holy waiting is the crucible in which our commitments and passions are burnished in the fire of God’s love. Holy waiting helps to shape and direct our energies – for God’s purpose, the soul’s health and the world’s wholeness.
Our souls, our congregations – our world, beg for us to cast away the temptation to reaction, and put on the armor of resolve. Through holy waiting.
As my plane lifts up into the night sky, I invite you to wait well.