How to Wait

Waiting(Creative Commons Image by Magdalena on Flickr)

“Make haste to help me, Lord! Hasten to me, O God! Lord, do not delay!” The words of the Psalmist, in conversation with the Gospel and epistle lessons for this week, seem like just the right words of response.

They seem like the kind of words that the disciples would have uttered after hearing Jesus’ parable of the ten bridesmaids — “How long will we have to wait, Jesus?” They seem like the words that would come to the lips of the Thessalonians as they witnessed their loved ones dying before their eyes and before Jesus’ return. “When are you coming back, Jesus?”

“Lord, do not delay” are words of waiting.

They express what is almost unutterable — the lack of control, the fear of the unknown, the worry of whether or not we are ready, the anxiety about being prepared for what is to come.

Waiting carries many emotions — anticipation, wonder, eagerness, dread, agitation, fear, longing, loss. Of course, much of our emotional response is determined by that for which we wait. Our time of waiting will be experienced differently depending on that which we expect. Waiting is hard. Yet, my difficulty with waiting is not so much the spectrum of feelings experienced, but the fact that I can’t seem to be content with the present.

Preaching this week, you could certainly insert numerous examples or illustrations of those things, events, persons, for which we wait. But I wonder about this. Not that we shouldn’t acknowledge the multiple realities and situations of life for which we wait. But waiting for the Lord seems like a different kind of waiting altogether. I doubt that many of our parishioners are actively waiting for the return of the Lord. So, what are we waiting for, then? How can the waiting described in our texts translate to the waiting in our lives now? How are we getting ready? Will we be prepared? After taking stock, do we admit woefully poor planning?

Perhaps what we are waiting for is waiting for the Lord to show up in our waiting.

Next week is Veteran’s Day. My father-in-law was a World War II veteran and he died a year ago this past April at the age of 96. In the twenty-three years I have known my husband, it was only in the last few that Sam ever talked about the war. The last time I saw him was at his bequest to have as many of his grandchildren present, not necessarily for a final goodbye, but as you preachers know, people can sense that death is soon. Of course, that truth elicits its own sense of what waiting is like.

On that final day, he bequeathed his war items to each of the grandchildren — a knife, his field sack. A belt that he had removed from a dead German soldier. His helmet. To my oldest son, he gave his uniform. My son tried it on. It was a perfect fit, and the last picture I have of Sam is with my son in his uniform.

That day, Sam talked about the war. He talked about the waiting. You see, he had been selected, singled out, not to be sent to the front, but to stay behind. Why? He was good in math. He showed us his notebook in which he had calculated multiple ballistic measurements. And as he worked on his equations, he waited for his fellow soldiers, his friends, to return. Some did. Some did not. He could not understand how he was spared. Yet in the waiting and the wondering he knew God was there, and there was nothing else he could do but trust that truth.

I can’t imagine waiting like that. Just like I can’t imagine the kind of waiting that was asked of the Thessalonians. I do not know what it means to wait for the coming of the Lord. I do not anticipate the return of Jesus in my lifetime. But maybe the preparation, the waiting will gain meaning, will make some sort of sense, if I can simply say Lord, “make haste,” trust that, and then just live. Just be.

In other words, I don’t think our preaching this week can simply say, “Yes, it’s hard to wait.” Or “waiting is full of excitement!” Or “be prepared!” or “the day of the Lord is coming!” I think it needs to be more about how we choose to cope with the wait.

Our preaching this week needs to claim that waiting is simply the reality of life. Not that we should say, “This is how it is, get over it.” But that what we choose to utter or how we choose to be in the waiting matters. Not necessarily for God, but for ourselves. “Lord, do not delay,” is simultaneously a claim of urgency but also a witness to promise. That is, yes, we want the wait to be over. But, at the same time, we trust that God will show up. God will show up in the midst of any manifestation of our waiting. God will show up to be what we need God to be depending on how we experience the waiting. If our waiting is experienced in fear? God comes with peace. If our waiting is experienced in longing? God arrives with deep and abiding satisfaction. If our waiting is experienced in anticipation? God accompanies us in the joy that should be our present. In the words of Matthew, yes, keep alert. But rather than keep alert for what is to come, keep alert for the ways in which God enters into our present attempts at alertness — and seems to bring exactly what we need. To keep awake does not mean the absence of God. It means to recognize our absolute dependence on the presence of God.

“Make haste to help me, Lord! Hasten to me, O God! Lord, do not delay!”