Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Why waiting matters to me...

NOTE:  Here are this week's worship notes for Sunday, December 4th - Advent II 2011. I am working with the texts from the Revised Common Lectionary including Isaiah 40, II Peter and Mark I. This week's theme explores "waiting" while the next two weeks will look at why John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary matter to us as 21st people of faith.

In every age – in every culture and context – there are a few things that draw all people together beyond our differences. One is the fact that we all have to eat. Have you ever thought about that? Beyond the confines and complexities of your nationality, race, class, gender and religion, all people in all times and places have to eat.

• We don’t all eat the same foods, of course, but we have all been created in such a way that eating is essential. It is something we all share and hold in common and, as such, is worthy of theological reflection.

• Why did God make us this way and what does that mean for how God wants us to live? (I’ve been thinking about exploring this very question during Lent – the great Fast – as it is the discipline designed to ready us for the great Feast of Easter. We’ll see, yes?)

Well, another thing that we all have in common is that every person ever born – in whatever country or condition – hates to wait. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you are four months or four score and seven years old, we hate to wait. And the fact that this hatred seems to be a constant in the human condition has encouraged some theological reflection, too. 

• That is one of the reasons for the seasons of the church calendar, right? 

• Whether you pay careful attention or not, if you spend any time in a congregation that honors the movement of the Holy Spirit from Advent to Christmas, Lent to Easter, Eastertide to Pentecost and the long months of so-called Ordinary Time, you have experienced a unique vision for living.

Christian educator and author, Gertud Mueller-Nelson, puts it like this in her brilliant book, To Dance with God:

By celebrating through the structure of the Church year, we are given the forms we need to become whole… and the formulas to make whole every human experience… it takes some creative imagination, to be sure, and some practice… but through the celebration of these sacred mysteries we find new meaning in the inexplicable and a worthy container for what we realize in our hearts.

That is to say, the rhythm and movement of the Church year gives us a way to practice living into the grace of Jesus Christ so that what is ordinary might become extraordinary: what is human might become holy, what is broken might be blessed and what is afraid might become faithful.

Have I made that clear – am I communicating with you? What I’m trying to say is that living into the seasons of the spirit gives us a way of practicing a variety of sacred disciplines that are all designed to help us live into God’s truth in our everyday, walking around lives. That is part of why we read the prophetic word offered today by the Hebrew poet Isaiah when he proclaimed:

“Comfort, oh comfort my people… speak softly and tenderly to Jerusalem, but also make it very clear that she has served her sentence, that her sin is taken care of—forgiven! "Prepare now for God's arrival! Make the road straight and smooth, a highway fit for our God. Fill in the valleys, level off the hills, smooth out the ruts, clear out the rocks. Then God's bright glory will shine and everyone will see it… just as God has said.

God’s comfort comes both through the generous gift of grace as well as through our practice of the sacred but all too ordinary discipline that is at the heart of the Advent season: learning how to wait well. You see, Advent asks us why waiting matters as a person of faith: How might we use the fact that we all hate it to move closer to the Lord? It also asks us how waiting can actually create opportunities to share love and light with others within the darkness of our generation. 

Sixty years ago, from a Nazi prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these prescient words that still sound true to new century people:

Celebrating Advent means being able to wait: Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten... Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting – that is, of hopefully doing without – will never experience the full blessing of fulfillment. Those who do not know how it feels to struggle anxiously with the deepest questions of life, of their life, and to patiently look forward with anticipation until the truth is revealed, cannot even dream of the splendor of the moment in which clarity is illuminated for them.

And what about these words from four thousand years ago as articulated in Psalm 37? Beloved, be still before the Lord and wait patiently upon him… do not fret… but trust in the Lord and do good? Waiting, it would seem – and learning to wait well – clearly has something to do with solidarity and compassion, yes? It is one of the ways we realize beyond all our differences and divisions that we have a lot more in common with one another than we might think: waiting can be the Lord’s great unifier if we are paying attention.

Not long ago I read a blog by Rachel Evans – she is a creative, young evangelical woman – who was writing about the ways Christians in the United States might discover common ground rather than deepen our carping and complaining. In particular she was addressing the way liberals and conservatives so easily slip into the blinders of binary thinking – putting on the ugly either/or ultimatums of the world – rather than the paradoxical grace of Jesus when it comes to our questions about sexuality.

• “Don’t we ALL believe that Christ calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves?” she asked with a penetrating innocence. “What about the fact that we ALL sin and fall short of grace – don’t we share that in common, too?”

• And isn’t the entire Bible more interested in justice for the poor, peace-making among enemies, sacrificial love and grace-born forgiveness than being right about who shares your bed in love?

Her point was simple – and essential – for people of faith: when there are things we do not fully understand – and sexuality is a big one (and I mean ALL aspects of sexuality) – why not spend more time sharing the life of Christ that we do know and learning to wait on all the rest? Like St. Paul advised: Now we see as through a glass darkly – only later shall we see face to face – therefore three things abide – faith, hope and love – and the greatest of the three is… love.

The first insight of an Advent spirituality of waiting is that it encourages, deepens and invites holy compassion. St. Peter put it like this today:

Don't overlook the obvious here, friends. With God, one day is as good as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day. God isn't late with his promise as some measure lateness. He is restraining himself on account of you, holding back the End because he doesn't want anyone lost. He's giving everyone space and time to change.

The second insight suggests that waiting helps us practice surrender – letting go – trusting that God is God and we are not really in control. Again, Gertrud Mueller-Nelson has a sweet take on this truth. “Waiting, because it will always be with us, can be made a work of art – and Advent invites us to underscore and understand with a new patience…”
… the importance of seeking balance and harmony in our everyday lives. Much of our world is organized around the masculine perspective of getting things done. In fact, male or female, most of us connect waiting with wasting. But… and listen carefully: waiting – while unpractical time – is mysteriously necessary to all that is good.

As in a pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation: not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not a reconciliation, a new understanding, a work of art, never a transformation. Rather, a shortened period of incubation brings forth what is not whole or strong or sometimes even alive. Brewing, baking, simmering, fermenting, ripening, germinating and gestating are all the feminine processes of becoming and they are symbolic of what we all need in order for our lives to have meaning and balance.

Are you still with me? Advent waiting asks us to enter the quiet of watching rather than controlling – baking and brewing rather than buying – so that we might make waiting an art. That is why we listen to the story of John the Baptist every Advent: Israel had waited for 1000 years for another prophet-poet to arise.

• Did you hear that? Not 10 minutes waiting in a grocery store line or 5 minutes when some computer puts your phone call on hold and you have to listen to insipid Christmas music. 

• One thousand years: that’s the time Israel waited between the prophecy as recorded in the last book of the Bible – Malachi – and the new revelation brought forth by the Baptist.

The second insight of an Advent spirituality of waiting has to do with letting go so that we become open to the kingdom of God rather than the kingdom of self:

Don't overlook the obvious here, friends. With God, one day is as good as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day. God isn't late with his promise as some measure lateness. He is restraining himself on account of you, holding back the End because he doesn't want anyone lost. He's giving everyone space and time to change.

And the third insight builds on the others: if we sense that waiting can open us to compassion and show us that we are not in control, then we just might have eyes to look for the Lord in the most unlikely places. I’m going to speak specifically about why John the Baptist matters to us next week but let me cut to the chase about what Mark’s gospel tells us when it comes to the Baptizer. We want to hear a definitive word from the Lord. We want the sacred wisdom of the heavens with all the angels and Mark asks us to listen for God’s good news in a very different way. Bible scholar, Karoline Lewis, writes that in Mark’s gospel we don’t find God’s good news in Jerusalem – the heart of power and culture – but rather it appears:

Out in the in the wilderness where the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to meet John the Baptist…The opening of Mark's Gospel reminds us of the decentering of God's good news which is found on the edge...of everything. It goes beyond the boundaries of where we thought God was supposed to be. We find ourselves not in the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem but outside of her city walls, in the margins, on the sidelines. The good news of God brings hope to those who find themselves in the peripheries of our world, but it also belongs there. God's good news of grace announces God's presence on the fringe, God's love that goes beyond the boundaries of where we thought God was supposed to be and God's promise that there is no place on earth God will not go or be for us.

And while that can be maddening and confusing, it should also be good news for people like you and me. Because, you see, now it means there is hope for us – room for us – grace coming into our most unexpected, broken, wild and discarded places. 

There is much more to be said, but… let’s wait, ok? For such is the good news for today. Let us pray:

O God of hope, you call us from the exile of our sin with the good news of restoration; you build a highway through the wilderness; you come to us and bring us home. Comfort us with the expectation of your saving power, made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Philomena Ewing said...

Love this one RJ.
It gives a dignity to some of the awful intense mess I often get into when this time of year arrives.
and yet...the longing, and the questions are underscored by something inside me that is so strong and is beyond words but which you have managed to articulate so well here. I have never had children and I think I can relate better to John The Baptist than Mary !
You have managed to bring so much together here and it is beautiful.
Thanks and

RJ said...

Oh you don't know how much that touches my heart. Thank you. I am loving your reflections this season, too. Be well, dear friend.

just as I am said...

Dear Reverent,

I am far from the place you live and preach. I hear you from Kerala, INDIA.... and I love your writings and thoughts.

"Why waiting matter to me..." was a great reading. Advent is so important a season for me...waiting, waiting and waiting is a great theology to be understood and lived.

Thanks Reverent for your blogs...

Love, Abraham

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