By Debie Thomas
As I sit down to write this week, thousands of people in flood-devastated Houston are waiting to be rescued. In other parts of the country and world, people are waiting for an end to war, or racial injustice, or grinding poverty, or tyrannical leadership. Closer to home, I have friends who are waiting for traumas to heal, relationships to mend, financial burdens to lift, and physical pain to loosen its grip. Here in the safety of my home, I’m waiting for long-held anxieties to fade away, for my son to adjust to a new school year, and for my daughter’s recent departure for college to feel less painful. Though the range and intensity of our waits vary, we are so often “on hold” in this life. Sometimes it feels as if the whole planet is waiting, holding its collective breath, straining with impatience, and yearning for “more” and “better.” Sometimes I wonder if waiting is the quintessential human condition.
Unfortunately, I don’t live in a culture that helps me to wait well. In fact, just the opposite is true — I live in a culture that worships instant gratification, and primes me to expect solutions to all of my problems right now. I live in a world where I can order just about anything on Amazon, and find it on my doorstep within 24 hours. A world where I can send a text, an email, or a Facebook message across the ocean and have it arrive near-instantaneously. A world where I have 24/7 access to information, healthcare, nourishment, and shelter. In this cultural economy, delays are a waste of precious time. Worse, delays are automatic reasons to doubt the love and goodness of God.
And yet as I look at Scripture, I find that waiting is not only the norm, it’s nearly a vocation. The Biblical pattern for God’s people is a pattern of waiting. Adam waited for a partner, Noah waited for the flood waters to recede, Abraham waited for a son, Jacob waited to marry Rachel, Hannah waited for children, the Israelites waited for deliverance… the list goes on and on. In a broader and more metaphorical sense, we live out our lives on Holy Saturday. Though we know the crucifixion is over, though we live in the light of the Resurrection, we are also painfully aware that full redemption lies ahead. As yet, we are incomplete and imperfect; we dwell in the “not-yet.” In my church, we “proclaim the mystery of faith” every Sunday morning: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” We rightfully pin our hopes on that last claim, and yet, in our humanness, we grow weary of waiting. Just a few weeks ago, I heard an elderly woman say, “Two thousand years. And still we wait.” She wasn’t complaining, exactly. But her words were a sigh, and I could feel her tiredness in my bones.
When I was growing up, the answer to the “Why must we wait?” question was pie-in-the-sky. Earth, I was told, is meant to be our waiting room; real life — the truly abundant and glorious life we long for — is only going to be ours in heaven. Even as a kid, I found this answer thin and unhelpful. Though I was as comforted by the prospect of heaven as anyone else, the idea that this life is only a backstage waiting area disappointed me. Somehow, it drained life of color, purpose, and adventure. Worse, it filled me with a sense of futility I still find dangerous. If this life doesn’t really “count,” why bother investing in it deeply? Why care? Why love? Why risk? Why take seriously the call to steward the earth, feed the poor, care for the orphan, and stand up to injustice? Why not just sit back and wait for God to fix everything at The End of Time?
These days, I find myself needing a new theology of waiting. I don’t have answers, just wonderings. Musings. Hopes. As I struggle to wait, and as I watch others struggle to wait, here are some of the things I wonder and hope about this apparently universal vocation:
- I wonder if waiting is the only way I can receive God as God really is. It has taken me years to recognize how my insistence on quick answers to prayer distorts my image of God. If God doesn’t give me what I want right when I want it, then I need to ask myself what kind of God I believe in. Can I trust in a God whose generosity and timing look different than I want them to? Or do I believe in God-as-Santa-Claus, a God whose behaviour I can reduce to a formula? Waiting forces me to consider the possibility that God is wilder, less predictable, and less “safe” than my need for comfort might dictate. It compels me to look for God in lonelier, darker places, and not merely in the light of answered prayer. Waiting challenges me to rethink the relationship between God’s goodness and his omnipotence. God can say no. God can withhold. God can subject himself to the limits that come with the created order he has established. And yet he can still be good.
- I wonder if waiting is the only way I can learn to accept reality as it is. I tend to be perfectionistic and even combative about my circumstances. It’s hard for me to live intentionally and fully in the life I have now; I always want to change a few things first. Tidy up, fix up, and resolve. Richard Rohr writes that forgiveness is central to Jesus’s teaching, “because to receive reality is always to ‘bear it,’ to bear with reality for not meeting all of our needs. To accept reality is to forgive reality for being what it is, almost day by day and sometimes even hour by hour. Such a practice creates patient and humble people.”
- I wonder if waiting is the only way I can accept who I really am. The truth is, I am the least open to God when I’m demanding the most from him. When my heart is clamoring, when the “give me, give me, give me” prayers are pouring out of me at a hundred miles an hour, I am clenched inside. Unreceptive. Ungenerous. And immature. I am incapable in those moments of hearing how petulant and frantic I sound. I lose all ability to make use of my own God-given resources and strengths. When I’m in demand mode, it doesn’t even occur to me to consider what God might want me to do. I become willfully helpless, and my thinking loses agency and nuance. Waiting forces me to slow down. To stop yammering. To see myself in both my glory and my brokenness.
This is hardly an exhaustive list, but it speaks to where I am now. I am learning to wait. I am learning to wait on God. Most importantly, I am learning to trust that even when I wait, God’s love abides.
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