'The Slow Work of God'

Waiting is so hard to do. Most Americans are not very good at it. And those of us who like to fix things (people like me)—are even worse at waiting. If you are a “fixer”—this is not always bad. Certain personality types—especially pastors, counselors, caregivers, doctors and problem-solvers—tend to struggle with waiting. I have been living with a phrase on waiting since this last summer while observing the church calendar. The line is from a poem written by a French theologian named Pierre Teihard de Chardin (1881-1955), and it has become especially meaningful to me during Advent. I didn’t grow up reading French mystics, especially those who were Roman Catholic. Nor was I raised observing the church calendar. But, my love of church history has introduced me to the whole church (Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Orthodox and Roman Catholic) as well as the rhythms of the Christian calendar. I was once asked by a parishioner why in the world I would infuse such new ideas into “our” church and my response was that these “ideas” were not new at all; they were in fact very, very old. Before I talk about the wisdom of the French mystic—here is a brief introduction to the church calendar for the uninitiated. It begins with Advent (L.—waiting for his coming) which commences around December 1. The season is a time of anticipation—of waiting for Christ to come (again) and renew us. This is followed by Epiphany (“to reveal”) in January, as the life and ministry of Christ is “revealed” to us in fresh ways. Then there is Lent (the word means “Springtime”) as we reflect on the final weeks of Jesus’ life. Lent culminates in Passion Week (or Holy Week) and Easter (the resurrection), followed by Pentecost (“fifty days” after the ascension) as we prepare to commemorate the birth of the church and the spread of the gospel. In summer we observe Ordinary Time (perhaps more on this later). As a pastor I introduced liturgical concepts and ancient ideas (even in greetings and prayers and dismissals) in a non-liturgical setting—and many people loved it—though some resisted it. I have no doubt my insistence on keeping (and recovering) old things bothered some people—but my intention was never to frustrate people. I simply wanted to provide good theological vision that would deepen the life of the church. Now, to reflections on Advent.

           This Advent I had an epiphany (pardon the play on words). I was in a meeting with my spiritual director (this is also an ancient practice, meeting with a pastor or scholar with extensive training in theology and counseling) and still grieving over some things that I wanted to be made right—in my life and in relationships I cherished.  I was weeping as I poured out my soul. My spiritual director, a sagacious professor who is nearly 70 years of age, handed me a box of tissues and sat quietly as I regained my composure. Then he said, “We are entering Advent.  It is a season of waiting.  Have you been able to connect your longing with the season?”  And then my mind began to race, my eyes still full of tears. I started (as I often do) mentally flipping through the Scriptures, starting in Genesis, recalling what I knew about ceasing and waiting. In Genesis God worked and then he stopped—He rested (the Hebrew word is “cease” or “stop”) on the seventh day (Gen. 2.1). The earth still needed to be “tamed” and “filled” and “cultivated” (I mean there was still a lot of work to do); yet God rested. One of the reasons for this was to create an example for us to follow. Noah waited in the ark (Genesis 8.10) for God’s deliverance.  Abraham and Sarah waited and waited for the promise of God (Genesis 12-17).  In fact, Father Abraham was so impatient—he tried to force a solution of his own making. (Sometimes bad things happen when we don’t wait.) Jacob waited for his promised bride, and then waited again for justice after he was mistreated by his manipulative father-in law (Genesis 29).  Joseph waited—in a pit, in Pharaoh’s house, in a prison—waiting for the real story to finally come out (Genesis 37-50). I wasn’t even in Exodus yet.  I had 65 more books to think through, and I still wanted to contemplate some of the spiritual classics (old theologians).  My spiritual director then asked me, “Are you good at waiting?” “No,” I replied immediately. Then I said, “In fact, could we hurry up with this session.” We both laughed. Then he said, “What happens when you cannot fix something immediately?” “I get frustrated,” I replied. “Ah!” he said, as if I was finally starting to understand what he had been gently trying to help me see. “This will be new for you—and good for you. It might even take a lot of pressure off of you and those around you—I want you to begin exploring this theme of waiting.” (He proceeded to give me some assignments—and it’s been hard not to rush through them!!! I’m laughing at my own impatience!)

            There is much in Scripture about ceasing (resting) and waiting. The Psalms are especially rich with this language.  “None who wait for you shall be put to shame” (Ps. 25.3). “I wait for you” (Ps. 25.21). “Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord” (Ps. 27.14). “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Ps. 37.7).  “I waited patiently for the Lord…and he heard my cry” (Ps. 40.1). “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Ps. 62.1)—one of my favorite verses in the Psalms this year! “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits and in His word I hope” (Ps. 130.5).  I’ve shared only a few verses—from the Pentateuch and the Psalter—but there are many more —from the prophets to the epistles. Here are just a few:  “Oh Lord, be gracious to us; we wait for you” (Isa. 32.2). What a beautiful prayer! “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will walk and not grow weary, they will run and not faint” (Isa. 40.31). Wait a minute! Waiting can be a time of renewal!?  Yes, it is one of the means by which God renews us and gives us fresh strength to take off and soar!  “Wait for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1.4) then go out and be my witnesses.  “The creation waits with eager longing” (Romans 8.19).  We are “waiting for our blessed hope” (Tit. 2.13).  “See how the farmer “waits for the harvest, being patient” (Jam. 5)—a passage that points us to Job—to waiting for God to bless us after a season of intense suffering ,

I was still meeting with my spiritual director as my mind was reflecting on these things. The room grew silent. (He thinks silence is good.)  I looked up in tears and said, “I think God is teaching me that sometimes—he just wants me to wait. And I’m not very good at that.” And then, I recalled the words of the French Mystic Peirre Teilhard de Chardin, “Above all else, trust in the slow work of God.” The connection with Advent became vivid. Israel waited for the Messiah—for a very long time. And we are all waiting for Him to come again, to wipe away every tear from our eyes, and to renew all things. And yet in the waiting, God is working, and he is working in me. And even in this area—of what God is doing in me—patience is also required. I must, as Chardin says later in the same poem, “Give our Lord the benefit of believing that He, by His grace, is forming me, shaping me, and leading me.” I am waiting for the world to be redeemed and I am waiting for Christ to be formed in me.

            What are you waiting for in this season? Perhaps you have been through a divorce and your family is broken, and your kids are taking sides and your friends and extended family all have opinions and you are feeling guilty for not being able to fix it. Maybe you have lost a job—and you can’t quite seem to get your career back on track. You may be waiting for a child or friend to speak to you again. Maybe you are struggling to sing “Joy to the World” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” because you are hurting so deeply. Let me say that you are not alone; many are grieving this time of the year, waiting for renewal. In the liturgical tradition some churches observe what is called Blue Christmas or Longest Night Services (Christmas falls around the longest night of the year) in order to embrace elements of the season that include sadness, darkness and waiting. (Evangelical churches are very good at celebration, but often fail to give people space for contemplation.) If you need to sit down and cry or pray during a joy-filled jingle—go right ahead. I do. Or if you need to take a quiet walk or have some time of reflection and prayer and say, “Lord, I wait for you”—I encourage you to do so. We are all waiting for God to fix something. Waiting.

May this season of Advent and Christmas be a time of rest—a time of waiting—and a time of peaceful trust in Him. And in the waiting, may God give give us fresh strength and courage for a new year (Is. 40.31). Let us pray together the words of Isaiah 32:2—”Oh Lord, be gracious to us, we wait for you.”