The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Back in the early 1980s, the late Tom Petty wrote “The Waiting is the Hardest Part.”  While it is obviously a song about a woman, I’m guessing it wasn’t written about the prophet Anna, though it could have been.  Anna, Luke tells us, was waiting for the Messiah.  For nearly sixty years, Anna had lived in the Temple, praying, fasting, and waiting for God to fulfill the promise of a Messiah who would restore Israel and redeem the whole world.

After almost 11 months of waiting to see y’all in real life, I’m over it.  I can’t imagine doing this for another 700 months, 21,500 days, or 516,000 hours, give or take.  The waiting is the hardest part, but some things are worth waiting for.  For Anna, the wait was certainly worth it.  She was a prophet, not in the fortune teller sense.  Instead, for Anna, being a prophet meant she was in tune with God’s word.  Through her spiritual discipline of prayer and fasting, Anna had cultivated a deep relationship with God.  She had received the promise of a Savior, but didn’t know when it would come.  As she waited, I’m sure there were days of frustration.  I’m sure there were moments of desperation.  After 60 years of waiting, I’m certain that Anna had seen the depths of worry and sorrow, but then she saw him, and she knew.

How she knew that this forty-day old baby boy was the one for whom she had waited, I don’t know, but she knew, and she believed, and she praised God for the fulfillment of the promise of a child who would redeem the whole world.  As we wait for the full rollout of the vaccine, for life to slowly return to normal, I wonder how God might be calling us to deepen our relationship, to see the world through God’s eyes, and to work toward the Kingdom of God.

The waiting is the hardest part, but in the waiting, there is plenty of work to do.  I pray this day that God might give us all the spirit of Anna, that we might wait, patiently and with conviction, for the redemption of the world.  Amen.

The Beginning of the Good News

The beginning of the good news is upon us.  Most years, I hear this opening line to Mark’s Gospel without much fanfare.  Usually, there is good news all around, all the time, especially as the calendar turns to December and the secular Christmas season of peace and goodwill shifts into high gear.  In 2020, however, good news has been few and far between.  Since March, there have been glimpses of good news, here and there, but mostly our attention has been focused on the daily reports of the number of people infected or killed by this novel Coronavirus, the ongoing reality of racism in our nation, and political discord at every level of governance.  On Wednesday morning, however, we got the beginning of the good news.  The first Coronavirus vaccine was approved for emergency use in the United Kingdom, and it should be available here in the United States in just a few short weeks.  There is light at the end of the tunnel, and for the first time since March, it might not be an oncoming train.

2020 has been a year spent in the wilderness, and with news of a vaccine on the horizon, it would be tempting to quickly run toward normalcy.  The wilderness is often associated with desolation and despair, but our Gospel lesson for this morning teaches us that the good news of God’s steadfast love begins not in the marble halls of power or the comfortable seats of money and privilege, but in the discomfort of the wilderness, on the margins, and among the vulnerable.  So, even with the beginning of the good news upon us, the author of Mark, the prophet Isaiah,  and John the Baptist all would admonish us to stick it out and to see where God is at work, even here in the wilderness.

The Gospel of Mark begins with two different wilderness scenes.  First, we find ourselves in the wilderness of the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah’s story takes place before, during, and after the Babylonian Exile of the Hebrew people, a definite top-3 most wildernessy experience in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Stripped of their land, God’s Holy Temple, and, in many ways, their identity, for seventy years, the Jewish people in Babylon felt lost and totally separated from their God.  The opening verses of Psalm 137 tell the sad story of Jewish exiles weeping as they hung their harps in the willow trees that lined the Euphrates River, unable to imagine how they could worship their God or sing with joy in their wilderness experience.  Mark opens his Gospel by borrowing a quote from the Isaiah 40 lesson that Bill Collins just read for us.  It is the transition moment in Isaiah as the story moves from judgment and destruction to the promise of hope and restoration.  It is the beginning of the good news that God will restore Jerusalem, but even more, it is the assurance that God had never really left them all alone.  God may have felt far away in the wilderness of Babylon, but the beginning of the good news is the realization that God is always present.

Mark then fast-forwards some five hundred years to the wilderness near the Jordan River where a new prophet had arrived.  The people of Israel were once again under the thumb of an oppressive foreign power.  Rome had first conquered Jerusalem in 63 BCE and had ruled over Judea since about 37 BCE.  Although Herod the Great oversaw the rebuilding of the Second Temple, the Jewish people were taxed heavily in response.  The Romans ruled through violence and intimidation, worshipped their own pagan gods, and took significant money out of the Temple system.  The Jewish people still resided in Judea, but it was no longer theirs.  God once again felt far away, and try as the Pharisees might to restore Israel through holiness of life, the people of God were once again deep in the metaphorical wilderness when John the Baptist began to preach repentance in the literal wilderness.

John the Baptist was the beginning of the good news of God’s next move in restoring Israel, and indeed, all of creation.  John was the one appointed to prophesy of God’s comfort, to make straight the path, and to prepare the way for God’s anointed one.  Yet again, God’s word of hope came not in the mighty Temple or in the Roman capital city or from the mouth of a mighty warrior, but from the midst of the wilderness and from a man on the margins of society.  God may have felt far away in the wilderness of Roman occupation, but the beginning of the good news is the realization that God is always present.

Traditionally, the wilderness is thought to be a forsaken place, a setting unsuitable for human beings, a scene to be moved through as quickly as possible.  The last nine months have reiterated that reality for many of us.  As the COVID-19 pandemic has lingered, I’m guessing all of us have, at one point or another, just wished we could snap our fingers and be on the other side.  From the prologue to Mark’s Gospel, however, we learn that the wilderness can be holy ground, the place where God comes to redeem creation, or at least, the beginning of the good news.  The wilderness is a place of struggle, no doubt, but it is also a place of hope, renewal, and promise.  Rather than closing our eyes and running through it as quickly as possible, the opening to Mark’s Gospel invites us to slow down and look for what God is up to in the wilderness.  The beginning of the good news is that God is always present – in the wilderness, in the waiting, even in pandemic.  As we experience the beginning of the good news of a vaccine, through Mark and the prophets Isaiah and John, God invites us to seek out hope and restoration amidst the struggle.

Perhaps it is perfect, then, that the beginning of the good news of the end of this pandemic comes to us in the Season of Advent.  Advent is, at its best, a deliberate time in the wilderness.  While the world has already jumped ahead to Christmas, the Church invites us to approach the mystery of Christ’s birth slowly and with intention.  Advent, like the wilderness, can be a place of God’s revelation when we are present to it.  As we slowly move out of the darkness and toward the light of Christ, be careful not to rush toward the finish line.  Take your time in the wilderness, look around, and ask God for glimpses of the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ coming into the world.  Jesus may not yet have been born in a stable in Bethlehem, but the beginning of the good news is the realization that God is always present, especially in the wilderness.  Amen.

Patience!?!

Advent 3 is a pretty evil time for the RCL to assign James 5 and a call to patience.  It is as if they’ve never had a seven year-old waiting for Santa in their homes.  By the time the ides of December are upon us, I think every parent in Christendom feels like the late, great, Grumpy Cat.

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And yet, as we enter upon the busiest fortnight of the year for both church and secular society, laity and the ordained, the call to patience is probably a really good bit of advice.  There is a tendency to rush, rush, rush, this time of year.  We can get so caught up in what’s next – dance recitals, Christmas parties, angel tree gifts, family dinners, school projects, shopping, pageant rehearsals, and other special events, that there is no time left to be present to the moment, let alone, to simply sit and wait.

This was the theme in our staff meeting today.  As the daylight continues to grow shorter, it feels like the days themselves are coming faster and faster.  The threat of becoming a slave to our to-do lists is very real.  Yet, the word we get from James this week is to wait.  To rest.  To be patient.  Sure the farmer toils.  From sunrise to sunset, the farmer toils to make sure the yield in her field is as fruitful as possible, but ultimately, it is a waiting game.  The harvest won’t be ready until the harvest is ready.

Jesus won’t be born again on Christmas until December 25th.  No amount of slavishness to our own expectations will bring Christmas any sooner.  Perhaps the threat of deforestation from our bulletin production will bring about the second-coming a little faster, but I doubt that highly as well.  Even as work to provide our families, friends, and congregations a very special Christmas, it is important that we make space for patient waiting.  Did you hear that, me?  I’ll say it again, Advent as a season of preparation is a season of patient waiting for the first and second advents of Christ.  Take some time, rest in the Lord, enjoy the twinkling of the lights, and wait with patient and hopeful expectation.

Before Pentecost

The story of the Day of Pentecost is a spectacular one.  It is ready made for Hollywood special effects masters to do their work.  If Mel Gibson ever got his hands on it, we’d see the face-melting fire of Indiana Jones mixed with the cow lifting wind of Twister all culminating in Peter offering a wildly out of context antisemitic rant.  I’m on vacation this week, so I hope to have a chance to rescue the actual content of the Pentecost story from the overly dramatic 21st century image I’ve just given you, but in the meantime, as you ponder cows flying on Pentecost, I want to think for a moment about what happened before the coming of the Holy Spirit.

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On Thursday of last week, the Church celebrated the Feast of the Ascension.  It is the day, 40 days after the Resurrection, when Jesus returns to his Father.  As the story goes in Acts, just before his departure, Jesus reiterates to his disciples that they should wait for the Spirit.  This makes sense, given both their impulsiveness and their lack of faith.  One can easily imagine that within minutes of Jesus’ ascension, 6 of the disciples would head home, ready to return to normal life, while the remaining 5 set out to preach the Gospel without any help from the Spirit.  Instead, Jesus says, “wait.”

How often does the Church take that advice?  How often do we forget that it is actually a pattern in the course of salvation history.  Remember how the Hebrews, having fled Egypt on the Day of the Passover, get to the banks of the Red Sea and God tells them to wait there.  He commands them to set up camp while the Egyptians pursue them.  The Hebrews, like many of us, have no desire to wait.  They want to get out of town as quickly as possible, but God demands that they hold fast.

Waiting is often a test to our faith.  It is in those moments when we are doing nothing that we have to come to grips with whether or not we actually trust God to do what God has promised.  The Hebrew’s panicked, offering one of the best lines in Scripture, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?”  The Disciples, this time at least, were obedient to the call to wait.  They elected Matthias to round out the 12, they prayed, they went to the Temple, and they waited.  Faithfully, they waited.

It is easy to just keep busy: to go about the business of ministry and never slow down long enough to listen for God, but sometimes, the will of God is for us to stop, set up camp, and abide for a while.  In waiting, we give the Spirit a chance to meet us.  In waiting, we slow down enough to hear the call of God.  In waiting, we are blessed.

When waiting breaks your heart

“How long, O Lord?”  That is the cry of the Psalmist and the Prophets.  “How long must we wait for your dream to become reality?” remains the cry for the faithful even today.  Since yesterday at about 8:26pm CST, I’ve been pondering this question of “How long?” and thinking, in light of the lessons for Advent 1, and the call to holy waiting, how I can faithful live in the meantime because living in the meantime can be heartbreaking.

Living in the meantime means living as a broken and sinful human being in a broken and sinful world.  It means paying the penalty for sin: my own and a myriad of systemic ones.  It means that sometimes a young black man, after a lifetime of living in fear of the police, makes a terrible choice and ends up dead.  It means sometimes that a young white man, in a position of authority and carrying a gun for a living, makes a terrible choice and kills that young black man.  It means sometimes that a grand jury, bound by laws that aren’t perfect makes a decision that is devastating to a family and a community.  It means sometimes that a group of people so fed up with the way things are takes to the streets to exact vigilante justice that devastates whole families and communities.  It means watching as conservative bloggers say some crazy racist stuff that gets liked by a friend on Facebook.  It means watching as liberal bloggers say some crazy insensitive stuff that gets retweeted by a friend on Twitter.  Living in the meantime means having your heart broken again and again by bigotry, injustice, violence, and hatred.

Living faithfully in the meantime means being a force for justice, hope, peace, and restoration.  It means putting a stop to the cycle of demonization, anger, violence, and vitriol that perpetuates the broken system.  Too often, in the emotional aftermath of an event like the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, even the Church forgets this call.  Too often, the Social Media accounts of the clergy look like the same bubbling cauldrons that the 24 hour news cycle has taught us to worship.  Too often, Christians forget to be harbingers of peace in the midst of conflict.

How long, O Lord, how long?

My heart breaks for the family of Michael Brown.  My heart breaks for Darren Wilson and his family.  My heart breaks for every African American person who lives in fear of the police, and my heart breaks for every police officer who lives in fear of every young black man they see.  My heart breaks for Ferguson, and for every place where the dream of God, that all should be united one to another and to God, has yet to be realized.  And so this morning, a few days ahead of the start of Advent, I will begin this year’s Advent Practice.   Following the suggestion of Bishop Matthew Wren from way back in 1662, I will pray the Collect for Advent 1 at least once each day.  I will pray through the waiting and through the heartbreak, trusting that through God’s grace, I can be a part of a Church that casts away the darkness of this broken and sinful world, and puts on the armor of light, of hope, of peace, and above all, the armor of love.  Won’t you join me?

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Advent Prayer

Waiting as Holy Time

Most Monday mornings, I find out what Old Testament lesson is assigned for Sunday by reading the daily God Pause email from WorkingPreacher.org. This morning’s reflection was based on Exodus 24 and the holiness of waiting. It is worth a read.

In seminary, we talked a lot about a seemingly made up word called “liminality.” Liminality is the space in between the old and the new. Seminary is a liminal space, especially for an MDiv student, between one’s old life as a lay leader and one’s new life of ordained ministry. There are myriad other examples of liminal time and space: the 40 weeks of pregnancy is a liminal time; second semester senior year is a liminal time; two-weeks notice is a liminal time. The author of today’s God Pause noted that no matter how long that time of waiting is, it a) feels like it will never end and b) ends too soon. Moses must have thought those six days of waiting would never end, but as he went further up the mountain on day seven, I guarantee, he wished he could wait just a little bit longer.

Today, I sit in waiting. The recommendations of the We Dream of a Diocese Committee were referred for further study – convention decided to kick the can down he road for a spell – until a special convention can be called prior to next year’s Annual Convention. The merits of our report seem to not be the issue (at least for most people who live outside of the City of Mobile), though a three hour parliamentary quagmire kept us from debating that much. Instead people worried about the timing as we prepare to elect the 4th Bishop of the Central Gulf Coast: a problem that won’t be fixed before the special convention. The other issue is clarity of language. We missed some obvious questions that needed to be addressed before final canonical language could be adopted.

As we wait and work, I’m reminding myself that waiting can be holy time, but only if I allow it to be. I can make waiting miserable time, if I want to, by being bitter and frustrated, but thanks be to God that the first lesson I get to read on the first day of waiting is a call to be patient and wait on The Lord.