Sunday, February 28, 2010

Waiting Is the Hardest Part

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Second Sunday in Lent, February 28, 2010

Psalm 27

Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord! NRSV

We tend to like Psalm 27. I know I do. It is a favorite, almost up there with Psalm 23 and Psalm 139. I recall my high school men’s chorus singing a rousing, triumphant rendition of the Psalm, with confident, full-voiced assurance in the psalm’s first verse, sung both at the beginning and the end of the composer’s arrangement:

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid? NRSV

In my adult years, especially my years in ministry, I realized that the composer of that choral piece did a bit of cutting and pasting. He put the anthem together in classic “A B A” form, using the psalm’s triumphant first verse as the “A” theme to begin and end the piece, and the more introspective third verse about “an army encamped against me” as the B section. But in that verse about an army camped outside Jerusalem’s city gates, the composer of that music I remember so well ended the last line in the “B” section with a triumphant unison octave leap for the whole chorus, singing “Yet I will be confident!” Then it was back to the “A” section, marching confidently to the end: “The Lord is my light...!”

Completely left out of that arrangement was the last verse of the Psalm, verse 14. Though it may be an inconvenient verse for triumphalists, I believe that last verse was included for people whose perspective on triumph may have not yet arrived, indeed, may never have come into view.

Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord! NRSV

We are Americans, we don’t like waiting. As long ago as 1905 a line from a song in a popular American musical put it rather succinctly, “I want what I want when I want it.” [1]

Waiting is something most of us don’t like to do. I certainly don’t. I’ve been known to drive an extra six blocks on a circuitous avoidance route to bypass a certain traffic signal in order to get to a different traffic light, losing more than five minutes over the time I would have spent had I simply waited for the original traffic light to begin with. Waiting often gives birth to its close cousin, impatience, which – if experience serves me – can be a synonym for jerkitude, closely related to cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s chronometer. Who doesn’t know that? How many of us wait patiently? At best, don’t we mostly wait unwillingly? For modern folks, isn’t waiting generally thought of not as a passport to a peaceful spirit, but as something to be suffered through? If not, why did we ever invent interstate highways where we can often indulge our need to hurry for a while in order to stop and wait together in spots where too many cars converge on too-small interchanges?

And if you or I find ourselves in that blessed place where we aren’t really in a hurry and take a leisurely pace at stop lights or in traffic, we will soon also find ourselves enduring the scorn of honked horns and digital gesturing from those who labor under the mistaken belief that the one who drives the fastest gets there the firstest.

Headings for waiting and impatience appear on the very same page of my trusted old Roget’s Thesaurus – and I probably should say for the benefit of any in the Google generation that a thesaurus – dear companion of writers of every generation prior to our own – is not some class of dinosaur but rather a book that provides writers with terms that are closely related to one another, helping us discover a fuller range of meaning for a single term. The word thesaurus is Greek, thesauron, meaning “storehouse,” or “treasury,” and a book called a thesaurus is a storehouse of words related to the worn-out term a person was thinking of using for the fiftieth time in their English paper – or sermon.

But I distract myself. The words waiting and impatience appear near to one another in a thesaurus not because they are words that are related linguistically, but thematically. One who waits is so often one who is also impatient that there is every reason to place those words near each other. One who waits, delays, stands by, bides a while, tarries, lingers, marks time, sits tight, hangs on, holds his horses, keeps his shirt on, also, very often, soon becomes one who is anxious, breathless, restless, tense, fretful, sitting in pants full of those proverbial ants.

Why is this? Is waiting just something to be endured, and that as rarely as possible? Our Bible translators have given us 139 places in scripture where variations on the word “wait” are used. And I can tell you, if you haven’t guessed already, the Bible is not unaware that waiting is something human beings never have liked to do all that much. Nonetheless, waiting is exactly the prescription the Bible authors often provide for our anxious want-it-right-now-this-very-minute lives.

The first thing God told Moses to do when he came up the mountain to receive the ten commandments and the law was to “wait there...”[2] Isaiah said that those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,[3] and that those who wait for the Lord will not be put to shame;[4] The disciples asked Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”,[5] dimly aware that waiting for a Messiah was not something to be in a hurry about. Paul said, “if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience,”;[6] II Peter says, “In accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home”;[7] The prayers of the psalmist refer to waiting 20 times. Apparently waiting is something to be prayed about, or prayed through, or even prayed for.

Our Psalm today is a psalm of courage, a confident psalm filled with images of fearlessness and the Lord as life’s strongbox. This is not to say the psalm doesn’t deal in the arena of the same sorts of doubts about the usefulness of waiting that we find so common in our own lives and times. The confident voice of the psalmist that instructs us at the psalm’s end, saying “Wait for the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage...” also, a few verses earlier, pleaded, “Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.”

We know how that is, don’t we? Our lives can be like roller coasters, carrying us to peaks of overconfidence one moment, and deep anxiety the next. And it is when we are in that deeply anxious place that we are most likely to snap impatiently at the person who suggests that we wait patiently for the Lord, isn’t it? Let’s say you’ve just seen someone who is practicing their parallel parking take out the left front fender and driver’s side door of your car. And the last payment on that car just went in the mail yesterday. And your ultrasound is scheduled in a half hour. And the police won’t send an officer to a non-injury accident. And the other driver is a nervous wreck who speaks only in some language unknown to you, and is taking forever just finding the insurance information in his glove box. And it has started to rain hard. And are you sure you remembered to mail in that last insurance premium on time? And you forgot your umbrella when you put on your best suede outfit today. And, and, and... Do you feel a gasket about to go? So the first person to step up to you and say “Wait for the Lord,” had better keep at least an arm’s length distance between themselves and you.

Patient waiting: so easy to prescribe, so difficult to do. Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament professor emeritus of Columbia Presbyterian Theological Seminary, once wrote a helpful prayer that addressed our waiting for God. In it he said,

We have heard of your wondrous power,
the ways in which you make newness,
the ways in which you defeat death,
the ways in which you give life.
We trust you in the night while we sleep;
we rise early in the morn to find you alert, active, engaged.
You dazzle us day and night.
Yet ... we notice the place where
you are curbed,
you are fringed,
you are held.
Your newness we do not see ... so we wait.
Keep us easy at night in our wait.
Keep us vigilant in day while we wait.
Keep our wait fixed on you,
you alone,
you and none other ... and we will rejoice. Amen.

One person, commenting on this last verse of Psalm 27 said that the entire Psalm declares to us, in a way, “Take courage. God is a God of the things that will be.” Waiting to recognize the presence of God among us, to save us, is a good Lenten discipline, trusting in the God who was and is, and who is God of things that will be.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Mlle. Modiste, an operetta in two acts, composed by Victor Herbert, [libretto by Henry Blosom], premiered on Broadway on December 25, 1905 where it ran for 202 performances.
[2] Exodus 24:12.
[3] Isaiah 40:31.
[4] Isaiah 49:23.
[5] Matthew 11:3, Luke 7:19.
[6] Romans 8:25.
[7] II Peter 3:13.
[8] “The Place Where You Are Curbed,” Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, Edwin Searcy, ed., Fortress Press, 2003, p. 20.
[9] Peter Steinke, “Fear Factor,” Christian Century, February 20, 2007, p. 20.