November 29, 2015

The Waiting Game

          The earliest followers of Jesus probably didn’t anticipate how much of Christian discipleship would involve waiting. The earliest followers of Jesus expected him to return from the heavens at any moment to set this world right. But for almost two thousand years—and counting—the followers of Christ have been kept waiting.

          At least we’ve had plenty of time to figure out the waiting game. For millennia, we’ve been learning to wait well. One resource the church has developed to help us to wait well is the season of Advent, which begins today. For the next four Sundays before Christmas—and for all the days in between—we intentionally pause, wait, and prepare our hearts to celebrate Christ’s birth. We’re not only waiting for Christmas during Advent: We’re also waiting for the moment when Christ judges this world against the standard of the kingdom he proclaimed.

          I was at an Advent spirituality workshop once, and the facilitator advised us to stop and thank every red light in Advent for giving us the opportunity to simply wait. We need small practices like this because it’s hard to find moments of pause as we prepare to celebrate Christmas. It is, after all, the most famously busy time of the year. But it can be even harder, ultimately, to stop and wait for the kingdom itself . . . because when it comes to building a world of justice, shouldn’t we be doing something?

          Well, yes. We spend much of the church year discerning how to serve and give, fight and shout, build and do for the kingdom. But the season of Advent is for discerning the ways that waiting might be part of proclaiming the kingdom as well.

          There’s a particular witness to Christian waiting within the last two hundred years who is helping me observe Advent in 2015. His name was Richard Meux Benson, and in 1866 he founded the very first religious order in the Anglican Church since the Reformation—over 300 years before. Apparently, what troubled Benson deeply about his mid-nineteenth century world was its pace. For example, Benson lived in Oxford, England, where a railway station was about to start welcoming trains that traveled at 30 miles per hour. Can you imagine? Benson worried about the effect that such high speeds would have on our humanity.

          Earlier this month, I got to hear a man named Jamie Coats share the story of the religious order that Benson founded—the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (or “SSJE” for short). Now, they’re located near Boston, but their vocation remains the same: not to retreat from the modern world, but to stand in the middle of the city, right by the train tracks of the Industrial Revolution or alongside the information superhighway and get the speed of progress to stop, wait. For what? As Jamie Coats put it, for our kingdom values to catch up with the pace of technological progress.

          It’s not that there hasn’t been progress toward the kingdom. The kingdom has, indeed, broken into our world in marvelous ways since its proclamation by Christ. But the tide of prosperity and abundance that brings greater health and security to some people has swept past many others. And while this world has seen some relationships formed and achievements made by a previously unimaginable variety of people, the past two centuries have also seen previously unfathomable levels of violence—directed especially at people deemed to be intolerably different.

          The deeply humanizing values taught to us by a God incarnate in human form haven’t kept pace with the high-speed, high-tech progress of this world. God’s people, then, can be a beautiful gift to the world if we know how to stop, if we know how to wait. The monastic way of training us to stop and wait faithfully is through the gift of regular, daily prayer—particularly praying four times a day.

          In our second reading today, Paul sets this example for the church at Thessalonika. He prays that God will strengthen their hearts so that they’ll be blameless “at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” It sounds like Paul expects the Lord Jesus to come any moment, during the lifetimes of these Christians. But perhaps more important for us is Paul’s example of prayer: He says, “Night and day we pray most earnestly.” Night and day. While Paul and his colleagues Timothy and Silvanus are waiting, they’re praying. Night and day, every day.

          Today, many Christians have a practice of praying four times a day as a way to stop and force the pace of our lives to wait for our souls, hearts, minds, and strength to catch up. These four times of day—morning, noon, evening, and night—can be as brief as a pause. Perhaps we pray a collect or a Psalm, or pay attention to our breathing. Perhaps we set an intention in the morning, give thanks for our blessings and express sorrow for our sins in the evening, and fall asleep asking for help and hope for the coming day. The hardest moment of prayer for me is usually noon, right in the middle of the day, when we have to really stop, wait, and dedicate our work and our efforts, whether they succeed or fail, to God’s glory.

          The practice of praying four times daily is just one of the tools that God’s people have developed as we wait for the kingdom to come. And this season of Advent is the perfect time to practice stopping, and waiting, because the kingdom comes with those who stop and wait as the world rushes headlong who knows where.

          God’s people have been waiting on God’s promises from even before the birth of Christ. Our first reading is actually a version of an earlier prophecy, updated around the year 450 BC, when people’s dreams for the Promised Land failed to materialize. Nevertheless, they proclaimed, “The days are surely coming” when “Jerusalem will live in safety.” Today, it’s hard to believe those days are surely coming.

          But perhaps the kingdom comes to those who wait. Perhaps the kingdom comes through those who wait. As we learn to live in this in-between time by stopping in the middle of the busiest of worlds, and passing night and day in prayer, the kingdom breaks into the world through eagerly waiting hearts.

Citations from Jaime Coats found at