Drinking Tears By The Bowlful: Waiting

For Sunday November 27, 2005
First Sunday in Advent

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
           Isaiah 64:1–9
           Psalm 80:1–7, 17 –19
           1 Corinthians 1:3–9
           Mark 13:24–37

Moscow bus stop.
Moscow bus stop.

           When I was a visiting professor at Moscow State University we did not own a car for four years (1991–1995). Not owning a car was mainly a blessing in that beautiful city of 10 million people. We enjoyed our urban walking, mastering the transportation system presented a nice little challenge, and besides, who wanted to negotiate parking, vandalism, and scarce petrol? On the other hand, we did a lot of waiting that felt like a huge time-sink. Waiting...waiting...waiting—at night, in freezing temperatures with three tired kids, stomping our feet to keep warm, craning our necks to read the numbers of each bus that passed by, jostling with Muscovites at the crowded stops. And for what? To shove your way aboard a rickety, smelly, crowded bus where you stood cheek to jowl until you arrived at your destination, then elbowed your way off and out. Would the bus ever come? Should we just walk, or wait? You never knew, nor could you know.

           Waiting for a bus is laughably trivial compared to what some people wait for. The most profound and perplexing puzzle for Jews in the Old Testament was why God gave His nation Israel over to their pagan enemies Assyria (722 BC) and Babylon (586 BC) who vanquished them. How long must they wait for His demonstrative acts of salvation? Had they not become a mockery to their neighbors? The Psalmist this week begs Yahweh to come and save His people, only to complain that He had made them "drink tears by the bowlful" (80:5–6). Similarly, Isaiah's elegant poetry wistfully recalls the long gone days when Yahweh wielded his "glorious arm of power" and Moses led the exodus from Egypt that humiliated Pharaoh. But in his own day Isaiah could only question, "where are your zeal and your might? We all shrivel up like a leaf...You hide your face from us" (Isaiah 63:15, 64:6, 7).

Black-and-white sketch.
Black-and-white sketch.

           Today is not much different. If you open your eyes and your heart you see your friends, colleagues, and neighbors struggling to detect some glimmer of hope in times of confusion, pain, and darkness. Aging parents battle chronic loneliness and deteriorating health, while their adult children with their own families with their own problems feel helpless to help. A struggling teenager gulps a bottle of pills. A friend in Arizona hopes his kid will graduate not from Harvard but from high school. Divorcing parents fight bitterly over custody of their kids. One night last week a police car pulled into my neighbor's driveway. Can we discern even the faintest signal that God is not entirely absent and silent? Might we legitimately hope for even a modicum of health, wholeness and healing for ourselves and for those we love?

           Isaiah and the Psalmist both fairly well beg God to prove Himself by some cataclysmic act of power. "Hear us, shine forth, awaken your might, come and save us, restore us, return to us, look down from heaven and see us, revive us, O Lord Almighty!" (Psalm 80). Isaiah dispenses with all nuance and subtlety: "Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!" (Isaiah 64:1). He cajoles Yahweh to "come down" like fire to tinder that causes water to boil, to perform "awesome things we did not expect."

           The disconnect between what we sometimes experience and what we pray for that results from God's apparent silence is a source of understandable anxiety and frustration. Praying to God for mighty acts of deliverance is an entirely human and genuinely Christian response to the pain and suffering of the world, of our neighbors, and of our own lives. I intend never to stop praying for God's miraculous intervention; such prayers remain a staple of my morning runs. But the season of advent that we now enter ads an important qualification. God is not a Cosmic Concierge. Human experience gives the lie to the delusion, so deeply embedded in the American psyche, that every problem has a solution and that every question has an answer. Sometimes we must wait.

"Waiting in Repose".
"Waiting in Repose".

            After twenty years as a professor at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, the Catholic priest Henri Nouwen (1932–1996) moved to a home for the severely handicapped called Daybreak in Toronto. The temptation of Jesus to turn stones into bread, he suggests, is the temptation to be "relevant," that is, to do something concrete about the world's suffering: "Oh, how often I have wished I could do that! Walking through the 'young towns' on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, where children die from malnutrition and contaminated water, I would not have been able to reject the magical gift of making the dusty stone-covered streets into places where people could pick up any of the thousands of rocks and discover that they were croissants, coffee cakes, or fresh-baked buns, and where they could fill their cupped hands with stale water from the cisterns and joyfully realize that what they were drinking was delicious milk." In his sense of frustration Nouwen has always reminded me of Isaiah, "Oh, God, split open the heavens and come down! Prove yourself! Do something!"

           At advent, though, we practice waiting. Even though Costco displayed their seasonal merchandise in October, Christmas is still a long way off. The winter solstice will envelope us in the longest night and the shortest day of the year. Leaves will fall and grass will fade to brown. So we enter a season of waiting, and God, writes Isaiah, "acts on behalf of those who wait for him" (64:4). In the epistle for this week Paul sounds the same note, commending the Corinthians for "eagerly waiting for our Lord Jesus to be revealed" (1 Corinthians 1:7). Patient waiting is not an excuse to avoid helping those whom we can encourage; but there will always be plenty of unresolved heartaches this side of heaven that require us to cultivate endurance, confidence, and hope through waiting.

"Wait with Me".

           We wait in patience knowing that not every act of God reverberates like a pounding sledge hammer. In Isaiah's metaphor, God does not always split open the heavens. Whereas even His closest disciples longed to call down fire from heaven and to brandish swords, Jesus compared his coming kingdom to tiny mustard seeds and to the imperceptible but certain fermentation of yeast. In his classic advent hymn O Little Town of Bethlehem (1868) Phillip Brooks, a university preacher at Harvard where today a house is named for him, describes the discipline of patient waiting for the invisible kingdom:

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in.

Many first century Jews longed for a powerful leader to rout the oppressive Romans. God did answer their prayers, but in a manner that was easy to miss. Instead of military might He sent a baby born in a barnyard. At advent we re-enact their watching and waiting, their prayers and longings, alert to God's whisper as well as His shout: "Restore us, O Lord Almighty; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved" (Psalm 80:3, 7, 19).

For further reflection:

* Where do you wait for God to act?
* What obstacles challenge us to patient and confident waiting?
* Can you identify clear instances where God acted definitively yet silently, almost imperceptibly?
* How might advent cultivate in us a healthier discipline of waiting?