Waiting is a spiritual trial.
There are many ways we wait. Eager expectation. Sullen boredom. Poignant longing. Dreadful anticipation. They are totally different and yet each is an experience of waiting.
There are many places we wait. Doctor’s offices. Airport gates. The expressway at rush hour. None of these places fill us with good feelings, however impressive the aquarium full of fish or comfy the rows of chairs or fascinating our podcast.
Waiting is always a spiritual trial. Maybe even more so now that we have a tool at hand that can fill our moments of waiting with whatever we want.
Our last foster child suffered from frequent illnesses and so I was frequently at her doctor. And this practice served all Medicaid or uninsured people. As hard as they worked to keep a schedule, it was always a wait. And one time, during a more urgent than usual situation, her doctor asked me to come in without an appointment during the doctor’s lunch break. She’d see us outside of the schedule. So we came and waited. And waited. And waited.
I was filled with anxiety for the child, and affection for her, and a vague worry that we’d been forgotten. I was annoyed at everyone else coming and going as the minutes stretched to an hour and more. It helped for a little while that I could text my wife or argue with someone in England or send some work emails or play Baby Shark for the tenth time that day. But eventually that just made things worse. Time slows down even more when we’re so desperate to fill it.
Eventually we got in, and our brief visit turned out to be thorough and time-consuming and no doubt annoying to the people piled up behind us. Because the doctors loved this child and did everything they could for her. In the end I almost felt guilty for having been impatient.
Today we begin a new church year and the season of Advent. Over these weeks we hear the stories of the people anticipating the coming of the Christ, who will be born in Bethlehem of Judea. And we hear the prophecies of Christ’s second and final coming, when the story will be fulfilled and time brought to a final and glorious close. We can let our minds drift back to the eagerness of hope and the joy promised by that blessed arrival. We can look ahead with longing and expectation for that triumphant return.
But either way we are waiting. And we need something to do while we are waiting.
In his letter to the Corinthian church today, Paul tells them that he gives thanks for the grace that has been given to them. He’s pretty careful with how he words this part. This grace has enriched the Corinthians in Christ, and the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among them by their gifts of speech and knowledge. It’s as if he’s reminding them: God has made you rich in Christ, not in yourselves, and God has given you knowledge and eloquence to witness to Christ, not to yourselves.
And because God has done this, Paul says, “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul is telling them in a somewhat flattering way to be ready to wait. Don’t imagine that the time is fulfilled. And don’t imagine that your many gifts exist for your own glory. Remember that we are all in the time between the resurrection of Christ and his final revealing. And during that time, even these gifted and intelligent and spiritual Corinthian Christians are going to have to endure the spiritual trial of waiting.
So I’d like to spend just a few moments today on things to do while you wait. We will talk about the history and we will talk about the anticipation but today I’m going to try to be content with waiting.
The first thing to do while we wait is, rather obviously, prayer. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you dedicate, or rededicate yourself to a daily practice of prayer. We’ve created an Advent devotional guide that you can use to guide your reflection and your prayers. If all you can do is start with the Lord’s Prayer at the end of the day, start with that. If you can devote ten or fifteen minutes or more to naming and lifting up your needs, your church, and the world, I think you’ll find that it’s very powerful. Lighting the candles of the Advent wreath each night is a helpful focus for these prayers.
The second thing to do while we wait is, perhaps less obviously, spend some time with the psalms. Each day in the devotional there is a psalm appointed, often the same psalm for several days in a row. I have prayed my way through all the psalms many times now, and it never ceases to fill me with awe. And fear. And joy. And, yes, a special kind of boredom. The psalms show us Christ. The psalms show us the life of faith. The psalms speak to our own experience and also draw us out of ourselves into new and strange places. Read them. They will change you.
The third thing to do while we wait is to make a special offering. This can be money or it can be time and labor. It can be through church--I promise you we put these gifts to good use--or it can be outside of church. But just the experience of taking something of ours and entrusting it to God’s future is powerful. We do this all year round with our pledges and tithes but it is especially meaningful now. Make a point of signing up for an Angel Tree gift, especially if you haven’t before.
These are simple things. But that’s the point. Waiting is a spiritual trial that never stops. It always forces us back to that moment in life’s waiting room. Memory is not always strong enough to keep us there, and expectation is not always strong enough to pull us forward. Learning how to wait, and how to make use of our waiting, is not the most brilliant or impressive spiritual gift. But it’s one we always need, and one God will grant whenever we ask.