WAITING (SECOND WEEK IN ADVENT)
SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT
To celebrate their seventieth anniversary, the British Council asked 40,000 people in 102 non-English speaking countries their favourite English word. Lollipop (42), flip-flop (59), hen night (70), hiccup (63), hodgepodge (64), and whoops (56) were among the top seventy. Their appeal was how they sounded. But the top ten were: mother, passion, smile, love, eternity, fantastic, destiny, freedom, liberty and tranquillity. Here it’s clearly the meaning that counts. Those surveyed were expressing what they hoped for from life.
It’s valuable occasionally to ask ourselves what we want most. Sometimes we’ll find we already have it and can be grateful. Sometimes by asking the question, we discover or remember a longing which had got buried in the busy-ness of life. Often we may find in something we read or hear that our deepest desires are expressed in a way we could never have discovered for ourselves because often we just can’t find the words to describe what we most deeply want. There’s something there, experienced perhaps in a niggling dissatisfaction with how things are, but we can’t articulate it. We feel that if we could find a way to express it, even to ourselves, we would be much nearer knowing how to start working for it.
For long years of waiting, the people of Israel wanted more from God. Their prophets were sometimes effective in putting their longings into words. Often the people got impatient, going after goals which they thought would satisfy but didn’t. Part of God’s purpose in becoming human was to show them a complete expression of the rich relationship between God and his people which alone would bring them the sense of fulfilment they sought.
For us too, our deepest longings find expression in the Word made flesh. Jesus’ life speaks not only of how life might be but reveals how we might set about discovering it.
Read: Peter said to Jesus: You have the words of eternal life (John 6.68)
Rejoice: that God knows what I most deeply need, even if I don’t, and has the power to give it.
Reflect: What words appeal most to me?
Remember: to listen for the words God might be putting into my head.
Resolve: to pay attention to ‘niggling dissatisfaction’ and ask what it might be telling me.
Each May, a hundred and twenty of the rich and famous do a 3000 mile drive. In their Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Rolls Royces, vintage Aston Martins or Bentleys, celebrities of all sorts pay a minimum of £20,000 for the 8-day event (£60,000 when it was San Francisco to Beijing in Olympics year). It’s partly an excuse for a hectic round of parties and attempts to turn Gumball 3000 into a race are frowned upon. But competition between the drivers of these fast, big-engined cars is inevitable; no one worries though if the cost of fines for speeding mounts – it’s worth it to live life in the fast-lane for a week.
There is another view of life. Carl Honore has started a movement he calls ‘In Praise of Slow’. He’s in touch with groups throughout the world trying to encourage us all to go slower. There is for example the Sloth Club in Japan and the Society for the Deceleration of Time.
Many of us these days rush through life. Often the first thing we do on waking is to look at the clock and we keep our eye on timepieces of one sort or another throughout the day. Many of us keep mental lists of what needs to be done and feel anxious if we ‘get behind’. This time of year is notorious for hectic and constant activity.
The New Testament’s word for this approach to time is chronos. But more important than clock time are times of particular significance or kairos, moments when God reveals himself in large or small ways. The most important of these is the coming of Jesus. Not being so anxious about chronos will makes us more ready to spot a kairos. ‘In Praise of Slow’ is catching on fast so for all sorts of reasons we’d better hurry up and start slowing down!
Read: Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46.10)
Rejoice: in those times when the timing of an event or experience has felt just right.
Reflect: What are the things I usually try to do too fast?
Remember: there are things I can choose not to do today.
Resolve: to take pride today in doing something really slowly.
In the early days of digital television, the BBC needed an advertising gimmick. So, for an experimental week, we had Pet TV. For example clips of rolling snooker balls, flying Frisbees and feline cartoon characters offered a cat, weary after a busy day, something to relax to and a purrfect antidote to life’s stresses.
There was apparently a scientific side to the experiment. The BBC said they wanted feedback from owners about what sounds and images their pets responded to. Did they respond to dogs barking or wolves howling or parrots talking? Were fish attracted by the sound of running water or cats by the sight of fish swimming in a tank?
But there was realism about the BBC’s publicity: “If your pet shows no interest, don’t force it to watch – it might not be in the right mood” – they’re right, most goldfish have better things to do than put their tails up and swish on the TV for a bit of R and R.
We all have different ways of relaxing. Its importance is enshrined in the Ten Commandments where we’re reminded that God chose to ‘rest’ after the creation. The word used for rest in the Hebrew literally means ‘getting your soul back’. Probably most of our leisure time is spent in activity – we might put our feet up for a while but before long we’re restless to be engaged in something more specific.
But the kind of relaxation which revives our souls, helps us rediscover who we are, is more likely to be passive than active. Animals that resist their owners’ pressure to do something useful while they’re relaxing may have a point. Sometimes doing nothing may have a value all its own.
Read: My presence will go with you and I will give you rest. (Exodus 33.14)
Rejoice: in the opportunities I have to take breaks from my normal routine.
Reflect: Have I got the balance right between work and rest?
Remember: in pressured periods of my life, even taking a brief moment to recall God’s presence is refreshing.
Resolve: To check that the ways I choose to relax do refresh me.
Even when she was in her nineties, Jessie Smart knitted more than 100 scarves every year. They were sold at the Christmas Fayre at her Care home and she’s raised hundreds of pounds. Mrs Smart said she didn’t like sitting doing nothing; she preferred to do something active that will benefit others.
Many of us find sitting doing nothing difficult. That’s why some kinds of waiting can be so irritating if you haven’t gone prepared with some activity to fill the time. Even the sitting still normally associated with praying can be a challenge. We like to be doing something. So maybe, when it comes to that ‘waiting on God’ which is an important part of prayer, the answer is to find something physical we can do that will still leave our minds free to be open to God.
An Archbishop in the Russian Orthodox Church, the late Anthony Bloom, once offered this advice. He told a woman who came seeking a way to sense God’s presence that she was to tidy her room so that nothing in it would distract her, sit in a corner of it and knit something for which she didn’t need a pattern. She reported back that the activity she’d been mindlessly engaged in had enabled her to be still in every other way, that she felt as though she was knitting ‘before the face of God’ and that she’d begun to feel aware of a rich and dense silence which was also a presence.
We shall be more ready to celebrate the coming of God at Christmas if we wait expectantly for it throughout the year. One way of doing this is to take time to be still. If as we try to do that, the need to be active feels overwhelming, finding ways of mindlessly occupying our bodies can help. Such waiting often remains just that, but occasionally such attentiveness to God is rewarded.
Read: When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who….will reward you (Matthew 6.6)
Rejoice: in God’s eagerness to come to us.
Reflect: What mindless activity might keep my body happy while my soul seeks stillness?
Remember: If we can’t keep still, God will find another way to relate to us.
Resolve: to sit still for a while today.
Wang Guiying was afraid to marry when she was young but at the age of 107, she decided to look for her first husband. She worked on the land till she was 74 but when, at 102, she broke her leg, she began to worry about becoming a burden to her ageing nieces and nephews. She told the Chongqing Commercial Times that she hoped to find a fellow centenarian so they would have something to talk about.
She’d been put off marriage by the childhood sight of her uncles and other men scolding and beating their wives and often found her aunt crying in the woodshed after an attack. “All the married people around there lived like that. Getting married was too frightening,” she said. Eventually she changed her mind but had she missed the boat?
Our experience of life can sometimes make us cautious. As we see the difficulties other people face and we struggle with our own, the world can sometimes feel a hostile place and we become reluctant to take any risks that aren’t strictly necessary. If we become conscious of changes that might make our lives more satisfying, we’re tempted to put off making them until we feel more secure or the change less risky.
God’s coming in Jesus tells us he wants to share with us in these kinds of decision. He wants to be part of the process of deciding which changes are appropriate and which merely attractive – the right ones are often a gift from him anyway – and he won’t leave us alone if we step boldly into a different future. But in the end it must be our decision to take the leap. There comes a point, in the small decisions in life and in the more significant ones, when going on waiting is no longer appropriate. Wait too long and the moment may have passed.
Read: After waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised (Hebrews 6.15)
Rejoice: in any experience of making a change in my life that proved beneficial.
Reflect: Is there anything I’m putting off at the moment because I’m worried where it might lead?
Remember: My fearfulness may mean I let opportunities go but God won’t let go of me.
Resolve: to let God lead me, whether it’s into patient waiting or decisive action.
It took Graham Parker 26 years to solve the puzzle of the Rubik’s Cube. He bought the toy in 1983 when millions were intrigued by the challenge it set to get coloured shapes round a cube in the right order. He was 19 then, breakfast TV was a novelty and music CDs were in the shops for the first time. ‘I cannot tell you what a relief it was to finally solve it,’ he said. ‘It felt as though it had taken over my life. I would lie awake at night thinking about it, I’ve had wrist problems from spending hours on it but it was all worth it. When the last bit clicked into place and each face was a solid colour, I wept.’
Being unable to sleep for thinking is a common human experience. Whether it’s an upsetting situation we’re in, concern over someone we care about, something we’re planning or a relationship that’s making us anxious, we can’t get it out of our heads and though few of these worries last 26 years, the relief when the waiting is over and the situation is resolved can sometimes make us weep.
It’s easy to let obsessions such as this take over our lives. But like Graham Parker, though he may not have realised it, we have a choice. We don’t have to allow them to take hold of us so overwhelmingly. Letting go is no easy matter. One way is to have a more comfortable topic ready to replace it with whenever the painful subject comes into our minds. More effective is being able to share the burden with someone – a friend perhaps. Talking about it can release some of the pressure that builds up inside us. The baby born in the stable offers to be such a friend. Telling him about it and letting him carry the burden may not resolve the situation but the relief it brings can also make us want to weep.
Read: Cast your burden on the Lord and he will sustain you (Psalm 55.22)
Rejoice: in friends with whom I share ‘carrying each other’s burdens’
Reflect: Am I obsessive about anything?
Remember: when I do lie awake worrying, God’s there too.
Resolve: To share something that’s worrying me with someone I can trust.
When John Cage, the 20th century composer, said that his composition Organ2/ASLSP should be played “as slow as possible” he may not have meant that its performance should be spread over 639 years. But this is how a group of German music experts in the German town of Halberstadt have interpreted his instructions.
Their performance, on a specially built organ in which keys are held down by weights, began on 5th September, 2001. It started with eighteen months of silence. The first notes were played on 5th February 2003. New notes or chords are always added on the fifth day of a month but the frequency varies. For example, the change in February 2009 was only three months after the previous one but the one following it is sixteen months later.
Life often seems to consist of a series of deadlines which crowd mercilessly upon us. In situations like that, such an unhurried approach to life sounds attractive. It helps to have a longer perspective, to view our tasks as part of a much longer term project. This, of course, is God’s perspective and, if we allow it, God is also the composer, enabling and encouraging identifiable changes in our lives at what appear to us to be purely random intervals. When we trust God to do that, we can approach our lives in a less frenetic way and perhaps ultimately see a pattern which is missed if we are only conscious of immediate pressures. The individual chords which make up our lives today may not always make sense out of context but we trust they are part of a sustained and longer term harmony.
Read: In your book were written…the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. (Psalm 139.16)
Rejoice: that I’m free to make my own choices and God will work even with my wrong decisions.
Reflect: Can I identify any examples in my life of God’s timing being just right?
Remember: that it’s being responsive to God’s promptings, not understanding them, that’s important.
Resolve: to trust in God’s knowledge of what’s best for me and his ability to make it happen.