The Practice of Waiting

Beth A. Faeth December 3, 2017

Scripture Mark 13:24–37

Ten years ago—or more—my friend and neighbor invited me to a yoga class at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning. There are very few places I would choose to be at 7 on a Saturday morning, besides still dozing under my very comfortable duvet. But in the spirit of self-improvement and good neighborly relations, I consented. Some memories of that experience are fuzzy—I couldn’t tell you a single pose I attempted. Others are vivid. Walking to the neighborhood Lutheran church where the class was held in pre-dawn freezing darkness, all the while questioning my decision to get out of bed. We set up our mats in the midst of rows of children’s book shelves and Sunday school supplies, bins of markers and crayons in precarious places just waiting to be knocked over by a wayward foot.

I do remember that I couldn’t move easily for the next few days—oh, I was sore!—and that in the first two minutes of class, I realized that yoga is much harder than it looks. But the most formative memory of that first class was the teacher’s continued reminder that yoga is a practice. A practice. A practice implies a work in progress, something that needs continuous attention, not a one-time attempt. A practice is something in which the goal is not to be an instant expert, but it is a journey of discovery and learning. For 15 years I took piano lessons. But my perfectionist self didn’t like to practice—because I didn’t like hearing the mistakes, I wanted to get the piece right on the first try. Which, of course, is ridiculous because any musician knows that hours of practice are necessary to master the nuances of a piece. Especially when you are 8 years old and can barely play a scale. So standing on that yoga mat a decade ago listening intently to the teacher explain the art of practice—I knew I had to reframe my understanding of just what that concept could teach me. In the years since, I have practiced yoga irregularly—never with the discipline or determination of my esteemed colleague Jeff. In my seasons of regular practice I have grown frustrated with my body’s limitations, my lack of progress. I compare myself to others on nearby mats and my competitive spirit kicks in and I want to be better. I want the gratification that comes with perfecting a pose. And I have learned that the best teachers are the ones who remind us in each class that we practice because none of us are experts, each body brings its own gifts and limitations. That indeed, the best practice means being open to growth, accepting of mistakes, acknowledging of the power within us, patience in difficulty, and grateful that our bodies have the ability to move, flex, lengthen . . . at all.

The understanding of practice permeates all facets of our lives. When we are honest with ourselves, we can acknowledge that anything worth our time and energy involves practice. We are not, as sad as it may be to admit, experts on anything immediately. So if we ever want to master anything, we must engage in faithful practice. From math problems to rocket science, from encouraging flowers to bloom to growing our own food, from learning to hula hoop to perfecting the waltz—our lives are filled with possibilities of not only learning something new but having that endeavor become our life force, our energy center. We are willing to practice when the outcome fuels passion.

It is a new year in the life of the church. For Christians, Advent marks a new beginning. While the secular calendar sees 2017 coming to an end, the Christian calendar marks the first Sunday of Advent as the first Sunday of a brand-new year. Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar whom I am sure you have heard quoted in many a sermon, says: “Advent is an abrupt disruption in our ‘ordinary time’ . . . utterly new year, new time, new life. Everything begins again.” While the world around us wraps up another year hoping for increased consumer spending and waiting for annual reports on profits, the church already steps into a new time, to begin a season of hoping and waiting for much more. Brueggemann continues: “Advent invites us to awaken from our numbed endurance and our domesticated expectations, to consider our life afresh in light of new gifts that God is about to give.” Advent is the gift of time before Christmas: four weeks to contemplate, prepare, wait. We know that soon enough Christmas will be here, the anticipation over. How might we use this waiting time to deepen our connection to the divine, to direct us towards a new understanding of Christ’s birth? How do we develop a practice of waiting?

I will go out on a limb here and suggest that many of us have something in common. We don’t like to wait. Right? And in fact, we don’t wait well. Whether we are waiting for the results of a medical test, or for a flight that has been delayed, or in line at the DMV, or for a traffic light that is red, we become impatient, irritated that our momentum has been slowed, that our routine is interrupted. We are accustomed to having things when we want them, to instant gratification, so that waiting for anything is more of a hassle than we need. If our waiter doesn’t bring our meal in the appropriate amount of time, we complain. If our number isn’t called quickly enough at the deli counter, we get agitated. If the doctor doesn’t call back even though we have called several times requesting information, we lose all patience, and anger festers. The reality and perhaps the irony is that we spend most of our lives waiting. We wait for resolution in relationships, we wait for news about a possible job, we wait for our children to grow out of a particular phase, we wait for the moral compass of elected leaders to match our own, we wait for death at a loved one’s bedside. Waiting is more than a nuisance in our overly planned life agendas; it is a part of every ending and beginning, every movement from what was to what could be. Why not then consider waiting as a spiritual practice, as an invitation to see where God is beckoning us in those holy moments, something we do with intention rather than impatience?

Our Gospel lesson from Mark this morning is one about the end times—the return of Jesus Christ at some unspecified time in the future. The disciples thought that Jesus would return shortly after his resurrection. I think they might be greatly disappointed to know that some 2,000 years later some people are still waiting. As progressive Christians, we don’t focus much on this rather obscure notion of Jesus Christ’s return. Yet the message in today’s text is relevant: Stay alert, Jesus says, for you do not know when you will glimpse God. Move through your life awake and observant, open to God’s movements and direction. This is powerful advice for the practice of waiting. We can wait in a state of drowsy boredom, or we can wait with attentiveness, seeking God as we wonder about the many possible outcomes. Dee Dee Risher, a writer for Sojourners magazine, says this: “Waiting provides opportunity for clarity of belief that lives in the fire of hope.”

I have become newly fascinated with an old concept: liminal time. The word liminal comes from the Latin word “limen,” which means threshold—any point of entering or beginning. Liminal time is the time between what was and what is next. It is a place of transition, waiting and not knowing the outcome. Susan Beaumont, author and consultant, writes: “during liminal seasons, we occupy space on both sides of a boundary or threshold. We have one foot rooted in something that is not yet over, while the other foot is planted in a thing not yet defined, something not yet ready to begin.” Jesus instructed his disciples to keep awake and alert because they were entering a liminal season. Jesus was still with them, but everyone knew his time on earth was limited. Jesus was speaking about a time to come, but no one could fully grasp what that meant, because their beloved Savior was still in their presence, engaging them in everyday life. Soon the disciples would be living “between”—forced to let go of what was while waiting for what is next.

Plymouth Church is in its own liminal season. In ten months, three of your settled ministers will have left. We have been lurched into an unanticipated time between, saying goodbye to beloved clergy and questioning where this might lead us in the future. We are straddling the threshold between what we knew and what lies ahead. Paula, Jeff, Seth, myself—and all of the church staff—know that this is a grieving time, an uncertain time and a hopeful time. We honor this time between by looking toward the future with confidence even when we aren’t sure what that future looks like, by speaking honestly and respectfully about our feelings and by staying awake and alert to God’s leading. This liminal time is also a time of advent—a congregation pregnant with possibilities for what could be. And so now we practice waiting . . . expectantly, earnestly, thoughtfully . . . trusting God will once again gift us with Love Incarnate, keeping alert to the fresh wind of the Spirit breathing light into the dark places in our life. As we wait together in this Advent Season, may we do so with intention and joy, knowing that with any practice the progress might be slow and methodical, but always leads us to becoming something new.