“All good things come to those who wait!” My mother used to say that to my brothers and sister and me when we were growing up – and I hated it! “No, can’t I have it NOW?” – we’d plead. “Please, can you buy me a Chelsea football shirt?” “No, you’ll have to wait till the end of the month.” “O no, why can’t I have it now?”
In our Western society, we hate having to wait. At the supermarket, deciding which lane will be the shortest. You make a choice, and it’s the wrong one. All the other lanes are moving much faster. Shall I swap? If only I’d chosen the other lane: now I’ve got to wait. Or you are driving, stopped at a red light, that’s been red for ages – and then it goes to green, and the car in front doesn’t seem to have noticed – O come on! Or at the airport: you look at the board for your flight, and see the dreaded word ‘DELAYED.” O no, I’ve got to wait another hour.
We hate to wait. We want everything NOW. We like INSTANT. If you want it, why not have it? Why Wait? Buy now, pay later. We like to touch a button and we have light, music, TV instantly. We like shops where we can buy what we want when we want. No longer do we have to wait for the right season to enjoy certain foods. Things are dried, frozen, packaged, so there’s no need to wait.
And even relationships are now formed or lost in an instant. On Facebook we can make a friend at the touch of a button – and more sinister – we can unfriend a friend in an instant. I tried the Facebook Help Center and it assured me that I could do this in just three easy steps. (1) Go to your friend’s profile. (2) “Hover” over the word ‘Friends’ at the top of their profile. (3) Select ‘unfriend’ and CLICK – no more friend. Easy and instant.
“All good things come to those who wait,” my mother would say – and we all groaned and complained. But now I’m older, I think she was right. We don’t always like it, it’s countercultural: it’s radical, but it’s true.
Today is the first in our series on radical practices – radical practices which we can maybe embrace and welcome during this season of Lent. And the first radical practice – one which I believe can transform our lives – is the practice of WAITING.
If you have lost touch with the wisdom of waiting in your life, I believe you’ve lost touch with part of your soul. Scripture is shot through with the power and wisdom of waiting. God it seems LIKES us to wait. For if we never allow ourselves to spend time waiting – waiting patiently, even when it’s boring or annoying, if we always insist on getting what we want instantly, we are doomed to a life of superficiality. When we have to wait, however frustrating and uncomfortable, we are actually opening ourselves up to God, and to God’s work within us. God likes us to wait, because when we are waiting, we open ourselves up, and we become vulnerable to God’s spirit slowly changing us, forming us, and helping us to grow.
I always love the story of the Exodus: how God led the Hebrew people out of bondage in Egypt and through the desert to the Promised Land. Now, to get from Egypt to Judah on foot, would maybe take a week or so. It took them 40 years! A whole generation. It wasn’t because they kept losing their way! God wanted them to wait. They moaned and complained at the time – how much longer do we have to wait? But it was during that time of waiting that God was forming them, molding them, into his own people. Without the time of waiting, they could not enter the Promised Land.
I believe the same is true for us.
The Psalmists knew this to be true. They knew that God’s time is not our time, and that the deepest, truest gifts from God come when we wait patiently for them. “I waited patiently upon the Lord: he stooped to me and heard my cry.” (Ps 40:1)
“O tarry, and await the Lord’s pleasure. Be strong, and he shall comfort your heart. Wait patiently for the Lord.” (Ps 27:18)
But waiting, for the Psalmists, and the waiting that is commended to us, is a particular kind of waiting – it’s not like waiting for the bus! The key is in Psalm 130. “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits for him – in his word is my hope.” That’s the key. When we wait for the Lord, when in our prayers, our souls in silence wait, we wait in hope – in hope and trust and confidence, that God is answering our prayer: that God is slowly and silently working in us: changing us, forming us, converting us, working miracles in us.
I always love the fact that in Spanish, the word ESPERAR means both ‘to wait’ and ‘to hope.’ ‘I wait for the Lord: my soul in silence waits. In his word is my hope.’ (Ps. 62:5)
Our Gospel reading today is from Mark chapter 4. It’s the parable of the seed growing secretly. Jesus says that God’s Kingdom is like that seed. That the Kingdom grows secretly, but it takes time. The person who sows it sleeps and rises night and day. Night and day: nothing seems to be happening. And then, one day we read, “the seed sprouts and grows – he does not know how.”
It takes time to grow. It takes time. In our speed-crazed world of instant gratification, this teaching from Mark is urgently needed. God created time, and hallowed time – and Ithink God likes us to spend time, and not try to beat it!
We are so often in too much of a hurry, spiritually, expecting God, at our bidding, to work miracles overnight. And we often judge the progress of God’s Kingdom by what we can see. But so often the real growth happens unseen.
When I was a rector, in the last days of winter, I used to like planting hyacinth bulbs in bowls. I’d plant the bulbs deep into the soil and then put the bowls into a dark cupboard under the stairs, and leave them there. As the weeks went by I’d often go and look at the bowls to see if anything was happening. Sometimes I was tempted to put my fingers in the soil and start digging around to see how the roots looked – but they don’t like that! They like to be left patiently, to grow silently and mysteriously.
And then suddenly, one day – wow – there’s a green shoot poking through the soil – then another – and soon the lush beautiful flowers, and the whole room is filled with that wonderful scent of spring.
Perhaps God likes to surprise us, and delight us. But we have to be patient.
I think in our spiritual lives we are often in too much of a hurry. We long for instant change and growth. We hate to have to wait. But it’s probably in our darkest moments, when nothing seems to be happening, and we feel most anxious: it is often then, silently and mysteriously, that God is at work – ready one day to surprise us and delight us.
I find these words by the Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin helpful:
“Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability –
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ
excerpted from Hearts on Fire
This Lent is a great opportunity to practice this. You may be right now in a place of darkness, anxiety or indecision. Perhaps you have to make a choice, a decision. About a job, or a relationship – or you just feel confused or unsure about the future. Where should I be going: what should I be doing?
If you are feeling frustrated that you can’t really see clearly, or nothing seems to be happening – you’re STUCK – offer all that to God in your prayers. Try to wait, patiently – but with a deep hope, and trust, and confidence, that God is actually at work, deep within you. Trust in the slow work of God.
Something is happening. Something deep and mysterious – and the time will come when you will see, you will know, and it will be a kind of resurrection.
God will delight in surprising you, and you will know in your own life, these wonderful words of Isaiah:
“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength: they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Thanks be to God.