Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 26, 2000
Fellow inhabitants of the Great, Unfathomable, Mysterious, Oh-So-Contradictory Universe of Chad!
Some election, huh? One for the history books, that’s for sure.
Maybe we will have an answer to our great national riddle by this evening; but don’t hold your breath, because we probably won’t.
Maybe, sometime soon, we’ll be able put this behind us, and move on to something else. But probably not very soon.
In the meantime, we wait, in uncertainty, not knowing: not knowing who’s going to win the election; who our next President will be; who it is we are going to be able to complain about for the next four years.
We wait-- some of us in anticipation, some of us in dread-- but we wait, all of us. And wait. And wait. And there’s something in our modernity that doesn’t like it one bit. We don’t like this chad stuff, and this long, drawn-out melodrama, and the uncertainty it represents. In this age of instant everything, we want to know. We wanted to know who won before we went to bed on November 7., or November 8... We didn’t get our wish... We waiting still. We modern men and women don’t like being kept waiting, do we?
But wait we do in these lives of ours, all the time. One of my colleagues has estimated that he spends one-sixteenth of his time waiting-- that’s an hour and a half a day, if my math is right. Or, almost 11 hours a week; 45 hours a month; almost 540 hours-- 22 and a half full days-- per year. If this figure is correct (and it does seem quite reasonable), in the course of an average life (say, 75 years), we will spend between four and five years just waiting...
What are we waiting for?
We wait for our family members to be ready to go somewhere... or for our turn in the shower in the morning... Or we wait in a parking lot in front of a school somewhere for band practice, or soccer practice, or play practice, to be over... Or we wait in the express lane at the supermarket while the person in front of us tries to excavate exact change from her coin purse... We wait to pay for the gasoline we’ve just bought, while the customer ahead of us tries to decide which lottery tickets to buy-- whether he wants seven #4’s, or four #7’s, or three #8’s... We wait for someone at the post office to see that the line really is out the door, and that yes, they can open another window... We wait for our somewhat-delayed airplane, or train, or bus to finally get here... We join the great mass of modern humanity caught in traffic on Route 128, or 138, or 24, or 95, or right here in the middle of Stoughton Square.
We wait for other things, too; we wait in deeper ways as well. As David Rankin has written:
“Every day I meet those who are waiting. Waiting for grief to pass, waiting for the children to mature... waiting to find themselves, waiting to change a job, waiting for a marriage to end, waiting for the past to return, waiting to cure an addiction, waiting for an ideal partner, waiting to go back to school, waiting for a dream to materialize, waiting to retire from work, waiting for the future to come, waiting for a [someone else] to change, waiting for a perfect truth, waiting to lose a few pounds, waiting for a parent to die, waiting to do a good deed, waiting for a call from god, and waiting to say ‘I love you.’...”
Much of our waiting is unavoidable. But perhaps even here, in this most mundane of human experiences, there are “divine things well enveloped”, there are lessons for us to learn. What are the lessons we can learn from waiting?
For one thing, we can learn to relax. Maybe it’s a good thing that we are “forced” to spend (maybe) one-sixteenth of our time waiting. It might well be the only “down time” (except for sleep) that some of us get! (Maybe some great “Unseen Hand” designed it that way? I don’t know.) Instead of fretting-- “Oh, why doesn’t that person hurry up?” “Why don’t they open another darned window?” “Am I the only person in this world who knows how to drive?”-- why don’t we just accept our time of waiting as a gift-- a time just to stand still, to be, to breathe, to think deeply (or just to phase out). If the line is really long, why not take a nap? (It’s also the only time we get to read those really great tabloids they’re nice enough to put there right at the registers in the grocery store. I’d never get to read People magazine if I didn’t have to wait in line at Shaw’s every few days. Think of all the enlightenment and edification that’s right there-- ours for the perusing! What a gift!)
The problem is, of course, is that we so tightly structure and schedule our lives that we never allow that one-sixteenth of it-- that hour and a half a day-- just for waiting. It’s always “borrowed” (or, more likely, “stolen”) from something else we’re supposed to be doing. And so, we get frustrated, and angry, and life becomes such a chore.
Maybe we need to learn to slow down, and allow ourselves time to wait.
Another thing waiting teaches us is patience.
I remember once, not too long ago, driving around town, hurrying from one appointment to the next. As I approached a busy intersection, I noticed a policeman at the corner, and I was perhaps the second or third in line of those he had stopped. “What is it now?” I thought, somewhat irritated, and “Come on, hurry up, I’ve got important things to do...”
Then I saw why the policeman was stopping cars: A funeral procession was approaching from the south, about to make a turn toward the cemetery. My irritation with the world quickly turned into shame directed at myself. I realized then and there how petty and small my chores and errands were compared to the great turning of the Wheel of Life I was seeing before me. My appointments could wait. This was more important.
Out of this humbling experience, there then came a deep sense of compassion. I remembered those times in my life when I had sat in one of those vehicles, making a similar turn, up the hill toward the cemetery. I sensed at that moment something of the vital web of creation that does, indeed, bind us as one-- not just in beautiful metaphor, but as living reality. For the first time in my whole life, perhaps, the words of John Donne came alive in my heart and in my soul:
“Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.”
Such a precious moment of revelation and inspiration-- a life-giving epiphany, truly. All because I had been forced to wait, to stop, to slow, to be patient.
Next Sunday marks the beginning of Advent, the season of waiting in the Christian calendar. (I will confess that I thought this Sunday was the first Sunday in advent, and so did my dear Catholic wife, who is supposed to know about such things better than I. That’s why we sang ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ this morning, a week early. Whatever...)
During Advent, more traditional Christians wait for the coming of the Lord, they prepare for the coming of the Messiah. It’s supposed to be a time of deep contemplation and prayer, when we empty ourselves of all outer distractions and wait in hope-filled anticipation the arrival of the Promised One.
Perhaps unfortunately (and certainly inevitably), if you glance at a calendar you’ll quickly see that Advent falls smack dab in the middle of the mad dash of the Christmas season, when there are even more social forces than usual pulling us away from quiet and contemplation and emptying ourselves and waiting quietly on the Lord, and toward shopping and buying and getting and giving and cooking and cleaning and wrapping and going and doing-- and everything else that happens at this most peculiar (and, still, in many ways, most blessed) time of year.
Our Advent waiting has built into it-- unfortunately, inevitably-- the natural anxiety of this holiday season. We are, in our souls (and in our tired bodies) filled with both happy anticipation, and anxiousness, even dread, at what lies before us. Children, bless their hearts, know that Christmas will arrive. In the midst of our holiday busy-ness and crazy-ness, perhaps, we older ones are not so sure sometimes.
We cram too much in, and we want it “too perfect”. As one Presbyterian minister out it, we think we have to prepare for the coming of the Son of God as if a picky mother-in-law was coming for an extended visit. Scrooge had only three ghosts to deal with. That was easy: We have the living spirit of Martha Stewart to put up with-- and that may be even more onerous!
Perhaps our Advent waiting, too, can teach us to relax in our own imperfection. Not to over-schedule Christmas, either, in the same way the way we over-schedule the rest of our lives. To approach Christmas by slowing down-- consciously, deliberately-- because that’s the only way we human ones will get it done: by deciding to do it that way. Not to speed us as we approach Christmas, but to slow down.
Maybe we should have yellow lights on the Christmas tree, as well as red and green, and yellow candles on the advent wreath: yellow lights-- caution lights. That tells us to slow down-- clear the intersection-- make room for reindeer, and Grinches, and snowmen, and Amahl and the Three Kings, and Tiny Tim and Scrooge-- and make room, too, for the patience we will need to hear angels sing and beat their wings and lead us to the newborn child who dwells within our hearts.
At Christmas, we think sometimes that we have to get it perfect. If we get it done just right, then the Messiah will arrive for us, and our waiting will be over, and we’ll spend the rest of our lives in bliss.
Sometimes, we think that once our Messiah comes-- once we’re done with all our waiting-- everything will be just great... We have so many false gods all around us; we have false messiahs, too. We tell ourselves:
Everything will be great when we lose some weight.... or
Everything will be great when I get this business off the ground... or
Everything will be great when we move to new house-- or a new town-- or a new state-- or a new country... or
Everything will be great when the kids are older, or the Terrible Twos are done with-- or the Terrible Threes, or the Frustrating Fours, or the Preteen Years, or the Teen Years, or the College Years... or, we think,
Everything will be great when if my spouse really appreciated me... or if I can open up emotionally to my spouse... or if I win the lottery... or if my boss wasn’t a moron... or if I got a promotion... or if I made more money... or if we had a great revolution and overthrew the system...
Everything will be great when we figure out who won this election... If Gore wins, everything will be great (huh?). Or if Bush wins, everything will be great (huh?).
See what I mean? We all have the experience of life to know that even when some long awaited person or event happens, it will not mean eternal bliss and joy and all sweetness and light. Even when the Messiah comes, even when Christmas gets here, there will be floors to scrub, and laundry to wash, and grass to cut, and taxes to pay, and tragedies to be faced, and tears to be shed. And yet more waiting for us to do.
“Life,” said Zorba the Greek, “is what you do when you’re waiting to die.”
That statement might sound pretty negative at first hearing, but really, it’s a value-free statement, and in many ways quite true. “Life is filled with suffering,” wrote Thich Naht Hanh, “but it is also filled with many wonders,” he continued, “like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, any time...”
Each day is the advent of its own tomorrow, and we are each the messiah-- the redeemer-- of the next moment that is before us.
So, for now, we wait. Not passively, but actively. Not lost in frenetic activity, but with arms outstretched to life, and all senses open, wide awake.
Wide awake, but poised on the moment that is before us-- ready to hear its music, and see its color, and taste its sweetness-- ready to wait, and live, and take our time, and make our time our own.