Our advent theme this year is Wake. Watch. Wait. These three small words are easy to glide right over. They seem almost interchangeable in our advent context. Yet they hold weight in the Christian tradition, in scripture, in our lives.
“They that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength.” (Isaiah 40:31) “Wait for God, be strong, take heart.” (Psalm 27:14)
These familiar phrases from Isaiah and the Psalms depict strength in waiting and yet waiting is often associated with anxiety, dread, fear. During advent we are supposed to be waiting and watching for signs of the reign of God breaking in, but I confess that this month I am too often fearful and distracted as I wait for news of the next cabinet appointment. It is easy to imagine the worst rather than picture the best.
Another weighty part of the Christian tradition is silence. Silence is fairly simple though there are all kinds of ways we make it complicated. We go away to some expensive place where someone with all kinds of training will teach us how to do silence. Or we think we have to join a group, maybe even pay a monthly fee, to help us practice silence. I mean there can be nuances in knowing how to sit just so, to breathe deeply, clear your mind. And it can be scary, just sitting in silence, not quite sure what you are waiting for.
For all the excuses we can make, silence, waiting in silence, is something that all of us can do. Even the smallest of us can learn how to be silent and experience the wonder of listening, of waiting. Lindsay McGlaughlin, who lives at Rolling Ridge Retreat Community near Harpers Ferry, WV, describes silence this way:
Silence is the room
in which it is possible
the voice of our soul
calling us home to our true selves
and to the Holy One
at the center of our being,
the Holy One
who awakens us
to our unique belonging
to the world
and to one another.
If ever there was a time when we need to be called home to our true selves, awake to our unique belonging to the world, and to each other – it is now.
Today, right here, right now, we have what we need to begin to experience the power of silence. We have ourselves in our bodies. I invite you to a short time of waiting in silence. Kids, you are invited to do this too.
Get comfortable in your seat, feet on the ground. If you like, you can close your eyes. Take a deep breath. You might imagine how the breath enters through your nose and spreads the nourishment of oxygen throughout your whole body. Exhale through your mouth and breathe again, so that your whole belly expands. We will hold silence, waiting, through about seven deep breaths.
Silence does take practice, as does waiting.
This is the pink candle Sunday of advent, the joy Sunday. It may seem a strange claim but silence can give us joy. Silence probably does not give us the kind of joy we experience when we giggle and laugh. It is more of a deep joy that reassures and grounds us, that helps us sort out the important stuff from the fluff. That calls us home to our true selves and the Holy One.
My mother (may she rest in peace) was a big proponent of silence. She often went on silent retreats. In fact, she wanted our whole family to go to her favorite silent retreat center together. It seems an unusual way to have a family reunion, especially when you don’t see each other often. Sadly, I rebuffed my mom when she suggested a silent retreat together. But when I was on sabbatical two years ago, I did spend four days and nights in silence at the retreat center that my mother loved. I even stayed in the room where she had stayed many times.
It took some time but by about day two and a half, I found my way into the silence and experienced a strange kind of joy. I finally understood what had drawn my mother to the silence all those years ago. In extended silence, the things that seem like they absolutely must be spoken aloud, kind of float away. In extended silence, some things that used to be urgent, lose their power. There is something about the waiting and silence that bring things into focus so there is new space for joy – or sorrow or anger. Whatever might have been covered in noise and talking is now revealed.
It is curious to find joy in silence. Similarly it seems bizarre that there could be joy in the desert, a place we imagine is barren, quiet. And yet Isaiah writes:
the desert and the wilderness exult!
The (dry land) rejoices
and blooms like the crocus!
It blossoms profusely,
it rejoices and sings for joy!
Waiting and joy. They seem an unlikely pairing. Yet when we wait with expectation, like the farmer we heard in James, waiting for the crop to sprout, there can be real joy. Research even tells us that when we wait with anticipation, when we plan and look forward to our vacation, our joy is increased. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/how-to-make-the-most-of-vacation_us_5755b42ae4b0eb20fa0e906d Why should it be any different with waiting and watching for the reign of God?
John the Baptist is waiting, The whole Jewish people wait for the Messiah. In prison, John has a whole lot of time on his hands though I imagine it is not quiet. Perhaps after his extended time in the desert silence, the noise of prison disorients him. John is no longer so sure of himself, what he is waiting for. He sends a message to Jesus – “Are you the One we have been waiting for or do we keep on waiting?”
All the Jews are waiting. Waiting for the Messiah is part of the tradition. They have all been waiting and Jesus reminds them that If they had been watching, remembering what the previous prophets taught them, they would know their wait is over. If they had been planning and waiting in expectation, they would know the answer already. They would notice that
‘Those who are blind recover their sight;
those who cannot walk are able to walk;
those with leprosy are cured;
those who are deaf hear;
the dead are raised to life;
and the anawim – the have-nots –
have the Good News preached to them.’
It is one thing to wait with anticipation, to in effect, choose the waiting. Jews and Christians choose to wait for Messiah, to watch and wait for the reign of God among us. In prison, John the Baptist is forced to wait for the unknown and he loses sight of what he is truly waiting for. It is a whole other thing to be forced to wait by those who have more power.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr had this to say about waiting – For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Dr King knew well the difference between choosing to wait and having it forced upon him. He wrote:
We decided to schedule our direct action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic-withdrawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.
Then it occurred to us that Birmingham’s mayoral election was coming up in March, and we speedily decided to postpone action until after election day. When we discovered that the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, had piled up enough votes to be in the run off, we decided again to postpone action until the day after the run off so that the demonstrations could not be used to cloud the issues. Like many others, we waited to see Mr. Connor defeated, and to this end we endured postponement after postponement. Having aided in this community need, we felt that our direct action program could be delayed no longer…
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr King carefully lays out the truth that he knows about waiting. He is practiced at waiting, he knows it can be a good (and strategic) thing. He instructs that – In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. Waiting is part of the process. When using a four step process there will inevitably be waiting. And Dr King knows that forced waiting is not the same as chosen waiting.
My friend Theda Good has been waiting. She has been waiting to be ordained. Theda graduated from Eastern Mennonite Seminary and has been working as a pastor at First Mennonite Church in Denver for over four years. Because Theda is married to a woman, Theda and her congregation have become quite familiar with King’s steps to changing injustice. Collecting the facts of injustice in their situation meant study and conversation. There has been negotiation after negotiation at the congregational, conference and denominational levels. They certainly have been through a long self-purification period.
Mountain States Mennonite Conference has also been waiting as it goes through these steps: study and conversation at the conference level to understand if it is unjust that Theda is not yet credentialed. With an understanding that Theda should be ordained, they moved to negotiation within the conference and with Mennonite Church USA leadership. Negotiations, private and public, did not leave a ready path so on to self-purification and confession in preparation for action.
Today, on this third Sunday of advent, the joy Sunday, the wait is over. Mountain States Mennonite Conference is acting. Theda will be ordained this afternoon. (She will be wearing a gorgeous stole in rainbow colors commissioned by her colleagues in the Inclusive Mennonite Pastors group and made by our own Ruth Kitchin Tillman.)
As a congregation we continue to wait with Michelle, hoping that she too will be credentialed in the coming months. If we use Dr King’s four steps, we have gone through step one; we determined that we want Michelle to be credentialed. We will soon be in the second step, negotiation with the conference (and denomination) which will be another period of waiting. Knowing what we are waiting for, envisioning the future, choosing to wait together, we can find joy, we already live with joy – even here in the waiting.
Let us choose joy as we wake, watch, wait and work together – for the reign of God is very near.