A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Hurry Up & Wait
December 4, 2014
The Sunday after Thanksgiving is one of the busiest flying days of the year, as hordes wait until the last minute to return home from their holiday celebrations. Last Sunday afternoon the TSA security line at the Midway Airport in Chicago stretched 1.2 miles long for travelers arriving there in the mid-afternoon – yes, Midway, not O’Hare! More than a few harried travelers missed their flights. Anxiety was rampant, and tempers flared – but the good folk at TSA managed somehow to keep the maximum line wait to under an hour.
Waiting is rarely pleasant, though some seem to handle it better than others. It can help if we know why we must wait, but that doesn’t reduce the wait time or the uncertainty of its duration. The weariness of waiting is abated neither by actively fighting it nor by passively resigning ourselves to it.
One of the greatest challenges for the Christian community across the centuries has been to wait well for Jesus’ promised return. Some have given up hope for his return altogether, while others have been so anxious for the wait to end that they have lost all capacity to function well in the meantime. Neither response to our ongoing wait is helpful. Imagine someone arriving at Midway, seeing the line, and turning back saying, “We’ll never get to our plane, so why bother trying to leave Chicago at all?” On the other extreme is someone so agitated by the length of the wait and the uncertainty of whether they’ll make their plane that they nearly have a stroke or a coronary. Both of them entirely miss their opportunity to bring much-needed help to the elderly man struggling with a heavy suitcase, or the young mother trying to calm her implacable child.
Advent is the Christian season that schools us in waiting well for the coming of the Savior. Several passages in the apostolic writings reveal that even the earliest Christians had a hard time waiting for the Lord’s return (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11, 2 Peter 3:1-13). Some were ready to give up, while others grew increasingly agitated as the wait prolonged. Jesus taught his disciples to keep working while they were waiting, so they would be ready to meet the Master whenever he unexpectedly returns. He counseled them not to speculate about when or how that will happen, but to focus their energy on how they engage the world around them while they wait.
Someone shared with me some unsolicited wisdom years ago when I was preparing for ministry: “A pastor should be ready to preach, pray, sing, or die at a moment’s notice.” I’ve found that not to be so far off the mark – things come the pastor’s way that could never be anticipated, and rolling with them is far better than ignoring them or resisting them. Something similar is true for all of us, as we await our Lord’s return: while we are waiting, we should be prepared gladly to do whatever the moment requires. Readiness for the Lord’s return is best nurtured by readily engaging whatever situation comes our way.
Happiness, it is said, comes only when we do not seek it. Similarly, we prepare ourselves best for our Lord’s return by engaging well what is before us here and now while we wait, rather than by obsessing over the time and manner of his return, or over our preparation for it. We maintain a robust hope of his return by living each moment fully in the present, engaging what is before us with scant thought of what it may have to do with the arrival of the Messiah whom we await.
My father-in-law Abe has been for me a wonderful example of the joy of paying attention to the folks around us when things aren’t moving quickly. If we get stuck in a construction zone, he’ll roll down the window to talk with a construction worker and learn something about their work that is truly fascinating. As we walk down the beach, he’ll stop and talk to the angler sitting there idly with rod in hand, and soon they’ll be fast friends. Wherever we are, he sees opportunity for getting to know new things and new people. For him, waiting is not a burden to be endured, but an opportunity to be seized.
Our most important Advent practice is not to gaze longingly at Bethlehem’s star, or to read and reread the scriptures about Christ’s return. Such things are not bad in themselves, but more important is how we engage those near to us while we’re waiting. An old adage promises, “Good things come to those who wait.” Let me suggest an Advent corollary: “Even better things come to those who wait well.” How will we be attentive to those who happen to be near at hand this Advent season?
Your partner in waiting,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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