The Waiting Preacher

The Waiting Preacher

I was waiting.

At the Intercontinental airport in Houston, Texas. I was flying standby and had missed three flights so far. My waiting began at 7 a.m., and at 4 p.m. it showed no sign of abating.

So as I waited, I thought about waiting.

You can wait for things, like a package to arrive, a taxi to drive by, or the sun to rise. You can wait for people to come to your party, to keep their appointment, to get to church. We can be “Waiting for Fidel,” or be “Waiting for Godot,” and of course, Godot or whomever we’re waiting for may not show up.

If you’re really important or very wealthy, you may not need to wait as much as other people. You get to cut to the front of the line at airport security, you get to board an airplane first and in a restaurant your table is already waiting for you. If you are Kate Middleton, you have a “lady-in-waiting” who attends to your needs.

We wait in groups and we wait in lines and we wait in cars.

Waiting implies that we’re at the mercy of someone else. At the grocery store, we’re hostage to clerks and little old ladies; at banks, to available tellers or loan officers; at Starbucks, to barista trainees; at the clinic, to doctors and nurses; at the post office, to government employees who are made available in some sort of conversely bizarre logic, to wit: the longer the line, the fewer clerks; at the DMV, to state employees (here we are often given a number, so that we know just how long we might have to wait, and where we are in the wait line).

Sometimes we’re told that waiting is a good thing. We should wait until marriage to have sex, but we should also wait to get married; we should wait to buy that flat-screen TV until we can pay cash; we should wait for the ball instead of swinging too early. It’s not good to swing early.

If you’re tired of waiting, you can go to a special room that’s designated as a waiting room. This is a place where you can be with other people who are waiting like you. There you can play the Waiting Game, which consists of trying to guess how long you will wait before the wait is over.

Waiting is especially hard if you have nothing to do while waiting. That’s why Jesus, when talking about waiting, would also talk about working — work for the night is coming. If you don’t have anything to do while waiting, life becomes tedious very quickly.

Waiting is more difficult for some people than others. It’s probably hardest for children who wait for summer vacation to come, for example. Children find it difficult to wait for birthdays, the most important ones being 13, 16, 18 and 21. After that we stop waiting for birthdays.

Waiting is always linked to hope. Only this can explain the expression, “I can’t wait!!!” Perhaps that’s why Paul Tillich called waiting a metaphor for faith. Why would you wait if you didn’t believe that ultimately your wait would be rewarded?

Sometimes we wait when there seems to be no hope. We wait for the wife to get ready or for the husband to fix the leak in the toilet. We wait for peace. We wait for justice. We wait for our children to grow up. We wait for the day when our college loans are paid off.

The object of our waiting may change. We can’t wait to be a family and for children to come. Then, we can’t wait for it to be just the two of us and for the children to leave!

Some people are so good at waiting that they become professional waiters. The really good waiters can make quite a bit of money. Speaking of professions, some of them require more waiting than others. Artists often have to wait for the paint to dry, or the clay to be ready. Scientists wait for mold to grow in a petri dish; writers wait for inspiration or an idea. Perhaps it is the farmer, however, who does the most waiting. Even farmers, however, find work to do while waiting for the seeds to sprout and the harvest to ripen.

We preachers are much like farmers. We sow seeds and wait … wait … wait. We prepare soil, then water the soil, we provide nutrients and wait for the seeds to sprout. We wait for signs of life, for evidence of growth. If we see some, we continue to irrigate and cultivate. We wait for signs of fruit. We talk to our seedlings — we have classes, we provide support groups, we preach sermons, we offer counseling and so on. But it’s all a waiting process.

Preachers wait. We do it all the time. We wait for the organist to get ready. We wait for the sound system to work. We wait in hospital lounges and at bedsides.

Unfortunately, preachers occasionally can’t wait. Preachers can be an impatient lot. We never had to take a class in seminary on “Waiting.” We can’t wait to outgrow our sanctuary. Too often we lead the congregation into unnecessary building programs. We can’t wait for success. We want our work to be noticed and appreciated by others. We cannot labor in obscurity. We wait for the day in which we will reap the fruit of our labors.

That’s why preachers must master the art of waiting. It is the art of the “deep breath.” We must learn how to “wait upon the Lord.”

Waiting is hard work and humble work because waiting is the work of self-denial. The person who waits is a person who has been put in his or her place. We wait at the good pleasure of others who in this or that situation are our “betters.” The person who waits — patiently — is a person who has died a thousand deaths.

The good news is that those who wait on the Lord will find their strength renewed in the Lord. See Isaiah 40:31.

Clearly, waiting is a skill that the Bible urges us preachers to develop. “Wait for the Lord; Be strong, and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:14). Or, “The LORD is good to those who wait for him” (Lamentations 3:25; see also Psalm 37:9; Psalm 130:5-6; and Psalm 37:7-9).

So we wait. Weary, but waiting.

With hope. It’s what keeps us waiting.

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Timothy Merrill

TIMOTHY MERRILL is an ordained minister and has served churches in Oregon, Minnesota and Colorado. His doctoral work at Princeton Theological Seminary focused on the apocalyptic nature of the preaching of the First Crusade in 1096 A.D. His work has been published in the academic press including the Patristica and Byzantine Review and the Westminster Theological Journal. His book, Learning to Fall: A Guide for the Spiritually Clumsy (Chalice Press) appeared in 1998.

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