Waiting for God
Timothy C. Ahrens
The First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
February 6, 2000
Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
So often it seems that in difficult and darkened days of faith, the questions that grip us about our God fall on deaf ears when we cry out to God. We find ourselves crying out, "Reveal yourself to me!" "Show me who you are and where you are, O Lord!" We find ourselves wondering - "What shall I do, O Lord?" "Where shall I turn?" "How shall I respond to the elements of life which surround me and trouble me?" "What's next?"
In reflections among the clergy group that meets at First Church this past Tuesday, Rev. Janet Helms, Senior Pastor at Karl Road Disciples of Christ described this time as times when our intellect, our imaginations, our feelings dry up and cease to be of help. St. John of the Cross called this time the "Dark Night of the Soul." St. Teresa of Avila in her Autobiography called this time, "the dry well." A famous (yet anonymous) 14th Century mystic described this time as the "Cloud of Unknowing." Another phrase often used is "Desert Time." Whether dark, or dry, unknown, or desert - the times we face of waiting and listening for God in which we feel, hear, or know emptiness can be painful and disturbing - if we choose for them to be.
Jesus made other choices in the midst of the silence. In Mark 1:35, after healing Simon's mother-in-law, all the sick and demon-possessed persons, Jesus wakes early the next morning and goes away to a solitary place to pray. Because there are no "deserts" around Capernaum, translations often resort to speaking of a "lonely place" (RSV) where Jesus went to pray. In the solitude and silence, he waited for God and listening for God. The text never relates what God "says" to Jesus. Rather, we read that in the midst of frenzy and the onslaught of the masses, Jesus seeks and finds a lonely place. What do we do when overwhelmed and exhausted? Do we seek the desert place, the lonely place, the solitary place?
How could we? After all, you and I are people who want answers and we want them now, thank you! When we call over the intercom, send an e-mail, leave a phone message, send a fax, issue a memo, mail a directive, send an urgent courier, speak with the people we supervise, or tell our children to do something, the response time we expect is "fast and faster." We are people of action. Isn't it true that we expect God to step to it when we call? "Hey get with it, Lord! Stop piddling around in the desert and answer us now!?"
When God does respond, if we are not paying attention, the answers seem odd. We seek answers, instead, God asks questions of us! Were you told as a child not to answer a question with a question? In Isaiah 40:21, that's exactly what God does - asks questions in response to questions. "Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of earth? ... It is God who sits upon the circle of the earth . . . The Lord is the everlasting, the Creator of the Universe." (Isaiah 40:21, 22, 28). The key to knowing the Lord God is found in the waiting, in the listening, in the silence, in returning - if you will - to the foundations of earth, to the recognition that God is Creator of the Universe and our God, too. Yes, the key to renewal, to strengthening is waiting for God: "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." (Is. 40:31).
I truly believe that waiting for God will renew our strength. But, how do we wait? In his book, When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginning, Thomas Green offers an image of "waiting" worth our consideration. Green suggests that when faced with the dark night or desert time, we practice "floating in the sea of God." The mystery of floating is that it requires much letting go and trust (p. 143). "God's work," he continues, "is all directed at teaching us to float in the sea which is God, and it is really the floaters, not the swimmers who get places and accomplish great things for the sake of the kingdom of God . . . It is only in floating that one really witnesses to faith and promotes justice in a Spirit-filled way." To reach a goal that we have chosen, swimming is the best way to reach it. But, to allow ourselves to be carried by the current of God is to trust that the Lord will deliver us to our destination.
When walking through the final days of life with a woman who had brain cancer, she shared with me that her whole life she was in control. What frightened her about dying was that she had lost control. "I feel like I'm floating, and not swimming anymore," she said. Floating in the sea of God can be frightening. It can also be liberating.
A few weeks ago, while on silent retreat, I allowed God to carry me and trusted God in the silence. Instead of agendas, schedules, and itinerary to follow, I simply walked or sat in God's light. While experiencing the "being" of God, I experienced several revelations of God's love for me. It took time away to get on my back and "float" in the vulnerability of God's love, but it was in the floating, not in my frenetic, swimming that I encountered the amazing and peace full presence of God.
Now I know many of you are thinking, like author and mother Joan Ryan. In her 1998 article for The San Francisco Chronicle, entitled, "Why Monks Sit in the Snow," Ryan reflects on the joyful madness of her children at play encircling her while she's attempting to write her column for the paper. Her six-year-old son is playing pirates with his friend and they keep attacking her as she tries to focus on the task before her. She is attempting to be profound and deeply insightful, but all she thinks of is the hilarity and fun of two little pirates, wearing only her black turtleneck sweaters attacking her with their cardboard swords!
The next night, at a Zen retreat center near her house, Joan listens to a lecture on spirituality. She listens to a monk tell of his time in Asia sitting in the snow with little food, drink, or sleep. Then later he sat like a yogi on the banks of the Ganges River for 24 hours straight even though his legs burned with pain and his eyes longed for rest. Through these practices he gained a higher state of consciousness, clarity and patience. As she tried to put the sword fight with pirates and the monks state of higher consciousness together in her own mind, she realized at last why monks sit in the snow and on the banks of the Ganges River. It's because they don't have children!
While some people travel the globe to seek places that test their will power, test their patience, deprive them of sleep, and bring on a state of selflessness, parents live these realities every day! She concludes, "Anyone looking for a mysterious, contradictory, and fulfilling religion couldn't do much better than child-rearing. All the components are there: rituals, generosity, penance, guilt, sleeplessness and desperate prayer, all punctuated by moments of transcendent clarity and unmatched joy."
So while I sincerely encourage you to "float in the sea of God," I am also aware that quite often we are swimming upstream in what seems like the salmon runs of the great northwest!
The Hebrew word for "waiting" in Isaiah 40:31 is "qavah" (kaw-vaw'). In its primitive form the word means "to bind together by twisting" as a rope is bound together. Ultimately waiting for God is relational - it is a binding together as rope it woven through many fibers into one tight entity. It is in the relationship which binds us together with God that we are actually strengthened by God. In the qavah, "the waiting upon the Lord" - we are able to eventually enter the light from the dark night of the soul; or in the words of St. Teresa of Avila, we move from the dry place into the garden - where the flowers are the virtues and the water by which they live is the prayer of devotion" (as quoted in Rev. Helms presentation, 2/1/00).
Come wait upon God and in so waiting may your strength be renewed. Like Jesus going to the lonely place for solitude, I encourage you to find places and times for prayer and stillness. It's true, you may not be a monk sitting in the snow, but you most certainly need renewal for your daily sustenance. In the places and times of waiting for God, be aware. The one who was and is and shall be for evermore seeks to be bound to you and to be in relationship with you. Listen and wait. Amen.
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