Saturday, December 08, 2012

Courage to Wait

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

A prayer from Christian Aid, written for Advent, begins, ‘God of the waiting,
give us courage to wait.’

During the week I run a post office, and people are not very good at waiting. One day four big heavy bags of coins were delivered. By the time I’d taken delivery of them and then manhandled them into the coin safe the queue was getting restless. Not long after, but when I was safely out of the post office, a disgruntled customer snapped off the ‘Please wait here!’ sign. Somebody wrote a note saying they had queued for twenty minutes - surely an exaggeration. But then one of our trustees had been to the Co-op Bank where she was kept waiting for 25 minutes. And there was a clock in the branch, on that occasion, to prove it. We have to do a lot of waiting, don’t we?

‘God of the waiting, give us courage to wait.’ But why should we need courage? Wouldn’t patience be a more relevant gift? What exactly are we afraid of?

Because Downton Abbey has finished now I was listening to Andrew Marr on TV the other Sunday night and he reminded me of something which I’d forgotten about, or put to the back of my mind. When we were growing up, in the 1960s and 70s, we were all waiting - and we were afraid - because we waiting for the end of the world, weren’t we? We actually thought it might come like a thief in the night. Someone would throw a switch - or two or three people would throw their switches - and nuclear Armageddon would be launched. As Mark Antony says in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, ‘Cry havoc, and unleash the dogs of war!’ We were afraid of the waiting, and thankfully that fear has diminished, though it hasn’t entirely gone away.

What are we afraid of now? What terrible future might we need courage to face? Climate change? Losing our jobs, or our children and grandchildren losing theirs? Economic meltdown, like we see happening in Greece and saw in Iceland? Natural disaster? Illness? Old age? Dying? Are we like people waiting for the flood waters to rise, hoping their little row of sand bags will be sufficient to hold back the deluge? ‘God of the waiting, give us courage to wait.’

The Christian Aid prayer continues, ‘We pray for those who have given up on the coming of hope, because they feel they wait in vain - at checkpoints, at borders, for jobs, for food...’

It’s easy to overplay our fears, isn’t it? To get them out of proportion. Someone commented on the radio the other day that people were much more matter of fact about their fears a hundred years ago. Every child, growing up, had seen a relative lying in their coffin in the front parlour. Even the ultimate fear wasn’t something to be so frightened of as people are now. People had more courage. They expected to have to endure, to need to be stoical.

Often today we’re in denial - about pain, about death, about fear itself. So much so that the Liverpool Care Pathway, which is supposed to ease people’s suffering, is on the point of being outlawed because the self-same politicians who want to make assisted dying easier for people with debilitating diseases want to outlaw a natural process that is designed to assist people to die in peace and with dignity.

When we’re not feeling afraid, what else weighs us down and prevents us from looking forward to the future? Is it the endless grind of providing first for our children, and then paying off the mortgage, and finally saving for our retirement? Is it the boredom of a repetitive job or a tedious routine? Is it anxiety and stress about all the things we’ve got to do, and about getting them done on time? What about that endless list of Advent chores - the Christmas cards, the shopping, the food, the parties, the carol singing? Or are we weighed down with regrets about relationships that have gone wrong or lives that have been cut too short?

When we’re afraid or anxious we tend to look out for signs, don’t we, to warn us that things are going wrong or to reassure us that they’re about to get better. It’s a bit like looking out for road signs, warning us of a 30 mile speed limit, or a z-bend, or stray wild animals, or the hidden brow of a hill coming up on the road ahead, or else reassuring us that there’s a stretch of dual carriageway, or a service station, or a lay-by within easy reach?

There’s nothing worse, is there, than missing the signs? Like the stretch of M1 motorway just south of here where you suddenly come to a gantry of average speed cameras and realise that you must already be in a 50 mile speed limit and - whoosh - there you are, it’s over and gone and goodness knows how fast you were going!

Jesus reminds his listeners how easy it can be to read the signs of the times. When the fig tree buds then it’s a sure sign that summer has arrived, just as wilting leaves on an ash tree are likely to indicate that Ash Die Back disease has spread to our neighbourhood.

And sometimes the signs of the times can be clear for all to see, even those who don’t know one type of tree from another. Someone reported recently, in a radio news feature, about the Cuban Missile Crisis that happened fifty years ago. People living just outside one of the air bases where NATO’s nuclear missiles were stored knew that if they saw a missile being fired they had exactly three minutes to live. That was the sign they were looking out for to tell them if the world - as they knew it - was about to end.

One of the RAF crew responsible for the missiles said there was an official drill, which they were supposed to follow, for tidying up the launch pad after their missile had been fired, but they also had their own unofficial plan for what they were really going to do. They were going to commandeer a fire engine, crash through the gates of the base, and get as far away as they could before the Russians retaliated. And they certainly weren’t going to pay any attention to road signs!

On a more contemporary note, a year or two ago we went into one of Helen’s favourite clothes shops and noticed to our surprise how little stock there was on display. Helen had some vouchers with her and we decided to spend them  straightaway - only just in time, as it happens, before the whole chain went into liquidation. We may not know our Ash Die Back from our elbows, or our fig trees from our olives, but on this particular occasion we had read the warning signs correctly.

Jesus also told us to look out for signs - but not just warning signs, like the Arctic ice caps melting away and the jet stream changing direction. He also encouraged us to expect signs of hope and comfort. Not only that, but he encouraged us also to be signs of hope and comfort.

As disciples of Jesus we’re not to be weighed down with worries and fears. We’re to raise our heads in joyful expectation. We’re to be strong, even when others are faint-hearted, hopeful even when others are downcast. ‘God of the waiting, give us courage to wait.’

One would imagine that only the most hardened American Methodist tourists would visit the New Room in Bristol, where John Wesley established the first Methodist chapel. But no, apparently it has what the Methodist Church rather pompously calls ‘missional value’. People come there seeking answers, or to find hope and comfort: homeless people, drug addicts, shoppers looking for a Bible to buy, the lonely and bereaved, those crushed by mental illness. In the New Room they find an unlikely sign of hope.

The Acorn Centre in Edinburgh is perhaps a more stereotypical example of mission on the edge, encountering people where they most need hope and reassurance. In partnership with the YMCA it offers support to homeless young people and helps them to rebuild their lives. Some of them go on to volunteer to help others. It’s a sign of hope.

God is already with us in the waiting. He is not just in the future. He is here and now. Jeremiah prophesied that ‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise that I made.’ But Advent reminds us that those days are no longer coming. They have dawned.

‘Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame,’ said the Psalmist. ‘God of the waiting, give us courage to wait with those in the most broken places of the world, and with all those who struggle to be bearers of hope there.’

A colleague who’s just become a community organiser, going from door-to-door listening to people’s concerns and trying to inspire vision and hope among local residents, was telling me about the reaction she got when she told a friend she had a new job. ‘That sounds wonderful!’ the friend said. ‘Where will you be working?’ ‘In Darnall,’ replied the new community organiser. ‘Oh dear!’ said the friend. ‘Good luck there then.’  

Actually Darnall doesn’t deserve its bad reputation. It’s got a lot going for it really, but let’s just think of the most difficult communities to live and work in in our own city, and the most difficult places in our world. God gives us courage to go and wait with those in the most broken places, because if the Gospel doesn’t mean anything there it means nothing at all.

God’s concern is not with the powerful and the influential. God longs to be with, and to lead, the humble in what is right and to teach them his way.

Paul prays that we may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. If we are blameless, after all, we can be of good courage. And the only way to be blameless, in case we find ourselves wondering about that, the only way is to abound in love.

The Christian Aid prayer concludes,

Turn our lack of hope into courage,
so that our waiting may be over
and all the things of darkness shall be no more.

I think the prayer means that hope in the coming of Jesus, two thousand years ago and again this Christmas, should be all that we need to encourage us to stop waiting for something to happen and go out - abounding in love - to be alongside those who are broken, or living in broken places.

But one final word of caution. Grace is not cheap. Nor is it easy to bring words of comfort. The people who are working around the country as community organisers - as part of a programme dreamt up by David Cameron and others - are cautioned to listen, and then listen again, before doing anything or breaking the silence with their own quick solutions.

R S Thomas understood this and captured it in his poem ‘Kneeling’. Is he describing a service in an empty church, where he’s saying the daily office alone surrounded only by the communion of long dead saints - the spirits of those who have worshipped here down the centuries? Or is he kneeling before an expectant congregation of the living, waiting for guidance, to know what to say and when to interrupt their thoughts?

Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God   
To speak; the air a staircase   
For silence; the sun’s light   
Ringing me, as though I acted   
A great rôle. And the audiences   
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
                     Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,   
Though it be you who speak   
Through me, something is lost.   
The meaning is in the waiting.

‘God of the waiting, give us courage to wait.’

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