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Guest column: Leighton Ford asks, is waiting time wasting time?

By Leighton Ford

“Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”

Simone Weil

Waiting isn’t always pleasant. But waiting time isn’t always wasting time.

Jeremy Begbie, the British theologian/musician, gave a fascinating presentation here recently, illustrating his talk by playing piano. To show how pauses create tension and keep us listening he played the first eight notes of “Amazing Grace” then hesitated, fingers poised, keeping us in suspense – then played the final note.

Delay, he said, is built into most music – and into our Christian faith. God has promised a new age through Jesus’ resurrection, but there’s an awful lot to get through first. Yet delay needn’t be empty. It can be full and enriching as we wait in the “pauses.”

Most of us remember Jesus’ command to “go and preach the gospel.” But we often forget he first commanded his disciples not to “go” but to “wait” until the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost to empower their witness. On Sunday, Christians around the world celebrate that day and that ongoing gift.

In our fast and impatient culture we don’t like to wait. Yet the whole Bible is full of waiting. The Psalmist writes “my soul is waiting for the Lord.” Five faithful figures Luke describes are waiting for the Messiah. Paul counsels believers under pressure to “wait for the coming of the Lord.”

All the world is waiting, some in very hard places. Syrians are waiting for peace. Nigerians to get their girls back. Children in the Sudan for food. And there are all the ordinary “waitings” in life. My grandson waiting just to graduate. A friend waiting to see if his cancer chemo works. Jeanie and I sometimes waiting what this one day brings

What is waiting? I know what it’s not. Not just talking, planning, rushing, pushing, forcing, fearing, grabbing, fretting.

It is: expecting, desiring, looking, watching, listening, giving up control, seeking, hanging in, taking off my watch, tracing the seasons of my soul, trusting.

The philosopher Heidegger saw a distinction between waiting “for” and waiting “upon.” Waiting for involves having a fixed result in mind. Waiting upon allows insight to emerge … without a prior desired result.

Isn’t that what Mary modeled when she pondered when the angel told her she would bear a son? She hardly knew what she was waiting for. But she was faithfully ready to wait upon God to give her a son, at the right time.

As Jeremy Begbie said, holding his finger up before playing the last note, delay causes us to wait, living with God’s promise even when nothing much seems to be going on.

Yet waiting is not passive. It’s waiting in patience for the seed planted to grow. “Waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting” (Paul in The Message).

A friend understands that kind of waiting. She has been waiting for 10 years (not always patiently!) to discern God’s calling for her life. Now her call is clear: to heal her part of God’s creation. The waiting took years – but was worth it!

After many waiting times I have learned that God may not bring me what I want, but almost always what I most need. So (inspired by thoughts of the late Henri Nouwen) I ask, am I waiting:

• Passively or actively – not in a vacuum – but on a word from God?

• Fretfully or patiently – staying fully in the present moment?

• Waveringly or expectantly – trusting that this long practice will bear fruit?

As Pentecost comes, why not open your hands, imaginatively place in them what you are waiting for, and pray: “Spirit of God, descend upon my heart. Silently now, I wait for you.”

Leighton Ford of Charlotte is a Presbyterian minister known internationally as preacher, writer and mentor.
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