When I was a kid playing with my friends we raced everywhere. We tried to out run each other, ride our bikes faster, and sail our boats faster. We counted down our foot races with that great phrase, “Get ready, get set, GO!”
We live in a go-go-go culture. From time to time I’ll step out of my office and I’ll ask our office administrator Wanda, “Is the internet slow today?” I’m referring to the fact that on some days the emails don’t send immediately, it takes about 10 seconds for each one. In internet-time, 10-seconds is glacially slow. Our culture is in a hurry. We get things fast. We want things immediately. Our food is fast. We take power naps. We aren’t good at waiting.
Yet during the season before Christmas called Advent we are all about ponderous waiting and preparation. Even though our shopping culture may say that Christmas is upon us, it is not. At the moment of this writing, Christmas is 25 and a half days from now; Yes, Christmas is coming, but it is not here. Not yet. At a concert, there’s a moment when the lights go out but before the band takes the stage; that’s what Advent is. The lights have clicked off. The show is about ready to start. It is a time of anticipation, preparation, waiting. The show is getting ready to begin, but it hasn’t started. Yet.
We aren’t good at waiting.
I watched my television with horror last Monday night as the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson filled with fire and tear gas and looters. A few people set fire to a police car. Reporters roved up and down the streets. Rioters started a fire in a building, then in another, and another, and another. The majority of protesters were peaceful, and, indeed, peaceful protests were conducted from coast to coast, from NYC to Seattle and Oakland. Despite the peaceful protesters in Fergurson, there were those who could not control their temper. Perhaps they thought they were “getting justice” by breaking glass. Whatever they were thinking—and history tells me that mobs don’t think—they threw bricks, they lit fires, they destroyed locally owned and operated businesses.
I was mad. And sad. And speechless.
I know that black Americans are treated differently than white people are. And I know that well meaning people of every color and background have plenty of blind spots when it comes to race and culture. Sometimes our differences become points of friction, and differences abound in our country. My wife reminds me that women are treated differently than men. As an advocate for children and youth (I’ve written a children’s story and a young adult novel, and I’ve worked in children and youth ministry my whole adult life), I’ve seen how young people are often taken for granted, disregarded, and expected to be ‘seen not heard.’ We like different things, hail from different places, believe different things. Of course there’s friction.
And there’s Ferguson.
I finally got saturated with the news of the riot. I turned the channel to—get this—a cop show. In this episode of the TV show “Castle,” which I joined in progress, there was a guy holding hostages in a NYC subway car. He wore a vest of explosives. But he wasn’t the biggest danger at all. No. Another “bad” guy with some diabolical plan had infected the bomber man with a dangerous flu virus. The bomber was really just a misunderstood fall guy, a puppet on a string spreading this flu all over the city unbeknownst to him. Act one ends with the bomber’s arrest (no harm was caused), the discovery of this flu-attack, and a question: Who is behind this mess? Act two begins with a twist: a nice looking middle aged woman had bought a ton of stock in a pharma company marketing a new Flu vaccine. Why? We learn in her interview at the gritty police station that she had, in fact, paid people to spread the flu, so that her company could sell millions of dollars worth of the vaccine, which would make her rich and the hero who saves the day. Whew, what a conclusion.
I don’t usually watch cop shows, but I needed this one because I knew that all the loose ends, the sadness, the tension, the problems, the dangers, the threats—they’d all be resolved in less than one hour. And, sure enough, they were. The bomber admitted that he did it for love. The lady with the diabolical plan lawyered up. People with the flu—everyone of them—got better. In act three, all the cops joked around and went out for a few celebratory beers at the end of the show. Within the hour, everything was cool, calm, and collected. Everyone was happy. Viewers were relieved, just in time to head to the freezer for a bowl of ice cream. Justice had been done.
I needed a show like that when a real American city was burning down and the way forward wasn’t perfectly clear. Solutions in Ferguson will take more than one hour.
Advent is a season of waiting and preparation… We aren’t good at waiting.
In Mark’s gospel—in the little apocalypse of chapter 13—we find Jesus telling his friends that he’ll come again, but he doesn’t say when. He only tells them to wait. But with the waiting comes activity. Jesus illustrates this with a parable of a master who goes on a journey; when he leaves home he puts his slaves in charge, each with his or her work. Some will take care of the gardens. Some will keep the pantry stocked and the household fed. Others will buy and sell the livestock. Still others will manage the crops and other household affairs. Some will prepare for the harvest, some will prune, some will fertilize, some will plant. The doorkeeper, of course, will be on the watch.
What’s Jesus’ point? Is he illustrating that waiting doesn’t mean disconnecting from time, but engaging in time differently? I think so. With waiting, comes preparation, attentiveness, patience, action. That makes sense. So, while we wait for Christmas, we pay attention to the ways God’s grace is born anew. We wonder as people string Christmas lights, “How does God’s grace shine in darkness?” And we pray while we wait. It’s one of the things we do as we prepare for the future. A friend was dying, but it was taking a long time. Near exasperation, she said to me, “It’s going so slowly. It’s taking so long. All I can do is pray.” I suggested that maybe prayer was enough for now. And, God knows, the world needs prayer.
Ferguson needs our prayers.
Things will get better in Ferguson. They will. They absolutely will. Too many good folk are on the ground there already building relationships. Many people in government are working for good. Many people in the streets are working for good (without looting and without violence). Many people in the police department are working for good. Many people in the church are there, and the church is working for good, hosting conversations, helping to sort things out, mending community relations. There’s lots of rhetoric, posturing, yelling, flashes of anger, politicking, and noise, but real strides are being made towards unity and wholeness, justice and healing. At least one church got burned down. They’re rebuilding. Their building is gone, but their resolve is not. On Thanksgiving day, one of the local restaurants served a community meal for the neighborhood. The owner is just glad his restaurant wasn’t burned down; he knows the grace of eating together, so he cooked for his neighbors. And they came. They prayed. They ate. Things will be better, just wait and see.
But the key word is “wait.”
Real life takes time. Real life doesn’t resolve neatly like cop shows do in 50-or-so minutes. For Mary, it took nine months of waiting for Jesus to come. And the church has been waiting for Jesus to come again for 2,000 years.
Real life requires a lot of waiting—but the waiting we’re called to do isn’t passive. We aren’t called to hibernate or to go on a television watching binge. The waiting we’re called to do involves preparation, a lot of staying ready, a lot of paying attention, a lot of praying. While we wait we find that things need getting done, so we do them; there are things in the household that need attention, and we give it. We pray for and thank God for our police officers. We sweep up glass. We pray though the news. We pray for those who protest nonviolently. If a mob is the language of people unheard, we listen, we listen, we listen. We are carefully mindful of other points of view—particularly those we don’t understand or can’t appreciate at the moment. We try to see things from other perspectives. While we are waiting, we continue to take care of the master’s house, and the master’s fields, and the master’s people. When the master comes back, things will be in good working order. When the master comes back, the watchman at the door will be alert. And when the master comes, we’ll be ready.
I was born and raised in the sight of water in Hampton, Virginia. I was baptized and nurtured in the Presbyterian church. There was never a time when weekly worship attendance, the giving of ...