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I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hopeThis past summer, I went with some friends kayaking and camping on an island off the coast of North Carolina. It sounded like a great idea.
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.
-T. S. Eliot
Among the many well-conceived, ill-executed adventures, the camping escapade is the primary reason we classify the trip as a great experience we would never repeat again, nor wish upon our worst enemies. We all drifted off to sleep sometime around 10 or 11, the four of us in sleeping bags lying side-by-side on a tarp we placed over the cacti and other prickly brush that carpeted the island. The stars were brilliant, satellites and meteors moved, and the Milky Way shone in its full splendor.
I don’t know how long I slept, but eventually I woke to stings of pain piercing my face. I rubbed my skin with my sandy hands, but whatever manner of carnivorous insect inhabited the island remained. I tried to suffocate myself inside my sleeping bag to find refuge, but to no avail. I told myself that perhaps if I didn’t think about the pain it would prove only a minor annoyance, but my skin kept twitching with startling stings. There was no going back to sleep.
I finally got on my tired feet (blistered from a previous ill-executed adventure) and walked along the shore. I found that if I kept moving quickly enough, the bugs would not bite me. Through the long night we wandered the beach for an ambiguous number of dark hours, waiting for the sun to bring relief, feeling like we were in purgatory.
And though we expected the waiting to end with the dawn, the knight faded into a murky glow from a thick shield of fog. By the time the longed-for sunrise would have come, we could only guess its existence from the dim light that finally allowed us to see the red welts that covered our skin as the tiny gnats continued to torture us. The sun had risen, but we were still waiting.
The entire Christian journey is a long narrative of waiting. Job waits for a hearing. Abraham waits for a son. The Hebrew slaves wait for deliverance from slavery. Suicidal prophets wait for God’s presence. And by the time Advent rolls around, we stand with captive Israel waiting for a Messiah.
But the waiting is not exceptionally Christian. Even pagan mythology bears themes of the Fall in the decline from the golden to the silver to the bronze ages, and nearly every tale is infused with grief, sorrow and loss. David’s cries of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are not unique to the Christian story, even if they are fundamental to it. We stand among the company of all creation “groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”
Beyond that, we as Christians tend to forget that the story of waiting is still our story. When the Messiah comes, after all, he is only a baby, and we are left waiting. When he begins his ministry, he does not bring the deliverance we have been longing for, and we are left waiting. When he reaches the climax of his ministry he dies, and we are left waiting. After he trumps death and rises again as the first fruit of the New Creation, he ascends to heaven and tells us he will return, and we are still left here waiting.
Let us take heart as we wander the shore; the sun has risen, and the fog is not forever. Sometimes faith is not a glorious adventure; it is a long walk that we wouldn’t have the option of quitting if we tried. Let us remember that the posture of waiting, through often excruciating difficult, is also fundamentally Christian. We would do well to practice it.