by Louise Westfall
Time gets jumbled during a pandemic. Days drag and blur together. The organizing structure of the school year has been blown away, with shortened days and lengthened breaks, and hybrid schedules. Eight months of surges and declines, moving from yellow to orange to red alert designation. Not-funny jokes about 2020 lasting an eternity. Countdown to a vaccine. We’re waiting… So it seems kind of funny to enter a new season dedicated to… waiting. Like we needed more practice. Yet that’s where we are. Welcome to Advent! Over the next four weeks the hunkered-down Church will wait… for the return of Light and the arrival of hope that reveal the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Seems that God’s people have always done a lot of waiting. Wait for liberation from slavery. Wait for the gifts of covenant, land, the formation of a people. Wait for deliverance from exile. Wait for Messiah, the One coming to save and redeem. So much waiting that one wonders whether there might be wisdom in the act itself. The author of the morning text was waiting far from home; after Israel had been defeated by Babylon and forcibly expelled from the nation. But notice that the prophet’s waiting is not passive. No sigh of resignation or disabling “How long O Lord?” This text constitutes an active prayer, a lament from too-long waiting, crying out to God to do something…to reveal the Divine Self unmistakably in ways that will transform the intolerable conditions of the present. A reading from the prophet Isaiah, in the 64th chapter, verses 1 through 9. We’re listening, God. We’re waiting… [Isaiah 64:1-9]
I’m so tired of waiting–aren’t you? –for the world to become good and beautiful and kind. One of my friends posted this poignant question on Instagram recently, and I thought it reflected pandemic fatigue…until I looked more closely at its source, the Black poet and social justice advocate Langston Hughes…writing in 1936.
Like the prophet in our text, Hughes was tired of inaction; tired of the same old ways of doing and being. Waiting felt like deflection. Denial. Willful ignorance. Even passive acceptance. The raw hurt of Isaiah, pleading with God to get out of heaven and do some earthly good, is a powerful prayer that pleads for change by the One who “works for those who wait for him.”
Isaiah tried to reason it out: maybe God’s absence is because of human transgressions. Or maybe we transgressed BECAUSE God had been conspicuously absent. The writer had faith–he acknowledges God’s awesome deeds–but he is struggling. He’s waiting in the dark for what? –praying that God would come down and shake the foundations of the world and rain fire on their enemies and show them who is boss. We are so tired of waiting…
It’s significant I think that God doesn’t respond to the prophet in this text; there’s no “thus says the Lord” and a divine proclamation of hope to hold on. It’s as if the very silence of God prompts Isaiah to go deeper; he gets out his anger and defensiveness… and arrives at that one little word that turns the whole text around: Yet.
We are all the work of God’s hands. We are all God’s people. And God has given into our hands the divine work of repair, restoration, and reconciliation.
Yet. He remembers the relationship upon which the world is founded: in God the heavenly Parent, who like a skilled potter shapes and creates and makes human beings in the Divine image. We are all the work of God’s hands. We are all God’s people. And God has given into our hands the divine work of repair, restoration, and reconciliation. Instead of waiting for God to tear open the heavens and come down, perhaps our prayer should be that God tear open our hearts and move us to start demonstrating the redemptive power with which we have been bestowed. Right here. Right now.
Our “waiting” then creates moments alive with possibility. Waiting might even hold the key to transformation. How? Because, friends, God is here. But God shows up in surprising places and with different faces. The tearing open of hearts isn’t an act of violence, but rather of anticipation, the way you tear open a present, or a long-awaited letter from a friend. Here is Naomi Shihab Nye, an Arab-American poet who describes one such shimmering moment (her poem was written pre-pandemic, but its truth is for all times):
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing.
“Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem?
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani Schway, min fadlick, shu-bit-se wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”
We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies–little powered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—from her bag and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling.
And then the airline broke out free apple juice, and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powered sugar too. And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
…and somewhere nearby God was smiling.
Friends, may it be so, as we wait with torn-open hearts.