Waiting – April 25, 2021


Patience is a virtue, but it is not a virtue that I often possess.  I have difficulty waiting for anything, but especially something that I care deeply about.  Long waits filled with uncertainty can be grueling.  When I thought of times of waiting, I immediately thought of the bar exam.  The test was two days long.  The first day was multiple choice and the second day was essay.  I, along with my classmates, had spent the entire summer preparing for the test.  I had memorized boxes of flash cards.  I had attended study groups.  But even after all preparation, when the time came to take the test, needless to say I was very anxious.

During the first day one person in the exam room actually began banging his head on his desk.  Between the first and second day, two members of my study group came to my hotel room door in tears believing there was no reason to go back for day two because they were certain they had already failed.  When essay day came around, I was feeling more confident.  I am better with essays than multiple choice. But when I opened that test booklet I found a question on the rule against perpetuities – quite possibly the most dreadful area of property law if not all of law.  It is so dreadful that the study books we bought said to not even bother studying it because it is never on the bar exam.  Needless to say, when I walked out that day I had lost all confidence that I had passed.  And to top that off, I had to wait 11 weeks to get the results.

All of us began jobs shortly after taking the exam, jobs which we could lose if we failed.  I was working for a federal judge, and when I asked him if he would fire me if I failed the test he said, “I don’t work with failures.”  If I failed, I recognized I would be jobless with thousands of dollars in student loans, bills to pay, and no immediate prospects for other employment.  As if this was not bad enough, I would have to take the bar exam again in six months.

Waiting was the problem facing Mary and Martha in our text for today.  Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha, and he was very ill.  All of these people have a close connection to Jesus.  The book of John indicates that Jesus loved not only Mary and Martha but also Lazarus.  In speaking with his disciples, he refers to Lazarus as “our friend.”  Because they had such a close connection with Jesus, Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus telling him of the condition of Lazarus with the expectation that Jesus would come and heal him.  After all, Jesus was reported to heal many strangers.  Why would he not be expected to come and heal, in the words of the gospel of John, “he whom you love?”  But Jesus didn’t come when he received the message. Instead, after he heard that Lazarus was ill, Jesus stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

The result of Jesus not coming when Mary and Martha called was Lazarus dying and being placed in a tomb.  We read that by the time Jesus arrived Lazarus had been in this tomb for four days.  At the time, people were often buried in caves and large stones would be rolled along a groove in front of the tomb to protect its contents from animals, the elements, and robbers.  Due to the climate, the body of Lazarus would have been decomposing already by the time Jesus arrived.  There seemed little reason to expect that Lazarus would ever come from that tomb.  Mary and Martha had not only endured the pain of waiting, but it appeared it was all in vain, that the outcome they sought would not be obtained.  That Lazarus would remain entombed.

When I read this story today, I think of all of the circumstances we wait for in our lives – for the results of medical tests for ourselves or our family members, for a change in difficult circumstances we face whether that be financial, social, physical, or mental, for the justice we seek in the world around us to finally take shape.   And when, despite our waiting, the result we seek is not obtained, we too can become entombed like Lazarus.  Rather than a physical tomb, our tombs can take other forms.  It can be a psychological tomb filled with anxiety, anger or depression.  Our tombs can be spiritual.  We may become frustrated, not understanding God’s action or inaction in the world or our lives.  And, like Lazarus, we may feel trapped in those tombs, feel that we will never emerge from them to experience the life we hoped for again.

It is easy to become so consumed in our expectations or hopes for the future that we fail to appreciate the life we have now, to see outside the tombs we feel trapped in.  We can become so fixated on one result, that it is not possible to see the other possibilities which exist around us, the life which remains even if the result we want after our time of waiting is not obtained.

What has come to help me through those times of waiting, in those times when the outcome of what I hope for is uncertain, is to look for the new life than can emerge regardless of the end result.  A friend of mine, knowing I was a pastor, asked me to visit a family member of hers who was battling end stage ovarian cancer. The first time I met her, her mother was in the room as well.  And she told her daughter while I was in the room that if she just prayed to be healed, she would be.  That if her daughter simply asked God to take away her cancer he would.  When I heard these words, I cringed.  The woman likely only had days to live.  And in those final moments of her life, I did not want her image of God to be one of failed hope.  After her mother said she would be healed, this woman turned and asked me if that was true, whether she could expect that God would heal her cancer if she simply prayed hard enough.  I did not want to take away her hope, but I also did not want to give her a false confidence which could damage her faith at a time she so desperately needed it.

I told her that I did believe that God could bring healing to any situation, although what that healing looks like is not always what we expect it to be.  Healing does not have to be physical, it can be spiritual, it can be emotional, it can be relational.  While it may not have been the answer this woman wanted to hear, it was an honest answer, an answer which did not fill her with false expectations but still encouraged her to maintain a sense of hope in light of her circumstances.

And that hope was fulfilled.  In the days before that woman’s death, she did experience healing.  She had long been estranged from two of her sons.  And when these sons learned of her illness, they visited her in the hospital.  After years of unhealed wounds left in the wake of abuse and a broken home, this woman was able to hear the forgiveness of her sons.  And she was healed, although not in the manner she expected.

Our second reading this morning was written for a student of the author who was contemplating suicide after the end of a relationship.  What resonates with me most in this poem is where Kinnell says to “Distrust everything if you have to.  But trust the hours.”  This line helps to give me a new perspective on waiting.  That enduring hardship, waiting on a situation to improve, and exercising patience in that time can be a conscious decision, one that often times requires a great deal of determination.

In the midst of grief, fear and uncertainty, it can feel as though we will never come out on the other side.  But we can be certain that the hours will continue to pass.  And as they pass, there will come a time when personal events and hair and pain and flowers and second-hand gloves will all become lovely and interesting again, when the colors will brighten.   And when that happens, new life can emerge after our time of waiting, from despair, from hopelessness, from grief, from death, from the tombs that hold us.  That new life may not take the form we expect, it may not come in the time or manner we expect, but as surely as those hours will pass new possibilities will emerge.

After taking the bar exam, we were told that if you failed you received a large envelope in the mail while if you passed you received a small one.  The large envelope contained details for what to do if you needed to retake the test.  Eleven weeks after the test, almost to the day, one of my friends called me at work and said she got her results.  My results were mailed to my home address, so I called my parents and told them to go up to the post office.  When my mom called back and said she had them, I asked her the size of the envelope.  She said it was medium sized – that did not help.

My parents did not want to open the envelope themselves, so they drove to Champaign to deliver it in person.  I was waiting in the hallway of my apartment building and tore the envelope open with wild abandon.  After weeks of sleepless nights and anxiety, I had passed the test.  The wait was brutal.  If there was anything I could have done to speed up those results, barring most criminal activity, I would have done it.  If I would have failed, I would have been devastated, felt my career and life were over.  But looking back now, I see the possibility that would have emerged if my worst fears had come true.  Perhaps it would have opened the door to begin ministry earlier, to avoid years of unhappiness practicing law.

The pain of waiting and the consequences we anticipate, whether they be physical, emotional or spiritual, is unavoidable.  Whether it be for ourselves, for our family members, for our community of faith, or for those suffering throughout the world, we are constantly tempted to give in when the result we hope for is not attained.  It is easy to become so consumed in our expectations or hopes for the future that we fail to appreciate the new life, the new possibilities, which may emerge with the passing of the hours.  May we wait, listen, walk out of our tombs, and in the words of our reading, hear the music of looms weaving all our loves again.