When God Says, “Not Yet”

For much of 2016-2017, God’s people in Crafton Heights are walking through the story of David, the shepherd boy who grew up to be Israel’s greatest king.  On March 5, we wondered what happened right after Saul died… in the years between when David could have assumed the crown and the time it finally happened.  Our texts included II Samuel 3:1-5 as well as Paul’s description of his “thorn in the flesh”, found in II Corinthians 12:6-10

Did you know that the average American spends thirteen hours each year waiting on hold for someone in customer service to pick up the stupid telephone? Six months of your life will be spent waiting at a traffic light. That’s easy compared to the two years you can expect to spend waiting in line at the grocery store, the bank, the gas station, or the movie theater…

Waiting… who likes to wait? Isn’t that about the most frustrating part of your day? And these examples, while certainly unpleasant, are only the day-to-day, small-picture, grindingly-irritating things for which we wait.

The time you spend in line at the bank or watching the calendar pages turn as you wait for your tax refund to arrive is frustrating, to be sure, but we can usually comfort ourselves by knowing that the resolution to our concern or the fulfillment of our desires is at least in sight, if not imminent.   You know what I mean, right? You’re chafed at the fact that the other line is moving faster, but you know that sooner or later the clerk will start scanning your items and you’ll be able to take your groceries and head for home. This kind of waiting is a pain in the neck, but it doesn’t produce a crisis of faith or lead to long-term angst or depression.

But what about the other things for which we wait in life? The “big” waits? What about the couple who is desperately trying to conceive a child, or the young father who’s looking for work? Can you imagine living in a refugee camp, knowing that you’re not home, but not sure whether there ever will be a “home” again? Or the single person who longs for the intimacy of marriage, or the person living with cancer who wonders about the length of the remission she’s been granted… What about that kind of waiting? The kind of uncertainty and hopefulness and despair that can lead you to say “O, please, God, when will it stop… or change… or get better?” The kind of waiting that can lead to deep questions about God, and life, and meaning, and eternity? How well do you deal with that kind of waiting?

Now, while you think on that, let me ask you to picture this scene in your head. You’re on a retreat or a mission trip with a large group. We’ve all agreed to meet at, say, 8 a.m. to get started on our day. You know how it is… some of us are there at 7:45, eager to get a jump on things. A handful come into the room at 7:58. And, because this is our church, let’s assume that another half dozen people show up at 8:05. Can you picture this in your head so far?

How many times is there that one guy who just isn’t there by 8:10? We’re waiting, and we clarify with each other – “we said 8 o’clock, right?” We get a little passive-aggressive and we start rolling our eyes, or conspicuously checking our watches. We sigh – quite loudly. And you want to send someone into the next room to check on him to make sure that he’s aware, but you know he’s there. You can hear him whistling a show tune or maybe working away on his laptop. Finally, he strolls into the room, brushing his teeth, and looks up and says, “Oh, hey guys! What’s up? Oh – wait – did we say 8??? I was sure it was 9! My bad…”

OK, show of hands… how many of you have been in a situation like that, where you’re waiting and waiting and waiting for someone who seems to be pretty clueless and disengaged from the group process?

Now, how many of you have ever been that guy at least once in your life?

The question is… how many times when you’ve been in the midst of some huge and horrific wait have you felt as though God has been acting that way?

Here you are – you’ve got some serious business going on. You need that job, you are dying of loneliness, you can’t stand to see your child struggling with addiction any longer, and you’ve been praying and praying and praying. You have cried out to God, and it seems as if he’s not there, or even worse, as though he’s just messing around with something else? You want to scream at all those athletes and poor students, “Will you shut up about that game you’ve got coming up or that test you didn’t study for? God’s got more important fish to fry!”

I am not aware of the source of this illustration. If you know where credit might be rendered, I’d be grateful to know.

Where is God when you need him?

Where is God while we are waiting, or hoping, or suffering?

Why is it that God sometimes takes so long to get his act together?

Do you remember when we met David? He was just a kid, out minding his own business, taking care of his father’s sheep. Through the prophet Samuel, God calls to this boy – who is maybe fifteen years old – and says, “All right, son: stay on the straight and narrow. One day, you’re going to be king. Not yet, of course, but one day…” And David shrugs and says, “OK, God, I’ll wait…

And then he goes out and kills Goliath… He moves into Saul’s house, and Saul’s son Jonathan becomes a best friend.   He marries Saul’s daughter, and then he gets chased out of Saul’s house. His wife is taken from him. He gets chased out of Israel. His friend dies. For fifteen years, give or take, David is on the run. Finally, Saul dies.

This is it! This is what David’s been waiting for, right? Now he can be the king! And, in fact, he is anointed king… in the tribe of Judah. The other Israelites are holding out for a relative of Saul’s. There’s a power struggle and uncertainty and dis-ease for another seven and a half years.

With the benefit of three thousand years’ hindsight, we can say, “Wow, God really was faithful to David, wasn’t he?” But the reality is that for nearly a quarter of a century, David’s primary experience of God was…not yet. For David and those around him, year after year was spent asking, “Now?” and hearing “Nope.”

I know that nobody here has waited twenty-two years in the hopes of becoming the rightful king of Israel, but I know that you know the pain of waiting or the frustration of unanswered questions. What do you say when God seems silent? How are you supposed to act when it seems as though God has already checked out?

Let me suggest that in some important ways, David can be a model for us in these situations.

The scripture that you heard a few moments ago from II Samuel summarizes seven and a half years of conflict in a single verse, and then goes on to name the six sons that were born to David during this time. What does that suggest about the way that David was behaving during this time of waiting?

– That is not what I meant! –

I’d venture to say that this is one way of saying that David was getting on with his life. He continued to act as though the promise was coming true, even if he couldn’t see it with his own eyes right now. While this behavior is not necessarily the model for family life that we’d like to see in the church in the 21st century, the reality is that even while David is continuing to wait on God, he is looking toward the future that God has promised him.

The other thing that David did during these years after Saul’s death was to continue to seek the Lord. Although it isn’t mentioned in the readings we heard this morning, II Samuel chapter 2 relates the fact that David continued to inquire of the Lord with some regularity. In his public as well as his private life, David appealed to the covenant that God had made, even though the terms of that covenant had not all been fully realized.

Furthermore, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that the very experience of waiting in this manner shaped David into the kind of king that he would become. Of course he behaved differently as a forty-year old king than he would have as a fifteen-year old monarch. Some of what he went through shaped him for that which he was to become.

In the same way, those of us who are waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen or for something to end are called to continue to walk in the paths of discipleship. We can hold on to what we have and continue to act as though all of God’s promises are true even on those days when we have a hard time feeling their truth.

I think that’s what Paul is getting at in his letter to the Corinthians. He mentions what he calls his “thorn in the flesh” – some mysterious affliction – that seems to get in the way of his happiness or productivity. We’re not sure exactly what this “thorn” was: some scholars have suggested Paul struggled with depression, or epilepsy, or failing eyesight, or recurrent bouts of pain. We can’t know what it was, because Paul doesn’t tell us. What he does tell us, however, is that what God is doing is more important than what Paul is feeling. Paul senses God’s presence with him saying, “Look, don’t put all your trust in what you can do or what you hope will happen. Trust that my grace is enough for you. Trust in me to hold you up.” Paul does this, and is able to write about finding contentment in Christ.

We are not promised easy answers or short-cut solutions. Those things didn’t show up in David’s life or in Paul’s. It seems to me that the path of faith invites us into all of the messy and sometimes painful places of our lives in the expectation that God will show up at the right time… even if the timing is not what we would wish.

Søren Kierkegaard stressed the importance of the discipline of waiting in faith. He said that many of us are like the student who didn’t like math, but needed a good grade in the course, and so he stole the teacher’s answer sheet before the test. His goal, of course, was to memorize all of the right answers and then get a perfect score. Kierkegaard rightly points out that answers like that are not really answers at all. To truly have the answers, we have to work through the problems.[1]

Your life and mine are full of problems. Some of them are minor irritants, such as choosing the slow line at the Giant Eagle or getting lost in traffic. Some of them are incredibly difficult to bear, such as the loss of a child or the dimming of hopes that were bright. We will not escape the problems. But with the help of God, we can walk into them knowing that these problems will not overwhelm us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, and with the company of those around us in the body of Christ, we can work it out. We can wait it out. We can hope it out. God’s grace was sufficient for David and for Paul. It is enough for you and me as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Ben Patterson’s Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent (Intervarsity, 1989) p. 14

The Waiting Game

I love to travel. Regular readers of this site will find that perhaps the greatest understatement of the week, if not longer.

But more than that, I love to travel as a missionary. Almost always, anyway. And I know, I know – on the one hand, I’m most definitely not a “real missionary”, because I get to do this a couple of weeks, or maybe a month each year. and I also know that in another sense, every believer is a missionary every day. But some days…well, some days it’s a little easier to feel holier than others. Let me explain.

Sometimes, the work that travelers get to do is simply amazing. You finally get face to face with some partners, or you are able to dig deeply into a project, and WOW! There is no greater feeling in the world than being dead tired because you have expended your body, mind, and spirit in some great cause. One of the things that draws me into this kind of trip is that feeling of exhilaration that comes from knowing you have committed yourself and all the best that is in you to some great cause, idea, or friendship and coming back to the guest house in the evening realizing that such an expenditure has paid off in some way. It doesn’t matter if the travel is to Malawi or Texas or to the North Side of Pittsburgh – there is something wonderful about leaving the normal pace of life and concentrating fully on a different work. It is one way in which I become more fully engaged in the whole of my life – that which I have temporarily left, and that which I am temporarily embraced. Going “all in” brings a certain freedom.

But it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, mission travel is, well, boring. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, of course. One of the great mission travelers in history pointed this out in a passage that those of us in the 21st century would do well to remember. When the apostle Paul writes to his friends in Galatia about the early days of his work, he throws out a phrase that just about sneaks by.

“Fourteen years later…” (Galatians 2:1) Seriously? FOURTEEN YEARS LATER? Yes, that’s what the man said. Lots of times, you are sitting in meetings, dreaming dreams and casting vision with your mission partners, or you are in the field getting your hands dirty or teaching or worshiping.

But lots of time, to be honest, you are sitting. And waiting. And sitting some more. Just as Paul spent 14 years waiting in Tarsus before God equipped him to take the next step.

When you book a cruise or plan your trip to, say, the great capitals of Europe, you do so knowing that you have a certain amount of time and there are certain things that you’ll need to do. Itineraries are planned weeks, months, or years in advance. And while it takes a little fiddling around to get the pieces to fit perfectly, you can do that, because you know when the Eiffel Tower wills be open, what time the show starts at the theater, and how long you’ll be able to stay at the Coliseum. You pay a guide service or invest your own energies into making sure that not a moment of time is wasted.

But when we travel in mission, we are often exploring an itinerary, or waiting to see what develops. Rather than employing a guide, you are engaging a partner – one who may face a variety of challenges and other commitments. More than that, you are seeking to be open to the movement of the Spirit in an ever-shifting landscape.

Our intrepid crew on the banks of the Nile.

Our intrepid crew on the banks of the Nile.

And so it was that Monday, January 28 found six deeply committed spirits doing, well, nothing for ten hours. We had had wonderful discussions about partnership and engaged deeply in worship and been immersed in the rhythm of life in South Sudan. But n Monday, our partners had a lot to do with their General Assembly. And it became apparent that they could do it better if they were not saddled with the additional burden of translating every aspect of the experience into English, or making sure that we were properly hydrated or knew where the toilets were. Sunday night, it had been the absolute right thing for us to be at the General Assembly. How I wish that I could have captured the enthusiasm and appreciation with which we were received. Our coming to stand with these partners who were trying to live into a new identity in a new place was received exactly as we had intended. In particular, seeing the way that the commissioners greeted the Rev. Mercy Chilupula was a gift! The South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church does not ordain women, but they were blessed by the presence of a strong and faithful woman leader that night.

But the next morning, things were different. So we said, “Please, just let us rest somewhere for a few hours where we will not distract you.” Our hosts took us to a small inn along the western bank of the Nile River, where we expected to spend a few hours admiring the mighty river, using the Internet, and simply relaxing. That was the plan.

However, the wireless service was barely functional, the riverine view lost its appeal after five hours or so, and the heat was intense. I wish I could say that one of these six brilliant minds came up with a way to redeem that time – that we held an unanticipated council wherein we solved one or more of the world’s great problems. Yes, it would be nice to say that. Only it would be a lie.

Some sort of a waxbill, but I know not what...

Some sort of a waxbill, but I know not what…

We did see some beautiful birds, and revel in the historic river. For a time. We read, we chatted, and we exchanged faith stories. Some. But we also dozed, sighed, griped, and fretted – we hadn’t come to do this. But whatever fruit comes from this trip, I think, will have been made possible, perhaps, because we chose to wait on this day.

On Sunday evening, Mike Uko said that the CCAP Blantyre Synod and Pittsburgh Presbytery had been together for 21 years, and maybe it was time for that partnership to give birth to something new. Mike’s imagery was very helpful to me as I recalled long hours in hospital waiting rooms – time that I have spent, in some ways, enormously “inefficiently”. It just doesn’t make good sense to sit somewhere simply waiting, when there is often so much to DO. But some days, waiting is all you can do.

Yellow-billed Kites were everywhere!

Yellow-billed Kites were everywhere!

The truth is, our Sudanese partners did have a great deal of DOING to do, and they didn’t need us at that moment any more than the OB/GYN needed me the day that my daughter was born. Yet on Tuesday morning, when Jeff Tindall prayed with the Sudanese assembly, and we shared our joy at what they had been able to do, the waiting of Monday was Paul into perspective.

Years ago, Desmond Tutu wrote, “the privilege is ours to share in the loving”. Sometimes that sharing looks a lot like hammering or sweating or praying or doing. And sometimes that sharing looks a lot like waiting. The Apostle knew that. The church has always known that. And I am learning that. Again.

Ironic post-script dept: two hours after completing this little missive, the vehicle in which we were to take the four hour drive from Lilongwe to Blantyre broke down, so the aforementioned humble and patient missionaries had the chance to live into its truth whilst waiting in the rain for plans B, C, or D to develop. It was tough to gripe after having just written this. I get it, Lord.