Part Four of Four Parts
The earth, muffled with snow, goes about its hidden preparation for spring. Silence spreads over the land. Our pace slows with the burden we are blessed to bear. The angel with his face of fire and his wings is now a dim memory. God has become a long, low hum, a slow pulsing throb. We, like the inside of a struck gong vibrating peace, wait.
The fox in the woods stops in its tracks and sits up listening – still. The hawk on the wing wheels in a broad circle, glides down a current, and settles on the post -still. The chickadee at the feeder lifts and tilts its head listening – still.
Then it comes. Wrenching pain pierces us like a sword in the belly. We collapse to our knees and crouch in the darkness. Impaled by the circumstances of our lives and God’s call to us we embrace the cross of Christ. Extended far beyond our feeble powers, such bearing is more than we can do. With each new contraction we lose our nerve and cower like Peter saying,”I don’t know nothin’ bout no man named Savior.
Now we may recall Jesus’ question, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” And we had boasted like idiots, “We are able!” We had no idea what would be asked. Between contractions we pray, “If it be your will, remove this cup from me. But not my will, but yours.”
To entrust ourselves to the will of God at the very moment when we feel most alone and in the most pain requires us to have come to the absolute end of our own will and resources. What makes such a thing possible? How could Mary persevere? How did Paul in prison and facing death continue to preach the gospel?
Perhaps it was their surrender, their sense that something larger than themselves had taken hold of them. An ax had been laid at their roots. A furious whirlwind had shaken and blasted them. Now all in them that was chaff was burning in an unquenchable fire. Finally, exhausted from resisting they say, “Yes, yes. You are in charge. You are God. I love you. I trust you. I don’t like or understand this, but I give myself to you however you want me. My will and desires die to yours.”
A birth is not something one does as much as submits to. Processes set in motion long ago now come to fuller expression. One’s being is given over to a life and purpose beyond itself. The best thing to do is simply hold still, breathe with the pain and wait between contractions.
The Greek word used in the Bible for wait is hypomenein. It means “to stay behind, to stand still, and to hold out.” Hypomenein includes in its nuances to cleave to God in simple, quiet confident waiting as well as to endure, stand fast, persevere; and it includes courageous active resistance to hostile attack.
Wait in the New Testament refers to the endurance that is given for the realization of the kingdom. It is the basic attitude of the Christian as we face the attacks of a hostile and unbelieving world and as we find ourselves in the midst of temptations. The power to persevere is drawn from faith and hope.
Our wills, knowledge, or technology have no power to bring about salvation, wrote Simone Weil:
The role of humanity is to wait . . . The attitude that brings about salvation is not like any form of activity. . . . It is the waiting or attentive and faithful immobility that lasts indefinitely and cannot be shaken. The slave, who waits near the door so as to open immediately the master knocks, is the best image of it. He must be ready to die of hunger and exhaustion rather than change his attitude…We just have to wait for the solution. . . . Seeking leads us astray. This is the case with every form of what is truly good. [We] should do nothing but wait for the good and keep evil away. (Waiting for God, 195-6)
Might you be entrusted with a task to match the largeness of your soul? Could you, like Mary, tell your cousin, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant”? Is such heroism only for martyrs in foreign lands, prophets defying oppressive governments, and saints whose lives trace truth in their own blood? Of course, not.
“What good is it to me if Mary is full of grace, if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to the Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?” asks German theologian, Meister Eckhart. (1260-1329)
If you are summoned by an angel, if you find your heart stretched big with some unnameable love with a mind of its own, eat your broccoli. Remember my friend at the beginning of this series, who hoped to live long enough to see her thirteen year old son parent his own teenager? (Waiting: Broccoli and Perserverance.) Take your vitamins. Stay focused on your goal. Wait. Trust. It will be worth it just to be around on the day of the Lord, however long it takes.
The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer
Read more about prayer www.fromholyground.org
Contact the author email@example.com, www.fbook.me/sanctuary
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Part Three of Four Parts
Maybe there will be a miscarriage. Maybe the child will be ill or damaged. Maybe nothing will happen, and I have made this all up. The demons slink in and taunt, harass, confuse, lie, and distort. Feeding on our fear, they float in our minds like bloated carcasses.
Impatience, fueled by fear and lack of faith, has resulted in many an aborted Christ child. Dreams, wrenched too soon from the womb of God’s providence, die torn and bleeding in the back rooms of our souls. Fearing that the Promised One cannot be trusted to save us from ourselves, we join the tribe of those who attempt to seize the kingdom by violence.
Yet the promise always comes in the context of threats, writes biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann.
The land of promise is never an eagerly waiting vacuum anticipating Israel. Nor is it an unambiguous arena for faith. It is always filled with Canaanites. That is how the promise comes… It is the very land of promise, the purpose of the whole journey of faith, which causes the failure of nerve. . . .
God’s people always want to settle for something short of promises, because promises fulfilled remind Israel how vulnerable it is, how exposed it is, and how precarious it all is. Promiseless existence is safer. The Bible knows from the beginning that promises are always kept in the midst of threats. Tables are always prepared “in the presence of my enemies”and if one would eat at the table, one must eat in the presence of enemies. The land is precisely for those and only for those who sense their precariousness and act in their vulnerability. (The Land, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1977, p 67-69)
Threats, in whatever form they come, tend to scare the wits out of us. We feel like puny grasshoppers compared to these giants. Possibly the greatest threat, according to Jesus, is the failure to believe, or the lack of faith. There is that time before the pregnancy shows and no one can tell what is inside, and even after one has something visible to point to, like a vision, a possibility, the first faint glimmerings of a new idea, when the actual outcome is shrouded in mystery, and the course of the life of the new one to be born is unknown to us. So we must nourish the invisible, the inklings, the suggestions, and the voice of some ethereal visitor who whispered something wondrous and unbelievable.
Whom could you tell? What would they think? Maybe your lover will understand and give his support. Maybe God will intervene in a dream. Maybe a wise old friend, whose own promise leaps in recognition of your promise, maybe the old cousin will understand.
But there is a long time of hours, days, months, and even years –year upon year, when much is hidden and only you sing in your heart of what is to come, the gift you will offer. And what to do until then?
Fall back on praise and being. Notice the leaf in the redbud tree outside your window, curled and brown crisp in the sun. Stand at sundown as the earth grows still and silence creeps into your heart like a cat and curls up and purrs.
“Blessed is she who believed that the word of the Lord would be fulfilled,” announces the cousin. Blessed are those who believe in the glad and amazing truth that sings in their hearts, trusting with Mary and her Son that all will be well and that they are highly favored.
Watch for the last installment, Part Four, of this series on waiting, The Surrender, coming soon.
This post adapted from the author’s book, Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Loretta (Ross-Gotta) F. Ross, Sheed & Ward, 2000.
The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer
Read more about prayer www.fromholyground.org
Contact the author firstname.lastname@example.org, www.fbook.me/sanctuary
Follow at http://twitter.com/lfross
Part Two of Four Parts
How long can you carry the secret,
the gift of saving love,
before giving birth to it?
How long can you ponder things in your heart
and sit on the stone path in the sun?
After a while it becomes obvious
that there is something up your sleeve,
or under your tunic.
Someone’s delight is in you
and is growing bigger every day.
Some of us are called to bear children. All of us, male and female, are called to give birth to Christ. We carry God’s seed, a divine promise in us and for us. Each is called to conceive some aspect of the great promise of salvation. We are given the choice to surrender to it, to carry and nourish it, and give it birth on its terms in its time.
With such a call, we are at the service of powers greater than we are. We find ourselves as servants and handmaids, those who stand alert and ready at the door for the one they serve, who may come at any time. We belong to the promise and are given over to the promise. The child of the promise is the unique offering you, and only you, can give out of your love in the Bethlehem of your life.
What is it? Who is it? How is this done? We are each alone here. There were no witnesses when Gabriel came. One or two may understand, who are strong when we are weak, who have hope when we have despair, who have faith when we have none. For the most part we must face the rejection, fears, doubts, and devils alone. And then, suddenly in the dark comes the sharp all-encompassing pain of labor – so much more painful than we had ever imagined it could be.
It may not look like all that much, your child and your offering of yourself as a mother of redemption. It may seem a small thing compared to Mary’s child. The child you bear may be nothing more (or less) than the courage to get through a bad day, or a shred of hope you cling to like a broken raft in the midst of a churning sea.
Two signs may help you tell if this is your Christ child: first, a vision of the joy or beauty or love set free in the gift you offer; and second, your sacrificial suffering in the labor and delivery of that gift. Such suffering is not a consequence of abuse or injustice. This is the suffering of love, which is assailed by evil as it seeks to remain firm in its faith in the efficacy and power of God’ s suffering love on the cross.
how did she keep the promise alive,
the word which was spoken to her,
through all the days and nights
while she walked the rocky paths?
What good could come out of Nazareth?
How can this be?
I have no husband.
I have no money.
I have no strength.
I have no hope.
I have no skill . . .
But he said, Nothing is impossible with God.
A secret between her and the angel,
a child growing in a hostile environment
and stillness at dusk
when the light slides under the horizon
leaving a golden smear of hushed anticipation.
She was like a tiny flame
in a sea of darkness
Watch for Part Three of this series on waiting, The Threats, coming soon.
Part One of Four Parts
A friend recently asked me for the key to success in surviving a child’s thirteenth year. She told me she ate some truly nasty broccoli at dinner one night in a desperate attempt to do something good for herself. She swallowed the stuff in the hope that it would help her live long enough to see her son become the parent of a thirteen-year-old.
Longevity and sheer perseverance have a lot to do with justice and salvation. If you can live long enough, you may see the triumph of good with your own eyes. Being able to hang on, to wait through periods when all seems turned against you, to survive and prevail is a central activity of a Christian.
Some pastors struggle to get congregations to sing the more somber and penitential advent hymns before the favorite Christmas carols. I am not surprised. Our culture’s mindless celebration of Christmas distorts the basic truth of the season, namely, our need for redemption and what might be required of us to receive it. We gloss over our appalling sin and ruin, skip past the eager groan of creation’s need for healing. We drug ourselves against the suffering of dark nights. We grow numb and fall asleep before the TV instead of keeping alert and obedient watch for God’s saving action in our lives. We succumb to the temptation to consume more and more as we race to gratify desires.
In contrast, Christ tells us that here is where we are to linger, to stay awake, to wait and be ready,
here in the bleak and barren heart of our need.
Timing is everything. Should one push, move ahead and make something happen or lay low, wait, and watch for the hand of the Lord to act? Tolerating ambiguity, not knowing and uncertainty can be excruciating. In our anxiety and fear we may take things into our own hands.
As a general rule of discernment, when in doubt, wait. The stance of faith waits, trusts, praises, and gives thanks. Faith joined with love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.
Why is that hard for us? Perhaps we fear that we won’t be vindicated, that our longing will not be fulfilled, that our cause will not redeemed, that things will not be made right and goodness will not prevail.
My friend with the thirteen-year-old told me her family motto: “Learn to bear what must be borne.” This stern admonition carries for me a puritanical severity, a life of gritted teeth, pursed lips, and making the best of one trial after another. But when I shared the proverb with another friend, “What a great theme for advent,” she exclaimed, seeing a possibility I had missed. My understanding shifted from regarding what must be borne as some heavy load and having to slog along through life like a drudge to the exhilarating task of the labor and delivery of a baby.
“Love in real life is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” observed Dostoevsky. The advent season invites us to the harsh and dreadful task of giving birth to a love that will ask more of us than we thought we could bear. Learning to bear the one who must be born, the Christ, into our lives, families, communities, and world requires us to wait, persevere, and overcome fear with faith.
As the promises of God are delivered through our lives, we can rejoice with St. Simeon, whom Orthodox Christians call “The God Receiver.” Old Simeon was waiting to see the Christ before he died. Led by the Spirit, Simeon showed up at the temple when Mary and Joseph brought their son to present him to the Lord, according to the law of Moses. Taking the infant into his arms with a heart full of love and eyes full of tears, the old man uttered these words:
Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace,
according to Your word,
for my eyes have seen Your salvation,
a Light to lighten the Gentiles,
the Glory of Your people Israel.
Watch for Part Two of this series on waiting, The Promise, coming soon.
Some years ago I wrote a Readers’ Drama for Pentecost, called “The Feast.” It is set in a small rural Kansas town at a shelter house in the city park. The people have gathered for a covered dish dinner. Before eating, however, they wait for the Holy Spirit. The drama is an imaginative exploration of the meaning of the Holy Spirit. Here is a scene from The Feast.
Act Three: He Breathed on Them and Said Receive the Holy Spirit.
Scene One: The Inhalation
Breath of God
Spirit of God
The wind brought the dust, like a thick dark cloud. It came up the hill and clung to their arms and legs, the backs of their necks, and drifted around their ankles. The dust knew its own. And with the dust came the seeds, pollens, spores, insects, and all manner of boring, digging, thrusting, grasping things, all looking for a place to root.
Across the world from the shelter house someone was weeping. The wind brought the sound. It carried the earth’s suffering – the scrapings, the debris, the underbrush, the grass cuttings, dandelion fluff, paper cups, plastic milk bottles, and old newspapers – scuttling down alleys and streets of cities and villages.
All that was loose came whistling up that hill, swirling around the shelter house:
a severed hand
a letter that said: Where were you? I waited as long as I could.
an invoice: Amount due – $30.00 for services rendered. This is our last notice.
a grocery list someone had scribbled on the back of a Time Magazine subscription card: apples, bread, quail, milk, honey, Easy-Off
a live chicken riding in a red plastic wastebasket with the words, “You’re in good hands with All State,” on the side
and a trailing scream like a long red scarf.
On the end of the scream like a long red scarf was a story of children with flies in their eyes who propped themselves like tinker toys against mothers whose breasts sagged empty as yesterday’s balloons.
And from the throats of the children came the sound – a rattle of dried seeds in a pod, a wail of sirens in the night, a whine of chain saws cutting living tissue.
Edith and Ethel and John and Maxine and Charles, your children are crying. They are weeping through the long winter night huddled on the stony ground, no covers for their thin legs, bones clacking in the chill, dreaming of rice and goat meat.
The scarf wound tighter around the shelter house. People, your children are calling for you! They lay in bloody heaps like rags in back alleys, motels, living rooms, battlefields, jails, and camps. Beaten, raped, shot, hung, strangled, poisoned, drowned, electrocuted, the rags writhe in terror’s arms.
People, don’t you hear their sobbing – in hospital beds, around kitchen tables, in automobiles on their way to work, their shoulders hunched like dustpans over their broken hearts?
The wind blew and the waiting disciples called the wind Spirit of God. That is important – getting the right name for things. Recognizing who is blowing into town. Is this a gust out of the south bringing a lot of the neighbor’s trash into your yard, or is it the breath of divinity declaring that my neighbor’s trash and grief belong in my backyard?
The truth about God’s ravishing Ruah is that she is not rude. She comes only where she is invited, where there is a welcome and room made for her. God’s Spirit enters into emptiness, fills lack; she is the mirror image of a black hole, the inhalation after the exhalation. She flows into hollows and crannies and searches for expectant openness. Those gathered sat and waited, like people holding their breath out until the need for air was so great, so deep that the lungs sucked in the breath quenching the vacuum with life.
The key is learning to hold the breath out, not to gulp the spirit, but to wait for her to rush into you, to wait until the body of Christ draws the spirit out of its own deep thirst.
Then we no longer breathe, but are breathed.
In this Pentecost season may the Holy Spirit blow
something wondrous into your being.
And may you have the courage to inhale.