Several years ago my congregation, Grace Lutheran in Evanston, Ill., held a Wednesday night Advent series centered on “waiting.”
Our pastor asked those of us gathered in the church basement to think about something for which we were waiting and then to paint it on a strip of paper and lay it in a manger at the front of the room.
I remember struggling to think of myself as waiting for anything.
As someone prone to fitful bouts of crankiness and frustration, I usually associate waiting with more irritation than hope. I thought of damaged relationships l wished would reconcile, big life changes I hoped were on the horizon — but was I really actively waiting on these things?
Unable to think of anything important I was waiting for, I painted a star on my paper and called it a night. But recently this whole waiting business found me again on a Sunday morning.
I’d been asked to join my congregation’s anointing ministry team, and I was thrilled. But on my first Sunday in the new role, everything seemed to be going wrong. The person who was supposed to show me what to do was late, and nobody seemed to know where the oil was.
As worship began, I was in a tailspin of frustration. The volume of the lector’s microphone, the super-long hymn we sang after the sermon, the candles on the altar that were surely too close to the assisting minister’s sleeve: every little thing was grating on my nerves.
“God,” I prayed, “Please intervene here. How am I supposed to pray with people in this state?”
When the time for anointing came, I fumbled through several prayers, forgot the names of people I’d known for years and even ended up spilling the oil all over my hands.
I’d all but given up on being of any use when a familiar face approached – one of the biggest-hearted women in our congregation, someone of whom I’d often been jealous for her unending capacity to serve others.
“Great,” I thought. “Now I’m going to make an idiot of myself not only in front of someone I know, but someone I really like.”
She put her arm around me, and I asked her, “What are we praying for?”
She paused. She closed her eyes.
Then she replied, “For God to take the anger from my heart.”
Everything around me seemed to stop.
“Take the anger from your heart?” I thought. “You?”
Had I been braver, I might have wrapped my arms around her and prayed that God take the anger from both of our hearts. Instead I prayed and made the sign of the cross on her forehead with my far-too-oily fingers.
Then I laughed.
I’d spent the whole morning waiting for God to show up, to intervene, and I hadn’t stopped thinking about myself long enough to realize I wasn’t the one waiting at all.
God had been waiting on me to open my eyes to the fact that God was already there.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said of Advent, “A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes – and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside – is not a bad picture of Advent.”
This Advent, if pastor asks us what we’re waiting for, I’ll have my answer ready.
This Advent I’ll be waiting on myself – that I might finally see that in the story of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection, the door is open.
I’ll be waiting on myself to give up my distractions and walk through.