It is late November. Every year at this time it is a challenge to get the leaves raked and bagged or pushed to the curb beforethe city's December 1st deadline for removing them. One year I simply waited too long and was left with a dozen bags of leaves still sitting at the end of my driveway the morning after I thought they would be taken away. While that year I had only my own procrastination to blame, it is so that I have one tree which always refuses to finish dropping its leaves until it's almost 'too late.' Indeed, this week we have had snow and below zero wind chills, and as you can see those leaves still hang on!
I think of this as we hear Jesus' words for us in Mark's Gospel today. Of course, Jesus' example is of a fig tree that leafs out, and I'm offering up an oak tree that won't let go, but either way, such as these are on their own timeline and in their own very concrete ways they offer a signal of what is yet to come. More than that, I have found my tree is very predictable. After just a season or two, I pretty much knew what to expect. And yet, I have to say that 'having to wait' --- or more to the point, not being able to control the timeline is something I find somewhat annoying.
Because you see, I tend to think I am in charge of my time lines. So much so, that waiting and watching is something I don't do most of the time. At least not willingly or gladly.
Of course, there was a time in my life when I had no choice. I grew up in a time and place where our family only owned one automobile until I was well into high school. On weekdays my dad would walk to work, leaving the car for my mom to drive to school across town to teach third graders. Oh yes, I remember well in those days long before mobile phones, sitting on the front steps of the old Rochelle Township High School after volleyball practice or a meeting with my speech coach --- watching and waiting for my ride home. In those days I was always certain someone would come eventually. I remember, too, being in the second or third grade and being the last one left at church after junior choir practice. A family emergency had taken my folks and the car to the local hospital emergency room and there was no way to let me know they would be delayed. You can be certain that I waited with an anxious urgency that night.
No, at least where I live now, watching and waiting with the urgency Jesus describes today is not something I do well. I get busy with other things. It think to lift up my head and pay attention to the wait in short spurts and then the wait becomes too long for me and I find myself turning away and getting on other, seemingly more pressing matters. Unlike when I was a child, for a long time now I have become far too accustomed to being in charge of my time lines.
And I find myself on the expressway and an accident or road construction has brought traffic to a stop and there is nothing to do but wait. Or my leaves threaten to refuse to drop again this season and there may be no raking them until spring. Or I find myself in a hospital waiting room waiting for a call from the operating room to let us know all is going well. Or I sit at the bedside of a loved one and count the beats between breaths and know I cannot control the time line.
This Sunday's Gospel lesson reminds us once more that you and I are not in charge of the timeline -- not the ultimate one or often even the ones that seem ultimate in our lives. Indeed, we hear that even Jesus didn't know when that day would come. But even in our not knowing --- perhaps especially in our not knowing we are called upon to live in such a way that we are aware of the certainty that our 'ride is coming.' Like a certain second grader with her nose pressed against a cold church window on a winter's night. Oh yes, in a way these words today push us to live as children again: knowing and trusting that finally we aren't in charge. Really, what a gift it is to know that we don't have to be in charge of those things that matter most of all.
As we enter into these Advent days, may even those everyday times of waiting which inevitably come to all of us be a blessing where we find ourselves also called upon to watch for the arrival of Jesus once more. May we discover in those times not impatience and irritation, but perhaps even the chance to reflect on what matters most of all.
- In your life, what does it mean to watch and wait? When have you found this to be just annoying? When have you been able to find the gift in it?
- In the midst of so much which distracts us, what does it specifically mean to watch and wait for the coming of Jesus? What does it mean to you to 'keep awake' --- as it is put in the last words of this Gospel reading?
- Is it gift or burden or some combination of the two that you are not finally in charge of the time line --- especially the ultimate one pointed to today? Why is that so?
- This is one of those weeks where the 'world changed' since I first posted this. I will be considering what it is to watch and wait in the wake of the Grand Jury Verdict in Ferguson, Missouri. If you are preaching or teaching this week, what do you think it means to watch and wait in the face of such brokenness? How will you be in conversation with your community about this?