November 18, 2012
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.
Happy are those who make the Lord their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.
You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.
Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”
I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.
Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.
For evils have encompassed me without number; my iniquities have overtaken me, until I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails me.
Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me; O Lord, make haste to help me.
Let all those be put to shame and confusion who seek to snatch away my life; let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt.
Let those be appalled because of their shame who say to me, “Aha, Aha!”
But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, “Great is the Lord!”
As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God.
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
I have always been moved by the opening of Psalm 40: “I waited patiently for the Lord. The Lord inclined to me and heard my cry, drawing me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, setting my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. The Lord put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.”
I resonate with this Psalm whenever I feel I have been led through a difficult time. What a blessing it is to have come through doubts and confusions, to feel again on solid ground, to take confident steps, to sing a song of gratitude to God!
I have to confess, though, that I am not so good at the patient-waiting part. In fact, I hate to wait. I often carry around inside me an inner five-year-old, jumping up and down and whining, “I wannit now, I wannit now, I wannit now . . .”
Who enjoys standing in checkout lines? Who likes to be caught in traffic on the freeways? When the gift is bought and wrapped, why wait to give it? Once received, why wait to open it? And these are just the trivial examples.
At its worst, waiting is one of the most grueling of human experiences. We have medical tests done and wait for the results. A loved one is rushed to the hospital and we sit in the “waiting” room. And in this time of hostage taking, it is truly gut-wrenching to contemplate the waiting endured by those held captive and their families. Wait patiently? On any given day, people are waiting to see whether they or their loved ones will get well, whether they or their loved ones will live. We often do well simply to wait in any way we can.
Here’s an interesting fact about the fortieth Psalm: in the original Hebrew text, there is no word corresponding to “patiently.” A more literal translations runs: “Waiting, I waited for the Lord...” Many translators have heard patience implied in that repetition, and that is certainly a possible understanding. I, however, have often thought that a more colloquial English rendition of the repetition would be something like “I waited and waited for the Lord…” That doesn’t mean I was patient about it! In many situations, it would be inhuman to expect us to be so.
Waiting, whether in dread or in eager anticipation, whether in annoyance or in curiosity to see what comes next, is an inescapable part of the human condition. It is inescapable because as human beings we love, and we don’t know the future.
Consider the first part of that statement: if we loved nothing and no one, not even ourselves, we wouldn’t care about what comes next, so there would be nothing to wait for.
And neither do we know what comes next. I can’t imagine what it would be like to know my personal future in detail. But I am sure that if I did, waiting would be a very different experience, if it existed at all.
These two basic truths about us as human beings—that we love and that we don’t know the future—make it inevitable that we will find ourselves waiting. Caring about but not knowing what comes next, we fear the worst and hope for the best. Out of our love and our ignorance, we hope and we fear…and we wait.
While there are some kinds of waiting I wouldn’t wish on anyone, I believe there is also a good and healthy kind of waiting, a waiting that is a muchneeded spiritual discipline. This kind of waiting can be called “watchful waiting.” We don’t know what God has in store for us. It’s full wonder, and mystery is always beyond us. We don’t know God’s timing either. We don’t know when or where or how God’s miracles in our lives will occur. So we remain alert as we wait, holding ourselves in readiness to recognize and seize the moments of grace as they arrive.
Jesus’ parable about the foolish and wise bridesmaids calls us to this discipline of watchful waiting.
“Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:1-13).
The bridesmaids await the arrival of the bridegroom. This is one of several bridegroom sayings of Jesus recorded in the gospels. It was obviously an important mystical symbol for him. The arrival of the bridegroom is an occasion for joy and festivity. And while the bridegroom is present, there is no room for fasting or mourning. For us, the coming of the bridegroom prefigures the coming of Christ into our lives. In the Swedenborgian understanding, this arrival occurs not once but repeatedly as, piece by piece, we are remolded or “regenerated” into ever more capacious vessels for the expression of God’s love and wisdom. In order to grow spiritually, we keep ourselves ready and alert as we wait for the next step in our dance with the Spirit.
Given that, it is interesting in this parable that the bridesmaids, foolish and wise alike, fall asleep. Sleep, here, in the sense of sound sleep, in the sense of being able to fall asleep and to sleep peacefully, is a great blessing. Sleeplessness, on the other hand, is one of the agonies of anxious waiting. That the bridesmaids fall asleep, that they are able to do this, speaks well of them. It reveals their faith, their confidence that the bridegroom is on his way. As we read in the traditional translation of Psalm 40, “I waited patiently for the Lord…” If there is a truth captured by this rendition of the Psalm, I think we find it here. Patient waiting for the Lord is grounded in trust and therefore does not involve worry.
Outwardly, the foolish and the wise bridesmaids are waiting patiently in the same way. The difference is revealed when the bridegroom is announced. After their patient waiting, some of the bridesmaids are prepared and some are not. Some can immediately respond when the moment arrives and some cannot. This implies that even in the best and most confident of waiting, there still needs to be an element of tension—an alertness, a readiness. While we wait for Christ to enter again into our lives, we must keep our own lamps shining. Even as we recognize that the leaps forward, the moments of insight, the moments of grace, are Christ’s workings in us and come on the Spirit’s schedule, not ours, still we do everything in our own power to take care of ourselves spiritually. We are sure to provide ourselves in advance with a supply of oil. Christ comes to those who have prepared themselves.
Viewed outwardly, the wise bridesmaids are remarkably ungenerous. “We are unable to share with you,” they say. But once we understand that this parable is speaking symbolically of realities within each of us, their statement makes sense. The ten bridesmaids stand for the various characteristics, habits, tendencies, and traits that make each of us a complex human being. Whenever Christ enters into our lives, there is a moment of reckoning—a moment, if you will, of inner house cleaning. In every forward movement in our spiritual lives, we must leave parts of ourselves behind, be they habits, tendencies, likes and dislikes, entrenched opinions, and so on. They are precisely the parts of ourselves that are not “prepared” to follow the Lord. Ironically, the art of waiting includes knowing when not to wait anymore, when to stop waiting for everything within us to catch up. What cannot answer the call is left behind.
Psalm 40 and the parable of the foolish and wise bridesmaids speak to us of the blessing and the art of patient waiting. In waiting patiently, we live out the key traditional Christian virtues.
Patient waiting contains faith. In waiting, the faithful one continues to live in the present, confidently and joyfully. He or she trusts in the Spirit’s timing.
Patient waiting hopes. It believes in the original goodness of God’s creation and is alert for the signs of its progressive restoration and return to its Creator.
Patient waiting loves. It is love that inspires waiting, and it is love that gives us the courage to sustain the tension and uncertainty found in even the best of waiting.
If I could give you patience simply by telling you to be patient, I would. But I know that truly patient waiting is not something we can decide to do; nor can we force ourselves to be patient. We need to be patient with our impatience! To be able to wait patiently for the Lord is itself a gift of God’s grace, and we can only wait, be it patiently or impatiently, for that gift to come to us.
So I will pray. I pray for myself, and for all of you, and for everyone who is waiting today. May we be blessed with the gift of patient waiting (and sound sleep!). May it be given to us to remember that the Bridegroom is indeed coming. And may we ever hold ourselves in readiness, in hope, and in eager anticipation for the wonders that the Spirit still has in store for us.
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
No, I was found of thee.
Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea;
‘Twas not so much that I on thee took hold,
As thou, dear Lord, on me.
I find, I walk, I love, but oh, the whole
Of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee;
For thou wert long beforehand with my soul,
Always thou lovedst me.
Give to us, O Lord,
the peace of those who have learned to serve you,
the peace of those who are glad to obey you,
and the peace of those who rejoice in your praise;
through Christ our Lord.
- St. Aidan (died 651)
Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mitchell