“I have always, essentially, been waiting,” says Shauna Niequist, in Cold Tangerines. “Waiting to become something else,” she says, “waiting to be that person I always thought I was on the verge of becoming, waiting for that life I thought I would have. In my head, I was always one step away. In high school, I was biding my time until I could become the college version of myself, the one my mind could see so clearly. In college, the post-college ‘adult’ person was always looming in front of me, smarter, stronger, more organized. Then the married person, then the person I’d become when we have kids. For twenty years, literally, I have waited to become the thin version of myself, because that’s when life will really begin.
And through all that waiting, here I am. My life is passing, day by day, and I am waiting for it to start. I am waiting for that time, that person, that event when my life will finally begin.
I love movies about ‘The Big Moment’ – the game or the performance or the wedding day or the record deal, the stories that split time with that key event, and everything is reframed, before it and after it, because it has changed everything. I have always wanted this movie-worthy event, something that will change everything and grab me out of this waiting game into the whirlwind in front of me. I cry and cry at these movies, because I am still waiting for my own big moment. I had visions of life as an adventure, a thing to be celebrated and experienced, but all I was doing was going to work and coming home, and that wasn’t what it looked like in the movies.
John Lennon once said, ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’ For me, life is what was happening while I was busy waiting for my big moment.”
Dr. Seuss experienced it enough to describe, “the waiting place.”
And Jesus brings the matter up with these words: “be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.”(LUKE 12:36, NRSV)
The conversation recorded in Luke 12:32-48 goes like this:
32“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 35“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 39“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
41Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” 42And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and prudent manager whom his master will put in charge of his slaves, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time? 43Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. 44Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. 45But if that slave says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and if he begins to beat the other slaves, men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 46the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces, and put him with the unfaithful. 47That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. 48But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded. (NRSV)
“Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks,” says Jesus.
And five verses later, Peter opines, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” Such a typical human response, makes me want to shout across the aeons to Peter, “Hey, Self-centered Schmuck, it ain’t always about you! We all wait!” But then again, perhaps Peter asks this question not for himself alone, but on behalf of all humanity, for it is true, isn’t it? Don’t we all wait?
Shauna Niequist talks about the present being wasted as she waited. An old friend of mine in High Springs, Florida says, “If you put one foot in the past and the other in the future, you shit on the present!” Yet, Jesus says, “Be like those who are waiting…”
So—if past tense waiting looks like waiting to get over a broken heart, or waiting to get over a rotten childhood, or waiting to grow through childhood insecurities, and if future tense waiting looks like waiting to land the right spouse, waiting to garner the best wage, waiting to lose 75lbs and be thin again, then the question that hangs between both past tense and present tense waiting, the question begging to be asked is this: “What does present tense waiting look like?”
We get our answer in verse 37 when Jesus says, “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.”
Present tense waiting is a matter of being alert. It is a matter of looking for Jesus in the present moment, for the present moment is the only moment we have. It is the moment of life that is risen—the resurrection moment of hope in which we are alive, available, teachable.
Consider this night prayer found in a New Zealand Prayer Book which says:
it is night.
The night is for stillness.
Let us be still in the presence of God.
It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.
The night is dark.
Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives
rest in you.
The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
all dear to us,
and all who have no peace.
The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
In your name we pray.
This prayer celebrates the past, celebrates the future, but the gravity and emphasis is the present. Note the present tense parts of the prayer:
“It is night. The night is for stillness. It is night after a long day. The night is dark. The night is quiet. The night heralds the dawn.”
Now note the resurrection hope to which each present tense moment in the prayer points:
“Let us be still in the presence of God. What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done; let it be. Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives rest in you. Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
all dear to us, and all who have no peace. Let us look expectantly to a new day,
new joys, new possibilities.”
Stillness. Release. Serenity. Quietness. Peace. Hope in the new.
If that’s not resurrection then I don’t know what is! And all of it flows from a present tense take on waiting.
Past tense waiting is an exercise in futility. Future tense waiting is an exercise in anxiety. But present tense waiting seems to be an exercise in the hope of resurrection.
So this waiting business is less about the passing of time and more about the passing of presence, or so Jesus implies. It is a kind of waiting that reverses roles, that causes a master to exchange roles with the slave; as in, the master will, “…fasten his belt and have them [the slaves] sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.”
The master is in the midst of the slaves serving them as though they were the master himself, as though he were their slave. This is all about presence happening in the present tense. It’s not about a god in the great distance, observing the creation saunter along from way off, but rather about the God present in the midst of the creation, even at the slave table.
The matter of being alert is not a matter of alarm, but rather a matter of mindfulness. It is the business of seeing Jesus in the present moment everywhere from the communion chalice to the seedy brothel. And it is the business of finding Jesus in those present tense moments and of standing at the ready, “…so that they [we] may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.” It’s about being fully present in the unexpected hour of the present tense. And this all comes down to presence.