Using the waiting

This is the fifth of our series of articles through the year from Spectrum, each taking a theme from the book of Acts…

by Carrie Seaton.

Paul was a strategist and had decided the best way of spreading the gospel was to campaign in the Roman world’s greatest cities. On arriving in Athens, where he was waiting for Timothy and Silas to join him, he saw how the city already had a thousand years of civilisation and was basking in its former glory and greatness. Becoming a democracy in the 5th Century B.C. it was the home of Plato, Sophocles, Euripides and Socrates, to name but a few. It was the main centre for philosophy, science, literature and art. Although waiting, he was using the time to have a good look around: doing a ‘reccy’ in the market place.

In his book, The Stature of Waiting (D.L.T. 1982), W.H. Vanstone states that the majesty of Jesus was seen most impressively as he waits for three lots of people: his accusers, his taunters, and finally those who crucify him. The ‘glory of God’ is disclosed in this passive waiting and His willingness to be handed over.

As we begin to look ahead towards the easing of the third lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we wait for confirmation of tentative unlocking measures. For many it’s still a time of passivity – when others control our lives, when we have things done for us, as we wait for restrictions to be lifted. If we agree with Vanstone, these waiting times are as important as times of action and taking charge.

Yet in contemporary understanding, activity is often valued for its own sake. Those older people who for so long in the last year were told to remain indoors are the very same as those who are normally applauded for ‘keeping active’. There’s an attitude in today’s market place that to be fully human is to be active, even if the activity has no goal.

However, the lockdown has perhaps made us more patient – a virtue! We have learned to wait for Supermarket delivery slots, online purchases to arrive outside our doors, we wait on the phone. Waiting gives us space. According to Luke in Acts 17, it gave Paul time to understand the cultural, religious and philosophical divergence of Athens. Waiting also gives us the space to try and discern where God may be leading us – as individuals and as a church. Many of the live streamed, Zoomed, and printed services of worship have stressed this point.

Jim Wallis, the American liberal theologian writing in the e-magazine Sojourners, said, in December 2019, that Advent was his favourite liturgical season as it comprises of waiting, longing and yearning for Christ incarnate. He asked the reader: how do we wait for Christ, in not just the spiritual sense, but in a globally political sense too?

Waiting is a key experience repeated through the cycle of the church’s liturgical year. At the moment we wait for Easter with the period of Lenten preparation. After Easter we will wait for Pentecost, and this is the period in which the church focuses on reading through the book of Acts. We may remember that the first Jesus Followers felt uncertainty as they waited for God’s plan to unfold. After the Crucifixion they’d been waiting fearfully behind locked doors until they discovered Jesus was alive to them, albeit in a different way. They were to wait for God’s power, in the knowledge that Jesus had promised to be with them in the future that would be different.

Returning to Paul, he didn’t just speak to the Jews in their synagogues or to the religious Gentiles; he came out of the churches into the most public of places to challenge the Athenians with the good news of Jesus and the Resurrection. In verse 19, they ask ‘may we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?’ He makes the ‘unknown God’ ‘known’ by describing the nature of God and declaring God is not confined to human temples.

So as our human temples remain closed, we continue to make God and Jesus known, through growing different guises and grasping newfound opportunities.

For discussion: 

1. How has the waiting in lockdown been a positive experience?

2. How has it enabled you to positively ‘do things differently’?

3. How have you had the opportunity to make God or Jesus ‘known’ through new channels?

16 thoughts on “Using the waiting”

  1. The questions will provoke much thought.

    This blog – whether a Monday morning piece or a comment on someone else’s – is one way to answer your Q.3. I know ‘Theology Everywhere’ began before we knew about the pandemic, but communication via a device on one’s desk has become an essential way to maintain human interaction, when actual meeting poses so many unknown risks to ourselves and to others.

    There are no doors on cyberspace, and anyone can come in and look at what we have written. The Damascus Road is not necessarily your actual paved surface…………..

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  2. I wrote this meditation many years ago, but it seems even more apt now!

    Too often, waiting becomes a negative,
    an interruption of our plans,
    an undesirable delay,
    preventing action,
    a red light,
    a long tailback,
    an interrupted journey,
    waiting to see the expert,
    fretting,
    with watch checking,
    finger-tapping,
    wishing away the minutes,
    maybe the hours.

    Be still my soul.
    See this time as a gift,
    unexpected and free.
    A chance to breathe deeply,
    inhaling the life-giving power of God,
    exhaling the cares and worries,
    tension dissipating with each new breath.
    Tine to surround a needy one,
    with the light of love of the Lord,
    Holding them in the golden stillness,
    their needs enfolded in his presence.

    Cherish these ‘wasted’ moments.
    Use them well.
    Drink deeply at the wellspring,
    that when it is time to move on,
    you are refreshed and strengthened,
    ready for the next demands.

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  3. I am so inspired by the thoughts of Carrie, Josie and Ros! Wonderful! So here is my attempt at the three questions:
    Positive experience? Not initially, felt quite overwhelmed, even depressed, by the three events – Coronavirus, Brexit and looming ecological disaster. Later, partly through interaction with technology, such as this site, I calmed down and now see this as new life, different, but just as amazing as ever.
    Yes, doing things differently. I even use Zoom and Facebook, which initially messed up my IMac.
    Have I had the opportunity to make God or Jesus ‘known’ through new channels? This is difficult for me to answer since I have always found God/Christ/Jesus implicit in the relationship I have with everyone I meet, so as I see it “they” are already known. In fact the delight of my daily walk is that I pass by friends and strangers who generally respond with a few words, a smile or a wave. This simple act generates fellow-feeling, courtesy, mutuality and love that I find delightful and meaningful. For me this is Christianity, the unconditional ethical concern we have for each other irrespective of belief or use of God-words or reference to the bible or church attendance.

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  4. One of the reasons Paul was successful in reaching out to the Gentiles was that he was prepared to explore the nature and culture of the societies he was entering and to consider how he could best communicate the gospel to them. He realised that, if he emphasised compliance with the Jewish law, including circumcision and dietary practices, he would not only fail to get his message across but also alienate his audience.
    We would do well to learn from that approach. How do we best communicate our message in post-modern Europe? How do we get alongside people in a post-pandemic situation? In the 1st century most people would have understood, and many would have participated in, ritual blood sacrifices and ideas of sin offerings were common parlance. Those practices are considered primitive and barbaric in modern Europe, but we persist in speaking about Christ as both the high priest and the sacrificial victim. The language of communion, the central celebration of Christianity, confirms these concepts. Most today understand sacrifices as the nurse who knows that her PPE is inadequate but still goes into ICU to care for a very infectious patient or a soldier who loses his life defusing a bomb to protect the life of others. Too often I’ve heard preachers say that such sacrifices and acts of kindness are meaningless, unless they are performed by Christians. That kind of comment reminds of an applicant for a secondary school music post. The interviewer commented that the pupils were fascinated by music and always listening to it; to which the candidate replied, “What they listen to isn’t music.”

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    1. Paul’s diplomatic approach was successful in bringing people to God, but he still insisted we are saved by faith, not good works. ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.’ Ephesians 2:8-9

      I like the music analogy, Pavel! All music is a gift from God, but there is a world of difference between Handel’s Messiah and I Did it My Way. No worries though; our God is a God of infinite compassion, and I truly believe we’ll all get a final chance to sing with Leonard Cohen ‘Even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah ….’

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      1. I absolutely agree, Yvonne, that it’s not about what we achieve. We can’t earn God’s love by our deeds. But neither can we buy it with our beliefs, or qualify for it by undergoing any religious ritual. Nor is salvation a kind of golden ticket into Heaven that we can find by searching. It’s a gift, not a reward. In Jesus’ parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son, it is the figure representing God doing the searching or who comes rushing down the road. “For the Son of man came to seek what was lost.” It doesn’t matter what road we’re on, even if we’re on a route leading away from God, God finds us.

        The popular teaching that there’s only one way to God which is through a particular belief in who Jesus was and in what he achieved by his death, and then through saying the sinner’s prayer, is in fact saying that we do need to qualify for God’s love; that there are conditions for forgiveness. But that’s not the way forgiveness works. “I’ll forgive you, if you say you’re sorry” isn’t true forgiveness. Forgiveness, by its very nature, can’t be conditional, because, like love, it is a state of heart and mind. It is the way we feel about the other person; it isn’t a matter of words or of actions. We can forgive someone even if they don’t acknowledge that they’ve done anything wrong. This teaching of conditional forgiveness and conditional love leads to an over-emphasis on who is and who isn’t acceptable to God. Anyone who feels morally or spiritually superior to another person or group has rather missed the point.

        But it isn’t all about being saved. It’s not all about what we personally gain from being a Christian. It’s not all about complying with doctrine and with moral and spiritual codes so that we get to Heaven. That’s what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”. We are called to be disciples of the living Christ; the Christ who talked time and again about the kingdom of God and the sacrifices we needed to make in order to further that kingdom; the Christ who said, “What you do or don’t do for the least of these. You do or don’t do for me.”

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  5. Well said Pavel! If the message is not related to the culture, it alienates. For me the harmful message of ritual blood sacrifices and the economy of self-sacrifice in return for God’s favour is pagan, abhorrent and loveless. I applaud ministers who modify the Service book as they present Communion and hope the day will dawn when the Methodist Conference realise that this alienating message needs to be changed or church will become increasingly irrelevant to people’s lives.

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  6. The church has become irrelevant to most people’s lives for three generations now, Robert.
    I fear it has gone past the point of no return, but that doesn’t mean those who do believe the Scriptures should abandon their faith. Either we accept Paul’s teaching or we don’t:
    Romans 9:27
    ‘Though the people of Israel are as numerous as the sand of the seashore, only a remnant will be saved. For the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth quickly and with finality.’
    I do believe we all get a final chance, but that’s just my opinion. I would rather people listen to Paul than listen to me.

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    1. I’d rather people listened to Jesus and how what he said, and still says, applies to our time, rather than focus on how Paul interpreted his understanding of the gospel for his own time. His Pharisaic background comes through as he applies it to his new faith.

      As to the end of time, there is an old Jewish story. All the people are gathered when God announces, “Gabriel will read out the commandments one by one. If you’ve broken that commandment, you must depart into Outer Darkness.” The first commandment is read and half a million troop off with downcast faces. Thousands more depart after the second commandment; and so it continues. When Gabriel reaches the tenth commandment, God looks round at the smug, self-righteous faces of those few who are left and imagines eternity surrounded by these. “Whoa!” he shouts, “Everybody come back. I’ve changed my mind.”
      If God said, “All those who aren’t the right kind of Christian must depart,” would it be any different?

      If there is a judgement, I don’t expect the question to be – “Did you believe the right things about me?” or “Did you say the sinners’ prayer?” I rather think we might be asked, “Did you love enough?” Most of us would have to reply, “Not nearly enough.” Then we might hear, “Then it’s fortunate that I loved much more than enough for both of us.”

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  7. Fortunate indeed, that God’s love knows no bounds. The pious, the self-righteous, the sceptics and the cynics, even those who are on a mission to secularise the Church of Christ, are all encircled in His loving care.
    I am sticking with the Church, the Bible, the creeds and doctrines, the theology, the liturgy, the heritage and the tradition, not because I think it will buy me a ticket to Heaven, but because it has transformed my heart and mind in ways I never thought possible. I have found the greatest treasure anyone could wish for, right here and now, in this life, and I only hope I can help others to find it. Nothing and no-one is going to rob me of this precious gift.
    Mark 16:16 (the words of Jesus)
    ‘Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.’

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  8. Whoever wrote Mark 16:16 , (50 odd years after the event), had obviously not taken on board the absolute unconditional love , forgiveness, courage, and hope that Jesus spoke about. I don’t think God gives a damn about what we actually believe, the creeds, doctrines, theology, liturgy, heritage and tradition, but agonises over how we relate to these in need.

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  9. Robert, how would you know about the ‘unconditional love, forgiveness, courage and hope that Jesus spoke about’ if you hadn’t read about it in the Bible or learned about it in church? It seems you are very selective about which bits of the Bible you believe, and which have obviously shaped your ethics, and yet you would deny others the same privilege of allowing the Word of God to help them work out their own relationship with Jesus, and how he wants them to live out their faith?

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  10. A few years ago, a small group of us from an organization that cared for children who had been affected by the Chernobyl fallout spent a Saturday loading a container destined for a small village in Southern Belarus. I sat down for the lunch break with a Catholic and an Anglican. We discussed a range of issues but, towards the end of lunch, talk turned to church. It turned out that we were each on the margins of our own particular church. Indeed, in previous weeks each had been told by priest, vicar or minister that we weren’t proper Christians, because we didn’t conform closely enough to orthodox beliefs. As we stood up ready to return to work, a young teenager came into the warehouse and said to us, “Can I ask if you’ve given up your Saturday to do this work, because you are Christians?” Seeming to take our response for granted, he walked on leaving us in a stunned silence. I thought that we had been given an answer rather than a question.

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  11. Christians are a very diverse lot! In our small town there are at least seven denominations. Christians from all denominations work together on several community projects which are well-received and appreciated in the town. In every church there will be the quiet, reflective, prayerful sort of people and the vocal, assertive ‘let’s get things done’ sort of people, and a whole range in-between. All are beloved of God and made in God’s image. The problem is when one group feels the need to put another group down in order to build themselves up. An air of superiority is never attractive, whichever corner it comes from.

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