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 to 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 likes enjoys standing in check-out 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 yet 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 if they or their loved ones will get well, if they or their loved ones will live.
We often do well simply to wait 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 I 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.
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. For consider: If we loved nothing an 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 kinds of waiting I wouldn’t wish on anyone, I believe that there is also a good and healthy kind of waiting, a waiting which is a much needed spiritual discipline. This kind of waiting can be called watchful waiting. We don’t know what God has in store for us. Its 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 of 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 an interesting fact about the 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. A patient waiting for the Lord is one grounded in trust, and therefore does not worry.
Outwardly, the foolish and the wise bridesmaids are waiting patiently in the same way. The difference is revealed when the bridegroom is announced. Within their patient waiting, some are prepared and some are not. Some can immediately respond when the moment arrives, 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 let our own lamps shine. Even as we recognize that the leaps forward, the moments of insight, the moments or 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. For 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, this makes sense. The ten bridesmaids stand for the various characteristics, habits, tendencies and traits that make of 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, there are parts of ourselves, be they habits, tendencies, likes and dislikes, entrenched opinions and so on, that we need to leave behind. They are precisely the parts of ourselves that are not “prepared” to follow the Lord. Ironically, 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.
We are starting to see how Psalm 40 and the parable of the foolish and wise bridesmaids speak to us of the blessing and the art of patient waiting. I recommend both of them to you for further study and reflection. In waiting patiently, we live out the key traditional Christian virtues. Patient waiting has faith. In waiting, it continues to live in the present, confidently and joyfully. It 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 to be 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 true 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 coming. And may we ever hold ourselves in readiness, in hope, and in eager anticipation for wonders that Spirit still has in store for us.