Sunday, November 30, 2008
By Peter Marty
It’s not just about us. This season let’s come to God.
We lay some pretty heavy burdens on God’s shoulders. We place some fairly serious expectations in God’s lap. On one level, there is nothing wrong with our regular pleading for the Lord of heaven and earth to come through for us. On another level, though, there are problems with this lopsided practice of faith. Why should the weight of responsibility for sustaining a two-way relationship always fall to God?
Take our prayer instincts, for example. The prayers in many congregations commonly conclude with the petition: “Lord, hear our prayer.” It’s as if the burden for listening is on God hearing us rather than on us hearing God. Our ears are evidently exempt when it comes to many prayers. We trot out a list of concerns and hope God will click into gear and show some responsiveness to our requests.
Would that we could learn more from our Jewish counterparts whose focus is more on hearing from God than speaking to God. Our Christian habit of eagerly announcing what we believe or what we want from God is a far cry from the central pronouncement of the Jewish community: “Hear, O Israel.” Their listening approach to faith would do well alongside our many spoken claims, propositions and “I believe” statements.
Or consider the patient and not-so-patient waiting of many believers who want God to reveal a personal plan for their life. The assumption is that God knows who our mate for life should be, what our next career move ought to be and what our odds for succeeding in that brand-new diet plan will be.
God knows the answer to such specifics, many people profess: It’s just that God refuses to reveal that answer to us on the schedule we desire. Never mind that Scripture gives no evidence for this “personal plan” talk, in spite of God having a will about some very large and important things.
It must simply feel good, and sound trusting, to make God responsible for coming up with a personal design for our individual lives.
Our relationship with God
Here’s my proposal for this Advent and Christmas season: Let’s rethink these behavioral tendencies. How about a fresh willingness on our part to actually share in a relationship with the Lord? This would require some different habits than those that typically expect God to make a command performance and rise to meet our needs. We would carry more of our load in sustaining the quality of relationship God desires.
Think of the many times in life when you’ve wondered why God hasn’t been in precisely the place where you most needed God to be. Generally, this declaration of divine absence happens when we are in deep crisis. We may spend precious little energy inquiring as to the whereabouts of God when life is humming smoothly. But when things go awry, the Lord often catches the most heat.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, faith shouldn’t be this way. Why is it that we don’t ask more questions about our absence from God than of God’s absence from us? Given our conspicuous absenteeism from the Lord on many days, this shift in thinking would be refreshing. It would serve as a nice reversal to the troubling practice of often ignoring God, only to expect God to be suddenly at our beck and call.
In the congregation I serve, we use a Taize chant during many Advent services: “Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, be strong, take heart.” This is all well-and-good theology. It matches one strain of Scripture. We must be patient in waiting upon the Lord.
But there is another strain that deserves attention as well. This one has God waiting patiently for us—perhaps waiting for us to finally “get it right.” Here we discover God putting up with all sorts of loose ends, every imaginable form of hard-heartedness and one wrong stacked upon another.
The author of 2 Peter wrote: “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (3:9). This faith statement is emblematic of a Lord whose compassion will not foreclose on the future. It’s divine patience at its best—the Lord waiting upon us with grace and mercy.
In an old Jewish parable, a young man is troubled by the delay of the Messiah. He goes to his rabbi and asks: “Why does the Messiah not come? It may have been that in former times the Jews were not ready. But we have now endured the Holocaust and have never been so ready.”
The wise rabbi drops his voice to a low whisper: “I will tell you a great secret,” he says. “It is not we who are waiting for the Messiah. It is the Messiah who is waiting for us. He has been here all the time. We just haven’t found ourselves to be ready for him.”
I like this parable as a reminder that God waits for us—a startling reversal of the way we usually think about our tendency to wait for God.
Part of our Advent commitment ought to be a restoration of surprise to our faith lives. Such a move would free us from the monotony of always expecting God to meet our timetables and answer our every call. It’s time we quit abandoning astonishment, taming the truth and angling for predictable surprises. Like the student who shows up the first day of class to ask his professor, “Tell me exactly what I need to do to get an ‘A’ ” or like the wife who picks her own Christmas presents so her husband may then wrap them, we void life of surprise far too often.
When we remove surprise from faith, we are left with nothing but dead religion.
When was the last time you thanked God for not showing you the future? Maybe it’s time to reverse all that waiting for the Lord to deliver the goods for which you long. Stop waiting for a plan to arrive on your doorstep.
Think instead of the Lord waiting for you: “Surprise me,” the Holy One says. “Tell me what you plan to do with this precious new day I have given you. With great eagerness, I await your next move.”