Monday, November 30, 2009

Advent Reflections on Simeon: The Work of Waiting

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon . . . He was waiting for the consolation of Israel (Luke 2:25).

Love is patient . . . (1 Corinthians 13:4).

It’s been snowing at my house.

Lightly, off and on. A sustained breeze will always bring a flurry and cover the grass with a fresh dusting – not of crystal flakes of frozen precipitation, but brown and brittle flakes from the large branches that canopy my yard. Sometimes the leaves fall and swirl with the intensity of a blizzard. They pile up ankle deep in some places. Unlike a real Georgia snow that often melts as soon as it hits the ground, these flakes must eventually be picked up. My son and I have had the joy of doing that.

My next door neighbor was digging out from under her own blizzard last week. I shouted across her driveway, “Feels like a waste of time doesn’t it?” “It never stops,” she answered.

She’s right. The leaves on the ground are one thing, but it’s the leaves that have yet to fall that mock me. Thousands of them are still clinging to branches. I imagine them hanging there, laughing at my labor, waiting for the very moment when the grass can be seen again and then letting go, floating slowly down like paratroopers on a mission, forcing me to wage war yet again armed with blower, leaf-vac and rake.

There’s a school of thought that says “don’t even bother.” Until every leaf is down it’s futile to pick them up. Maybe so. The truth is we’re all waiting: Waiting for this season to run its course. Waiting for the dead leaves to let go and be gone until spring brings new ones.

There’s a kind of waiting that atrophies into neglect. And then there’s a waiting that works. The work won’t hurry things along. It doesn’t exercise control or set the schedule. But it makes ready. The work is preparation for what will be. This kind of waiting is vigilant against inattention that slides toward forgetfulness and lands in despair.

Advent summons us to the work of waiting.

Simeon was waiting for the consolation of Israel. And he wasn’t the only one. Countless others were waiting or the same thing. Generations had waited and gone to their graves without ever having seen what they were waiting for. The expectation was that someday God would enter history and act on behalf of his people, setting the world right. In other words, God would bring salvation. That’s what Simeon was waiting for. That’s what his ancestors had longed to see.

But his waiting wasn’t passive. It was grounded in familiar acts of attention practiced in a familiar setting. This is a man who loved God and loved God’s law. That love was expressed in ordinary ways. What little we know of him suggests a life of faithful worship, regularly visiting the temple. Such practices constitute the work of waiting.

In one way or another it seems we spend our lives waiting: waiting for leaves to fall and market to go up, waiting for something or someone to change, for the big break or the breakthrough. Waiting is hard and the dangers for us lie in two directions: We get tired of waiting and decide to take charge and make something happen – or we get tired of waiting and stop caring, allowing our waiting to become neglect.

Perhaps the work of waiting is simply doing what you’ve been given to do today. Bring your life before God. Be obedient in familiar and simple things. Love your neighbor, pay attention to your family, tell the truth, do good work, bless others with your words, give thanks for good health and good food, for trees and sky and all kinds of weather.

Tend to that plot of ground that is your life; go ahead and rake the leaves. You’re not wasting time. You’re getting ready.

“Come, Thou long expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free; From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in Thee. Israel’s Strength and Consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art; Dear Desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.” (Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, Charles Wesley, 1745).