The Discipline of Waiting
I have a problem that I want to share with you. I have a weight problem. You can look at me and tell that though, can’t you? Actually, I am not talking about w-e-i-g-h-t. I am talking about a wait – w-a-i-t – problem.
Last Sunday while Carrie preached here at Morningside, Clare and I were at First Presbyterian Church, seeing our new granddaughter, Anne, being baptized, christened. While Baptists do not baptize infants, I would not have missed that occasion for the world. She is a precious little girl. I love holding her. I love singing to her. She seems to like my songs, but she often goes to sleep. My voice sometimes has that effect on people. Following Anne’s baptism, we drove to Charleston for a conference and then a few days of vacation.
On Monday, I spoke many times at the conference, so many times, in fact, that I woke up hoarse Tuesday morning. I got up early, as I usually do, thinking that maybe I could finish a novel I am writing. I sat down at my computer and looked at the blank screen. I could not come up with one simple sentence. No words, no thoughts, for my novel came to me. I began to fret, so I got up, paced the room a bit, and went out on the deck. I came back inside, fixed a pot of coffee, drank a cup, and waited. After a while, I returned to the computer but still could not make the words come.
Later in the day, I talked to our son Scott. He commented on how glad he was that Clare and I could attend Anne’s baptism.
At one time, Scott was an acquisition’s editor for Cowley Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I asked, “Scott, have you ever had an author who experienced trouble with writing?”
“Of course, Dad.”
“What’s your advice?”
He answered, “Dad, just put your writing aside. Close your computer and put it aside for a while.”
That is just what I did.
I have come to realize how important it is for me to observe the spiritual practice of waiting. Doing so is one of the most difficult tasks in the world for me. It is one of the most difficult for you, too. We all have a problem in that we do not like to wait. We all have a problem learning the discipline of waiting. We choose the line at the grocery store that we think is moving the fastest, the line at the drive-thru tellers that is moving the fastest. We try to find ways to keep moving at a speed that is comfortable for us. The problem, of course, is that if we are perpetually in motion, we miss so much of life.
Listen to the Scripture from Isaiah 40:
28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
Notice that the passage says God is different from us. He does not get tired. He does not suffer from fatigue. He does not become exhausted. Psalm 121 says that He never slumbers and never sleeps. God is always vigilant, always watching over us. His source of energy is inexhaustible. Not so with us.
Speaking to people who are in exile in Babylon, old Isaiah says, “Listen, you have been waiting seventy years. Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.”
What does it mean to wait? The Hebrew word for waiting is kavwaw. It is the word used for making a rope.
When I was president of the Boy Scouts Council, I participated in a training program in Florida, which included camping for a week with other Scout leaders from around the nation. The quartermaster gave us a few supplies, but not all that we needed in order to put up tents and dining flies. We were given only a roll of binder’s twine. I remember thinking, This stuff is never going to hold, especially if we get any wind.
One of the men in my patrol, a veteran of the United States Navy, said, “Guys, we need to make yards and yards of rope with which to secure our tents.” For half a day, he taught us how to make rope for lashings, using the binder’s twine.
Think about the fact that the Hebrew word for wait, kavwaw, means to make a rope, to weave together various strands. I consider one strand to represent God. Another strand represents whatever strength I can offer. Perhaps the third strand is Clare. Maybe it is you. Maybe it is the church as a body. These three strands are woven together during the process of waiting. As we wait, we discover that we grow stronger.
Isaiah 40 says that we get tired and become fatigued. We burn out, faint. We become exhausted. Our strength is spent. When we wait upon the Lord, however, our strength is renewed.
What does it mean to wait? First, it means to develop the habit of holy patience. That does not come easy for any of us.
A father came home from work every day, carrying a briefcase in one hand and a laptop computer in the other. After supper, he often set up his office on the kitchen table and worked until bedtime.
One night his young son, a first-grader, asked his mother, “Why does Daddy work so hard?”
The mother explained, “He has so much work to do that he cannot get it all done at work. He has to bring it home.”
The child answered, “Maybe he needs to be in a slower group.”
Maybe I need to be in a slower group. Maybe we all need to be in a slower group. We all need to practice the habit of holy patience. I have a hunch that if we do not learn to be patient, sooner or later, our bodies will cry out for it. We will actually become patients because we need to learn how to be patient.
Waiting means learning to hold still. If you are always on the go, you will miss much that is happening around you. You will never see or experience many events because they will pass you by. Maybe better said, you will rush past them.
Years ago, Scott, who was a Cub Scout at the time, took a hike with me down the railroad track behind our house and the lumberyard. We followed the track to a siding that went down through the woods. Little saplings were growing between the ties. We continued our trek into a grove of pine trees where we saw an old Southern railway boxcar, the kind with just one door. Scott walked around the boxcar on one side, and I went around on the other side.
When we met at the back, Scott said, “Dad, this boxcar has been here a long time.”
Being the handy-dandy daddy/teacher that I am, I asked, “Scott, how do you know that?” I thought he would talk about the rust on the wheels or the small saplings growing up in the tracks.
Instead, he said, “Look, Dad. There’s a bird nest on the ladder. Dad, a bird can’t build a nest on a moving train.” He was just a Cub Scout at the time!
We cannot build a home on a moving train. We cannot build a life of prayer on a moving train. We cannot develop the kind of deep relationship with the people we love or with the God we love if we are always on the go. Psalm 46:10 says, “‘Be still, and know that I am God.’”
Waiting means being willing to fall silent. It means knowing that we do not have to fill the air with our own monologue. Waiting is mostly listening, learning to be still and to be quiet. Isaiah says in Chapter 30, Verse 15, “It is in repentance, in rest and quietness and confidence that you will find your strength.”
Is waiting a waste of time? No. Waiting is not idleness. A part of waiting means that we shift gears. We enter into some other kind of activity. In a sense, waiting is very active. It is a little like hoisting the sails and waiting for the wind.
Instead of working on my novel Tuesday afternoon, I sat down and wrote some thank-you notes, one at a time. Some of you will probably get a note from me. I found great relief in writing those cards.
The practice of waiting is the practice of patience. It is a stillness, a silence. It is active waiting. It is an engaging in activities that participate with the Creator.
What happens when people wait?
A father came home from work, absolutely exhausted. Needing a few moments of solitude, he began reading a magazine. His young son came into the room and asked, “Daddy, do you want to play?”
The father’s magazine contained a picture of earth taken from outer space, a picture of our planet that resembles a big blue marble. After tearing the picture out of the magazine and cutting it into small pieces with a pair of scissors, the father said, “Son, I have made a puzzle of the earth for you. When you finish working it, we will play together.”
The young boy trotted off, carrying all the parts of the puzzle in his hand. About twenty minutes, he returned with the pieces all arranged correctly.
Amazed at the speed in which the child had completed the task, the father asked, “How did you do that so quickly?”
“Look, Dad. On the back side, is a picture of a man. All I had to do was put the man together, and the earth was right.”
What a truth! If we could just put ourselves together, so many other things would be right in this world.
What are the results of waiting? Psalm 27:14 says that if we wait, our hearts will be encouraged. We all need to take heart. This rat-race that we live in will make us so absolutely depressed, so low down, in fact, that we could sit on a dime without our feet ever touching the ground. If we wait, our courage is renewed. It is a part of the strength that is renewed. Our hearts are encouraged, the Scripture says.
If we wait, Psalm 37:34 says, we will inherit the earth. I am not exactly sure what that means, but Jesus used that passage when he talked about those who were meek. How do we inherit the earth by waiting upon the Lord? Possibly, it means that in our meekness, our waiting upon the Lord, we move ourselves out of the center. We come to understand that the universe does not revolve around us. The proper center, God, is restored. We begin to see that God is sovereign. The earth is not just our home; it is also our place of service, our mission field. It is the place that we inherit. We properly pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Isaiah offers three results from waiting upon the Lord. The first, he says, is that waiting upon the Lord allows us to renew our strength and mount up with wings as eagles. The eagle is a symbol of strength, great accomplishment. This bird appears on our coins. It serves as our national emblem.
Charles Lindbergh was called the “Lone Eagle” by fellow pilots. He could get more mileage out of a tank of gas in an airplane than any of the other pilots by flying along the face of mountains and catching updrafts. That technique saved fuel. Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first two men to walk on the face of the moon. As their lunar landing module touched down on the face of the moon, they radioed back to Houston, “Tranquility base here, Houston. The Eagle has landed.”
Isaiah says, “Those who wait upon the Lord…will renew their strength and mount up with wings as eagles.” That passage means that we will have times of accomplishment. Those times may be very short-lived. Those moments may be our only fifteen minutes of fame. We cannot live an entire life on those few moments.
Isaiah also says, “Those who wait upon the Lord…shall run and not be weary.” That is the hope of every person who has ever run a marathon. About mile seventeen, marathoners say they hit a wall and experience great pain. They must continue through that pain, however, in order to get a second wind. Imagine running without becoming weary. What does Isaiah mean? He may mean that sometimes in life we have smooth sailing. We get by with very little difficulty.
Third, Isaiah continues, “Those who wait upon the Lord…shall walk and not faint.” Put that notion next to the eagle soaring easily through the air or the marathoner running without being weary. Walking without fainting does not seem like such a great shake.
W.A. Criswell has suggested that Isaiah presents these three ideas as a way for us to understand the cycle of life. When we are young, we have the energy to soar like an eagle. As adults, we can run without being weary. During old age, we hobble along and do not faint. Maybe he is right.
My professor of preaching, Dr. John Claypool interpreted this passage, saying that Isaiah presents these three ideas in a descending order. Mounting up with wings as eagles is the greatest feat. Running without being weary comes second. Walking without fainting, coming at the bottom of the ladder, would offer the least sense of accomplishment.
I submit to you that these endeavors are the other way around. The greatest accomplishment is not soaring with wings as eagles, as that may happen every now and then. Running and not being weary – making it through life at times when life is not very difficult – is not such a great triumph. Walking and not fainting, even when life is hard, may be the greatest success of all.
If we could ask Charles Lindbergh, “What was the greatest moment in your life, the time when you needed more than ever the strength of the Lord?” I doubt he would mention flying across the Atlantic Ocean. I doubt he would talk about an airplane at all. I imagine he would refer to the kidnapping and murder of his son, which caused him great agony and grief. He would probably say that was the time he needed the strength of the Lord most.
Ask Buzz Aldrin when he needed the strength of the Lord most. Would he talk about walking on the moon? When Aldrin returned to earth, he fell into a deep depression and became an alcoholic. He battled that depression and overcame it. Aldrin might say, “Walking on planet earth is much more difficult than walking on the face of the moon. I needed the strength of the Lord most when I was living right here on earth, struggling with addiction and depression.”
What about you? When have you needed the strength of the Lord most? Was it during those times of great uncertainty when you were unsure what was going to happen? Was it when you were unsure what the diagnosis would be? Was it when you were uncertain about how you were going to make ends meet, one day to the next? The truth is that we need the strength of the Lord most when the chips are down.
How do we receive the strength of the Lord? We wait. We wait upon the Lord.
Some years ago, I was invited to preach at a huge gathering of 32,000 Boy Scouts at the University of Indiana. I chose this very text for the chapel service on Sunday morning because it would relate to the boys, most of whom were Eagle Scouts. As I preached, I realized that the boys were hanging on every word I said. Many had already faced some of the uncertainties and difficulties of life, such as the divorce of parents.
Following that service and the benediction, a young man in a wheelchair came down the aisle to talk to me. He said, “While I was in the United States Marine Corps, I received a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. I have also participated in and won the Boston Marathon.” Noticing my puzzled look, he continued, “I participated in the wheelchair division of the marathon. I lost my legs in Desert Storm. Your sermon meant so much to me this morning. I now view this passage from Isaiah so differently. The strength I need from the Lord does not come with great accomplishment. The strength I need from the Lord does not come when everything in life is going fairly well. I need the strength of the Lord to drag myself out of bed and into this wheelchair each and every single day.”
“Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.” That verse applies to all of us. “They shall mount up with wings as eagles.” That applies to us some of the time. “They shall run and not be weary.” That applies to us only occasionally. “They shall walk and not faint.” Because that happens every single day, we must learn the discipline of waiting upon the Lord.
Do you know the Lord Jesus as your Savior? Have you accepted him as the Lord of your life? If not, could I extend that invitation to you? Some of you have other decisions to make. You know what the Lord is prompting you to do. Simply do it.Kirk H. Neely © September 2011