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The Waiting Is the Hardest Part – 12/15/2013

The celebration of a holiday – any holiday – is marked by traditions both big and small, both common and uncommon. There are rituals we perform, formulas we recite to one another, signs with which we adorn our houses or our persons – and then, there is the food. In the family I grew up in, my mother had a particular challenge each Christmas, after our family had driven out to Illinois to be with her dad and her brothers for the holiday. She’s a great cook, and she always wants to make sure everybody gets what they like. At Christmastime, this meant both preparing a sort of generic American Christmas dinner – turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes – and the elements of a traditional Swedish Christmas – tiny meatballs, and a type of beef, pork, and barley sausage called korv. Everybody seemed to have something they wanted and something else that they didn’t want on the table.

But at the end of the meal, there was one item that everybody looked forward to, even her most notoriously picky child [points at self]. The famous chocolate wafer dessert. It’s not particularly complicated: it’s just a log made out of these chocolate wafers – like Oreo cookie caps – alternated with whipped cream and left in the refrigerator long to get the cream a little stiffer and the wafers a lot softer. The recipe is hardly unique – you may consult Google if you would like to see several dozen versions of it. But my grandmother used to make it for her

family at Christmas, so my mom made it for hers. There were plenty of other things to look forward to in my family’s celebration of Christmas, but that was always what the holiday tasted like, for my brothers and I.

And then one day, several years ago, my mother was making plans for a party sometime in the middle of the year. She said she might make that chocolate wafer dessert and one of my brothers heard this with a great deal of surprise. “But you can only get those wafers in December, though.” “Oh no, they sell them all year round.” “But they only have them in Illinois, right?” “No, they’re just in the baking aisle; I’ll get some when I go to the store later.” “You mean, we could have had this anytime we wanted to?” The look on my brother’s face at that moment spoke of hundreds of moments, hundreds of holidays, wasted. Of birthdays and Halloweens and 4th of Julys, Groundhog’s Days, Arbor Days, of any conceivable excuse to celebrate – when he could have asked my mother to make the famous chocolate wafer dessert, but didn’t. All those years spent looking forward to that treat for months, when he could have been enjoying it right then.

This sermon is the last in a series on the spiritual dimension of the eight basic human emotions described by Robert Plutchik. The emotion we are considering this morning is anticipation. We are in the midst of a season of anticipation right now – most of us are looking forward to the arrival of Christmas, whether with excitement, or dread, or a little bit of both. In the Western Christian calendar, today is the third Sunday of Advent, the season for anticipating the birth of Jesus and the hope and renewal that story represents. Waiting is a huge part of living, but it is not always easy, and as my brother’s story demonstrates, it can sometimes feel like there’s no point to it at all.

The skill and discipline of waiting can be life-saving and meaning making. The King James version of the book of Isaiah reads, “…[T]hey that that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” When we point ourselves towards a purpose that is deep enough to sustain our efforts, it allows us to wait to act until the time is right, and to keep struggling, even when it is hard and the end is not in sight. And yet the virtue of patience is also the tired excuse of every voice that would postpone the work of justice and shirk the struggle for what is right out of complacency or fear.

When considering what sort of waiting we are doing and whether or not it is the sort we want to be about, it may be helpful to think about cookies. When you make cookies – just as when you make the famous chocolate wafer dessert – there’s a bit of waiting involved. In fact, the waiting is most important part, because the time they spend baking is what makes the difference between sugary goo – tasty, but risky if you used actual eggs – and actually ready-to-eat cookies. But if you never make up the batter, if you never spoon it out on sheets, if you never put those sheets in the oven, well then it doesn’t matter how long you wait: the cookies ain’t coming. Now there’s always the outside chance that while you are waiting patiently with an empty oven, a friend might call you up and say, “Help, come quick; I’ve got too many cookies and I need you to eat some!” But that should be chocked up to the generosity and mercy of the universe, not the fact that you were aimlessly waiting. So you can draw a dividing line between anticipation and just waiting around by asking yourself, “Are there cookies in the oven?”

In one of his sonnets, the poet John Milton wrote about doubt and patience at a time when he was losing his sight, and finding that he knew how to do less and less without it.

When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide

Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide,

“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”

I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts: who

best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state

Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed

And post o’er land and ocean without rest:

They also serve who only stand and wait.”

At a time when he found he could do little more than wait, a voice of comfort came to Milton to remind him that there was something sacred even in the waiting.

The ability to wait to wait towards a purpose – the virtue of patience – is affirmed throughout human religion and culture. The story of the would-be pupil who must wait for days exposed to the elements before being allowed to enter a school or monastery appears in Chinese Buddhism, in early Egyptian Christianity, and in the book and movie Fight Club, among other places. In the Buddhist tradition, one of the six perfections – the stages of purification on the route to enlightenment – is kshanti. Kshanti means patience, particularly the ability to endure in the face of harassment or violence. It is a particularly hard thing to master. In one story of the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Patrul Rinpoche, he happened upon a cave in the mountains where a monk sat by himself. He shouted into the cave, “Hello there, what are you doing?”

The monk tried first ignoring him, and then he tried giving back his own questions: “Who are you, where do you come from?” But he only got puzzling, unsatisfying replies: “I come from behind my back, and I am going in the direction I am facing.” Eventually, the monk gave in a bit and explained that he was cultivating perfect patience.

“Ah,” said Patrul. “That sounds like a worthy scam. The locals must be very gullible around here. How much do you make in the meditation racket?” Exasperated, the seated monk burst out angrily, “How dare you? This is my cave, this is my holy work, no one invited you in here, now kindly leave!” “And where,” asked Patrul Rinpoche, “is your perfect patience now?”[i]

We Unitarian Universalists have a story from our history that is really all about the power of anticipation. I want to give credit here to my colleague Seth Fischer, because while I’ve heard and told this story many times before it didn’t occur to me to connect it to anticipation until he did so himself. The story may be familiar to many of you; I’m going to try to tell it in a way it’s not usually told, and if you recognize it right away, I invite you to try to hear it with fresh ears. In 1760, there was a farmer living near the New Jersey coast who was a Universalist. By Universalist I mean in this case that he believed in a God too loving and too merciful to condemn any person to an eternity of suffering, and so held that all human beings share the same destiny: we are all one day, one way or another, going home. Exactly how he came to be a Universalist is a little bit uncertain. He had friends and family who were Baptists and Quakers, and seems to have been influenced by both. There were a few communities of both groups that seem to have been anti-Hell, and he might have been influenced by these. There was even a Universalist missionary active on the east coast in those days, and it’s fascinating to think that he might have met with this isolated farmer. We know that the man could not read, but he did have folks in his life who read the bible to him. So it might also be that he came to his theology, with a little help, through the single most common means by which Universalists have been made, historically: actually reading the bible for yourself.

This man, a Universalist in America, was a novelty because in 1760, according to our history as we usually tell it, there were no Universalists in America. This illiterate farmer had the gumption to join our movement even before it had begun. Although, as I’ve said, he was not the only person then alive who contradicted the idea that Universalism in American had not begun yet, he does seem to have been fairly lonely in his beliefs. He was isolated enough that he built a chapel on his acreage, which was free and nonsectarian and open to worship by just about anyone. But his hope was that one day a Universalist minister would preach a Universalist sermon in that place. That farmer’s name was Thomas Potter, and it just so happens that there came a day when he met another man named John Murray.

We sometimes call John Murray the founder of American Universalism – he was the founding minister of the first Universalist congregation in North America, not far from here, in Gloucester. So when we tell this story, Murray usually takes the lead. It is sometimes said to be our one-and-only miracle story. Murray was a Methodist preacher who had lost his community after becoming convinced of Universalism. He left England alone and in disgrace, determined to ‘lose himself in America,’ and with no religious ambitions. But his ship became stranded off the coast of New Jersey. He and the other passengers went ashore. Asking where he might find supplies, John was directed to Thomas’ house. It is not clear how the one recognized the other as a fellow Universalist; John had been tormented for it, and was not likely to be wearing it on his sleeve. But once Thomas knew that this stranger brought his way by a strange chain of events was a preacher of Universalism, he was convinced that his vision for his little chapel would be fulfilled. He eventually wore John down, and he preached his first sermon in America on September 30th, 1770.[ii]

Told from John’s perspective, this is a story about the force of history – perhaps the hand of Providence – winning out against all odds and driving a famous man on to an important destiny. But told from Thomas’ perspective, it is a story about patience and bold anticipation – the wherewithal to build a church with no minister or congregation, and to wait ten years still hoping to see it put to use. The playwright-turned-politician Vaclav Havel said that “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Even against impossible odds, conviction is enough to turn waiting into anticipation.

When the things we hope for, long for, plan for – anticipate – when one of these things comes to pass, the moment can taste very sweet. So sweet, in fact, that there is a powerful temptation to rush it along, to convince ourselves that the moment has arrived when it is still as yet far off. The history of a number of religions, including Judaism and Christianity, offers many examples of millennial thinking. People certain that the end of history was just around the corner and that the world was about to be completely upended and transformed. These predictions seem, so far, not to have come to pass. And less you think of this as just a habit of fundamentalist minds, I would remind you of the way in which some folks, perhaps some of us here this morning, viewed the first election of our nation’s current president. Just as my brother might have wanted to eat famous chocolate wafer dessert every night for a month in the middle of summer, it is tempting to think that we can rush what we can only actually contribute to. But the things that are truly worthy of our anticipations, the struggles that deeply deserve our energies, require patience to achieve. If you have the treat in August, it might taste good, but it will never be everything that it would be in December. Anticipation is not a good all by itself, but it is good for how it can point our living towards a more meaningful life, and for the sweetness that it adds when the own visions finally begin to take form.



[i] From Sarah Conover and Valerie Wahl’s collection of Buddhist stories, Kindness

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