December 7, 2022
And so the season of waiting begins…again. Every Advent the lessons, themes, and music all ask (no, beg) us to wait for the return of the Messiah.
The ironic part is I am actually an above-average waiter. I imagine you are too! In high school, I asked my parents how to pray. They said, “You just do it.” I asked my grandmother how to pray. She said, “You just do it.” I asked my basketball coach how to pray. He said, “You just do it.” Finally, I asked my pastor how to pray. He said, “You just do it. But if that doesn’t work, read this, I just got it in the mail yesterday. I don’t know if it’s any good.” It was a copy of Richard Foster’s book “Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home.” Unfortunately, I was not ready for Richard Foster. So, I prayed the only way I knew how, which was to pray exclusively for the aches and pains of primarily senior citizens that I heard them voice during Wednesday evening prayer meetings. As a 16-year-old I knew all about sciatic nerves, abdominal discomfort, and joint replacement surgeries. But I knew there had to be more to prayer.
In college, during a Bible study I kept asking my campus pastor, Rev. Paul Raybon, about prayer until he looked at me and said, “Travis, I think Fr. Bill, who is a trained spiritual director, could help you on your prayer pilgrimage.” The next day I knocked on the door of the Catholic Campus ministry, met Fr. Bill, and told him all my prayer questions. At the end he said, “Sure, I can help you.”
For two years every Thursday from 3-3:30 p.m., Fr. Bill met with me and taught me all he knew about prayer. And my prayer life flourished. I could feel my heart softening, I could experience the love of God by simply closing my eyes and taking deep breaths. And then I went to divinity school… This is not the old line about how a critical look at one’s faith in seminary ends up destroying faith. It was more like I became too dependent on Fr. Bill’s instruction and direction to pray on my own. So, for years, as a pastor, I prayed but nothing really happened.
I tried to rectify the situation by buying every prayer book you could find (I have shelves full of them if you need to borrow one), thinking if I just had the right book all my prayer problems would go away. But they didn’t. My heart never felt full, my words seemed empty and vacuous. Nevertheless, I kept praying…and waiting.
The season of Advent is a season of waiting—not the twiddling your thumbs kind of waiting, but active waiting. The kind of waiting that keeps showing up and doing the work, even when there is no feeling of accomplishment or fulfillment. It’s the kind of waiting that trusts that the work we do will come to fruition in God’s time.
A few years ago, my family and I went on a pilgrimage in Scotland and England. We walked St. Cuthbert’s Way, a 100-kilometer trail from Melrose, Scotland to the Holy Island, England. At the end of the trail, even though we stopped at numerous holy sites, lit candles, sat in silence, prayed the Examen every night…still nothing…still waiting. For some reason still not quite clear to me, we stayed a few days in Newcastle, England.
As we exited the Newcastle train station, we entered the Newcastle Cathedral to continue our practice of stopping at churches for tea, scones, and biscuits (it seemed every church had a semi-nice hospitality café). After our tea we walked into the sanctuary to check it out. It was noon and the organist was offering a free concert while a few people lit candles, kneeled at prayer stations, and took in the stained glass. After lighting my candle, I knelt at a prayer booth and started to pray. As my prayers began, the organist began playing “Gabriel’s Oboe,” a song you may know from the movie “The Mission.” In that moment something happened. My heart swelled, my soul broke, and tears washed my face. “It” was back – “it” being the feeling of prayer.
All those years of active waiting, of praying without feeling, finally paid off.
The season of Advent is a season of waiting—not the twiddling your thumbs kind of waiting, but active waiting. The kind of waiting that keeps showing up and doing the work, even when there is no feeling of accomplishment or fulfillment. It’s the kind of waiting that trusts that the work we do will come to fruition in God’s time. It’s the kind of waiting that is rooted in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). Until then, we wait…
Happy Advent and happy waiting…
Rev. G. Travis Norvell is pastor, Judson Memorial Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota and author of Church on the Move, published by Judson Press.