Holy Waiting

A Faith from the Margins to the Web bible study for Advent 3:

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

John 1:6-8,19-28

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

Authors: Willie and Sarah

In full disclosure, this isn’t an interview between two strangers.  This week, Faith from the Margins to the Web features Willie, who is an inspiration on my journey.  Willie is a regular at the Friday Red Door Healing Service at the parish I serve, and has been part of the circle of people who have been formative for me as a seminarian.  He listens intently to the way the Gospel lesson breaks open for me when I preach and teach; he gives me regular feedback about my sermons; he asks me questions about holy scripture as astute as any seminary professor; he writes his questions down during the service and studies them at the public library.  Last year, Willie was homeless and squatting in a garage.  He finally was able to find housing and attend to his health which had been deteriorating.  Now he spends hours each week, sitting in dialysis, reflecting, writing and inwardly digesting those scriptures while praying for the dialysis staff, his family, his friends, this world in which we live.  Willie redefines for me what it means to live into holy waiting.

This week, I sought out Willie’s expertise so we could examine the Gospel for Advent 3 together.  In our bible study, this wise and learned man of city streets and dialysis clinics shared his Advent wisdom of holy waiting with me, and we likewise share it with you.

Willie reads the Gospel Lesson: John 1:6-8,19-28

“You know, Sarah, basically, when it comes down to it this is a Gospel that tells us that the Lord Jesus is there waiting for us. And that’s it. He is always really going to be there for you and that’s a comfort right there. But, in this Gospel, he’s getting ready to make his first appearance to these people and I can’t help but think…they have no idea what they are going to be in for!  I don’t even know how I would behave if I was there.  Imagine it…with my little sandals, garb, and everything, hearing about a messiah and getting ready to see Jesus for the first time, seeing him do the things that he’s going to do.  I would have no idea what we were in for!”

As always, Willie found a doorway right into the scripture.  I responded: “I love that, and I think that’s so true for us now too. Maybe when we study this scripture, we look for predictability or familiarity, because we think we already know the story about to unfold. But then, the reality hits you just like that.  We never know the story before hand!  When you follow Jesus, you have no idea what you’re in for. But when you follow, you can be assured that it’s going to be an adventure.”

Willie was nodding, “That’s right! When I read in the bible how people saw what he did, they were hooked. They followed him everywhere. And I think that alone caused these people to be like, “what is going on here? Who is this guy?”

“Yeah, I like that.” I said. “That’s really a good model for us to think about. What I was also thinking was that this gospel gives us a description of John’s identity and identity is an interesting thing, because we have the “us” we know and then the “us” that we show the world.  I think we get to see a bit of both in what John says and does!  So, I have a question for you…how would people, who know you, describe your identity? Like John, what ways do you try to live into your identity or your sense of what you’re called to do?

“Oh, this is getting deep here now!” Willie chuckled. “I think that for me…well, I just came back from dialysis…and I think most of the time, people look at me like ‘What’s wrong with this guy? Why is he so quiet? He doesn’t talk to people much.’  But, here I am, talking my tail off here with you!  But, the thing is that I know something they don’t, and that is that I know what’s making me quiet.  I never forget this…I’ve read it in scriptures, and in religious books. They talk about the stillness and that when we are still, that’s when God can talk to us. And if we are quiet, people notice…in that that kind of scenario like the clinic…a lot of people just talk and talk but aren’t really saying anything. When they see someone like me that’s not you know, falling into that same pattern…well, that quickly in itself draws them to say ‘what is he doing? Why is he so quiet? He hasn’t said a thing.’ But see, I’m listening. More importantly, I am trying to really get into the Word. So, when everyone is finally quiet, it’s like…yeah, that’s what I want.”

I breathed deeply and held that holy silence with him for a minute.  Then, I breathed the words: “Be still and know that I am God.”

“You know, Willie, sometimes, I think…well, I don’t really believe God gets bored with our prayers but sometimes I realize how I can rant on to God with like 10,000 things I’m praying about. But I think what I am really craving and what God craves of us is to just be present and to be still. Sometimes, that knowledge transcends words or transcends all those requests.  Stillness is very powerful.”

“Yes, that’s true!” agreed Willie. “I believe there is a blessing just for doing that. I think that in the bible there are probably other prophets that found that out, too. They just were quiet and things would be revealed to them from God.”

I decided to share a little of my own inner life, too. “That question about how people may describe my identity is interesting to me. I think people know me in a lot of different, specific ways. But, when it comes right down to it, I’m really still myself in all these different ways. You know, when I’m Sarah the professor or when I’m Sarah the preacher/pastor or Sarah the friend.  I show different parts of myself at different times, to different people, but there is a core of who I am that belongs to God and that always finds a way to come through. People tend to describe me as cheerful; they seem to notice a smiling or lightness about me. It’s interesting because, to be honest, sometimes I’m not feeling that at all.  I’m prone to feeling stressed or anxious, actually. But I try to start my day and pray to be present for whatever emerges. You never know who you are going to encounter or what’s going to come your way. So, I think being present lets God work through us. In other words, I hope that what people are seeing is that I’m not just some nice, smiley person; I hope that what people see is an identity that is reflecting the presence of Christ. That’s what I strive to be, sometimes by getting out of my own way. Not letting a bad day or a bad attitude get in the way of letting God shine through.”

Willie smiled, “Well, I figured I’ve come back to you many times. The way how you deliver the sermon and stuff on Fridays is with self-control and everything. I don’t sense any nervousness or anything. Even just reading out the program, you have a tendency to keep us all calm….if we are in a rush, just listening to your voice helps us slow down.”

It made me happy to hear that. “I have to say Red Door is probably my favorite half-hour of my week. Not that I don’t have other times that are important, of course, but it is very…well, it feeds me spiritually.  Sometimes, I get really busy when I’m preaching or leading or listening, but that time and space always feeds me. That’s one of those times when I hear, “Be still and know that I am God.”

Willie continued, “I think that’s like what I was saying. That little dialysis area, where I am at to do what I need to do…because I’m in the Word when I’m there, I hear different things. Also, you’re aware of how people may be mocking you or saying foul things and all you’re doing is focusing on the Word. But you’re hearing all these other things with your ears and I’m saying: ‘Go on Willie, go on, don’t let this effect you. Have the self-control to get something out of this. You opened up the book, continue reading it.’ And there’s a little battle going on right there. Because when people can’t help it anymore, some of them come up right up to me there and say ‘What is that you are reading? What are you doing?’ Because your behavior has been so quiet and somewhat withdrawn. That alone is causing them to peer in and figure out ‘What is he doing?’ And sometimes, I’ll just stop, smile, and know, to some extent, it may be driving them crazy for a good reason. All of this I’m doing just to read the Word. And, don’t let me get started about writing. Because sometimes when I do that, I’m now going to take it a step further and actually communicate with God right there on the paper.”

I could imagine this scene playing out, just like Willie could picture John the Baptist. “I  think of you in that space, making something that could be an arduous, awful health task, something that no one looks forward to, and making it into a holy space. How has the dialysis bed become a holy space? It’s because you invite God to come in.”

“That’s right” said Willie.  “By the time I get ready to finish treatment, whatever people are thinking, that’s when I fool them all because now I’ll probably show some of God’s love right then and there as I get ready to leave or find some way to be a service to them. You know, just do little things and not be in a hurry to just run off. But, to be a service in any way I could. And, say a little something as I get ready to go. You see, I believe that is the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, I feel cornered or anxious or inside I’m saying ‘let me just get out of here.’  But, I think that’s when He just says ‘no, no there’s some other people you can help out and say a kind word to before you go.’ Because everyone usually has some degree of excitement when they are free from the machine. No more needles or needles coming out. You’re free to do whatever you want.”

I realized when Willie said that just how much we take that freedom for granted, “And you’re experiencing that freedom. We don’t realize the feeling of freedom or appreciate it until we lose that.”

Willie responded very affirmatively, “Yes! And sometimes I actually come out and say that to whoever is listening to me. “It feels so good to be free now.” They have been telling you for hours, don’t move your hand, stay still, and sometimes I have gotten a little upset. When I see myself going there, I look for the book. It’s stuff that I have written down that comes from the Lord that I feel is important to me to write down in there. It can be a comfort, a rescue, for me to just open it up and that’s the right place for me to do it. I hope and pray that it is making God’s day because I’m taking the time to read His word and understand it. Just like he said, at least try.  It’s what we can do.”

Advent is a season of holy waiting; for the Messiah to appear, for the Word to be made Flesh and dwell with us.  Whether our daily routine is an office, a street corner or a dialysis clinic we are easily caught up in the chatter that can distract us from our true identity in God.  Willie’s wisdom is revealed in the simple power of holy waiting, of focusing on the Word with us, residing in our lives, and opening us to God who meets us in stillness with the words, wisdom and knowledge we need to live into our true identity in Christ.  Wherever you are, whoever you are: may stillness find you during this season of holy waiting.

The Word became flesh and lived among us…

On the Friday before Christmas last year, I stood in front of the Red Door congregation gathered for the weekly service of Healing Prayer which we hold before serving a hot lunch to anyone who is hungry and in need of a good, home-cooked meal along with conversation, music, and safe space from what can often be a harsh world.

No one has to come to the service before they eat, but every week there are around 30 people who do choose to gather in the name of God in the sanctuary space of the urban parish who offer up this ministry of hospitality.  Every week, we pray: silently and out loud, individually and as a community.  We recite the psalms together, and we read the text from the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel, offering a short reflection.

On this particular Friday, it so happened that Sunday’s Gospel was for the upcoming Christmas Day.  As a seminarian, I don’t often get to practice preaching for such a major feast day.  As I had read and studied the text of John 1:1-14 in preparation for that reflection, I kept thinking about the Word made flesh, the Word who dwells with us, the Word who became incarnate in this world in the most humble and unhoused of ways, the Word who was and is and is always becoming known in the midst of those who gather from street corners, parks, parking lots and parishes alike.

There are more times than I can recall when I have experienced the Word made flesh in this space, with these faithful ministers of the streets.  Some people are there ever week, offering me their reflections.  Others straggle in for a break from the winter’s cold or the summer’s heat.  We are people who are yearning, seeking solace, recovering, struggling, doubting, believing, praying.  That day was no exception.  When I stood to speak, the first thing I said was: “Merry Christmas!  This is the first time this season, in this space, that anyone gets to say that and you are the first people who hear those words.”  I noticed, at that moment, that John had tears in his eyes.  I felt what he was feeling.  The Word made flesh was, indeed, with us.

After the service, still teary, he came up to me: “Pastor Sarah [as he liked to call me], I just started crying.  I couldn’t help it.  It’s just that we are never first…we never are.  And then, today, there we were and it was us…we were the first!  We had the first Christmas!”

I had no words, so I just nodded, and hugged him.  I had tears in my eyes, too.  Something stirred in me, and stirred in us.  There is a presence of Christ in the lives of those on the margins which is palpable and present and transformative.  That was the gift of that moment.

John didn’t know then…nor did any of us…that it would also be his last Christmas here on this earth.  A few short weeks later, the Friday healing service would be a memorial for John’s life.  He lived unhoused, under a bridge but worked washing dishes or volunteered somewhere every day.  He saved the lives of several people from near drug overdose, but he died from an overdose himself.  He was and is one of many people whose complex and faithful lives on the margins touched and changed my own life.   But, in between that Red Door Christmas and his untimely death, the idea for this project had already been birthed.  That idea was floated during my January seminary intersession, put to paper and submitted as a grant on which I had sought John’s input, and even in grieving his loss, the restless spirit of something new coming to life was taking shape.

Although it has been several months in the making, Faith from the Margins to the Web is now a reality that will begin with regularity on the first Sunday of Advent, Year B and will grow week by week over this next liturgical year and (hopefully) beyond.  Behind the scenes, people are being trained and interviews are being scheduled.  Evangelism is happening and will soon be brought into being as words to the web.  These stories and weekly blog commentaries are indeed life giving, because they come from the spaces where God meets us, and we are changed.

I hope you will join in this project to help nurture its growth week by week.  Let us know how the stories are shaping your faith, too.  We welcome your comments, your prayers, and your reflections.

Peace,

Sarah