Sunday, March 30, 2014

How Long?

As part of my Lenten observation this year, I'm taking a break from writing new blog posts and updating and re-posting earlier material. Today's post was first shared on March 27, 2011.

Spring break is coming – lots of family vacations, road trips, and that universal refrain: “How long until we get there?”
College graduation is coming too, with the deeper refrain: “How long until I find a job?” “How long until I feel really settled, ready to get on with my life?”

“How long” is a phrase that seems to be part of who we are. We live so much of our lives in that painful in-between time. The journey is started, the destination is in mind, but that time in between seems impossibly long. To quote T.S. Eliot: “ridiculous the waste sad time, stretching before and after.”

This post was prompted by a sermon focused on Abraham in Exodus 12 and Romans 4. Chris Hall, professor, parishioner, author, Bible scholar, wound his way through those two lectionary texts to end with Nicodemus in John 3. It was a challenging, encouraging sermon. 

But I confess, somewhere in the middle of it, I found myself caught in the amazing “how long” of Abraham’s life. I had gone two days earlier to pray for Emily, a girl struck by lightening almost three years before. I went to pray again this week, now almost six years into the continuing story. God has done miraculous things in her life, and healing continues, slowly, almost imperceptibly, but there is a long way yet to go, and her family, and those of us who pray, find ourselves asking “how long?”

So Abraham’s “how long” drew me in. And yes, I still heard every word of the sermon, but I was multitasking as I flipped back and forth between Exodus and Romans.

Abraham was 75 when God promised to make him “a great nation” and showed him the land He would give his offspring. He was 86 when he had a son by Hagar, the servant, rather than by Sarah, his wife. He was 100 when God told him to have his clan circumcised, and said he would have a son by Sarah, not Hagar. And 101 when Isaac was finally born.

That’s a long “how long,” with some serious missteps along the way. What seemed improbable at 75 by 100 was beyond impossible. Yet in Romans 4 Paul says this:
Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.
“Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed. . .  being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.”

Am I fully persuaded God has power to do what He’s promised? How long am I willing to wait in hope? And how do I demonstrate that hope, while I wait?

It’s a good question for Lent, this in-between time, these days of waiting, and listening, and longing for resurrection.

That refrain, “how long,” is echoed throughout scripture. Sometimes it’s God’s people, crying to him “how long”:

My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? 

Throughout the psalms the cry goes on:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

 How long will the enemy mock you, God?

How long, Lord? Will you be angry forever?

How long must your servant wait?

As I’ve been thinking about how much of our lives we spend in waiting, I’ve been struck with how, despite the waiting, the time goes flying by. It’s one of those baffling mysteries: we ride along asking “how long?” and then, suddenly, the ride is over, and we realize we missed it.

We are prisoners of time. We can’t make it move faster, no matter how we tinker with technology, trying to save time, speed time, rearrange time. And we can’t make it move slower. There’s a line from Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill that comes back to me now and then:
Time held me green and dying,
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
Time holds me green and dying, and as I wait, to see justice on the earth, to see promises fulfilled, the challenge is to fill the moments as they fly by, to live as someone who “against all hope, in hope believes.”  

The service I'm remembering ended with Al Gordon’s amazing anthem, “How Long.” It’s a powerful expression of longing, waiting, and affirmation. Cruising the internet for a faithful rendition of it, I came across a powerful Tearfund video that captures my hope: to live each day as if justice is on its way, to redeem each minute because the promises are true. To wake up each day to the opportunities and challenges of that day, and to work at whatever I’m given as an offering toward the day that’s coming.

Yet, I confess, part of the recording doesn't resonate with me: too triumphant? Too exuberant? The longing is easy to sing, the confidence much harder. 

Chris Hall talks often about the “music” of scripture, the song that sings through it we’re often too tone-deaf to hear. The “how long” song we sing is part of that music, and the song has contrapuntal parts. Repeated, again and again, “how long”: until questions are answered, until healing comes, until justice appears, until we sing the victory song. 

And then, for those who hope and believe, there’s the answering refrain:
Yes I know, you will come.
Yes I know, you’ve already won.
Yes I know, my redeemer lives.
My redeemer lives.
Woven through both the longing and the hope is the prayer:
Come, Lord Jesus, we are desperate for you here.
Come, Lord Jesus, all creation crying out.
Take a few minutes to listen and watch. Can you pray or sing along? As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome; look for the __ comments link below to leave your comments.