Those who were waiting [Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon, and Anna] had each received a promise that gave them courage and allowed them to wait. They received something that was at work in them, a seed that had started to grow.
What if you don't have a promise? Nothing's happening and nothing's changing, and you're just hanging on, barely holding on and perilously close to letting go.
I have been there, so I don't write this flippantly. I have waited so long, such an agonizingly long time, for things I wasn't sure I would ever receive. In the summer of 2009, just before I was diagnosed with Lyme disease, I gave up hope that I would ever be healed from chronic illness. I had waited so long that my soul was emaciated with it.
I wasn't waiting on a promise, like the people Nouwen mentions in the passage above. I had no idea what was in store for me. I couldn't count on something good happening. In a way, my waiting wasn't waiting at all - it was a day in, day out struggle. And I don't fault myself in the least for that. I got tired of spiritualizing my misery, trying to exercise some sort of superhuman faith that had no relation to the reality of my existence. I got tired of pretending, or of putting the real me to death so that I could look all churchy.
We don't always know what we're waiting for.
* * *
We too can wait only if what we are waiting for has already begun for us. Waiting . . . is always a movement from something to something more. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon, and Anna were living with a promise . . . that nurtured them, fed them, and enabled them to stay where they were. By their waiting, the promise could gradually unfold and realize itself within them and through them.
Just because I didn't know what I was waiting for doesn't mean that God wasn't bringing it to pass. I can look back now and see the "promise unfolding," God laying the paving stones of the path I would walk on to freedom. It was all happening in those years of devastation. When everything inside was dark, the little dead seed was getting ready to grow. Things were happening; everything was happening.
God doesn't need our help with this stuff. He doesn't need our false patience and our empty faith.
* * *
So you don't have a promise. All you have is dreams of a better life, of real love and living beauty - a vague dream of heaven. And it's a heaven you aren't even sure exists. You aren't sure about the God (god?) that lives in it.
We are all so wonderfully human, with that ghastly survival instinct, that stubborn will to live. Something in the tangled darkness of our hearts keeps breathing, makes us fight for air. It's horribly selfish and yet beautiful too, because that's the life that God fans into flame. That's the promise when we don't have a promise.