What Good is a Pandemic if You’re Going to Waste it?
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT DECEMBER 6th, 2020 2 PETER 3:8-15
A man was deep in prayer, contemplating the mysteries of God. And he prayed, “Lord, what is a thousand years like to you?” And God replied, “Son, a thousand of your years is like a minute to me.”
Mind blown, he followed up with, “Lord, what is a billion dollars like to you?” “Well, my son,” God replied, “A billion of your dollars is like one single dollar to me.”
So, the man thought for moment and said, “God, can you give me one of your dollars?” And God said, “Yes, of course, I’ll send it down in just a minute.”
It’s week two of Advent at the end of a year where time has taken on a whole new meaning. In 2020 time has seemed to stand still. Sometimes. At other times, it seems to have hurried by at world record speed. Occasionally we have had plenty of time – to be with family, to pursue a hobby, to exercise, to watch all 86 episodes of the Sopranos. (Actually, for Gelind and me it was all 92 episodes of Mad Men.) Often, though, especially if you are a parent who has tried to juggle work, childcare, and personal needs, time has seemed even scarcer than ever.
So, in this season of waiting, at the end of a year in which time has been so fluid, today’s epistle lesson gives us a vital peep into God’s time – and ours. “Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”
Like people entering the tenth month of a pandemic, the first readers of Second Peter were losing patience. Paul, their teacher and mentor, years earlier had told them that Christ was coming back. God had a magnificent plan to wrap up this order of sin, suffering, and death and bring in his eternal rule of justice and peace. But a couple of generations have come and gone since those dizzy days of Paul and his giddy expectation. It’s maybe been 60 years since Jesus has left. God’s church is suffering. They are persecuted. Life is harsh. Where is God? What about the promise of Christ’s return? What’s keeping him? What’s gone wrong?
And the writer of this letter says, “Nothing. Nothing’s gone wrong. It’s just a matter of perspective. God’s view of time is very different from ours. To us it seems like God’s forgotten, we’ve been waiting an eternity. “But No”, the writer says, “God is waiting for a good reason – to give people more time to look at their lives, consider Christ, and come to faith.” God’s patience versus our impatience.
How lousy is our generation at waiting. We’ve spent most of the year waiting for the restrictions on our freedoms to be lifted – we need to travel, we need to shop, we need to go to the theater. We need to breathe freely without masks. At least, that is what we believe. And the wait has just been too much for many. Right now, we’re waiting for the vaccine; for the stress to lift; for work to return to normal; to get back to comfortable routines; for the forces pulling on the rubber band to stop before it snaps. If waiting is a skill, and I think it is, then we lost it somewhere between having access to streaming movies on the same day they are released in the theater, and Amazon same-day delivery, where you can get your hands on your purchases quicker than if you got into the car, drove to the store on Route 22 and made it back home again. Like a muscle that atrophies when we don’t use it, so is the skill of waiting. We are no longer used to it, and when we need to use it, it hurts.
Over these nine months, God has shown us many things, and here’s an important one – waiting is a gift.
Waiting for the vaccine helps me think of people who need life-saving drugs every day – the type-1 diabetic, the dialysis user, the cancer patient.
Waiting for the travel restrictions to lift gives me sympathy for people who live with a disability which prevents them from ever going out even before Covid.
Waiting for restaurants and entertainment venues to re-open forces me to empathize with under-resourced people who even before Covid couldn’t afford to eat out or attend a concert.
Waiting for my normal routine to resume so that I can have the days off and the vacation time that my contract grants me makes me pray for those who would love to have a job but are among the 10 million who can’t find one.
If the phrase ‘First World Problems’ is ringing around your head, then I stand guilty as charged, and I throw myself on the mercy of the court. Because if my temporary, mild inconveniences don’t compel me to notice the genuine suffering of my neighbor, then I’m wasting the pandemic. And what good is a pandemic if you’re going to waste it.
Spanish-speakers have a word for it. I have it on good authority that the verb ‘esperar’ can mean both “to hope” and “to wait.” It is the root of the plant name ‘esperanza’. Apparently, esperanza grows and blooms in very dry conditions, and it flaunts the most gorgeous orange and gold blossoms. But to see the blossom you have to endure the desert. You must wait, but wait with hope, with expectation, live like today could be the day when the Master comes.
What are we waiting for? What will God deliver when Christ returns to complete God’s kingdom? It’s put beautifully by an anonymous poet:
We are waiting for Love without end, without conditions, without violence, without fear.
We are waiting for Justice without end, without vengeance, without hatred, without lies.
We are waiting for Peace without end, without displacement, without borders, without war.
We are waiting for Restoration without end, without favoritism, without fatigue, without debt.
We are waiting for Joy without end, without reservation, without rebuke, without want.
What we need to be are doulas. A doula is a person in South Asian culture who waits. They don’t wait for just anything. They wait for a birth. Their role is to be with a woman as she begins to go into labor. A doula doesn’t have any medical training, she is not an obstetrician, a nurse, or a technician. She a waiter. A spiritual and emotional midwife. A doula sits. And waits. And prays. And sometimes she talks to give encouragement and peace to the woman in labor. And that is it. That is her role. And it is dynamic.
But recently, the role of the doula has expanded and has become a growing ministry not just at the beginning of life, but at its end. And not just in India, but in western nations too. Alua Arthur is a doula. But she is a death doula. One day, on a bus she sat next to a young woman who was dying of cancer. Arthur says she engaged the woman in conversation about her inevitable death, and it sparked a fire that she says could not be contained. “I thought, ‘Wow. We’re all going to do this at some point. Why aren’t we all talking about it now? Who are the people to support people through this?’ On that bus I got super clear this was going to be my work.”
Alua Arthur eventually found her way to becoming what is called an end-of-life doula — a death midwife – a professional who provides nonmedical caregiving services to people who are dying and to their families. Around the US and Europe they are increasingly becoming part of the Hospice care team. And they sit and wait.
This reminds of Sheila. Sheila was a young woman in Peterborough, the place of my first ordained job in the mid-1990s. I was young, naïve, inexperienced, and, when it came to ministering to Sheila, I was totally out of my depth. Sheila was in her late 30s and was dying of cancer. She asked to see me. I visited the hospital to find Sheila sitting up in bed, very alert, apparently in good health. It was clear, even to me, that her death was not going to be that day, or even that week. I sat down, nervous, unsure of what to say, more aware of my own needs in that moment than Sheila’s. And Sheila just sat there too. She looked at me. She said nothing. Not even hello. I felt uncomfortable and asked her if I could do anything for her, was there anything she wanted to talk about, did she want me to pray for her. She continued to look at me, and never said a word. I don’t know how long we sat there in silence, eyes locked, but it was probably not as long as it felt to me in my discomfort. At the time, I considered that experience to be a failure. Here was this young woman tragically dying, and here was me straight out of seminary, with a head full of theology, but totally unable to say anything. Now I know what she needed from me was not a priest who was going to utter words of encouragement – there was time for that another day. Or to anoint her with oil, hear any confessions, give her Communion or the last rites. Those things could happen later. That day was a day for doulas. That’s all. Silent, watchful, patient, waiting. I think I failed that test; I was surely communicating anxiety rather than peace. But it helped me get ready for the next Sheila who would ask me to be a doula.
“Waiting for a baby to be born and waiting for a person to die are very similar in terms of the skill set required,” says Patty Brennan, an end-of-life midwife with the Lifespan Doula Association, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Both circumstances require the ability to be fearless, patient and calm.”
And that is our task. To be death doulas for this passing age, this order of things. To wait. To sit, To watch. To be patient as the end of this dimension of earthly time approaches day by day. Let us this Advent take up the invitation from God to accompany this sad, suffering world as it approaches its demise. May God give us the gift of patience with expectation. Because what is coming Is perfection.