December 6, 2010

Of Waiting and Ivory Towers

I love Advent, now, but that hasn’t always been true. For almost my entire life, I described myself as impatient. “I hate waiting,” I used to say with a self-deprecating smile, as if this somehow made me a more productive person. Waiting. Who would want to do that?

Years ago, long before I ever consciously thought of changing my life entirely and going to seminary, I confided in a friend that I felt I was waiting for something, but I couldn’t figure out what. It was driving me crazy. I felt like a person in a hamster wheel, going over and over the same facts about my life. Nothing was wrong. What was I waiting for? I was frustrated. My friend reminded me that I needed to learn to just wait. “How can you ever be present to others in the same situation, if you don’t know how to be still and wait?”

I didn’t know then that there would be a time in my life when I would be called upon to “be present to others.”

Three years of formation as a spiritual director, one MDiv, and a summer as a chaplain later, Holy Wisdom has worked some of her magic. I know how to wait. I know how to make space. I know how to just show up.

The gift of being present with people in the most unspeakable moments of their lives is hard to describe. People move closer to the Holy; they open up new ways of seeing God’s love and mercy. For almost all, suffering seems to bring them closer to God, rather than driving them away. Courage, strength, and grace abound. I see these miracles because I’ve learned to wait.

Today I led the memorial service at Peter’s Retreat. Peter’s is a supportive housing facility for people with HIV/AIDS run by the non-profit (Hands On Hartford) for which I work. At the service, residents spoke of God’s love, even as they mourned the loss of those who’ve died. They spoke of decades-long struggles with the virus. In acknowledgment of World AIDS Day, we prayed for compassion and justice people all over the world who have HIV/AIDS, and for all those right there in the room. They know how to wait. I’m blessed to have pastoral relationships with some of the residents at Peter’s. It’s not a quick process. I show up, I wait, they show up, God shows up, I listen, we pray.

Community Meals is our soup kitchen. It’s open long hours before meals, so it does feel like a community. People greet those who enter with smiles and shouts of recognition. These days I show up to the same smiles and shouts. That didn’t come quickly either. I had to wait, to just show up, to earn trust. Sometimes I roll plasticware in paper napkins, sometimes I serve food, sometimes I play dominoes. Mostly, I wait. I wait, and I listen. The other day, I listened to a man who told me that he begins his morning with psalms. Want to know what are the psalms of a man who lives outdoors? Psalms 3, 5, and 91. Look them up. You’ll be surprised at how they seem to speak to a man who lives outside, who isn’t quite sure he wants to move indoors.

This week I’ve met God in the family and friends surrounding April’s (my partner’s) dear friends in the heart-wrenching and unexpected loss of their husband and father, at the age of 44. These people quickly became my family when April introduced me to them over two years ago. Now, being present to their pain is almost too much to bear. I am honored and grateful to witness their faith and their love. The waiting in this case is heart-wrenching. They wait for the coroner’s report. They wait for the funeral. They wait for something, anything, to ever seem normal again. And in the waiting, God’s love shows up in the friends and family who fill the house. They come, they sit, they talk, and they wait. April is staying with the family. They love her and rely on her. She waits with them.

True confession. I loved seminary. I loved being surrounded by people who seemed to care about the same things that I did. Surely nothing could ever be as good, as holy, as these moments in seminary. I wondered if perhaps it was okay for me to love it, if there was some ministry for me in the rarefied air of academia.

Perhaps there is. But first, I had to bring the ivory tower to the streets. “It’s real! It works!” Ian Douglas, my bishop, said when we had lunch a couple of months ago. He left EDS, too, when he was elected bishop of Connecticut. “All that stuff we taught, it really does work.” Judging from his beaming face and dancing eyes, I’d say he never doubted it. But I did. I wasn’t sure that all those ideas that formed me in seminary could make a difference in the real world of homeless people, hungry people, people with HIV. Now I know that they do. The gospel I learned is as real on the streets and in the tragedy as it was in the classrooms and dining hall.

And all I have to do, is wait.