Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Getting Through

If a man die, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come. (Job 14; KJV)

Until Change Comes

I guess it was weird. I didn’t realize it, but when I pull back and watch myself, I can see why it might have struck others as, oh, I don’t know, unusual. I was 12, a bit of a nerd, a little sissified, inching ever closer to my snob phase, acting older than my years and thinking I was older than I acted—in other words, that kid who finds other kids too annoying to spend time with, who’s happiest by himself. I’d recently undergone a major sea change. In a preemptive strike against rock-and roll, a family friend gave me Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace for my birthday. I’d grown up with gospel music. But I’d never heard anything like this. I played it constantly, full-blast, in my room. (I was in heaven; the rest of the house wasn’t.) Soon I was cajoling anyone with a car to drive me around Chicago, to mom-and-pop record shops and churches where I could hear live performances of this music I’d rapidly come to love. Since no kid I knew was pursuing my obsession—or chasing another with comparable single-mindedness—I suppose it was weird. But, oh my, was it wonderful.

My connection with the music was forged with hymns and songs I knew. As I immersed myself in the worship experience, however, I grew increasingly aware that many of the semantics, which spilled out of the music into the liturgy and preaching, held less resonance for me than other worshipers. Unlike the expansive melodies and rhythms they float on, black gospel lyrics are tightly packed. They draw on a narrow lexicon of key words and phrases, most originating in spirituals that lift texts and imagery from the King James Bible and reset them, unadorned, in the context of slavery and freedom. Having been deeply imbedded into African-American faith culture, they retained their currency and spoke for themselves, often in emotions that defied explanation.

A lot of lyrics, for obvious reasons, alluded to Israel’s liberation from Egypt. But Job was also well represented, frequently in the phrase, “wait until my change come,” taken from Job 14.14: “If a man die, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come.” (KJV) Whenever the phrase surfaced—in song, sermon, or testimony—the church surged. People shouted, “Amen!” and “Go ahead!” Some leapt to their feet, arms stretched to heaven, faces upturned, as if to soak in life-giving rain. Tears of joy often streaked their cheeks. Their unfiltered emotions removed any barriers to feeling what they felt. Still, I couldn’t wrap my head around the phrase’s effect. There were dozens of songs about waiting. The impact plainly lived in “my change,” and not for the life of me could I figure what it meant—not in a sense that would trigger so profound a reaction, that is. There had to be something to it. And there was.

Faith Expressed in Uncertainty

Because of what I experienced, Advent’s invitation to wait—to contemplate waiting as a spiritual principle and discipline—always leads back to Job. The wonder of Job, for me, is his ease with wondering. To be the Bible’s oldest book, its eagerness to question and grapple with big ideas feels very modern. The story’s tensions play out vertically, as Job searches for insight into God’s purpose for tragedies that inexplicably ruin him, and laterally, as he resists the simplistic counsel of friends hoping to clarify his predicament. After losing his family, wealth, and health—on a whimsical bet between God and Satan, no less—his buddies come around to explain what God meant by doing this to him. While each has his own theory about Job’s reversal of fortune, all three are certain God has spoken. Job’s not so sure about that. He won’t rule out the possibility God is speaking, and his sudden plunge into hardship isn’t the end for him, but the pivotal transition to a new beginning. The longer his friends rattle on the surer Job is that he’s right, and the more intense his conversations with God become.

Grief, homelessness, poverty, and painful affliction—their grip on Job weakens until they’re no more than irritants distracting him from what’s really going on. It’s apparent to him he’s locked in a holding pattern, and why that is concerns him less than what it means. He even ponders the idea that waiting is all there is. Perhaps the promise of newness is a red herring, a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow hidden behind his storms. “If it takes the rest of my days,” he says. “I’ll wait until my change comes.” The faith expressed in his uncertainty is a thing of beauty. He submits to what he doesn’t know and can’t understand, confessing, “Who knows what I’m waiting for? Maybe it will come. Maybe it won’t. There’s only so much time left for me to wait on whatever it is. Since that’s all I know, all I know to do is wait until my change comes.

An Evolution Occurring Within

As it turns out, I’m not the only one puzzled about what Job means by “change.” Indeed, Job’s so hazy about what he’s trying to convey he describes a process rather than a result. This is one of the rare times when the King James Version comes closer to the original than its successors. More recent translations opt for “renewal,” “release,” and “resurrection.” But Job uses a derivative of chalaph, a Hebrew word meaning, “to pass through, move past, pierce, sprout, or sweep.” It’s a forward-looking term often associated with growing up or leaving behind—letting go. Thus, Job isn’t holding out for a life-altering moment, an epiphany of some sort, or another sudden change to undo the previous one’s damage. He’s not waiting for a revolution. He’s getting through his doubt and despair, fully aware of an evolution occurring within him, even while he waits to discover where it will lead. He’s growing up, letting go. If that’s as far as his wait takes him, that’s enough. He may die before his change breaks through in sprigs of newness. Yet Job senses newness already happening inside him. If waiting is all there is, getting through it will change him, regardless if he can prove he’s been changed.

So it also turns out I misread the reactions that piqued my curiosity about this passage. The intense rejoicing it sparks arises from knowing that to wait is to change, from sensing God is already at work in us below the surface, from confidence we’re growing up and letting go while getting through the wait. Another phrase I hear when worshiping with my African-American faith family goes, “I’m not what I should be. But, thank God, I’m not what I used to be.” That’s waiting in a nutshell. Who we are today is not who we’ll be tomorrow. Who we are tomorrow won’t be the same the day after that. Getting through. Letting go. Sprouting. Changing. Waiting. We may not be what we should be. But if we learn to wait, we will never be what we were. Thank God for the wait.

God of perpetual change and constant motion, please remind us that waiting is changing, that You move constantly in us, even though we think we’re stuck in holding patterns and standing still. Teach us the fine art of knowing what we can’t feel and feeling what we can’t see. We’re waiting—and we thank You for the wait. Amen.

To wait for change is to experience change. It’s a forward-looking process that begins below the surface long before any visible signs emerge.

Postscript: “Lord, Help Me To Hold Out”

Just one of many uplifting gospel songs resounding with Job’s faith in uncertainty—this one performed by a virtual constellation of gospel greats, all of them intimately acquainted with profound changes we undergo during the wait.


Sherry Peyton said...

You have written about my hands down favorite book in the Bible. I simply love it. And your words make so much sense. I am often intensely aware of the fact, that the very act of questioning my faith is strong evidence that God is working within me to change me in new ways that I may have little or no inkling of. You have contributed to my understanding,and for that my dear friend, I thank you!

genevieve said...

Changes are often subtle and we hardly notice it. Waiting is something that we can only do because God is the one who controls the time of His blessing for us. in this fast paced, instant gratification culture, waiting seems tantamount to torture.

This time of season is a time of reflection for me personally. I see what God has done in my life and in the lives of others. I'm better now but I know that I have a loong way to go.

Tim said...

Sherry, my heart breaks for believers who concede their right to question--and I often ask myself, "What are they talking about when they're with God in prayer and meditation?" I realize my perspective is personally skewed, but I have to think limiting our dialogue with God to "please" and "thank You" has to get monotonous very quickly... on both ends, possibly.

The thing about bringing our questions to God is God knows them before we ask, anyway. I can't figure out why so many of us play cat-and-mouse about what we don't understand or struggle to believe--as if we're students trying to fake a test we're unprepared for. God knows what we don't know, want to know, and we need to know. Why is it so hard for us to discuss these things with God?

What I love so much about Job is how we watch him grow, almost verse by verse. And I truly love when his questions don't result in ready responses. Job doesn't take God's silence (or his confusion) to mean anything, pro or con. He just keeps going, trusting that answers will catch up to him when he's ready for them.

Everywhere I turn this year, the Advent message for me seems to be, "Change is already happening. Be mindful of that while you wait." And I sense my anticipation increasing almost exponentially by the day, even though I have no idea what I'm waiting for or what God's doing within me. But it's happening!

And, Gen, your thought dovetails so beautifully with Sherry's. God indeed does change us in incredibly subtle ways while we wait. I marvel at Job's development for that very thing. While we observe his progress from, we never hear him say, "Wow! I can see a difference!" Our spiritual evolution transpires so uneventfully, so quietly, that we have no choice but to believe it's happening despite our inability to gauge it.

How right you are about God controlling the time it takes for us to change, which takes us back to Peter's brilliant observation: "God isn't slow, as some understand slowness, but is patient." You bring to mind another favorite gospel song taken from Job 14.14: "In God's own time, my change will come." Our change will never, ever be conducive to a minute-minded culture, because that's not how God lives or works in us.

Finally, I'm so grateful for your introducing the concept of reflection here. Too often we move on and forget what God has done for us--and how God accomplished the work in us. We forget how exasperated we felt when it seemed like God wasn't moving quick enough. Yet there was deep, detailed work that needed doing, and time needed not only to get it done, but also to teach us to trust, believe, and let go so it could be done. The beauty of realizing how far we've come, I think, is that it broadens our perspective to see we do indeed have a long a way to go. Yet once we get this waiting thing down, we grow ever more confident that God will get us there when the time is right, and not one minute too soon or too late.

Gen and Sherry, I owe you both a world of thanks. (If you were near, I'd pull us into a group hug!) This post took me by surprise and touched off an unexpected passion for waiting. Your inspired thoughts have intensified it all the more!

May God bless us all to fall ever more deeply in love with the wait--and the change that transpires while we wait!

Blessings always,