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.