Waiting is perhaps the most frustrating part of life whether you wait for Good news or bad, it can set your mood, determine how you treat others, and what you expect of yourself or others. Waiting and, perhaps more important, how we wait, defines so much of lives. We live our lives in expectation of the next thing, our next raise, our next job, loan approvals, contract agreements, diagnosis, children. Our lives are set in the context of continual expectation.
When I was about thirteen, I asked a girl out on a date for the first time. Don’t get me wrong, I was not a player, I had no game, but I suppose this rite of passage moment was a necessary one. One that even the most socially awkward must try. She didn’t give me an answer but told me she would call. Upon anticipation, however, I was anything but the “calm, cool, and collected” one. You see, this was long before the advent of cell phones, voice-mail, or call waiting, and so we were at the mercy of the landline. So I went home that afternoon and announced that I would be expecting a call from a girl that evening, and no one else could use the phone. As the evening dragged on, I anticipated the call more and more; I became annoyingly protective. If anyone even appeared to be thinking about using the phone, I would emphatically reiterate that I was expecting a call. Before long I was picking up the phone and checking for dial tone, thinking maybe there was a problem with the line. And then I wondered, what if she called while I was checking the line… The evening dragged into night, and before long my parents were telling me it was bed-time. I wondered if I misunderstood and second guessed myself, maybe she said she would call the next day. Yes, I suppose I could have called her, but that wasn’t a possibility as it would expose my frantic un-coolness. But she still had not called and needless to say she never did and I was left to find out the next day. Waiting makes up so much of lives and therefore how we wait determines so much about our lives. I was diligent, but at the price of injuring my family for the night.
Whether we are berating fellow family members for trying to use the phone, or mistreating our co-workers, our employees, our spouses, you name it, the uncertainty in our lives affects us profoundly, the waiting, in the words of Tom Petty, is indeed the hardest part. I recognize that we are not very good at this waiting game. The need for instant gratification, counter to any notion of sacrifice, difficulty, or duration, makes us far less patient in today’s fast-paced, instant everything world. And I am chief among the instant gratification junkies. Gen-X, my generation, has been blamed for everything from the increase in C-section births, to the dot-com bust of the late 90s, to the failed real estate market of the mid-2000s. We are the generation of “have it your way,” “we want it, and we want it now,” “just do it.” Consequently, preparation, planning, or waiting is something I just don’t always do well. I suppose, like those foolish bridesmaids we heard about in the Gospel lesson, I would be the first to run out of oil, the first to beg others for help, and the first to give up and exit the door as opposed to being embarrassingly caught without enough oil.
Now, the story of the ten bridesmaids is a familiar one, one taught to unsuspecting children as a tale to be prepared, be prepared or else you’ll miss out. And I suppose this is an entirely fine interpretation. It is the boy scouts motto after all, not bad advice for life. But I wonder if there is something more, something for the one like me who just isn’t very good at waiting and almost never prepared to wait.
The story tells of ten bridesmaids who are to expect the arrival of the bridegroom. A familiar event in the ancient near east, which likely took place after the respective families that were arranging the marriage had agreed to the terms. So a delay, considering this was a legal matter, would probably not have been unusual. To come with a little extra oil, in this case, would have been a good plan. When the night goes long they all fall asleep and are awakened by the announcement of the bridegroom’s arrival. They scramble to trim their lamps, and those without extra oil beg the other bridesmaids for more and are refused. They then run out to buy additional oil and miss the entire event.
The story is easily reduced to “Jesus is coming, and he looks angry.” “Look busy.” So, in light of this typical interpretation, we are tempted steel ourselves, we prepared our heart, we ponder the depths of our soul, we pray, we study, we get to work. But if I’m honest with myself for even a second, I am forced to admit that all that is out of my control. I am simply not very good at it; my faith is challenged daily, my prayer life, even though I am a “professional prayer,” often suffers. And when it comes time to ponder my soul, it is just too inscrutable. I am as likely to be caught with an extinguished or barely burning lamp as a bright nicely lit one.
So I wonder if the foolish bridesmaid’s mistake is not so much the failure to be prepared or keep awake, but that they did not regard the diligence of the others as enough. To trust that staying with the five bridesmaids with burning lamps sufficiently honors the bridegroom’s arrival. Maybe the story is that when days pass into fearful nights, as our awake-ness wains, as the period of waiting gets too long, perhaps the best we can do is stick with those who still hold the flame, even as our own flags or goes out.
I wonder if this is the story of the church, a community that waits for Christ to break unexpectedly into the world and the ordinariness of our lives. A community of waiting for a people who are bad at waiting. A community that holds the light for both the prepared and the unprepared alike and encourages all to stay. A community of broken, impatient, sleepy people who hold to a hope that Christ is breaking into the unknown, unsuspecting, unprepared parts of our life and claiming us as His own.