Isn’t it hard to wait for an answer to prayer? Especially when it’s an answer you really, really need. Maybe you’ve got a big decision to make and you aren’t sure which way to go. Or you are worried about someone you love and need to know—the sooner, the better—that things will be okay. It’s not unusual for our inward state, our unsettled emotions, to cause us to reach out in prayer. When we’re upset or stressed or confused or worried, we naturally reach out to God and ask for help.
Several years ago when I was serving as an ER chaplain at St. Vincent’s Hospital, I was called in to provide support for a man named George who had just unexpected lost his mom, and he was so devastated by his grief that it was coming out as anger. He had threatened the nurses and frightened the staff and instead of calling security, although they were standing by, they called the chaplain to see if a calming presence would help. I was so glad they did that. George was willing to talk with me and we spent quite a bit of time together that afternoon, talking about life and loss and God. “I don’t know how to pray,” he said. “The only prayer I know is, ‘Help me, God.’”
“I think that’s the absolute best prayer,” I told him.
Because George needed help and he needed it immediately that day. And I needed help—and wisdom—and I needed it right now as I tried to be of some support to George. Luckily, of course, the big picture was that God was with us all, unfolding the situation in the perfect way, providing what we, and the staff, and the nurses, and even George’s mom all needed at that precise moment in time. Much of God’s workings went unseen, but we could all feel it when peace began to arise and when kindness softened the sharpness of the pain and calmed the fear. Before George left the ER that day, he hugged the nurses he’d frightened and apologized to the officers who were standing by. He hugged me too before he got into the car of a friend who had come to pick him up. God answered prayer in a big way that day and it touched us all. And I hope we all think of that from time to time. And God continues to answer who knows how many “God help me!” prayers every single minute of every single day. Because God loves each and all of us, and never leaves us comfortless.
And yet when we come up against a situation in life that frightens us, or worries us, causing us pain or putting unhappy images in our minds, we often react not with confidence in God as our first impulse, but with a shaken and disturbed feeling of “Oh no!” We react with anxiety and upset; we imagine the worst; we feel small and alone, not sure what to do in in the face of such bad news.
Our Old Testament reading today comes from the book of Psalms, the 27th chapter. I’m sure you remember that the Psalms were written by King David, a great king who was also a flawed human being. But in spite of that, according to the prophet Samuel, David was “a man after God’s own heart.” His psalms are emotional and full of insight and transparency before God. And as we read them we can hear how much David wanted to open his heart and life to God, and he trusted God with everything he had. In the beginning of the psalm we heard this morning, David is writing about the fear and vulnerability he feels, and then he turns his thought to how much greater God is than any risk he might personally feel.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation,” he writes. “Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?” He goes on to describe the sobering strength and devious cunning of his enemies—and as a great king who had conquered other lands, David likely had many enemies. But again, after facing the frightening facts, David’s thoughts turn back toward what he knows to be true about God: God’s greatness, God’s faithfulness, God’s guidance and tender assistance in all matters of his life. He’d already seen it and lived it. He knew what God could do.
And then he ends the psalm with the verses Sherry read for us. He stakes a claim for what he believes will happen, based on his knowledge of God’s goodness and wisdom and love:
I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living! Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!
David teaches us something important here about what we can do as we wait on God to answer our prayers or help untangle our circumstances. There’s a pattern in his approach: He sees the trouble that’s bothering him and tells the truth about it, and then he turns his thoughts toward God. He names his anxiety and the fear for his life, and then he calls to mind and focuses on God’s greatness and love. He recognizes the cunning malevolence of his enemies, and then he once again puts his mind on God’s faithfulness and strength and care. There’s a claiming that’s going on here. Which set of circumstances did David want to see come about? When we are tempted to spend too much time thinking of frightening outcomes we don’t want, we can ask ourselves the same question. It’s infinitely better to spend our time and energy remembering the goodness of God.
As we wait on God for the answer we need, we can use David’s process as a pattern for our own. We can tell God about our worries or our need, about our concern and fears. But then we can—purposefully, intentionally—turn our minds to God, filling our thoughts with all we can remember about God’s love and care, kindness and strength. We can recount all the ways God has already helped us in our lives. We can go back to favorite Bible passages that remind us of God’s goodness and the constancy of God’s love. One of my favorite verses for that purpose is Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans to give you a hope and a future.” I pray with that verse often to remind myself of God’s good intention for every one of us—and when I do, it lifts my heart, reassuring me that Good is on the way, because God is a listening, loving, responding God.
And that lifting of the heart, the calming of the emotions, is an important thing for us to watch for because that shows us we’ve moved beyond the stage of worry and struggle and have begun to trust God for the outcome that is right for us. If the anxiety and worries come back—and they may—we can simply turn our thoughts once again to who we know God to be, imagining the Good God will bring out of our situation. In fact that is actually the meaning of the word repentance: Translated from the Greek, it means “a change of mind” and is often referred to as “turning toward God.”
Early Friend Isaac Penington, a contemporary of George Fox and a deeply spiritual man, wrote quite specifically about this “turning,” saying, “This then is the way of redemption; to wait to feel the appearance of the light of the Spirit in the heart; and, at its least or lowest appearance, to be turned from the darkness towards it.” So when we feel the tiniest glimmer of peace arising within us during our time of waiting, Penington says, we can do what David did and turn our thoughts away from the problem and toward the Light of the Spirit in us. With a little focus on the good, the calm grows, the confidence builds, the hope returns—even while we’re still waiting on that answer we need so much.
And there’s more we can do to keep our focus in that trusting state as we wait on God’s reply. We can nurture our spirits by spending time in peaceful places, doing things that uplift us with people who encourage us. We can put ourselves on a diet from things that bring us down and upset us, like television shows that bother us or social media outlets that are full of bad news. While we’re waiting, we can remember how important it is to be able to hear God, so we might keep things quieter for a bit, or spend more time in nature, or read Scripture or other uplifting texts.
One of the best ways to wait and care for our hearts as we do is to make it an intentional practice to be grateful for all that is already good in our lives, for the blessings God gives us each day and the answers we already have. The practice of gratitude keeps our minds on deeper values than the fleeting stories of the day. Gratitude opens our hearts and increases our capacity for joy.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he lists 16 practical things that can help us keep our minds and hearts attuned to God. Among them, he suggests we:
- Love sincerely.
- Be devoted to one another in love.
- Put others first.
- Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
- Share with others and practice hospitality.
- Bless those who are against us, for whatever reason;
- Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.
- Live in harmony with one another.
- Be careful to do what is right.
- If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
Each of these practical ideas, if followed, will help us create a more harmonious environment for ourselves and those around us. Even if we’re still waiting on a much-needed answer, living this way helps to create a better world while we wait. And what’s more, we’ll be focusing on the things of God so that when an answer does come, it fits smoothly in with the Good we’ve already been working toward.
Ultimately the thing that is perhaps hardest about waiting—whatever we’re waiting for—is that it’s all outside our control. That’s one of the reasons why waiting is such a good teacher of humility. We are given the opportunity to learn, deeply, that we can do all we know to do, but the answer, the change, the outcome we’re hoping for has everything to do with the mystery and gift of God’s grace. It will come; our faith and our experience tells us so. But we don’t know when, and we can’t make it happen.
Some 400 years before the birth of Christ, Chinese philosophy Wu Hsin wrote,
Over the parched earth,
Rain clouds appear.
Yet, one cannot
Make it rain.
The ingredient that must be added is
To wait in the face of urgency
Is to understand that
All is as it is intended.
That’s humility. And the recognition of God’s greatness. And a relief, when you think about it. That all is unfolding within the embrace of God’s love; nothing is outside of that. And our faithful act of waiting—if we can keep turning back toward God—will blossom with a deeper sense of trust and proven knowledge that God is truly working in our lives, bringing Good into every circumstance. Our willingness to turn is the key, turning from the hurt and worry of our inner need toward the eternal, gentle light of God’s loving answer: His gift of Himself to us.
I’d like to close with the poem “Waiting,” by the American naturalist John Burroughs:
SERENE, I fold my hands and wait,
Nor care for wind, nor tide, nor sea;
I rave no more 'gainst time or fate,
For, lo! my own shall come to me.
I stay my haste, I make delays,
For what avails this eager pace?
and amid the eternal ways,
And what is mine shall know my face.
Asleep, awake, by night or day,
The friends I seek are seeking me;
No wind can drive my bark astray,
Nor change the tide of destiny.
What matter if I stand alone?
I wait with joy the coming years;
My heart shall reap where it hath sown,
And garner up its fruit of tears.
The waters know their own and draw
The brook that springs in yonder height;
So flows the good with equal law
Unto the soul of pure delight.
The stars come nightly to the sky;
The tidal wave unto the sea;
Nor time, nor space, nor deep, nor high,
Can keep my own away from me.