One theme has stood out to me in 2011: waiting. For the first time in my life, God allowed me to experience an extended time of waiting with no clue of what he had in store for me at the end. It was different from waiting a week for something to go on sale or waiting two weeks for the next paycheck. That kind of waiting involves little mystery about the outcome: I will buy the item I waited for and we'll pay the bill when the money is deposited. It is waiting for something we expect. It is simply delayed gratification.
It's much more difficult to wait for long periods of time for an unknown destination or answer to prayer. Instead of delayed gratification and discipline to stay calm and wait the prescribed amount of time, waiting for the unknown requires a heavy dose of trust in God as we push out the doubt that creeps in, force ourselves to wait instead of make our own way, and deal with the hurt, bitterness, and frustration when we've waited longer than we would have liked. We must keep reminding ourselves that God does want what's good for us and that he will answer our prayers—even if the answers look nothing like we expected.
The theme of waiting seems especially appropriate during Advent as we learn again how to wait on God. In an entirely new way, I am able to understand Sarah (Genesis 16). Usually when I read the story of Sarah (or Sarai) telling her husband Abraham (or Abram) to conceive a child with Hagar, I have felt shocked and amazed. Why would she tell her husband to be with someone else? Why can't she simply wait for God to deliver on his promise? Now, though, I understand how beautiful the idea of making our own way can appear. When we've waited and done all that we feel God is asking us to do, we begin to get tired of waiting. We assume that if he really were going to deliver, he would have done so by now, and we begin to plot how we can make things happen in our own power. Until this year of waiting, I never understood how someone could get to that point. But now I do.
What I've learned in all this waiting, though, is that the blessing comes not only when we reach the destination, but also as we journey—in the work that God does in our lives while we're waiting. As we wait on him, we get a true picture of our hearts and souls. We learn just how little we trust God and how human we truly are. And we learn that God's way isn't a prescription (take this pill, do that dance, and everything you want will come true). Instead, it's a journey—and the best gift is God's presence along the way.
In all this waiting I've realized that many times we approach small groups with set goals, timelines, and expectations in mind. We follow set "prescriptions," waiting for the expected outcome to happen in the expected timeline: we'll discuss confession, confess to one another, be healed, and be amazing Christians afterward. Or I'll identify an apprentice, train for eight and a half weeks, and birth a perfectly healthy new group. We wait in a delayed-gratification kind of way. But I think our wait for spiritual growth is much closer to the unknown-destination waiting I've experienced this year. There's no guarantee that life with God will be easy. There's no guarantee that if we follow the prescription we'll experience amazing life-change. There's no guarantee that everyone in our group will even want to grow spiritually. And there's no guarantee that once we experience change we won't return to our old ways.
We can, however, stick together as a community as we journey, waiting on God. When we begin to feel like Sarah, wanting to make our own way, we can encourage one another to continue to lean into and trust God. We can help one another to see the work God is doing in our lives. We can pray for one another and carry one another's burdens. In doing so, we will be a true vision of biblical community.
As leaders we must hold out this truer definition of waiting—waiting on God, opening our hearts and minds for what he wants to do in our lives, without always knowing the destination. As we help our group members understand how to wait, I believe we will see real growth and change—I just can't tell you when or how. But maybe that's the beauty of it all.