Friends—In a minute, I’m going to share three short stories about some folks who are waiting. At the end, I will share a fourth story. See if you can find yourself somewhere in these lives. See if something about them resonates or calls out to you.
He waited. Sometimes he waited in the canvas-backed chair on the new deck they had built. He’d look out toward the horizon, hoping that she would someday come home to herself, to rest more easily in her skin, the way a flower blooms without having to think about it first. Here’s the thing about flowers: they just grow; they don’t have to think about growing. But he promised to wait and he does, sometimes impatiently, for the time to pass. He waited for her to finish things: sentences, basic chores, and this latest turn in their relationship. He waited for that moment when, after putting the kids to bed, she would click off the light, and in the darkness, he’d hear her breath gradually deepen and relax. It seemed as if he had spent his whole life waiting—waiting for both of them to find each other and begin again. He waited and sometimes, when no one was around, he groaned loud enough to startle birds and awaken the silence.
She waited too. She waited for her life to begin ascending. Waited to find something growing in her soul, waited for something to form a ladder upon which she could climb. Remember that children’s fairy-tale, Jack and the Beanstalk? Her third grade teacher described a vine so thick and so tall that it could reach into the heavens and make a country boy outsmart giants and swing between worlds on its leafy, green arms. She waited. She waited for fairy-tales to come true, waited to discover, like a golden egg, the one true thing about herself that wouldn’t break or be stolen. She waited restlessly, dreamily, and impatiently. Sometimes, when no one was around, she groaned with sighs too deep for words. And she would imagine—though she had no way of proving it—that her groans reached God’s ear, carried there by a magic beanstalk.
In another time and a different place, they also waited. They waited for the excitement of those last days to be like the heady days of the past—when they first knew God was as real as the friend’s hand that now held their own. In those days, it seemed that wherever they looked, whether in their towns or on the road, they felt God’s presence in him. “Cast your net on the other side,” he had told them, and who could deny that after they did, the nets overflowed with so many fish that no one bothered to keep count. They waited, and when he paused to write something in the sand, they waited to hear if it included them, along with the woman that they had cruelly singled out. They waited. They waited for him to catch their next thought in the net of his deepest understanding and to give their disjointed, unspoken thoughts back to them. Always, when he did so, the broken parts were mended with golden thread and the parts that they took for granted were torn asunder so that they felt compelled to think differently and to live differently. And when he went away from them, they waited in the place where he had told them to stay put. He had promised power from God, a jolt of energy for tired and groaning spirits. And one day, it came, just as he said it would.
Friends, for what are you waiting? Do you sometimes wait impatiently, or find yourself groaning with “sighs too deep for words”? Do you wonder if you can go on waiting? Why or why not? And what are you doing while you wait?
On that first Pentecost, the followers of Jesus were together in one place. It wasn’t just a physical location but also a spiritual space too. A place of waiting—and not simply waiting alone, but waiting together—with friends at their side, friends who cared, friends who prayed with and for them… friends who could help them kindle the spark of hope alive in their hearts and in their world. In this, we are like those disciples: waiting for something profoundly life-changing and life-challenging to happen, waiting for the redemption of our bodies and our world, but also waiting together, as we hope for a future that we do not yet see, hear, taste, touch, or smell. And while we wait, we pray—to find support, sustenance, and strength not only to face whatever the future may bring, but to deal with the present.
But sometimes even prayer can seem impossible. Just like Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, sometimes we wait with groans and sighs; sometimes we are weak and don’t know which way to pray, or how, or for what. Yet despite our persistent sighs, the Spirit is still there.
I have a framed picture on my shelf at home that was created by an artist in Rockport. It’s a drawing of a dark, gray tree set against a white background. It could be winter, except that the artist did not choose to draw any snow…just this black-gray tree with its branches extended upwards, like a hundred small arms. But carefully drawn in the midst of the branches, looking outward, is a small and brilliantly red cardinal. It is the only color in the picture—this tiny bit of red perched warmly on an otherwise barren and dark shadow of a tree.
I love to look at that picture because there are times when we are like that tree, and the Holy Spirit is the cardinal that comes and perches on our branches, reminding us that our lives have color and meaning, even when it seems like it is still winter and we are far from blooming. Thankfully, the same Spirit that swept through the disciples at Pentecost can also quietly enter the door of our souls and speak on our behalf to God, even and especially when the only sounds coming from our mouths are the sounds of incoherent groaning—if not downright complaint.
Other times, when I look at the picture, I am reminded that our world is like that tree, filled with shadows and shades of gray—and the church is like so many red cardinals whose presence reminds others that God has not abandoned the tree, no matter the season, no matter how bare our branches have become.
But how do you tell if you are more like the cardinal or the tree?
I suppose that it depends on what you are doing while you wait.
In one of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, Dr. Charles Garfield tells the following story:
“If you have ever gone through a toll booth, you know that your relationship to the person in the booth is not the most intimate you’ll ever have. It is one of life’s frequent nonencounters: You hand over some money; you might get change; you drive off. I have been through every one of the 17 toll booths on the Oakland‑San Francisco Bay Bridge on thousands of occasions, and never had an exchange worth remembering with anybody.
Late one morning in 1984, headed for lunch in San Francisco, I drove toward one of the booths. I heard loud music. It sounded like a party, or a Michael Jackson concert. I looked around. No other cars with their windows open. No sound trucks. I looked at the toll booth. Inside it, the man was dancing.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m having a party,” he said…
…I had a dozen other questions for him, but somebody in a big hurry to get somewhere started punching his horn behind me and I drove off. But I made a note to myself: Find this guy again. There’s something in his eye that says there’s magic in his toll booth.
Months later I did find him again, still with the loud music, still having a party.
Again I asked, “What are you doing?”
He said, “I remember you from the last time. I’m still dancing. I’m having the same party.”
I said, “Look. What about the rest of the people…”
He said. “Stop. What do those look like to you?” He pointed down the row of toll booths.
“They look like . . . toll booths.”
I said, “Okay, I give up. What do they look like to you?”
He said, “Vertical coffins.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I can prove it. At 8:30 every morning, live people get in. Then they die for eight hours. At 4:30, like Lazarus from the dead, they reemerge and go home. For eight hours, brain is on hold, dead on the job. Going through the motions.”
I was amazed. This guy had developed a philosophy, a mythology about his job. I could not help asking the next question: “Why is it different for you? You’re having a good time.”
He looked at me. “I knew you were going to ask that,” he said. “I’m going to be a dancer someday.” He pointed to the administration building. “My bosses are in there, and they’re paying for my training.”
Sixteen people dead on the job, and the seventeenth, in precisely the same situation, figures out a way to live. That man was having a party where you and I would probably not last three days. The boredom! He and I did have lunch later, and he said, “I don’t understand why anybody would think my job is boring. I have a corner office, glass on all sides. I can see the Golden Gate, San Francisco, the Berkeley hills; half the Western world vacations here . . . and I just stroll in every day and practice dancing.”
There is a Swedish proverb that says, “Those who wish to sing always find a song.” Or as my Swedish host father used to tell me: “The weather is never too hot or too cold, it’s how we dress that matters.” Friends, let Pentecost fill you with its Spirit so that you can wait for the future patiently and with a spark of hope that will save you from despair. For God promises that the Spirit is poured out on everybody—whether young or old, male or female, servant or stranger. Some will see visions, others will dream dreams, and some will see the future unfolding in the present. Some will sing songs while perched in some cold and barren place, and some—praise God– will even dance in coffins.
Come, Holy Spirit, come!! Let the sparks fly!
 A Second Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul, Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, eds. (Deerfield Beach: Health Communications, 1995) 175-177.