The Wait of the World

I am a patient man. I was a patient child…when I wanted to be. Right mom and dad? I know this, and we have today the witness of my parents in case my word is not sufficient, because if you wanted to, you could track my childhood by a series of…campaigns. We are not talking about political campaigns, no. We are talking about campaigns for…things. And usually…toys.

When I got it in my head that I wanted something, usually something that I imagined would be a lot of fun, I didn’t think about it for a day or two and then move on. No, I concocted a fully formed, multi-media campaign, usually for the benefit of my parents, to convince them, and anyone who would listen, of the necessity that I get what I want.

I remember a few of the most popular campaigns. There was the POWER WHEELS campaign of ’83-’85. POWER WHEELS were toys that really were, to quote my four-year-old self, a car that goes. Natually, the concern of those who loved me was the emphasis here on “going” and the lack of emphasis on the “coming back” part. Other famous, yet ultimately unsuccessful campaigns were the pool table campaign of ’88-‘89 and later the go-kart campaign of ’89-‘90.

For these items, I was patient. I was persistent. I combed the classified papers regularly, comparing prices and models. I even visited garage sales that claimed to have these items to see if I could get a hold of one of them.

Now, I should mention that though our home was more than comfortable at the time, there was no conceivable place in the entire house where a pool table would actually fit. And I lived in the heart of a suburb, in a row of neatly trimmed lawns and gardens. I am certain, as I was even as a child, that the operation of a go-kart on these roads was illegal, not to mention ill-advised. But that was the nature of my patience, of my waiting, of my detachment from the reality of the world: I wanted what I wanted from the world…and I was willing to wait. And I am not alone. We know this.

Who here didn’t have an unreasonable campaign or two? Maybe not for illegal go-karts, but perhaps for an animal that could never fit in our home. Maybe we were waiting for that gift or that opportunity that never seemed to come. Maybe the invitation to the prom that we hoped against hope would come. Whatever it was, whatever weighed upon us, the world we know is filled with ways that we wait for what is next. Ugh, but waiting is the worst, right?

Just look at what the pain, the discomfort of waiting has done to our culture. Remember…television commercials? Remember when you were at the pinnacle of the drama of Murder She Wrote, when Jessica Fletcher was about to unmask the killer yet again (spoiler alert, it’s going to be the mysterious stranger who rolled into town at the beginning of the episode), and a commercial would come on the air? You’d have to wait and entire two and a half minutes to learn who Jessica would unmask.

But then, after generations of waiting, the arrival of a service that began as Tivo more than a decade ago, a service now attached to virtually ever cable box sold, brought with it the ability to record programs and play them back…so you don’t have to wait through the commercials. And more, the last few years of home entertainment advances bear out the loathing for waiting even better. Entire subscription services like Netflix and Hulu tout the lack of commercial interruption, or waiting, on their services. And the most recent trend, starting with YouTube and soon to be coming to Facebook, so my sources tell me, is an option to subscribe to a “premium” version of the site’s services…whose only selling point…is not having to wait through commercials.

Of course, entertainment is only one of many ways we don’t like to wait. Ask anyone running a bit behind and stuck at the third red light in a row. Ask anyone who has visited the new, expedited, DMV down the way. Ask anyone waiting for the final season of Game of Thrones. Waiting is not something humans do particularly well. Not even some of the most spiritually developed humans in the world.

In The Book of Joy, which is essentially a three-way conversation between The Dali Lama, The Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the book’s compiler and editor, Douglas Abrams, Abrams recounts an interview he did with Tutu. The interview meant to collect and catalog for posterity the heritage that the Archbishop’s work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission left to the world. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the group responsible for ending apartheid in the nation of South Africa. On the second day of the interview, the Archbishop was getting a little tired. The words of Douglas Adams: “We were many hours into the dialogue with a film crew, and he was visibly tired and frankly a little cranky.”[1]

Now, I am choosing to quote Adams directly here as much for accuracy as for not wanting to call the Archbishop Desmond Tutu cranky myself. It was clear that the Archbishop was really tired of waiting for this particular interview to end…which is when Adams decided to pursue a new line of questions.

His words: “At one particularly tense moment I had asked him about his decision to return to South Africa from England, an event that had profound implications for the anti-apartheid movement and the freeing of his country but also had quite painful consequences for his wife, Leah, and their children. Not only were they leaving a country where they were free and equal citizens to return to an oppressive and racist society, but also they were choosing to break up their family as well. The apartheid government had created Bantu education for blacks and other nonwhites, an educational system that had the specific goal of educating its students for menial jobs. It was the purposeful mental subjugation of generations of students. This would never be tolerable for the Archbishop and Leah, and they knew they would need to send their children away to a boarding school in Swaziland.”[2]

And what Adams discovered in this line of questioning was that his interviewee had never apologized to his wife Leah for the pain of this decision, a decision the Archbishop made on his own on behalf of his family. Adams gallingly pointed out the irony to Tutu that the entire undertaking of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to tell the truth of what had happened to arrive at forgiveness and to find a path forward together. But the waiting the Archbishop had been doing up until that point, that might have sparked his, well, crankiness, was not the waiting he did that day that mattered.

Abrams describes what happened next: “As my verbal assault became more pointed and challenging, I saw his head draw back in reaction and perhaps some defensiveness. Most of us might have argued more adamantly or attacked back in such a disagreement, but it was as if I could see the Archbishop—in a split-second pause—collect his consciousness, reflect on his options, and choose his response, one that was thoughtful and engaged rather than reactive and rejecting. It was one of the most profound examples of what a prayerful and meditative life can give us—that pause, the freedom to respond instead of react. A few weeks later he wrote to me that he had discussed the experience with Leah and had apologized. She told him that she had forgiven him long ago. Marriages, even the best ones—perhaps especially the best ones—are an ongoing process of spoken and unspoken forgiveness.”[3]

As much as I believe that Leah, the Archbishop’s wife, had done all of the work she had to do, all of the forgiving she had to do, while she was waiting for her apology, what time, what energy, hidden and perhaps imperceptible to the Archbishop, was used for holding on to this piece of his work in the world he had left undone? What other resources might he have spent in other areas of his work? But what this might show us is that as bad and as hard as waiting might be, sometimes there are things we have to do in the world that are harder, and less appealing to do, than something humans dislike as much as waiting.

Yesterday was quite a day for me, for us. Something I had been waiting for a long, long time happened. Yesterday I received the gift of ordination as a minister by this congregation. And though many will say to me that it was merely an external confirmation of an inward reality…I know the truth. Something shifted in me. Something changed. Not all of a sudden, but over the past decade.

See there is a story that I want to tell you all. It’s a story that those close to me know already. It’s a story about an afternoon like a lot of afternoons. The traffic up and down Park Avenue was about what it was supposed to be. The work on my desk was about the kind of work I was used to doing. I was working on some documents that would be part of a process to make a client and its principals some of the richest people in their kingdom, richer in fact than the royalty ruling that kingdom. And as I checked every fact and every number for total accuracy, I received a succinct and horrifying news report online.

It seemed that a young man, a freshman in college, after being filmed secretly by his roommate being intimate with another young man in their dorm room in New Jersey, and after that video was posted online for all of their new friends to see, that young man, that college freshman, did not wait. He jumped to his death from the Tappan Zee Bridge.

And somehow the clients in the far away kingdom, waiting with eager lust for their enormous payday didn’t seem as important. Their expectant, luxurious hopes faded against the faintest sound. A voice inside my head, quiet, maybe like the voice of a timid young man the world once knew, spoke, “something must be done.”

And I didn’t lay down my pen in that moment. I didn’t lay aside a single legal pad. I didn’t even throw my laptop down to the street from the twenty-fourth floor. Though many days I wonder if that would have been a more fitting response. No, instead the first voice was followed by another, more similar to my own, “What are you waiting for?”

And today, when people ask me the moment I decided that I would make a change in my life, the moment I began looking for the best ways to ensure that another precious life won’t fall from this earth, because of hate, because of ignorance, because of fear, that is the moment that always leaps into my mind.

And I owe it to that voice, and I owe it to Tyler Clementi, and to all of those children of the earth who are waiting for this world to do something hard, waiting for this world to do something expensive, waiting for the world to do anything at all sometimes, I owe them at least one voice that will tell them that every hour of preparation I have made, every dollar of interest on the loans I’ve taken, and every mile I travel, will be worth it if I can show one soul that waiting was not in vain.

But folks, it’s getting harder and harder to tell that to the souls of this world. It has been nineteen years since the massacre at Columbine high school. An entire generation of children has grown to young adulthood under the specter of massive, lethal gun violence in schools. And something must be done. What are we waiting for? Well we are not waiting a lot longer.

On Saturday this week, a cherished member of this community will lead her friends here and her compatriots in schools around this island in a rally in Ala Moana beach park.[4] Though Hawaii has some of the most strict gun laws in the nation, her leadership and our support will help to make clear the complete solidarity of this land with those who are marching across the nation to end gun fatalities. Something must be done. And we are not waiting any longer.

Next Saturday I will join the march on the Capitol in Washington DC, with legions of other Unitarian Universalists, not only to lift a voice calling out for justice, but to make sure that the children of our shared human family are treated with dignity, with respect, and with the serious consideration they are due. I will carry our banner proudly so that they know that though thousands of miles separate us, nothing will divide us.

Because as Unitarian Universalists, yes, but as decent members of our shared human family, we have the call, we have the obligation, we have the guts, to stop asking “What in the world are you all waiting for?” And to try to be what the world has been waiting, longing, hoping, we will be.

Remember, spiritual giants struggle with this very concept. Without help, without an example, and without no small measure of crankiness, even someone as close to a saint as many might imagine fails to see how their waiting might be causing pain. And only through the experience of waiting for a moment, taking a moment to pause, a moment to consider whether someone else might be right, did that spiritual giant find his way to mend not only a part of his relationship with his loved one, but also to mend, in part, the way he even sees himself—to reconcile the perception of him by the world, with the inward reality only he can know.

The campaigns this church will help to hold this weekend are part of a response. They are campaigns responding to a world that so many feel has been waiting far too long for healing. And like so many other ways of waiting, devices of distraction might seek to skip by or skip over these campaigns once again. But something must be done.

For so long as we do nothing, will we feel the crushing wait of the world. And that is why we have the chance to unite together on Saturday. To stretch our arms across an ocean, from our shores to the heart of a nation, to take up a child’s campaign, not for the baubles and trifles traded casually on commercials, but for truth and justice, which cannot be traded.

And we take up another campaign as well. A campaign for the voiceless, those falling every day from our shared existence, when they feel there is nowhere else to turn. Yes, this is a campaign by, for, and including children. But, we are all somebody’s children. And the world has been waiting long enough.

May all those who are marching be blessed next weekend.
May all those who we have lost be watching.
And may all those who love those marching,
And those who love those we’ve lost,
Rest in the assurance that at least some part of the world,
Is not waiting anymore.

And may it ever be so.

 

[1] Lama, Dalai; Tutu, Desmond; Abrams, Douglas Carlton; The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, New York: Avery (2016), p. 180, Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid 181.

[3] Ibid, 181.

[4] In the original manuscript, I errantly had this as “The State Capitol” and was mistaken.

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