May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
March 9, 2020
Time as we experience it is by definition a denial of instantaneousness, a requirement to wait.—Alan Lewis
At one thirty on a Tuesday afternoon ten days from now, I will fall asleep. Fall is perhaps not the right word: I will be pushed. A nurse will strap a mask around my head, an anesthesiologist will command a machine to open a valve to allow precisely dosed vapors to drift toward my nostrils, molecules of amobarbital or propofol or diazepam will seep into my neural network, and the next thing I know, I’ll be opening my eyes in a recovery room, where a surgeon will stand over my bed and tell me whether or not I have cancer.
I can’t wait.
In other words, I cannot stay in one spot, patiently biding my time until the dreaded moment arrives. I cannot stop freezing meals and paying bills and cleaning out closets, and I can’t stop thinking of the Swedish concept of death cleaning—preparing for one’s own demise by lessening the workload left to one’s descendants—as I do. I cannot stop myself from obsessively googling, from poring over purpled links I’ve clicked and clicked and clicked every day for weeks already. I cannot stop myself, although even my psychiatrist says I should, from reading about what makes my ovarian cyst suspicious for cancer (rapid growth, septation, solid component with irregular edges) and what mitigates the chance of malignancy (my relatively young age of forty, a lack of vascularity as measured by color Doppler flow). I cannot stop myself from looking up why it can’t be biopsied (it’s like puncturing a water balloon) and my odds of survival if I do have ovarian cancer (terrifyingly low). I cannot be calm about all this; I cannot be tranquil. I cannot wait.
But if “I can’t wait” means “I am eager for it to occur,” that is also true. I truly can’t wait for that bedside moment with my surgeon. At least then I will know. Cancer/not cancer: one will be circled; the other left blank. I am eager for that moment because it is this not knowing that I find so unbearable. This endless wondering that stretches ten days into an interminable age. This impossible waiting.
The Bible uses the word wait, depending on the translation, over one hundred fifty times. Noah is the first biblical figure to wait—he stands on the deck of the ark, after spending hundreds of days in its belly, and waits for the dove to return. “I wait for your salvation, O Lord,” prays Jacob as he places a hand on the heads of each of his twelve sons in turn (Gen. 49:18 ESV). The Israelites cannot wait when God hurries them out of Egypt on the night of the Passover, but Moses has to wait on the mountain for the two stone tablets. After Ehud plunges a sword into the fat of Eglon’s gut, Eglon’s servants assume he is on the chamber pot, and they wait “until they [are] embarrassed” (Judg. 3:25). Judges, kings, and troops lie in wait for battle; Naomi advises Ruth to wait for Boaz; Hannah waits for Samuel and waits again for him to be weaned; Elihu waits to speak to Job; some twenty variously worded times, the psalmist’s soul waits for the Lord. Many other biblical characters also wait, despite the fact that the text does not use that specific word: Sarah waits for a child; Leah waits to be loved; and David waits for the throne. These are the ones of whom the writer of Hebrews says the world was not worthy. They did not receive what was promised, Hebrews says, “since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (11:40 NIV). For our sake, for the sake of the one who was to come, they wait.
John the Baptist’s entire life was shaped around calling his people to wait for the Messiah. As he sits in prison awaiting, though he may not know it yet, the end of his life, he hears of the things Jesus is doing, and he sends his disciples to ask his cousin a question. “Are you the Coming One, or should we wait for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3 ISV). In Christ, has our waiting finally come to an end? Jesus answers obliquely, but a more direct answer to John the Baptist’s question might be found in 2 Corinthians, written a couple of decades after the Baptizer’s untimely end: “All the promises of God are ‘Yes’ in Christ” (1:20 BSB).
Christ is the one the whole world awaited. Yet still, in Christ, we wait.
Of course, the thing I think I am waiting for—certainty—is a mirage. If I have cancer, I will be plunged immediately into more waiting: for tests and plans and treatments and scans and more tests and more plans and more treatments and more scans. If I do not have cancer, I can go back to pretending that my life will last forever—until the next brush with mortality comes along. Will it be a bus or bacteria that finally fells me? Will it come next month or in fifty years?
Stasis is only an illusion. Even the ground beneath our feet spins at a thousand miles an hour. Always, we are speeding, tumbling, hurtling into the future. “Every year without knowing it,” writes the poet W. S. Merwin, “I have passed the day / when the last fires will wave to me.”1 Always, we rush toward our own demise.
At the hinge point of history, the promised one hung on a hill in Palestine and defeated death. Yet even here, at the heart of the resurrection story, there is waiting. He dies on Friday; he lives on Sunday. And on Saturday—endless, impossible, silent Saturday—we wait. His mother waits; his friends wait; perhaps even the angels wait. Eternity pulls up a chair, peers down into the abyss of hell, and waits for a sign that the God-man lives.
As theologian Alan Lewis lay dying of cancer, he completed his book Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. Being “compelled to be a patient, however impatient,” Lewis wrote, had taught him the “necessity and fittingness of waiting.”2 And the lesson was not his alone:
This necessity for patience laid upon God’s creatures, to which the Creator has become astoundingly and willingly subjected, is graphically portrayed in the narrative of Easter Saturday. For that . . . is precisely a day of waiting, a hiatus and a barrier which prevents a knowing, onward rush to victory and joy by interjecting a painful pause, empty of hope and filled instead with death and grief, with memories of failure and betrayal, of abandonment and anguish. And it is across this motionless, unhurried interstice between yesterday and tomorrow . . . that God’s own self is suspended upon Holy Saturday.3
On Good Friday, God subjects himself to death. On Holy Saturday, God teaches himself to wait.
I was talking with my spiritual director last week about my fears. “Cancer just seems like the kind of thing God would do,” I told her.
She must have looked surprised, so I hurried to explain. “I mean . . . for God’s glory,” I said. “You know, God is writing a story with my life, and cancer makes a better story, doesn’t it? Because if I get sick, and I tell everyone how good God is even when I’m sick, then . . .,” I trailed off. It seemed so mercenary. Was I really just a tool in God’s propaganda machine? A character in a prewritten drama? Was God really up in heaven plotting which lightning bolts to throw at me—or to allow Satan to throw at me, or however that worked—in order to make more people believe in God through me? Does God really see me as a means to an end?
I started again. “Maybe,” I tried. “Maybe I need to remember that God loves me right now.”
It was an obvious conclusion, a Sunday school answer—Jesus loves me, this I know—but it felt radical and fresh. What if God loves me right now? What if God, the immortal, invisible God only wise, who exists outside time and knows the end of every story—what if that God steps into this time, this right-now time, and sits with me and waits?
I’ve found myself drawn, of late, to the story of the fiery furnace in Daniel 3. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stand at the edge of the flames and proclaim their allegiance to the God of Israel. The God we serve is able to deliver us from the blazing furnace, they say. And even if he does not, we will not serve your gods. King Nebuchadnezzar responds by having them tossed right in. Then he leaps to his feet, astonished not so much by the sight of the three striding unharmed through the flames as by the sight of a fourth man walking around in there with them. “And the fourth looks like a son of the gods!” (Dan. 3:25 NIV).
Some theologians speculate that this fourth man in the fire is an appearance of the preincarnate Christ. Like theorizing about how many angels can stand on the head of a pin, I find myself wondering about the mechanics of such a showing. Does Christ enter the temporal world as a baby, grow into his adult body over the next thirty-three years, step back out of time after his death and resurrection, and then use that same human body to enter the world again, hundreds or thousands of years before? Is Jesus a time traveler?
It doesn’t matter how it works, of course. All that matters is that he was there. Jesus Christ can enter time. He entered time in Bethlehem. He entered time in Babylon. He enters time with me.
I stand here on the hearth of a fiery furnace. I do not know whether or not I will be thrown in. But as I wait, I can say with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that the God I serve is able to deliver me. And even if God does not deliver me—God is here.
Sarah L. Sanderson
Sarah L. Sanderson is a writer, speaker, and teacher with an MFA in creative nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University. She lives with her family outside Portland, Oregon. Find more of her work at www.sarahlsanderson.com.