Our mom’s labored breaths came slowly, with increasing space between them. In turn, my sister and I spoke words of love into those pauses. Then, after one final, almost imperceptible exhale from her cancer-ridden body, she was gone.
When I found out my mom was dying, my calendar no longer mattered.
At that moment, I noticed the hospice nurse who was in the room with us checking her watch, then making a note of the time on my mom’s chart. What time was it, anyway? For that matter, what year was it? I’d lost track of all sense of days as I’d kept vigil, my mom’s life ebbing away. The nurse’s quiet act reeled me back into the here and now from the place where time seemed to dissolve into eternity.
We are time-bound creatures, often driven by the clock, our planners, and calendars. Though we who follow Jesus speak about eternal life, we tend to use the words without considering what this means for us, other than heaven after we die. Eternity is for later—or, at least, after we finish today’s list of to-dos.
Those everyday tasks and appointments seem urgent until eternity breaks in to our regularly scheduled program. When I found out my mom was dying, my calendar no longer mattered. A hospice social worker explained to me that the world around a patient gradually shrinks until it becomes the size of his or her deathbed. But it is precisely in this place that eternity seems most near for the patient—and for loved ones waiting at the bedside.
Waiting is where eternity can intersect with the seeming urgency of everyday life. We may joke about standing in front of the microwave and yelling “Hurry up!” at that spinning turntable, but we know learning to wait is an essential part of how we function in the world as adults who can control their impulses and demands. We spend part of every day waiting like runners poised in starting blocks for small things like microwave burritos or green lights, barely managing our sense of adrenaline-fueled urgency in response to the irritating waits that pockmark our schedules and plans.
The world around a patient gradually shrinks until it becomes the size of his or her deathbed.
Whole chunks of our lives are given to more substantial kinds of waits: a change in our circumstances, a phone call with test results, or news from afar. Waiting teaches us we’re not in control, and our responses to a challenging wait reveal some hard truths about who we really are. Waiting is meant to shape our character and refine our patience.
As I discovered at my mom’s bedside, waiting can be a bridge between our time-bound lives and eternity. I saw this illustrated powerfully in a piece of writing that came from a student I was tutoring a few years ago. One of his assignments was to retell the Parable of the Prodigal Son, found in Luke 15:11-32, from the father’s point of view. The student described the father’s routine in his younger son’s absence: “Every day I went to the end of the driveway, looked toward the horizon, and waited for my son to come home.”
The image of a father who knows exactly how far he can go in pursuit of his beloved child was more than just a theological abstraction in a high school writing assignment. Like too many parents of my generation, I’ve been standing at the end of the proverbial driveway for a long time, waiting for my own prodigal to come home.
At first, my prayer-soaked wait was impatiently focused on a quick “happily ever after” end to my young adult child’s prodigal story. I clung to the hinge moment for the younger son in the parable—the one where he realized that even the pigs he was feeding had better lives than his: “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger!’” (Luke 15:17).
I’ve been standing at the end of the proverbial driveway for a long time, waiting for my own prodigal to come home.
I ached for that light bulb moment to happen to my beloved child. But as I stood at the end of that driveway for months, then years, it began to dawn on me that I might not live long enough to see if and when my once-lost prodigal came to his senses and chose to return home. My growing impatience for the wait to be over was tied to both my broken heart as a mother and my own time-bound existence as a human being.
The experience of sensing the timelessness of heaven so near to earth in those final hours of my mom’s life helped me understand more clearly that I was not standing in the driveway alone. Jesus was there, waiting with me, waiting for my child to come home to Him. Only He could see beyond the horizon.
Waiting with Him meant surrendering my internal clock and calendar to Him, which is to say, all of my hopes about how my child’s story would unfold in real time. He who is the Alpha and Omega (Revelation 22:13)—who shocked His hearers by uttering an unspeakable name in referring to Himself as the eternal “I am” (John 8:58)—is the one who’s able to pursue a prodigal to the ends of the earth in ways I never could (Luke 15:3-7). And He is also standing at the edge of the driveway with me, waiting and watching.
Over a century ago, scholar Arthur Walwyn Evans penned a definition of waiting that goes miles beyond impatience for a half-thawed burrito: “The word ‘wait’ [defines] the attitude of a soul God-ward. It implies the listening ear, a heart responsive to the wooing of God, a concentration of the spiritual faculties upon heavenly things, the patience of faith ... an eager anticipation and yearning for the revelation of truth and love as it is in the Father.”
Yearning for his father’s perfect love is what turned the prodigal son homeward. And that yearning is intrinsically tied to the kind of present-tense wait that simultaneously connects us to eternity. It doesn’t take a terminal illness or the sorrow over a prodigal to make our heart responsive to the wooing of God. It begins with a willingness to recognize that He is at work in the waiting we experience as time-bound humans, revealing to us “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:18-19). This love is immeasurable. It is eternal in scope.
One small way in which we as a church community can learn how to experience eternity in our waiting comes at this time of year. Advent affords each one and all of us together an opportunity to learn to wait on God. For those of us who like sitcom-quick resolutions to problems, Advent is a season in the historical church year calendar that’s focused on the discipline and discomfort of learning to wait.
Advent not only connects us with the yearning for a Savior but also orients us to the time-and space-busting realities of the Incarnation. The aged Simeon, who greeted Mary and Joseph when they brought eight-day-old Jesus to the temple to dedicate Him, is described as someone who’d been waiting for perhaps his whole life “for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). That singular desire, refined through time, allowed Simeon to see clearly what most around him were missing: The long-awaited Messiah, for whom his people were supposed to be watching, was right there in their midst, cradled in His mother’s arms. Simeon could see eternity clearly from the vantage point at the end of his own “driveway” in the temple.
And lest we think of Advent as a time to memorialize the past waits of our spiritual forebears for Mary’s baby, we who live in the present day are invited during Advent to contemplate our own yearning for the return of Jesus. I’ve discovered that spending a little time meditating on some or all of the book of Revelation—not to attempt to decode possible prophetic timelines but to simply read and meditate on the Eternal One who is coming back soon—is helpful. Reading Revelation in December may seem a bit countercultural in a month that seems focused on the here and now, but hear in the text an invitation to wait and watch in readiness at the end of the driveway for our coming King.
Every wait can reveal to us that eternity intersects our experience of time as we discover we do not wait alone. Our Eternal Savior is there, waiting with us—waiting for us.