By nature, I tend toward a certain amount of impatience. For nine years, I’ve waited impatiently for life and work on the mission to settle into something reasonably predictable with a well-established team and a well-defined mission. For five years I’ve waited impatiently for us to break ground on new housing for the medical staff at the clinic. For well over a year, I’ve been waiting impatiently for COVID to take its leave and return our lives to a semblance of normality, and now I am waiting impatiently for Olive to begin sleeping through the night. At the moment that I write this, I’m just trying to get through the week and then to the mission retreat which will bring a few days of welcomed relief from what has been a very challenging term.
In these trying times, it has been a comfort to know that I am not the only one impatient. The biblical writers are fond of those two words, childlike in their brevity—”How long?” How long will the wicked prevail, how long will the Lord be angry, how long will we continue to suffer, how long will God be silent? But God rejoins with his own divine impatience—how long will you follow after idols, how long will you forsake my commandments, how long will I bear with you?
I want to go further, to contextualise these cries for Nakaale. How long will people just come to church for the material benefits of being associated with the mission? How long will the troublemakers in our community continue to exercise influence? How long will the corrupt local chairman take money meant for the destitute and give it to his family members? How long until we find a trustworthy person to serve in leadership at the clinic? How long will we wait for justice for a mentally disabled church member who was raped?
How long?—the question is in its germ is less a question of time than an attempt to make sense of baffling or impossible circumstances. When a child asks it during a long drive, it is an effort to understand the suffering of the car ride in light of the hope of reaching Disneyland (or at least a cramped hotel room in Kampala). When I ask my children, “How long will you keep putting holes in your mosquito net?”, I am not looking for an end date, but trying to understand how this activity, which inevitably brings not only discipline but the discomfort of malaria, and which offers no discernible benefit or pleasure in its undertaking, can be so continually compelling to my daughters. In that regard, it takes on a sense of lament.
The biblical writers, against the backdrop of God’s promises clearly given, his power displayed in the created order, and his own attestations of his character, look at the wicked prospering, and lament “How Long?” This complaint all but leaps off of the page for verity in our daily lives, and demands a reply. In this, the psalmist and the prophet are more bold than I. They make demands of God that test the boundaries of propriety. And we dare not forget Jacob who bodily wrestled with God to wring a blessing from his hand. I wonder whether I am too timid in my asking, or whether my faith is so weak that it might be concussed when God starts dealing out answers. Isaiah says “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down,” and Malachi rejoins, “but who can endure the day of his coming?” We ask for God to answer our cries of “How long” but ought we not to be afraid of what will happen when he does?
This is why Advent is such a precious time. We are encouraged for a short time to inhabit that state of uncertain longing for God’s reply to our pleading, knowing(!) that come Christmas morning, we are to be witness to that protological answer to our prayers. In the Bethlehem manger lies the down payment on God’s covenant with the world, the surety that he will hear our cries. But the answer is no less baffling than the question. Paradoxically, we behold in the manger not only God’s coming in response to our demand for justice, but God himself incarnate, and yet, mercifully, we live.