In the middle of the prison I visit, at the center of the compound, between the housing units, there’s a vast lawn with concrete walkways running through it. The prisoners are not allowed to spend time out there, not allowed to enjoy the grass, the sun, the open space, but they do walk those paths across the lawn to get from their bunks to the dinning hall, the chapel, the library, or to the garment factory where they sow uniforms for the Navy.
At the corners where the sidewalks meet, in the spring there are patches with white and purple phloxes, baptisias, tulips and daffodils, witch hazel and forsythia alight with yellow flowers.
I got to know the gardener, a prisoner, there for over a decade. Over the years he noticed flowing plants sneaking their way through the layers of razor-wire fences, into the compound, and he’d transplant them, making a home for them in the middle of the prison, glimpses of beauty that escape the gloom of concrete and fences and iron gates.
Psalm 27:4, “One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD.” To behold beauty. The beauty of the Lord. This verse comes at the beginning of the Psalm—a desire to be surrounded by beauty, the loveliness of this world, all of what Melissa talked about in her sermon last week.
Psalm 27 ends with a call to wait, and I picture the author as my friend in prison, tending to all the beauty, noticing it, memorizing the yellows and blues of the flowers, remembering all the loveliness as he falls asleep on the metal coils that press through the thin mattress in his cell. There is beauty, and he feasts his mind on those patches of it, but he’s always waiting, undergoing time, waiting for a different world, this one reconfigured, redeemed, changed from glory to glory.
The Psalmist is waiting, and as he waits he scribbles these notes, these prayers, poems—writing as a way of waiting: “Wait for the LORD,” he writes in his last line verse. “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” It’s almost as if the Psalmist gets caught up in the beauty, wanting to have it all, to possess it, to grasp it in his hands and mind, but then realizes that not all the beauty is available to him—he prays his way into patience and perseverance, into the waiting. He says it twice in one verse, the first and last words of the sentence—a command, a reminder to himself and to us: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!”
Abraham knows about waiting. In our passage from Genesis, God promises the moon, and the stars, but tells Abraham that he’ll have to wait, and nothing about the waiting is easy. We get a window into what it’s like, what it feels like for Abraham, in verse 12. “As the sun was going down,” it says, “a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.” There’s panic. Anxious dreams. The uncontrollable subconscious.
Maybe Abraham used the words of the Psalmist to comfort his troubled mind, to ease his thoughts: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” Be strong. Take courage. Rest your heart.
Jesus knows about waiting. He know what it’s like not to get what he wants when he wants it. In our passage from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus looks toward Jerusalem, and cries out with desire, with longing of what he has wanted to do for so long: “How often,” he says, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Luke 13:32).
We usually don’t talk about Jesus as someone who doesn’t get want he wants. We don’t think about what it must have been like for Jesus to live a life of waiting, of having to endure time, to undergo the discipline of patience. But that’s what he does—he learns how to wait, to be where he is, without grasping, without rushing.
He sits on hillside, looking toward Jerusalem, a city full of people he loves, and cries into the wind, “How often have I desired to gather you to me, like a hen holds her chicks close to her.”
This is what God’s love looks like—this Jesus who falls in love with the world, and wants the world to love him back, but refuses to force us to love him back. Noncoercieve love. Love that waits. Patience as love. Gentleness. Giving without taking.
I’ve said before, in a sermon at some point, that it takes a lifetime to learn how to love like God loves. I’m only thirty-six. So, as you can imagine, I’m not very good at this. I have a lot of learning ahead of me, learning how to love, to love this world, this world we share. I have a lot to learn about waiting, about how to be gentle with time, with the way life takes time, the way love takes time—time to grow, time to find its way.
We’re always learning what it means to love what we have, to love who we are, to love this life that God has given us—to recognize it as ours, to accept it as all we have to build from, to build a future for our lives, to cultivate what we can from what we have; to watch for flowers that somehow manage to take root, the vigilance of the gardener in prison who notices the miracles of grace breaking into his life, the surprise of unexpected beauty.
This is our second week of Lent, a season of waiting for Easter, waiting for new life, waiting for a different world, this one reconfigured, redeemed, changed from glory to glory.
For some of us Lent is more like a season of life—a month, a year, a decade—when we endure what we have to because we know something good is coming, even if it’s decades away.
For some of us Lent is how we think about our whole life, all of it, how we just have to get through these years so we can make it to the afterlife, a life with God, to behold the beauty of the Lord, beauty beyond the world we’re stuck with.
As I try to sort out my Lent this week, I keep on returning to a verse from the Psalmist’s poem, a prayer, a hope, a stubborn commitment to notice. This is Psalm 27:13, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.” This is the devotion of vigilance, watchfulness, someone who trusts that there is goodness, even in the waiting, that even in our time of waiting we can be surprised by miracles of beauty—goodness, a world blooming with goodness, people flowering with goodness, your life reaching up to the goodness of God, goodness scattered in corners of sidewalks for those with eyes to see, watchful, vigilant, waiting for the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Behold the beauty of the Lord.