That phrase is ubiquitous in religious discussions. Its source is easy to find. Look in the Old Testament books of Psalms and Isaiah for juicy examples.
“Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:14) and “Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land. . . .” (Psalm 37:34a) and, my favorite, “[T]hose who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:30)
So. But what does “wait on the Lord” really mean? I have to look at each word in that phrase. What does “wait” mean? I know “on” is a preposition and “the” is an article telling us “here comes a noun.” But what does “Lord” mean? Until I know what “wait” and “Lord” mean, how can I be certain to know what it means to say this often parroted phrase: “wait on the Lord”?
Wait is an old friend of mine, for its origins lie in Old English, in the verb wacian, for “to be awake.” So “wait” really means “to keep watch” and also “to be awake.” It means to stay alert.
But wait. Aren’t there two kinds of waiting?
There is the kind of waiting that my husband, Sean, and I did this morning at Redmond Hospital. It was Sean’s pre-op visit. First we went to the doctor’s office at 9:00 a.m. and paid our hefty bill. Then we went to Redmond Hospital, getting there as instructed at 9:45 a.m. for a 10:15 a.m. appointment. And first the bookkeeper called us in and made sure our account was paid up. Then we went back into the waiting room and waited and waited and waited and waited.
The Cuban of the couple (me) got up after forty-five minutes to very politely ask the receptionist did we miss something, were we in the right place? Just a nudge. She assured me all was well. After waiting thirty more minutes, and knowing I had to pick our son up at noon, I went back to said kind receptionist, who generously got on the phone and called back and said, “Any minute now.”
I reported this news to the British person in the couple, who said, “Any minute? Does that mean a close minute or a far-away minute? It could be ANY minute, right?” So we had a chuckle about that.
Ten minutes later, we heard, “Mr. Butcher,” and we went back, and we did more paperwork and answered more questions. Then we went back out to the waiting room, and we waited for the blood work, and we waited and we waited and we waited.
We were polite to everyone, obviously, but alone and together huddled in that waiting room, we did whisper things like, “Really, this is getting a bit much” and “Come on—I mean, for us to get here at 9:45 for a 10:15 and still be sitting here at 11:15 is ridiculous.”
That is one kind of waiting, the tedious kind, the kind that is interrupting MY/OUR plans and MY/OUR day. Here is another.
When my husband, Sean, and I were first married, he was a lawyer at the third largest law firm in London, Lovell White Durrant, now known as Lovells. Some days, I could not wait for him to walk the twenty-five minutes home to our one-room (not one-bedroom, but ONE ROOM) flat, so I would take off down Mecklenburgh Square, turn right on Doughty Street and walk past the Charles Dickens Museum (I loved that street), turn a slight left onto Roger Street, turn right onto Gray’s Inn, turn left onto High Holborn, and walk until I came to Holborn Viaduct.
Then I would stand discreetly (I hoped!) across the busy street where I could see him emerge from his office building. Of course, this being London, no one noticed me much with all the black taxis and busy business people around. I would have spent my day writing my dissertation and/or doing research in the British Library. It was a great existence. I worked all day long, waiting for the reunion with my new husband in the evenings around 6 p.m.
Now, that is the kind of waiting that I think those Bible verses mean, the joyful kind. I didn’t mope around all day waiting for my husband to get off from work. I was working, too (albeit not very highly paid—alright, not paid at all, except for the Fulbright scholarship). I was waiting to be reunited with my best friend and lover to whom I had made (quite happily) a life-long commitment (which includes hip surgery moments).
The “Lord” part is also interesting. The Old English language is also present in Lord. This word comes from Hlaford, from hlaf and weard, Old English words for “loaf” (or “bread”) and “warden” (or “guardian”). So Lord literally meant “the guardian of the bread,” and bread was the sine qua non of medieval life, as there were no Krogers, just weather and fields and hard work to grow food.
My “Lord” is the “bread” of my life—Christ—without whom I cannot exist, neither literally nor spiritually. He feeds my soul, in all ways. He knows me better than anyone. He knows me intimately.
So when I remember that twenty-nine-year old woman I once was, hopelessly in love with my husband, standing on a busy London sidewalk in all weather—hot sun and later wet snow—staring up at that huge and impressive symbol of European and international commerce and the high-powered legal profession—the Lovell White Durrant office building, waiting happily for my husband to appear, able to pick him out from any crowd by knowing his particular bearing, that tilt of his head, that brown curl, that way he bends, the way he switches his brief case from one hand to the other, I think that that is the kind of “waiting on the Lord” that I want more of in my life.
Lord, make my waiting joyful, giddy even, certain-in-its-intimacy, happy-in-its-mutual-acceptance, and confident-in-its-love-in-you.