Shepherdess: The holding pattern

Like a circling jet waiting to land, sometimes our lives seem to be in a holding pattern. But we can gain courage as we examine God's holding pattern displayed in the lives of Elisabeth and Esther.

Peg Butler has made her home in Adelphi, Maryland, since coming to the United States from the Australasian Division when her husband was elected treasurer of the General Conference at the Dallas session in 1980. This article is adapted from a presentation she gave at a morning worship service for the General Conference office staff.

The many people who travel the airways of the world these days have become familiar with that peculiar, frightening situation just before landing when the plane levels, begins to circle, and seems almost to stop. One feels it cannot possibly stay in the air a moment longer. An atmosphere builds up as one by one books and magazines are put away, talking and chatter dies down, and armrests are tightly gripped. Then the voice of the captain is heard saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, we are in a holding pattern. We will just have to stay up here and circle around a bit until we get word from the control tower to land." Everyone sits back and relaxes; perhaps some begin to chat knowingly about the "holding pattern." That's an interesting phrase, and a significant one. As we think about it, we can see in our lives and in the lives of other Christians these "holding patterns"— God's holding patterns.

The Scriptures give illustrations of those long ago who found themselves in these situations—wonderful stories preserved and recorded to help us understand God's ways of dealing with people, and with us personally. God is always the same. He has promised us that He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Those whom He placed in "holding patterns" for a time came at last to see the wisdom of His leading. We can gain courage from their experiences.

There is, for instance, the story found in the first chapter of Luke. High in the hill country of Judea was the home of Zacharias the priest and his wife, Elisabeth. They were no longer young, but apparently they had enjoyed a happy life together. Only one shadow fell across their saintly lives, and that was that they were childless. They had no son to carry on the family name or the priestly office of the father. But that disappointment belonged to the long-ago past and was, perhaps, almost forgotten as they consoled themselves with the many promises of God's love. Then came the great day when God had predestined the New Testament era to open. Zacharias had left home and gone to Jerusalem to perform his service as a minister in the holy place of the Temple. It was there that the angel Gabriel appeared to the startled and frightened priest, and when he spoke, he said strange things. "Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John" (Luke 1:13). "God has chosen you and Elisabeth," said the angel, "to be the parents of this precious child, the greatest of all the prophets, the forerunner of the Messiah." But Zacharias couldn't believe it. If it had come thirty years before, that would have been wonderful, but not now. It was too late now, and besides the whole idea was quite impossible. Fear turned to doubt, and doubt to disbelief. As the story unfolds, we see dumbness, Zacharias' baby's birth, the loosening of Zacharias' tongue, and the joy and happiness of Elisabeth and her friends.

All those long years filled with prayers and waiting. Yes, even when they had ceased at last from that prayer and turned to other things, all that time the answer had been ready. God had something special, a special answer, for these two dear people. But He was waiting for just the right time for it to be made known to them. He had them in His holding pattern, and He knew He could trust them there.

That holding pattern was necessary because although Zacharias and Elisabeth had been ready for a long time, two other people in God's wonderful plan were not. Zacharias, Elisabeth, and John the Baptist had to wait until a young couple up in Nazareth—Joseph and Mary—were ready to be the parents of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Do you see the beauty of God's holding pattern? Zacharias' prayer was for a son; God's plan was for a forerunner for His Son. As soon as His plan and Zacharias' prayer synchronized, the prayer was answered.

We, too, are held at times in a holding pattern of prayer. We pray long and earnestly, often with pleading and tears, but there is no answer. Does God forget or fail to hear? Of course not. He has heard each prayer, and He will patiently lead us (if we let Him) to the place where His purpose and our prayers come together. Then the joyful, wonderful word will come from the control tower of heaven.

What if the pilot in a plane decided not to wait for word from the control tower? What if he didn't wait in that holding pattern? The result could be disaster. Why? Because the pilot knows only about his plane; the control tower has the whole picture.

We find another illustration in the Old Testament in the book of Esther.

It has been said that the book of Esther is the perfect historical novel. It has all the ingredients—love, hatred, revenge, intrigue, anti-Semitism, ghettos—the lot! But the book of Esther is not a novel; it is God's Holy Word, and it reveals Him behind the scenes patiently planning and caring for His children and bringing to naught the work of evil men.

The story is well known, so we will pick it up where Queen Vashti has disobeyed and displeased King Ahasuerus. That despotic man was now looking for a new wife. His counselors very quickly began to advise the king. They were afraid women's liberation would spread throughout the land!

We tend to think that beauty con tests—Miss U.S.A., Miss World, et cetera—are something peculiar to our modern era. But just read of the one described in the book of Esther. It's all there—the wardrobes, the grooming, the cosmetics, and chaperones, right down to the last detail.

Then Esther, the very beautiful young cousin of Mordecai the Jew, is brought to the palace. We are not sure (and it is useless to conjecture) why she entered this competition. Apparently she was a most reluctant entrant. We know, however, that in spite of her reluctance and because of her overall loveliness, Esther was chosen queen.

Thus lovely young Esther was put in a most undesired position that was alien to her nature. She must often have said to herself, "What am I doing here?" But beyond the lust and tyranny of the king, behind the scheming of the courtiers, was the hand of God, controlling and weaving the pattern of events.

Esther was a Jewess, though she had not revealed this, and had been brought up to worship the God of heaven. Now, through no desire or action of her own, she found herself in a heathen palace, in the midst of unnameable wickedness, at the mercy of an unpredictable tyrant. She must often have wondered why she was brought to such a position.

Then at last, God's holding pattern for her life suddenly becomes clear. There is to be a massacre of her people, the Jews, with all its accompanying horrors. Mordecai sends a message to Esther, "You must intervene with the king on our behalf." Her reaction is understandable: "I can't; I'm out of favor, and the king will kill me if I go in uninvited."

Then come the key words of the whole story "Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:14).

There is Esther's holding pattern. God had placed her in that baffling, unwanted position because He needed her there at a particular time, for a particular purpose, and no one else would do.

Let's leave the story of Esther and come back to today.

Often we find ourselves in places and circumstances quite outside our own control. We didn't plan it, we don't want it, but there we are. For some, this can be extremely frustrating and even lead to a breakdown of faith. But suppose these trying situations are God's holding pat terns? May He not, in His wisdom, have put us precisely where we are for a particular time, for a particular reason? Can we not trust that word will come from the control tower at exactly the right moment for us?

In these days it is inevitable that many undesirable things will break into our lives. Sorrow no doubt will come, or has come, to all of us. Some will experience loneliness, sickness, perhaps delays in answer to prayers; maybe some will be plagued with doubt and questionings. These are like heavy mists that close in about us and seem to separate us from God. But could they, too, be God's holding patterns in our lives? At such times, think of the One in the heavenly control tower; remember that our God is an omnipotent God, One with whom nothing is impossible. He is also an omnipresent God and an omniscient One. But above and beyond this, remember that He is also a heavenly Father of infinite tenderness and love. Never, not even for a moment, does He forget us or forsake us. "Like the stars in the vast circuit of their appointed path, God's purposes know no haste and no delay."—The Desire of Ages, p. 32.

One day, in His perfect timing, He will bring us out of our holding patterns and the answer to all our questionings will come— answers that will be far more abundant and above all that we can ask or even think. The mists will rise, and we will see as God sees.


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Peg Butler has made her home in Adelphi, Maryland, since coming to the United States from the Australasian Division when her husband was elected treasurer of the General Conference at the Dallas session in 1980. This article is adapted from a presentation she gave at a morning worship service for the General Conference office staff.

June 1982

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