Do any of you enjoy waiting? Anyone? Me neither.
The other day my internet service was even slower than normal. The wheel was spinning and spinning. I tried to contact my service provider through the online chat, which is interesting in and of itself when you are already dealing with internet issues. The person on the chat ended up telling me I needed to call and speak with someone for help with my issue. I then called that number and was on hold for about 15 minutes. The rep then told be I would need to be transferred to a technician to answer my question.
When I got transferred, I got a message that was not a real person and which kept repeating in a loop asking me to indicate why I was calling. And I kept saying why I was calling but the system wouldn’t recognize that I was saying anything. So finally the voice on the other end said I was being disconnected due to no response. And I was screaming NO! I redialed and got a message that I would be in the queue for an hour. I then went back to the chat and asked again for help and explained what I’d been through. The person assured me she would help me. After the niceties, including, who do I have the pleasure of speaking to today, I typed in: are you a real person?
She must deal with a lot of people like me because I suddenly realized that she was doing some therapy-light on me. That’s when I knew that it was really bad. She was typing things like: “I’m sorry you are frustrated. I can sympathize with what you are dealing with.”
Here’s the thing, when I have to wait in situations like that, I get impatient and even angry. And I don’t like my impatient self. I like to think of myself as easy-going and nice and of course spiritually evolved. And when I lose my patience, I’m not particularly nice or courteous or spiritually mature. This is not who I want to be or who I see myself as being.
When I start reflecting on the idea of hope in the waiting, it gives me pause. Waiting on hold on the phone, waiting at the doctor’s office, waiting in the supermarket line, waiting for the traffic light to change, waiting for a test result or waiting for a friend who is always late, or waiting for a video to load on the internet and all you see is that spinning wheel. We spend a lot of our lives waiting for things and that waiting can produce anxiety. We North Americans do not tend to be very good at waiting. The expectation is instant results and speedy service, even if the reality we live with every day is that that doesn’t happen all that often.
A Zen Buddhist story helps us reconsider this hurried nature of so much of our lives.
There was a devotee in the monastery who was well-known for his passion and effort. Day and night he sat in meditation. He barely stopped to eat or sleep so great was his devotion. Over time he grew thin. He became exhausted and weary. The master advised him to slow down and to take care of himself. The devotee rejected this advice.
The master asked him: “Why are you in such a hurry? What is the rush?”
“I am trying to achieve enlightenment,” was the devotee’s response. “There isn’t a moment to waste.”
“How do you know that enlightenment is running up ahead of you so that you must hurry after it?” asked the master. “What if enlightenment is behind you and all you need to do is stand still? What if you are running away from it?”
It can be hard if not impossible to stay where we are. But what if what we are waiting for is waiting for us to stand still for a moment. What if our rush to get somewhere is actually preventing us from being to where we need to be? The Zen master’s advice is to stand still.
Eckhart Tolle says it this way: “When you wash your hands, when you make a cup of coffee, when you're waiting for the elevator – instead of indulging in thinking, these are all opportunities for being there as a still, alert presence.” The psalmist says, “wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.” (Ps. 27:14) Christian theologian Henri Nouwen speaking of waiting for God says, “waiting is a period of learning. The longer we wait, the more we hear about him for whom we are waiting.” And a theologian of a different sort, Jimmy Hendrix, said that “second only to suffering, waiting may be the greatest teacher and trainer in godliness, maturity, and genuine spirituality most of us ever encounter.”
So there’s a lot of wisdom out there to suggest that waiting can be a holy and spiritual practice. Waiting can afford a space of hope and promise. This time of year emphasizes exactly that. In the Christian faith, it is called Advent. Advent is the time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, for the arrival of light and hope in the world. In the Northern Hemisphere, we await the coming of the sun, the return of longer days and shorter nights. And when you say it that way, it sounds pretty good. When you know what you’re waiting for and what you’re waiting for is presumably wonderful, then that sounds pretty good.
Yet advent, the waiting, is marked by tension. Because it is the time between now and the not yet. And the reality is anything can happen. The future is never fully known. There is no certainty about what lies ahead. The unexpected, even the unwanted, can and does sometimes arrive alongside or instead of the expected and wished for.
This season of waiting is a time of holy expectancy, of holy waiting, even if it may not feel that way. Maybe that’s part of the point. These times of waiting have particular gifts to offer us that run counter to some of our normal ways of being and doing and thinking – if we are willing to reimagine and rethink what it means to find hope in waiting.
So what are the gifts and lessons of holy waiting?
For one thing, holy waiting allows us to rest in the moment, to be in the space of the waiting. That’s the time to pause to appreciate the beauty that is right now. Anne Morrow Lindbergh says, “The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach - waiting for a gift from the sea.” Hope in the waiting is openness to what may come, to whatever the sea offers up, a shell, a horseshoe crab, a tuft of seaweed.
This kind of waiting is not the same as being idle. One of our mistakes is thinking of waiting as a passive activity. Standing still can be the hardest thing we can be asked to do. This is a time of preparation characterized by leaning in and becoming more engaged, more attuned, more curious, more interested, more just. Anticipation builds. So too does our endurance and resilience.
Holy waiting is a time to listen to our lives. The listening is a 360 degree process. That entails listening to the inner promptings of our own deepest selves, listening to the divine, and also listening to the wisdom of the community. This listening takes time and can’t be hurried. It doesn’t happen on the clock in ordinary time. Bertrand Russell says, “The world is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”
That listening leads to reflection and discernment – our wits grow sharper. Holy waiting invites us and helps us to identify the right questions to ask of our lives. Waiting can bring deeper awareness. That awareness can include greater self-understanding and greater insight into injustices. It can clarify truth. For example, as I reflect on my impatience about internet service, I also begin to see the ways that I am privileged and how my attitudes toward waiting reflect that privilege. I expect to be treated better than that. Meanwhile, some people have to wait in long lines for food or water, just to have their basic needs met.
In the Bible, Abraham and Sarah longed for a child. Sarah is estimated to have been 90 or 91 years old when Isaac was born. That is a long time to wait. The Jewish people lived in slavery in Egypt for hundreds of years before achieving liberation. That’s a long time to wait. And then they were said to wander in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights before reaching the Promised Land.
Some people have waited a long time for justice. Some people are still waiting. Martin Luther King Jr., assessing the long wait of African Americans in this country, said: “For years now, I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear . . . with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see . . . that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” That kind of waiting has done our nation great harm. There doesn’t seem to be much holy about it at all. Holy waiting is not an excuse for perpetuating suffering or injustice. In fact, holy waiting is a catalyst for growth, beauty, gratitude, action, and justice.
This month, I hope that you will take a little time to consider what holy waiting looks like in your life and in the world. Take time to stand still. Take a deep breath. Reflect. Discern. But don’t be passive. Let your heart and mind and spirit become deeply engaged and fully aware. Notice what gifts the sky or sea or snow or another person or an experience has to offer.
Ask yourself: What am I hoping for in this season of waiting? What am I learning in the moments between now and the not yet?
Amen. Blessed be.