by Jen Crow, Minister of Program Life, First Universalist Church of Minneapolis, Minnesota
Reprinted with permission from Jen Crow
When I mentioned to a friend that I was writing a sermon on waiting as an act of faith, she nearly fell out of her chair laughing. This friend and I, you see, go way back. She knows my struggles, my thoughts, those interior conversations I have with myself when things are good and when things are hard. She knows that when difficult times come, when confusion and fear and pain slide over me, I will be there crying out for an answer, looking for a timeline, wishing to know all the hows and whys and whens of the way things will turn out.
This friend of mine knows that for me to simply be still and wait when the next step is not yet clear, to put down my list of things to do and my lofty, goal-oriented expectations of myself and just sit, if only for five minutes—this discipline of non-action is one of my greatest struggles. And so when my friend finally managed to compose herself after I shared this topic with her, she barely got the words out, asking, “You will be preaching that sermon to yourself, won’t you?” Of course I will.
We live in a culture that resounds with the message: Don’t just stand there, do something—a message of constant movement. We experience a daily barrage of words and expectations: piles of mail; messages on our computer and our phone; advertisers, family, friends, and employers all telling us to be or to do something, sharing their expectations of us as we scramble to write down the never-ending lists of what we need to do. Ours is a harried culture, emphasizing communication, information, and action over reflection; constant movement over stillness.
And so it is that I bring you a counter-cultural message, especially in this season of what can become holiday madness—a message of stillness, of waiting, of trust and hopeful expectation, a message that encourages us instead to consider the phrase that my friend repeats like a mantra. Don’t just do something, she says, stand there.
Don’t just do something, stand there.
Now, I want to assure you that this is not a sermon advocating procrastination. It is not a sermon asking you to hang back when you feel called to act, or suggesting that you abandon your responsibilities. Times and situations exist in our lives, in our church, in our world community, when waiting and patience will not do, when waiting is nothing more than an act of cowardice. What I’m advocating for here is more the place of patience, the place of stillness and silence in a spiritual life, in a life that strives constantly to align actions with deeply held values.
This kind of patience requires wisdom. It asks us to discern which situations in our life and in the world might benefit from patience, which might benefit from action, and which might require an artful combination of the two. What I am suggesting is not to always lean one way or the other, as our particular culture might demand. I am hoping that we might expand our imaginations a bit to cultivate the practice of patience, of stillness, of waiting, so that when those inevitable occasions arise and we feel rushed to fix something, to change something, to DO anything, we might consider, just consider, waiting as an option.
When we actively choose to wait, surrendering to the reality that some things take more time than we’d like, we cannot always know how it will turn out. But in those moments when we choose stillness and patience over frustration, anger, and impatience, there is no doubt in my mind that we are engaging in a counter-cultural act which, I believe, is also a spiritual act.
Standing there in silence with all the rush of our lives swirling around us, waiting and actively doing nothing, we may find ourselves overwhelmed by the chatter within. Or we might just, over time, hear the voice of our soul coming through like a whisper. Parker Palmer describes the soul as something like a wild animal. Shy and easily frightened, the soul can only be heard when we cease stomping around the woods with our flashlights and instead sit quietly at the base of a tree, waiting for it to appear.
The waiting can be awfully uncomfortable, though. Our muscles start to ache; we get cold, and tired of being still. We begin to think that if we just moved to the next tree then the thing we hope for will appear. I agree with the French philosopher, Max Picard, who noted that “Silence is the central place of faith.” It is in silence, often, that we are most uncomfortable, and it is in silence that trust, faith, and our sometimes shy and whispering inner voice might emerge. It is in silence that we might wait with hopeful expectancy, and it is in silence, in those times of waiting, that many of us find ourselves face to face with fear. For in those moments we may be left only with silence, and a perhaps terrifying emptiness.
The emptiness that comes with waiting is a natural, inextricable part of any spiritual life, whether it feels excruciatingly uncomfortable or calming and clarifying. The stories of feeling empty and confused followed by periods of clarity and trust are as old as time. Within the Hebrew tradition we have the Israelites wandering 40 years in the desert, Jonah’s time in the belly of the whale, and Job’s incredible loss and pain. In a more modern context we have Henry David Thoreau’s days of wandering and pondering in the woods of Walden Pond. These periods of emptiness that call for patience and stillness come to almost all of us in different degrees and in different ways.
Deep in the caves of Cologne, in a place where Jews hid during the Nazi Holocaust, these words were found etched into the stone wall: “I believe in the sun even though it is late in rising. I believe in love though it is absent. I believe in God though he is silent….” I believe in the sun even though it is late in rising. I believe in love though it is absent. I believe in God though he is silent.
For Martin Buber, the image of an eclipse is useful in understanding the different phases of our faith journey. When a solar eclipse occurs, we find ourselves bathed in unusual daytime darkness. It appears from our vantage point here on earth that the sun has gone out, and without the aid of science we would have no idea how long this darkness would last, or if it would ever go away. Buber offers this metaphor for our life-long journeys of faith: “An eclipse of the sun is something that occurs between the sun and our eyes,” he explains, “not in the sun itself.”
In times of silence and of doubt, when we experience the darkness of the eclipse, our faith can remain, shifting and changing as we continue to learn and to experience the full range of life.
As Unitarian Universalists, doubt, change and on-going growth play a central role in our spiritual lives. There is more to a lifelong journey of faith than a destination or a particular set of beliefs. That, I believe, is one of the particular gifts of Unitarian Universalism. We are not only permitted, we are actually expected to change over time. Our faith tradition is at ease with the notion that as our lives unfold, as we read and learn and experience different things, our beliefs will change as well.
In this way we are spiritual craftspeople whose life’s work lies in the never-ending journey of aligning our actions with our deepest values. We are people who seek out experiences that cause us to grow. I imagine we won’t have to search too far for those occasions that call for stillness, for waiting, for the opportunity to practice patience.
There are daily moments, large and small, when waiting is the best option: moments when we breathe deeply before responding in conversation, when we consider allowing ourselves to grow in experience and wisdom before taking on a particular task, when we commit to an on-going spiritual practice, when we engage in the sometimes slow process of forgiveness in relationship. These moments of patience allow us to pause, think clearly, be gentle with ourselves, and, perhaps, try again.
Given the culture we live in, such welcoming of emptiness and patience will be no easy task, and it may not come naturally to us.
In this season as winter begins, I invite you to expand your imagination a bit, to consider how you might welcome stillness into your life, and into your faith. How might you search for and welcome emptiness? Could you turn the radio off in your car, sit quietly for five minutes before you pick up the phone or turn on the TV, take the risk of acknowledging that just for now you may not know exactly what you believe? How might you practice stillness, practice patience with yourself and with others? How might you consider quiet as an option in more situations, preparing yourself for those times when the natural rhythm of your spiritual life calls for waiting that might take much, much longer?
As we ease into this practice of patience and waiting, may we grow in trust that just as light and darkness, speech and silence define each other, so do patience and action define one another as well. May we grow in the wisdom of patience, trusting in times of darkness amid the ebb and flow of our lives.