I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than the watchmen wait for the morning.
Psalm 130: 5,6
The grocery store where I do much of our shopping has a policy to keep their check out lines no longer than three customers at a time. As soon as any of the lines get longer than this, they call for another checker.
I appreciate this. I do not like to wait. Who does? We have better things to do. I tend to think of waiting as a waste of time. It is an annoyance. A negative. Something to be avoided.
We tend to forget that waiting can be a thing of beauty. A gift. Even a blessing.
Sometimes we allow ourselves the luxury of waiting to watch a sunset so we can soak in the beauty. Or we give ourselves to prayerful waiting for a loved one to come through surgery. Or to the joyful waiting—for nine miraculous months—while a child forms in the womb. These times of waiting remind us that staying in a place of quiet anticipation does something to us. Something sacred can happen as we wait.
Waiting does not need to be a vacant, passive or negative experience. The meaning of the word is not disengagement. Quite the opposite. Waiting means an active anticipation. To wait is to watch. Like a night watchman waits and watches for the first signs of dawn. Like an expectant mother waits to meet the child she carries.
When we wait in the midst of life’s difficulties, however, we often find ourselves living in anticipation not of blessing, but in anticipation of additional suffering. For this reason, we sometimes find it painful to stay present in times of waiting. We want to go numb. We want to avoid, distract, think of something else, pretend this is not happening or even do what we can to hurry things up.
Sometimes there is no way to hurry things up. Sometimes we just have to wait.
I waited ten days for my biopsy. Then I waited six days for the results. I waited five days after the results to see the surgeon. Then I waited two weeks to have an MRI done. And three days to get those results. And then I waited five weeks for surgery. After surgery I waited two weeks for complete results. And then I waited four more weeks for the second surgery. There were a few events but the experience was mostly about waiting.
I realized two things as I waited. First, each new season of waiting is connected to earlier times of waiting. One of my first experiences of waiting was waiting for biopsy results. That season of waiting ended in hearing bad news—I had breast cancer. Each time I waited for additional results my mind and body prepared for the next shock, the next bad news. This did not lead to hopeful waiting. It lead to feelings of anxiety and a tendency to go numb.
There was a very real possibility that each season of waiting with cancer might lead to more bad news about my condition. I needed to acknowledge that these fears were grounded in reality.
The second thing I saw was that the call to wait in Scripture is often paired with a call to hope in God. Scripture invited me to wait and watch for God to show up. My focus could be on waiting to see how God would provide, help and bless.
In order to stay present in the wilderness of waiting, I needed to remember that I was not only waiting for the next difficult event or the next piece of news, but I was also waiting for the grace and help in which the good news or the bad news would be wrapped.
I had experienced seasons of waiting in the past as I worked toward personal healing from childhood trauma. After the first startling, terrible memory surfaced one New Year’s Eve, I prayed desperately for help and understanding. As I did so, I heard the words, “I will walk with you through this.”
That became the pattern. First came the bad news of new memories and revelations—most often while in prayer. And this was followed by more prayer and waiting for some kind of help or strength or grace to come. And it did. Sometimes quickly. Sometimes slowly. The sun always, eventually rose. Grace and help always came.
These past seasons of waiting in the dark—uncertain and afraid—provided a history I could now draw upon. As I waited, this time with a diagnosis of breast cancer, I found myself wanting to be present in the waiting. I came to see, as I waited day after day, that I was not only waiting for the next event or piece of news. I was not even primarily waiting to see how God would show up at those moments in the future. Something more was happening. I was waiting for God to pour out the grace and strength I needed each day as I waited. I was waiting, watching, anticipating, opening myself up to God’s presence each day that I waited.
Sometimes as I waited, I would picture myself in a desert. The image was of a vast, empty desert at night. It was dark and cold. I sat by a small campfire in this image. I was still and quiet. My ears straining for the smallest sound. My eyes searching the sky and the surrounding spaces for signs of God’s presence. As I waited in this way, every day of waiting became its own gift. Some days I could feel my great thirst for God. Other days I felt joyful anticipation. And from time to time I felt God’s presence so tangibly that my watching for God turned to resting with God.
Something happens to us in this kind of waiting. We are brought to attention. Our hearts and minds and spirits focus on what matters most, on what is most real, on our deepest longings for God.
When we wait as if we are watching for our soul’s true love to appear, we find that the focus of our waiting is not so much about the future as it is about this present moment. This moment we can be right here, right now with our need, with our hunger, with our thirst for the One who is our Home, our Hope, our Help.
In her book When the Heart Waits, Sue Monk Kidd describes the gifts that can come to us in waiting:
The fullness of one’s soul evolves slowly. We’re asked to go within to gestate the newness God is trying to form; we’re asked to collaborate with grace.
That doesn’t mean that grace isn’t a gift. Nor does it mean that the deliberate process of waiting produces grace. But waiting does provide the time and space necessary for grace to happen. Spirit needs a container to pour itself into. Grace needs an arena in which to incarnate. Waiting can be such a place, if we allow it.*
As we wait and watch in anticipation of the One-who-is-with-us to be revealed, a great work takes place within. A deeper container is carved in our souls—a container that will be able to receive more of God’s life, more of God’s love and grace.
It is as if the womb of our soul is enlarged as we wait in times of distress. We can stay present in our times of waiting, as a mother waits in quiet wonder. Waiting in anticipation that grace will meet us, trusting that grace is with us now. Moment by moment, day after day. One moment, one day at a time.
When you don’t know what to do…stay present in times of waiting.
Questions for reflection and discussion
1. What experiences have you had with waiting in times of distress?
2. What anxieties did you feel?
3. What strength and grace did you experience?
*Sue Monk Kidd, When the Heart Waits (San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 1990), 13.