On the Importance of Waiting and Doing Nothing:
A Mid-Advent Reflection
There are so many ways to wait, and things to wait upon, in our lives. This time of year especially we wait in lines so that we can buy stuff for people we (sometimes) can’t wait to see. Then we get in our cars and wait for mall traffic to subside and for red lights to turn green, only to arrive at home and wait the minute and a half it takes to warm up last night’s dinner since we were too busy off doing other things to get home on time. There’s as much waiting and standing around as there is holiday bluster and hustle.
It’s no surprise, then, that when we hear that Advent partly means waiting on the Messiah, it’s easy to lose the thread of what that’s really all about. In our culture, in our time, waiting is passive sport. Some people are better at it than others. Some folks — especially here in the Midwest — strike up conversations about this or that, even if they were perfect strangers a moment before. Still others find that if they complain loud or long enough about having to wait — or just sigh a lot — then others will share in their misery, and that’s generally what happens.
We live in a time when almost all necessary waiting can be filled up with instantly accessible technology. When I pick up my kids from school, almost every parent or guardian is standing around staring at his or her phone. It’s eerily quiet until the bell rings and the playground fills up with the noises of young children.
You have to ask what waiting really is anymore. To me, it seems like non-programmed time that the world I live in tells me I could be using more effectively. But perhaps it should be used — well, more or less ineffectively.
Before he retired, one of my seminary professors, Bill Adams, had a habit of just sitting around on many of the benches scattered about the school. He pointedly did nothing. People would walk up to him and ask him what he was doing. “Nothing,” he would say. “Can I try?” they would ask, and they would sit for a few moments before being overtaken by the anxious enormity of whatever task next lay before them. The majority of supposedly contemplative clergy-in-training could stop long enough to just luxuriate in the power of doing nothing.
It’s a testimony to Bill’s leadership and thoughtfulness that after his retirement he began to build benches, a few of which are on campus. To my knowledge he builds them to this day. Every time I visit the seminary and see a place to sit, I remember him taking up residence and doing nothing. How evocative, easily misunderstood, seemingly anachronistic.
I’m not so naïve as to imagine we can emulate Bill’s very fine example all the time, but I find that when I can stop and do nothing — even and especially when I am in a place where I’m being forced to wait for a minute or two — it evokes a kind of patience I’d temporarily forgotten I possessed. An impatient wait in line becomes a holy moment. My eyes are opened and my heart is more receptive and supple. The inflexibility of my schedule recedes in importance.
I call that God talking. Talking through the lens of a temporary silence that points to a much deeper and ever-present reality.
Having done nothing much those few precious moments, I go on about my business, possessed of a peace that passes understanding, and able to do whatever else needs doing. — Rev. Torey Lightcap from Sioux City, IA