Despite the fast pace of life in the postmodern world, we still spend huge gobs of time waiting. In a few days, I’ll be arriving at Denver International Airport an hour and a half before my flight time—to wait. When I served as a hospital chaplain, patients used to joke about the playing the game of “hurry up and let’s wait!” It’s par for the course not only for medical appointments; we wait in lines at supermarkets and shopping malls.
But much more difficult is the matter of waiting for big events in life—to get a report on a medical test, to hear back after a job interview, or hardest of all, to wait as someone who’s dying when suffering is intense. Those who serve in hospice ministries become gifts for so many.
Somewhere along life’s way, it’s occurred to me that there are three ways I can wait in the small and huge events. I can wait anxiously, lethargically or expectantly.
- Waiting anxiously. Some of us are afflicted with anxiety disorders and even panic attacks. Worse yet is the do-good religious friend who makes you feel you must not be spiritual of you are anxious. I scribbled “for my ADHD” next to poet Rumi’s lines, “I seem restless, but I am deeply at ease. / Branches tremble; the roots are still.” So even an anxious soul like me can learn to breathe—to deepen the roots. Use a simple breath prayer, “Be still, and know…” or a centering word like “Open…” or “Listen….”
- Waiting lethargically. Sometimes anxiety goes underground and hibernates and morphs into lethargy. I’ll never forget “Mary,” who was recruited off the streets of Chicago to help us young (then!) minister types understand street violence all across the country at the time of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy’s assassinations. Mary would say, “Apathy is frozen rage.” Getting in touch with our “underground” feelings and expressing them in psalm-like prayers in a journal or in music or through gestures can be liberating.
- Waiting expectantly. In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the Psalms are still titled in Latin for the first two words. Psalm 40 begins, Expectans expectavi—literally, “I expected expectantly….” Sadly, English translations almost always read, “I waited patiently for the Lord.” What a difference! To be ready for surprise is the best way to deal with the waiting periods of life. Attending to our breathing with simple breath prayers or centering prayer is the best way to prepare for life’s surprises.
Be expectant without expectations.