The Art of Waiting

Excerpted and adapted from the forthcoming Chasing 70: The Quest to Live Life at the Pace of Christ.

COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that spurned an epidemic, overwhelmed the world for nearly two years and will likely alter how we look at disease and respond to it forever, has left a measurable impact on every single human who breathes air on earth.  In fact, COVID has made us all pause before breathing at all.  But maybe, reaching a point in life where once is forced to wait before proceeding is not such a bad thing after all.

In our immediate reckoning with the virus, the majority of the world’s population was forced to do something that most of us resist at all costs.  We were all made to slow down.  Except for the staggeringly heroic medical personnel who rushed into battle every day, masks stretched across their faces, their hands protected by gloves, nearly every one of the rest of us had no choice but to put our biblical Martha natures to bed for an indefinite period of time and assume the posture of her sister Mary.  Most governments required it.  Staying at home, “sheltering in place”, practicing social distancing became law from Iceland to Israel, Alaska to Argentina, across every continent on the face of the earth.

A year in, depending on who and which statistics you believed, nearly half a million Americans had lost their lives. More than two million worldwide.  Most died alone because allowing loved ones at their bedside was deemed morally and medically irresponsible.  Collectively, the world’s economy suffered its worse fate since, well, since economy was even a concept.  

The Christian community was divided over the source, the reality, and any possible underlying spiritual implications.  Of course, everyone understood the virus originated in a certain geographical region of eastern China.  But was the virus man-made or simply a result of nature’s harsher side.  Was it thrust upon the world by a creative-minded Satan?  Or initiated by a God who wanted to teach us all a lesson and force worldwide repentance.  Like others, as the year 2020 progressed, I heard and read arguments, and supposed evidence, for all the above.  Most of it left me with far more questions than answers. 

Months passed.  COVID intensified the world over.  I personally was forced to cancel multiple planned work trips to the Middle East and Europe.  Like others, I took much of my work onto Zoom.  In the beginning, there were at least some unexpected benefits to working virtually.  I could do so in the presence of my own home and close to my family.  My work budget wasn’t getting hammered by the cost of international plane tickets, as it typically did during a calendar year.  I could make calls in my boxers and flip flops as the weather in suburban Atlanta warmed.  But after a while even those realities began to grow old and lose their novelty. Like the rest of the world, whatever I had complained about pre-COVID seemed to pale in comparison to this new normal.  I wanted that old life back!

Then I got Bart’s email.  Bart was a friend of more than thirty years who had spent twenty-five as a youth minister before becoming over-worked and burned out.  With full buy-in from his wife and two children, he sold everything; house, cars, most possessions, purchased an RV and set out across America to learn how to slow down.  Six months turned into twelve and then sixteen.  When they were done, they returned to their native Georgia unsure of what was next, but blissfully okay with that.  

Then came COVID. 

A short while later, Bart’s email showed up.  It stood out among the three or four dozen that dropped into my inbox that day.  I read it and re-read it and re-read it again.  I forwarded it to a handful of others, something I rarely do.  I cut and pasted it into a document I was preparing for a staff Zoom call.  Like others, I had read so many profound and thought-provoking comments and commentaries on the situation the world was facing and the impact it was having on humanity, but this one struck me differently.  It was all about waiting, something virtually the entire world was being forced to do at the time. 

In the email, Bart mentioned a previous charge his friend Allen Levi had once made when he was sharing with a group of college-age volunteer youth leaders.  Levi had encouraged the group to try living “at the speed of corn”, the idea being, in Bart’s words, that when you plant something and take the time to watch it grow there is an opportunity to be amazed at the slow, intentional handiwork of God.  Like a parent observing the subtle changes in the life of a child or a gardener daily observing the miracle of spring flowers coming into full bloom.  Later, I discovered that Allen’s charge was actually a quote, a Wendell Berry original.  No surprise there.

Further into Bart’s email, while acknowledging the tragedy and suffering so real for so many, Bart suggested that maybe, just maybe, COVID-19 had presented us with an unexpected ray of hope for something far greater to come.  For the day when the virus would be behind us, and we would begin to adapt to the “new-normal” that virtually every media outlet and medical expert were saying lay ahead. A hope wrapped up in an invitation to something wholly and wonderfully fresh, a response to the words of Matthew 11 which Bart seemed to suggest beg for one.   

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

And then Bart commented on a book he was reading by Sue Monk Kidd, best-selling author of The Secret Life of Bees.  The book is titled When the Heart Waits.  So taken by Bart’s short commentary on it, I ordered a copy and read it over the course of the following weeks.  The entire book centers around the idea and the practice of waiting.  Kidd suggests that the theme of waiting runs the length of the scriptures, throughout both the Old and New Testaments.  From Noah waiting for the floodwaters to recede, to Jesus waiting in the garden, to our collective wait for a return of His presence, this concept of waiting has clearly been on God’s mind for quite some time.   Kidd points out that many of these took place during key times of transition, a reality that no doubt resonated with Bart and his family as they waited and wondered what was next.

In the second chapter of her book, Kidd talks about being on retreat at a Benedictine monastery and, upon returning to her room, observing a certain monk where he sat enjoying the shade of a tree. He was sitting alone and still-as monks are prone to do-a ski cap pulled down low over his ears. Remembering the day, Kidd writes:

There was such reverence in his silhouette, such tranquil sturdiness, that I paused to watch.  He was the picture of waiting.  Later I sought him out.  “I saw you today sitting beneath the tree—just sitting there so still.  How is it that you can wait so patiently in the moment?  I can’t seem to get used to the idea of doing nothing.”  He broke into a wonderful grin.  “Well, there’s the problem right there, young lady.  You’ve bought into the cultural myth that when you’re waiting, you’re doing nothing.” Then he took his hands and placed them on my shoulders, peered straight into my eyes and said, “I hope you’ll hear what I’m about to tell you.  I hope you’ll hear it all the way down to your toes.  When you’re waiting, you’re not doing nothing.  You’re doing the most important something there is.  You’re allowing your soul to grow up.  If you can’t be still and wait, you can’t become what God created you to be.” 

Bart’s email went on to invite the reader to take advantage of this time of waiting, however forced, to “grow up our souls.”  And he went on to suggest that waiting is not to be equated with wasting, as many of us are prone to think, and that we should do everything in our power to resist that fallacy.  He and his family had lived this out for a year and half, and if anything, that time seemed prepare them for handling COVID better than most, or at least being less shaken once the new normal set in.

As I dwelled on the words in Bart’s email, it was this contrast of waiting versus wasting that most captivated me.  I began to ask the question: is it possible that in waiting one can actually be tangibly productive?  While body and soul rest, can real fruit be produced?  As the soul soaks in an induced spiritual marinade, can the act of waiting sow fertile soil that will better prepare us for the day to come when all our perceived shackles are broken?  

In her book on the subject, Kidd connects the idea of waiting to the metaphorical imagery of chrysalis. She explores the simple but beautiful journey of caterpillar to butterfly as a way of imagining our own call to productive if passive patience. In the cocoon, Kidd says, God often does his greatest work: 

In many ways,” she writes, “waiting is the missing link in the transformation process…waiting as the passionate and contemplative crucible in which new life and spiritual wholeness can be birthed.”  

In Kidd’s words I heard the echo of Allen’s quote and the charge to move slowly, living life at the speed of corn, allowing the timing needed to move from homely caterpillar to graceful butterfly.  I will fail miserably in trying to recapture fully what Kidd wrote about this process.  Find a copy of her book and go read chapter two and her beautifully written treatise on the process of a waiting heart.  I was stunned to learn that the original publishing year was 1990, more than thirty years before COVID.   Some of the words are so incredibly relevant that the chapters feel like current event essays written over the course of the past few months.  Among others, like these:

For a world that hovers so delicately between beauty and destruction, waiting is something we can’t afford to ignore much longer. 


I thought of the loving father in the fifteenth chapter of Luke, waiting with what must have been heart-breaking patience, day after day, for the return of the prodigal son.  A reminder of how God waits for us with a love immeasurable, and yet does not force us home, even if our cocoon is a place of darkness and shadows and inner wrestling.  Waiting.  Not wasting.  Moving towards something glorious and right even though we battle feeling stuck, paralyzed.  Sheltering in the very place that God has called us to for a certain season of life, even if the catalyst that forced us there appears ungodly, like a pandemic.

In the big picture, perhaps we are all just here waiting. Waiting for what comes next.  For some of us, we imagine an afterlife in which we are forever in the presence of God, separate from the failings of our flesh, made complete and whole by His fully realized grace.  For others, there is only the anticipation of an end to our existence on earth. Either way, we are waiting.  The question then becomes, how will we spend this time?  How will we wait?  Will we do so distracted by thoughts of a future that is not yet upon us, regardless of what we believe? Will we do so running at a pace that is so fast we have no time to think at all?   With no real chance to see the process of metamorphosis completed within us?  Or will we do so like that creature nestled into the cocoon, using our time of waiting for transformation that just might produce in us exactly who The Creator intends us to become.  One thing I feel certain about.  Like that father in Luke 15, he is there waiting.  

My friend Shelley, at the end of a phone conversation we had several months into COVID, put it like this: thinking of walking into the presence of God as we are finally forced to slow down, Shelley imagines Him gently whispering, “I thought I might find you here.  I’ve been here all along, waiting for you.  Come, sit, talk to me about this.”  

May we all take the advice of people like Bart and Allen and Shelley and Sue Monk Kidd.  As we enter yet another new year filled with uncertainty, might we dwell heavily upon that image of God the father scanning the horizon, arms open wide, waiting for us to come home.  Indeed, as Kidd suggests, we may have arrived at a place where we can’t afford not to.