In our world ‘waiting’ seems to be a dirty word, resisted, despised, judged. We have an addiction to things being fast. But there’s a lot of waiting in nature: seeds waiting to germinate, mothers waiting during pregnancy, hibernating bears waiting for spring. There’s also a lot of waiting in the bible: Noah and his family waiting for the waters to subside, Sarah waiting for a child, Jacob waiting for Rebecca’s hand, Jonah waiting in the whale, Joseph waiting in prison, Israel waiting 40 years in the desert, Jesus waiting 30 years before he was released into public ministry, the apostles waiting for pentecost. It seems in nature, waiting is often a time of inner total transformation, while there seems to be outward inactivity. In the bible it seems that seasons of waiting for people were the times in which they most deeply encountered who God truly is and grew in their trust of him and in their characters because of that. So if God seems to use waiting powerfully in nature and in the stories of the bible, why do we despise it so much and resist it with all our might?
This is the second post based on Sue Monk Kidd’s book ‘When the heart waits’. You can read the first here. Monk Kidd encourages us that when we feel we are in a season of uncertainty, where things are unresolved and even painful, instead of rushing to fix it, we often need to sit with the unresolved in stillness and wait. Not a passive waiting, but an attentive waiting, seeking to cooperate with what God is doing in the time of waiting. ‘The hidden potential and fullness of life is within me. My part is to wait in creative and expectant ways for it to unfold, attentive to the process.’ God invites us in the Psalms to ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ (Ps 46:10)
Graham Cooke talks about desert times, times when we feel weak and dependent on God. He says most people rush to get out of those ‘desert’ times but that can rob us of the opportunity to know God more deeply, trust him more and robs God of the opportunity to come through for us. In Hosea, God says to his people, “I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her… I will betroth you in faithfulness and you will know the Lord… they will say “You are my God.”‘ (Hosea 2:14, 20, 23). If we stay close to God through those times they can be times of inner transformation and growth in our faith and character.
It seems that without significant times to be still, we “extinguish the possibility of growth and walk backwards”.* It’s a paradox that we find hard to grasp, that we achieve our deepest progress standing still.
Sue Monk Kidd recounts a story that illustrates this point, a story of two caterpillars that I mentioned in the last post. Stripe and Yellow were caterpillars who, before spinning their cocoons, spent all their time climbing up a great column of squirming, pushing caterpillars. ‘The point seemed to be to reach the top. No one knew what was up there. They only hoped that the summit would offer them what they were looking for in life. But their existence was pretty frantic, with lots of rushing and straining. It boiled down to climb or be climbed. Finally disenchanted with crawling up, Stripe and Yellow became still. Soon they were at the bottom of the pile, free to spin the cocoons that would give them wings. To their delight, they found that wings were the only way to get to the top. Thus Stripe and Yellow made their deepest progress standing still.’ Her personal experience was that ‘being still and waiting in one place – going not forward by inward – is the sort of progress that really counts, the sort that gives us wings.’
I was told recently that before a caterpillar spins a chrysalis it sheds its skin and is vulnerable, before the hard shell forms around it. Sometimes going into a season of waiting can feel very vulnerable. We may experience criticism from people who want us to rush to fix the situation. We may be led into a season of waiting by pain or a crisis, by a stripping or loss of something that we depended on for meaning, purpose or significance. Although I strongly believe God does not bring pain or hardship to teach us things (that comes as a part of the broken world we are in, the evil that is present and people’s free choices that can be hurtful) he certainly can and does use ‘stormy’ times to invite us into transformation.
Monk Kidd suggests we can respond to crisis in three ways. We can say it’s God’s will and force ourselves into an outward acceptance, remaining unaffected on a deeper spirit level. Sometimes however there can be deep gnawing doubts about the character of God that we dare not articulate but can push us away from God. People who respond like this are generally after peace of mind and comfort, at least outwardly. Or we reject the crisis, fighting and railing against it until we become cynical and defeated or suffer a loss of faith. People who respond like that may be after justice. However, there is a third way to respond to crisis, which is the way of waiting. That means creating a painfully honest and contemplative connection with the deepest parts of ourselves and with God in the deep centre of our soul. People who choose this way are after wholeness and transformation. This is the way to find the ‘creative moment of epiphany within the crisis. You discover that the stormy experience can be an agent drawing you deeper into the kingdom, separating you from the old consciousness and the clamp of the ego.’ It’s not an easy way but it can lead to genuine transformation. It is the way to ‘come home’, returning to one’s deepest self, the soul, the original imprint of God within. Home to a deep sense of spiritual belonging.
Last year I certainly hit a painful time of uncertainty, where what gave me security and significance seemed to be stripped from me. I felt very weak and vulnerable, in a desert time if you wish. This book, the wisdom of friends and the presence of God with me on the journey enabled me to be patient with myself in the process, engage with my emotions and trust God that it wouldn’t last forever and that he was bringing transformation and growth through it, even if I didn’t see it at the time. But I can certainly see it looking back now.
Monk Kidd asks us, “How do we create the threads that hold us in the painful, uncertain, solitary darkness of waiting – and hold us not only in the waiting but through the waiting?” The next blog post will look at some of the ways she suggests we can wait in a constructive and attentive way.
*Counselor Helen Luke, quoted by Sue Monk Kidd