The Witness of Waiting: Being still in the midst of crisis
The culture that created fast food and two-day shipping is not emotionally prepared for a quarantine. The American way thrives on immediacy and access – markets capitalize on it, social media runs on it, and our restless selves feed on it. But COVID-19 isn’t going away immediately, and social distancing is cutting many of us off from immediate access to the things we care about. The last thing we want, or are ready to receive, is a long wait. But that’s more or less what we’re getting.
Granted, not all aspects of immediacy culture are bad, per se. Quicker technology makes for better medical care, for instance, and a Netflix night can be a balm to the weary soul. But more often than not being trained up in immediacy fashions us into demanders and consumers rather than patient receivers. And as much as we might demand an alternative, the prospect of spending the coming weeks, perhaps months, under the pallor of coronavirus is before us, and all we can do is wait to see what happens.
And we’re not just waiting for when we can safely eat out again or, perhaps more urgently for some, when our kids can go back to school again. We’re waiting for when our nation has COVID-19 under control, when sufficient measures are in place and everything can start returning to normal. We’re waiting on news that society itself and our way of life will be okay.
This is, at least in part, the fixation of the current news cycle, attempts at forecasting when we’ll receive the good news that this is all over. In the past week I’ve heard a dozen or more predictions on how long until we have a handle on this outbreak and those stuck in isolation can finally be out and about. We all wanted this to be over days ago, so much of what we’re thinking about is when that will actually happen. We’d love to skip to the end, or at least know when it will be here. The idea of an interminable wait sounds remarkably miserable.
But how we bear up under this long wait is actually an opportunity for the Church to present something better to the watching world. Christians are, at least in theory, primed for patient waiting. The world had to wait for thousands and thousands of years, through all manner of trial and turmoil, until the “fullness of time” was reached and a savior came (Gal. 4:4). Since then we’ve spent the intervening 2000+ years waiting for him to return. We live the whole of our earthly lives waiting to gain the inheritance of eternal life (Eph. 1:14) and actually set our eyes on Jesus, the object of our hope (1 Cor. 13:12). Along the way we wait painstakingly, through suffering and temptation, occasional success and frequent error, as the Lord makes us more like himself one step at a time (2 Cor. 3:18). The world around us might condition us with a demanding impatience, but if anything our faith conditions us to wait with lifelong patience.
More than that, our patience comes with dauntless hope. No desolation, be it viral, economic, or social, can rob us of a hope that is both eternal and temporal, eternal in that one day Jesus will rid the world of every desolation, temporal in that right now, in this desolation, Jesus is still seated on the throne, still coming back for us, and still moving us one step at a time into the image of his glory. The news might say our situation is out of control, but we know otherwise. This hope-filled patience, not disinterest or foolhardiness or unconcern but patience, can be a gift to the world right now.
Over the past week I’ve struggled with trying to find hopeful words that don’t sound like platitudes. “God’s got a plan, it’ll all turn out fine,” is technically true, but not terribly reassuring. I think my empty words revealed my tendency to do exactly what the news cycle has been doing, trying to skip to the end and think only about when this will be over. And what I don’t want to do for the foreseeable future is spend every day worried about when that will eventually happen. “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Mat. 6:34b)
What I lacked was any real language to describe how we can wait patiently and actually be awake to the situation around us. But as I’ve sat with it (and after having a virtual session with my therapist) I think God has something formative in this time for each of us individually, something that will help us actually thrive instead of just survive. On some small level God might be uprooting your preference for immediacy, need for control, or fears around security. If you’re now home around your family 24/7 he could be refining your relationships and presenting you with opportunities for growth. He might be calling you to lay down your productivity idols while you can’t work your normal pace, set aside your need for financial security while the market is in free fall, or even trade an earthly hope of health for a heavenly one of life with Christ. What we know is that God never stops working in us (Phil. 1:6), and if he can bring life out of a grave he can make something good within us during this long wait.
He also might be calling you to lift your eyes above your own situation to that of the world around us. Outside our little microcosms we know that God is never absent from the world; all things are held together in Christ (Col. 1:17), so he provides a constant sustaining force to the cosmos. Things can never devolve into utter chaos as long as this holds true. So God is also doing something formative within the world, however mysterious and veiled to our eyes, and we can be a part of this formation.
If you’re like me and holed up at home I think the best place to start is by not sticking our heads in the sand. Julian of Norwich once heard in a vision, “And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It’s one thing to say that while covering your ears, hiding out at home, or just wishing this crisis to be over. This is like the platitudes I mentioned earlier. It’s another thing entirely, arguably a more incarnational thing, to be present to the suffering around us however we can and still able to say, “And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
We could wait this out by distracting ourselves with work or Netflix or whatever else (confession, my wife and I bought the only puzzle on Amazon we could find with two-day shipping). Or we could actually keep up with the situation, get in contact with those immediately around us, and pray daily for our world and its leaders. There are many great ideas out there for how we can help both locally and globally while we’re social distancing. We’re collecting local needs at Vintage on our serve site here. I also think this is a solid argument for not abstaining from watching the news right now. As long as you’re able to stay informed without succumbing to anxiety, do so, if only so you can look this crisis right in the eye and say within your soul, “And all shall be well.”
Each day that COVID-19 stays unabated the Church and all her members have an opportunity to be in the chaos, aware of it and abreast to the situation but without panicking and without placing our hope in any human institution that will, ultimately, fail us. We can show the world what it means to wait well, not withering away in isolation but being nourished with a hope that never fails, not whiling away our time but “making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” (Eph. 5:16) This is, I think, a more Biblical assessment of suffering, asking, “What can this produce in me and how can I be a blessing to others?” James tells us enduring suffering yields steadfastness (Jas. 1:3), Paul praised Jesus that his imprisonment helped him proclaim the gospel (Phi. 1:12), and Peter called us to endure suffering because we follow a savior who suffered for others (1 Pet. 2:18-25). Should we pray and act so that COVID-19 is eradicated as soon as possible? Yes, fervently. But until that time we need to ask how we can be present for the world, watching and waiting with boundless hope.