“Waiting is essential to the spiritual life. But waiting as a disciple of Jesus is not an empty waiting. It is a waiting with a promise in our hearts that makes already present what we are waiting for.” --Henry Nouwen
“Waiting for God is an active, alert – yes, joyful – waiting. As we wait we remember him for whom we are waiting, and as we remember him we create a community ready to welcome him when he comes.” -- Henri Nouwen
Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest and prolific theological writer who died in 1996. One of the many spiritual life concepts for which he is known is the spirituality of waiting, sometimes called Active Waiting.
Waiting, for those who use the stories of the Gospel as a model for living, should not be a passive, anxiety-ridden activity. It is not a period of stagnation. Rather, for believers, waiting is a time for activity, alertness, and hope-filled joy. Active waiting is a time to continue to cooperate with what God is constantly doing among us while we also prepare for new manifestations of God’s promises to us.
In “A Spirituality of Waiting,” Nouwen offered Luke 1:39-56 as a model for the kind of activity that should be a part of waiting if one is approaching it spiritually. In that passage Mary went to tell her cousin Elizabeth about her pregnancy, but before she could say anything, the Holy Spirit revealed to Elizabeth all that was to happen. Elizabeth expressed gratitude and great joy. Mary responded with an extended prayer of praise and thanksgiving. And then the two waited, together. Active waiting happens in community as we support one another, celebrate, and affirm what has already begun in us. Further, when we approach waiting from a spiritual perspective, we give thanks through prayer for what has already been planted, even though we cannot yet see even the sprouts.
Active waiting is a time of great attentiveness. Waiting becomes spiritual when we stay alert to the word in community. “We need to wait together to keep each other at home spiritually, so that when the word comes it can become flesh in us,” Nouwen asserted. In other words, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” (Luke 12:35). We stay alert by attending to the spiritual disciplines and the means of grace and by searching diligently for the word to be revealed in community.
Active waiting is a time of hope-filled joy. The prophet Simeon was filled with hope and joy as scripture says he was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him” (Luke 2:25b). The prophetess Anna was filled with hope and joy as she “never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:37b). We remain hopeful by believing that God’s ultimate plan for the salvation of creation will be realized.
United Methodists throughout the world were waiting for General Conference 2020, which now is scheduled to be held in 2022. We have an opportunity, a choice, to approach our time of waiting as a spiritual endeavor by engaging in active waiting. We will have to make this choice daily because the open-ended, lack-of-control nature of waiting leads us, in our humanness, to act out of anxiety and fear. But, the Holy Spirit and the grace of God offer to us the desire and ability to choose to make every day a day of active, spiritual waiting.
I have specifically asked some members of this annual conference to join me in publicly declaring our intention to use this next year before General Conference as a spiritual exercise in active waiting. This will allow us to support, encourage, and hold each other accountable to the spiritual disciplines involved in active waiting. We invite you to join us in this spiritual endeavor.
Alyce Weaver Dunn
Andrew C. Harvey