This morning, I walked my dog down to the river before any businesses were open and when we got to our town’s main street, I remembered it was the day of the Fourth of July parade. I knew this not because of signs or any activity but from the countless empty lawn chairs lined up along the curb like seating for ghostly bystanders watching a ghostly parade seen and heard by no one.
When did this happen, I wondered, this waiting by proxy – the use of possessions to stand in for our own presence when waiting for something we want to witness to begin?
For many of the past 25 years, I have spent the Fourth of July in another small town on the other side of the state where my husband’s family has an annual reunion. There, early in the morning on the day of the parade, we would load up several cars with three generations, a few lawn chairs for the elders and blankets for everybody else. We headed to our favorite spot where we’d settle in and sit for several hours waiting for the parade to begin. The children would run up and down the small hill, explore the fountain and chase each other waving small flags, while the adults sipped coffee, reminisced and watched the crowd, sometimes talking to others waiting next to us.
How silent and lifeless, by contrast, were the empty chairs lined up on our main street this morning. What does it mean, I wondered, to wait without being present?
Waiting has long been regarded as a spiritual practice. Celebrated in Christianity in the advent season leading up to Jesus’ birth and in Judaism during Shavuot, with the anticipation of receiving the Torah, the importance of waiting is honored by festivals and practices throughout the year and around the world that teach us faith is a leaning toward the longed-for-but-not-yet. “Faith is a way of waiting,” wrote Christian theologian and writer Frederick Buechner, “- never quite knowing, never quite hearing or seeing, because in the darkness we are all but a little lost.”
In this sense, faithful waiting is a posture of being present to what we cannot see or hear, being present to what we do not know.
But not all waiting is holy. Waiting has also been prophetically and faithfully challenged. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from the Birmingham jail, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
Today, far too many in the U.S. and elsewhere are still waiting for justice – which is why we must work to ensure that this waiting does not mean “never.” Surely, there are countless ways to do this, to actively wait and work for the justice and beloved community that we long for; but I suspect the empty chair on the curb is not one of them. It may be tempting, in the despair of our times, to back out, to stay home or pull away, to do our waiting off-line, to set our chairs down on the finish line of a future election and vow to show up when something better begins to happen. I have done this myself more often than I care to admit. But that is just the kind of waiting that often translates into never.
The empty chairs I saw on the curb this morning reminded me, the waiting we are all called to do now is one that requires more than placeholders. It requires our presence. It demands our attention and a willingness to show up, even and especially when we do not know when the change will come or what exactly it will look like when it does. This is a parade with no set starting time and no single parade marshal to lead the way.
Of course, none of us can show up everywhere our presence is requested, but each and all of us can show up somewhere enough of the time to make a difference. And the more our identity and circumstances align with privilege, the more important it is that we show up, especially when and where those traumatized by oppression find it harder and more painful to be present.
Am I willing? Are you?
This is the waiting known to every nesting bird and every egg it lays – waiting that requires our full and faithful presence, the warmth and attention needed when nurturing something new, unhatched and unseen. Yes, it will take time. But while we wait, we too will be changed by the waiting, in often unexpected and promising ways, becoming something new. As theologian Eleazar Fernandez puts it, “Those who wait in hope are already being grasped by its power as they wait.”
Why delay any longer? The empty chairs – and more than a few opportunities to march in the parade or the protest or the pilgrimage – are waiting to be filled.
What is one new way you will show up and be present in the week ahead, and how might you be changed by doing so? If you want to write about this from a prompt, begin with the words below and follow wherever they lead.
While I’m waiting, I will . . . .