There’s this thing that started happening when I was younger. I associate it most clearly with my early teens. This thing happened after I had learned the meaning of a new word especially, it seemed, with words that were fun to say like serendipitous or nuance or naiveté. It would happen when I was absolutely sure that I had never heard the new word before. You see, after I had been introduced to the word it would suddenly start popping up all over the place, and I mean all over the place. I would hear it in conversation, on TV, in stories, on the radio. People whom I was absolutely sure had never used the word before would casually drop it into their speech. The word would appear in ordinary places, places that it had just never been before. Then after it had appeared in about six or seven different locations it would seem to disappear as quickly and wonderfully as it had come, but ready for me to pull it out should I need it in the future. I remember this satisfying sense that there was some kind of cosmic language arts teacher just making sure I really understood what this new word meant before we moved on. It thrilled me as a child. It was this secret thing, just for me I believed. It made me smile and let me think that I was being taken care of by the universe.
As I have grown and let people know about this secret and wonderful thing, I have learned that I am not alone in the experience. It’s been explained to me as being associated with our readiness to learn and with the way our brains integrate new knowledge. But honestly it still delights me that in some sense I still have a cosmic teacher opening my eyes to new things and I get butterflies sometimes when I still catch it happening. It happened recently. It happened with the word “wait” and what it means to wait. Now this is a word the meaning of which I thought I knew and it didn’t necessarily have positive overtones for me. Waiting means being kept from something
else, something better, and something more satisfying. But no, apparently there is more, lots more, for me to learn about what it means to wait.
I started my internship with Craig Rennebohm of Mental Health Chaplaincy last week. Craig journeys with people who are homeless and mentally ill as they find their way from the street to stability. He embarks upon a long process of gentle companionship with those who find themselves shut out of community and from the things they need to be whole. Myself and two other interns from Seattle University get to work with Craig at The Community Lunch in Seattle’s Capitol hill for the next nine months. This program feeds on average between 250 and 350 people every Tuesday and Friday. The Lunch gathers food from local donors and provides a hot meal and a place to be for so many that find themselves without food or shelter or a community that’s ready to show them they are
On my first day with Craig he asked me to go through the line, get some food, find a seat and stay there. Pay attention, he told me, to how you feel compelled to engage those around you and to what you notice in yourself and in others. I was feeling really uneasy and he smiled as he took time to explain that the Spirit is at work in what we notice as we encounter the other. This is not a critical noticing but a waiting and a paying attention to how we are compelled by the other. It involves noticing what’s going on inside of us as much as it does noticing the other. He explained that our senses, all of them - what we feel and taste, what we see and hear and smell have things to teach, particularly about how suffering and how we are called to respond. This is a noticing that can’t be rushed, it involves being present with the other. It involves waiting and paying attention to what’s going on in the here and now.
Afterwards we gathered to debrief and try to make some sense of what this would be like. As I and the other interns wondered how we might be in this work, what we could possibly bring, how we could possibly know what to do, Craig leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head and said, “You are all sensational!” Well thank you, I was thinking, really feeling pretty inadequate, but thank you! But what he meant, he went
on to explain, is that we all have senses. Knowing ourselves and the other through
our senses is part of who we are. Wait, he told us. The spirit that connects you to the other is at work. Notice what you sense. Wait and notice and the person who needs
you will find you. You are called to relate to the other in all your humanity, not as a minister or a social worker or in any other professional role, not as someone sent to save the other. Rather you are called to relate to the other as a human being who at their most
elemental level senses suffering and hope and the need for community in themselves and in the other. If you pay attention you will recognize these things as you wait and you will know how to respond. Someone who nodded to you today, he told us, or made eye contact, will become a companion, but it has to start with one human being waiting for and responding, in the most honest, open and patient way, to themselves and to the
other - to God’s beloved.
Well, my cosmic teacher is having a field day and I realize that the opportunities to wait, to pay attention to what we notice, are everywhere, in all these places I hadn’t seen before.
When it feels like a youth member is trying to explain something, when a conversation feels unfinished, maybe we can wait and notice and pay attention. Maybe we can know
that God is at work and if we take our time, if we are gentle with each other,
wisdom and beauty, a way forward, will appear and ask us to respond.
When you or I feel uncomfortable, like we don’t fit in, that we are too different, maybe we can hold on to the certain knowledge that the Spirit is in us and the Spirit is in those around us. Maybe we can be secure in the idea that we don’t have to fix these differences but that we are asked to find the courage and take time to be ourselves and wait, looking and listening for how God might be at work in our differences bringing forth something new.
When we find ourselves thinking about the next thing we have to do maybe we can wait a minute and be with the person that is in front of us. Maybe we will notice an invitation to
get to know the other, human to human. Maybe we will discover more of who they are and who we are. Maybe we will see God.
When I feel overwhelmed, when you feel that things are piling up, maybe we can just take a seat or take a walk or find a friend and wait….and notice…..and respond.
We are all sensational. The Spirit is at work in what we sense in ourselves and in the other. If we wait and pay attention wisdom and beauty, a way forward, a way
towards wholeness will show up and ask us to respond.
Chuck Sigars is currently an elder at St. Andrew and a newspaper columnist and author.