Serving by Waiting

The pandemic made us wait; let’s embrace it.

The last eighteen months have felt like a series of holding patterns. First, we waited for the curve to flatten, then we waited for lockdown to end. We waited for mask mandates and for the end of mask mandates. We waited for vaccine development, we waited on test results, and we waited for symptoms to pass. We waited in lines at the grocery store and online on the vaccine waitlist and in actual lines for our vaccine. We waited for people to stop fighting (they didn’t). We waited for our stubborn loved ones to stop spreading conspiracy theories (many didn’t). We waited in hospital waiting rooms. We waited for the magic 70% vaccine percentage; we settled for 50%. Once again, we waited for mask mandates. We waited on word from governors and judges and mayors. We’re waiting now — for that cough to quit, for the fever to break, for taste and smell to return. We’ve learned to wait.

We’re still waiting.

And while we’ve waited, we’ve given up or let go of so many things that once formed our lives and our identities. Many of us have lost or quit jobs, we’ve quit or changed schools, we’ve changed or left offices. Our routines have been shattered. Our vacations and parties and ceremonies and shows and nights at the theatre have been cancelled then rescheduled and then cancelled again.

And then, suddenly, our schedules were packed once more. Offices and schools were opened. Every waiting couple tied the knot on the same four June weekends of 2021. In-person meetings are back; full classrooms are back; but full hospitals are, too. We are running and scrambling and working hard. We are getting back to normal but things are not normal. We are twice as busy and stressed as we were last fall, as we try desperately to make up for all that lost time while the Delta variant of Covid-19 continues to sweep through our communities.

No wonder my supervisor looked at me at the end of the day on Friday and, with a weary sigh, issued what was almost an order to enjoy the long weekend. “I think we’ve all earned it,” she said, and I nodded and sighed back, and hurried to answer those last few urgent emails before heading out to Labor Day weekend.

One small source of extra stress for me in this season has been our adoption of new textbooks for two of the classes I teach. In one class that I have taught the same way across three different schools and ten years with only minor variations, we are now taking a totally different approach, and I was not prepared for the extra time and brain power this change would require. But in the midst of all this busyness and stress, this new textbook provided me with the balm I needed in a 350-year-old poem:

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

John Milton was going blind when he wrote this poem. He was in his forties, in the prime of his working life, and now he was losing a capacity central to every scholar and writer: sight. And not just literal sight. I imagine that the poet’s spent light referred to some spiritual and emotional light as well.

I haven’t lost my sight in these eighteen months, but I can relate to Milton’s cry: “doth God exact day labor, light denied?” Now, in September 2021, when we are twice as busy and stressed as last year, when we are called upon to return to normal without the mental or emotional capacity to do so after eighteen months of unprecedented situations, I cry right along with poor Milton, struggling to write through the looming darkness.

But this poem came as a burst of light and hope for me, as my students and I read it this week. “They serve him best” not who “produce the most” or who “keep it all together,” but “who best bear His mild yoke.”

This mild yoke is the yoke Christ speaks of when he writes, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:29-30)

Christ calls us to rest and trust, not to strife and worry. He invites us to release our burdens to Him. We don’t have to be good enough or productive enough. We don’t have to get everything right. We don’t have to prove that we haven’t lost our edge over the last eighteen months. We don’t have to “keep calm and carry on.” We don’t have to be anything more than who we are right now, resting and waiting.

The pandemic has taken so much. And it continues to take even as we strive for normalcy at all costs. But maybe we need to cancel a few things and instead, schedule rest. We need to embrace the waiting as a crucial part of our service to God, to the world and to ourselves, for “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

And at the very least, let’s enjoy our Labor Day.

We’ve all earned it.