Waiting on the World to Change

by Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation

on September 10, 2017

John Mayer’s song Waiting on the World to Change was released in 2006 when he was 29 years old. As we heard, the words convey his dissatisfaction with war and with the leaders that he believes are responsible for our struggles.

Yet, rather than express feelings of anger or a desire to take action, John Mayer’s lyrics seem to suggest something quite different and perhaps not nearly as uplifting: that he feels powerless about changing things.

He writes:

Now we see everything that’s going wrong
with the world and those who lead it.
We just don’t feel we have the means
to rise above and beat it . . .
 
It’s hard to beat the system
when we’re standing at a distance . . .
 
It’s not that we don’t care.
We just know that the fight ain’t fair.
So we keep waiting . . .
waiting on the world to change.

We might say that John Mayer’s feelings of powerlessness and distrust   were his and his alone . . . except that they weren’t.

When this song was released 11 years ago, it became enormously popular . . . and it eventually won a Grammy Award. Among those countless listeners who downloaded the song and drove it to the top of the charts were people who were born between 1980 and 1990, better known as Millennials. And Millennials, as it turns out, are as disillusioned about government and government leaders as John Mayer seems to be.

In a recent article that cited several surveys, Millennials say that they “don’t have much trust in government to do what’s right.” Instead of relying on the government or large institutions to create the change they wish to see in the world, people in their late teens to late 30s are reported to prefer relying on themselves and their peers. The article, which was featured on the website of the nonprofit Philanthropy News Digest, calls Millennials and people like them “everyday changemakers.”

Everyday changemakers. They are the conscientious consumers who care about how their clothes are made and how their food is grown. They sign petitions . . . volunteer for causes . . . stick to their own circles. And they connect with one another about it all on social media.

Facebook, in fact, is how I found out about the Atlanta Women’s March and the rally downtown following the shooting at the Orlando gay nightclub – two events that were organized by Millennials.

Everyday changemakers don’t sound like people who are “Waiting on the World to Change” to me. Instead, they sound like folks who have decided it’s time to step back from the big governments and big institutions – which Baby Boomers like me have tasked with fixing the big problems of the world – and do things on a more nimble, personal scale.

This observation made me think that John Mayer’s lyrics may need a postscript, which also serves as my message to you today. And that’s this: there’s nothing wrong with waiting on the world to change, as long as we don’t get stuck there. Whether or not we decide to get involved in big systems and institutions, while we’re waiting on the big stuff, we can also engage in the smaller, every day, more winnable stuff.

For example, rather than taking on the behemoth petroleum or food industries, like many of you, I’m focusing instead on the personal and the local things I can do to promote more just and sustainable food production and less reliance on fossil fuels.

I can drive an electric or hybrid car. I can purchase energy that is derived from wind power. I can eat more vegetables and less meat. I can buy locally-grown produce. I can support food merchants who seek to engage in fair labor and trade practices. I can show up for rallies and sign petitions. I can talk about my activities and my values on Facebook.

Likewise, instead of taking on the enormous and persistent system of racism and oppression we find in our country, I can do something that still feels hard but perhaps has a more achievable goal.

I can learn about the history of racism and white supremacy in our country, within Unitarian Universalism and at Northwest. I can have respectful and personal conversations with others in small groups. I can examine my own words and actions for microaggressions and insensitivity, with the hope of learning and growing.

No matter what is or isn’t happening out there . . . in the U.S. Congress or at the Georgia General Assembly . . . at ExxonMobil or Monsanto or McDonalds . . . or at the UUA headquarters in Boston . . . no matter what is or isn’t happening, I can do some or all of the personal and simple things I just mentioned.

I can do all of these things and I, too, can become an everyday changemaker while I’m waiting on the world to change.

****

When I was in seminary, I took a course where we read the writings of Simone Weil. Simone Weil was a 20th century French philosopher, teacher, mystic and activist. She advocated for the rights of trade labor unions, including working as an auto factory worker and refusing to eat to show her solidarity with those whose causes she championed.  

In her book Waiting for God, Weil argued that waiting on change – particularly when it involves freedom from suffering or injustice – is a decision to wait on the peace, wisdom and love that comes from a Higher Source. She wrote:

We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them, but by waiting for them. Man cannot discover them by his own power . . . and if he sets out to seek for them, he will find in their place counterfeits of which he will be unable to discern the falsity.”1)Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951), 62

In other words, there is an opportunity to grasp an ultimate truth that slips away when we act with too much human intention. Instead, Simone Weil was convinced that a person should suspend her or his own thoughts in favor of turning one’s whole attention to the Holy. By doing, so, Weil believed that she or he will be open to and will receive the real truth.2)Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951), 62

Weil also blamed erroneous conclusions, inadequate words and poorly executed deeds on being “too active” or having “seized on an idea too hastily” – not unlike the student who is rushing to solve a geometry problem or understand a Latin or Greek text.3)Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951), 62-63

Instead, she argued that there is a special way of waiting that combines both giving attention to a problem and yet waiting for the truth to arrive – a truth that Weil characterized as “a pure image of the unique and eternal.”4)Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951), 62-63

As Unitarian Universalists whose theology ranges from theism to humanism to atheism and paganism, I think that Simone Weil’s thoughts about waiting on change and waiting on the truth is an invitation to reflect with humility on how respond to the call for social justice.

While I may feel passionately about many social justice issues, I’m certain to encounter others who are on the opposite side of that issue . . . and who feel as strongly about their viewpoint as I do about mine. To push hard for certain outcomes can have negative results, including shutting down conversations and destroying what may have been a bridge to new understandings between sides.

While there may come a point when waiting for a deep truth to emerge may foster more harm than good, it’s also possible that the act of restraint is one that we might carefully consider as we weigh thorny issues and desired outcomes. 

As an example, Gail and I wrestled with this dilemma of waiting on change versus acting for change in our personal lives as we decided whether or not to honor our relationship with a public ceremony. In the years leading up to our legal marriage, we had discussed many times the possibility of having a commitment ceremony to recognize the sanctity of our same-sex relationship. But, we both were concerned that our decision might create discord in our relationships with key family members.

Of course, we wanted these persons we loved to see what we believed was the truth about our committed relationship and the relationships of so many other same-sex couples – that they are about love, plain and simple. Yet, each time the subject came up between us, we nervously anticipated a negative reaction from certain family members. And, quite frankly, we couldn’t get over it. Not right then.

And so, we waited. We waited. We waited on our world to change. And, we waited on that real truth to emerge.

After 18 years of waiting – including several years after a number of states and Washington, DC opted to legalize same-sex marriage – we concluded that our truth could no longer be denied. Gail and I were married in 2013. And, as I anticipated, I lost a relationship with a significant family member.

One might argue that we might have waited a little longer for my father to come around. But, we didn’t.

While our decision to get married when we did may have cost me a relationship, waiting to do it when we did had some unexpected blessings. By waiting, Gail and I had time to work through our own uncertainties and insecurities. Ultimately, we each were able to approach our marriage with great clarity and confidence. We identified the group of people who were most supportive of us, and nearly all of them were present for our ceremony.

We thought during those 18 years, we were waiting on the world and our family to change their minds about same-sex unions. What we didn’t fully realize is that we were also waiting on ourselves to shed our fears and move forward.

****

In Glenn’s reflection this morning, he explored not so much whether waiting on change is a good or bad thing but, rather, whether change itself was always a good thing. The personal example he shared about his first marriage and the positive outcome that eventually followed his divorce are reminders that even the most difficult changes have silver linings.

Silver linings may not appear in all instance of change. But perhaps they emerge enough of the time to help us push past our fears about making changes . . . or at least strive to hang in there spiritually and emotionally when life-rocking events descend upon us without our consent.

Regarding the future change that Glenn mentioned – my departure from Northwest in December – please know that if you have sorrow or fears about this change and what it may mean, you’re not alone! However, I believe that this change is filled with silver linings for you and for me, some of which began peeking through the clouds right away.

For example, have you heard that Northwest’s capital campaign, which only officially launched less than four weeks ago, has now surpassed $600,000 . . . and is closing in on its goal of $700,000? This amazing success will surely bring new possibilities to our congregation.

And, have you had a chance to meet our new Director of Religious Education Christina and our new Director of Music Philip? Their enthusiasm and skill are bringing new energy to these ministries and, I believe, a new confidence to our community.

And, have you noticed all the new individuals and families that are exploring Northwest? Their presence among us are bringing us opportunities for deeper reflection on what it means to be welcoming.

You have so much to be proud of! As your minister, I share your joy in these accomplishments. You are a community and Unitarian Universalism is a faith that I love deeply. We’ve been through celebrations and sorrows together, and I believe we’ve also grown together in strength and wisdom. I’m grateful to have experienced these changes with you!

****

As we go from here, may we each reflect deeply on our power and ability to bring change into our lives and our hurting world. May we use the resources of time, community, and wisdom gained through life experiences to guide us on how to approach these opportunities.

May we find the willingness to wait as we can and act when we must – in big and small ways – as we seek personal transformation and the coming of a world where love, peace and understanding prevail.

May it be so. Amen.

References   [ + ]

1, 2. Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951), 62
3, 4. Simone Weil, Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951), 62-63