I recently read an article describing the traditional Quaker phrase, “Proceed as way opens.” According to the article, the phrase, “Proceed as way opens” or “As way opens,” is “an encouragement to live with a kind of intentionality and willingness to “be” with a question or decision rather than jump to a rash action out of panic or pressure.” As way opens requires us to check in with ourselves–to consult our hearts and that place of deep knowing that lies at the center of each of us. And it asks that we view the time of waiting and checking in and consulting as something that is itself holy.
Which is NOT at all how I tend to look at this time because honestly, time spent checking in or waiting or consulting my heart or my place of deep wisdom is all pretty touchy-feely for me. I don’t want to sit in my questions in a place of pondering for too long. I want to act. I want to do. I want to fix. I want to draw my sword and storm the steeple and do it all YESTERDAY. I don’t want to be uncomfortable for too long. I don’t want to feel my mind and my stomach churning and turning with questions for days on end. I want to move. I want to decide…even if what I decide isn’t the best decision at least it was a decision! I wonder if you can relate?
This weekend I was mulling over some decisions in my own life, and I decided to try to sit with them instead of diving into some decision feet first. So I did my laundry and hung the clothes out on the line as I pondered…and way did not open. I worked in the garden and read a book on the front porch… and way did not open. I did the dishes and learned to make soap…and way did not open. I went to see the fireworks and swam my 12 lengths of the pool at the Y…and way did not open. I spent time with my dogs, and my spouse, and my parents…and way did not open. With each passing moment I pondered, and I listened, and I watched…and way never opened. And eventually, this attention led me to understand that way was not opening, and the sacred rhythm of my life was not leading me to proceed in this particular direction at this particular time.
In his book, Let Your Life Speak, author and poet, Parker J. Palmer, tells the story of an elder Quaker woman who explained to him that, “An open door and a closed door are the same thing. They both send you in a direction.” But I wonder how many times I have missed a holy message my life was speaking to me because my attentions were all caught up in my discomfort and my fear and my panic of not knowing the way forward. How many times have any of us forced ourselves out of the sacred rhythms of our own lives and into a decision that was out of sync for us personally? How many times have we tried to make something be because we were too impatient or afraid of letting something–or ourselves–just “be” while way opened…or didn’t open…within us or around us? I can’t answer that for you, but for me…more times than I can count.
What I learned over this long weekend is that, when I trust the process, way opens…or it doesn’t. My job isn’t to force something or to make something happen. My job is to listen. To be attentive. To do the simple things that comprise my life and to wait for my life to speak to me. For it is, I think, in my life’s own voice, in my life’s own sacred rhythm, and in my life’s holy ordinariness where I brush up with the Divine.
Learning to proceed as way opens with you,
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.