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‘Tarry Awhile’ — the Black Spiritual Tradition of Waiting Expectantly and the Season of Lent

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By Christopher Wadibia, The Conversation

Every year, hundreds of millions of Catholic and Protestant Christians around the world celebrate the season of Lent. For the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, observers devote themselves to fasting, prayer and acts of generous giving.

Lots of people, who might not be observant, also take this time to give something up. In 2023, Country Living ran a list of 32 ideas for what you might want to curtail, from “commenting on social media,” “road rage,” and “ignoring your health” to “speeding,” “snacking,” and “single-use plastic.”

For Lent 2024, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has chosen a new book by British theologian Selina Stone, as his annual recommendation. Entitled Tarry Awhile: Wisdom from Black Spirituality for People of Faith, this selection speaks to the growing salience of Black spirituality globally, especially in regards to Christianity.

By 2050, 40% of the world’s Christians will live in sub-Saharan Africa. Black spirituality will increasingly influence global Christianity as the 21st century continues. The Archbishop’s Lenten book choice cordially redirects religious literary attention to the influence of Black spirituality in Anglican thought.

The most intriguing aspect of this selection, though, is what, for many, will be an infrequently used word in the title. “To tarry” is to linger in anticipation — be that of a person or an occurrence. In a Christian context, it is about waiting on God, expectantly.

“Tarrying gives us an opportunity to rest,” Welby writes in his foreword, “to see the realities of the world more clearly and to imagine more boldly what the world could be.”

Stone, in her introduction, says the practice recognizes “the interdependence of the individual and the community for an encounter with God.” She exhorts her readers – whether tarrying, as a tradition, feels like home to them or is entirely new – to be open, as they wait for the justice and peace so sorely missing from the world.

Tarrying in the Christian tradition

The Bible uses the word “tarry” at least 30 times. In particular, as Stone highlights, it is the word (in the King James version) the Gospel of Matthew uses, when Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane with his disciples. Overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death, he asks his disciples to, “tarry here and watch with me”.

In biblical literature, tarrying refers to an individual or community patiently, longingly waiting in one setting or state for something. This might be a person or an event or an act of spiritual or political liberation.

The concept of tarrying surfaces in the historical development of academic Christian theology. It remains popular among Black Christians, but it is not exclusive to this religious group. In fact, it is not exclusive to religious communities in particular either. It is a term used by philosophers, psychoanalysts and religious leaders alike.

In Black Christian spirituality, the concept of tarrying exists as a familiar, mature spiritual ritual that practically manifests in a variety of ways. After a church service or an event concludes, worshippers might gather near the altar or remain in their seats, ignoring the socializing around them to devote extra time to prayer. A Christian might sit alone in an empty chapel, lost in prayer, conveying their needs and anxieties to God, emboldened by the biblical view that God responds favorably to those who spend time with him.

Like meditating, tarrying prioritizes mindfulness over negligence or indifference. It encourages you to live in a way that gives significance to each given moment.

Within the Pentecostal tradition, specifically, tarrying is seen as a spiritual discipline. It serves to clear the way for God’s presence to manifest in even the most mundane, profane aspects of everyday life. Those who tarry prioritize doing so when the anxieties of everyday life compete for one’s mental, emotional, and physical attention – but fail.

Religiously, tarrying means replacing the attention-seeking anxieties of everyday life with a focus on the spiritual, the social, and the relational. Tarrying functions as an expression of love, devotion and desire. In a world where one’s attention can be diverted more quickly and easily than ever, tarrying is a choice to shun one thing for another.

Culturally, tarrying calls for rejecting the rat-race mentality characteristic of capitalist societies. In many ways, it is antithetical to the modernist assumptions that drive the glorification of secular reason and the worship of production.

In this way, tarrying unambiguously relates to Lent. The Lenten emphasis on fasting, prayer and ideologically driven generosity and charitable giving aligns with tarrying’s emphasis on communal life.

Christians observing Lent give in the expectation that their giving will positively contribute to the life of another. In a world where people are often encouraged to forsake relationships for productivity, perhaps all of us would do well to partake in a little more tarrying in our everyday lives.

Editor’s note: This article was republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Christopher Wadibia, is a Junior Research Fellow in Theology at the University of Oxford

The Conversation

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Faithfully Magazine is a fresh, bold and exciting news and culture publication that covers issues, conversations and events impacting Christian communities of color.


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