Friday, February 27, 2015

Urgency and Patience

The most profound theological truths are paradoxical truths. Is Jesus human or divine? The answer is yes. Is God three, or one? The answer is yes.

Christian theology in general, and perhaps in a heightened sense the Anglican way of doing Christian theology, insists on both/and rather than either/or. This is not just true when exploring the Trinity or the two natures of Christ. It's true in pastoral ministry as well: when a relationship ends in divorce, there are always (at least) two sides to the story.

It seems that our society has a heightened pressure, however, toward either/or - and an impatience with nuance. This leads to polarities like Fox News and MSNBC where too often there is more heat than light. We no longer even seem to agree on the facts, but if we could, we no longer seem to be aware that the deepest truths require dialogical thinking, conversation, and prayer. Oh yeah, and humility too.

Lately I've been thinking about how this affects the tension between urgency and patience. What happens when we are pushed to either/or, rather than both/and, in this creative tension?

Urgency without patience is sometimes a peculiar sin among the young, and perhaps patience without urgency is more a sin in people my age and older. But there are notable exceptions I've been very aware of recently. When it dawns on us that Selma happened fifty years ago, it is tempting to think in the wake of recent history that "nothing has changed." The fact is (as I see it) much has changed, and not enough has changed. But baby boomers who perhaps expected social justice to be further along by now may be tempted toward a sense of urgency without patience that leads all too quickly to despair.

Urgency without patience is like the bumper sticker that anxiously states "God is coming, look busy!" It's sometimes present in those who rightly see the need for us to do something about climate change but then tell us it's already too late, or it will be if we don't act this very minute. To do what exactly? That gets more complicated...

On the other side, patience without a sense of urgency leads nowhere; it is the very picture of complacency. Since there is nothing new under the sun anyway, we wait, for what we are not sure? There is no vision of the Reign of God that beckons us to keep our eyes on the prize, and to strive for justice and peace among all people. This is sometimes a luxury afforded only to the privileged, and sometimes it looks a lot like denial. It leads to a worldview that may never cry out for justice -  "how long, oh Lord?" and instead insists that "whatever is, is best."

What I want in my own life, and in the Church I love, is a creative, dynamic tension between patience and urgency; a both/and truth that recognizes that there is much that needs to change, and that humans can only bear so much reality at a time. I want a sense of purpose, and a willingness to take the long view. Because real change takes time. It requires strength and courage and hope for the long haul. Decades, not days.

I think of two prayers that I find helpful in trying to find the balance. The first has been on my outgoing mail for a while now, by a Jesuit priest named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It comes from a book called Hearts on Fire, and it's called "Patient Trust."
Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages.We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you;your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on,as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you,and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.
The other is an old Pete Seeger song born out of the civil rights movement. But of course as much as I love Pete Seeger, my favorite version of this comes from Bruce Springsteen's "Seeger Sessions." It goes like this:

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