Saturday, May 6, 2017

Patience is a Virtue

You may be heading into Lent not having had an epiphany - that is, you're not sure how God is working in your life. Don't panic. Jesus' inner circle of friends didn't understand right away either. Like the disciples, you may need to work these things out with Jesus in your prayer. Ask Jesus to shed some light in your life, to transfigure it...and then be patient. (Brother Jim Woodrum, SSJE)
Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you that patience is not a virtue that I yet possess. My two sons say that it's a toss-up between my brother and me as to which of us is the least patient person they know. In restaurants, when the wait for a table is more than a few seconds, I start to twitch.

I come by this naturally; my mother is perhaps the third least patient person on the planet and my dad was not far behind. We move quickly through the world. I've tried to work on this in my daily life - to stop and smell the roses and to pay attention to the present moment and to cut others more slack. And to cut myself some slack. Mostly, however, this is a thorn in my side that has not been lifted. Like all of us, I'm a work in progress.

But that's my personal life. Vocationally, my experience in ministry has convinced me that patience is in fact a virtue and I've made some headway there which may be less obvious to others. But I don't think I'm deceiving myself. I've made the prayer once attributed to Oscar Romero, about taking the long view my own. We plant seeds. We water seeds others have planted. We tend the garden. We cannot do everything. Therefore we try to do something. Always with God's help.

My boss, Bishop Doug Fisher, likes to tell new clergy in our diocese that the danger for new clergy is that they will overestimate what they can accomplish in the first year of a new ministry and underestimate what they can do over the course of three years. I tell them pretty much the same thing when I insist that ministry is a marathon, not a sprint. We are both reminding them (and ourselves!) that we need to pace ourselves. I know how hard this is when we feel a sense of urgency, but the practice of ministry for nearly three decades now has taught me that moving too fast initially will in fact slow things down in the long run.

Patience does not mean not acting at all. But it does require that we relinquish control. I am also very aware of the shadow that privilege casts on this, and every year on Martin Luther King Day I re-read his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in which he directly addresses the liberal white Protestant clergy who wanted him to wait. I hear this. But patience is not the same as being conflict averse, which I think was the real problem King was addressing in those liberal white clergy. They were not so much asking that people be "patient" as they were thinking (naively) that the day would one day come, without active resistance, when people would wake up and be reasonable. That is not patience, though.

Patience means we endure. It means we keep at it and we do not let discouragement keep us from being courageous and hopeful. Patience means that we do not lose heart.

I recently finished reading Alan Kreider's The Patient Ferment Of The Early Church, in which he argues in a compelling way that one of the key virtues in the first four centuries of the Church's history, before the conversion of Constantine, was patience. The Church took the long view.  They didn't lose heart. Rome hadn't been built in a day; it didn't fall apart over night either.

The book actually outlines four things the early Church did well, clearly things that Kreider would like to see a post-Constantinian Church improve upon. They are:
(1) patience;
(2) habitas, by which he means something like "holy habits" or what he calls "reflexive bodily behavior;"
(3) worship and cathechesis, i.e. forming disciples; and
(4) ferment. 
In my next post I want to explore this notion of ferment, which I find as important as patience and at least as interesting. Obviously the second and third commitments matter too, but I think those are more obvious and probably there is broader consensus on these, even if we don't usually do them as well as we could.

Just a few more thoughts here, on patience: Kreider says that as the Roman Empire declined, the world felt "out of control." That resonates with my experience of the twenty-first century which also feels like some things are coming apart at the seems. In such a socio-political-cultural context, it's very tempting to react with anxiety, and to try to be totally "in control." Krieder quotes Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage in the middle of the third century, who offered pastoral advice to his faith communities about patientia as a visibly distinctive way that Christians show an impatient world what it means to put our full trust God. He wrote De bono patientiae (On the Good of Patience) as a way of making this theological point.

Kreider also quotes other Church fathers, including Justin, who said that patience has an attractional value: people want to know what it is that makes those Christians so "steady" in a crazy world. And Origen wrote that patient believers embody trust in God that draws others to the love of God in Jesus.

As I said, while I am a person who struggles a great deal with patience in my daily life, But I am convinced in my vocational life that in a world that demands easy and instant answers and drive-through meals, that slow and steady and complex is needed now more than ever, We can learn something from these early church writers and so I commend Kreider's book to you. And I am wondering in my own work with congregations how I might help to support and cultivate lay and ordained leaders who are intentionally more patient.

As soon as I write these words I am aware that it can take months and months for vestries to decide to change a light bulb or what color to paint the choir room. People lose faith when nothing is happening in the Church and in too many parts of the Church, nothing is happening. This is why my next post is as important as this one and has to be held in tension (as it is in Kreider's book.) We can't only be patient; we need to be a fermenting agent. Like yeast. We need to help make things bubble up and be transformed. Our patience is the patience requires to wait for bread to rise, or wort to become beer.

So as I said above, we must not confuse patience with conflict avoidance or passivity. We need to press on. But I am  remembering a story that I shared here once before and I'll share again. In the pilgrimage I took last year to Alabama to remember the life and witness of Jonathan Daniels, I sat next to an octogenarian who had, fifty years earlier, been a vestry member at an Episcopal Church in Selma. He was trying to get the vestry to vote to integrate the congregation racially and month after month he kept making this motion and bringing it to a vote. Initially he lost like 14-1, and then a month later, 13-2. This went on and on. Month after month. But he, nevertheless, persisted. Until he eventually convinced a majority of that vestry to act, to do justice.

That required incredible patience on his part and I can only assume on the part of the rector of that congregation as well. There was a lot of fermentation going on both inside and outside of that congregation as the Civil Rights Movement unfolded. I'm sure he was tempted to lose heart and maybe his rector was getting some pressure to find a way to remove him from that vestry. Sometimes the role of the ordained is to simply help to protect space for the prophets among us. In any case, patience during fermentation is a learnable skill, I think. I have seen far too many clergy and lay persons give up on the Church because it doesn't all happen fast enough. Trust me (and scroll up!) - it doesn't usually happen fast enough for me either! And unfortunately, too often we are focused on the wrong things.

But that's a different post. When we are focused on the right things - on doing justice and loving kindness and mercy- when we are doing battle against the powers and principalities of this world and keeping our eyes on the prize, we cannot expect quick results. It just doesn't work like that. We have to take the long view. It's a marathon, not a sprint. We need to give things enough time to bubble up. And so we press on. We persist. We do not lose heart.

No comments:

Post a Comment