1 Thessalonians 5:1624; Psalm 126; John 1:68, 1928
At about this point in the Advent season every year, something will often happen that catches me unaware. A visitor will pause on the way out of church and say, “It’s 10 days before Christmas and we didn’t sing a single Christmas carol. Is there a reason you aren’t doing Christmas here?”
Of course that is an understandable sentiment, considering what we hear everywhere in this season. You stand in line at Starbucks listening to a jazzed up version of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” or a crooner belting away on “O Holy Night.” Christmas concerts are happening at schools and churches, and here in this Cathedral we are hosting “The Joy of Christmas” performances by the Cathedral Choral Society. Christmas is everywhere.
And of course our already busy lives have picked up the pace another step, as we make our shopping lists, thinking maybe about more modest gifts in these hard times, we make travel plans, and worry about getting Christmas cards in the mail. Anticipation and hurry are in the air. Will we get it all done?
There’s a hurry to getting to Christmas now. I remember the children in my house for many years asking all through December, “How many days now till Christmas?”
But for that matter, in our culture we want just about everything now. Christmas is only an intense form of the disease of “now-ism.” We want our good times now, we want our problems solved now. Credit cards long ago replaced lay away plans so we could have things now, well before we could afford them. We have e-mail and cell phones and text messaging to ensure instantaneous responses. We don’t want to wait for anything. We’re impatient people.
When I pick up something at CVS I study carefully which checkout line will be the shortest. And somehow I always end up behind someone who decides to write a check that calls for a manager’s authorization, or someone else who has decided to use up this month’s accumulation of small change to pay, or someone who wants to chat while the checkout clerk changes the cash register paper tape, and I stand there thinking of the two or three minutes of my life that have been totally, irrevocably wasted. Impatience.
If your mind has ever blanked for a second or two after a stoplight turns green, you have heard a chorus of horns blasting at you to get going. Impatience.
Phillips Brooks, the great 19th century preacher at Trinity Church in Boston, was known for his calm manner, but it is reported that there were times when he would be agitated and irritable. There’s a story that one day a friend saws him pacing the floor like a caged lion, and someone asked him, “What’s the trouble, Mr. Brooks?” “The trouble is that I’m in a hurry, but God isn’t!” he replied.
Speaking of impatience, every Advent season we have to deal with John the Baptist. And it’s frustrating. We’re ready for the main attraction, for the child to be born. But instead, for two Sundays, we have to wait. “Who are you?” people demand. “I am not the Messiah,” John says. “Well, what then, are you Elijah?” they insist. “I am not,” he replies.” Well, who are you?”
And John answers that the one who is coming after him is so great he would not even be worthy to tie his shoelaces. But that’s all he says. He doesn’t seem to know the details. He only knows that God is coming, and light will shine in the darkness. Beyond that everyone just has to be patient.
But patience is hard. Most of us are taught to be achievers, doers, accomplishers. We make our lists and tick things off. We have business plans, personal goals, and high expectations. At the end of the year we want to look back at our accomplishments. We press on impatiently.
And all of that makes it hard to deal with parts of our lives that aren’t working according to plan. Someone has a serious car accident and all of a sudden goes from being independent and in charge to being dependent, someone who has to be looked after. Or you watch a parent who has aged well into a phase of dependency, no longer able to accomplish or achieve much.
These troubled economic times have created a widespread sense of worry and powerlessness. We can’t stop what these problems are doing to bank accounts, home mortgages, jobs, to schools and churches, non-profits. We want to know how long this is going to go on—another 6 months, or 12, or 24, or more?
It’s hard to deal with the fact that we can’t control our world and our lives. Impatience arises from the fantasy that I’m in charge, I’m the lord of my universe, that everything that is broken should be fixable, any illness I have should be curable, and quickly, any economic problem ought to be resolved in a timely manner.
But then intractable things hit, things that aren’t easily fixed and don’t go away, and we discover that we are part of a world that doesn’t always respond to our wants and needs. Patience arises out of the awareness that this big, complex, unmanageable world is also God’s world, and that God is working in it, even if that may not be on our schedule. We may be in a hurry, but God may not be.
And patience comes too, with an awareness that hard times and limits have lessons to teach us. And times of dependence in our lives bring their own dignity and value.
My bet is that when most of us think of the impact of Jesus’ ministry, we focus on his active years of teaching, preaching and healing. But we Christians believe the whole story matters. Think of Christmas. Mary and Joseph didn’t develop a business plan for having a Messiah. It wasn’t on their list of goals for the year. Mary and Joseph were a young couple in a backwater part of the Roman Empire, making a journey to Joseph’s home in Bethlehem to pay his taxes, and there Christ is born. They didn’t know what to make of what was happening to them, and none of it was easy. But they were patient, and attentive. They trusted that God was doing something in their world and in their lives that they could not imagine.
Suffering, disappointment, bad economies, lost jobs—all these are part of our lives. We all will have times of dependence, of being patients, of having to be patient. But those are times with a dignity and even a beauty all their own.
To be a Christian is to believe that our lives are not our own, and that the worth of our lives is not measured on our resumes. It is to believe that suffering and disappointment come as opportunities to grow and to love and to receive love, and that God is working through all these events.
I remember a wise consultant leading a staff retreat some years ago saying that she was not very good at telling time. She said she had learned that things have their own pace, their own timing — people do, and so do groups, institutions. Things are taking shape in their own way, with their own rhythm. “And often,” she said, “I can’t tell whether this is the beginning of something that needs to emerge, or it is late in something and it is time for it to end. But I know I need to get a feel for the timing.” That’s patience.
The work of parents is like that. It is so easy to get impatient, to take matters in our own hands, to try to work everything out ourselves. But often our children need our patience, our standing back and giving them room to work things out for themselves. That is the work of leaders, of teachers, of doctors, of therapists, of all of us — to be able to make room for things to emerge.
And our larger public life calls for patience. I remember several years ago when former President Carter had been sent to negotiate with North Korea, former UN Ambassador Andrew Young told an interviewer, “This is the sort of situation which you can afford to talk to death. We ought to be willing to take all the time in the world with this one. We must be patient.” Our leaders need that kind of patience.
Years ago, not long before he was murdered, Archbishop Oscar Romero offered words of encouragement to his companions in the struggle for justice in San Salvador.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work….
We plant seeds that will one day grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capability.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
That enables us to do something, and to do it well….
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
Between the master builder and the worker.
Those are words of patience. Of course patience alone can’t be our only guide. Sometimes we should be impatient—impatient when we see injustices that should be righted. At a conference at Georgetown University this week focusing on stopping the terrible devastation of malaria in Africa, you could feel the impatience in the room. We have the resources, we know what to do, and millions are dying, they said. We have to act. But even that impatience is meant to flow out of a patient discernment of God’s timing, and even that commitment to impatience will require patient persistence over the long haul.
“Be patient.” That is the call of this Advent season. It’s hard for all of us who can’t wait to tear into the Christmas presents, and can’t wait to check off everything on our to-do lists. Advent says wait, let the incompleteness, the emptiness inside us have its way with us with us.
Let me close with some words of wise counsel written by the poet Rainer Marie Rilke to a young poet who was anxious to get on with his writing and his life.
I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience
with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the
questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a
very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could
not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And
the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then,
someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it,
live your way into the answer.
There is a great deal that is unresolved in our hearts now days—with a shaky, world shifting by the day. But we can be patient. God is at work even when we can’t see anything. Live the questions, discover the gift of dependence, let your blood pressure drop a little. Christ is coming, in this season, and in all the months and years ahead.