John 1: 6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light…… 19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” 24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” 28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
So, a man walks up to a vending machine, puts in 5 quarters, pushes the button for a Diet Coke, and a sign comes on that says, “Thank you for your selection. Your Diet Coke is now being ordered from a bottling plant in Brazil, and is about to be mixed, bottled and shipped; please come back to claim your selection in seven days.” Would you come back for it next week? I would probably push the coin return button and move on to the next vending machine.
If anyone ever had the patience for that kind of thing, it is quickly disappearing in the digital age, under the influence of computer technology. If it takes more than a nanosecond between when I press a key and something happens on the computer screen, I confess to getting rather huffy. We’re growing so accustomed to ever shorter times between our actions and their rewards and results that I’m glad I don’t own a real boomerang. Should I throw it, by the time it comes back, I’m afraid I’ll have lost patience for its return, have forgotten that I it was coming, and gone on to other things, like texting or going out for a latte. Ow!
By contrast, a Malian proverb says, “A patient person can draw feathers from an egg.” Of all the classic Christian virtues, patience may be the one most in danger of disappearing today. By patience I mean more than a willingness to wait, like children waiting to open their presents on Christmas morning, though it is that. That’s the human perspective on patience. But I’m talking about learning to live, love, labor and pray on God’s sense of time. For as the Bible says, “A thousand years to him are as one day.”
By patience I also mean our willingness to see something through all of life’s inevitable delays, frustrations and complications, and to do so peacefully, lovingly and wisely, and for as long as it takes. For come they will. As another Malian proverb puts it, “Whenever you prepare to go fishing, prepare also to get wet.” Only God can say, “Let there be” anything, and it happens. For the rest of us, life can be like wrestling with jello, trying to finish something and get somewhere with the messy, wiggly realities of life that won’t stay put, take their own sweet time, and are constantly shifting their shapes on us.
Getting to our goals in life is often like trying to drive a car even while we are changing the oil, checking the tires and tightening the belts. Or like a game of Whack-a-Mole, in which every action on our part provokes a complication to pop up by surprise somewhere else. Over time, experience may reduce the number of surprises, but not the complications, so that getting from point A to point B in life can be like a sailboat tacking back and forth against the wind.
If that’s not enough, the various roles we play in life, such as parent, child, spouse, worker, servant and leader, can have their own built-in conflicts, so that sometimes we can only excel at one role at the expense of another. So we prioritize our successes, our failures and our muddling through. And there’s nothing for it but to persist graciously, with humor and humility. For the alternatives are either to give up, or to leave a lot of wreckage in our relationships through impatience, domination and exasperation. A truly patient person understands that how we do anything is at least as important as what we do. Better to do some things slowly, thoughtfully and peacefully, with a lot of love, than to do them quickly, efficiently and destructively, with anxiety and anger.
God, by contrast, can snap his fingers, if he had them, and everything would instantly be according to his will, such is his almighty power. But then we’d either be left out in the cold, or we’d have to be robots and automatons. Instead, God has chosen to work within the messy, crazy and confusing human condition, to accomplish his purposes on our behalf, in spite of our confusion and resistance, or even through our confusion and resistance. Exhibit A of that is God’s choice to take on flesh and dwell among us, the Incarnation of God in the human flesh of Jesus, which we celebrate every Advent and Christmas Season. I think there’s greater power and wonder in that wise, peaceful and respectful way of working in the world, than there would be if God just manipulated everyone and everything like puppets.
But not only does that involve time, it can involve loss and suffering, physical suffering, yes, but also the suffering of mental and emotional perplexity, as we live with surprises, ambiguity and anxiety, with mystery and frustration. Persisting through all these thingsin love, peace and hope, more often than not, to the end, is what I mean by patience. John the Baptist is the supreme biblical poster child for patience through frustration and suffering.
I think he would be surprised to hear me say that, though. Because on one hand God showed him that history was about to turn on its hinge, in his very lifetime, in the person of Jesus the Messiah, right there before him, in the water of baptism. He did not have to wait for that. So, John can be forgiven for practically handing out tickets to God’s victory banquet at the end of the age, next week at the latest.
And yet for most of the ministry of Jesus, John was in prison. For the other part of Jesus’ ministry, John was dead. To his own surprise, I think, John never got to see the fulfillment of all that he announced. In that sense, John is no different from the vast majority of Jesus’ disciples, throughout all time and places who ever yet pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and who die without ever having seen that prayer being completely answered. But still we keep on praying.
How’s that for patience? You know, its getting harder all the time in this culture to focus on something for five minutes. How about if the result and the reward of our efforts don’t come in the next five hours? Or the next five years? How about five decades? How about longer than our own lifetimes? Have we the patience, make that, the courage, to devote ourselves to something that could take more lifetimes than we can count? To make our tiny contribution to something that is infinitely greater than any of us, and our part in it? For that is the true measure of biblical patience: consecrating ourselves to a labor of love that outlasts any one of us, but which is only a blink of an eye for a timeless God.
We could either get disappointed and frustrated by not getting to see all the fruits of our faith, hope and love in our lifetimes, or we could celebrate that we get to do something. Like a pastor friend of mine, who had on his desk a plaque that said, “I will not let the big things I cannot do keep me from doing the little things that I can.” We can also rejoice in that we have been enlisted into the winning side of history, and that with a cast of millions, even billions of awesome people—saints in the making–in a star-studded extravaganza so big and glorious that no single generation, no single century even, can contain the wonderful drama. Its called “the kingdom of God.”
The cast includes stars like Archbishop Oscar Romero, of El Salvador, dead now some thirty years, perhaps the best-known Christian martyr since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, a modern John the Baptist figure. Romero might have remained an unremarkable and eminently forgettable parish priest in El Salvador, had he not been appointed a bishop.
He might have remained an unremarkable and eminently forgettable bishop had he not been appointed, in 1977, archbishop. He might also have remained an unremarkable and eminently forgettable archbishop had not something happened that affected him greatly: the murder of his close friend, Father Rutilio Grande, by death squads linked to the military, the police and the large estate owners. Father Grande’s crime: educating and organizing landless laborers into self-reliance groups, to help lift themselves out of poverty, debt and dependence. In such work you can hear an echo of John the Baptist telling police and soldiers not to extort money from the defenseless, and the tax collectors not to collect more money than what is due.
Before Father Grande’s death, Archbishop Romero pretty much steered away from saying anything about the sin at the source of so many sins in El Salvador at the time: the egregious disparity of wealth and political power between the tiny minority of Salvadorenos who owned the land, the police, the army and the government, and the vast majority who lived at the mercy of this tiny minority, who ate or worked or even lived only when and where and if the top one percent of the country said so. In my contacts with people in the Occupy Wall Street movement, I hear their concerns that we might become that same kind of country, if trends continue. Knowing human nature, I share their concern.
Whenever the weakest of the weak and the most powerful of the powerful came to his confession booth, Father Romero, or Bishop Romero, or Archbishop Romero could talk with them pastorally about the sins of weakness, like alcohol abuse or adultery. But about the sins of power, like sending out death squads to kill uppity peasants, or confiscating what little land the landless peasants had left, those weren’t even on Romero’s radar screen as sins. That was just politics, the way society kept order against the forces of chaos, or the godless Communists.
Until his friend, Father Rutilio, was ambushed and killed. Then Romero began to see and to understand the sins of power, as well as the sins of weakness. Then Romero went all John the Baptist and began telling the military, the police and their patrons that, if they considered themselves Christians, they could no longer torture nor “disappear” people. He began telling the landholders that they owed more to their laborers than just enough beans and rice to keep them working another day. He began to tell his fellow Salvadorenos that if they considered themselves Christian, then they should treat each other in Christlike ways. And he began to paint for them verbal pictures of what a truly Christian El Salvador would look like. It looked like the peaceful kingdom of the Hebrew prophets. It looked like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
And for that, Archbishop Romero, like John the Baptist, was assassinated, shot down in church while he celebrated Mass in 1981. But I don’t think Romero was surprised. For he knew that the labor in which he was involved, helping rich and poor Salvadorenos grow into the likeness of Christ, was a labor of love and faith that would take longer than one life. Because the pain, trauma and terror that had brought El Salvador to a point where a bishop could be killed even while celebrating Mass had taken years, even centuries, to form, at least ever since the Spanish Conquistadors had conquered the Indians of Central America.
In fact, Romero told us how long this labor toward a more Christian El Salvador might take in a poem he wrote, entitled, “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own.” It goes like this:
“It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of
saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession
brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the 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 capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s
grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the
difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not
messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”
To which I add: Like John the Baptist. That’s what biblical patience is about. Can we work and pray patiently for the Kingdom of God, all our lives, until the day we no longer need patience, and you can disregard everything I just said about it?
Advent: the Lord has come; the Lord is coming. Maranatha; Come soon, Lord Jesus. In the meantime, give us John the Baptist and Oscar Romero kind of patience.