In It for the Long Haul
Our biblical texts for today tell us the stories of two men, Moses and Paul, each of whom was God’s servant in the shaping of a faithful people. Moses led the Hebrews through the desert for decades into liberation in the Promised Land. It was indescribably hard work, and at times it almost failed. He endured the people’s derision, stubbornness, misunderstanding, and mutiny. He died before entering that Promised Land but in truth, the people didn’t need him anymore. He had brought them to it, and he had given them the Torah to guide them there and anywhere through the millennia. The apostle Paul, meanwhile, in his letter to the Thessalonians, testifies to the terrible treatment that he had recently received in Philippi. He won’t be dissuaded, though, from committing the whole of his being to the spreading of the Gospel. Despite any awful treatment that he gets, he will continue with his work and he will always do it with integrity. He will never descend to the level of those who are mean. In the face of hate or cruelty, he will speak in love. If the content of the Gospel is demanding or unsettling, so be it - the Gospel of Jesus Christ is those things, if one will truly live with it in the center of their being. He, like Moses, is in it for the long haul. No matter what setbacks will come and no matter how nasty the opposition, he will persevere. Paul, like Moses, also did not live to see the fruition of his work. Historians believe he was killed in Rome, where he had been put in prison. But perhaps his work, too, was done by then. He planted churches around the Mediterranean that have spread throughout the globe, and his letters to those early churches form the theological basis of the global church’s life and witness.
The stories of Moses and Paul have gotten me thinking this week about patience – their patience, in the midst of great challenges in a project of long duration – and our own patience, in whatever are our long and challenging projects. Our projects may feel decidedly not divine – the long slog toward the completion of a Ph.D, the daily granular work over months or years of moving from financial insolvency to a place of positive fiscal stability, putting in unconscionable amounts of time at work to get tenure, or make partner, or get the promotion it takes to be professionally secure. None of this can be done without patience.
And then there are the projects that we do out of deepest love, and they feel holy to us in a humble way. We feel God in them. For some, it is the years of challenging parenting, particularly of a young person who has troubles of some kind. Ah, the patience required! For some it is the long, hard, fearful work of combatting disease or the fight to regain some physical ability after injury or illness. What patience is required! For some, it is the decades- (even centuries-) long work for justice in one’s society: working, serving, striving, suffering terribly. It can’t be done without patience. The stories are pouring out of Libya now, with the death of Kaddafi and the full victory of rebel forces there. Now we learn of the long work of the political opposition, including those who exiled themselves in the face of certain assassination. Now come the details of how violent was the Kaddafi regime – the executions and torture, the rapes, the long imprisonments, the intimidations. How can we not, as a global community, rejoice with those Libyans who have worked and waited patiently and well, as we pray for a future for all Libyans that is democratic, and promotes the flourishing of all.
How essential is patience, is waiting well , to a blessed outcome for any struggle! My thoughts have been returning continually to Nelson Mandela. He spent decades in the anti-apartheid struggle, including 27 straight years in prison. Those happened to be the first 27 years of my life. He was freed in the spring of 1989, and several months later he spoke at an outdoor bandshell in Boston, where I was working for the summer. I felt that I had to hear and see him in person. I was compelled by a source I couldn’t name or describe. It meant arriving at that park at 8:00 a.m. and finding all the grass in front of the bandshell taken already by groups on their blankets. I sat on a bench some distance from the stage for over nine hours before it was time for him to appear. I said a few things to the men sitting on either side of me. As the hours passed, there were thousands of us waiting. My housemates had told me I’d be nuts to do it – they just didn’t understand why I’d spend so many hours so tediously just to hear some old guy speak. I couldn’t explain myself, that I had never known a time when Nelson Mandela wasn’t in prison; that it was unbelievable to me that I could ever see him in person; that his years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, had not broken him – they hadn’t made him vengeful. He had used them to make himself a larger person. He had cultivated in himself the patience with which to identify a larger sense of purpose in day after day of being left to rot. Some years after seeing him that afternoon in Boston, I went to Robben Island, the South African prison where he spent the bulk of his incarceration. I saw what had been his cell. It was in a row of single cells saved for what the government thought were the people most dangerous to their regime. The windows faced on to the courtyard where there stood a large tree. From the branches of that tree the guards would regularly tie prisoners, with rope around their ankles, suspending them head down many feet above the earth. Then they would release the rope, and the prisoner would either die of head injuries or be badly brain damaged for whatever life was left to him. Mandela and others were exposed to this continually – the heartbreaking killings and maimings – to terrify, suppress, and break them. But Mandela emerged more just, more compassionate. He had the patience to accept each horrific day as a step toward his goal of freedom for his country, even – or especially – when it seemed indescribably far away.
Patience. I think that must be easier to cultivate and maintain when we are always holding fast to the incontrovertible purpose and meaning of our struggles. Moses, Paul, and Nelson had that. So have all who have persevered. If we can remember that what we endure, from boredom to silence to agony, is not pointless but necessary critical movement on a journey toward blessing, we can make it there. We have available to us at all times and places - prayer – prayer for patience. We have available to us at all times and places the love and power of God and Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. How blessed are those in any struggle who are able to pray, to believe in the God whose infinite love never does let us go. St. Teresa of Avila wrote, “Let nothing disturb thee; let nothing dismay thee; All things pass; God never changes; Patience attains all that it strives for. They who have God find they lack nothing. God alone suffices.” Perhaps you hear those words and take great comfort in them. You know them to be true. You have experienced the very sufficiency of God in the deep challenges you have faced. Perhaps you know St. Teresa’s words to be true not because you have been so profoundly tested but because it is simply what your faith knows to be true. How wonderful. But let me acknowledge also that there are probably a number of people in this lovely sanctuary who have prayed for patience and felt all alone, who have yearned for some iota of connection to God, some hint of divine notice in the midst of a desert walk, and found nothing. My heartfelt advice to you is to continue to cultivate your ability to be patient. Over millennia, those who have sought out God Almighty have found that our entreaties for some simple sense of God’s presence with us come not on our own timetable but on God’s alone. Continue to pray and to strive for the patience to be patient.
One of our forebears in the quest for patience and wholeness, Tertullian, wrote in the fifth century: “Hope is patience with the lamp lit.” Hope starts in patience. Hope is an exaggerated form of patience. Hope is patience on steroids. Hope has its roots in patience. And so we cultivate our ability to be patient so that we may be capable of hope. We have been assured that our hope for the Kingdom of God will be fulfilled, that great and just and ultimate Reign when God, at last, is All in All. We know that this Reign is not here now. Let us be patient in our waiting. We are in it for the long haul, so let us haul our various loads well, with humility and vigor. When we grow our capacity to be patient, we will find that we have grown in peace – the peace of mind, spirit and heart for which we so yearn. Emerson said, “Adopt the peace of nature; her secret is patience.” With patience comes not complacence, but the ability to stay at peace through the longest haul. Patience sets alight our hope, and these things give us the peace that is our staying power through every challenge, through our waiting, through our journeys in any shadowed valley. May God bless indeed our every effort to learn patience in whatever is our pilgrimage.