The Fruits of the Spirit: Patience
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We often think about patience as meaning putting up with something aversive or unpleasant, usually waiting, but also things like a sibling's annoying overtures, or other exasperations. Often we think of patience as synonymous with tolerance: not complaining, sucking it up, being gracious.
But what about when there are things too pressing to be patient about? What about when justice is on the line? Aren’t there things that we shouldn’t just put up with? And yet, if patience is always a virtue, what does it mean to be patient in times of injustice?
Today is the 56th anniversary of the commencement of the final march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, when MLK led thousands of people to march for the voting rights that would later be codified as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
A prior march from Selma on March 7th of that year was met with heinous police and onlooker violence and came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” it had the brutal side effect of waking much of white America up to the state-sanctioned, often state-sponsored violence that Black Americans were subjected to on a regular basis. Two days later, King led a group of over 2,000 marchers, many of whom were clergy, in another attempt. When met with a wall of state troopers who suddenly stood aside, King invited the marchers to kneel and pray, and then got up and led the marchers back off the bridge. King was called a coward by some, but others say he likely suspected the officers were setting a trap, trying to draw the marchers into violating a recent order that prohibited the march.
Eight days later, president Johnson submitted voting rights legislation to congress, and four days after that, protected by a federalized Alabama National Guard force, 56 years ago today, King led the full march from Selma to Montgomery, covering 50 miles with as many as 25,000 participants.
King was called a coward by some, and I’m sure their critiques came from a place of holy, righteous anger.
At times, especially in times of injustice, it may feel like calling for patience is cowardly, is complicity, is giving up, or is bending to the will of the oppressor.
We may be filled with holy, righteous anger, we may be standing on the right side of history, so committed to our cause that we would risk injury or death to see it through, and our sense of righteousness may nevertheless get in the way of the sacred fruit of patience we are called to cultivate and activate.
Because, I don’t think patience is about simply waiting, or enduring, or tolerating, or holding one’s tongue. I think patience is about discerning what the right time is- what the right next step is.
It’s about removing our own individual ego from the equation, our anger, our need to feel like we’re doing something, like we’re contributing, and pausing to ask God, “is this it? Is this the kairos? The right time?” And it means being open to the possibility that God might answer “no”.
Jesus lived in a time when nearly every aspect of his community’s life was marked by the violence of Roman Imperialistic oppression. The prophets of his tradition foretold of a messiah who would overthrow the yoke of oppression, liberate the Jewish people, and usher in an era of God’s justice and peace. From the perspective of his disciples and those to whom he ministered, those who witnessed his miracles, he was looking like the real deal, the one the prophets foretold. Wouldn’t the next step be to get the word out and kickstart some community organizing? There’s not a minute to lose, the time to act was yesterday!
And then Jesus tells everyone to keep it a secret, without any further explanation. It’s as though he says to his followers, “you’ve been waiting generations for this- now wait a little longer”. Not exactly the thing that an oppressed people want to hear. Not exactly the thing their allies and accomplices want to hear, either.
Jesus reminds us that patience is about more than waiting, it’s about being in constant conversation with God, and being open to God’s replies. We see Jesus place ego aside during his temptation in the wilderness, we see Jesus on the night of his arrest ask God “are you SURE this is the right time and the right step?”, and we see Jesus demonstrate faithful openness to God’s answer when he says “not my will, but yours, be done”.
Patience means emptying ourselves of our ego- not of our self-worth or our sense of right and wrong. It means zooming out for a moment beyond our own perspective, letting go of our immediate impulses and running a cause-and-effect analysis in our brains, accepting that maybe acting on our immediate impulses would be satisfying but not justifying. It means seeing ourselves as part of a larger community that each has a role to play, each has a call to answer, and listening carefully for what, and when, our call is.
Patience is a conversation- it’s a conversation with ourselves, and it’s a conversation with God. It’s the humility of asking questions and being receptive to the answers.
When I was a toddler and at the peak of my exasperating toddler behavior, my mom would often sigh and say, “God, give me patience”. One day, she must’ve sighed at something in frustration because she heard me pipe up, “talk to God, mommy!”
What would it look like to talk to God when we are feeling impatient? The scripture is filled with prayers of lament- talking to God when the time for action was yesterday and it feels like everything is falling apart. Jesus shows us how our human impatience, how our sense of righteousness can get in the way of being able to see the God’s eye view of Justice. Would talking to God look like breathing? like drawing in the Holy Spirit and conspiring-co-breathing with God? Would it look like kneeling in prayer? Would it look like facing our fears of being criticized for not being a perfect ally? Would it look like gathering in community to share and soak in one another’s wisdom and perspective to discern next steps together? Something else entirely? All of the above?
Patience isn’t about simply enduring, or pretending something is ok, or being satisfied with thoughts and prayers at the expense of words and actions. Patience is about discernment and deliberation, it’s about taking a holy pause, when pausing is the last thing on your mind.
Patience is a virtue. No one ever said it was easy. And so that is why we pray together, “God, give us patience”. Amen.
Further Questions for Consideration
- Do you think of yourself as a patient person?
- Toward other people?
- Toward yourself?
- In what situations or contexts do you find it hardest to be patient?
- Imagine one of those situations and notice how impatience feels in your body?
- What sensations come up?
- Where in your body do you feel impatience?
- Where can you implement mindfulness or discernment practices in your life to help you through times of impatience?