“Practicing Patience” – Mark W. Harris
January 25, 2015 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship “Patience” by Rabindranath Tagore
If thou speakest not I will fill my heart with thy silence and endure it.
I will keep still and wait like the night with starry vigil
and its head bent low with patience.
The morning will surely come, the darkness will vanish,
and thy voice pour down in golden streams breaking through the sky.
Then thy words will take wing in songs from every one of my birds’ nests,
and thy melodies will break forth in flowers in all my forest groves.
Reading I Samuel 13:8-14
He waited seven days, the time appointed by Samuel; but Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and the people began to slip away from Saul. So Saul said, “Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the offerings of well-being.” And he offered the burnt offering. As soon as he had finished offering the burnt offering, Samuel arrived; and Saul went out to meet him and salute him. Samuel said, “What have you done?” Saul replied, “When I saw that the people were slipping away from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines were mustering at Michmash, I said, “Now the Philistines will come down upon me at Gilgal, and I have not entreated the favor of the Lord’; so I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.” Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which he commanded you. The Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever, but now your kingdom will not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and the Lord has appointed him to be ruler over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.”
Second Reading – from An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor
Sermon – “Practicing Patience”
During the last two weeks I have been teaching an intensive course in Unitarian Universalist history at Andover Newton Theological School. Part of the material includes a discussion of the Restorationist Controversy a battle among Universalists in the 1820’s over the timing of “when” people would be saved, not “if” they would be saved. Ever since their advent as a religious movement in response to a Calvinist theology that taught a few lucky souls would receive salvation, but most would be condemned to the fiery pit of hell, the Universalists proclaimed that a loving God would save everyone. For most of the first two decades of the 19th century Universalists had avoided preaching about when this ascent to the pearly gates would take place. Universalists frequently came under attack from their more orthodox rivals who claimed they were removing the moral element from people’s lives. They said that people needed the threat of hell in order to be good, and without this, men and women would fall into all sorts of licentiousness and sin. If there was a murder or a robbery in your hometown, and no one knew the perpetrator, a Universalist was likely to be fingered. Finally in 1817 Hosea Ballou, the great leader of the Universalists went public with his belief that everyone would ascend to heaven immediately upon death. This “Death and Glory” Universalism meant there was no waiting room in heaven, clearly not a place that was staffed by former employees of the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Yet Ballou and his followers had opponents who were worried about the public image Universalists had, and they began to proclaim loudly that some people, the greatest sinners among us, would need a period of cleansing after death, a kind of purgatory, before they were ultimately restored to God’s love. This is not a joke by the way. This is 19th century America when the existence of hell was still a burning issue.
While we might say we would adopt the Ballou approach where people are all treated equally because of our liberal belief in justice for all, it might also be because most of us have a hard time waiting to get what we want when we want it. Whether we are contemplating this life or the next, we are often not a very patient people. Take the other night. I was here at church photocopying some Restorationist sermon in order that I might scan it to post on my class website. Our photocopier has three drawers for paper. The top drawer, number one, is for 8 ½ X11 or letter size copies, but drawer number two is for 11 X 8 ½. Guess what happens if, unbeknownst to you, the top drawer runs out of paper? It automatically switches to the second drawer. I had calmly placed the overly long sermon in the feeder expecting to receive a perfect copy. While a jam may try our patience, who ever expects to end up with page after page facing the wrong way? But sure enough, draw number one apparently had one sheet of paper, so most of this scintillating Biblical exposition about getting to heaven was cut off mid page. My response was hardly patient. I uttered an expletive, and threw the sermon. I was showing no patience for a machine that did its own bidding. Why couldn’t I have trained the machine to stop when it was out of paper? I wanted to be in control of my situation. Think of all the paper I had wasted. Time, money, resources all wasted. What if I had checked to see how much paper was in the top drawer? Live and learn.
Working with a machine that then fails to function the way you expect it to is something we are all familiar with. Sometimes it is forces beyond our control, like a broken router, or a loose connection. Sometimes it may be that we have the wrong settings on our device, or we may simply not understand how to operate it. And then trying to fix a broken machine can surely try our patience, but some like the challenge. I remember Andrea’s brother-in-law trying to fix an ancient washing machine, back when machines were mechanical rather than computerized. He worked all day, hour after hour, but his grease stained hands could not repair it, and in the meantime the rest of us relaxed and played at the seaside cottage of Andrea’s grandmother. What do we lose in time and effort when we do something like this? Like my father before me, I usually am happier if I avoid trying to fix machines. He would sometimes fly into a rage when something didn’t work as he thought it should. My behavior with the copier and his with most things with motors is a reminder not just that we tend to be impatient, but that close to the surface is the myriad number of ways we express anger. We do not want things to be this way, we fume, and then we blame something (usually the machine itself) or someone (often ourselves, or our spouse). Our anger can be a not so subtle reminder that we do not control most things in our lives, but we can control how we respond. And perhaps, even if we spend all day fruitlessly trying to fix a machine, we may learn something very significant about all these moments that seem wasted.
Impatience plays a key role in a fine movie I saw just last week, The Imitation Game. It is the story of Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician who assembles a team to try to decode Enigma, a device used by the German military command to encode strategic messages during World War II. Alastair Denniston was the British officer who was the commander at Bletchley Park, where the Ultra team worked on developing the decoding machine, which actually was a computer. He is portrayed as an impatient lout, who would not give the team the time it needed to complete the project. Apparently this portrayal is not historically accurate, but may be a composite response of many military people who were frustrated with German bombings, and their inability to decipher the messages. In one scene Denniston’s frustration boils over. He asks Turing: “Have you decrypted a single German message?” And Turing responds: “You will never understand the importance of what I am creating here!” Denniston says: “Our patience has expired.” Then they turn off the machine while it sorts its data. Fortunately, the team is able to fix it and figure out how to decipher the code, and then selectively thwart German plans. According to the movie they are estimated to have saved 14 million lives.
Yet Turing’s story is ultimately a sad one. He should have been an international hero, but what he accomplished was done in secret, and remained so until fairly recently. Further, he was a gay man, who endured terrible personal and legal discrimination, and medical persecution, and ultimately he committed suicide. It is redeeming in some small way that his story can now be told. His patience to stick with this project, despite discrimination and skepticism saved many lives. A quotation attributed to Turing’s childhood friend Christopher, becomes the underlying theme of the movie: “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”
Is patience a spiritual practice that can help us accomplish the things that no one, even ourselves, imagines we can do? First we have to overcome a societal disinclination to wait for anything. Waiting has always been hard for Americans. I noticed this the first time I visited England and saw the people there patiently waiting in line, while I recalled back home the ever present cutting in line, the rush to get off an airplane, and the honking horns in traffic jams. And it has only gotten worse, as we now speed through traffic lights long after they have turned red. Everyone is in a rush to push through and get instant results. This is probably most telling when we all demand to receive our messages and information at hyper speed.
Does anyone remember the days when we had dial up internet service? We were impatient with that, but now if we don’t have the fastest internet we are treated with disdain, especially by sneering children. You would think that the thirty seconds it may take for a page to load is an eternity, and people don’t seem to know what to do with themselves while they wait. A Globe article a few months back reported that people are losing patience because they demand instant gratification. A study at UMass, Amherst showed that if it took more than 10 seconds to download a video, half of the people had already abandoned the wait. The greater danger is not only that we can’t wait, but that we won’t take the time to read a book or even a magazine, so we become consumers of information, rather than thinkers. What has happened to our critical faculties? Everyone talks about media, Leon Wieseltier says, but how does understanding media help us understand life? Words don’t wait for thoughts, and the first response is often promoted as the best response, I guess because it is done with feeling. But it certainly does not have the power of reflective thought behind it. Wieseltier says its time to talk about the tyranny of technology, but we are all so enamoured with it, including me and my new Kindle Fire with its email capabilities, that we stumble with impatience to see what we can get next.
Many of these electronic advances are indeed things no one imagined we could accomplish, but they don’t help with patience. If you are like me, and you yearn for a little more patience, you ask how can you find it. Emerson once wrote that we could begin by adopting the pace of nature. “Her secret is patience.” The end of January is often a time when we must practice patience with the weather. We wish winter would end, but there are still two more months. Yesterday was a perfect example. We didn’t get to do all our crazy scheduled activities. The weather made us slow down, look out the window, and when we went to shovel, speak to our neighbor. Rather than go and do more, the winter is an invitation to do less, and reflect. With the cold we turn into our selves and pay attention.
The winter weather can also be a metaphor for how we respond to the emotionally harsh days that we encounter at other times of the year. Barbara Brown Taylor’s reading suggests that waiting can be a form of prayer when we are forced to bear harsh or unpredictable days. She writes of how she worried over a pending diagnosis about her health, and how this helped her listen to her life, and pay attention to the small things that were right in front of her, but she never did because she was always rushing on to the next thing to be consumed. She learned to love her life in new ways. She saw things out her window. She noticed beautiful architecture. She spent an hour enjoying a meal, or perhaps the spell of a hot shower, a glowing fireplace, or an affirming friendship. She lived with uncertainty while she waited for that diagnosis, but every moment of waiting became infused with the meaning of seeing, knowing, and touching. These are the things we cannot control, she says, but they are the meaning we can see now becoming the prayer that we will be alright, but knowing in that very moment that we are alright right now.
I also believe that children teach us patience. I know this sounds crazy. I can easily lose all patience over a filthy bedroom that is never picked up, let alone cleaned. I can lose patience over the incessant demands for more money or more rides, while receiving what seems like nothing in return, except a living room that look like a nuclear waste zone, and a bathroom that was invaded by a creature who closely resembles Chewbacca, with all that hair and clothes choices that try our patience. But we endure. They do grow up and become themselves. We all know raising kids requires long term patience as they struggle with studies, relationships and values, but for a magical lesson in patience, spend some time with a child. Sure you can look at your phone, but I recommend putting it down, and get yourself down on the floor, because it is here where you have to be present, you have to join in, you have to relate and play. I have seen my new granddaughter a handful of times in the six months since she was born, and she does not talk or even walk yet, but there is no better teacher for being present. When I see her such as at Christmas, I sit. I sit and stare and meditate, and admire. I admire a miraculous little life that can light up the world with her smile. There is no patience or impatience, there is only now, and being with her. And how we see – eyelashes and lips, and every nuance of facial features. Those grown up children teach us a certain kind of patience. I think it is called forbearance, but with the little ones, this patience is a miracle. Simon Weil, the French mystic who wrote Waiting for God, talked about the capacity to be with someone who is afflicted as a miracle. She wrote, “The capacity to pay attention to an afflicted person is something very rare, very difficult; it is nearly a miracle. It is a miracle. Nearly all those who believe they have this capacity do not. Warmth, movements of the heart, and pity are not sufficient.”
We also glean lessons about patience from our enemies. The story from I Samuel is illustrative here. Poor Saul is the warrior king of the Israelites. He has been appointed by God, and supported by Samuel, at least up until this point. Here in this story he is put in an impossible position. He has been given an appointed time to wait for Samuel, and he respects those parameters, but Samuel does not show up. Saul’s soldiers start deserting, and so out of frustration he gives the offerings. Well, wouldn’t you know it. He wait and waits, and his appointment does not show up, and as soon as he decides he’s done, the guy shows up. Moreover, he is then told he is out as king. Samuel rejects him. Then God rejects him, apparently because he does not have the patience God expects, and he does not pass the king test. But Yahweh God actually uses this as an excuse to get David on the throne. Sounds like very human manipulations or very human arbitrary actions. It is unfair, and a lesson for all that we can be put in grossly unfair positions that we must endure as best as we can with patience and fortitude.
The Dalai Lama speaks of how our enemies teach us patience, a strong reminder that even in the most harrowing circumstances we can exercise compassion, forgiveness, and love. We come to know our enemies better by recognizing the faults that lie in us. We are less likely to condemn and judge by being patient with those faults, and our strength grows to endure them, providing hope that we will one day overcome them. Martin Luther King asked the question, How long? And responded “not long” because he believed, and lived with the hope that justice would prevail over injustice, love over hate. But the prevailing racism we still live with teaches us that it requires massive patience to overcome these injustices. It is human nature to want things to change for the good, right now, not in some distant time, and so we may discover patience in incremental successes.
So patience is a great thing to have to get you through the wintry trials of life Patience is a great thing to embrace because it helps you live in the present embracing the beauty of the world right now. Patience is a great thing to have to live through social turmoil with hope that things will change, and we will become a people who build a beloved community. Cultivating patience is a longing to be present in the world, not just to yourself and others, but to all those who suffer afflictions, so that one listens and hears those cries. Simone Weil was a French Jew who died of hunger during World War II, but she did not have to die in that manner because she was never captured or made to suffer deprivation. Instead she so identified with those who suffered, she took on their lives by working in a factory, and eating tinned rations. She said the great trouble in life is that looking and eating are two operations. Humans have a hard time contemplating anything beautiful without wanting to devour it, and thus we have over consumption, petty robbery, compulsive shopping, and sex addictions. We eat, but we also want to see. In her book Waiting for God, she quoted a favorite passage from the Upanishads. There are two winged companions, two birds are on one branch of a tree. One eats the fruit; the other looks at it. These two birds, she says, are the two parts of the soul. Practicing patience is being that bird that does not eat – Waiting – Taking the time to listen. Looking and paying attention, Seeing – my miracle of a granddaughter, just being with her, just being.
Closing Words – “Patience” by Kay Ryan
wider than one
natives in their
a place with
its own harvests.
Or that in
from the genuine