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Advent: A Four-Week Course on Patience

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"Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake." --Victor Hugo

Advent is about waiting. In a sense, it is a four-week course on patience. That's a good thing, in that patience means having endurance under difficult circumstances. And, if being patient is about persevering in the face of delay, well, who wouldn't be in favor of and want it? Even more importantly, patience often means having the capacity -- when provoked -- not to act simply out of annoyance or anger.

Now, I am more a student than a practitioner of patience. But I know enough about patience -- and have been witness to it in others -- to say that it can be the means by which we are prevented from going negative. With patience, we exhibit forbearance under strain, especially when challenging difficulties end up becoming longer-term.

So, if we value steadfastness -- staying aligned and true to our values -- then patience may be the means by which we achieve the level of endurance and the character not to become negative.

But is patience enough?

I got to thinking that Advent involves more than waiting, even more than the development of our capacity to be patient. Isaac Newton wrote, "If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention, than to any other talent." Advent has an undercurrent of urgency, a clock ticking loudly in our ears, internally and cosmically warning us that we are "running out of time." The voices say, "Stay awake. Keep watch," because of the human tendency to fall asleep or at least to lose attentiveness.

Carl Sagan told us years ago in Cosmos, that "Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love ... If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly 'the universe or nothing.'"

In preparation for her conversation at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine on Dec. 1, I read Wangari Maathai's book, Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World. A 2004 Nobel Laureate, Dr. Maathai wrote with passion and hopefulness: "We can work together for a better world with men and women of goodwill, those who radiate the intrinsic goodness of humankind. To do so effectively, the world needs a global ethic with values which give meaning to life experiences and, more than religious institutions and dogmas, sustain the non-material dimension of humanity. Mankind's universal values of love, compassion, solidarity, caring and tolerance should form the basis for this global ethic which should permeate culture, politics, trade, religion and philosophy."

With patience we can awaken, becoming "obedient," which in the biblical sense means believing that God will do for us more than we can ask for or imagine. To follow God obediently requires believing that what is in store for all of us is bigger and better than our illusions of control and power -- as individuals or as individual nations. Advent waiting is the time of relinquishing our desire to have outcomes our way and on our schedule. Can we trust that what God has in store for us is worthier of wonder and awe than even our deepest hopes? With fear and trembling we then arise, awake to what God is investing in the human enterprise, fully incarnated and enfleshed, God in and among us. Never again can we be separated from that commitment of love. God, interwoven with human history, the divine and the human having kissed each other, gives us true peace and empowers us to return the Gift, which is the only homage God really wants.

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