Sunday, May 13, 2012

Love Dare #1: patience

Romans 15:1-6
Matthew 18:21-35

I have admittedly been on a tear lately about my lack of patience for the "superstitions" of Christianity I have witnessed in others - AND - have even noticed in myself to an extent even though I don't think "superstition" is the appropriate word.  I still have my dogmatic religious practices I have long believed to be necessary components of worship, particularly Holy Communion.  I have shared my observations and perceptions of "magic prayers" by which we have reduced our Lord to a "genie" who does our bidding by granting the "desires of [our] hearts" (Psalm 37:4) even while we overlook or ignore the "deceitfulness" of our hearts (Jeremiah 17:9).  We take, literally and personally, Jesus' own words: "The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve" while we gloss over the prayerful words taught to us by Christ: "[The Lord's] will be done on earth as it is in heaven".

Humans are not a very patient lot when it comes to waiting for that which we desire most.  We are typically "get it done" types who see a need (or desire), and then go straight to whatever means necessary to achieve or acquire - to accomplish a goal strictly on our terms.  The "heart wants what the heart wants", right?  Right.  Except that we often forget Jeremiah’s warning of hearts that can and often will deceive us. 

"I ... beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love ..." (Ephesians 4:1-2 NRSV)

So if we are to understand St. Paul's admonition to the Ephesians, we must surely see Paul is not talking about trying to manipulate or force "what is" into something more pleasing to ourselves.  Instead we are being challenged to learn how to deal with reality in a righteous way - "patiently".  He expresses the same sentiment to the Romans: "We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak ..." (15:1)

We can see the many things we would change in our homes, our churches, and our society if we were rulers with absolute power.  Noble though such ambition may be, it is not realistic nor is it anywhere near what Jesus asks of us.  Nothing will change - including our own minds! - simply by making demands or expecting something.  The noble – and much higher path - begins with "patience" … and a very deep breath.  It's like the saying goes, "You get the chicken not by smashing the egg but by hatching it."

So in a manner of speaking, no one is going to do right by us because it is often that our expectations and demands are simply not realistic.  The truth of this statement is expressed in our lack of "patience" for things that do not work for us, things that seem to work against us, and things that personally offend us.  These lists are exhaustive not because we are so needy but because we have been conditioned to believe that because we want it, we somehow become entitled to it only by virtue of desire.  And if we "want" it, we must "need" it.  So when we don't get it, someone must be at fault and our "righteous" anger is aroused!  We become angry because we fail to realize the world does not function on our terms - and never will.  So our anger, righteous or not, will be counter-productive.  It will destroy rather than edify.  It will break down rather than build up. 

Jesus' parable about the 'unforgiving servant' (Matthew 18:21-35) is easily interpreted as a "forgive as you have been forgiven" story, and rightly so.  Yet there is much more to the story than this, and it has everything to do with what we can reasonably expect from others - perhaps particularly our spouses - especially if we have come to believe there is anyone on the face of this earth who "owes" us anything.  It has been my observation that as much as we may demand from other persons in our lives, we rarely believe we "owe" as much as we are "owed".  Because of this, the family suffers.  Marriages suffer.  Our children suffer.  The Church suffers, and ultimately society suffers - all from unrealistic expectations and demands.

There is also a tricky manner of "patience" that is often overlooked or rejected outright, and that component of "patience" is directly connected to "suffering" which is directly connected to our concept of "grace", the “grace” we expect but do not always offer.  Because we do not understand the biblical context of "suffering" as we should, we fail to get what is being conveyed (not strictly because of careless interpretations but most often because of careless and inattentive reading and study of Scripture ... that is, if we bother at all!). 

To "suffer" does not always mean "to be miserable" or “unhappy” except in those cases in which we allow ourselves to be "miserable" or “unhappy”.  And this is usually attributed to our notion of what we think we are entitled to.  But if we "suffer" as to "allow" reality to have its place and learn to work "patiently" within that reality even if we don't like it, then we can take "what is" and work more diligently to build up rather than tear down. 

Jesus' lesson is clear as He had expressed to Peter: forgive "not seven times but SEVENTY-SEVEN times!"  That is, forgive as often as you are asked to (especially if you expect the same consideration!).  It is also clear that the master of the parable had already "patiently endured" the slave several times over in allowing such an enormous debt to accumulate in the first place (consider it "grace").  Each time more debt was incurred, the master was "suffering" (or "allowing") a loss he must surely have known could never possibly be repaid by a slave.  Even when it came time to settle the account, selling the slave and the slave's family would not likely recoup such a substantial amount of money.  For the mere sake of compassion, however, the master took a deep breath, acknowledged the reality, and gave the slave back his life. 

Remember I had previously spoken (written) about doing the Love Dare© and expecting or demanding nothing in return?  "Patience" is just that; doing the righteous thing under all circumstances.  It is not about demanding the right thing to be done by others - or - doing for the sake of what we might get in return.  The dynamic of the parable is not in what the master expected to receive in return for his grace.  Rather we see the story unfolding in what the master could reasonably hope for as "fruit" for his gracious suffering - that is, "allowing" the slave to walk away scot-free in the hope that the slave would remember to give as freely as he had been given.

None of this is to suggest we will never come out of a situation disappointed or with wounded pride because when it comes to human dynamics, we can never be sure how anyone - our spouses, our children, our brethren in the church, or our unbelieving neighbors - will respond or if they will even respond at all.  When we strive for the higher ideal, however, regardless of the hoped-for outcome, we can be confident that we have done the right thing - and the right thing will NEVER come back to bite us!  But a foul temper, an angry response, and hastily spoken words almost always will come back to haunt us somehow, some way!

In using the parable of the unforgiving servant, however, we must always remember Jesus is telling us about the Last Day with the “master” as the Holy God.  We must never attempt to insert ourselves into that role in some attempt to “right a wrong” that has been done, using that role as a way to excuse ourselves from “patient endurance”.  Those we deal with are as free to come and go as you and I are free to come and go.  They are as free to be human as you and I are to be human - and thus prone to make mistakes.

It also seems the impatient person does not have much to look forward to and is challenged to look beyond the end of one’s own nose.  No hope.  No sense of great anticipation, but there is an intense “need” or a “desire” for immediate satisfaction.  The impatient person would smash the egg rather than allow "what is" to develop ... on its own terms and not his own with just a little nurture and TLC.  The patient person, on the other hand, is not stuck "in the moment" but can endure the moment realistically as "evolving".  This means our spouses, our children, our fellow workers in the faith, and even our unbelieving neighbors can be as human - and as imperfect - as we already are but can be allowed to "evolve"! 

Above all else, we must not ignore what is written in the Psalms about the "patient endurance" of our Lord toward us: "You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Psalm 86:15) 

This is the message of the Gospel of our Lord, that He is "slow to anger" and "abounding in steadfast love".  It is the Good News we have been given; it is the Good News we are expected to give.

No comments: