Advent Day 16: A wild patience

Be patient. Do you remember how awful those words were when you were a kid? Maybe you still hate them. Patience is not for the faint of heart.

I have been having a lot of conversations with my son (12 years old) recently about patience, in particular about how patience relates to practicing his trumpet. My son is a wonderful social butterfly in most spaces, and has always naturally expressed care for the world and those around him. But he has never naturally had anything approaching a work ethic or desire to be challenged. So sitting down to practice trumpet – which means, sitting down to do things you are bad at now but will be good at in a short time if you work at it – is often the site of much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Just last week I found myself saying to him, “Luke, you need to stop being surprised by your inability to play everything perfectly when you sit down to practice. If you already knew how to play everything perfectly your teacher would not have assigned you this lesson.

It makes rational sense. He gets it in a cognitive way. But he is only starting to understand in his heart what real patience is, and isn’t anywhere near understanding what patience with oneself means. (As with most children, he definitely understands what it’s like for people to lose patience with him. But that’s not all that helpful.)

The text I’m looking at today, about patience, is from the RCL readings for yesterday – this one is from the 5th chapter of James.

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

I was probably 14 or 15 when I took my first step to understanding patience in a deeper way – for me, like for my son, it was in regards to my musical practice. Something snapped and all of a sudden I was willing and able to submit to the work of growth.

But it wasn’t really until I was in my mid-thirties that I started to really understand the wild patience (in the beloved words of Adrienne Rich) of relational growth, the untamed patience of grief and loss, the downright frightening patience of being present to another human being. I have to thank my time as a chaplain for cultivating that in me.

One of the first things that is often addressed in CPE (the training for chaplaincy) is the desire to fix another human being. Especially for those of us in helping professions, this is a temptation – to swoop in and solve someone else’s problem. But that is not the work of a chaplain. Fixing things is necessary and awesome work – think of, say, the Geek Squad that swoops in to make the computer system run again, or the exterminator who comes to my apartment once a month (God bless him), or the woman on the other end of the line who was so blessedly helpful to me in figuring out my student loan payment situation. These are people who can and do fix things, and the world cannot do without them.

But neither can the world do without people who have cultivated the wild patience necessary to accompany someone through loss, or death, or despair, or anxiety, or growth, or change. Those of us who have been through these things know that there absolutely is no “fixing” them. They have to happen, they have to be worked through, walked through, and endured. Anyone who tries to “fix” these things just ends up leaving the other person alone in it.

No one can learn this wild patience of presence-with-another unless they have also practiced patience with themselves and their own processes; unless they have endured their own anxieties and despairs. It is, like the writer of James alludes to, a strength. It is a muscle that needs to be continually used to stay strong.

I often catch myself trying to “fix” the silliest of things. At church, this might be: “fix” Sunday school so everyone is happy. “Fix” the Christmas pageant so our program looks good and strong. “Fix” the people who are unhappy with changes that are happening. “Fix” Sunday morning so it’s less stressful, “fix” the budget so there’s no more conflict around it.

In my family, this looks like: “fix” my son so he practices trumpet without throwing a fit. “Fix” the broken relationships that define my extended family. “Fix” the frustration that rears it’s head between my partner and my son. “Fix” myself so that I can be present at all times to everyone who wants my attention in my family. “Fix” myself so no one gets angry anymore.

It’s yucky stuff, really, this fixing. Fixing works for broken furniture and burned out lightbulbs. Fixing doesn’t work for people and families and relationships and churches. I’m not even sure it works for the world at large. What works for people is presence.  And presence is hard. The hardest thing I have ever had to learn, for sure – and am still learning, and will always continue to learn. Submitting to this work – the wild work of patience and the wild work of waiting – is core to spiritual formation and growth, and, like most if not all Christian formation and growth, cannot be done alone.

Today I’m giving thanks for all of those people who have helped me grow in this way, in this wild, untamed strength of patience.

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