“FRUITS OF THE SPIRIT: PATIENCE”
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
October 16, 2016
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Big Trouble in Little China. It is one of my all time favorite action movies. There’s a truck driver, lots of marital arts, an immortal villain, a wise old sage who was played by a veteran of the 1960s San Francisco drug scene, an obsession with girls with green eyes and a thing that looks like a cross between an orangutan and a bigfoot. It is awesome. The hero is the aforementioned truck driver, and the evil immortal villain has kidnapped his best friend’s fiancée and his own girlfriend and holds them in an underground lair surrounded by henchmen. After an initial confrontation Jack has retreated to an apartment to come up with a plan. His idea is simple: get as many weapons as possible, grab his buddy, and head back into the lair to rescue the women. As he’s walking out the door, he looks at those remaining behind and tells them, “You guys stay here and keep the home fires burning,” then with a pause and a glimmer in his eye he says, “and if we aren’t back by dawn, call the President.”
I have offered this line to Tasha in the past. It is often met with an eye roll. But the scene is intended to somewhat ironically evoke the culture of American action heroes. We love our action movies. I was raised on Schwarzenegger slicing through mercenary armies alone, Stallone single handedly taking out a national guard unit, and Bruce Willis overcoming a cabal of foreign terrorists. All of them unstoppable and armed with lots of cool guns and one liners. In so many ways they represent all we love about America. We are a nation of action and when the odds are stacked against us, we double down on ourselves. We don’t wait for things to happen, we make things happen.
It’s difficult to say which came first, the action movie or the attitude, but I say the attitude. We have always seen ourselves a people who “do” things, and we have done a lot of stuff. Some of it great, some of it not so great, but the point is we do a lot of things, and we often seek to seize the initiative. We imagine that we too are Jack Burton, John Matrix, John Rambo or John McClane. When things get rough, we look at our loved ones, offer some brave words and then step out into the world to make things happen.
As admirable as this is, it was not the Psalmist’s strategy in Psalm 130. The Psalmist was no action hero. He or she was a “waiter.” As we find the Psalmist, they are in the Pit and looking for God. They cry out but apparently receive no reply. They recognize their own sin, a tacit acknowledgment perhaps that they are aware that they have gotten themselves into this mess, and then recognize God’s forgiveness. They are in the pit. They are a sinner. They are in trouble. So what do they do? What bold action does the Psalmist advocate? None. The Psalmist does the unthinkable to us, the Psalmist…waits. They wait. I wait for the Lord, they write. My soul waits, and in his Word I hope. The Psalmist is a waiter. Well, this is no good at all for us Americans. We hate to wait. I hate to wait. You hate to wait. I am an action hero. When I go to a restaurant and there’s a waiting list, I want to move on. I grab Tasha and whisk her away and head for some place where I can sit right down. I hate to wait, as do you, and yet the Psalmist is doing just that. Waiting.
Now here is the problem, and I really hate to point this out, but it is my job. When you look at the Fruit of the Spirit, and remember these attitudes and attributes are markers of the Spirit’s presence, and that these fruit exist not just for the individual but for the community. And what are they? Are the fruit of the Spirit boldness, action, decisiveness, courage and impatience? No. No they are not! They are peace, joy, love, gentleness, self control and things like that. And the fruit is also…patience. The fruit is patience. It waits. It waits like Benjamin Weir waited. Do you know Benjamin? Me neither, but the man knew how to wait.
In 1984 the Rev. Benjamin Weir was a PC(USA) mission co-worker in Lebanon and one day on his way to work in Beirut he was abducted. For 16 months Rev. Weir was held. For 14 of those months he was in a bare room in solitary confinement. He spoke about the confusion and chaos of his kidnapping, but he also spoke of life in his cell. I am sure if his abductors had taken Bruce Willis or Sylvester Stallone they’d have escaped in no time, but this was just Benjamin Weir, and so he waited. And while he waited, he sought God. He did all sorts of things to stay connected to his faith, even as he admitted it was very difficult at times. He counted all the parts of the radio in his room and made each part represent a person he loved. He used the chain with which he was affixed to the wall as a sort of rosary. And on Christmas Day, as he sat alone in his cell, he lightly hummed every Christmas hymn he knew. He waited.
Here is the thing about life. As much as we all like to believe that there are all these things we can do, all this power we have, the truth is we will spend most of our lives waiting. We will spend most of our time unable to control the most important aspects of our lives. There is no changing this. What the Spirit does for us, is it gives us patience. Patience in the Christian sense, you see, is not just waiting, rather it is how we wait. And we wait like the Psalmist of 130. He was a great waiter. What has always stricken me about this Psalm is the duplication in the middle. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning. More than those who watch for the morning. Did you hear that? It is the only time in the Psalms that I can think of where a line is duplicated verbatim. The Psalmist knows for what it is he waits, it is the morning. That is patience. We do not just wait, we wait for the morning.
Ben Weir died Friday, but not before living a long and fruitful life. After his release he went on to become Moderator of our General Assembly and to continue to work for peace in the Middle East. His time in captivity teaches us far more than any action movie can about what it means to be human. It teaches us that patience, true patience, always orients us back to the God whom we worship. And it teaches us that no matter the depth of the pit, morning always comes. It always comes. God always shows up in our lives. And that morning, the morning the Psalmist wrote about, may not always look as rosy as Ben Weir’s did. Sometimes it is a hard morning, but it comes nonetheless. We control so few of the things that will happen to us, so few of the things that truly matter, but we do control one thing, we control how we wait. And we wait for the Lord like those who wait for the morning. Because we know, we know, it will come. Amen.