I was at the Clayton Café this past Wednesday, eating lunch with the Quaker men. There are 8-10 of us there every Wednesday at noon. You’re welcome to join us. Membership is not required. Jim McClung was there, and in a happy mood, reporting that while on his way there he saw a field of winter wheat that was four inches tall, and that spring would be here before we knew it. I can’t wait. I’m impatient for spring.
I remember when I was in the 4th grade in Mrs. Conley’s class, how near the tail end of winter the room would get stuffy with heat and Mrs. Conley would prop open the windows with these notched sticks the shop teacher, Mr. Morris, had made. She’d set it on the first notch, about six inches, and as spring marched on and the end of school neared, she’d raise the windows to the next notch and then the next one, all the way to the top. I remember one day when Bernie, a kid in my class, grew impatient, and raised the window himself, and the notched stick fell out, and the cumbersome, heavy window came crashing down like a guillotine, trapping his head and nearly killing him. It was as fine an object lesson on the importance of patience as I’ve ever seen, Bernie’s little body flopping around, Mrs. Conley struggling to lift the window, all the while lecturing the rest of us to be patient, that spring would be here before we knew it.
“Good things are coming our way,” she said, “but we can’t hurry them along. They will arrive in due time, in the right season.” If only Bernie had listened.
Patience is an interesting thing. If you’re a fourth grade teacher, you have to be patient. You have to believe your efforts to educate and civilize the human race will one day bear fruit, otherwise you would grow discouraged and give up. When you’re a teacher, it is only your patience, your willingness to wait for good that keeps you going.
If you’re spiritually inclined, it helps to be patient, it helps to believe in the ultimate triumph of goodness, especially when the wine has grown bitter and the bread stale. We need to believe a banquet is ahead, that spring is just around the corner, that justice will prevail, that the right people will lead us. When we no longer believe in the inevitably of good, when we grow impatient with human progress, we lose heart, and eventually lose faith. Patience is an integral part of spiritual maturity.
Sometimes though we expect people to be patient when they have every right to be impatient.
When you’re a white person living in America, and you’re well-off and male, things have gone your way for so long, you grow impatient when they don’t. I’m speaking for myself here. I’ve grown so accustomed to the world bending my way that when it doesn’t, when I have to wait for something, I grow upset and impatient. Money, position, and power buy immediacy and expediency. People like me don’t have to wait for justice, don’t have to wait for equality, don’t have to wait for freedom. My spring has always come early, has always been more lush and verdant, even as ice and sleet still battered the poor.
This never occurred to me until I read Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham jail, when eight pastors of Birmingham’s largest churches sent him a letter while he was jailed urging him to be patient, to wait. King responded by writing of his distaste with the word wait. He said, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant “Never.”
Jesus once said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” Let’s think about that. What is good news to the poor? When you are poor and powerless, all you hear over and over is to be patient, to wait. You are told your day will one day come. We have too long promised the poor and powerless eventual blessing. It is always the poor, the beleaguered, the beat down, who are asked to be patient.
With wealth and privilege comes impatience, comes an unwillingness to wait, comes the insistence on blessing and privilege now. I saw a video clip this week of a man in a luxury car pulled over by the police for speeding and the first words out of his mouth were, “You obviously don’t know who I am.” Can you imagine a poor black woman making minimum wage saying that? Do you know who I am? What a luxury to say that.
I’ve spoken with a lot of folks this week who were angry that for the first time in American history, the Senate won’t be calling witnesses for the impeachment trial of a federal office holder. I don’t wish to belabor that, and I certainly don’t want to turn our meeting for worship into a political diatribe. I understand the anger, frustration, and concern. But even our anger and impatience is a luxury, given how many poor people have been sentenced to prison without the first witness called to testify. Where were our anger, impatience, and frustration then? Where were our cries that democracy as we know it has come to an end?
The measure of a nation is what makes it impatient, what makes it angry. No nation that patiently abides the maltreatment of the poor and powerless can claim to be a moral nation. No nation that hurries to protect and appease the rich and powerful, but turns a deaf ear toward the worn-down and wretched can call itself a moral nation.
Pay close attention when you start urging someone else to be patient. Make sure you’re not asking them to let an injustice persist, especially if they are the ones paying the price for that injustice.
I loved Mrs. Conley, my 4th grade teacher. When she said patience was a virtue, that was absolutely true. But we must also remember that at the right moment, impatience is also a virtue, and that a window into our character is what we are willing to patiently endure, and what we are not.