Visiting Eighth Day Books has been a daydream of mine for a while, and though I have yet to make it to Wichita, I had the next-best delight of browsing their book tables at the CiRCE conference last month. So I am now the joyful host to several Eighth Day books making their homes on my bookshelf.
One of these is David Baily Harned’s Patience: How We Wait Upon the World. Only a few chapters in, Harned’s book—part cultural analysis, part theological history, part devotional prose—is wakening awareness of flaws in my thoughts and practice of virtue, imago dei, calling, and, of course, patience.
Harned begins his discussion by tracing the eclipse of the Christian conception of patience, rooted in the storied unfolding of God’s love acting through our waiting and suffering, by the modern one, molded by the methodologies of Industrialism and the fast pace of new technologies. Nowadays, he observes, “It would be difficult for many of us to agree that ‘the decision to wait is one of the great human acts.’ For scores of previous generations, however, and especially for those who were touched by the claims of the Christian message, the truth of the statement was beyond dispute. How else can we allow the future to emerge? The patience that waiting entailed was a great human act because it summoned the most distinctive powers of the self to their finest expression—vision and imagination, faith and hope, courage and prudence, humility and love.” (4)
By contrast, we tend to think of patience as “a diminishing of the quality of our lives, a deprivation enforced upon us by an unfriendly environment” (4)—even a lessening of our humanness, insofar as we associate human nature with being an agent, active, accomplishing, and in control of one’s environment. Rather than being patient in our waiting, we fill it with busyness as a diversion from our inactivity, an avoidance of contemplation, an assurance that everything is fine, and a justification of our self-importance.
But Harned asks: “Is this assumption valid, that in some profound sense we are little else than what we have achieved? What if our greatest significance lay instead in our involvement in the lives of others? And what if this involvement did not mean our power to form them but our responsiveness and receptivity to them, our willingness to step back when appropriate and give them room? . . . What if we are most fully human when we receive, not when we achieve?” (8)
As Harned stirs reflection on all the times in our living that are times of waiting—listening and pausing in a conversation, standing in line or sitting in traffic, being put on hold or sitting through ads, helping plants to grow and children to fall asleep, hearing the whole symphony rather than shuffling the tracks on the iPod, pausing to let ideas sink in amidst a classroom lecture, hoping for the house to sell or the baby to be delivered or the job to be gotten or the spouse to be found or the healing to be complete or the relationship to be restored—a fresh vision of life emerges, one in which patience is the warp and woof of our experience of time, the primary posture in which we love God and neighbor.
Two more quotations—they are worth reading, even for those who, ahem, make a habit of skipping the block quotes . . .
“The decision not to act can be the most helpful act of which we are capable. Such patience is not the surrender of our initiative but often its wisest expression, because it invites and supports the initiative of others. Then perhaps a dry seed will burst into a blossom whose luxuriance the solitary individual could never have envisioned. . . . It is a mistake to identify human excellence with our activities; our ability to react and respond plays no less of a part. The ways that we can suffer distinguish us from all other creatures as much as the initiatives we undertake. Our creativity emerges from the interaction between the range and richness of our sensitivity and the caring and claims and independence of our neighbors.” (13-14)
“Waiting is not an accidental part of life together, but lies at the center of things. Nor is it evidence of human weakness, or an emptiness that we must struggle to fill. How could we hold the simplest conversation if we were not willing to wait for the other to speak? Sometimes waiting offers a needed respite, a chance to regain our strength, or to see where we are. Sometimes it is exhilarating, when we can look forward to a friend’s return, or a long-awaited trip, or a deserved vacation. Waiting for things can often make them better: anticipation endows the world with new luster and richness. Life would quickly grow stale and tedious if there were never a need to wait. What is most important, however, is the recognition that waiting is at the center of things not because of the nature of the world, not because of the nature of society, but because of who we are—made to be dependent, incomplete in isolation from others.” (14)
In the next chapter, which I have yet to read, Harned begins to describe the patience of God, and how our patience is therefore imitation and participation in the life of our Creator and Lord.
So do good things come to those who wait? The old maxim may be a helpful corrective to the cultural assumption that good things come to those who grab. But far more worthy of contemplation, far stronger to stake a life on, are the words of James’s exhortation: “Let patience have its perfect work, that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” What we await is no mere material reward or cessation of waiting. It is continual renewal in God’s image and communion in His fellowship.