The First Aspect: Patience
There’s a story that I’ve heard again and again. You’re hearing about it because it coincides a lot with my recent life experiences. Also, because I’m not burdened with any grand notions of uniqueness, I realize my personal experiences are inherently generic, and thus useful for teaching/broader application. Furthermore, I think this story is particularly salient to the here and now of us.
There was a Guy. He doesn’t get a name. This Guy had been imprisoned for insulting Louis XVI, and now he is about to be executed, and as they’re bringing him up to be killed, he looks over at the where the King is to observe, and yells out “WAIT, YOUR HIGHNESS, PLEASE, STOP— JUST GIVE ME A YEAR, AND I CAN TEACH YOUR HORSE TO TALK.” Now, the first part Louis had heard many times before, but the second, now that was new. And so Louis agreed. Should Guy fail in a year to have taught the horse to talk, he would still be executed. Should he succeed, he would be set free. That was the deal. Upon hearing this, Guy’s friends rushed to the King’s stables where Guy was now a long term resident and asked him “What are you doing, you can’t teach a horse to talk?!” At which, Guy merely shrugged and said, “In a year, who knows what will happen. I may die; Louis may die… the horse may talk.”
And that was the story always summed up in my family as “horse may talk.” In many a situation mother or father, always in the same manner, would shrug at my worrying and say “horse may talk.” That meant: see what develops. As many of you have probably already deduced, Guy made a very wise choice indeed, for Louis XVI did not live to be an old man. So while the story does not make clear Guy’s fate, it does make clear the infinite potential held within the passage of time. As history shows, in a manner of speaking, the horse did talk.
Guy was willing to wait. The cost-benefit analysis of the situation is clear: should Guy be willing to wait a year, he had everything to gain and nothing to lose. Patience then, on the part of Guy, was his salvation. Now, to couch this in more theological terms, what we have here is Guy working as the means of his own salvation. As we all know though, we can’t save ourselves. It’s quite simply impossible. That’s what Jesus is here for.
Before returning to Guy, let’s talk about Jesus. Specifically, let’s talk about what he did for us. That’s a big question, but I’m going to give a super short theological implications survey (which has no claims to being an exhaustive statement of repercussions) of what Jesus has done for you and me. He died, offering up Himself as a onetime ultimate ransom for us. Jesus died, saving us, from sin, over death. (How unexpected was this? Let’s just say “horse may talk” isn’t a foreign notion to Scripture). In this way, Jesus came that we might have eternal life. However, and this is important, Jesus did not bequeath to us any instant salvation magic. We can’t just accept Christ, be baptized, and be done with it; we still have to accept Christ later, and then again after that. Also a lot later after that, and even a long time from now, we still have to be accepting of Christ. Now, to be clear, accepting Christ is not a verbal thing, or a mental thing. It is an essential thing. You have to get old you changed into new you, one that is God-accepting in its essence.
Clarification: what is the goal here? What are we to strive for in life? Obviously there are certain answers to this that would be completely irrefutable (The goal is Jesus!), but what we’re looking for is an answer that moves our understanding forward. The greatest commandments are 1) to love God and 2) to love people. (As Jesus tells us in Matthew 22:34-40). Why are these the greatest and what does following them do to us? A little systematics is in order to answer this (Sorry y’all). We believe that in the beginning, God made us in his image, and as we’re told in 1 John, God is love. Moreover, the design of something inherently reveals its purpose (you’re free to reject this, but many other personages more intelligent than I agree, e.g. Aristotle). To use the example I heard a long time ago now, a stapler looks like it’s for stapling. Also, we know that a good stapler is one that staples well, just as a bad stapler is one that staples poorly. Furthermore, a perfect stapler would staple perfectly. From the stapler analogy, we can gain some understanding of human purpose. We are designed like God who is love, so by extension we are made for love. A good human loves well; a perfect human (Jesus) loved perfectly.
We believe that after we were made, by our own actions we introduced sin and death into the world, simultaneously. Sin and death, therefore,are inextricably linked. As Christians, we believe that since the initial act of rejection of God introduced sin, sin is, for all intents and purposes, that which separates us from God. (The first trial on your road to developing patience, dear reader, is of course my writing. Please be patient with me, and after some more background legwork, we will get back to patience). At this point we have this: Separation from God is sin and sin equates to death and God is love. The manifestation of love in our lives then is antithetical to death. By our acts of love then we are rejecting death. To love is to live. Since separation from God is what kills us, it must mean that by acting more like our God who is love, we are attempting to perfect the image of God in ourselves; we are accepting Christ into our lives, not just into our minds, but into the very fabric of our time-bound existence. As beings bound to this temporal plane, we have no greater resource than time, and by bringing God into our living, our spending of time here on earth, we put our money where our mouth is, so to speak. And to be clear, we have to do so. God asks that we relinquish our earthly claims to time. One aspect, a very central aspect I would argue, of accepting Christ is making your time Christ-time, not people-time. This isn’t just moving your clocks back an hour though; this is serious, get ready to be frustrated, because Holy Spirit work is going down type stuff.
Let’s recap quickly. We’re humans. The passage of time invariably results in us dying. Good news is, Jesus came and taught us there was a way out of that dying; then he died to establish that way. Then he came back to set the record straight on a lot of things before going back to be with God/himself. After that it became our job to stop being non-loving, and to start being loving, so that we could escape sin/death. (There are lots of other motivations involved in the desire for Salvation other than those concerned with self-perpetuation, but it’s easiest to explain things in their broadest application, so bear with me). Now here’s the thing about our struggles here on earth to change our being. It isn’t entirely a lone wolf operation. (While our willingness is instrumental, we are fundamentally powerless when it comes to changing our nature. Jesus/the Spirit do the actual heavy lifting.). Consequently, it’s entirely not a lone wolf operation. Good news: the Holy Spirit is very much on our team, and she is willing to take a very active role in our refinement. Bad news: the Holy Spirit is very much on our team, and she is willing to take a very active role in our refinement. It’s like the (pick any sport of your choosing) coach’s favorite saying: I’m tough because I want you to succeed. The Holy Spirit is like that. 100% invested in your best interest; 100% invasive.
If you’re anything like me, when you realize you cannot fence off an aspect of your life from God, you will panic. True story y’all: I started hyperventilating. I was literally sitting there trying desperately to catch my breath, all the while frantically thinking of all the intellectual barriers I could to throw up. Fun fact: God is smarter than me. I couldn’t think of anything to reject the strand of logic that had just spontaneously generated within my consciousness. I couldn’t unthink it! I genuinely felt like my brain was being hacked, as if I could not engage the security measure to evict this intrusion, because it was not my conscience, or some internal formation informing me of reality, but a very not-me entity. I say all this as the kid who for the longest time said “Thanks God for the weather” when asked to thank God in prayer for the Holy Spirit’s movement in my life. It was not a pleasant experience.
I’ve had two moments at college where I feel certain that the Holy Spirit drew near to me. The second time was the one that I just related. To be clear though, it actually occurred after I began writing this. The first time is the one that led me to me to begin putting my thoughts on patience down on paper. I was sitting, just working and waiting for life to get more interesting, when a realization then slowly settled on me like a Rhino sitting on the hood of a car. God requires more patience from me. Majority of the sins I am committing, I realized, are resulting from impatience.
I frequently extol orthodoxy something like this: “I cannot merely say the Sinner’s prayer and be zapped into a heavenly being still on an earthly pre-wash setting. One must be changed and that change must be sustained. And by that sustained shift we opt in to Jesus Christ’s saving grace. The Messiah’s death provided at last a mechanism to escape our sinful nature and its previously inevitable result, death. However, the process requires a little participation on our parts. The constant opting in required for salvation is tedious. It requires patience.”
However, while my brain may allow me to affect the appearance of piety, I am in this way the Pharisee. I can go through all the motions without any net spiritual gain. Invariably, I am unable to practice what I, and so many others, preach. This past week it was made very clear to me, I need patience. I need to change my understanding of the utility of time. I need to accept that the days blur into weeks and the weeks blur into months in this place, but that my role in time is not to merely accept its passing. Earlier I had an odd thought. If time passes inconceivably quickly here, and the end result of the passage of time is invariably our death, does that mean we’re dying? Or weirder still, is Harvard life killing us? Not necessarily. I would argue though that passivity about the inevitable passage of time allows Harvard to kill you. That is a reality. Not a bad one per se, but one actualized in your life nonetheless. What then do we do with our time?
I would argue there are two kinds of time in many of our lives: Harvard time and God time. Harvard Time is already very much a set phrase here. That ingenious invention of seven minute delayed starts allowing classes to be taken back to back. Activities start in this way too; that way you can fill your day wall to wall with things to do, never being forced to take a break due to scheduling conflicts. Without stopping then you may proceed without halt forward. I have been struggling to find the correct metaphor to describe what this does to us. We are told by Jesus to know things by their fruit though, so perhaps that will work here too. Harvard Time is numbing.
There are three aspects to this numbing, and they are increasing in complexity, I feel. The first is quite simple. Time passes, thus so much happens in what feels like a short period of time, and consequently, we don’t sweat the small stuff. Fair enough. That can be a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing. The downside is I don’t sweat the small sins. Little greed here, little sloth there, is this relationship a little less than God honoring, well who cares I think, how quickly things turn, quickly come undone. If I know it’ll be over before I notice, surely God won’t care right? Wrong.
Thing two: I recently read in the Crimson that Harvard students binge drink because of our personalities. We are all most bang for your buck, efficiency oriented, competitive, etc. type people, or so it was argued. As a result, we don’t drink during the week, but come weekend, the excess is unbelievable, and thus we actually have far more alcohol related health incidents (relative to national averages) than our Ivory Tower reputation might suggest. I take this as a microcosm of the numbing effect. Because we don’t feel as it much, simply put, it takes more to get our attention. (In the case of alcohol then, the irony is that it takes more to be acceptably numbed out via substance abuse, because we’re already numbed out by Harvard). The end result is: we are not content people. Be it in relationships, sports, academics, whatever, we almost invariably do not feel we are squeezing enough out of this time. And this accuses God of not giving us enough.
The third result of the numbing I only realized earlier today: I struggle to see people as more than means to an end. This isn’t House of Cards type stuff here, wherein I use people and discard them as I rise up to rule the world as part of my master plan. No. I have utilitarized relationships though. This is the person I talk to in order to become Editor. That is the person I talked to in order to get the advisor I wanted. Worse still, this is the person with whom I fake emotional connection in order to find solace. And so on down the line, I unconsciously have rejected God. What do I mean by that? We see a fundamental characteristic of God in that God is trinity. That three are one means God is in community with himself. If we are made in God’s image then, we are inalienably social creatures, made to be in relationship with each other. Rejecting relationship for utility then is to reject an aspect of God. It is a sin in the most fundamental sense, a separation from God, a death of sorts. And when I looked at my friend next to me, and though, this is the guy that will help me obtain such and such end, I realized I, was in effect, killing him. That isn’t meant to be melodramatic, just as it isn’t meant to be a light thing either. Thinking of someone only as his or her usefulness is to reduce him or her to a material thing. When we die we are likewise a material thing, devoid of that which has moved on: soul, lifeforce, et al. To think of someone in this way is thus to give them a premature burial in your mind, to kill them.
In contrast to Harvard time, there is God time. Superficially, God time is that hour (or more… or less, I don’t judge) you sit in a pew once a week. Maybe it’s when you pray. A correct Sunday School answer would be that all time is God time. It’s his time because he made it. And that is true, but we’re looking for an answer that moves our understanding forward. God time is to be aware of the passage of time, of what God means for you, and of what you’re to do within time, and then to act upon it. It’s very abstract, and for that I implore your patience. Just as I’ve stretched the meaning of patience to mean much more than the traditional virtue, and in doing so risked making it to encompassing to be meaningful, so too have I expanded the meaning of God time to include quite a lot. But God expects a lot.
In this I’ve talked at length about many things. We’ve talked about what we are to do in this life in terms of the big picture (salvation), and we’ve talked about the effects of the passage of time on us all, and we’ve talked about a fair number of other things as well, e.g. the movement of the Holy Spirit. These things, they are all inextricably linked to our relationship with time. The question remains though, I suppose, what am I supposed to do with this information. To a fairly great extent, I think there’s a lot of “I’ve experienced these things this way, and now I’m telling you, and hopefully you can figure out what can be applied to your life in turn” type stuff going on. However, I also intended this to be a decision-making paradigm. I hope some of this sticks next time you’re looking at something because it seems “y’know, it’s whatever man. It’s not great, but it’s what I’m going to do tonight. Don’t worry about it.” As Christians, we are called to adhere to a philosophy of “right time, right place, right action.” If you can discern that rule and make it real in your life, you are making Christ real in your life, which is a very big thing, that is accomplished in some way through patience. Going forward then, seek to do what the moment for, what God sees as its potential, what it could mean in the context of the grand landscape of time. Hopefully I will do the same.
Yours in Christ,
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeremiah 29:11