Patience, Presence & Trust: What the Wise Men Should Have Brought
We know the story of the Three Wise Men bearing gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. I suspect for Jesus there were better gifts to bring. Of course wise men brought what they considered most valuable, gifts befitting a king. But if we were to ponder what gifts would be most useful to Jesus, who according to the Christian tradition represented God in human form, the most precious gifts might be these: patience, trust, presence.
Before I go any further I want to acknowledge yet again, I come to the Christmas story as a Jew and a Unitarian Universalist—which means I appreciate the theological legroom available in this tradition to think about the utility of the Christian idea of God in human form. It is not my personal understanding of God or what constitutes the holy but that makes it no less relevant. The story of Jesus’ birth, a narrative intended to fulfill Jewish prophecies, speaks to a core element of the human animal. We are wired for empathy. As I mentioned last week, Brené Brown, who researches vulnerability, claims “the two most powerful words when we’re in struggle [are] ‘me, too.’” The genius of God in human form is a god who can say with credibility to a suffering person: “Me, too.” I know your pain. I have felt it.
I came to understand this when I traveled to Cuernevaca, Mexico and spent nine days with Benedictine nuns who worked with people living in abject poverty. For the first time I got why folks ground like maize by deprivation need a god who understands their struggles: whose hands are calloused, whose feet ache, whose garments are tattered, whose birthplace is meager, whose death is brutal and unjust.
These folks did not need a wise patriarch with flowing beard or a fertility goddess or a pantheon of gods or a blissful diorama of nature exquisitely rendered by Mary Oliver. They did not need the playful paradoxical poetry of Rumi or the Eightfold Path or the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. They needed Guadalupe, a brown-skinned Madonna and her brown-skinned son Jesus trained as a carpenter to work with his hands, who socialized with the poor, advocated for the marginalized, spoke truth to power and literally got nailed for it.
My brief time among people whose lives were sculpted by poverty taught me that empathy begins with the capacity to see through another’s lens. To set down my own pair of glasses. So whether we are atheists or panentheists, Buddhists, Christian, Jewish, none of the above or beyond any label, there’s value and instruction to be found is the idea of the divine in human form. What a revolutionary exercise in empathy. And that Jesus is born of a young woman, not magically deposited in adult form on a mountaintop like the Ten Commandments, underscores the critical importance that this incarnation of the holy springs from human loins.
Darwin acknowledged sympathy as a primary human characteristic and contemporary research by primatologists and neurologists supports evolutionary development of empathy; but think about human beings a couple of thousand years ago without benefit of the scientific understanding of the last two centuries, figuring out how essential empathy is; drafting a narrative of a god not just capable, but inclined to say to folks in struggle, “Me, too.”
So in a manger according to legend, the donkey’s a-braying and the hen’s a-cackling and maybe a calf is mooing, and there’s baby Jesus, ruddy from birth. What gifts would Jesus need to be fully human? Patience. Trust. Presence.
No book in the bible is more illustrative of patience than Job, but there’s a more recent book that captures Job’s patience as much as his heartache as a parent. Andrew Solomon’s new tome, Far From the Tree: Parents,Children and the Search for Identity chronicles parents whose children fall far from the tree whether they do so because they are born deaf or with dwarfism, Down Syndrome or autism; whether they are transgender or schizophrenic; whether injure themselves or others. Parenthood is probably never what we expect or feel prepared for; but for parents whose children present a major departure from initial hopes or expectations, the patience of Job becomes far more helpful than gold.
Patience is a plant that grows not in all gardens though well it should. I just got an email from my 23 year-old cousin, Adam Greenberg, a youth delegate at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Doha, Qatar. In a Huffington Post blog he writes:
Here in Doha, Qatar, in the halls of the U.N. climate negotiations, my team of U.S. youth delegates …want to live in an America that is not threatened by climate change. Our chance to secure that future is slipping away. Science tells us we need to reduce emissions to achieve a maximum temperature increase of 1.5-2 degrees C. World leaders have agreed, but their action has not matched the rhetoric. We’re still locked on a course toward a 4-6 degree temperature increase by 2100, which will mean catastrophic impacts of climate change.
Right now, Obama’s legacy and America’s future are on the line. I believed the president in 2008 when he told us that generations would look back and say “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
We’re still waiting for that moment. The time for action is almost past. Scientists say we have three years to put in place a plan to avoid climate catastrophe. Scientific research, re-affirmed by everyone from the World Bank to the International Energy Agency to even PricewaterhouseCoopers warns that if we don’t transition quickly to a clean energy economy we will be trapped into decades of destruction, ravaging our economy and devastating the people and places we love.
It is hard to be patient on the brink of irreversible environmental peril. I think of the polar bears on melting ice. The diminishing tigers crouching in ever more diminishing forests. I think of Adam’s generation and their children’s: what must they think of us? We who have the opportunity to choose to live differently—to remove convenience and consumption from the top of our priority list—yet so far we have not.
Patience is not just for parents. It is for children. And polar bears and tigers.
Of course we all know patience is so hard because it involves time and the painful reality we can’t control others. I think of friends who have spouses and siblings trying to get sober. This week I spoke to a friend from high school, a man I love dearly who traveled to Kentucky with his partner to attend my sister’s college graduation many years ago. He has struggled with drug addiction for decades. The last time I visited him, he came to the door in such a fog there was nothing to do but leave. The next year, I made no plan to visit him on my trip to Tennessee but of course I ran into him in a Starbucks. He said to the friend he was with, “You remember my friend Leaf, who didn’t call because last year I was bombed out?”
Loving an addict, including oneself requires patience because like the rest of life it is an unpredictable and often rocky road. We don’t know what will happen. If or when the person “gets” it: attempts sobriety and achieves recovery. In the Gospel accounts of Jesus, he spends a lot of time with folks identified as sick and sinful. In contemporary parlance I would guess many of the folks Jesus hung out struggled with addiction and other forms of mental illness. Folks who didn’t always get it right. Folks who couldn’t control their impulses or simply made poor choices that didn’t feel to them like choices at all.
All of us are given the opportunity to be patient: with loved ones who don’t meet our expectations. With strangers who tick us off. With customer service agents who seem to have forgotten what service is about. With bureaucrats on the other end of the phone who may be new or burned out on the job. And with ourselves when we don’t get it either: when we remain locked in a bad habit, a destructive pattern, a negative mindset.
Cultivating patience is the one of the best gifts we can give ourselves and everyone else. In terms of climate change, impatience may be better because time is running out. But as we coax one another to respond to the realities of global warming, we can practice enough patience to realize when any of us feel under siege we are prone to act rashly not responsibly.
It is easier of course to be patient when we trust. Poor Job believed God had reasons for causing such suffering even if Job had no clue what they were. But the narrative of Job and the stories in Andrew Solomon’s new book compel the reader to consider how trust blooms when reasons are invisible. How does the mother of a self-abusive severely autistic child trust herself to know how to parent responsibly? How does Mary, mother of Jesus trust the Engendering Spirit who impregnated her as her son is nailed to a cross? How does my young cousin trust that his valiant effort to slow climate change is not in vain? How does his generation trust us not to imperil the lives of their children? How do any of us assemble enough trust in the worst of times to ward off despair?
I heard an interview this week with Khadija Ismayilova, a female journalist in Azerbaijan, who, after investigating corruption became the victim of blackmail, public humiliation, and harassment. When the radio host asked whether she fears for her life since there are death threats she responded that she has no control over what happens so why should she live in fear? Though she lives in a Muslim country she espouses a Buddhist take on letting go of that which she cannot control.
Trust is a radical act. Daily we covenant to accept life on life’s terms by getting out of bed to consciously engage with the day. We trust the floorboard will be there to step on. We trust the air we breathe will not kill us. We trust there is not a sniper outside. For some of us, the odds are in our favor but for too many the odds are not so good. And yet the people who live in constant peril keep rising to meet the day. Even if we chalk that up to an innate impulse to survive, trust manifests nonetheless. None of us knows what death holds but we trust life anyway. In the face of uncertainty and lack of empirical evidence we still trust life to be better than death.
If we can trust life in its absolute uncertainty, or trust it even when we know darn well it will dole out hardship, sometimes relentlessly, what is the point of withholding trust from one another? Does my cousin Adam trust President Obama to make good on his promise to help heal the planet, or more accurately, lead us to heal our own hubristic ways? He must trust the possibility that the current intransigence around global warming will shift. I find it hard to trust that the few with a great deal of political and economic power will do what is just. Admittedly I rail against the intransigence but at the same time I remain engaged in the struggle, the movement for change.
Like the Azerbaijani journalist, we must all ask: what choice do we have? We can opt for despair and hide under the covers, or toss them off and get out of bed.
What assurance did Jesus have that his radical notions of turning the other cheek, loving one’s adversaries, withholding judgment or condemnation, and giving the guy who asks for your coat your gloves as well would meet with widespread acceptance? None. Jesus got crucified for his heretical ideas but nonetheless he trusted in the truthfulness of mercy, justice, and empathy. He trusted that living wholeheartedly was better than living as if one were dead.
To live wholeheartedly is to live in the present. When we forgive, as Jane Wagner wrote, we give up all hope of a better past. And to live in the present, to inhabit it fully, means being present, offering our presence to each other and to the moment as it unfolds. To be present to climate change is to choose not to deny it. To be present to who and what suffers is to be alive. We all experience pain: be it emotional, physical, spiritual and even though no one can magically relieve us of it, a compassionate presence matters. I have had the great fortune of two people telling me that my chaplaincy in their dying days helped. I have no evidence other than what they said and I trust that. Being present is how we best communicate. For all the elegant and eloquent words spoken and penned and even texted what matters most is presence. Sometimes we express presence across physical distance through words but I bet some of you have experienced the gift of silent presence even over the phone. Hearing the breath of someone listening, knowing we are not alone in our grief or confusion, hurt or despair is profound. It can be life-altering even unto death.
In December retailers count on us to buy stuff. To spend as an expression of our affection or a sign of obligation to give what someone expects to receive. After the Twin Towers fell, President Bush told Americans to get out there and shop to show those who masterminded the attack that our way of life could not be brought down by destroying the great towers of trade. But as Rumi writes,
Out beyond ideas
of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.
In that field we are not called to shop or spend money to demonstrate love of country or family or self. We are invited instead to exchange the gifts than make us fully human: patience, trust, presence. The gifts necessary to live into a world where “the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense” because finally we realize we are one. Amen.