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A reflection on patience

As we walk through this Advent season, don’t let ourselves be robbed of its enormous value by viewing it simply as ‘getting ready for Christmas’ – make space for the unexpected encounter with Christ. By Paul Goodliff

Waiting hands

While the world was rocked by the news of Donald Trump’s election as the next President of the United States of America, I travelled into London to participate in a theological reading group that meets twice a year at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.

The book we were discussing was by the Mennonite scholar (and one-time Director of the Centre for Christianity and Culture at Regent’s Park College, Oxford — our Baptist college in that great University), Alan Kreider: entitled The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (Baker, 2016). In it he explores why the virtue above all others that was prized by the church in the first four centuries of its existence was patience. We have been thinking about the virtues this year at Abingdon Baptist Church, where I am one of the ministers, and they figure largely in this year’s text (Colossians 3:12).

As we enter that great season of waiting — Advent – it seems appropriate to reflect upon patience.
Throughout the period of the early church North Africa was part of the Roman Empire. The region that we now know as Libya and Tunisia was one of the bread baskets of the Empire, and in its regional capital, Carthage, there was a flourishing church.

The North African church produced some remarkable theologians, but the key one for our purposes was its bishop, Cyprian, in the mid-250s AD. He faced conflicts within the church, especially with lapsed Christians who wanted to return to the fold after an earlier and harsh persecution, and he had disagreements with the church in Rome that was already emerging as the centre of the Christian world in the West. He also faced a fresh wave of persecution from the Imperial authorities, while his city was ravaged by the plague.

His response was to encourage his flock to faithful endurance of the huge pressures upon them, and to live faithfully, even to death if needs be, and remain true to Christ: “we do not speak great things but we live them,” he wrote. In our day we might say “we don’t just talk the talk, we walk the walk!”

He relates this faithful response to difficulties to the virtue of patience in his treatise, De bono patientiae, “On the Good of Patience.” God is patient, he argues, and so must we be.

Fifty years earlier another Carthaginian leader, Tertullian had also written on patience, (De patientia, written about 204) the first treatise on a particular virtue by a Christian, while 200 years later another north African, the great Augustine of Hippo, wrote his own book on patience about 417. All these writers saw that patience was the most important virtue for the persecuted Christian, and that by forming believers as people of patient endurance, the church grew by its witness to an alternative way of living to the usual violent imposition of power in the Roman world. After all, had not Jesus endured the cross rather than call down a legion of angels to rescue him from suffering?
We find patience a tricky virtue these days. In our sense of helplessness when faced with seemingly intractable difficulties, and witnessing to Christ in a secular and unbelieving world, our first response is to ask the question “What can we do?”

Or when change is slower than we wish, we wonder how we might manipulate the situation to engender faster progress. Our world is replete with impotent activism, and the answer to some problems seems to be to engage the enemy with bombs and bullets, as if doing nothing is not an option. I wonder if that sense of impotent rage lies at the bottom of that reckless adventurism in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya that has added considerably to the international crises of our day, or, indeed, that brought Donald Trump the keys to the White House on a wave of disadvantaged white male anger at their loss of status in America, let alone a globalised world?
Now, I am not sure that I want to advocate doing nothing when we consider our response to the challenge to go and make disciples of all nations, but believing that a technological answer in the form of a course or two to satisfy our need to do something (even if that course is Alpha) is sufficient is, I think, deeply misplaced.

Rather it will be the formation of people of deep trust in Christ, prayerfulness and quiet faithfulness to the gospel that will count as much, if not more. Kreider has observed elsewhere that we make joining the church far too easy these days, as if adding to our numbers is all that matters, and that coming to Christ is just another life-style choice instead of the most important question of life.

Instead, the early church held the conviction that if joining the church might well cost you your life, you’d better form people of character and endurance to run and finish the race, even if its close was in a Roman arena being mauled by wild animals and dispatched by a gladiator! Who we are that bear witness to Christ is almost more important than how we do so, which is quite counter-cultural today.
Which is why this season of Advent reminds us so profoundly that we are to be a patient people who have learned what it is to wait. To wait to see the answers to our prayers, to wait and trust that God is working his purposes out and to wait upon our Lord who ‘with patience endured the cross.’

For our secular world (and secularised church culture) Advent is merely those weeks that run up to Christmas, and I fear the church has fallen for this subversion of Advent almost as much as the world has. We so fill it with carol services, with preparations for Christmas and anticipation of that joyful time that we avoid entirely the penitential, quiet waiting that Advent is all about. Like our culture, we want all the gain, but with little pain, all the joy with a minimum of sorrow.

However, for a church facing the challenge of witness to an increasingly contradictory world, the meaning of Advent is far more important than Christmas; the lessons we learn from quiet waiting far more important than those we gain from the feasting of Christmas; and the preparation of our lives to be faithful witnesses to Christ’s way more fully exercised in Advent’s call to ‘wait and see that the Lord is good’ through prayerful searching after God, than in the soul-numbing culture of Christmas, all-too-often almost entirely eviscerated of encounter with the One after whose birth it is named.
So, as we continue to walk quietly through this Advent season, don’t let yourself be robbed of its enormous value by viewing it simply as ‘getting ready for Christmas’. Make space for the unexpected encounter with Christ as we wait on him, wait with him, and, like Mary — waiting to give birth to her firstborn (likewise my daughter-in-law, as Gill and I wait to become grandparents for the fifth time) — wait for him. Then we might find a measured response to all that frightens us and bewilders us in a world order that may turn desperately unpredictable as a new year breaks.


Picture: Umit Bulut/Unsplash

The Revd Dr Paul Goodliff is co-minister of Abingdon Baptist Church and Associate Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College.


Baptist Times, 29/11/2016
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