The Candle of Patience

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a brand-new year of worship. To mark the occasion, as you have seen, we have struck a brand-new advent wreath, and lit the first of its candles.

Though wreaths have been around for a LONG time––all the way back to the Roman Empire, in fact––we owe Advent wreaths, not to mention our Christmas trees, to our German Lutheran friends, who introduced them as early as the 16th century. To Lutherans, both the wreath’s unbroken circle, and its evergreen greenery, represented eternal life.

It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that the modern advent wreath began to take shape.

But again, we owe this to our Lutheran friends; in particular, a German pastor named Johann Heinrich Wichern, who lived from 1808-1881. Wichern was what we would now call an “urban,” or “inner city” missionary. He worked with the poor, whom social change had disenfranchised, and founded mission schools for neglected and/or abandoned children.

At his Hamburg school, Rauhes Haus (or Rough House), founded in 1833, every year Wichern grew tired––one presumes good-naturedly––of having the children ask him one question over and over again; one notorious question, as December approached; namely, “Is Christmas here yet?” My siblings and I asked the same question of our parents on our occasional trips to Vancouver, or our summer vacations to Nakusp, or Christina Lake, in between counting cows or fighting over colouring books: “Are we there yet????”

So in 1839, Wichern took an old cartwheel and placed in it 20 small red candles, and four big white candles. And then, every day until Christmas, he lit a candle; red candles on weekdays,

and white candles on Sundays. This fascinated the children, (and everyone else who heard about it!!) . . .And so his idea caught on. By the 1920’s Roman Catholics in Germany began adopting the idea, and by the 1930’s the custom spread to North America.

In time, the 24 candles were reduced to five; one for each Sunday preceding Christmas, and a fifth to represent Christ, lit only on Christmas. And as for the first four candles, the Sunday candles, they began to acquire meanings; symbolic meanings:

Hope/Peace/Joy, and Love, respectively;

The Prophet’s Candle; The Bethlehem Candle; the Shepherds’ Candle, and the Angel’s Candle, respectively.

And there are certainly others.

But this year––this exceptional year––I have decided to give the candles names, and meanings, of my own. And the first candle is––drumroll please––the Candle of Patience. It is the Candle lit, for those who wait.

Patience, in fact, is one of the fruits of the Spirit. There are nine fruits of the Spirit, as listed in Galatians 5, and in that list, patience stands in fourth place:

But the fruit of the Spirit, writes Paul, love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Patience stands almost in the middle; as if it were patience were the centerpiece; the hub of the wheel; the fruit from which all other fruits radiate.

And now, in a time of Covid, it would seem that this fruit of the Spirit, is needed––even desperately needed––as never before. Covid time, a mandatory pause in ordinary life,” writes Andrew Fiala—whether we like it or not, we are having to take “a viral sabbatical.” [And so,] let’s rebalance and build better habits. Let’s learn to enjoy simple goods and reduce over-consumption. Let’s learn to care better for the sick and the suffering. Let’s view this crisis as an opportunity to unearth the treasures of wisdom. And let’s work to develop patience.”

But how? How?

I remember how charming it was, some years ago, to hear a Sunday School child recite the fruits of the Spirit, in order . . . But for most people, there’s nothing “charming” about having to exercise patience; or cultivate what psychologists now term, “delayed gratification.” It may be one of those great “without which nots” of spiritual life. But most people want they want––thank you very much––and they want it now!!! An end to Covid. An end to mask-wearing. An end to waiting for the vaccine. An end to having to worry about, and second guess, everything we say and do, all for something we hardly deserve.

In 1970, the American psychologist and Stanford professor Walter Mischel conducted an experiment which has since been dubbed the Marshmallow Test. He led 32 children––16 boys and 16 girls, with a median age of four-and-a-half––into a room; a room empty of distractions; where a treat of their choice (either 2 animal cookies or 5 pretzel sticks––though later marshmallows were used––) were placed on a table . . .The children were then told that they could go ahead and eat the treat if they wanted to:––but if they waited 15 minutes without eating it, then they would be rewarded with a second treat. The researchers then left the room. But of course, sneaky psychologists that they were, they retired to a second room where they could discreetly observe what happened in those 15 minutes.

Remember, the children had nothing else to distract them. As it happened, some children covered their eyes with their hands and/or rested their heads on their arms . . . In other words, they devised various ways of averting their eyes from the reward objects . . . Some children talked to themselves; they sang; they invented games with their hands and feet; or did whatever else they thought would get them through that awful period of waiting––not 15 minutes of fame, but 15 minutes of waiting––without giving in!! Some even tried to fall asleep while they waited, which one child actually managed to do!!

Other similar experiments followed, with different variations. And not only this, but Mischel continued to study these children, some of them, as they grew up, and discovered that those most able to delay gratification––or wait, or exercise patience––had an easier time, in life, according to various indices, as older persons . . .

No wonder the makers of apothegms or aphorism love to hold forth about patience. After all, it seems the ultimate virtue: “Patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting.” “One minute of patience, ten years of peace.” “With love and patience, nothing is impossible.” “Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.” And so on.

But how? How? How can we be patient?? How can we possibly hold on any longer, in this difficult, and terrifying, time? How? By keeping in step with the Spirit of God, that’s how. After all, patience is hard won. It really is. According to the Apostle Paul, patience, is a process.

In other words, while you may light the candle of patience today––and think nothing of it. But you’re gonna have to light it again, tomorrow. And the next day, and the next day.

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith,” wrote Paul to the Romans, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings––(now that’s rather an odd thing to say, Mr. Paul)––

because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Suffering produces perseverance, (or what we might called “applied patience”;) perseverance, character; and character, hope. It’s a process!! It doesn’t happen overnight, by the magical waving of the divine hand. It’s work, hard work. But in time, fruit is borne: fruit that lasts.

“You did not choose me,” but I chose you,” ––Jesus once told the disciples–– “And appointed you! Appointed you! to go and bear fruit––fruit that will last.” The bearing of fruit is our job!!! More than anything else in the Christian life, showing love; having joy; making peace; developing patience; manifesting kindness; demonstrating goodness; and modeling faithfulness, is our JOB!

As a minister, of course––to state the obvious––I visit with a lot of folks who are going through tough times; who are struggling with what might otherwise called depression. And the first thing I tell them, is to be careful not to allow themselves to feel “depressed about being depressed,” as many do. As I have done, a time, or two, or three. Now that may seem to be an odd thing to say,

but many people who are struggling through tough times immediately feel guilty about it. They do!!! As if they have failed themselves; or failed their friends and family; or failed God . . .

But being depressed is not a crime. It’s not a sin. It’s not an expression of your inadequacy as a person; or the manifestation of an inwardly rebellious spirit for which, or on account of which, you now need to clothe yourself in sackcloth, and bathe yourself in ashes, and feel even more depressed than you already are. Going through tough times is part of the human condition, and is often the result of some very complex forces. So above all, in my humble opinion, depressed people need to cut themselves some slack if they ever hope to heal.

Similarly, to become patient, people need to learn––as this too may seem crashingly obvious–to be patient about being––or becoming––patient. It’s not gonna happen overnight. It’s a process.

But the good news is that suffering, if we accept it; if we reflect on it; if we give it God; (and most of all) if we dare to allow him to use it, (as only he can); will produce perseverance!!

It will!!! And perseverance or applied patience will produce character. And character will bring hope. And as for hope, it will not put us to shame.

We just have to keep lighting that candle day after day after day.

It’s not about developing some sort of glorious virtue––classical or otherwise––to purpose of which is to enhance one’s standing as a person before God and man, like the earning of some sort of medal which one can then proudly pin on one’s chest, for all to see. It’s much deeper than that.

The ancient Greeks liked to describe God––or in their case gods––in terms of his or her or their virtues. “God is omniscient; omnipotent; and omnipresent,” said they. In other words, “He is all knowing, all powerful, and present everywhere all at once.” But this somehow misses the point. God is not some abstract aggregate of virtue. He is a person who entered into history, as a baby no less, who manifested his glory. The Lord Jesus preached, taught, and healed. He loved men and women and boys and girls more than they had ever loved themselves.

So learning patience is not about developing some sort of “virtue” henceforth to be admired, and credited to one’s favour, like a badge worn by a boy scout. It’s about developing a deep relationship with God, a back and forth with God––both a speaking and a listening––as we wait, and watch, and pray––often, if the truth be told, very privately.

It was a series of small lessons, of course, but as a child I was taught to wait. We were never allowed to bolt from the table at dinnertime, having finished ahead of everyone else. We had to wait until everyone was finished, and then ask to be excused. On Christmas morning we had to wait until my father and mother got up, before we ever allowed to dive in to the “treasures of the tree.” And even then, we were only allowed one present at a time, carefully doled out by my father.

“I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of the Lord’s wrath,” wrote the prophet Jeremiah.

“He has driven me away and made me walk
in darkness rather than light,”

“I have been deprived of peace;
and have forgotten what prosperity is.

Yet this I “call to mind”
and therefore I have hope:

I call it to mind day after day after day,

(Like lighting a candle of mindfulness.)

“Because of the Lord’s great love I am not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.

In fact they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The Lord is my portion;
––not being virtuous for the sake of being virtuous,

or being admired for the same––

The LORD is my portion, and I will wait for him.”

“Those who wait upon the LORD,

will renew their strength,” wrote Isaiah,

“They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.”

It’s at this time of year that we always remember two extraordinary people. A man named Simeon, and a woman named Anna. They spend their entire lives being patient––a patience, I have no doubt, hard won––the waiting for the Promised One: the Messiah, even Jesus.

Simeon is described by Luke as “righteous and devout;” one who was “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” In other words, He would not give up, nor give in, until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah with his very own eyes. And when he met the infant Jesus, he took the Lord in his arms and said, famously:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

Anna, a prophetess, was widowed early in life. Yet she worshipped the Lord day and night at the Temple, fasting and praying. She too waited. And when she met Jesus, for whom she had waited untold years, she gave thanks to God . . . And then began to tell everyone she could about the child; the child who would redeem Israel.

Today, on the first Sunday of Advent, let’s light a candle of patience to the Lord, in Jesus’ name.

It’s needed as never before.