Holy Impatience

By Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

In 1963, while Martin Luther King Jr. was in the Birmingham, Alabama jail, he received criticism from white clergy for being “unwisely and untimely.” His response, written from his cell, may be one of the most powerful pieces on the urgency of justice and the tension of privilege.

On the subject of waiting he writes, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied’ …. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

Advent is the season for waiting, which sharpens our attention to how we wait and what we are waiting for. It is easy to say that in general I am waiting for shalom, for the birth of Christ’s peace into the world. It is harder to get specific, especially when the particular prompts painful transformation within me and the systems I rely on.

From a place of privilege, I confess that I sometimes manipulate the waiting into procrastination. The white clergy in the 1960s were uncomfortable with King’s civil disobedience. They knew what was coming was nothing less than radical reform and the cost was high. It called for confrontation of not only a racist society, but also the lingering racism in their own hearts. “Just wait- I’m not ready,” they said, not maliciously as much as fearfully.

In the glitter and glow of this almost-Christmas time, I can forget the high cost of the birth of Christ that is almost upon us. In the waiting of Advent, we are not sitting passive or idle. We are allowing the Spirit to work within us. We are noticing the signs of our deepest hope coming alive along the way. We are cultivating the ground of soul for the God-seed that will die and become bread at the tables of the hungry. We are hearing with greater receptivity the impatient cries of the most vulnerable and oppressed with whom the Christ we wait for spent his life. When Advent comes to an end, when the waiting is over, will we have the courage to accept the new life placed in our hands for the healing of the world?

We must honestly discern within ourselves,
For what am I waiting expectant? (Poised)
For what do I procrastinate the arrival? (Resistant)

We learn slowly that this Advent waiting is not a linear process that happens once a year. The Christian seasons reveal to us the rhythms and patterns of life found consistently in discipleship. We know Christ’s peace is already here, accessible and urgent. We know it is coming, always being revealed. We hold this paradox in our hearts as we face the enormity of injustice before us. The waiting is for the forming of our lives into the Christ who gives all for the sake of others. We are to discern carefully, in every season, when action is required and when patience is action. This requires maturity in the spiritual life, honesty about our motivations, and the desire to be deeply rooted in God’s Spirit as the source of all movement, as was the Christ we await.

“Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively,” writes Dr. King, “… We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

How are we called to use time constructively and creatively this Advent season for the particulars of Christ’s peace to change our lives and world?

This Advent, may we grow legitimately and unavoidably impatient for justice.

Spiritual Practice: Repeat the two questions above in your own heart to discover where you wait expectant and where you procrastinate the prompting of the transforming Spirit. Pray for the courage to be a co-worker with God, attentive to each moment where the time is ripe to do what is right.

If you want to read the whole Letter from Birmingham Jail, you can find the text here: http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

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