Patiently Impatient: God’s time v. human time

How can one be patiently impatient?  Scripture encourages us to be patient as we wait on the Lord to act.  It reminds us that God works on God’s time, not ours.  The bible is filled with centuries between the announcement of God’s promise and its fulfillment.  

At the same time, the prophets and our Lord Jesus Christ command us to be aware of injustices in the world and act speedily to do something about them.  To paraphrase James, faith without works is dead, so get on with it.  Jesus has told you what to do, so do it.   It feels like God wants us to be patient with ‘him’, but snap to it in our own lives.

God is not slow to act, but when centuries pass before big things happen, it makes one wonder.  God is more actively engaged in our lives than we can possibly imagine.  What seems like slowness is the hard work of preparing the way for the time to be right for the big event to unfold.  Why so long?  Because God never compels but only invites, and it takes stiff necked humans a long time to get the idea.

It took Jacob fourteen years to mature from selfish, conniving young adult to responsible, God fearing leader of his large family.  It took the people of Israel four hundred years to be ready to venture from Egypt to the promised land of Canaan.  It took a thousand years of learning from the time of David for the world to be ready for the promised son of David and Son of God to be born in Christ Jesus. It’s been two thousand years since then and we are still unwilling to follow in the way of love that Jesus pioneered and commanded us to take as bearers of the good news of life in abundance for all.  We are slow, stubborn, willful creatures, are we not?

In the meantime God is more active in the affairs of the world than is easily recognized.  Miracles, if you will, are not rare but common.  Despite of our inclination toward greed, selfishness, and self righteousness; despite our desire to seek vengeance instead of justice; despite our abuse of creation without concern for what it will do to future generations; despite our willingness to kill one another in senseless wars and domestic violence; despite it all and more, humanity inches forward towards becoming more moral beings.

When is the time to act?, asked the apostle Paul. Now is the time for today is the day of salvation. Does that mean the end is near?  It’s not for us to ask, not for us to speculate.  It is for us to bear the light of Christ, however we are able, to shine the light of the kingdom of God that is right here, now to illuminate the way of love for others to follow, if they will.  That is our work.  No follower of our Lord Jesus Christ will be measured by how successful they were, they will be measured only by whether they bore the light as best they were able. 

And the end times?  The question still remains.  Are we in the end times?  Yes we are, as the theologians say, in the already but not yet; we who bear the light of Christ are already walking in the kingdom of God, though not in its fulfillment.  As Paul wrote, now we see through a glass darkly but then we will see clearly.  When is that?  I am in my eighties: for me the end time is visibly near.  It’s the same for all of us regardless of age, but youth sees the end as far away, of no immediate concern.  The elderly are not so naive.  It’s not ours to worry about the end of time, it is ours to be aware of our own time on earth, and the responsibility we have to point others to the way of love.

A Gritty Christmas Story

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, or so the song says. It is for many.  For some it’s a time of grieving, loneliness, and guilt about failing to live up to the expectations of the season.  Nevertheless, the season remains a time when the sentimental ideal of good times, good friends, beautiful decorations, and wallowing in “the real meaning of Christmas.”

What is the real meaning of Christmas?  Hallmark Christmas movies offer one answer.  Sadly it’s an answer that satisfies only for the duration of the movie.  Another answer comes from equally sentimental stories of the prince of peace.  They remind many of what is desperately hoped for yet failed to achieve.  Sadly, it’s a hope that dissolves by New Year’s Eve, but it’s on the right track as far as it goes.

Another meaning stands well apart from all the other holiday declarations.  There is nothing sentimental about it.  It’s a scene set in a smelly stable where a young unmarried woman gives birth to the Word of God made flesh.  She and her husband to be are far from her home.  Although the heavens break forth with choirs of angels singing hymns of glory, they are seen only by a few shepherds keeping watch by night.  In that moment the history of humankind and all creation is changed forever.  Jesus’ birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection are one singular event proclaiming who God is. It is an answer to Job’s plea that God be present to him on human terms, as a friend and not a stranger, one who would destroy the power of death.  Jesus, the helpless baby, is the way of peace and life who opened the gates to eternity to all who accept it.  In Jesus, God responded to Job’s demand to confront him as one human to another by the Word being born in rough circumstances to live and die as one of us. In his resurrection he was finally and fully revealed as God incarnate.

It’s a gritty story from beginning to end.  It’s also a story of the supernatural and natural realities becoming one. There is nothing magical about it.  When the question is asked why God, if there is a God, doesn’t do something about all the evil in the world, the answer is God has acted, and this is it.  Through God in Christ Jesus, the way of life and peace is made known, affirmed by all. 

For me, the holiday season can and should be celebrated in every way.  Let good times and good cheer abound.  Let tokens of love and gratitude be exchanged.  Let tears of sadness flow until there are no more.  Most of all, let the Prince of Peace be your guide and guard, not for a season but for life.

© Steven E. Woolley

America Needs a New Conservative Movement: some guidelines

What passes for political conservatism today is reactionary libertarianism favoring the wealthy and powerful through authoritarian rule.  The nation needs an authentic conservative movement to balance political decision making, but this isn’t it.  A more authentic conservatism was once self defined as modern day Jeffersonian belief in small government, imposing few regulations on business and private  property, but providing for a robust defense leveraged against the least possible spending on social welfare.  Low rates of taxation were axiomatic. Conservative performance wandered far from its professed beliefs but nevertheless were firmly held.  Conservatives envisioned an America of independent small businesses, family farms, and self reliant people whose property and liberty were secure. It was a Thomas Kincaid vision of a land that never was but remembered as if it had been and could be again.

In the real world of America as it is, the vision has been enthusiastically endorsed by voices of big business because they see it as an all you can eat buffet just waiting to be gobbled up; a reality that has been acted out episodically whenever oligarchs have managed to gain control of public policy.

Daily reality seems to keep the conservative ideal just out of reach for the masses. Yet with enough money one can live in the right neighborhood, or better yet, gated community.  Crime, street crime, not the bigger crimes called white collar, are portrayed as  growing, out of control everywhere.  Addressing problems of social and economic inequities is seen as a ploy to strip rights and privileges from some in order to give them to others who have not worked for them.  Only stern application of old time Puritan ethics can keep taxes from becoming confiscatory, the national debt ruinous, and nanny state socialism from emasculating the American people. At least that’s been the trajectory since the Reagan administration, a trajectory that has led to today’s corrupted far right conservative movement aspiring to what can only be called neo-fascism.  

A new conservative agenda would protect the rights and liberties of every American who desires to be as self reliant as they are able by fiercely regulating the anti competitive instincts of big business, evenn breaking them up if they become too monopolistic.

A more robust conservative ethic would expect local problems to be solved at local levels, with national problems needing national solutions. Issues having no regard for state boundaries such as health care, environmental protection, essential social welfare services, national infrastructure, and the protection of rights guaranteed to all by the Constitution, the least of these being the current popular beliefs about the second amendment, would be handled on a national basis.

A renewed conservative movement would retain the cautiousness that is its hallmark knowing that liberals can be tempted to leap before they look, and fail to calculate consequences accurately.  Too much centralization of government authority can be as dangerous as too much centralization of big business indicating caution best be shown. Conservatives know that the little guy can too easily become a pawn in a game played by the rich and powerful, so they must question what any course of action will have on that little guy. Sadly, recent decades of conservatives have played the little guy for a fool while big business interests called the shots. It’s time for conservatives to conform deeds to words.

Conservatives like equilibrium, especially social equilibrium.  They will always be uncomfortable with rapidly changing demographics, liberal immigration policies, and demands for less inequity in society.  It means disequilibrium that is unsettling will need to be tolerated until a new stasis can be found, and who knows what that will look like?

It’s not that conservatives dislike change; they’re fine with it if they can understand its need, purpose, and ways in which cherished American values will be strengthened.  In other words, they want some assurance that the new equilibrium will not create new inequities that will likely disfavor their primary constituencies                           

that always include the upper middle class.  The value this kind of conservatism adds to American democracy is its caution, requiring liberals to prove their case and restrain their ambitions in order to achieve a workable compromise.  It infuriates liberals who want to get on with it as quickly as possible, but it also leads to a more manageable pace of change that doesn’t end with change so abrupt that it paralyses needed systems of social and economic life.

America very much needs, and does not have, this kind of conservative movement.  While seldom producing effective executive leadership, it’s the kind of conservatism that’s at its best when serving as the loyal opposition.

Jiang Zemin: a personal reflection

Former Chinese “president” Jiang Zemin died recently at 96. While I was head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce NYC office, I had the unique experience of spending a few days with him and his entourage during a visit to the city while he was still Mayor of Shanghai but slated to become the next leader of China. Why I was seconded to him is something of a mystery, but it worked out well. Since I had no product or service to sell, no authority to speak for the government or any special interest, and no particular standing in the pecking order of corporate America, he seemed eager to ask many questions about ordinary life in NYC and America in general. Of special interest to him were explanations of homelessness, beggars, mental health issues, housing for ordinary people, the way local government operated, and the differences between urban and rural America.  I attended most of his meetings and social functions with corporate leaders, and he was always curious about my assessment of their products, reputations and quality of leadership.  Maybe he figured that since I had nothing to offer and nothing to request from him, that I would be a less biased voice than others he was hearing.  Who knows?

He was equally forthright in sharing his belief that Americans were technologically advanced but basically uncivilized.  Compared to China’s three millennia of history, culture and wisdom, Americans appeared to him to be semi barbarians who had only recently traded tribal warfare for cutthroat commerce. I have some knowledge of China’s own history of internecine warfare, but was uncharacteristically smart enough to keep quiet.

My few days of being a minor presence as he attended to more important matters and persons came to a pleasant, unceremonious end, and that was that.  He went on to prepare China for the 21st century with a booming economy, global trade interests, technological advancement, the building of a strong middle class, and a more relaxed political environment.  Leaving Marxism far behind, he established the pattern for Chinese state capitalism. China’s current leadership seems intent on undoing it all, but I have my doubts about being able to stuff the people back into Mao jackets. 

Years after Jiang retired, my wife and I were on one of our visits to China. Knowing about my brief connection with the “president”, our government guide asked if I would like to visit him.  I declined, not wanting to bother him with a visit from someone he would not  remember, the unknown staffer from NYC who had nothing to offer and wanted nothing from him.  I regret that decision.  I would love to have had an hour or two to ask more questions, and learn from him what he had learned during his long tenure on the world stage.