God is patient, giving us the time we need to become the men and women God created us to be.
Father Brian Joyce, pastor of Christ the King Parish, Pleasant Hill, California, has a list of what he calls the "Ten Commandments of Forgiveness." The seventh of those commandments is "Forgiveness allows a person who has offended us to start over."
In the parable of the barren fig tree, Jesus tells how God deals with human weakness, imperfection and failure. God is portrayed as the cultivating, solicitous gardener who tends the ailing fig tree. God is shown as patient. God gives us time to become the men and women that God created us to be. Some people achieve their true destiny in the early years of their lives. For others, it takes decades. For most of us, it takes our whole lifetime.
I'd like to share with you today the examples of three twentieth century Christians to show how God was patient with them and gave them the time they needed to develop into the people that we know today. The first one is Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Dorothy Day went through a series of lovers early in her life. She became pregnant by one of them and had an abortion. A while later, she got married, but the marriage didn't last. After one year, it broke up. Dorothy then took another lover and became pregnant again, but, this time, decided to keep her child. Not a very promising beginning for someone who is now being promoted for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. God was patient with her and gave her time to do what she had to do to move on to a deeper level of spiritual growth.
A second example is Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador during the bloody Civil War. Oscar Romero was elected to be bishop of El Salvador for one primary reason. Everyone thought that he would not rock the boat, that he would settle for the status quo in his country. But when Archbishop Romero looked around San Salvador and in the outlying areas of the country, what he saw was rich, powerful Catholics oppressing poor, powerless Catholics. Archbishop Romero took the position of the poor and championed their cause. For that, he was murdered at the altar while saying Mass.
God had to let Romero go through that period of being a mousey book-worm who was afraid to do anything that would ruffle anybody's feathers and gave him time to grow to the point where he saw with unclouded eyes the evil that was all around him.
My third example is a woman with whom you might not be familiar, but who is a famous spiritual writer of the mid-twentieth century. Her name is Caryll Houselander. Caryll Houselander lived in London, England throughout the bombings of the Second World War. In her earlier life--in the 1920s and 30s--Caryll left the Church. One day, she went to Sunday Mass and sat in somebody else's pew. (You know how people today like to stake out the territory in church. Well, in those days people actually paid for their pew--anyone remember the old pew rent collections?) When Caryll refused to leave that pew, the ushers came and dragged her out of church. She said, "I will never come back. Forget it. You will never see me here again." And I say, "Good for her!"
But that wasn't the end of Caryll. Those who knew her say that she liked to swear. She told off-color jokes, and she fell in love with a British spy, a shady character named Sidney Riley. Riley, being the kind of guy he was, ran off with another woman a year later and broke Caryll's heart. She carried that emotional wound for the rest of her life and never married. But the Caryll Houselander we know today is the one who returned to the church and went on to become a poet and spiritual writer. Fifty years after her death, people are still publishing books about her spirituality. One is Joyce Kemp's "The Spiritual Path of Caryll Houselander." Caryll Houselander, a wonderful, beautiful woman!
In each of these cases I've cited, God let these people go through their lives, make their mistakes. God was patient. God was the gardener, cultivating those lives because God hoped that they would respond to divine love by doing great things.
Unless we understand God's patience for our weakness and our failure, we can never take the parable of the barren fig tree to the next level of meaning. What is this deeper level? Having been the recipients of God's patience in our own lives, we now need to be patient with other people. Who are the difficult people in our lives? Who are the barren fig trees in our own backyard? It could be a spouse. Perhaps a brother or sister. It might be a teacher, or a boss, an employee or fellow-worker--any difficult person who is a thorn in our side every day. Who are they? Remember that that Seventh Commandment of Forgiveness is: "Forgiveness allows a person who has offended us to start over again"--to have a second chance, a third, and a fourth. Who is it who needs and deserves another chance from us today to respond to that loving cultivation that God is performing every single day in their lives? Who is that person?
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