Persistence is a Virtue: Reflection on a Year of the Pandemic
Speaker: The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
February 28, 2021
Sermon for Sunday, February 28, 2021
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
On the Anniversary of a Pandemic: Persistence is a Virtue
They say, “patience is a virtue.” They say that don’t they? When the pandemic began this time last year, I was all on board with this concept of patience being a virtue and a mark of good Christian ethics.
At first it was simply a two week pause, remember, to flatten the curve. Initially, I rejoiced at the extra time at home with my husband who was suddenly working from home. We even caught-up on all of our partially watched Netflix shows. Then, as it became apparent that more than just two weeks’ worth of patience would be needed, I expanded my interests to website design, learning video editing for the church, and baking. I learned to run outside instead of at a gym.
We watched our way through countless TV shows and movies. All activities with friends and family were and continue to be cancelled. Suddenly gone were the warnings from my 1990’s and 1980’s childhood against “too much television being bad for you.” “Don’t sit too close to the screen.” “Don’t you know that will hurt your IQ!” The best thing for us now is more time with screens and less time outside or with people. It was sort of an upside-down world from what I had known. The spring, then the summer and then the autumn passed by viewed from behind a screen. “Patience is a virtue,” I would tell myself. By the time this winter came, “patience is a virtue,” started to leave a bad taste and sound ironic at best.
Every phone call to a bank, a utility or internet company, God forbid the Connecticut DMV, or the vaccine sites, or Yale Medicine all result in a disembodied electronic voice reminding us: “Your call will be answered in the order in which it was received. You may experience longer hold times due to the ongoing Coronavirus Pandemic. Thank you for your patience.”
“Patience is a virtue,” they say. I burnt out of screen time with all of the zoom meetings and worship video editing around November. I just couldn’t spend my downtime after the whole work day on the computer, also with TV shows and screens. So, Gerhard and I switched from TV to reading and board games. At first, I read books that people think clergy should read like memoires and philosophy and books by the likes of Diana Butler Bass and Nadia Boltz Weber and others about other successful churches, but they all somehow seemed outdated and out of touch with our new reality. Anything a cloistered academic wrote about the church in 2008 or even 2018 just doesn’t resonate today as relevant or helpful or even real.
Still, I told myself, “patience is a virtue.” I switched to reading something I never thought I would read. I switched to the only fiction that could match our wild and unpredictable and surreal reality. I changed my reading list to the novels written by the father of a Unitarian Universalist Minister, a person who grew-up and based many of his books on a traumatic childhood in Stratford, Connecticut. It is notable that this author spent his childhood living at the same site in Stratford as the 1651 hanging of Goody Bassett by our congregational ancestors in this New Haven Colony. Everything leads back to Connecticut, doesn’t it? Much to my shock, as someone who cannot even watch scary movies, since Thanksgiving I have been reading one Stephen King novel after another.
Ghosts and ghost stories always interested me as expressions of folktales and ethical dilemma. I see why one of King’s children ended-up becoming a clergyperson. Despite some of the gore, which I wince at, there is a lot of interest in the deeper questions of life and death, addiction, the existential crisis in all of us, personality conflict, and loss wrapped into his writing. Surrealism helps us see our own reality and true dangers.
As it turns out, ghosts in It or The Shining or Christine don’t keep me up at night as much as our socially isolated and distanced existence and its long-term consequences for our mental and spiritual health. Talk about a horror story! No clown named Pennywise hiding in a gutter can scare me half as much as the injustices and voter suppression efforts happening in our times. No murderous Plymouth Furry is as terrifying as the real racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and hate brought into the mainstream in our times as we witnessed first-hand in the Zoom Bombing of our Annual Meeting. Talk about a horror story!
So, let’s talk about the kind of phantoms that do scare me. It certainly isn’t the kind that Stephen King conjures up in his novels. The ghosts that scare me the most are ghosts of language that enable disempowerment and disengagement and apathy to take root. Many of this kind of ghost are misattributed to the Bible.
In 2011, CNN published an article by religion, race, and politics correspondent John Blake called Actually, That’s Not in the Bible. Blake writes, “The Bible may be the most revered book in America, but it’s also one of the most misquoted. Politicians, motivational speakers, coaches - all types of people - quote passages that actually have no place in the Bible… These phantom passages include: “God helps those who help themselves.” “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” None of those passages appear in the Bible, and one is actually anti-biblical, scholars say. But people rarely challenge them because biblical ignorance is so pervasive that it even reaches groups of people who should know better… Ignorance isn’t the only cause for phantom Bible verses. Confusion is another… Some of the most popular faux verses are pithy paraphrases of biblical concepts or bits of folk wisdom. Consider these two: “God works in mysterious ways.” “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Both sound as if they are taken from the Bible, but they’re not. The first is a paraphrase of a 19th century hymn by the English poet William Cowper.”
“Patience is a virtue,” is one of these ghostly expressions that we believe is in the Bible—but it really isn’t. It is a pseudo-scripture that we take for granted as truth. These are ethical norms and statements that live quietly in our subconscious as assumed truths. They are ghostly relics of old hierarchical times, racism, paternal societies, Victorian, Tutor, or even Miltonian era ideas that exist in our lexicon and influence our behavior. Moreover, we mistakenly give them the power of Scripture. These are the real dangerous ghosts when left unconsidered or challenged.
“Patience is a virtue,” came from the 1300’s or the 1400’s England and is attributed to many sources including Piers Plowman, Cato the Elder, and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. It comes from a time when people were asked to be patient their whole lives with the injustices of their overlords. Patience is a virtue is an unquestioning posture. It is anachronistic and antithetical for today. It is a phrase that can be useful in moderation, sure, but I believe we have reached the end of patience and a time when a new word is needed to describe the existential experience of waiting and waiting and waiting.
The word patience is defined as, “the ability to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without,” and here is the kicker, “getting angry or upset.” Even more telling than its definition is the etymology or origin of the modern English word “patience” which comes from patientia in Latin meaning “of or related to the quality of suffering.” Endless patience as virtue and the Doctrine of Sacrificial Atonement are one and the same in practical effect and theological origin.
While our Scripture from Psalm 22 has often been used as justification for patience, accepting pain and suffering without recourse (so Victorian and condescending), I don’t believe that is what God is asking for from us in Psalm 22: “For dominion belongs to God, who rules over nations…Posterity will serve God; future generations will be told about God, and proclaim God’s deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that God has done it.”
Patience, which is suffering without complaining or getting angry, is certainly not a bad thing in moderation. It can be a virtue if demanded for a short time. But our Scripture passage is talking about what we are in need of now—at a year into pandemic living with months at least (even with vaccines) yet to go. We need a new word for the state of mind needed for March 2021.
Psalm 22 is a story of a patience that is greater than one generation can muster or even centuries of waiting courageously for God’s realm—and with hope intact. Psalm 22 exorcises the phantom Scripture “patience is a virtue” from our lexicon. Psalm 22 is talking about something that is needed when we can no longer muster patience, when the wait is longer than we can stand, and yet we are not failing at our valor or virtue in our efforts. You have not failed in virtue when you are no longer capable of suffering, isolation, boredom, stress without at least some anger or being upset. If you have become impatient, I want to affirm that. You are no less virtuous because of it. We have not failed as Christians or as virtuous people when our patience is gone—kaput.
Here is the replacement I want to offer to describe our current state of mind—persistence. The word we need now and the phase we should have instead is, “Persistence is a virtue.” This can be derived from Psalm 22 and Scripture…persistence. Persistence means, "steady or firm adherence to or continuance in a state, course of action, or pursuit that has been entered upon, especially if more or less obstinate," and it comes from an old French word meaning, “lasting, enduring, permanent."
“Patience is a virtue,” when applied long-term, is an expression that was manufactured to take away hutzpah, to put people in their place, and to keep hope just out of reach of the complacent, subjugated masses. It denoted by its history and definition a willful suffering. From this point forward, I am going to replace patience in every sentence where it could be found with persistence instead and see how it transforms reality and perspective. Imagine the phone call: “Thank you for calling. You may experience longer hold times due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. Thank you for your persistence.” How does that change things for you?
In one popular commentary on Psalm 22, Episcopal author and preacher Nora Gallagher writes, “This is a sad, tragic, remorseless poem. David [to whom Psalm 22 is attributed] must have understood some horrible truth, undergone some awful event, to have written so beautifully about torture, pain, physical affliction, and, worst of all, abandonment.”
And yet… at the end of this Psalm we don’t find patience in waiting for the realm of God. Rather, despite the stark honesty about the human experience, we find a persistent declaration that, “Posterity will serve God; future generations will be told about God, and proclaim God’s deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that God has done it.”
I believe it is time for a vocabulary shift for the sake of virtue and courage! As you are waiting for a vaccine appointment, be persistent. As you wait with courage to hug a family member, be persistent. We should not deny the anger and the suffering implied by patience. I believe we must replace patience with persistence because, at this point, our patience has been abused, exhausted, and is no longer realistic. Patience has lost its salience. Like the author of Psalm 22, we have seen some ghosts and we now understand some “horrible truths,” as Gallagher writes, about the fragility of our society and world. Yet, like the generations of Psalmists, we persist in hope.
Stephen King novels have taught me a lot about how to fight ghosts. Most ghosts are best coped with by coming up with new ways of speaking and new ways of thinking about the experiences we share. By finding new language together, we can move forward with hope and courage like the author of Psalm 22.
They do say, “patience is a virtue.” Now, I know it is time to challenge the idea of endless patience as virtue, for Psalm 22 shows that persistence—the kind I see all of you demonstrating every day with courage in the face of the unimaginable times we now face—is the true virtue of this age. Let us persist together, amen.
 Nora Gallagher, “Good Friday: Psalm 22,” in Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, edits. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 287.