Blessed Impatience at Advent

Last Sunday, Eric Holder told me to be patient.

Sari Horwitz wrote a wonderfully comprehensive piece on federal clemency that appeared on the front page of the Washington Post that day. She had called me for the story, since I advocate for a more expansive use of the Constitution's pardon power. I run a student clinic here at St. Thomas and worked with Rachel Barkow to start a project at NYU, both geared to help long-term low-level non-violent drug prisoners get their sentences reduced. I know where the problem came from, since I helped create it as a federal prosecutor in Detroit in the 1990s.

When my phone rang, I happened to be walking through a train station, bag slung over my shoulder, weaving through passengers rushing to and from work. To be heard over the departure announcements, I held the phone close. I had talked to Sari before, and was eager to discuss new developments with her.

One of the things I described was my weekly phone call with a man in federal prison in Texas named Ronald Blount. He went to prison 16 years ago, sentenced to life without parole. His crime? Playing a small role in someone else's crack ring. He did commit the crime; he did it to feed his addiction to crack. He was so poor that he lived on his mother's porch and begged for change in a park. Yet, he was treated like a drug kingpin. His full term of incarceration will likely cost the federal government over a million dollars. His continued imprisonment solves no problem.

The Post reporter quoted me correctly:

"Something about that call gives me an urgency that I wish the president felt," Osler said. "I wish he would take a call from a prisoner every Friday and then decide if it's worth putting this off for another week, another month, another year."

In the next paragraph, former Attorney General Eric Holder responded:

Holder says he thinks "people just need to be patient."

It was flattering, of course, to have this kind of indirect dialogue with someone I greatly respect, who is more accomplished than I am. But there was something deeply discouraging about the instruction to be patient.

After reading that, I headed off to church. Not just any church, but First Covenant in Minneapolis, where I preach about twice a year and attend occasionally the rest of the year. It's a remarkable and ambitious place, where Lead Pastor Dan Collison has built up a striking and vibrant congregation of stalwarts, seekers, and misfits (I count myself in the last group). The sanctuary was darkened, and the mood was hushed. It was Advent there. In his sermon, Collison talked about patience, the calming of the heart.

It was a different kind of rebuke than Holder's though. Collison recognized that there is blessed patience, and also blessed impatience. Jesus healed a man on the day of rest, of course, and was challenged by the Pharisees. Jesus told them "I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or destroy it?" Then he healed the man.

I have no such power. So far, my efforts to free Ronald Blount and others have been fruitless. But is my impatience untrue to the spirit of Advent?

In a way, perhaps it is. The message of Advent can't be to stop trying, but it may be to do so more hopefully. The Savior did come. The waiting did end. Even in the darkness of a crumbling prison cell in Beaumont, Texas, there can be hope. That, too, is a part of this season, and this gift from God.