Have we not become a quick fix culture? Whatever we need, whatever we do, of prime importance is speed. Jiffy Lube. Fast food. Instant oatmeal. One hour photo service. One day cleaners. Speed reading clinics. And we all have microwave ovens. Why? Only one reason that I can see. Certainly not the quality or results. Speed. Frozen dinner in seven minutes.
We are in a hurry. We want eight countries in eight days. We want to learn French in thirty. We get on Email so that we can send IMs. A friend buys a Blackberry because it is faster than a Treo.
Now, a lot of this is quite innocuous, if deceiving. More importantly it can erode respect for an older view that sees life quite differently, not as project that we can manage and control to our liking, but as process that we are invited to participate in with patience. In the Biblical record patience is right up there with the cardinal virtues of faith, hope, and love. Paul writes to Timothy, “You must be patient, my friend.. Pursue integrity, love, and patience.” Why? Why such an emphasis on patience. Well, first of all, it is not something that comes naturally to us as human beings. One thing I can tell you about the little ones who run around here at day school is this. For all their delightful ways, they are not characterized by an abundance of patience. Patience is a discipline that must be learned, internalized, made a part of one’s character.
And why so important? Because it is at the heart of faith, trust in God. “Rest in the Lord, wait patiently for him,” sings the prophet. The antidote to the modern disease of promethean control of the world around us, the anxious effort to nail everything down and plan for all eventualities, is recognition that it is not all in our hands, a recognition that leads to patience before the uncertainties and imponderables of life. James uses the model and metaphor of the natural world. We do our part but then rely on other powers to come into play. We plant the bulbs out behind, we water and weed and wait … wait in confidence, wait trusting in nature to take its course and produce the food or flower, but we must wait.
He insists: life’s like that. Here is a more reasonable and responsible way to approach our days, more in touch with reality, less likely to frustrate and disappoint. Neither passivity nor panic, but a patient acceptance of the time it sometimes takes for good things to happen for us and to us in life. Certainly this is the far wiser and healthier approach to our pursuits, our ambitions and dreams, even the inevitable struggles we encounter in the business of living. No doubt we are all inclined to opt out at times, when life does not run according to plan, when we become frustrated, disappointed, feel like we have lost control. We so easily forget that this is the way life is bound to be, we cannot always dictate and manage as we would like and if we are to accomplish anything at all it is going to take patient and persevering struggle, hanging in there, waiting for things to develop, trusting. The alternatives are quite simple according to this old word. We can indulge ourselves, our needs and demands, insist that life conform to our wishes and sow the seeds of the destruction of our souls. Or we can seek to live with a spirit of patient, waiting trusting that in due time things will work out for the good.
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Robert Spike was a young minister murdered on the Ohio State campus some years ago. This was found in his personal papers. “If I were to pick out one virtue for the real life, endurance would be a good one. To stand in the face of the storm, with courage and without panic, is perhaps a more needed ingredient of Christian love and faith than sympathy. This is not the endurance of the Stoic. That is cold and gray and built of despair. It is endurance that is warmed by the mysterious love of God, even in the worst of human situations. More than that, this evidence is a token of a final crazy trust that God shall fully reign over his creation.”
Patience as the trust that knows to wait on God. Wait on God and you renew your strength, sings the prophet. Nien Cheng spent six and a half years in solitary confinement at the age of 65. This was back during the cultural revolution in China. Out of this experience she wrote, “Is it not true that we all possess some destructive tendencies in our nature? The veneer of civilization is very thin. Underneath lurks the animal in all of us. If I had been brought up to worship Mao, I might have behaved even as did my guards. But I was not brought up that way. So I turned to my God often and felt his strength. My faith in the ultimate triumph of truth and goodness sustained me and gave me the patience and courage to fight on, to live from day to day.”
The patience of a trust that knows to wait. I keep around the words of George MacDonald. “Learn these two things: never be discouraged because good things get on so slowly here, and never fail to do daily the good which lies at hand. Do not be in a hurry but be diligent. Enter into the sublime patience of the Lord. Be charitable to yourself in view of it. God can afford to wait: why cannot we since we have him to fall back on? Let patience have her work and bring forth her fruits. Trust to God to weave your little thread into a web though the patterns show it not yet.”
Another area where our hurry gets us in trouble is in our relationships with one another. If patience is trustful waiting, it is also loving forbearance of one another. “Love is patient,” we hear in the famous love chapter. Why? Because authentic relationships, whether in marriage and family, or in the friendships of the larger world, take time, lots of time. But nothing comes quick or easy here, but how necessary if we are to know a rich and full life. Growth cannot be rushed, whether it is friendship or romance, geraniums or genetic offspring. Oh, you can put a little more fertilizer on and pick off the dead leaves, but you can’t grab it in your fist and jerk it to full maturity. Not with plants. Not with persons. Patient guidance and trust in the maturation process are more important in the long run.
I meet parents who despair of the future of their children when they are just sixteen. Let me insist that nobody knows what a sixteen-year-old is going to become. And they are all different. Like the flowers of the field they have their own growing seasons. The pace of the process varies with each child. Some of the greats, including Einstein and Edison were failures and mis-fits at sixteen. In the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge there is an early report card of his which reads, “Conduct has been extremely bad. He cannot be trusted to behave himself anywhere. He is always in one scrape or another.” But he did grow up.
A word about the terrible violation of human life this past week. I think Time magazine got it about right. Here was a young man who refused to grow up. Growing up means learning that other people have lives independent of our own. It is not their job to please us, applaud for us or even notice us – let alone die because we are unhappy. That he would have nothing of. And unfortunately encouraged by a celebrity culture, that markets instant gratification, skepticism toward moral codes and the politics of victimhood, suggesting that he would have been fine if only he received more attention. The real problem can be found in the killer’s mirror.
What patience is required of the parent to guide young steps so there is growth, to set limits and encourage direction, to discipline and embrace, to answer without irritation the endless questions, to patch up broken toys and broken hearts. What patience it takes to keep even a good marriage on an even keel, to adjust to different temperaments and changing needs, to harmonize conflicting interests, to wait for the moods to pass. Patience to live under the same roof for years without letting the nearness get on the nerves. What patience to live with the complaints and pains and troubles of those we try to help.
Arthur Gordon tells of a memorial service he attended for a prominent business leader. He writes that several distinguished persons eloquently delivered glowing tributes to the deceased man. Then, he said, a young man came forward. Whereas the other speakers were very much under control and self-assured, this young man was obviously under great emotional stress. So much so, that he could barely speak.
“A deep hush fell as he struggled for words. Finally, with tears welling, he told the gathering that when he was just an office boy, the businessman had noticed him, helped him, encouraged him, even helped him with his education. ‘For a long time,’ the young man said, ‘I was no good to him or anybody else. I just failed and failed and failed. But he was patient with me, so patient, never gave up, and so he never let me give up on myself.’ Now the man was gone and he had lost his best friend. When he sat down, I had the strange conviction that somehow all of us had been changed for the better, that a tiny part of each one of us would never be the same again.” There never is real relationship without patience and time.
The patience of waiting on God. The patience of forbearance of one another. And the patience of a purpose larger than ourselves. I know of no better illustration of the power of such a purpose than the story of William Wilberforce, a story told in the current movie, Amazing Grace. I have not seen the movie, but the reviews have been positive. I have long known the story.
Wilberforce was born into comfortable circumstances in 1759 in the port city of Hull, England, enabling what the English call a fine “public school” education, and when Wilberforce graduated from Cambridge he entered the House of Commons as Member for Hull at the age of twenty-one. His life was that of any young, wealthy, self-centered single of that time. Finally Wilberforce won the important seat of Yorkshire, this making him a man of power and significance in the politics of his day.
But then in the winter of 1784-85, through the influence of several peers including John Newton, the former slave trader – who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace – hence the title of the movie, Wilberforce in what he described as a deep, long drawn-out experience, discovered the spirit and person of Jesus. At the age of twenty-eight, Wilberforce came to a momentous decision.
There have been few more audacious statements of a life task than the words he wrote in his diary on October 28, 1787: “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the reformation of manners.” For the rest of his life Wilberforce labored in the commons and throughout the country, speaking, writing, pleading for what many thought unachievable- the total eradication of slavery from the British empire. Uprooting the terrible practice threatened the annual trade of hundreds of ships, thousands of sailors, and hundreds of millions of pounds sterling.
Wilberforce was opposed by some of England’s greatest heroes and most powerful forces including the Royal family, most of the Cabinet, and powerful vested interests. The strain of making his case led to exhaustion, fever, and a breakdown in his health. Many thought at one time that he was dying. He then recovered, and on May 10, 1788 introduced a motion to indict the traffic in slaves. Though feeling unwell, he spoke for three and a half hours. His motion was defeated. And so it went, year after year. In 1805, the abolitionists fell short by only seven votes. Wilberforce slumped in his chair, sorrow painted on his face, tears welling in his eyes.
Nineteen years later, in the wake of the French Revolution and on February 23, 1807, the House of Commons again debated his bill. There was a most dramatic moment when Attorney General Samuel Romilly, in his speech of support contrasted Napoleon in pomp and power, yet his sleep tormented by the blood he had spilled, with Wilberforce who would return after the vote to the bosom of his loving family.
Before he could finish, the House rose as one and turned toward Wilberforce with Parliamentary cheers. The House erupted in hurrahs. Wilberforce was scarcely aware of it. He sat, head bowed, tears streaming down his face. The bill carried by 283 to 16. The odious Slave Trade was ended.
But full emancipation of all slaves still remained to be achieved. In the year 1827 in his late sixties, in constant ill health, he proposed a last petition against slavery. He was ill of bed when he heard that the Emancipation bill had finally passed the House of Commons. Three days later, forty years after he had begun his fight, he died. William Wilberforce lies buried in Westminster Abbey. The patience of a powerful purpose larger than the self. But the point is that this is available to everyone of us. The Tribune nformed me last week that the happiest profession is that of the ministry. A close second and third were physical therapists and firemen, and I confess I did pause to wonder what the possible relationship between these three might be. But I can say that the rewards of the ministry for Marlene and me have lain in the sense of serving a purpose larger than ourselves, larger than the centuries, the purpose of Jesus and his people, and for it we are deeply grateful to you who have made it possible for us.
But that is a purpose far larger than our role here, a purpose that involves all of us in the nurture of this community of faith, a purpose that calls all of us beyond it to the world of careers and causes and care for human need where we all live. There is still slavery of many forms out there and there are still some manners that need reform. But it takes a patient faith and forbearance on the part of all of us to tackle them, trusting the future into the hands of a patient God.
Copyright 2007, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.