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. Now, I admit that I am pretty fast and there is stuff in print not worth much time. But speed read Shakespeare?
We are in a hurry. We get on Email so that we can send instantaneous messages. One young college friend said, “Now I can contact home immediately.” “And do you?” I asked. “No, not much. I really can’t think of much to say.” We want eight countries in eight days. We want to learn French in thirty.
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. Mother Jones informs us about “dashboard dining.” The real answer to the ultra-harried lifestyle. Featuring such delectables as PJ Squares (processed peanut butter and jelly slabs, Yoplait Expresse (yogurt from a tube) and IncrEdibles (microwavable meals – scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese – on a stick), this new haste taste allows a hip, one-handed approach to dining that will surely appeal to our cell phone nation.
Now a lot of this is quite innocuous, if a bit deceiving. Creating the illusion that because we are moving fast, we are going somewhere.
But what if the ancient word is right? What if there are some things that you can’t hurry, some of the most important things in life. What if there are dimensions to our days here that by their very nature require patient struggle and long term endeavor. Indeed, some of the greatest gifts of life. Perseverance is part of your training in life.
So here we are at the beginning of Advent, once a period in the church year which called for prayer and fasting, waiting patiently for the coming of God into our lives once more. Its hymns are songs of perseverance. “Watchman, tell us of the night. What its signs of promise are.” But look what we have made of it, a scramble of hurry and worry.
Let me lift up several areas of life, important and precious, where only the long term counts. One is labor, labor as our contribution to the world. Of course, part of our problem is that we no longer view labor as a matter of contribution. So many seem to see it as something to be done as quickly as possible for as much money as possible so that they can get on to the real life of leisure and fun, travel and game.
But what if we are so constituted as human beings that we truly fulfill our selves and make a mark on the world only by long years of patient labor, plugging away. What if the real heart of my life is the duty that calls with each dawn at every age, and it is in doing that duty faithfully over the years that I finally realize my own happiness and make a contribution to my world.
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Perseverance is part of your training in life. The old word suggests we were not built for continual and aimless leisure. We all need tasks which challenge and stretch, to which we can give ourselves with patience and perseverance every day. Every one of us needs this.
This does not mean that we are to compulsively stick with a particular assignment if we seem to make no headway at all or discover that it is not appropriate to our gifts. Irving Berlin constantly encouraged Victor Borge to stick to the classics. One day Borge responded, “But Irving, every time I play Mozart, I hear a little voice that whispers, ‘Don’t play it. Don’t play it.'” “Do you recognize that little voice?” Berlin asked. “Yes, Irving. It’s Mozart’s.”
But it doesn’t mean giving up when the going gets hard, assuming that we are not made for strenuous contribution. The movie begins, “In 1938, a year of monumental turmoil, the number one newsmaker was not Roosevelt or Hitler. It wasn’t even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse trained by a virtually mute mustang breaker and ridden by a half-blind failed prizefighter. The race horse was Seabiscuit. He ran in 89 races, taking first 33 times, second, 15 and third 13.”
But I am grateful to Rick Telander, the columnist, for unearthing the story of the real “sea biscuit.” Laura Hillenbrand, the author of the book that has become the popular movie wrote this exceptional story over fifteen years while fighting off a mysterious disease whose symptoms were fever, vertigo, exhaustion, lymph nodes bizarrely swollen. Confined to bed, she lay flat for days, weeks at a time. If she could write at all, she did it in brief bursts, sometimes with her eyes closed to stop the room from spinning. She didn’t shower because walking to the bathroom was impossible.
She writes, “Outside the world went on. None of it had any relation to me. The realm of possibility began and ended in that room, on that bed.” When she felt any strength at all, she researched the world of Seabiscuit, via the phone and Internet and books. She wrote a paragraph, maybe two, a day. The horse and its handlers had become her surrogate friends, the citizens of her shadow life.
Telander concludes, “You can connect the dots, see the parallels of fate. You can see what was lucky in Hillenbrand’s unlucky life. See the telescoping of tales through the years. Maybe it’s a bit too sappy for your tastes. But it’s true. We create from what we lack, not what we have. We’re all little, hurt, knock-kneed in some way. And we shouldn’t give up.”
Now I have no idea where Hillenbrand got the inspiration to hang in there and do what she did. All I can say is that this spirit is in line with an older view of reality which cannot imagine life that does not have something to offer, that is not willing to patiently but persistently seek to make a contribution, that does not seek its labor for the day.
Another area where our hurry gets us in trouble is in our loves, our relationships with 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 we don’t have time, do we? Hence the push for instant intimacy, the passing relationships to fill up the void without settling down, without obligation. We can’t get along alone, but we are reticent about the ties that bind, the bonds of the enduring so we look for quick and easy substitutes. But the result is inevitably disappointment and disillusionment.
I have to wonder how many young marriages fail because one or both are not in it for the long haul. It takes many many years for a marriage to mature into deeply rewarding friendship. But so many seem to enter the institution with expectations of quick and easy bliss, that they are inevitably disappointed and inclined to run.
Certainly parenting is the patient endurance of the long haul.
How many young couples when they decide to have a child realize that they are signing on for several decades of hard often unrewarding labor. But we are so sure that we can program growth and maturity. We want our children to read at four, do calculus at 14, get their MBA at 24 and preferably make CEO by forty. Indeed, many parents seem to insist on early independence and competency so that they can get on with their own agenda. But it doesn’t work that way.
It takes time. Mary Beth Celio at the University of Washington reminds us that the importance of quantity time doesn’t diminish when children reach the teen years. Being woken up every three hours to nurse a ravenous baby is nothing compared to staying awake after a long day in order to mend the emotional needs of the child who didn’t make the basketball team, has gotten in over her head in a dating relationship, or has to decide what college to attend. I found it helpful to pray. I really had only two prayers, “Help me! Help me! Help me!” And “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
As usual, the late Erma Bombeck got the picture right. “Children are a lot like kites … You spend a lifetime trying to get them off the ground. Finally they are airborne, but then need more string and you keep letting it out, and with each twist of the ball of twine, there is a sadness that goes with the joy because the kite becomes distant, and somehow you know that it won’t be long before that beautiful creature will snap the lifeline that bound you together and soar as it was meant to soar … free and alone. But then, there comes the time when one kite or the other suddenly nose-dives toward the ground, and you have to be ready to patiently try to get it airborne again.”
Relationships of depth and reward take time. What patience it takes to keep even a good marriage going, to adjust to different temperaments and changing needs, to harmonize conflicting interests, to wait for the stages and moods to pass. Patience to live under the same roof for years without letting the nearness wear on the nerves. What patience is required of parents to guide young steps so there is real growth, to answer without too much irritation the endless questions, to patch up broken toys and mend broken hearts. What patience to share the inevitable worries and concerns, pains and troubles of the older ones in hospital and home.
Nothing comes quick or easy here, but how necessary if we are to know a rich and full life. And of course, there is no guarantee when it comes to human relationships because the future of the relationship also depends upon whether the other is willing to hang in there. United Press carried a story out of Taiwan of a young fellow who wrote 700 love letters to his girlfriend over two years trying to get her to marry him. The newspaper reported that the girl became engaged to the postman who faithfully delivered all those letters. But there never is real relationship without patience and time.
Our labors, our loves, and our own life of personal growth and maturity. If you look closely, you will see something central to the Biblical understanding of patience. We are called to the patient life-long struggle to make something of ourselves, to become the kind of human being that God calls us to be.
Our greatest project, our ultimate task in life is the building of a life fit for the God we will one day stand before. As Juergen Moltmann, theologian at Tuebingen, Germany has put it, ” Everyone of you is an artist and your art is a life well-lived.” “You must aim to be upright and religious, filled with faith and love, perseverance and gentleness. Run the great race of faith and win the eternal life to which you were called … do all that you have been instructed without fault or failure until the appearance of our Lord, which God will bring about in his own time.” It means to grow into the kind of life we see in Jesus. It means to approach something of his courage and grace, faith and hope. That is eternal life. A life of true quality and maturity. And if you are alive, then there is still growing to be done. If you are not growing, are you really alive?
And this is the one goal for which the reward is guaranteed.
A wise old man said this about himself. “I was a revolutionary when I was young, and all my prayer to God was: ‘Lord, give me the energy to change the world.’ As I approached middle age and realized that life was half gone without my changing a single soul, I changed my prayer to: ‘Lord, give me the grace to change all those who come into contact with me. Just my family and friends and I shall be satisfied.’ Now that I am old man and my days are numbered, I have begun to see how foolish I have been. My one prayer now is: ‘Lord, give me the grace to change myself.’ If I had prayed this right from the start, I would not have wasted my life.”
This is no counsel of despair about changing the world, no call to give up helping others. It underlines the reality that unless I can manage my own life, unless I can grow towards the person I ought to be, I will have little power in any other place or realm. James Michener was the author of giant volumes which many of us have enjoyed, The Source, Hawaii, The Covenant, Poland, to name a few. Michener was also a man without a birth certificate. Abandoned as an infant, raised as a foster-son in the Michener family headed by a widowed woman, James never knew his biological parents. He said he came to peace with this vacuum in his life, but it is easy to see why he found pleasure in inventing extensive genealogies and deep cultural roots for all his characters in each new novel.
Despite his generous spirit and kind nature, Michener’s accomplishments raised the ire of one of his adopted-clan kin. In a rage of jealousy, mean-spiritedness and sheer nastiness, some anonymous relative – self-signed “a real Michener” – felt impelled to write hate-filled, hurtful notes to James whenever his name gained fame or newspaper space. Even after his Pulitzer Prize, this poison-pen writer charged Michener with besmirching the good Michener name – which he said, “You have no right to use” – and denounced him as a fraud. But the phrase this anonymous hatemonger thrust the most deeply under Michener’s skin was, “Who in hell do you think you are, trying to be better than you are?”
The final letter he received from his unknown relative came in 1976 after President Ford had presented James with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The acidic note read, “Still using a name that isn’t yours. Still a fraud. Still trying to be better than you are.” Michener testified that the “words of that cry were burned into my soul.” But amazingly Michener was able to turn the negative power of that accusation into a life challenge. Michener admits to missing the nasty letters when his relative presumably died: “He was right in all his accusations.” Michener confessed, “I have spent my life trying to be better than I was, and am brother to all who have the same aspiration in life.”
“I have spent my life trying to be better than I was.” In the words of one who also gave his life to that challenge, “steady your weary hands and trembling knees, and make your crooked paths straight. Perseverance is part of your training in life.”
Copyright 2003, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.