“Are we nearly there yet?” It`s the question often heard from the back seat of the car during one of those journeys that seem to take forever.…..In my experience it ranks alongside going into the kitchen and asking, “Mum, what`s for tea?” And you get the reply ”Wait and see!”. I don`t know about you but I was always being told that waiting was good for me…. But it didn`t seem so at the time and I really didn`t like being told “Patience is a virtue”. But things change and I`ve been thinking that those are four words you rarely hear these days. It`s almost as if virtue is to be found in quite the opposite. People will compliment themselves on NOT having to be patient.
So often it would seem that sharp elbows are the order of the day; “Oh, I haven’t got time for that”… we say…. and irritation or lack of patience for instance, behind the wheel of the car seems endemic. We`re even accustomed to the experience of what`s called `trolley-rage` as the supermarket queue becomes ever more competitive and impatient. So much for the British enjoying a good queue! No, today`s virtue, if that`s what we should call it is in having sufficient clout so that we don`t have to be patient.
Beneath it all we would rather congratulate ourselves on our ability to get in first, to have it all right now; at a time and a place that`s convenient for me. Never mind that those `others` (usually the less well-off) will have to wait; because they can`t influence things in their favour…. For them, `patience` is enforced; it`s a fact of life. And to cap it all (so that we don`t appear to brazen!) I suspect that being impatient is rather like consumerism… We like to think of it as someone else`s problem. Mostly we`re keen to convince ourselves that although we have our `moments` we`re on the whole pretty reasonable people.
And so it goes… But if you were a Christian in the first couple of centuries you would think rather differently. Putting it very simply Patience is what made the Christian stand out in those days and I want to suggest it`s ready to make a comeback.No, in those days Patience would have been pretty high on your list of things you really had to wrestle with….. because as one Christian writer put it, “It is the virtue which is peculiarly ours`. (St Gregory)
It is after all, as Scripture tells us, one of the gifts which the Holy Spirit brings into the life of the Christian (Gal 5.22) and in his famous passage to the Corinthians St. Paul begins by saying “Love is patient…and kind” (1 Cor 13.1) but for the early church it was simply the paramount virtue…. THE thing you looked for in a Christian.
You see, the first Christians took the Gospel of Matthew, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, very seriously indeed. They saw it as their calling to quite literally `embody` the teaching of Jesus. (Matthew 7.21) So if you weren`t `doing` what he taught you then you were frankly missing the point. Jesus taught us: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
So this is why Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage wrote, “We do not speak great things but we live them” and the Church of his day took up the challenge of making their faith visible and tangible to others… of seeking an integrity in their way of life…. and who can say this isn`t needed today? But why would they focus on patience?
Well firstly, because patience reveals the character and nature of God. When Jesus told us, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” remember the reason he gave….? It was “So that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous”. (Matthew 5.43-45) In other words, the God whom we worship patiently endures the ungrateful and greedy and hopes patiently to draw them to himself….. So by our patience we`re reveal ourselves to be a `chip off the old block`.
Secondly, they recalled that in his dealings with the people of Israel, the Lord had never been in a hurry. On the contrary His commitment and his desire for them is always unhurried and unstoppable… This patience is clearly seen in the life and ministry of Christ who took a totally different path from that of power and control and force. And so again, when this God calls and forms a people, what matters is that we embody and reflect something of this in our character and behaviour. The early church of course, was in a state of almost constant persecution and so they had ample opportunity to exercise patience with their accusers, slanderers and torturers. The point is that patience became instinctive. But again, how about us?
They drew strength from the Lord`s promise to `inscribe his laws on our hearts`. So, when they heard Jesus say, “Do not kill… love your neighbour as yourself… and to the one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also” they instinctively did it. They were instinctively non-violent. Their patience meant that for example, they would come to terms with their adversary rather than take the speedy route of killing them….
You see, in all of this they teach us that patience gives the believer freedom… I mean how many of our angst-ridden moments each day are really like that because we think we need to be in control? But the patient Christian doesn`t have to force or manipulate anything; we don`t have to rush because we move at the Lord`s pace and we have no concern for the future or the present incompleteness of things because God is patiently working his purposes out.
The impatient spirit regards this as a recipe for doing nothing… but that misses the point. The call to patience is an invitation to live with the truth that we can`t see things in their totality… and there are Godly things going on which we do not control or fully understand. As Pope Francis says “We are impatient, anxious to see the whole picture but God lets us see things slowly, quietly. The Church has to learn how to wait”.
And this is what Christ shows us when he so often frames the life of the Kingdom of God using horticultural or botanical pictures. He speaks of seeds growing secretly, of farmers sowing in the hope of growth… and yes, of huge yields but again, it`s growth that calls for patience and a degree of insight which we so often don`t have the patience to cultivate….
I mean, parents here know what it`s like to watch our offspring make all manner of choices about which we may have misgivings… We know how hard patience can be. It`s good then to reflect on how patient the Lord is with us. How patient he is with our refusal to see that patience puts everything on a bigger horizon… helps us to discern what matters eternally…. And creates space for different processes to come into play.
This is why patience is the hallmark of mission. Because patience gives the non-believer freedom as well. Freedom from our attempts to compel or harass or convert them! The freedom to respond or not to the Lord`s patient still small voice…
But this is where what I often refer to as `Missional Anxiety` comes into play. Our im-patience leads to a desire for the quick fix. We haven`t got the time or patience to discern or wait for `God`s moment` with a person…. Or for what used to be called “the cure of souls”. That`s another phrase you don`t hear very much today. But the question we might like to ponder is: “If the first Christians are right then what does a Patient Church (or indeed a patient Christian) look like?”
I`m putting all of this before us not just as another exhortation… “The Vicar says we need to be more patient!” and so on. That might be true but I hope it`s more than that….I mean this is serious stuff. Hardly a day goes by without us hearing some angst-ridden conversation about the pace of life. All around us people are obsessed by articles about lifestyle and so on. Think of our children and grandchildren; far from being allowed to grow and play they are being impatiently driven and coached within an inch of their lives! Impatient with our elderly we hide them out of sight or encourage them to take the quick way out by visiting a clinic in Switzerland.
People ARE looking for an alternative…. But too often the alternatives placed before them … and often the ones they are inclined to choose are frankly dross…. Attempts to cope in an impatient world. It`s just sticking plaster really. People ARE looking for an alternative…. But all too often they don`t think WE can offer one. And all the while, the first Christians would say that patience is the secret of being a truly alternative community for the world.
They would say that this is the secret of being missional… of getting caught up in God`s patient mission. Basically because such an alternative is very attractive….. So all of this calls, I would suggest for a listening to ourselves and a serious contemplation of the utter patience of God with you…. (with us) What would it be like to be formed and re-shaped by that so as to become a chip off the old block?
Pray for the grace of patience…