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May 14, 2017

True North | Patience

True North | Patience

Passage: Ephesians 4:1-6

Speaker: Jerry Deck

Series: True North

Category: Word at ZPC

As we continue our look at the virtues that those who follow Jesus should exhibit today we are looking at the difficult virtue of patience. This is the one, of course, that everyone says you should never actually pray for. One of our children’s coordinators, Amy Crispin, likes to say that she and her husband, Matt, prayed for patience and God gave them twins. Someone else has suggested that patience is something that we all applaud, but that we’d prefer it to be a virtue that others possessed. I think that patience is something that’s easy to joke about, because we know how difficult it is to attain it. One of the things I like about the video we just saw is that it’s a great reminder to us that from a young age the vast majority of us struggle with patience. All we want to do is get older as quickly as possible. As a younger sibling I was always desperate to be as old as my sister was and couldn’t wait until I could finally be on my own. And now I see it in my own children who are always wanting to be bigger and older than they actually are. When we drive around with our 4 year old, Wynnie, she is incessantly talking about how when she gets older she is going to own that house or that car. She can’t wait. Impatience begins pretty much from the day we are born!

I may not have said the word “patience” up here with great regularity, but we have certainly talked about it a fair amount because when we speak about the danger of the breakneck speed in which most of us live our lives we are talking about our lack of patience. I heard a statistic the other day that staggered me a bit which is that Americans, on average, pay seven billion dollars a year in fines for running red lights. You know how much time we save on average when we run a red light? 50 seconds! Seven billion dollars to save 50 seconds?! A few weeks ago when we talked about faithfulness I mentioned how our culture doesn’t cultivate being in it for the long run. I gave some examples like how we used to wait for a dial up connection to the internet, but nowadays when our computer buffers for more than a half-second we are tempted to throw it out the window. Well, it’s also been pointed out how the advent of the credit card it has cultivated even more so a lack of patience. Most folks, myself included, have had to learn hard lessons about the affect of not wanting to wait until we actually have the money to buy that sofa, television, rug, whatever, which of course feels really good until the actual bill comes, which makes us so depressed that we go out and buy something…on credit! I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t necessarily have credit cards, but again as thinking followers of Jesus it is critical for us to be aware of how these things, make no mistake about it, shape us in particular ways that may not be the way of Jesus.

Pastor John Ortberg tells the story of how he had just taken a new pastorate that was going to be very intense and alongside everything else going on in his life (being a father and husband) he called up Dallas Willard to ask what advice he had for how to make sure he was spiritually healthy. Dallas Willard told him that he needed to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry” from his life. So Ortberg wrote that down and waited somewhat impatiently, he said, for the next piece of advice. But, there was none coming. That was it. That the key attribute to cultivating spiritual health is to ruthlessly eliminate hurry. In other words that in many ways at the foundation of healthy spiritual, emotional and physical lives is the need for us to grow in our ability to be patient. And why is that so important?

Well, Ephesians 4 seems to be saying that one of the most important reasons to cultivate patience is for the health of our relationships. Paul, of course, is looking primarily at relationships within the church, but it would apply to familial and family relationships as well. It may be helpful to know that in the previous chapter in Ephesians Paul is talking about the critical nature of unity to the church body, the importance of being in good relationship with one another. But then Paul does more than just talk about how nice it would be if we could be unified and how good that would feel. No, much like we see him doing when he talks about love in 1st Corinthians 13, Paul gives some real, practical building blocks to this unity. That first of all it takes a sense of being called. [As a quick aside I think that’s really an important part of unity, especially unity within churches. When you believe that you are called by God to a particular place then it helps you to see that you aren’t just here of your own volition, as a consumer of sorts, but you are there as a calling from the Almighty which makes one much less prone to be divisive or to simply leave when things don’t go your way or when something looks better someplace else. During inquirer’s meetings when we get together with those who are considering membership I like using the word of being “called” to this place as a way reinforcing this understanding because I have seen the difference it makes when one feels called to a particular congregation versus simply going there.]

And so unity requires a sense of calling, but it also requires humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love. In other words, it takes a lot of work to be unified in relationships with others and one of the most important pieces of work is to be patient. The Greek word that is used for patience in Ephesians 4 is makrothymia which literally means “large or long anger.” In other words it is taking a long time before getting angry. Ben Witherington describes patience as having a slow fuse which I like because of how well it connects with the idea of unity. When we are impatient, when we are quick to anger, then we have a fast fuse and the spark quickly gets to the dynamite and “boom” the unity, the community, the relationships can explode. 

And the reason patience is so critical in building and sustaining relationships and community is because relationships and communities are made up of people and people can get on our nerves, can get irritating at times, can frustrate us. And one of the reasons why people bother us is because each of us come from our own context, our own culture our own experiences and oftentimes those things shape us in such a way that we think, “This is normal and right” and if you do it differently then it annoys us or bothers us or makes us angry. Remember what’s going on at the time that Paul is writing this letter which is that two groups (those with a Hebraic-Jewish background and those with a Greek-Gentile background) are trying to come together in order to form one body, one community of Christ followers and that is not an easy thing. You may have noticed that Paul repeatedly uses the word “one,” focusing on the fact that they are one body who follows one Lord who has one faith and one baptism because he knows how, coming from such different places, it will be easy for people to begin to argue, to splinter, and it will take patience for them to be able to endure. I think at first it is easy to remain united in relationship despite those differences, but there will come a time in every relationship where you have to decide whether you will have the patience to endure through those places where you are different and, but when you can, then you will be much closer to becoming a genuine community.

As most of you know I was a part of a team from ZPC who went to Barcelona to come alongside our mission partners who are working primarily with immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East. It was really a great trip and you’ll be able to hear more about it in the next few weeks. But having gone on quite a few mission trips in my life I know that going into these things cross-cultural experiences you realize that there are going to be cultural differences that you’re going to have to navigate. In my own experience, initially those things are kind of fun and interesting. How you understand time is always one of those cultural differences. The worship service is supposed to start at 7:00 which means it may or may not start by 8:00. You try to get an idea as to how long something will last and your told anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours. And at first you go in and you’re like, “Hey, we can be flexible, whatever,” and we talk about how great it is that they aren’t so tied to the clock like we westerners are and how wonderful that they’re such a relational people that they don’t let time get in the way of being with one another. It’s cool, it’s different.

But then the next Sunday after having lived like that for a week it easily begins to become like, “Hey, relationships are great and all, but let’s stop dilly-dallying and get this worship service started.” Or, “How the heck am I supposed to plan my lesson and what I’m supposed to do with these kids I’m teaching if I don’t know when people are going to get there or how long it’s going to last?! If I can’t get some more details this is going to turn into pandemonium!” And in a matter of a week that fuse is burning much faster. This is just one of those things that happen when different cultures come together and in those moments a slower burning fuse is absolutely required lest the dynamite explode.

But in thinking about that story I realized that needing patience may actually be a good sign and not something that we try and avoid.   I think sometimes we assume that a relationship is healthy or strong if patience is not required, but I would suggest what that may actually mean is that you are in a relationship or church that isn’t pushing you or stretching you or challenging you because, quite frankly, it’s just like you. I would suggest, as we seem to see in Ephesians, that strong relationships and churches come out of a place where in the midst of those differences, when it would be easier to get angry or to leave, if you are able to see it as an opportunity to grow and so you choose patience to endure, then you, your relationships and your church body are going to be much stronger than if you simply surrounded yourself with people just like you or if you decided to just blow the whole thing up. Patience can be a sign of health and an opportunity for growth with those who have the eyes to see it as such.

But there is something else about patience, beyond just how it helps with our relationships, that is important for us. And that is the importance of patience for our own personal spiritual health and our desire to be shaped more like Jesus. We’ve been talking about virtues of late, about gentleness and humility and self-control and hope and faithfulness and the little secret behind all of those things is that they…are…not…easily…acquired. Again, the thing that we struggle with in our society is that we can get everything “Jimmy Johns” fast, but as N.T. Wright says, “Patience is needed for the pursuit of all the virtues.” And what that means, I think, is that just as we need to develop patience with others we also have to develop patience with ourselves as we seek to become more faithful and gentle and humble.

Remember what we said about how patience is needed when two different cultures come together? Well, the culture of Jesus, who displayed all the virtues we’ve been talking about, is very different than then the culture in which we breathe and live and so it should not be surprising that it will take time and patience for us to look more like him. All too often we are incredibly unforgiving and impatient with ourselves, thinking that we should quickly exhibit all the characteristics of Christ. And I think we need to patiently take the longer view on developing these virtues. That’s not an excuse to not try, but it is an invitation to relax and know that it will be a journey, a process, a slow journey and a slow process for us to begin to more naturally be gentle and joyful and faithful and humble. While at first we may be able to do some of these things quickly (my guess is some of you after this sermon will be good and patient for the next hour or so!), to sustain it over the long run is going to take us being patient with ourselves in those times when we fail or fall short.  

Of course the vital question that we have been asking in the midst of talking about these virtues is how exactly do we slowly begin to develop them? How do we cultivate patience in our lives? I really think the place to begin is by reflecting on the patience that we have received from others, especially from God. It’s fascinating the number of times that the New Testament speaks of God’s patience with us. Romans 2 asks whether or not we despise the riches of God’s kindness and forbearance and patience? I Timothy 1 talks about how Jesus Christ displays the utmost patience. 2nd Peter tells us that the Lord is patient, not wanting any to perish. Like all of the virtues we have discussed, patience is rooted in who God is and if we can grasp the patience that God has had for us I am convinced that it will help us to be more patient with others and ourselves.

One of the things I have noticed in my own marriage is that when one of us hears a bit of impatience (or fast fuse) in the other’s voice that that impatience will quickly be matched. “Did you hear your tone? Did you hear your tone?!” But in the same way, when in trying or stressful times one of us is able to remain patient in our actions and our words it will with great frequency defuse the situation. When we receive patience we are much more apt to display patience. And so perhaps the most significant way for us to develop patience is not to keep trying harder to give it, but is to actually reflect on just how much patience we have received from God and from others. One of the questions that our home groups are going to be wrestling with this week is in what areas of our lives have we experienced God’s patience and so, whether you are in a home group or not, I would encourage you to list some of those areas as a way of indirectly cultivating your own patience.

Another way for us to grow in patience is to remember daily our call to this virtue. Back in January I showed a video about an engineer who tried to ride a bike whose wheel turned the opposite way of the handle. You may recall how it took months of daily riding for him to finally retrain his brain to work in a different way. What you may or may not recall was that the scripture passage we discussed on that day was Colossians 3 which says in part, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” I suggested to you that perhaps one good practice was each morning as you put on your first sock (or shoe or whatever) that you think about which of those virtues you wanted to work on. So, perhaps this is now an opportunity for you to be reminded each day as you get clothed the importance of patience. Maybe it’s having patience with a spouse or a particular child or a friend. Maybe it’s having patience with someone here in this congregation (maybe me!) with whom you struggle with understanding or loving. Or maybe it’s simply having more patience with yourself and realizing that growing in these virtues, being shaped more like Jesus, takes a daily commitment and is a long obedience in the same direction.

So then, brothers and sisters, go out from this place and if your mother was a patient woman then give thanks to God for her. If she was not, then go out prepared to be patient with her impatience. And then when the day has settled down write down some places in your life where you know that God has been patient with you and celebrate that. Then wake up tomorrow morning, put on a sock and ask what particular area on that day should you be patient about and do so knowing that you very well may fail, but not to worry, because the next day you can put that sock on again. And day after day after day you might just be surprised at how your ability to grow in patience shapes in a different way not just your life, but the lives of those around you and the lives of those in this church. And in so doing might we be a witness to the patience of our God. May it be so. Amen.