Tending Our Garden:
Embracing Patient Endurance

Hope plant growing in the desert-570x379.jpg


Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost •
August 5, 2018
Scripture Lesson: Colossians 1:9-12
(adapted from The Message)
Pastor Jeff Wells

Prayer: 
Let us pray: God of abounding gifts and extravagant love, we come to you with all of our frustrations, resentments, disputes, conflict, our joys, and our longing for meaning and purpose, for peace, and for deeply shared love and community. Open our hearts and minds to hear your message of growing in our embrace of patient endurance, restraint, and self-control. Guide us in tending our garden so that we might experience the fruit of the Spirit in abundance. Amen. 

     We just heard the apostle Paul encourage us to “stick it out over the long haul.” Another translation puts it this way: “May you be prepared to endure everything with patience.” What does Paul mean by “patience endurance”? I don’t believe he means indefinitely putting up with things that we have the power to influence or change. That’s surely not what the God of love and justice desires from us. God calls us to oppose injustice in all the ways we are able, to alleviate suffering, care for the sick, free those who are captive, and bring good news to the poor. 
     
     What Paul tries to illuminate for us is that, in all things, God calls us to employ the strength the Spirit gives us to practice patient endurance, exercise restraint and self-control, and refrain from acting rashly or retaliating with hatred and malice born out of our frustration, anger, or resentment. Let me read the relevant lines again:

“We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul – not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. This is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking God who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that God has for us.”

     This is not “pretend patience” Paul is describing. It is not a false aura of endurance under which we are actually seething with frustration, resentment, and anger. Paul is talking about a patient endurance whose source and strength comes from God. Moreover, as with all the best potential in us, patient endurance and restraint are founded on love – love of ourselves, love of our neighbors, love of our perceived enemies and, of course, love of God. God seems almost infinitely patient with us human beings in spite of our continual failure to live up to God’s desires for our lives. God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Yet, while God is patient and endures the ways we turn away from Them (the Trinity), God never gives up on us and never stops pushing, pulling, nudging, cajoling, leading, and inspiring us to find and follow paths of righteousness, love, and justice.

     We can know in our minds – we can believe – that patient endurance is a fruit of the Spirit and that God gives us the strength to embrace it, but we are also painfully aware of how difficult that is in practice in our daily lives. How do we do that? How can we embrace patient endurance in the face of so much suffering, injustice, pain, grief, and longing we experience ourselves and see in those around us? 

     Our culture of immediate gratification and of rugged individualism makes it hard for us to face the many things in our lives over which we have so little control. We often hear the trite phrase, “Patience is a virtue” – yet, the reality is that we are caught up in a maelstrom of impatience, anger, and posturing, fueled by social media and modeled for us by the Chief Executive. 

     Neither as individuals nor as a community are we able to determine the fate of nations, the course of conflicts and wars, or the outcomes of elections. On a more personal level we cannot fully control whether we ourselves or a beloved friend will develop cancer or have a heart attack or suffer chronic pain or succumb to an addiction. It feels sometimes like there is more we cannot control than what we can. How, then, can we come to experience and embrace patient endurance? How can we see patience as a gift from God?

     Contemplating the topic of patience always heightens my awareness of all of the impatience that goes on around me and that I practice myself. Here is an experiment for you in the coming week. Try to be alert to all of the ways you yourself are impatient and notice the impatience of those you encounter. It think you will see that there is an epidemic of impatience.  Recently, I had an experience that illustrates this in a small scale. I was riding on a packed subway car last week. I had gotten on an express train at 14th Street, but at 34th, it was re-routed to the local track and there was a lot of congestion on the line so it was moving slowly. Plus, the air conditioning was not working very well. A man stood behind me wearing a large backpack that was pressing into my back. I began to feel annoyed. “Doesn’t he realize his backpack is digging into my back?”, I thought. “How could he not know?” But I tried to remain calm. I turned and tapped the man on the shoulder and ask politely if he would mind removing his backpack. I hoped he would just say, “Yes, of course, I apologize.” Instead, he said, “No. I have valuable things in my backpack and can’t take it off.” I could hear the slight beligerance in his voice and also the smell the alcohol on his breath, so I just turned back and worked on enduring for a few more stops. But now, he wouldn’t let got of it. “Maybe you should be more worried about why the MTA is so incompetent than about my backpack.” I chose to ignore him. “Where am I supposed to put my backpack, anyway?” he asked. “You could put it between your feet, like I did with my bag.” Silence. I hoped that was the end of it. But then, a young woman who was seated near us, decided to vent her own impatience and frustration. “Why are you bothering him,” she said to me. “It’s a crowded train. Just live with it.” Well, that surprised me! I have to tell you that first my impulse was to response in kind. But, instead, I just turned away and mumbled, “Yeah, okay.” I had the sense that no good would come from further interaction so, without really deciding to do so, I moved into “patient endurance” mode. But this incident illustrates just how hard it is to be human and practice patience – perhaps especially in big cities, like New York, where we are so often squeezed together in difficult and frustrating circumstances. 

     God beckons us to practice patient endurance in the small things – as when people annoy us on the subway, or our kids are acting out, or we are cut off by a driver on the highway. God also calls us to endure patiently in bigger things, like waiting for a medical diagnosis or for a treatment to take effect; or when we get laid off and having to look for a new job; or when we experience feelings of angry, resentment, frustration, and even grief.

     I admit to a great frustration that I have not seen the changes in the world and especially in the United States that I had hoped for so fervently when I was young. We all want to leave the world a better place for our children and grandchildren and for everyone’s children and grandchildren. So often it feels like we are headed in the wrong direction – that earlier signs of progress are being reversed. Yet, we continue to dream and work and hope for freedom, equality, justice, and a spirit of loving kindness and compassionate care for all. And we must because that is what God calls us to always – no matter what our circumstances. And that requires of us a lot of patient endurance.  

     I thank God for the strength to practice that gift. The church is a school for love and has the potential to be a garden of the Spirit. God calls us to tend this beautiful garden. As we seek to build deeply loving and radically welcoming community together, we have the extraordinary opportunity to create till and plant and create a fertile space in which the fruit of God’s Spirit can grow and flourish. Patient endurance is one expression of this fruit.  In loving community together, we get the chance to practice being patient, restrained, and forgiving with ourselves, with one another, and with all that is outside of our ability to control. 

     When I find my impatience directed toward the persons around me rather than the situations we find ourselves in, I try to remember two things. The first is that none of us really knows what is in a person’s heart or what ways they are hurting or suffering. The second thing is that we all face a unique set of physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual challenges. For some people, to grow just a little in the Spirit of God is a big accomplishment because of what they have had to overcome to get to that point. I feel a lot of empathy because I know how hard it is for any of us to change – to overcome old routines, to go beyond the psychological weight of our upbringing and our past experience, to try something new, to risk being vulnerable or failing, and to extend ourselves in Christian love toward acquaintances or strangers or even enemies. 

I am not saying anything goes. I am not saying that there are not times when we need to shake someone out of their complacency and lethargy. We need to speak the truth in love. Jesus himself showed plenty of impatience with people around him, including his own disciples at times. Yet, we need to practice deep compassion and understanding for one another. As we work and share with one another and try to grow together in faith, we need to do it with a lot of grace, love, understanding, compassion, forgiveness, and patient endurance. When I get impatient, I try to remember just how patient God has been with me – with all of us. 

I sense God saying to us, “I have put my strength, love, compassion, forgiveness, and patience into you. I have placed my own image in you. Beloved, your primary life’s work is to make that image show forth in your life, by seeking to know one another and to minister to one another in all your woundedness, your isolation, your fears – and to celebrate one another’s wonderfulness and beauty and belovedness.” Thanks be to God for all the ways we are growing in our ability to “stick it out over the long haul” and to “endure the unendurable, thanking God who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that God has for us.”

Amen.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Wells
All rights reserved.