Facets of Faithfulness, IV: Patience
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
There is no law against such things. — Galatians 5:22–23
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. —Psalm 103:8–9
So in August my son Michael and I are playing the sixth hole at our little golf course in Northport: 435 yards, par 4. By some inscrutable miracle, my drive, for the only time all summer, ends up within yards of Michael’s, about 170 yards from the pin, the sprinkler head tells me. Good lie, middle of the fairway, straight in to the green.
I pull out my 5-iron but then notice that Michael is brandishing his 7-iron, so I ask Michael if I can get there with a 7-iron too, and with a sly smile, he says, “Eventually.” And sure enough, three 7-irons later, there I am right next to the green. All I need is a sand wedge to dig myself out of the trap and into the pin. I nailed that hole with a triple-bogey seven. Yes!
You see what a little patience can get you. “Eventually,” he tells me. If you would like to learn patience from your local spiritual director, there are two things we could do: we could do a Bible Study together or we could play golf. Your pick. You will learn patience, I guarantee it.
One of the aspects of the fruit of the Spirit, writes St. Paul to the Galatians, is macrothumia; the NRSV translates it as ‘patience.’ Macro-thumia is a compound word and happily, you know the first part of it. Macro- is the opposite of micro- as in ‘macroscopic,’ the opposite of ‘microscopic.’ Macro- is ‘large’ or ‘long.’ This congregation has more MBA’s than Wharton or Kellogg, so we know the difference between Macro- and Micro-economics.
So much for macro-. Thumia is—now, this is fascinating; do you find this fascinating? Then just pretend—Thumia means ‘smoke’ or ‘burn.’
In Greek, ‘incense’ is a form of the word Thumia—to cause to go up in smoke. With the ancient Greeks as with us, word pictures for anger often have to do with heat or fire. Literally, Thumia is smoke; figuratively, it came to mean anger. And that is why we say, “Jim Harbaugh was so mad you could see smoke coming out of his ears.”
Macrothumia then, is quite literally, “the long smoke.” Macrothumia is the slow burn, the long fuse, and the tortoise temper.
“Love is patient,” says the Revised Standard Version. “Love suffereth long,” says the King James.
Macrothumia is the sailor shipwrecked four miles from land, but he can see it, and he gets there eventually. Macrothumia is the doctor or the nurse who care for the terminal patient beyond all hope of recovery to and beyond the brink of death. Macrothumia is the mother who plays Chutes and Ladders with her three-year-old 19 relentless times in a row and somehow manages to lose every single time.
We live in an impatient age: the microwave, Google, Instagram, and Snapchat: INSTA-gram, SNAPchat. It’s for good reason that lately the phrase “instant gratification” has become a tired cliché. The frenetic pace of YouTube’s micro-second camera shots have trained us out of any possible appreciation for Alfred Hitchcock’s leisurely film scenes; and our trillion-gigabyte-per-millisecond processors, or whatever, have trained us out of the patience it took till not long ago to trudge through endless stacks of books and journals to find the tiny fact or big idea that will clinch a sermon, a presentation, a report, or an essay for history class.
The alacrity with which I reach for Google instead of a theology book truly frightens me. I am daily, dumbing myself down. You know what? My microwave oven is too small for my Thanksgiving Day turkey; that is just so wrong. You single 20-somethings out there: you ever done the speed-dating thing; you know, 20 strangers in 60 minutes?
Look don’t get me wrong. I’m all for fast food, EZ Pass, and Express lanes, at the Jewel or on the Edens. Google teams up with Stanford, Harvard, Michigan, the New York Public Library, and The Library of Congress to put 1.5 million books on the internet; their goal is ten times that—15 million. For free, for nothing, without moving from where you are sitting. This is the time to be alive; there was never any better. I’m all for it.
It’s just that when technology bleeds all the waiting out of life, we get very bad at it. Look, if you live on a farm, you have no choice—you wait. You wait for the rains, you wait for the sun, you wait for germination, you wait for the bugs and the weeds and the worms, you wait for the fruit to swell, you wait for the harvest, and then you wait for the customer to buy your produce. Without thinking about it and perhaps quite against your will, you learn patience.
For most of us all of that is gone now; we don’t know how to wait for anything, but all waiting has not been squeezed out of life, so that when it becomes necessary to wait for something—for the chemotherapy to work, for the conception of a child, for a worthy investment to mature, for God to work God’s good purpose in God’s own good time—which is on a completely other scale of time from our own—we are completely bamboozled.
Patience is a central and necessary Christian virtue because we are created to be the image of God, and God is if nothing else, patient and long-suffering.
Psalm 103: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. As a father has compassion [read ‘patience’], as a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him, for the Lord remembers that we are dust.” God is the definition of macrothumia. Our God is the God of the Slow Burn, the Long Fuse, The Tortoise-like Temper.
The imago dei—the image of God—must recapitulate that same slow burn and long fuse. The copy must be a faithful stamp of the original. If God does not deal with us according to our iniquities, how could we deal with each other according to the various and sundry iniquities with which we stress each other’s patience on a daily basis?
How could we live without it? How could we live if we fixed in undying memory our neighbor’s every mistake or annoyance? How could we live if she did the same with ours? How could we live if we rescinded a covenant just because it no longer served our purpose? How could we live if we demanded a 50% return on our investment in 90 days? How could we live if we insisted that a nine-year-old stop acting like a nine-year-old? How could we live without the long fuse, the slow burn, the tortoise-like temper?
You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to listen to my own sermon for a change. Here is a preacher who promises to be converted by his own sermon. I’m going to stop using the phrase “He won’t suffer fools gladly” as a compliment. Do you do this too? When you mean to praise someone’s intelligence you say, “She doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” What you’re really saying is, “She’s so smart she has no patience with idiots. She’s so superior she has no time for anybody who’s not as smart as she is.” Now, why is this a compliment? “Love is patient,” says St. Paul in his hymn to love in I Corinthians. “Love suffereth long,” says the King James Version. “God suffereth long with fools.” God suffereth long with me; why shouldn’t I suffer fools gladly? We’re all fools in something.
My Princeton Philosophy Professor Diogenes Allen puts it so simply and so beautifully: “It takes time to discover worth.” Don’t you understand what he means? Look, we are all of us treasures and blessings one to another, but that treasure arrives in a cracked clay pot, a vessel halt and lame, a husk, coarse and discolored. One of the greatest gifts I can give to another human being—my wife, my daughter, my colleague, my friend—is the space and time to develop in her own way at her own pace into her own true self and not my way, my pace, and my self.
Anne Lamott says that “Patience is when God—or [someone]—makes the Now a little roomier.” Could you make someone’s Now a little roomier by giving her space and time to develop into the treasure and blessing she most surely will prove to be?
Time is a funny thing, right? Sometimes time flies and sometimes time drags. Time is relative. Einstein taught us that this is literally true—time and space are relative to the speed of light. A second is not a second and a meter is not a meter. Time is literally relative.
But it’s true figuratively as well. Time is relative to the context in which we experience it. Sometimes it flies and sometimes it drags.
Kathy and I married off our daughter to a wonderful man last weekend, and when it was all over, we looked at each other, and said, “Where did the years go?” Time flies.
We were so proud of our family planning. First of all we arranged it so that we had one of each, a son and a daughter. Okay we didn’t arrange it; God did, but it’s true figuratively as well. Time is relative to the context in which we experience it. Sometimes it flies and sometimes it drags.
We also arranged it so that they were four-and-a-half years apart. We did this so that we would have only one college tuition to pay at a time and only one wedding at a time. That second part didn’t work out so well but we tried.
Four-and-a-half years apart. That meant that when my daughter entered kindergarten, Michael was already in the fifth grade, and when she entered middle-school, Michael was already a sophomore in high school.
So as the youngest, Taylor was always scrambling to keep up with the rest of us. Michael loved to spar verbally with his parents; conversation around the dinner table was fast and furious. Someone would be telling a story or a joke and at the punchline, the three of us would burst into raucous laughter, but Taylor didn’t get it; she was too young. And so her common refrain in our conversations was always, “Wait, what?” What just happened? Why are you all laughing? Wait for me to catch up.” She was always a day late and dollar short.
But then after the wedding Kathy and I got to talking, and we realized that now it was our turn to say, “Wait, what?”
Where did the years go?
You’re a 4th-grade teacher?
You live in Washington, D.C.?
You’re getting married?
Did we do a good enough job?
How did you get all grown up?
Wait, what? Sometimes time flies and sometimes time drags. When time flies, the facet of faithfulness we need is joy. We need to pay attention, because the days might be long, but the years are short. Enjoy them while you’ve got them.
But sometimes time drags, right? Sometimes it is all but unendurable. And when time drags, the facet of faithfulness we need is patience.
The universe, they tell us, is something like 15 billion years old. It’s only in the last two million, so far as we know, that anything or anyone in it could talk back to God. Can God wait or what? Can we trust that God has a plan for it, for us, for all, and can we wait for that, and for each other, to reach the full stature of our humanity?
Frederich Büchsel, θυμος, in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. ed. Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974), vol. IIII, pp. 167–172. Also, J. Horst, “Μακροθυμος”, vol. IV, pp. 374–387.
John Markoff and Edward Wyatt, “Google Is Adding Major Libraries to Its Database,” The New York Times, December 14, 2004. pg. A.1
Diogenes Allen, Temptation (Boston & Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1986), p. 113.
Slightly adapted from Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), p. 167.