Patience for the Long Haul

In a previous post about our visits to the the campus ministries at the University of Birmingham and Cambridge University, I promised to send along the notes of the devotional I shared on September 20 and 23, 2016. There was no clamoring from the campus ministers for these words, I have to confess, but I think that was because the profundity of the thoughts left them speechless. I can’t think of any other explanation.

What prompted this meditation was my positive impression of these young leaders and the hope that, in spite of the difficulties in this line of work, they would not grow weary but would keep on investing themselves in the lives of the university students they are serving. I’ll certainly understand if they need to return to their home country and I have no doubt they will serve with distinction wherever they feel called, but they are doing a good job where they are and their impact for good will only increase with time.

This post will be filed in the Sermons and Meditations category. The next Excerpts from My Journal should be posted later this week (“Lord willing and the crick don’t rise”).

 

While in South Africa many years ago I picked up a book by Charles Gordon, who for 35 years pastored in Durban North. In his retirement years he published many books, Vitamins for Your Soul being one of them. In it he repeats a tale (probably apocryphal) of a young missionary volunteer seeking approval from his sending agency’s board.

The examining minister required the young hopeful to be at his (the minister’s) home at 3:00 in the morning on the day of the exam. When he arrived, he was ushered into the study, where he had to wait until 8:00 for his interview.

The minister finally appeared and commenced the interrogation. “Can you spell?”

“Yes sir,”

“All right, speak baker.”

“Baker, b-a-k-e-r.”

“Fine. Now do you know anything about figures?”

“Yes sir, something.”

“Fine, how much is twice two.”

“Four.”

“That’s splendid. I believe you have passed. I’ll see the Board tomorrow.”

And that was it.

The young man must have been puzzled, but the examiner knew what he was doing. In his report to the board he commended the candidate for the following:

Self-denial. He was told to show up at 3:00 in the morning and he showed up without complaint, though that meant leaving his warm bed to venture out in the cold.

Promptness. He was on time.

Patience. He had to wait five hours. He must have wondered, but he didn’t complain.

Temper. He didn’t show a sign of it, didn’t even question the delay.

Humility. The examiner quizzed him on only two questions. A five-year-old could have answered them.

“So you see, I believe the lad meets the requirements. He will make the missionary we need.”

When I was Candidate Secretary for the CMF in the 1960s, before would-be missionaries met with the board we put them through physical and psychological exams. I earlier had started through the process myself, but I didn’t make it. I flunked the physical examination. In later years I realized I was lucky. I felt better about failing this test than I would have about failing the psychological one!

After all this careful testing we still messed up sometimes. We sent some missionaries out who quickly proved a poor match for the field. I think the old examiner’s test may have been better than ours.

Of the five qualities he was looking for, none is more important than patience. This has long been a challenge for me. That’s not just my opinion. When I preached on this subject many years ago a thoughtful woman who knew me well bought me a gift to hang on my wall. She thought it especially appropriate: “Lord, grant me patience. But hurry.”

Someone else must have detected this flaw early in my ministry, because he advised: We tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in the short run and underestimate what we can accomplish over the long haul. My “haul” has become long, indeed, long enough to realize there is no more important leadership principle.

This ability to wait, to hang on, to persevere, is required in every field of endeavor, not just in our work. Take writing as an example. When author Guy de Maupassant was a young man learning his trade, he submitted something he had written to the one of the greats, Gustav Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary. The older man told him: “I don’t know whether you have talent. The work you have brought me shows a certain degree of intelligence, but don’t forget this, young man: talent, as Buffon said, is nothing but exceeding patience.”

We Christians need the additional reminder that patience is not the same thing as “waiting on the Lord.” That claim sounds pretty spiritual, a listening for the still small voice, a desire not to run ahead of God. But it may also be simple laziness or lack of focus or even irresponsibility. I like Dwight L. Moody’s approach: “It’s fine to wait on the Lord as long as you’re hustling while you’re waiting.”

Patience is a fruit of humility, the meekness that acknowledges we aren’t in control, that forces larger than we are can change the end of our story. But that humility does not keep us from acting; it urges us to serve even when we aren’t in charge, to keep on even in disappointment. Our story is really not all about us; it’s about the something bigger than we are to which (or to whom) we have committed ourselves—again, for the long haul.

For the better part of a lifetime now I’ve been closely associated with four ministries. They have all taught me patience and the value of remaining involved for the long haul.

Central Christian in Mesa  When Joy and I arrived to begin our ministry there in 1979, the church had averaged 490 in attendance the year before. It was a good congregation, but it hadn’t realized its potential. Today the church averages a weekend attendance around 10,000. My two predecessors as senior pastor served 10 years each. I served 20. My successor is in his seventeenth year and going strong.

The church has had its share of challenges. During my time I wondered more than once whether we could make it financially as we weathered economic downturns while carrying a large debt on our new buildings.But for nearly 60 years pastoral and lay leadership has stayed the course, and the result is a church of enormous influence and outreach.

Hope International University was a small college of about 500 students when I was called to the presidency there in 1990. I served thirteen years. My successor is still on the job after 13 years. My predecessors had all served long tenures. The university now boasts more than 2000 students and many strong new programs, and is overall a stronger school than when I first knew it.  Together the administration, faculty, trustees and supporters have pulled it through a whole series of crises, when many wondered whether it had a future at all. It’s thriving today. The long haul.

Milligan College/Emmanuel. Our family moved to Tennessee in 1965 so I could join the faculty. In those days Milligan was a smaller college than today and Emmanuel Christian Seminary was a baby, born on Milligan’s campus the same year I started teaching in the college. Two underfunded, relatively unknown, struggling institutions. We couldn’t envision then what a magnificent future was in store—but that magnificence was achieved only after Milligan veered close to insolvency several times and Emmanuel had to restructure completely to keep going. I wish I had time to tell you of the men and women who sacrificed seriously in order to get the schools through the dark days to today’s successes. They are some of my heroes. They held on for the long haul.

And of course we are all associated with CMF International, the leading missions agency among our Christian Churches. It wasn’t always so. When I signed on as candidate secretary in 1964 we had five missionary couples in three countries. That’s it. And not long after none of them was on the field and we were no longer in two of the initial three countries. Tough days. And many more tough days ahead.

But today, thanks again to so many dedicated people who wouldn’t quit, CMF is the strongest it has ever been and still growing.

What do these four ministries have in common? They’ve all prospered because of the patience, tenacity, stubborn stick-to-it-iveness of the leaders who held on when it sometimes looked hopeless. And by hanging on these men and women themselves grew stronger.

One more story. According to David McCullough, Harry Truman’s biographer, when FDR surprised everybody, Truman most of all, by naming him his choice for vice president in 1944, there had been no popular boom for him, nor had he campaigned in any way for the job. As Richard Rovere wrote, no one ever contrived less at his own elevation than Harry Truman at the Chicago Democratic convention.

One person present was decidedly unimpressed. After the nomination, as the Trumans fought their way through the crowds to a waiting limousine, Bess turned and glared at Harry. “Are we going to have to go through this for the rest of our lives?”

Yes, they were going to have to. When Harry accepted the nomination, he didn’t know what lay ahead. He just knew it was his duty to serve his president and his nation, even if that meant serving his nation as its president. And there would be an awful lot to go through—for the rest of their lives. The result was that the humble, failed haberdasher from Missouri is recognized today as one of this nation’s half dozen most respected presidents.

To get there, though, he and Bess had to “go through this for the rest of [their] lives.”

The long haul.

       Have you not heard?

       The LORD is the everlasting God,

       the Creator of the ends of the earth.

       He will not grow tired or weary [even when we do],

       and his understanding no one can fathom.

     He gives strength to the weary [when we have no strength in ourselves]

       and increases the power of the weak.

     Even youths grow tired and weary,

       and young men stumble and fall;

      but those who hope in the LORD

       will renew their strength.

       They will soar on wings like eagles;

       they will run and not grow weary,

       they will walk and not be faint.     Isaiah 40 

It’s a lot like honesty, patience is. It’s the best policy.