From the Sept/Oct, 2015 issue of Touchstone
Just You Wait by Nathanael Devlin

Just You Wait

Nathanael Devlin on the Indispensability of Not Being in Such a Hurry

Last fall I had lunch with my family and one of my former seminary professors, Dr. Don Collett. It came about this way: The seminary I graduated from is about forty minutes' drive from where I live, so earlier in the year I had asked Don if he would be willing to make the drive each Sunday for six weeks to teach a Sunday school class at our church. He agreed and even decided he would stay afterward to attend our worship service. One Sunday he joined my wife and me and our three young children for lunch.

It was already well past noon when we arrived at the restaurant, and it took several minutes for the hostess to seat us and another few minutes for the waiter to come and take our drink orders. The children, quickly dissatisfied with the restaurant's pre-packaged distraction of crayons and paper placemats, eagerly inquired as to when exactly they would eat. We said, "Soon," and told them to be patient.

Eventually the waiter returned with our drinks, and after some fumbling about with the children's souvenir cups and a near disaster with an iced tea, we placed our lunch orders. It was not long before there was yet another anxious question from one of the children, who was hoping that one of the large trays overflowing with mac-and-cheese might actually be destined for our table.

Once again we encouraged the children to be patient and reassured them that their lunches would arrive soon. It must have been somewhat nostalgic for Don to observe the uncontainable energy of our children as they tried hard to wait. He said that when his own children were young and in a situation like this, his wife would sing them the chorus of a song from a children's music CD that taught on the fruit of the Spirit. Don cleared his throat and began to sing:

Have patience, have patience, don't be in such a hurry.
When you get impatient, you only start to worry.
Remember, remember, that God is patient too.
And think of all the times when others have to wait for you.

Our children took an instant liking to the song, and soon we all chimed in. We sang several renditions of the chorus right there in the booth, with giggles for accompaniment and even a few hand motions to go along with the lyrics. Before we knew it, our lunch was served, the children were well fed, and it was time to go home. During the drive home, every red light presented the children with another opportunity to sing, "Hey Dad . . . have patience, have patience. . . ."

The Ubiquity of Impatience

Children are naturally prone to impatience, but as an adult I have come to realize that I am not always patient either, and I am also someone who likes to be in control. I'm not sure to what extent these qualities have helped or hindered me in the pastorate, but I do know that the desire for expeditiousness and control seems to be a prominent and growing feature of modern culture. Just reflect for a moment on the frustration you feel when your phone call, email, or instant message is not immediately returned, and you'll recognize what I'm talking about.

But such disordered desires are not unique to our cultural moment. I imagine that the people of God, upon their return to Jerusalem after their long Babylonian exile, felt the same way. These were people who, according to the prophet Zechariah, "despised the day of small things," as they impatiently awaited the rebuilding of the temple. How satisfying it must have been to hear Zechariah prophesy, "I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day" (Zech. 3:9b). "At last we're getting somewhere," they must have thought; "this news means that finally we can get something done!"

But what exactly did the Lord promise? He promised a sign—a slow, lumbering, and gradually unfolding sign. He says, "Behold, I will bring forth my servant the Branch" (Zech. 3:8b). The Lord will restore Joshua to the office and ministry of high priest, an action that anticipates the cleansing and restorative ministry of the coming Messiah. God is certainly getting somewhere with his people, but his mission in the world will take some time to unfold—hundreds of years in fact—and it is the Lord himself who must ultimately accomplish the work.

Schooling in Patience

Never was my own patience more tested than when, as a young man newly graduated from seminary, I was eager to take my first call in the church. The Lord knew, however, that the prophetic zeal, the impatience, the "young-man syndrome" from which I was suffering needed to be tempered. I was ready to be an important leader in the church, to get things done, to advance the kingdom, but in reality I would likely have run any church I led right into the ground.

So as I enthusiastically searched out my first call, the Lord systematically shut the doors. Soon I was left with only one viable option: to serve a church that was being planted by my father-in-law in the small and slowly dying borough of Burgettstown, Pennsylvania. Burgettstown had once been a thriving and robust coal town, but when the steel industry died in the 1970s, the town died with it.

The years at Burgettstown were difficult. I was impatient with the defeatist attitudes of those in the community; I was impatient with the provincial Pentecostalism that the church and my father-in-law were committed to; I was impatient with the smallness of our vision, the smallness of our congregation, and the smallness of my paycheck, which was exactly $0 every two weeks. Several friends encouraged me to leave the church and start elsewhere.

I longed to leave, but deep down I knew that the Lord had placed me in that church and that I did not have the liberty to leave until he released me. It was during those days of small beginnings that I became more closely acquainted with Paul's words in Romans: "we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (5:3–5).

In Burgettstown, I didn't learn how to preach, how to run a church, or how to change the world, but I did learn patient endurance, obedience, and longsuffering. I learned to wait on the Lord, and I now believe that those desert years in Burgettstown were the beginning of the formation and solidification of a godly and patient character suited for the pastorate.

Learning from Masters

While Burgettstown was my first and most important lesson in patience—it addressed all the issues I was facing as a young man, a disciple of Jesus, and a budding pastor discerning his call—it has certainly not been the last. There has since developed a second lesson, which I have been learning over the last ten years. This second lesson feels and looks very different from the first, but it has been training me for endurance and character development nonetheless. After five and a half years in Burgettstown, the Lord released me to another congregation, Beverly Heights Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, where I met Rick Wolling, the senior pastor.

Rick has been in pastoral ministry for over forty years and has served at Beverly Heights for just over thirty. He immediately took me under his wing and began investing in his young associate. When I think of the impact Rick has had on me these ten years, my thoughts go immediately to William Willimon's book Calling and Character, where he writes, "Certainly, ministers need to be schooled for what they do . . . that is why pastors testify that the best schooling they receive tends to be apprenticeship—looking over the shoulders of a master, someone who has mastered the craft . . . and perhaps even more so, the art of self-mastery."

My best qualities as a pastor are in large measure due to Rick's mentoring of me in the craft of pastoral ministry. He put tools in my hands and showed me how to use them. Sometimes I used the tools well and sometimes I made a mess of things, but always there was patience. Patience from the master with the young apprentice, and patience from the apprentice, who was learning that it takes time to develop character, as well as to develop a sense of and intuition for the work.

Before pastoring his small church in Burgettstown, my father-in-law had been a hydraulic mechanic. After apprenticing for many years, he eventually owned his own business. His craft required him to work with ball bearings of various weights and sizes, and he boasted that he could tell the dimensions of a ball bearing simply by feeling it in his hand. Put one in his hand and he'd correctly say, without looking, "10 mm" or "8 mm." Over a lifetime spent handling ball bearings, he'd developed a sensibility, an intuition, for the work that came through his hands.

The principles of apprenticeship and patient endurance do not only apply to pastoral ministry and hydraulics but to all of life—including the Christian and moral life. Gilbert Meilaender, in his book The Way That Leads There, sagely observes that

much of what we learn about human nature and human life comes from gradually working our way into a tradition of thought and learning from predecessors within it, especially those who are acknowledged masters. In many other areas of human endeavor—hitting a baseball, playing jazz, diagnosing a patient—we obviously learn by imitating others whose excellence we can see.

Patient Reminders

In many respects, the world we live in, and often the church as well, is like a group of young children sitting in a restaurant booth clamoring for their dinner. We are an impatient people—impatient with what we have and impatient for what we believe should be coming our way. Like an architect who has no time for apprenticeship but is eager to build an impressive edifice and make a name for himself, we may find that our impatient striving yields nothing but a house of cards that folds quickly and brings suffering in its wake.

There is a way that leads there—to that place of stability and strength, to a city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God—but we cannot get there quickly. The journey requires time, discipline, and endurance on our part, and wisdom and investment on the part of acknowledged masters who know the way. Perhaps, above all, it takes patience.

So I've taken to singing a reminder to myself of the necessity for and indispensability of patience in the Christian life. When I'm in the car and stopped at a red light, or when I'm in my study counseling a parishioner about a difficult situation, or even when I'm sitting at the table with my children at dinnertime, I'll often find myself singing:

Have patience, have patience, don't be in such a hurry.
When you get impatient, you only start to worry.
Remember, remember, that God is patient too.
And think of all the times when others have to wait for you.

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