Patient Discipleship

When I was in college, a friend of mine spent three years studying pigeons. The piece of paper our school gave him when he graduated said he earned a degree in psychology, but the truth is he got a bachelor of arts in pigeon behavior. And then he went on to get PhD, again, supposedly in psychology, but really studying pigeons: what they do, how they act, how to get them to do things you want them to do. To this day, I’m not sure how studying pigeons makes you qualified to be a human psychologist, but that’s what he did.

One of the things I remember my friend telling me about pigeons is that they are compulsively impatient. He told me about a series of experiments he and his teacher ran in the laboratory. They would give their pigeons a choice: eat a small amount of food now, or wait and get a bigger meal later. And what I remember my friend telling me is that they could never get the pigeons to wait for the bigger meal. They taught the pigeons that there was more food if they waited. They showed the pigeons the better option. But no matter what they did, the pigeons didn’t care. As soon as there was food, the pigeons ate it. My guess is that the pigeons eventually would have starved themselves eating small bits of food rather than waiting patiently for the bigger meal.

I’m afraid the difference between pigeons and human beings is not as great as it once was. Video on demand through cable and internet providers, information at our fingertips through websites or Google, malls and grocery stores always in stock with just about everything you could ever want, and Amazon packages that show up in the blink of an eye: if these things haven’t actually made us more impatient, they certainly haven’t helped us cultivate the virtue of patience. We want things now, right away. And like my friend’s pigeons, we’re more and more willing to accept less in order to get it more quickly. We allow ourselves to call relationships made with the click of a mouse button “friends.” We accept angry online status updates and messages as “taking a stand.” And we fool ourselves into believing we’ve thought a lot about a difficult or controversial topic because we’ve read three blog posts or watched a 45-second t.v. news segment about the issue. Impatience is one of the great spiritual diseases of our age.

So it is that one of the simplest parables Jesus tells might end up being the strong medicine we need to heal our impatient selves. What’s the kingdom of God like? It’s like a clueless farmer, who scatters seed on his fields. He has no idea how the seed grows—he’s a farmer, not a plant biologist. He goes to bed; he gets up. He goes to bed again; he gets up again. And eventually the seed sprouts, the stalk shoots up, and the plant grows. The seed and the farmer find themselves in the same cycle: lie down; rise up. Lie down; rise up. Lie down; rise up. Into the ground; up from the ground. Into the ground; up from the ground. Until one day the farmer wakes up, sees that the plant has produced its ripe fruit, and harvests the fields with his sickle.

This is what the kingdom of God is like. This is what following Jesus is like. This is what it means to be the church together, to be disciples of our Lord and Savior. It means commitment. It means patience. It means waiting. It means refusing to be distracted by fast-growing plants that yield no fruit. It means accepting that the “how” of discipleship is something we may never understand. In fact, it means doing just about everything we in our impatient society have so much trouble doing.

I was at a church service this winter when new members were received at the end of the service. They just walked up during the final hymn and said they wanted to join the church. Five minutes later they were members. I guess that works for that congregation—it has over 8,00 members. But that kind of easy-come, easy-go way of being part of a church makes about as much sense to me as going out, pulling all the 18-inch stalks of corn from the fields here in Forest Hill, and calling that a harvest.

And I’ve heard about and even been to churches that run hundreds of programs, invest thousands in expensive technologies, and put the facade of a church on what is essentially just a very nice social club. But just because you go to bed every night and get up each morning doesn’t mean you’ve planted anything, and it certainly doesn’t make you a farmer.

The kingdom of God is about committing to something that isn’t spectacular or thrilling at every moment. The payoff is not immediate, instantaneous, or even predictable. It’s finding significance in the small, the menial, the easily overlooked. As if to drive home the point, Jesus follows his parable of the farmer and the field with a parable about a mustard seed. The farmer doesn’t commit to a daily routine because the seed itself has magical properties; even the seed looks like something hardly worth our attention. The farmer commits to the patient waiting of farming because that’s what it means to be a farmer.

What about us? Are we going to allow ourselves to be overtaken by our impatience, or will we submit to the long game of Christian discipleship? Just as a farmer farms, a disciple disciples—and follows a discipline. Will we be disciples—or not?

A hundred fifty years ago, some Methodist disciples of Jesus Christ planted seed not very far from here. Some of the seed was chaff, some sprouted and bore fruit within a generation or two, and sometimes I wonder if some of the seed is just now starting to break through the ground. I doubt many from that first generation of Centre Methodists imagined the seeds they planted might still bear fruit in the twenty-first century. What do we expect for the seeds planted among us today?

The question presses on us with real weight because in a moment we will baptize Mae and Lydia. Water, words, two young girls—mustard seeds, really. They will one day grow into great and sturdy trees of the faith, and the Holy Spirit, the great Heavenly Dove, will surely make a nest in their shade. How will we celebrate with them? By leading the paltry, pigeonesque life of entertainment and easy membership? Or by being patient, committed, enduring disciples of Jesus Christ?

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