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Discovering the Hidden Power of Slow Time

I was recently looking through some old papers when I came across a note to my parents, from one of my elementary school counselors. Among other things, she remarked that I had a “low tolerance for frustration.” I had to laugh: to this day, learning to deal constructively with frustration remains one of my key growth areas. 

All my life, I’ve been an activator. I’m someone who starts new projects, blazes new trails, and asks disruptive questions. This personality is great when things need to change, but it can be a challenge when the status quo is actually working pretty well. When all the system needs is a few tweaks, it’s easy for me to get stir-crazy. My innate sense of urgency, my desire for sweeping improvements, can often be a recipe for frustration.

I’ve burnt myself out more than a few times. I’ve had a vision and pursued it with confidence, only to find that the world doesn’t change as quickly as I want it to. Like many young people, I’ve overestimated the impact I can have in months while underestimating what can be accomplished over the course of years. 

My twenties were a deeply educational decade for me. I’ve learned that human communities are complex systems that require care, nurture, and consistency over time. Sudden revolution is rare. When it does occur, it often ends badly. The safer, more loving, and more effective course of action often involves long periods when – at least superficially – it appears that nothing is happening.

For me, real wisdom lies in being able to tell the difference between living and dead silence. There are times of stagnation, when there really is very little going on behind the scenes. In times like these, the status quo needs to be shaken up. But there are also times of dynamic tension, periods when real growth is taking place behind a façade of normalcy. In moments like these, the challenge is to accompany the community through this slow, subtle transformation. It’s time to water the seeds, not dig up the ground to re-plant.

These “slow times” are where we live most of our lives. These are the long stretches between revolutions, when we watch a new paradigm emerge and grow to fruition. They’re times that call for what John of Patmos referred to as “the patient endurance of the saints.”

What does it mean for me to live in slow time (or, perhaps, “ordinary time,” as our liturgical brothers and sisters might put it)? How does my attitude and posture need to change in order to patiently endure the long stretches between revolutions?

Living in the slow times is hard. Israel wandered in the wilderness with God for forty years, Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert, and the early church spent centuries enduring persecution in the midst of a hostile and unsympathetic empire. All of these journeys involved suffering, doubt, and intense spiritual wrestling. Yet, it was in this slow-cooking environment that the full character of God came to be revealed in Israel, Jesus, and the early Christian fellowships. Through endurance in these slow times, they were equipped to shine brilliantly before the world when the kairos moments finally came along. 

As I explore what it means to live in the slow-cooker of patient endurance, I’m finding unexpected joy. Slow time is primarily about people, not ideas. It’s about friendship, family, and community. It’s about growing roots and branching out, finding myself in relationship with the people in my neighborhood. These slow times are an opportunity to witness what God is doing in the world, just beneath the surface, despite the fact that everything appears to be “stuck” and immobile. Even in these times, the Spirit of God is hovering over the waters.

Do you experience time this way? Can you sense the difference between fast and slow times? Which kind of time do you experience more frequently? What are the ways you can live more fully into God’s invitation for you in the midst of slowness, challenge, and stuckness? Where will you find joy?

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  • Robert O. Robbins

    I appreciate and understand the challenge of living in the “slow times” of which you wrote about. While the patience which you pointed to is important, I have found that it is equally important to be able to prioritize the needs for change properly in order for me to get anything really accomplished in the best way for the Lord’s Kingdom. I must look at the total situation a completely as I can and then determine what I can change, what I can’t change and what should be just left alone. So I keep the “Serenity Prayer” on my wall and in my heart at all times to remind me of this importance: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.

    • For me, the challenge is patience rather than action, but I can see it going both ways!

      • Robert O. Robbins

        Sorry I took a while to respond to this Micah, but I needed some prayer and meditation time on this “challenge.” I think I understand that you are wanting to learn patience in the Lord, and that you are experiencing that the Lord’s timing is not necessarily ours. But is it not true that if we become too impatient in our waiting on the Lord, then we have a tendency to take action? And if we do take such action, or sometimes even if we do not, and that is not guided by the Holy Spirit, it could quite likely be wrong. Thus, even patience fits well into the Serenity Prayer, spec.: The wisdom to know the difference.

  • Very strange Micah, I was considering writing something similar, in fact there are sentences I would almost have used. I am at the moment a lot calmer and centred but a couple of months ago very impatient and wanted to write about it, and how prayer and going on a pilgrimage helped me back. I have been thinking a lot about my through the flaming sword moment, and the role of the Garden of Eden. However, the 40 days of temptation and the flight from Egypt through the desert, as trying times have also been in my thoughts.

    Although I am still (but less so these days) a little frustrated at how slow change happens, I keep reminding myself Gods time is not 24 hours in a day! These last couple of years made me realise how appropriate the Jewish scripture of Ecclesiates 3 is. A time to stand back, and a time to get my hands dirty, a time to just sit and listen, a time to act, a time to cry and a time to comfort someone else crying.

    Two weeks ago during Meeting for Worship, I was almost moved to stand and minister, but then realised it was for me, it was a “no, a reminder to wait, it is not the time for me to serve with Christian Peacemaker Teams at the moment, I am needed elsewhere. With so much going on, I wanted to be on team…. in hindsight it was good to pray and discern. It is a time for friends, family and community.