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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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