January 28, 2013
It’s not a surprise. After all, we are headed right into the depths of a lake-effect blizzard. The I-94/I-196 corridor along Lake Michigan is known for intense snowstorms, but we have little choice. Three colleagues and I are driving back from a North Central Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee meeting in Chicago. The skies are clear until we cross from Indiana into Michigan. Then the heavens open, and all we can see is white.
We slow down with the traffic until both northbound lanes stop. After sitting for ten minutes, we creep along for an hour, covering three miles. We laugh and tell stories while the storm swirls around us. I finished the last 30 pages of a novel. We stop again. This time there are no fits and starts. We aren’t going anywhere for a while.
As resignation sets in, Joy reminds us of our closing devotions that morning. After our committee spent three days discussing the challenges and opportunities of episcopal leadership in The United Methodist Church, Joy quoted a poem by Teilhard de Chardin from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals,
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We would like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability and that it may take a very long time.
Ah, yes, the slow work of God. Forgive our impatience, God. Remind us that our insistence on always being in control does not apply to blizzards, icy roads, and zero visibility. Jesus, you who never had the joy of driving in a snowstorm, help us to see you in the enforced slowness, empower us to relax into the experience, and open our eyes to the world of the Holy Spirit, which too often remains hidden from view because we are moving too fast through life.
Jackie and I call our spouses to say, “You’re on your own for dinner.” Joy says, “I guess I won’t make it back for bell choir.” Laurie D. says, “I should have prepared the guest rooms in case you don’t make it beyond Kalamazoo.” We break out little packs of trail mix and commune together.
Entertainment abounds when I make a makeshift restroom by opening the front and back doors of the car to create a semblance of privacy. We laugh some more and tell more stories. We speculate about “what if’s.” Could we have avoided this mess by taking the southern route on I-80/90 over to US-131? But we also delight in the pure Michigan beauty of elegant snowflakes blanketing the pines and dancing around us. We revel in the slow work of God, grateful that we are safe, and offer silent prayers for whoever was involved in the accident ahead.
What is this slow work of God, anyway? It’s unknown, new, mysterious, unstable, and even dangerous, so we’re reluctant to trust it. In fact, we do not know the day or the hour of anything. We have no idea what tomorrow will bring, which is why God insists that we live one day at a time and be fully present to the moment. God invites us to embrace discomfort, anxiety, and even suffering as a necessary part of our life’s journey because wisdom and growth come from the bearing of infirmities.
Have you noticed? Jesus said nothing during his life and ministry about the importance of becoming rich and successful, but he said a whole lot about how we have to lose our life in order to save it. Jesus said nothing about becoming powerful, but he said a whole lot about denying ourselves, losing our ego, and letting go of selfish desires. Jesus said nothing about being honored by others, but he spoke volumes about humbling ourselves and taking the last seat rather than the first. In fact, the central metaphor of the human condition in the New Testament is the necessity and slow work of dying in order to experience new life.
And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow.
Let them shape themselves without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time
–that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will–
will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
What is this slow work of God? It invites patience, vision, steadfastness, and quiet confidence. But I, who am always in a hurry, want to see immediate results. I, who can’t sit still, am forced to stay put, and my body is protesting. The slow work of God is convicting me as I sit and wait. I leave the car for a few minutes to walk in the snow and clear my mind.
God is molding and reshaping me on the potter’s wheel without undue haste, even as I wonder, “Why is it taking so long? Why is growth so uncertain? What do you mean it may take a very long time? Can I skip that part? Is it possible to trust that God is gradually forming a new spirit in me?”
Patience releases the clenched hands of white knuckle driving and opens them to God’s movement in God’s time. Yet the slow work of God won’t happen without us, either. After Jesus finished his work on our earth, he commissioned the apostles and each one of us, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” But not after he spent three years insisting, “You are salt and light… Go and do likewise… Love your enemies… I appointed you to go and bear fruit that will last… Follow me… Be reconciled to your brother or sister.”
Two hours after we stop for the first time, the long line of cars suddenly begins to move, we gather momentum, and we’re on our way. We cheer, “Thank you, Jesus” and settle in for a quick trip home. Not to be. We occasionally reach 45 miles per hour, but the storm still rages, cars are sliding off the road, and the slow work of God continues. It will take a very long time to make it home.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God,
our loving vine-dresser.
What is this slow work that causes God to chuckle, sigh, lament, comfort, and chide God’s people? I wonder about our local churches and our denomination. Could God be emboldening us, “United Methodist Church, you worry about too much. You are too impatient to fix things without delay. You are too uptight, too obsessed with your decline, and too concerned about a theological divide. Take a deep breath. Be yourself.
“Will you trust my slow work that is refining you so that you can focus on mission and ministry and kingdom-building? Can you imagine that your divisions might be my way of slowing you down to build relationships and stop being too full of your opinionated self?
“Will you engage an active patience that celebrates small steps toward greater vitality at the same time as you risk everything in seeking justice for all of my people? Will you act urgently but without undue haste? Can you accept the anxiety that accompanies falling numbers yet blow the wad by starting new faith communities, developing strong leaders, and equipping clergy and local congregations for effective contextual ministry?
“Can you live with instability, relish incompleteness, and mature in my time? Will you dare to consider any and all crazy ideas, experiment freely and smartly, create healthy systems that facilitate effective ministry, and lead your church folk outside the building? Can you focus on teaching and nurturing the children and youth to be witnesses by knowing me, loving me, and serving me?
“Will you be a relentless optimist rather than a negative curmudgeon? Have you ever considered living in hope rather than despair? Can you dream even bigger and start marching in the light of my love? Can you abide in the vine and covenant to bear luscious fruit for the sake of our loving vine-dresser? Will you leave the safety and warmth of your car sitting in the middle of the interstate to play in the snow, build a snow person, lick the snowflakes, and make a snow angel?
“Do you believe that I am working for good in the world through you all day long? Will you trust in my slow work, no matter how long it takes?”
We all arrived home – slowly, safely, and in God’s time.