Trust the Slow Work of God - Reservoir Church
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Summer 2018

Trust the Slow Work of God

Steve Watson

Jun 24, 2018

Well, I’m going to get to some more public issues going on in our world in a bit, but I want to start in a more personal space, if that’s OK.

This past fall, I found myself in an interesting moment. So many things were going well in my life. I had a lot to be thankful for. But I had some nagging issues. I was frustrated with some old patterns that were dogging me. I didn’t like some of my chronic ways of being so independent, was frustrated by some chronic habits too of how life’s dilemmas sunk in deep in the form of stress. I was realizing too that in mid-life – I’m turning 45 this year – odds would say I’m past the mid-point of my life. Anyway, at this stage of parenting and of my working life pastoring this church, I needed new vision and new resources. Some new ways of thinking and being.

And then on top of that, when the whole #metoo movement began trending and hitting the news daily, sometimes hourly this fall, I found some old traumas in my own journey stirred up with an intensity I hadn’t seen coming. I was in pain and I was disoriented as well.

So toward the end of the year, I embarked on what I’ve come to understand as a two-lane pathway for my life this year. I found myself a therapist, where I’ve weekly been examining my life. And I’ve entered into a more intentional spiritual practice, in my case in the form of a year-long set of spiritual exercises designed by the founder of the Jesuits.

And today, a little more than a half year into this work, I want to share some of what I’ve been learning. It fits with some scriptures we have the opportunity to read. It resonates with a few things going on in public life these days, I think. And my hope is that it will encourage many of you in your own stories. We’ll see, I guess, right?

This summer, rather than our theme or series directing us toward the scriptures we read and talk about on Sundays, in true summer reading style, we’re going to read what everybody else is reading and see how it speaks to us. Many, many groups of churches make their way through the Bible every few years in their Sunday teaching using a rotation of scriptures called the common lectionary. It recommends texts from throughout the Bible for use in teaching each week. And many individuals read through the whole Bible every three years using a daily Bible reading plan the lectionary provides as well.

Our church has for years made this available through our website, under the sermon and stories tab at reservoirchurch.org where we have a Read the Bible Together section.

So this summer, Ivy and Lydia and I and a couple of others will give sermons that are inspired by this grab bag of texts that this Bible reading tool – the lectionary presents. We hope you’ll find them helpful and we hope you’ll read along.

Today’s text I’ll focus on comes from a very famous story in the Old Testament’s royal chronicles of the kings in Jerusalem. It’s the tale of David and Goliath.

Historians and Bible scholars have all kinds of thoughts and questions about this famous story of a young shepherd who would become Israel’s second king and the greatest warrior in the region, who would become known as one of the world’s greatest ever losers.

What I love most, though, is the psychology of this story, trying to get inside the skin of young David and wonder how he had the courage that he did. I think the story invites us to do this, as well. And I’m going to focus on the middle of the story – not the set-up, not the great victory at the end, but the part where we see how David trusts the long, good, slow work of God.

Listen as I read, or read along with me, if you like, from the middle of I Samuel, chapter 17.

I Samuel 17:32-40 (NRSV)

32David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” 33Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” 34But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, 35I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. 36Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” 37David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!”

38Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. 39David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. 40Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.

Just to back things up a bit, this isn’t just a nerve-wracking challenge David is facing. It’s not an audition, a final exam, a job interview, or any other big but kind of normal stressful situation. No, this is the a grizzled warrior, the most fearsome fighter of David’s generation, standing with an army at his back, threatening the security and freedom of David, his family, his friends, his whole culture. There’s a thin line between their current way of life and great suffering and devastation.

And David isn’t even all grown up. He’s a teenager, the youngest in his family, left behind to take care of the chores in the family business while his big brothers go off to war. And yet David looks around, surveys the scene, looks within for a moment, and says: I’ve got this.

Saul has what educators call a fixed mindset. He looks at Goliath – tall, strong, armored, experienced, and menacing. And he looks at David – young and inexperienced, unknown, innocent. And he says, you’re gonna lose. Actually, you’re gonna die. You’re not good enough.

Have you heard of these terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset”? They come out of the work of Stanford educator Carol Dweck.

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.

This is Goliath thinking he will always win because he is so big and bad and strong. And this is Saul thinking that he and his people and David will always lose because they are smaller and less equipped technologically.

Turns out they’re both wrong, and David is right. David practices a growth mindset.

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.

So Saul looks at David and says: You are just a boy. And David doesn’t argue with that. But he says, I’ve been defending life for years. I have been alone in the wilderness, with nothing but my sling and my stones and my knife, and I have fought lions and bears.

My life has prepared me for this moment. And with God’s help, I’m going to win today.

Saul decides to let him try, out of desperation if nothing else. But still he thinks David has to look like him. He doesn’t think God’s long, slow work in David’s life has been good enough. So he gives David his big man’s armor and his heavy sword, but they don’t fit David. They weren’t good enough for Saul – he didn’t challenge Goliath. And they’re not good enough for David either.

What God has already done in David’s life is good enough, nothing else. So he takes his staff, and he takes his sling, and he picks up his five smooth river stones, and off he goes, trusting his training, trusting God’s long slow work that has brought him to this point. Trusting God’s story that’s been playing out in his life. David hopes and trusts that the person he’s been becoming and the God he worships are good enough to face the trials of his life – his personal life, and the public life of his people.

This spring, I was in a really different space than I was last fall. Friends saw more life in me, more laughter back in my voice, because I had learned some things about my life, started to come to more acceptance and understanding about my past, and come into a deeper, more settled confidence in God’s love for me. I was learning, really, to love myself more.

But there were other things that weren’t coming together as quickly. And I’m a little frustrated at this point, because I’m going to therapy every week and doing these spiritual exercises every day, and I’m expecting dramatic results, I guess, before and after style. Like here’s mopey, stressed-out, needs vision Steve from the fall, and here’s the joyful, put together, dynamic me today. Finished!

Do you have your version of this? Are there areas of your life that you wanted results in… yesterday? Places in your life, or maybe the public world at large, where you wish God would just swoop in, shake things up, and make a change?

I know I do. But the problem is, this is not how God normally works. God has too much of an interest, I believe, in the growth mindset, in the development of people, the nurturing of God’s children, to just swoop around whatever place we’re fixed today and work some magic on our behalf.

Years ago, my mentor in my work in urban education – a wise elder statesman in the Boston Public Schools named Bak Fun Wong – gifted me with a work of Chinese calligraphy. It reads: It takes ten years to grow a tree, but a hundred years to grow a person. That’s a lifetime, right? A long one.

This hangs on my office wall in the ministry center, just as a beautiful little turtle I bought once in Mexico sits on my desk – reminding me, impatient guy that I am – of the important of slow and steady change, of adopting a growth mindset with myself and others. But truth is, they’ve become part of the background in my office that I had forgotten about until a recent conversation with a friend.

We were talking about my deep dive into inner work this year and about some things I was learning, and I told my friend about an insight, a question really, that had started to haunt me. I won’t get into all the details today, but I thought this question might be really important for the things I was trying to learn about vision for my life and work. And so I told my friend I was thinking about it often, trying to answer the question. And this friend, who is older and wiser than me, encouraged me to stop. To just let it sit for a while and not try to rush to an answer.

He told me: Steve, trust the long, slow work of God.

As we talked more, he asked me, Did I know how fast God is? And I thought that’s a weird question. How fast is God? I guess really fast. Faster than a speeding bullet. Faster than the speed of light.

And he said: wrong, quite the opposite. God’s speed is three miles per hour.

Which seemed like a really specific answer, until he told me about a fabulous essay by a Japanese-American theologian named Kosuke Koyama – born in Tokyo in the 20s, died just nine years ago right here in Massachusetts. And the essay my friend told me about and gave to read is entitled, “Three Mile an Hour God.”

Koyama notices that people and cultures and really all of humanity seems pretty slow to learn, but that God accommodates to our slowness just fine because God has an educational philosophy which is to walk with people, to move at our speed, which is more or less three miles per hour.

In the Bible’s narrative, cultures learn slowly. So God takes forty years, or seventy years or sometimes hundreds of years to shape a culture.

Jesus spends most of his time walking from place to place with his disciples, eating meals, telling stories, chatting up strangers. It’s a long school of training, done at the pace of three miles per hour.

God empowers this defeat of Goliath not through some snap of the finger miracle, but through a young man who’s spent years alone at the night in cold, dark fields, singing songs to God because he had nothing else to do, and training his body and mind as he protected his sheep. It was slow, steady growth, done without this goal of giant-slaying in mind.

God grows us by walking with us, at our speed. And God shapes history for the better through people who grow as they walk with God.

Kosuke Koyama calls this three mile per hour, long slow speed of God, not the speed of light, but the speed of love. A God who loves us is glad to walk with us, and keep teaching us and growing us slowly.

This has been helpful for me in this year I’ve dedicated to healing and learning and new growth. Because when I talk about what I’ve been learning or about the change I see in me, it can sound small and slow.

I’ve gained more peace and more connection with my own past. I’m learning to be more emotionally present in situations where I wouldn’t be before. I’m slowly learning about being less stressed. These seem like small things when I say them, but they’re the steady work of God’s love in my life: the good, slow work of God.

I wonder if you look backwards in your life, where cdan you see the good, slow work of God? Where has God walked with you at the speed of love?

Has there been slow, but steady change in some area of your life, as with me?

Have you accumulated training and experiences that prepare you for some work before you today, as David did?

Last week a friend of mine told me about a person he cared about who had a very unlikely hope for his life. And my friend told his friend, I’ll join you in that hope by praying that God would make it so. He didn’t tell his friend that he thought this was exceedingly unlikely, but did pray for his friend, even when he didn’t believe. Ten years later, ten years, it looks like that friend’s hope is starting to come to pass.

I wonder if you look forward in your life, where is it that you would like God to walk with you at the speed of love? What slow but good work of God do you hope to see in you or around you?

We’re going to close this talk coming back to the very personal in just a moment, but I think there might be something here for the public crises of our age as well. In recent years, people all around the world, I think, but for sure people in this country, are experiencing a heightened sense of crisis about our world.

We’re very aware, regardless of our perspectives and angles, we are all aware of large things that are very wrong in our times, things that seem awful and urgent. And the great speed of our times means we hear about them constantly, with rapid updates and hot takes on it from thousands of media outlets and many we know on social media.

We live in times of such speed. Kosuke Koyama’s essay Three Mile Per Hour God was published back when I was a little kid, in 1979. And when he talks about our reliance on speed, he mentions Xerox copiers and instant dinners and electronic switches as the fastest things he can think of. And all this sounds very quaint now, because our world gets faster and faster, and partly that means that we are bombarded with crisis after crisis, with more and more urgency.

Now let me be clear – I think many of these things are important. Like most Americans, I’ve been troubled the past two weeks by news coming from our country’s Southern border, and about the resentment toward immigrants in some corner’s of our country, and the inhumane treatment of people, of children, that has grown out of this resentment. This is very urgent for the people involved, of course, and so there’s much we can do. Some of us in our vocations, in our work, all of us in our giving or our advocacy or our voting. And this is on top of many other crises of violence and indecency that we’ve talked about at other dates and times – most of those have not gone away.

But in that same essay on the three mile per hour God, Koyama points out that when we learn to walk with a God who moves at the speed of love, we learn to see danger, but we also learn to see promise. And grounded people of hope need to learn to see both danger and promise. Because if we only see danger, we panic and react and become fools in our urgency or lose heart in our despair. But if we nly see promise, we are ungrounded, unrealistic, and unfaithful to the people and problems of our times.

God sees danger and promise. God’s people can live with both danger and promise.

David sees the great danger of his time in the person of Goliath, but with faith, he sees promise too. And today, to make explicit what I’ve been saying, another way of thinking about faith might be a God-oriented growth mindset. Or a trust that God is available to walk with us, at our walking speed, at God’s slow speed of love.

One of the neat features of this daily Bible reading tool, what the church world calls the lectionary, what we call Reading the Bible Together, is that it provides multiple passages to read on a given day, four different passages to choose to preach from on a given Sunday. And sometimes there are these surprising and beautiful connections between them.

So in addition to today’s portion of the David and Goliath narrative, there are a few verses from one of the Psalms as well. And in the Psalms, these ancient prayers and songs, we again and again see danger and promise, as people try to trust the slow work of God.

Look with me at these bits from Psalm 9 before we wrap up.

Psalm 9:9, 15, 18-20 (NRSV)

The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed,
    a stronghold in times of trouble.

God is always available to us, in all times of danger.

15 The nations have sunk in the pit that they made;
    in the net that they hid has their own foot been caught.

People groups, nations, countries that dig pits and set traps for others, thinking they’re protecting themselves, are only digging their own grave. I have all kinds of thoughts and theories about how this plays out historically, but that’s a little out of my lane for today, so we’ll just let this other thought on the long work of God hang there.

And one more bit:

18 For the needy shall not always be forgotten,
    nor the hope of the poor perish forever.

19 Rise up, O Lord! Do not let mortals prevail;
    let the nations be judged before you.
20 Put them in fear, O Lord;
    let the nations know that they are only human.

We might forget the needy, we might dash the hopes of those more marginalized, more vulnerable than us. But this is not the way of love. It’s not God’s way. In fact, again and again, the scriptures tell us that God hears and responds to the cries of those in danger. God takes their side, gives them promise, and God humbles the violent and the proud.

Not because God is mean or violent or insecure or arbitrary, but because God knows to be human, to be beautifully vulnerable, to walk and to change and to grow at the slow speed of 3 miles per hour is a good thing. It’s good to be human. God loves to walk with humans. So we all need to remember that we’re only human never more, and all our neighbors in this world, all the other children of God are also only human, never less.

 

Let me wrap up with three quick invitations to trusting the slow work of God.

 

Try This:

  1. Spiritual Practice of the Week: Join us this summer in reading the Bible together. (Link: )

 

This week’s spiritual practice I most commend to you is to join us in our Reading the Bible Together practice. Again, we’ll preach from the Sunday passages each week this summer, and each day of the week, there are 2 or 3 or 4 short passages you can read. You can find this on our website at reservoirchurch.org. Just search for “read the Bible together” or find it under the “sermons and stories” tab.

 

 

  • What five smooth stones do you want to hold onto, week in and week out?

 

 

David’s five smooth stones he uses in battle have become a metaphor for me or the tools and practices that are personal to our own growth and faith. The ways we commit to walking with God and growing as people of love and promise. As with David, using his river stones, not King Saul’s armor and sword, these stones are personal to us.

 

So when I became this church’s pastor five years ago, I felt a deep call to five spiritual practices I wanted to engage in every day, or in some cases every week. One for instance, was taking regular rest and refreshment. I was convinced that as I attended to these five practices – my own five smooth stones – I would slowly grow in love and health and faith, and that would help me be more of the person I want to be, and a better pastor here as well. That promise has proven true. Just this year, I realized it was time to adjust the stones a little, to deemphasize some practices, to recommit to some others, and to take on some new habits and ways of living. So I’m reconsidering my five smooth stones, my five primary means of growth and faith.

 

So if this is intriguing to you, take some time this week to ask what your five smooth stones should be? What are your chief habits or practices for walking with God into growth and love?

 

And lastly, I’d like to try one final thing just now, which is to ask:

 

 

  • What am I called to do this week? ________________________________. How is who you are + the God of love who walks with you enough for this?

 

And then to ask: How is who we are and the God of love who walks with us enough for this task?

Because my faith is that the God who has walked with us in the past has prepared us with what we need for the work and even the dangers of today. And the God who walks with us at the speed of love is always enough for the trials and calls of the present and the future.