The Art of Slow Plodding How ordinary faithfulness transforms the world

In a world short on whole-souled, enduring commitment and long on the quick, easy, and effortless, it’s refreshing and sobering to see men and women who slowly, painstakingly give themselves to the sort of everyday deeds that produce the kind of fruit that can only be measured, not by days, weeks or months, but by decades.

My friend Gary is one such man. He’s a farmer from Idaho who, along with his wife, Janet, keeps two properties, one in Southern Idaho and one in the north. Since God tells us to consider the farmer’s patience as an encouraging example for our lives (James 5:7), and in particular how to make it through long, difficult seasons, I listen to their story with attentive ears. Their story is not loud or boisterous but quiet, humble, and life giving. They’ve learned the art of slow plodding.

Their message is especially relevant because of the way the media-dominated culture operates today. Not only do many of us feel prone to hopeless despair as our society is continually given to one abomination after the other, but it’s the flashy, loud, chest pounders who get the attention. A lot of folks are worried about national politics in an election year, but that’s not where the real, lasting change is going to happen.

When we think about changing the world, we think of guys like Bono, who’s famous and gets a lot of attention for charity work in Africa. We think the only way to be effective is to have a giant following on social media, host a TV show, or be a pro athlete who speaks to millions. I’ve heard numerous evangelistic types drone on about needing to reach as many people as possible, as though seduced by the world’s view of success and true impact on the lives of others. And since most of us can never do or be that, we ask, What difference could we possibly make?

Our celebrity culture makes us think the only way to impact other people’s lives is through the command of huge audiences, and since we’re not famous, we give up. We do nothing. We’re told to “Think big,” when what we really need is to “Think small.”

“If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” Mother teresa

We’d be better off to consider the profound wisdom of Mother Teresa, who said, “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” We think change happens with politicians who are off in Washington, D.C., “thinking big,” but it doesn’t. Change happens at the micro level where courageous folks like you and me are thinking small and dare to act in those small, everyday ways.

“The discipline of thought is not generalization; it is detail, and it is personal behavior. While the government is “studying” and funding and organizing its Big Thought, nothing is being done. But the citizen who is willing to Think Little, and, accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his own, is already solving the problem. A man who is trying to live as a neighbor to his neighbors will have a lively and practical understanding of the work of peace and brotherhood, and let there be no mistake about it—he is doing that work. A couple who make a good marriage, and raise healthy, morally competent children, are serving the world’s future more directly and surely than any political leader, though they never utter a public word. A good farmer who is dealing with the problem of soil erosion on an acre of ground has a sounder grasp of that problem and cares more about it and is probably doing more to solve it than any bureaucrat who is talking about it in general. A man who is willing to undertake the discipline and the difficulty of mending his own ways is worth more to the conservation movement than a hundred who are insisting merely that the government and the industries mend their ways” (“The Art of the Commonplace,” Wendell Berry, 87).

12-flowers-WEB

I once told Gary that if I was charged with the task of keeping a garden in heaven, I’d be enlisting his help. Suffice it to say Gary knows how to keep a fine garden, the stuff of Edenic proportions. What Michelangelo was with paint and chisel, Gary is with blackberries, potatoes, trees, bees and grape vines.

The secret is his quiet, enduring faithfulness, which keeps those plants watered, fed, and tended to. It doesn’t hurt that his mind is a steel trap—he can remember the day of month he planted something years ago, what the weather was like at pretty much any point during that time, and what struggles the plant has been through since then. He knows each plant personally, including what it needs to grow and in what conditions it thrives.

On a daily basis, over the course of years, Gary and Janet tend to all the small, ordinary things that add up to a lavish garden. They pull weeds, fertilize, turn the soil, water, prune. Then they do it again. And again. And again. By themselves those small acts seem, well, small. But they add up to big things, like Gary’s blackberries.

16-blackberry-WEB

“Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. so then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:9-10).

During a recent visit to Idaho, I was deeply moved as I observed the lovely couple at work. Always quiet, sweet, and happily laboring away, they’re like ants, doing just a little bit at a time on a regular basis. They don’t have Facebook and have exactly zero social media followers. They don’t fill stadiums and they don’t live in a big city. And yet to watch them work, to sit in their garden, I’m overcome with the sight of their enduring faithfulness. Quiet prayers, quiet lives, quiet actions that resound in the Maker’s ears.

They’ve owned “The Homestead” in northern Idaho for about a decade now, which Gary said was just enough time to get started in the right direction. A decade. To get started. To my eye it looks immaculate, but Gary always keeps two things in mind—his vision for what it could be and his dogged determination to see that vision come true.

It takes wisdom to envision the impact you’ll have on something or someone in terms of decades, not weeks, months or even years. The man has poured his heart into the land and yet says, after 10 years, “I’m just getting started.” I wonder to myself if I’ve ever looked at a person or a place and thought, “Give me a decade and I can make a good start of it. Give me 20 or 30 years and I can really do something.”

All of it reminds me of the Lord, who binds himself in covenant love to his people. He is, after all, the consummate Gardener, the one who prunes and tends to our growth (John 15). He’s no “stranger in the land, like a traveler who turns aside to tarry for a night” (Jeremiah 14:8). He’s not just passing through our lives; He’s here to stay. He’s the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, who gave himself to a people for thousands of years, even through their devastating disloyalty and failure. He came to a people and a place and pledged Himself to it forever. He’s a Lifer.

Our society, on the other hand, is plagued by vagrancy. The trendy thing right now is to be a professional drifter, going from job to job, relationship to relationship, place to place. Travel the world, they say. Find yourself, they say. We rejoice in our transiency because when we’re always just passing through, there’s never any commitment. But there’s also rarely any lasting impact, either.

A tree will never grow very tall if it doesn’t put down roots and dig in for the long haul. Neither will a man grow mature and tall enough to make much of a difference if he won’t commit to his people and his place and start dreaming in decades and generations.

What we need are more Lifers—at church, in our communities, on our land. We need men and women who’ll work at marriage day by day and stay committed to one another. We need neighbors that evaluate the positive impact they can have on each other in decades, not years, and who will slowly plod in that direction day by day. We need ranchers and farmers who’ll love the land like a child, nurturing it and replenishing it so that it grows into something better for the next generation.

What you’re doing today—whether that’s changing diapers, installing someone’s cable, filing paperwork, listening to your five-year-old’s ridiculously long story with attentive ears, repairing an electrical outage, listening to a worn down friend pour their heart out, or reading your kids a book before bed—it matters. Don’t lose heart, don’t give up, and don’t think the really important stuff is happening out there. It’s not.

The greatest things you’ll ever do, the most significant impact you’ll ever have, is with the people and places right before your face, today. You want to change the world? Go home and love your family. Lead sacrificially and competently at work. Treat your customers with the same respect you’d appreciate. Better yet, treat the next assignment, the next phone call, like God Himself was on the line.

Think small. Go change the world.

“Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I have found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay, Simple acts of kindness and love. Why bilbo baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.” Gandalf, “the hobbit”

Eric

3 comments

  • I read something once, and the nature of the idea being expressed was “Mow the lawn.” It was an essay expressing the ideology that it wasn’t some earth-shattering amount of ambition that paved the way for great change, but rather the small, routine, and often unnoticed things that we do every day. That seems to be what you’re (kind of) getting at, here. Often we see, and demonstrate, the results of those efforts… and it’s easy to believe that enormous change or impact can be achieved with some explosive amount of immediate ambition, but it’s perhaps true to a greater degree that ambition that’s measured, and poured out daily, and repeatedly… is a more effective approach to any endeavor. I know for Catch a Cure it wasn’t time on a boat catching fish that mattered, but rather the time spent sending e-mails to every company in the Icast catalog, etc., to every publication to find an outlet, etc. that made any of it possible. All of which is to say — I agree, and well put.

    • Yeah, great points Rick. I know for me when I focus on the big picture but not the details, I just get overwhelmed. Focusing on details—doing the next right thing—helps end the paralysis of action. And like you said, it’s often the part we creatives don’t like as much (sending emails) that has to be done in order to give the creativity a chance to live. Thanks, as usual, for the well-thought-out response. I’ve been greatly encouraged by you!

  • Thank you! These words are needed so much right now, especially if they lead to the change of heart and perspective reflected in them.

Submit a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *