Many of us remember the experience of having someone, usually a parent or grandparent, tell us when we were young, “You know, when I was your age I had to walk to school and it was uphill both ways.” That old saying has been echoing in my head a lot lately. At least since I’ve been walking from my house to the church occasionally and then back again. When I used to drive the same route I knew it was uphill both directions but not in the same way I now know. To be more specific, it is more uphill going than it is coming back and the tilt to one side is hard on the ankles.
Noticing things, paying attention to details is a recurring wonder to me the more walking I do. My preferred walk is the Tucker House trails behind the SFA Native Plant Center. There’s no traffic, not many people, beautiful woods and plant life, and I spot plenty of animals, birds, and reptiles (copperheads!) when I pay attention to what’s around me. Once I leave those quiet trails I’ve noticed a lot of other things. For instance, I’ve noticed that Nacogdoches does not have a lot of sidewalks and we’re not a very pedestrian or bicyclist friendly place. Some folks think that if you’re out walking then something must be wrong with you and they express their thoughts with various rude behaviors. Although, I’ve also noticed that as gas prices soar, fewer and fewer drivers think a walker is odd. I’ve noticed that people are in a hurry and some are more hurried than others as they zoom past me. I’ve noticed people in their yards like to wave, children like to talk, dogs like to bark, and some dogs like to bark, growl, and run after you. I’ve noticed geraniums and azaleas and irises and poison ivy and fire ants. I’ve noticed that good shoes are important and a knapsack full of books is not. I’ve noticed that it’s harder to get mad when I’m walking and easier to smile. I’ve noticed that I can walk further, longer, and more enjoyably than I could six or seven months ago and that my heart feels better. I’ve noticed that I don’t mind the time used for walking like I did when I began. And I’ve noticed that walking is a great time for thinking, imagining, and talking with God.
Theologian Kosuke Koyama suggests that some things God can teach us only very slowly, at a walking pace. As an example, he says that God decided to spend forty years to teach one lesson to the children of Israel: “that human beings do not live by bread alone but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.” God teaches and walks slowly because God is love and the speed of love is slow; it is attentive; it notices. Koyama says, God walks three-miles-an-hour because that’s the speed of our walking and God walks beside us in love. The prophet Micah says that God only requires us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). I wonder if Micah means that God walks humbly and slowly and if we want to know God then we have to walk with the same slowness and humility? Zooming through our lives, pedal to the metal, multi-tasking with our cell phones and gulping our coffee, perhaps we’re missing God? We catch a glimpse in our rear-view mirror of a slow-moving figure and never pay the least notice that we’ve just missed God.
One of my thoughts while walking has been what it would mean for us to be a “slow church?” There is a movement coming out of Europe called “slow food.” It is the opposite of fast-food. Slow food means not only do we take time to eat, enjoy, and savor our food and do so communally, with friends and family, but that we take the time to properly prepare food and notice where it comes from and how it is grown and its effects on the environment. Good meals take time. So do good churches.
My friend Stan Wilson, a pastor of the outstanding yet modest sized Northside Baptist Church in Clinton, Mississippi, and I have been talking about what a slow church might be. Or to use another metaphor, one used in environmental and agrarian conversations, a “sustainable church.” I’m not sure what a slow church or a sustainable church might look like but I’m pretty sure it is a church small enough that the members notice one another and pay loving attention toward others.
English Baptist Thomas Helwys, in his 1611 Confession, wrote that the members of every congregation should know one another so they can perform the duties of love towards one another “and therefore a church ought not to consist of such a multitude as cannot have particular knowledge one of another” (article 16).
My hunch is that a slow church or sustainable church is one that slows down the pace of life and learns to walk with God and with one another. Some of this might very well mean that we literally get out of our cars, out of our air-conditioned houses, and certainly away from the televisions and technology and walk (or guys – join the “old guys yoga” group). Perhaps it might mean that we do more gardening and notice more of what’s going on in God’s creation and encouraging less use of fossil fuels in Nacogdoches. It probably has something to do with local economics and encouraging local neighborhoods with sidewalks where people can walk around and get to know each other. Maybe it means that we don’t produce “fast Christians” with the expertise of a glitzy plan from a mega-church in a big city, and we trust more in what God is doing through one another right here, and that becoming Christian takes time and the practice of skills like prayer and forgiveness and service.
I don’t know for sure but it’s what I’m thinking about when I’m walking. I’d like to know what you think. Meanwhile, as you speed up the hill on Austin Street approaching the church, slow down enough to notice the fellow trudging along. Give him a smile and a kind wave. It might be me.
(Originally published Tuesday, May 20, 2008)