Monday, May 8, 2017

The Conundrum of Progress

Many of the stately live oaks of Southern cities like Savannah, Ga.
and Charleston, S.C. took centuries to grow.
My junior year in high school, I took a personal typing class. Planning to attend college, it seemed worthwhile to learn how to type reasonably well for writing essays, term papers and other assignments. I had no idea how it would help prepare me for a career in journalism.

I remember starting with the “home row” – ASDFG (left hand) and HJKL (right hand) – and which fingers to use on which keys, and then trying to learn to type without staring at the keys. At first the task seemed impossible. “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog,” I was convinced, would forever exceed my typing capabilities.

Over weeks and months, however, my typing skills slowly improved, I started feeling quite at home with the home row, and to my surprise, could succeed in typing without checking which keys my fingers were striking. My speed increased, too, from 10-15 words per minute to upwards of 60 (with gusts into the 70s), along with my accuracy. Practice wasn’t perfect, but I was getting closer. Only later did I realize I was learning to flex “muscle memory.”

In my first news writing class as a journalism major in college, we were instructed – and learned – to think and write with fingers fixed on the keyboard, composing fast-breaking news stories without pen or pencil to slow the process. Again, who knew that was even possible? But we all learned to do it.

Years later, secretaries and administrative assistants where I worked would occasionally observe that I typed faster than they did. I share this not to boast of my typing acumen, but to affirm how progress has a way of sneaking up on us, whether learning to type, play a musical instrument, make sales presentations, or mature in our faith.

Day to day advances may seem imperceptible, but looking back over time, we become surprised by the progress we’ve made. It’s a bit of a conundrum, progressing millimeters at a time when we want to advance in quantum leaps.

Twisting, curving live oak branches
embody the slow pace of progress.
Recently my wife and I toured Savannah, Ga. and gazed with wonder at the huge, stately live oaks whose curving branches extend in every direction, across streets, parks and pathways. Such growth, however, has been exceedingly slow in coming. Many of those elegant trees are hundreds of years old; centuries later we can appreciate how stately they grew, but I’m sure citizens who saw them in the 1700s and 1800s weren’t so impressed.

I remember the first time someone commented about my spiritual growth. This was a friend I saw once or twice a year, so he could perceive progress I could not, immersed as I was in the mundane routines of life. How encouraging that was, since I felt like I was merely spinning wheels spiritually.

This apparently is as God intends for it to be. He often uses slow, sometimes exasperating progress that the Living Bible paraphrase of Proverbs 21:5 describes as “steady plodding,” as opposed to “hasty speculation,” whether applied to material or spiritual riches.

Ephesians 6:4 instructs fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” As I read this, it seems God is telling us not to expect too much too quickly from our children, whether the offspring happen to be biological or spiritual. As the apostle wrote in 3 John 4, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”

Colossians 2:7 speaks of being “firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.” This doesn’t happen overnight, or even over weeks or months. Spiritual growth is never-ending, and the quest for spiritual maturity requires a lifetime.

We see this over and over in the Scriptures, whether it’s Eli the priest mentoring future prophet Samuel, Samuel coming alongside future king David, Jesus working 24/7 with His disciples, Barnabas taking Saul (who became Paul) under his wing, or Paul instructing Timothy. In each case, their goal was progress, understanding progress can be a tedious, sometimes one-step-forward, two-steps-back process.

Living in an immediate gratification-oriented, gotta-have-it-now society, the painstaking pace of progress can be perplexing. But it’s necessary. Because spiritual giants aren’t grown in a day.

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