As a teenager, I would drive the winding New England roads of my hometown for hours. Gas was cheap; time was plentiful. On these drives I would reflect, daydream, sometimes even pray although I didn’t have any clear sense of faith in God, much less a relationship with Him.
I grew up in a small town and had ridden those roads for 17 years. Now as a driver, I flew over them, completely confident in my knowledge of every narrowing twist and turn. Even at the speed limit, it felt like flying; ten miles per hour over the limit could make my stomach rise and fall like a roller coaster.
Dipping down between two hills one day, I heard a voice. To be honest, I’m not sure if it was audible or inaudible. I could call it intuition or a sixth sense, but in light of what happened afterwards, I now identify it as the voice of God. The voice was kind. Authoritative. Quiet. Firm. It spoke only two words. They changed my life that day, and when I listen, they still offer an opportunity for transformation.
Two words: Slow down.
My obedience was instantaneous. There was no compulsion, only a perfect certainty that I should do what that voice said. So I slowed down. Way down. Below the legal speed limit. Into the range of extremely careful driver and then lower still. As I crested the next hill, I came to a complete stop.
In a driveway to the right side of the road, a woman stood at the back of her grocery-laden, white Volvo, suddenly paralyzed. Directly in front of me stood a boy who had toddled into the road while his mom unloaded her trunk—a little boy who would likely not have survived had I struck him at 45 mph. My hands shook on the steering wheel as she ran into the road, scooped him up in her arms and gave me a weak wave of thanks. I waved back, just as weakly.
And in that moment, not only did I know for the first time there was a God who knew and cared about the minute details of my life, but I realized that the words “slow down” could change the trajectory of my life. I’ve often thought about what could have happened. What it would be like for a sensitive 17 year old girl to kill a young child with her car? What it would be like for that family to lose their son? What grief, guilt and pain we each would have carried forward in our lives if I had hit him! What if I had done what I’ve done since and probably did before: if I ignored that voice urging me to slow down—if I hadn’t listened?
There are situations in which the only way to survive is to act quickly, to move fast, to speed up. Life often calls for decisive, immediate action. I’ve reached new plateaus of maturity by putting one foot in front of the other. I do not mean to imply that slowing down in a literal sense is the only message God desires to communicate with me or anyone else. Yet, we live in a time and a culture that values movement, progress, striving, speed. We emulate people who can do more, learn more, save more, exercise more, have more, write more, think more, be more. We respond to pings and pokes, and notifications and alarms with a speed that feels more like frenzy than focused intention.
Slowing down, while necessary, is less celebrated. We even begrudge ourselves the sleep we need. I recently read an article in Time magazine detailing research that confirmed that we do harm to our bodies and minds when we don’t sleep. We needed to research that? We skimp on sleep and justify working seven days a week. We have, if you believe social scientists, more free time than ever before in history, and we still live under an oppressive sense of time scarcity. Instead of slowing down, we aim to cram everything we can into 168 hours of a week.
As I partner with God in my personal spiritual formation, I keep hearing that same voice speaking those same words, seventeen years later. Slow down. I’ve learned that God still speaks in parables. I lived a parable that day that shapes who I am becoming: speed, a life endangered, a voice, an invitation to slow down. This invitation ignored can cost someone her life, although not necessarily in a violent accident. I lose the moments and the days that are gifted to me when I speed through them. If I’m unwilling to slow down, as I often am, I arrive at the end of my days with a sense of frustration and futility. Just as I had power over the speed of my car that day, I have the formative power to pause, to give my life rhythm by stopping, by ceasing, by resting, by reflecting.
The same gracious, authoritative voice still extends his invitation to us today. The question is not whether the invitation stands, but whether we will listen. How might our lives be changed if we simply put on the brakes before careening over the next hill?
Elizabeth Peterson also blogs at www.takingshapeslowly.wordpress.com.