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Cliff Young is one of my heroes.
Every year, Australia hosts a 543-mile ultra-marathon—a grueling five-day race for world-class athletes. But in 1983, Cliff Young showed up to run: a single, 61-year-old farmer wearing overalls and rubber work boots. Officials thought he was a spectator, but to their surprise, he picked up a race number.
The Runner Who Wore Work Boots
The curious press questioned Cliff, “What are you thinking? You can’t finish this race.” “Yes, I can,” replied Cliff. “I grew up on a farm that couldn’t afford horses, so when a storm rolled in, I’d go round up the sheep. We had 2,000 sheep on 2,000 acres, and sometimes I had to run two or three days to gather those sheep. But I always got them. I can run this race.”
When the race started, the pros quickly left Cliff behind. The crowds and television audience chuckled because Cliff didn’t even look like he was running. He shuffled, a slow gait just above a walk, just what you’d expect from a sixty-something. (He competed without his dentures, saying they rattled when he ran.) Many feared for the old farmer’s safety.
The professional athletes knew that to complete the race in five days, they had to run eighteen hours each day and sleep six hours. When they awoke the morning of the second day, to everyone’s disbelief, Cliff was still in the race…because he’d continued jogging all night! Cliff shuffled through the next night as well. He slowly plodded straight through without sleep for five days and fifteen hours—passing all the young, world-class athletes—and took first place, setting a new course record!
Shakespeare wrote, “Small have continual plodders ever won,” but the Bard had never met Cliff Young. The old farmer became a national hero. Australian television turned his story into a movie, and his hometown eventually erected a memorial in Cliff Young’s honor: a big statue of rubber work boots.
The Race Always Goes to the Swift
American culture, on the other hand, reveres the rapid. We do our taxes with QuickBooks, get money from Quicken Loans, use a phone service called Sprint, put pictures on Instagram, diet with SlimFast, and wear swimsuits called Speedo. (Some do; I don’t.) Someone said we are the only nation in the world with a mountain named Rushmore! In our culture, “slow” is not a compliment.
But slow is what I am.
My wife is a speed queen, powerwalking through every store as I diligently trudge behind. In the Disney movie Zootopia, animals run society. In one humorous scene, the Zootopia DMV is staffed solely by sloths, including one ironically named Flash. As we watched, my wife laughed out loud. “Flash” has been her ironic nickname for me since we started dating. It didn’t take her long to notice: I read slow, write slow, think slow, walk slow.
She’s a jackrabbit. Sloths are my people.
Which means ministry conferences have always been hard for me. Such gatherings tend to feature the fast-moving folks, ministry entrepreneurs who move at the speed of opportunity. The stage speakers are all spiritual sprinters, and their bios don’t include phrases like “small, incremental growth over several decades.” Even in Christian academia, the props go to profs who crank out books at a prolific pace. Ecclesiastes 9:11 says the race does not always go to the swift, but sometimes it seems like it does.
I’m grateful for these theological thoroughbreds, but I’m a plow horse, not a racehorse. Is there a place in ministry for guys like me?
Plugging Away Through the Puddles
It’s a question I’ve long wrestled with. So when I saw Warren Wiersbe’s book In Praise of Plodders, I bought it as quickly as I could (which is to say, not quick at all).
It’s okay to be slow, Wiersbe said, if you’re also steady. The word “plod” comes from an old Middle English word meaning “puddle” or “mud pit,” and a plodder is someone who doesn’t quit in the quagmire. “By perseverance,” said Charles Spurgeon, “the snail reached the ark,” and a plodder plugs away through the puddles until he reaches his destination.
“In this age of quick fixes,” wrote Wiersbe, “it is still the plodders who are getting things done.” They are, he said, like “a postage stamp: its usefulness consists in the ability to stick to one thing till it gets there.”
His words were manna for my soul. Usain Bolt won gold medals running almost 28 mph, while Cliff Young ran only 4 mph. But he took home the trophy because he did not give up.
Maybe all is not lost for guys facetiously named Flash. Maybe God could use the slow things of this world to shame the fast (1 Cor 1:27).
God certainly calls people like Paul, The Apostle Who Couldn’t Sit Still—rushing from one church plant to the next, crisscrossing the Roman empire like a revivalistic Road Runner. But he also calls people like Timothy. Paul told Timothy to stay in Ephesus until he turned the church around (1 Tim 3:1), and church historian Eusebius tells us that, after plugging away in Ephesus for 30 years, Timothy did.
There is a place for plodders, and that’s good news. At some point, we are all plodders—sometimes because of personality and sometimes because of pain.
Plodding Because of Personality
Some are plodders by personality, and that’s okay. Jim Collins uses the image of a flywheel to show that small, consistent efforts in a singular direction can make a big difference:
“Picture a huge, heavy flywheel—a massive metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle, 30 feet in diameter, 2 feet thick, 5,000 pounds. Now imagine your task is to get the flywheel rotating.
Pushing with great effort, you get the flywheel to inch forward, moving almost imperceptibly at first. You keep pushing and, after two or three hours of persistent effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn.
You keep pushing, and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster, and with continued great effort, you move it around a second rotation. You keep pushing in a consistent direction. Three turns…four… five…six…the flywheel builds up speed…seven…eight…you keep pushing…nine…ten…it builds momentum…eleven…twelve…moving faster with each turn…twenty…thirty…fifty…a hundred.
Then at some point—breakthrough! The momentum of the thing kicks in in your favor, hurling the flywheel forward, turn after turn…whoosh!...its own heavy weight working for you. You’re pushing no harder than during the first rotation, but the flywheel goes faster and faster. Each turn of the flywheel builds upon work done earlier, compounding your investment of effort. A thousand times faster, then ten thousand.
Now suppose someone asked, ‘What was the one big push that caused this thing to go so fast?’ Was it the first push? The fifth? The hundredth? No! It was all of them added together in an overall accumulation of effort applied in a consistent direction.”
God sometimes designs certain kingdom assignments for just that approach. Though God delivered Israel from Egypt in one swift stroke, the strategy he gave Israel for defeating the Canaanites in the Promised Land was different. “I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land” (Ex 23:29-30).
“Little by little,” says God. Some projects require plodders.
“That Is My Only Genius”
Paul was reminding Timothy of this principle when he wrote, “Preach the Word...correct, rebuke and encourage with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim 4:2). “Great” patience is literally “mega” patience, and Paul is saying some change only happens little by little—with lots of time and lots of teaching.
I tell my preaching students: we overestimate what we can accomplish in one sermon and underestimate what we can accomplish in ten years of sermons. Not all games are won by the power hitter in a single home run blast. Many are won by guys who just consistently crank out singles. Little by little, they add up.
So if this is your personality, don’t be jealous of other ministers seemingly blessed with great gifts. Just keep preaching, keep pastoring, keep praying, keep plugging away.
When William Carey was a child, no one would have guessed his life’s accomplishments. He had only an elementary education and started life as a cobbler, but William Carey would eventually learn to read the Bible in six languages, found a missionary-sending agency, travel to India, open the first Bible college there, start a press that provided Scriptures in over 40 languages for more than 300 million people, and become known as “the father of modern missions.”
What was his secret? Carey once said, “If after my death anyone should think it worth his while to write my life, I will give you a criterion by which you may judge its correctness. If he gives me credit for being a plodder, he will describe me justly. That is my only genius. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything.”
Small, methodical, persistent efforts—like turning a flywheel—can, by God’s grace, create powerful kingdom momentum. So “let us not grow weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Gal 6:9).
Plodding Because of Pain
Some, though, are not plodders by personality. Like my wife Katie, you might be hardwired with the need for speed. Isaiah 40:31 says, “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” You might be more eagle than turtle.
But a day may come when hardship slows your pace.
Like cancer and conflict and car wrecks, the pandemic of 2020 has reminded us that, in the midst of crisis, even eagles can find themselves grounded, wings clipped. Isaiah 40:30 gives that very warning, “Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall.” Isaiah 40 was written to Israelites in Babylonian exile—people in the midst of trial—who are barely stumbling their way forward.
Sometimes we are plodders because of pain.
Maybe that’s you. Though you usually powerwalk through life, suffering has sapped your strength and shortened your stride.
John Claypool was a well-known minister, a spiritual sprinter who grew churches, wrote books, and worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But when his eight-year-old daughter Laura Lue was diagnosed with leukemia and died, Claypool was devastated.
But he kept preaching. He wrote a book chronicling his painful journey called Tracks of a Fellow Struggler, which includes a sermon he preached in the midst of Laura Lue’s illness. In the pulpit, Claypool freely admitted his struggle, “The last two weeks have been a stretch of darkness…but I have been helped by the famous promise of Isaiah 40:31. Here is the promise of divine help in three different forms.”
“I Am Still on My Feet”
First, said Claypool, “they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” Sometimes God lifts us up to mountaintop moments. Above the forest of fears and the worries of the world, “we soar away in sheer exuberance.”
Second, “they shall run and not grow weary.” Sometimes God empowers us for the mundane moments. Faith isn’t all soaring experiences; it’s more often daily tasks, and God gives us resilience for the routines.
But the third promise is “they shall walk and not faint.” Sometimes God holds us up in the miserable moments. In the crushing pain, he keeps us trudging when that’s all we can do.
“Some feel the sequence of this passage is all turned around,” said Claypool, “that the highest form of God's help ought to be the soaring ecstasy. They think it should read, ‘First you walk, then you run, and finally, you mount up like an eagle.’ Who wants to be slowed to a walk, to creep along inch by inch, just barely above the threshold of consciousness and not fainting?
“But the writer knew what he was doing. In the darkness where I have been, it is the only promise that fits. Here I am this morning, sad, brokenhearted. I confess that I have no wings with which to fly or even any legs on which to run. But by the grace of God, I am still on my feet. I have not fainted yet.”
God’s greatest grace may be to make you a plodder when you can do no other.
Here’s the good news: whether by personality or because of pain, a reward awaits. You may not make the conference stage or get a statue like Cliff Young, but if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, someday you will hear Jesus himself greet you with six blessed words.
“Well done, good and faithful servant.”