catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 2 :: 2007.01.26 — 2007.02.09


Seeking the still point

In fulfillment of a ministry practice internship for my seminary education, I spent 13 weeks in Yellowstone National Park this summer.  I was two hours away from any town (I didn’t have a car anyway).  There were no televisions—I had to dumpster-dive through the recycling to pull out day-old copies of USA Today.  I had to hike two miles straight up a mountain to get cell phone reception and employees were allowed Internet access for half-hour timeslots once a week. 

As I’ve told people about my near-Amish lifestyle, they’ve remarked how wonderful that must have been for me.  I still look at them with a bit of incredulity.  What could possibly be wonderful about media-fasting and isolation? 

I had to figure out what to do with the extra time on my hands.  Because I wasn’t following the summer reality-TV line-up or surfing the Internet, I was forced to sit by a lake or take a walk in the woods.  What I discovered by doing these things is priceless.  It took me two weeks, sitting by the lake almost every day, to put away my theology books and start reading fiction, to be able to sit and simply be present in that place.  To become comfortably familiar, again, with God’s presence.  My life slowed down considerably and I wrestled with this question: How much is enough? 

When you are doing ministry, how much is enough?  How do you even begin to quantify the ministry being done?  Output Excel spreadsheets can’t communicate the work of relationships.  You certainly don’t want to use your congregation as a barometer.  I’m sure there’s always something more they’d like to see you doing. 

I was talking with one of my ministry supervisors, asking her this very question: “How much is enough?  I just don’t feel productive out here.”  She laughed at me and said, “I think you need to learn the difference between productivity and fruitfulness.”  It was that comment, that distinction, which has since shaped and characterized all my reflections on this summer.

I have this nagging question, which I haven’t fully answered for myself.  It’s rather an impertinent question but, then, those are the best kind.  So here’s my impertinent question: was Jesus Christ productive?  I mean, if someone asked you to list the top five attributes of the second person of the Trinity, would “productivity” make it on your list?  When you imagine God made flesh, cavorting with humanity, do you visualize to-do lists?  “Five people healed today.  Three smart-mouthed retorts to the teachers and leaders of the Sanhedrin.  One really great parable told.  Considering our non-profit status, Judas, are we in the black for third-quarter earnings?  And I made dinner for, oh, 5,000.  Hm, better figure out what to do with the leftovers.  Yup.  All in all, a good day.  Well done, me.”

The Bible tells us many things about Jesus’ character—that he is Emmanuel, “God with us.”  Also that he is the “image of the unseen God, the firstborn over all creation.”  The Gospels give us snapshots of Jesus’ life and from them, we may glean the fact that Jesus spoke wisely, was angry judiciously, showed heaps of mercy and grace.  Jesus rested.  Jesus retreated from the crowds but, when he was with people, he was really with them.  He saw needs that others could not see.  He spoke gracious words that others were too busy to speak.  He loved people well.  But was he productive?  Is productivity something you would choose as a chief attribute of the Messiah, Jesus Christ?

My answer is “no.”  Not that Jesus accomplished nothing.  The salvation of humanity is hardly “nothing.”  The cross was certainly an accomplishment.  Every life that he spoke into was an evidence of bearing fruit but, for me, “productivity” connotes a mind-set of constantly moving forward.  Being busy, not at times and in moderation, but as a lifestyle.  Always moving on to the next big thing, keeping one eye on the clock and the other on a to-do list with no eyes left to see the world or to see the people sitting right next to you.  For as much as Jesus accomplished in his earthly ministry, the Gospels don’t depict a man ruled by his day-timer.

As I think it through, another impertinent question rises to the surface: Why, when we are aiming for Christ-likeness, do we so often settle for productivity?  Set up base camp on busyness?  And equate constant movement with godliness?  Okay, perhaps this is unfair.  Perhaps I’m the only one who gets like this, in which case I will rephrase the question: Why, when I am aiming for Christ-likeness, do I so often settle for productivity?

How much is enough?  It’s a productivity question.  It’s a question concerned with quick results, expediency, accomplishing things in order to tick an item off the ol’ to-do list and then, taking it to another level, being able to show that to-do list to someone else as justification for your continued existence.  As Richard Foster writes in Celebration of Discipline, “I find God never guides us into an intolerable scramble of panting feverishness.”   Productivity is dressed in busy-ness and accessorized with excessive caffeination.  In which case, there is no way around it: I am a productivity junkie.

Productivity is, at its core, the unceasing endeavor to be needed and useful.  In one of my favorite books, The Genessee Diary, Henri Nouwen struggles with these same issues.  After years in ministry, he retreats to a monastery for six months and his impertinent question is this:

Is there a quiet stream underneath the fluctuating affirmations and rejections of my little world?  Is there a still point where my life is anchored and from which I can reach out with hope and courage and confidence?

Fruitfulness is what happens when we reach out with hope, courage and confidence from the anchored place of Christ’s love and acceptance.  Productivity seeks that which fruitfulness claims as its starting point.  Fruitfulness allows you to be fully present in the moment.  Fruitfulness is activity deeply rooted in the soil of God’s grace.  Fruitfulness is, as Henri Nouwen says, “The realization that I am worth more than the sum total of all my efforts.”  Fruitfulness is enabled by a fundamental trust that the Holy Spirit, who is working at all times and in all places, is at work in us—busy or not.  Even Martin Luther, the great preacher and reformer knew this quite well.  He is reputed to have said, “When I preach, I absolutely give it my best but then I go home, have a beer and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.”  In college, I had a professor say something I have never forgotten: “Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is take a nap.”  It's not productive, but it just might be fruitful. 

It's all well and good to talk about how I learned to relax in a national park.  It's easier there.  I didn’t have a choice, really. Coming back to the real world means picking up life where I left off.  It means being busy and caffeinated again.  But the impertinent questions I asked this summer still haunt me:

  • How much is enough?
  • Was Jesus Christ productive?
  • Why, when I am aiming for Christ-likeness, do I often settle for productivity?
  • Is there a quiet stream underneath the fluctuating affirmations and rejections of my little world?  Is there a still point where my life is anchored and from which I can reach out with hope and courage and confidence?

They are in the back of my mind as I create a schedule for myself.  And it is my prayer, and I fear it will have to be my discipline, to continue on the path of fruitfulness when the path of productivity seems, more often, to be the path of least resistance.

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