Prayer and productivity

Posted on July 8, 2009

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‘Prayer is … a protest against the pragmatic…’ That claim, made by Jim Gordon in a comment on this post, has stuck with me. Over the last six months or so, I have been attempting, with mixed degrees of success, to find new habits of prayer, and new habits of productivity, for my life – both in different ways a response to necessity (or at least what I perceived to be necessity). The three things stuck to the wall next to my monitor as I type are a cross, a picture of my daughters, and an annotated flowchart entitled ‘mastering workflow’. I have wondered along the way whether in fact I was trying to do two contradictory things – whether prayer and productivity simply pulled in different directions. Are that cross and that flowchart in inevitable competition? Some reflections on recent developments in British Methodism that my old friend Angela Shier-Jones has posted on her blog made me think harder, as did Jim’s comment.Prayer and productivity? Or Prayer or productivity?

There is an easy answer to this, which I would like to believe. Productivity is about process, not goals. There is nothing wrong with my having systems in place which enable me to deal with incoming emails efficiently, to process projects smoothly towards goals, and to keep on top of the sheer volume of work that comes from every side, constantly, whilst still making space for – well, spending time with the afore-mentioned daughters, for one, but also for serving the churches in different ways, which is no part of my contract of employment, but central to my understanding of my present vocation.

But… we live in a culture that has made an idol of efficiency; we define our lives by our mastery of technique, not by our depth of vision. He is honoured who cranks more widgets than anyone else, not who explores the moral value of widget cranking. In such a culture, to give disciplined attention to productivity is necessarily to come face to face with the idols of the age. And the idols we make are powerful – they can enslave and ensnare us very easily. (The masterful exposition of all this remains Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet, which takes as its theme the need for poetic preaching in a ‘prose-flattened world’. To take just one wonderful example: ‘[t]he Prince of Darkness tries frantically to keep the world closed so that we can be administered. The Prince has such powerful allies in this age … The Author of the text laughs in delight, the way that author has laughed only at creation and at Easter, but laughs again when the sermon carries the day against the prose of the Dark Prince who wants no new poetry in the region he thinks he governs.’ (p.11))

A friend said recently of a university manager in his institution ‘since he joined senior management, he’s gone over to the dark side.’ We all knew what he meant: someone who, becoming immersed in the world of necessary administration, had forgotten that administration in a university only serves the ends of teaching and research, not the other way around. We speak glibly of ‘bureaucracy’, not knowing what we are saying (or reflecting on the barbarism of the franco-hellenic compound) – if the kratia, the rule and authority, is invested in the bureau, the office, then the administration has necessarily, simply, and precisely, become an idol.

So productivity – can we touch the idol and not be rendered unclean? The message of the NT is, surprisingly, yes. Perhaps uniquely amongst religious teachers, Jesus believed that holiness was stronger than uncleanness. The leper could be touched, Peter could greet Cornelius, Paul could eat meat sacrificed in the pagan temples – the unbelieving Corinthian spouse would not contaminate his/her partner, but would be contaminated, become holy. Productivity can be rendered safe, if explored alongside a disciplined practice of prayer. By good luck, or by God’s grace (it was not by my planning, certainly), I got something right for once…

This seems to me important: some of the great leaders of the church, in this and every generation, have been people whose great organisational talents have been beaten into service of the gospel by their even greater commitment to the gospel. David Coffey transformed English Baptist life, and left it the only growing mainstream denomination, through an amazing ability to organise, that was disciplined constantly by a profound spirituality. Doug Balfour did the same thing with Tearfund. It is the same back in history: Mr Wesley’s branch of the revival survives still because his genius for organisation served his gospel proclamation; St Benedict’s Rule still shapes the lives of thousands, for similar reasons.

In my own small way, perhaps I can be of some use, if I keep learning to get more done, and to keep even more focused on what should be done. Prayer and productivity? Yes, but always in that order.

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