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Sunday, June 03, 2007

An Inefficient Trinity

Trinity Sunday, June 3, 2007
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
Chatham NJ
Melissa Brandes

Efficiency. Our society no doubt values efficiency. How can we get the most done in the least amount of time? How can we use ever moment of the day to be productive? We run errands—we tell the children to “hurry up”—our minds race—we eat “fast food” or other food products strangely processed and packaged to be eaten in the car or on the train—we are bombarded with advertisements for products that “deliver results in just days!”.

The pressure is great to complete tasks in the fastest way possible and to shove non-essential work to the bottom of the To-Do list. And if we fail to do these things, we are labeled as “lazy” and “unreliable.” Faster is better. More is better.

And, of course, in moderation, efficiency is a good thing. Being able to finish tasks in a timely fashion is a skill. But I wonder if we don’t often go a little overboard. At some point, faster is too fast, and more is too much. But that line is hard to see, especially when so much is asked of us.

Lately, I’ve been questioning all this well-intentioned productivity and pondering the value of inefficiency. I began to do this when my dear friend Jon asked me if I’d like to sit on the porch with him.

And I couldn’t do it.

He poured me a glass of tea and we sat on the porch. And that was about all we did. There was a comment here or there, but mostly there was a lot of silence. We were just sitting on the porch.

Soon, I couldn’t stand it. My mind was racing. I had things to do! To simply let myself sit was downright irresponsible. Guilt began to creep in. I was wasting time. I wasn’t accomplishing anything. All of this time was going by and I had not produced a single thing.

After a few moments (precious wasted moments) I gulped my tea and abandoned Jon on the porch. I’m sure I did something useful with my time—I just can’t remember what.

Well, Jon didn’t give up on me. He invited me to sit on the porch again. I protested a bit, but filled my glass with tea and followed him out of the house.

As we chatted, I began to realize that Jon knew some things the rest of us in the house did not. He knew our neighbor, Ms. Percy and he knew how much Ms. Percy loves the bamboo that grows between our houses. He knew that sparrows had built a nest on top of one of the porch columns and that the babies had just hatched. And, he waved to everyone who passed by. Some waved back, some said “Hello,” some crossed to the other side of the street.

I know that if any of them had stopped, Jon would have filled a glass of tea for them too and engaged them in conversation. But this only happens on rare occasions.

My guess is that the minds of those walking by are as full as mine. Full of things to do and things to worry about—full of guilt and perhaps wondering if taking a walk is wasting time. Many seem in quite a hurry to get to wherever they are going. Certainly there is no time to stop and talk to the strange man waving at them from the porch.

But, where are we going in such a hurry? And why is it that we value getting there over meeting a neighbor?

What struck me about the gospel passage this week—and indeed about the Trinity it describes—is the tremendous inefficiency. Presumably, the God who said, “Let there be light” and there was light could say, “Let there be light again. Let the truth be known” and God’s truth would be known.

But that is not the way it is described to us. Instead, it’s something more like this: God creates the world and sends the Son to teach and redeem and the Son does his part but then has to return to the Father. But the Son will send from the Father the Advocate—the Spirit of Truth—who will continue to teach and reveal the truth of the Son and the Father by declaring to the world what is the Son’s which is also the Father’s.

There had to be an easier way.

And, if there weren’t enough parties involved already, Jesus adds to the group by saying to the disciples a few verses before the passage today, “You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.” If God had acted efficiently, all of this redeeming work would be done already.

But what is God doing instead?

I think God is sitting on the porch trying to meet the neighbors. God is inviting more and more of us to join in the redeeming work—and God’s example to us is an inefficient Trinity in which it is more important to involve all of the parts than it is to get the job done in a timely fashion. Everyone is invited. Everyone is important. Even if that means it takes longer.

All of this reminds me of the words of a very wise woman named Betsy. Betsy is 19 years old and I used to help take care of her when she and her sister were younger. I saw her not too long ago and tried to jump back into my old role of caretaker. But it was soon clear that this time, Betsy was going to take care of me.

We talked for a long time about life and the struggles we had both been through. Then she said, “I think what really matters in life is being part of a community that you love, that also loves you back.”

And Betsy knows. There have been times in her life when she has not had such a community—so when she finds one, she knows just how valuable it is. Betsy understands the importance of relationship and community. She know that the work of nurturing relationships and building community is vital.

I remembered Betsy’s words this week—I just couldn’t manage to live them. It was a very busy week. There was work to be done here at St. Paul’s, extra hours at my job at Drew, a favor for a friend (that only took 8 hours), out of town guests, a sermon to write, and…well, indulging in some Memorial Day fun.

I ended up feeling stressed and anxious. I was not truly present with anyone or in any of my work this week, because my mind was always thinking about all that was left to do. When a friend came home from a long trip, I couldn’t get myself to stop long enough to greet him. And when another friend told me that her grandmother had just died after a long and painful stay in the hospital, I had to run.

I did get a lot of work done—all the while stressed that I hadn’t gotten more done. And in the end, I was standing there all alone with my accomplishments. I had crossed to the other side of the street, put my head down, and hurried past. I failed to notice all the people waving at me. Relationships that are important to me were not nurtured, but neglected and devalued. I considered time spent with my friends—time loving my neighbor—to be wasted time. I got a lot done, but when I finally looked up, I had no one to share it with.

I not only neglected my friends, but myself as well. The things I would normally do to keep myself healthy and to relieve stress were put on the back burner. In all of my juggling of tasks, I didn’t ask anyone for help—help my friend would have gladly given. I failed to love my neighbors, I failed to love myself, and I failed to love my work. Work that I do genuinely love was done with anxiety instead of joy. Everything was just one more thing to check off on the To-Do list.

It’s not likely that I’m going to stop having busy weeks—and that’s not the point. The problem was my attitude—my posture—toward the world. My anxiety overwhelmed the things that I value. I sacrificed the things that I love. God does not do this.

We are each created uniquely and differently with our own gifts, skills, and talents. Just as the persons of the Trinity are different and yet part of the same whole—we are different and part of a whole community. Whoever we are, and whatever we have to offer is of importance to the community, but none of us will offer exactly the same thing.

Nurturing this diverse unity in all that we do is of primary importance. Finding ways to get our work done that cultivate love for one another, instead of neglecting relationships is essential. “[T]he purpose of living,” writes theologian and author Jay McDaniel, “is not to be hurried and frantic. It is to be fully present to where we are in ways that are wise, compassionate, and free” (Living From the Center, 12).

This is not the efficient or easy way to do things. It is messy, and sometimes painful. It can be frustrating and slow. But, if God was efficient? If God put his head down and plowed through the work of redeeming the world and revealing the truth and was done with it? I wonder… would anyone even notice?



Bill said...

Nice job Melissa. I guess you're not just another pretty face. :)

There's a lesson here to be learned by the young. You've got to slow down and smell the roses once in a while. This is a very hard lesson for retirees to learn. Those that do live on to a ripe old age. Those that don't, usually die a year or two after retirement. The statistics don't lie.

JimMollo said...

This was a well delivered sermon. I enjoyed reading the parts I missed when Olivia was busy telling me to, "SHHHH!"... (no I wasn't saying anything)

As I read that your blog turns one, I was reflecting on the mix of things that go on here... justice ministry, sermons, rooting on our Church's youth, and getting a deeper look at your seminarians. I hope the non-Chathamite visitors appreciate it as much as we do.