Thursday, March 19, 2009

Lessons From Labone

Well, we're back. Our 2 week journey to Africa was wonderful. God providentially used us in ways we could not have anticipated. Howard (a farmer) ended up training the Sudanese how to operate a Ford tractor which we didn't know would be there. Josh (an IT technician) ended up setting up 10 old PCs we didn't know would be there and training our African friends how to use them. And, by God's grace, I did what I planned to do: training pastors in biblical theology.

One of the lessons God sought to teach me was a different way of seeing and using time. I had many lessons planned and a limited time to convey my material to these men I probably won't see for another year. Though they thoroughly enjoyed what they were learning, they equally valued long breaks between sessions - sometimes for an entire afternoon! My efficient-oriented mind was fit to be tied. But God used my African brothers to teach me about something equally as important as the material I'd come to convey: the grace of relationship, and the flexibility that God didn't wire us all to operate like an efficient machine. Sometimes such efficiency positively dishonors God by missing many of the gracious details of life He plants along the way.

I've recently been challenged in this regard not only by my Sudanese friends but by the wisdom of David Powlison. If you're like me - sometimes a bit too obsessive about staying on task and checking projects off your list - perhaps you could profit from his wisdom too. In a recent interview David was asked:

David, what single bit of counsel has made the most significant difference in your effective use of time?

Effective is not the same as efficient. Productive is not the same as mass-production. I’ll give a bit fuller answer here, as I think my response is likely a bit unusual. I’ve had to learn how I work best, and it’s not the cultural ideal of tightly scheduled efficiency. For me, effective and productive often operate in ways that seem quite “inefficient.” I’m more “third-world” in my use of time: event-oriented and person-oriented, rather than time-conscious and to-do-list-conscious. I operate with an inner gyroscope tuned to whether or not any particular experience or interaction is complete – not to how long it takes or whether it fits the schedule. I’m attuned to whether or not any particular thought is actually finished thinking, rather than whether the product is done on time. So I tend to take the time it takes to get something right—whether that “something” is the close attentiveness of getting fully engaged in this conversation of consequence, or how to craft this sentence and paragraph, or whether I’m stopping and actually noticing the hawk flying overhead right now.

My way of working—of living—means that I’m not very “efficient” in my use of time because I tend to take the time. I am the world’s worst when it comes to multi-tasking and to checking off to-do list items. It can be a fault for which I must repent; it’s my greatest strength, because I’m fully engaged. I usually forget the clock and the list when I’m working best because I become absorbed in free-form exploration and in qualitative aspects of work-in-progress. We seek to compensate for the shortcomings in my way of operating by getting support from more organized and efficient people who can field incoming requests and help me prioritize.I admire people who seem able to use every moment productively. But I’ve found that I simply do not work well that way. A certain kind of “wasting time” has proven to be absolutely essential to my fruitfulness. (I’m not recommending my way to others, but simply describing what I’ve learned about how I work. Perhaps some readers also work this way, and can find freedom from trying to live up to an ideal—the so-called
“Protestant ethic”—that ill suits how God has made them to function.)Here’s an example.

One time I was bogged down and frustrated on a major article that was already past due. Over previous days and weeks I’d been continually interrupted by other urgent necessities. I took a three day writing retreat, seeking to escape the clutter so that I could work on it undistracted. But I completely “wasted” the first day, taking a long walk, then reading a novel, and making a particularly interesting dinner. I completely “wasted” the second day, taking another long walk, and writing a long poem, and getting to know the director of the retreat center. I didn’t think about my article at all during those long walks or that talking. The novel I read was a good one—full of the rich complexity of people. The poem was as full as I could make it of candor and
perception and beauty and faith and sorrow and joy. I pondered trees (the first pale green leaves of spring were showing). I watched and listened long to the flow and sound of a stream. I thought about Jesus and how to express what he means to me. Oh yes, on the third day I wrote the entire article in a white heat. I junked almost all of my earlier outlines and drafts. The article took a direction and a form I could never have imagined. How should I think about those three days of “work”? Were the first two meandering, unplanned days actually wasted? If mass productivity is the chief end, my mastering goal and purpose, then it was mere squandering. I might have written three articles during those three days, if only I were more disciplined and on task. Or I might have at least read some more prosaic, informational books and other articles that were on topic for what I needed to accomplish. Maybe. Probably not. I think I needed the walks, and the novel, and the poem, and the talking, and a certain kind of wasting time. My article needed the walks, the novel, the poem, the talking: the fallow time. It came out better, clearer, surprising even me with where it went
and how it got there. It came out more beautiful, as if fresh air came pouring in through an open window.

Again, I’m not recommending this, and it wouldn’t suit many callings and job descriptions. But I’ve learned that this is how I work and work best. Our dominant cultural ideal is that of the busy, efficient executive who is always on task and getting projects done. But that doesn’t fit the neighborly housewife who takes time for relationships and helping in the need of the moment, or the artist who takes the time for trial and error and experimentation, crafting and recrafting. I operate more like a neighbor and artist than like an executive.I take comfort in the oddity of Jesus’ example of time management. He was certainly on task, but his way of going about his calling was to wander around and interact with whoever he happened to run into
that day. He engaged whatever happened to be going on in those people’s lives right then. He took “little” people just as seriously as “big” people, and gave himself to both. His work life was more like Francis of Assisi than like a life structured around the Blackberry, strategic plan, project list, and meeting schedule. God’s kingdom embraces and uses many kinds of people, and we don’t all operate the same way.

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