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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Productive or Fruitful?

Easter 5, Yr. B; 5/10/09
1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

When I first got my iPod Touch, I was thrilled. In one cool little package that syncs perfectly with my laptop, I could carry my favorite tunes; listen to Car Talk podcasts at convenient times; show off pictures of the kids or the dog or the vacation to anyone who asked and some who didn’t; record every available means of contacting every person I met; check my e-mail and the weather and the news; calculate the price per ounce of store-brand diced tomatoes on sale versus brand-name ones with a coupon; and use the calendar to keep track of Many Important Activities. It was—and continues to be—fabulous. But there was one little problem with it, one flaw in its Apple perfection: I couldn’t take notes. There was no application on the Touch that allowed me to write messages to myself. More specifically, there was no way for me to create lists.

I like lists. I like making them—just that act is proof that I’m doing something!—and I like the clarity of seeing what needs to be done or bought or thought, and most of all I like crossing things off them, because that shows me that I’ve been a productive person. Being a productive person makes me feel good. In fact, sometimes being a productive person makes me feel good…like a good person. When I do things, I can see my success, at least in some small arena.

At first glance, today’s gospel sounds like Jesus might cheer on my lists. With the to-do’s neatly laid out and checked off, I can measure my fruitfulness, right? I can tell just what I’ve multiplied or divided, what’s grown and who’s been measured. I might even be able to do a little pruning, those moments when one realizes—upon looking at a list critically—that a few of the items are unnecessary or point me in the wrong direction.

Then I read something yesterday that got me thinking about the difference between productive and fruitful, and now—although I doubt Jesus would have a problem with my lists per se—I’m not so sure he’d give me extra credit points for them. Being productive suggests doing something, having projects or tasks and being the one who accomplishes them…check, check, check. Farmers are productive when they till and plant and harvest. Parents are productive when they do laundry and give baths. Homeowners are productive when they mow the lawn. Students are productive when they finish projects and pass tests. Workers are productive when they create or build or call or sell or fix. Productivity is an activity, or a set of them, that one initiates and completes. There’s nothing wrong with that; goodness knows, the world would fall apart without productive people and our finishing the tasks before us, so it’s fine to keep making those lists and crossing off items!

I’m concluding, however, that productivity and fruitfulness are quite different and we need to be clear about the distinction. Fruitfulness is what happens when a plant is fed and watered and fertilized and then something grows in abundance. Fruitfulness is what happens when a gift is nurtured, given time and encouragement to grow, until a talent emerges. Fruitfulness is what happens when a soul that’s been neglected or abused begins to thrive by being treated with love and dignity. Productivity is the result when one works to create value; fruitfulness is what occurs when value already exists and is allowed to flourish. Lists may lead to productivity, but I’m not so sure they encourage fruitfulness.

One assumes that a productive person is doing lots of work, is taking on a task, laboring at it, and finishing it successfully and on schedule. But a fruitful person…I don’t think the effort, the work, and the timing are necessarily coming from that person. I don’t make myself be fruitful. In fact, Jesus is pretty clear about the relationship between fruitfulness and being connected to him. It’s his roots and presence and love that create our fruitfulness. Our effort doesn’t form something of value; we are of inestimable value to begin with, and God nurtures within us the fruits of our unique and precious nature.

Did you notice a lot of “abiding” going on in these lessons? That’s part of the key here. Jesus didn’t say, “Those who find me and hang on at the proper moment, and who are lucky enough to get the right amount of sun and rain, and who do everything just right to become and stay grafted to me—those who cross off everything on the gardener’s checklist—bear much fruit.” He said, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” Abiding isn’t an action item to be checked off, a measurable goal, or an activity to be put on a calendar; it’s a way of being, a life that unfolds. And if abiding is the way to fruitfulness, then fruitfulness must take a lot more being than doing.

If you aren’t sure what abiding looks like, check out Jesus. He certainly accomplished a lot, but not by being a slave to his iPod. He knew how to abide. He shared meals and shared stories, prayed and got away from the fray, talked and listened, offered hope and healing to those who were hurting…even when they didn’t know they needed him. Those aren’t the sorts of things that fit neatly onto a to-do list, but they’re perfect examples of abiding, of being fully present and open to God, to the moment, and to others. And when we abide in Jesus, they’re the fruits that we produce as well, of love and kindness, justice and gentleness, mercy and forgiveness.

My first iPod met an untimely end, and I had to replace it. Version 2.0 included a notepad, so once again I can make my lists…and I am indeed happy when I come to the end of a day and see many, if not all, items crossed off. I like being productive. I’m realizing, though, that God calls me to be fruitful as well as productive; that abiding is a way of living and being, not a downloadable app; and that only as I sync up with Jesus, do I receive the strength and the life and the love to bear God’s fruit for God’s people.

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