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My first job out of university was located in the heart of downtown Toronto. I worked for The Financial Post newspaper in their Conference planning division. My boss was an older stately gentleman who lived in Rosedale (the equivalent to Vancouver’s Shaughnessy Heights area) and drove a Jaguar. One day we were meeting in his office when from behind his large desk he told me that he liked the work that I was doing. He then added “you know, if you have ambitions here, try not to punch that time clock so stridently at the end of the day.”
The message was clear. If you want to be of value around here, you need to be productive.
In the parable of the unproductive fig tree, the owner of a vineyard comes looking for fruit on his tree. After three years of seeing no production he’s done with it. “Cut it down.” The parable is in part a reflection of the socioeconomic context of the day in which absentee landlords expected a high return on their investment but the parable is just as relevant for us today. How do we measure a country’s value? – by their Gross Domestic Product. How are we going to know when we have really turned the corner on this pandemic? When our GDP climbs back up to what it was previously. Unless of course, climate change and war continue to wreak havoc with the world’s productivity numbers.
Our Lenten devotional book, “Good Enough” introduced me to the term hyper-instrumentalization. It’s the practice of doing things in anticipation of a higher reward, a kind of leveraging up of every aspect of life. For example, we volunteer to give our resume a boost for the next job search. We sign our children up for soccer, whether they like it or not, so that in their post-secondary school applications they will seem well rounded. We might even join a choir to find a life partner or maybe just a date. It’s how many people live their lives these days and therefore it’s become a bit of a cultural phenomenon.
So what do we do when life renders us unproductive, when we are unable, for whatever reason to climb that reward producing ladder? What value do we have when a physical or mental illness makes us unable to get out of bed, when our age makes us unable to do what we once did, when a pandemic takes away our volunteer work and our soccer practices or war interrupts our lives and our lives become about survival. What value are we when by society’s standards, we are not able to be fruitful?
Years ago one of my friends signed up to volunteer at a L’Arche community for people with developmental disabilities. She was assigned to spend time with one of the residents who was non-verbal and wheelchair bound. After a few shifts the volunteer coordinator checked in with her and asked “So, what has David been teaching you?” “What has he been teaching me?” she wondered. While she was offering herself in service to David, it never occurred to her that David was also offering himself in service to her. In time, she learned a tremendous amount from David about the value of human life and how we can bless and enhance the life of those around us even when we are “doing” absolutely nothing. Sometimes just by being company for one another is other.
Sometimes lives can be steeped in meaning and service even when it appears that nothing is being “produced.”
In the parable of the barren fig tree, the owner of the tree wants to cut it down, but the gardener wants to give it another chance and what the gardener wants to use to heal the tree is fertilizer, manure. It’s an illustration of the way that clearing out some space, giving ourselves room to grow and taking the time to absorb and process the muck of our lives, instead of ignoring it or just trying to get rid of it, can allow new life to emerge.
It’s good for us to note that Jesus tells this parable in response to the judgements his followers were placing on people who had experienced violent death and disaster. It would be the equivalent to us looking at the civilians being killed in Ukraine right now and saying “well they must have done something wrong to deserve that” and then turning away from them.
The message of the parable is a message of grace but it’s also a message about the way that we all have imperfections and struggles in our lives often due to no fault of our own. I think it’s also a message about the way our culture of hyper-instrumentalization makes us judge ourselves and others when for whatever reason we are not able to be fruitful. I myself am so guilty of this. Somewhere along the line I took that message from my first boss and I really absorbed it. I even judge whether I’ve had a good day off or not by my productivity, by what I have been able to accomplish.
The parable is also an invitation into the healing that is possible for us and for our world when we face into the muck we have created and or just plain landed in and not turning away from it, trusting that life can come out of barren places.
Hildegard of Bingen, the well known mystic from the middle ages, was also a medical practitioner. She believed that the body was more like a plant than a machine. A plant has greening power, or verditas, and can therefore heal itself given the right conditions. In applying this same principle to the human body, Hildegard found ways to treat her patients that tended what was getting in the way of her patient’s verditas, the muck of their lives, while at the same time strengthening the body’s own power to heal itself. She is known in Germany as the founder of alternative, wholistic medicine. She is also the inspiration for what is now called slow medicine in which patients are treated both in allopathic ways and in ways that are personal and relational, ways that take space and time to allow for healing. In the same way a day off is actually meant for rest and Sabbath.
Drugs and surgery are important when we need them but what heals us and makes us better is often how we are treated by others and how we treat ourselves when our lives become barren.
In the aftermath of 911, a severely damaged pear tree was discovered at Ground Zero. Its’ roots had been snapped off, it’s branches burned and broken. It looked as if it would never flourish again. A gardener took a piece of the scarred trunk home and began to tend it with fertilizer, love and care. Nine years later, the tree was returned to what is now the Memorial grounds of 911. New, smooth limbs extend out from the gnarled stumps and once again the tree is producing fruit. People pay homage to the tree with flowers and ribbons but it’s not really the tree they are honouring. What they are honouring is resilence, survival, healing and rebirth, the promise of life itself.
I’m told that there is a similar Survivor Tree that blooms in Nagasaki Japan. Which makes me wonder if one day there will be survivor trees that blossom in the heart of Ukraine.
A year or so after I had been working for the Financial Post, I arrived at the office to discover a different person sitting behind the desk of my boss. It turns out my now former boss had suffered a breakdown in his mental health. He never returned to work. I don’t know much of anything about what happened to him but the experience has served to remind me that even those we consider to be highly productive are not immune to times of barrenness in their lives.
Theologian Sally McFague referred to the earth and all its creatures as the Body of God. I don’t need to tell you that our body is broken. We are not flourishing in the way we are intended. In one of Kate Bowler’s Lenten reflections she talks about our need to see reality as it is, not to turn away from the muck of life but to stand hand in hand in the dark in the midst of all the muck. Standing together, giving peace and hope and grace another chance to live. It’s medicine for our souls. It’s how we heal as individuals, as communities and as a global family.