For a while when I was in the UK, I belonged to an organisation called Modem, a clever acronym standing for Management and Organisational Development in Ministry. The purpose of this outfit was to bring the skills of management into closer harmony with the mission of ministry, and vice versa, to bring the spirit of ministry and faith into the workplace. I am interested in such things, and I learned some interesting and useful things.
Some of those things were some fairly basic principles of good self-management, like how to manage your time efficiently. Things like – handle a piece of paper only once. Sounds straight forward, I know, but when some while ago I heard that for the first time, it was a revelation to me. Up until then my modus operandi was to handle it a dozen times before I would finally deal with it. If I received a letter to which I had to write an answer, first I would read the letter, then put it aside to answer later. Then I would pick it up several times as I stumbled across it amidst the litter on my desk, and maybe read it again each time. When I couldn’t put it off any longer, I would finally write my reply, but of course I would have forgotten the content of the original letter by then so I would have to read it again. Then it would lie around on my desk for another week or so, getting in my way, covering the other piece of paper I was looking for, before I would file it away. In such a way could a great many hours be happily wasted, keeping me from doing anything productive. But being told to handle a piece of paper just once opened a door for me to become much more efficient in my administrative abilities.
Then there is filing. Or rather, then there might be filing. I know that there are ministers who have amazing filing systems. Not just for committee minutes and that kind of thing. But sermons, for example. And sermon illustrations. There are ministers, I am reliably informed, who, if you mention a theme to them, can go to their filing system and pull out their little index card, or in these modern times go to their computer file, on which will be written every reference to that theme they have ever made in forty years of preaching. I wish I could do that. Instead, J don’t know how many wonderful readings or references I have come across and used in my twenty years of preaching, and I have no idea where to find them again.
And lists. Let’s not forget lists. I love making lists. Are you a list maker as well? I come into the office on a Monday morning, and I make a list of the things I need to do that week. I come into the office on other mornings, and I make a list of the things I need to do that day. Letters to write, services to prepare, meetings to prepare for, phone calls to make, people to visit. Lots of chores manage to appear on successive lists – I don’t always get them done on the day I initially think I will – but at least they have been on my list. And it really is quite satisfying to cross something off the list. There are days when I have a page full of things to do, and at the end of the day every single one of them has been crossed out, and I go home thinking I have achieved something that day. But my capacity for self-deception with lists is remarkable. I make my list, and then I work steadily through it, crossing off each thing done as I go. But then I will do something not on the list. So, after I have done it, what do I do? I write it down on the list so that I can have the satisfaction of crossing it off again.
So, anyway, my brief association with MODEM was very useful, very helpful, and believe me, I can always use some more assistance in learning the art of efficient management and administration. There is virtue in good management. There is no inherent virtue in mismanagement. There are ministers who scorn the very idea of using the words ministry and management in the same sentence. Not me. I would be glad to be able to do some things better. And do more things in less time.
But, two things I do know. The way to salvation is not through an efficiency drive. And being busy is not the same as accomplishing something worthwhile.
The Managing Director of a large company was given a ticket to a performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, but when he found he could not go, he gave the ticket to his Vice President for Operations. The next morning he asked his VP how he had enjoyed the performance. Instead of getting a few observations about the symphony in general, and the experience of being there, the VP handed him a formal memo. Which read as follows.
Time and Motion Study of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony For considerable periods, the four oboe players had nothing to do. Their number should be reduced, and their work spread over the whole orchestra, avoiding peaks of
All 12 violins were playing identical notes with identical motions. This seems an unnecessary duplication, and the staff of this section should be drastically cut, with consequent substantial savings. If volume of sound is really required, this could be accomplished with the use of an amplifier.
Much effort was involved in playing the 16th notes. This appears to be an excessive refinement, since most hearers are unable to distinguish such rapid playing. It is recommended that all notes be rounded up to the nearest 8th note. If this were done it would be possible to use amateur musicians instead of experienced and expensive professionals.
No useful purpose is served by repeating with horns the passage that has already been handled by the strings. If all such redundancies were eliminated, the concert could be reduced from two hours to twenty minutes, with great savings in salaries and overhead.
The symphony had two movements. If Mr Schubert didn’t achieve his musical goals by the end of the first movement, then he should have stopped there. The second movement is unnecessary and should be cut.
In the light of the above, one can only conclude that had Mr Schubert given attention to these matters, he probably would have had time to finish the symphony.
Well, maybe he would have, but would anyone have wanted to listen to it?
The thing of course, is this. Just as music is much more than the efficient arrangement of sounds, so living well, being present to the moment, is much more than the efficient management of time. As is living faithfully, living spiritually, living as if life mattered far more than wasting our powers through getting and spending.
Isn’t it curious? There is one thing I never put on my daily or weekly list of things to do. I never write – Do nothing. Yet, often, that is the most important thing I should be doing. Nothing.
Bill Bryson has become a very popular writer with his eccentric mix of travel and witty observation. In one of his books, I forget which one (see, if! had written it down and put it on an index card, I could have told you the title ofthe book, the page number, everything) in this book Bryson tells of an incident which happened once to him. He was living in Hanover, New Hamsphire. He had abandoned Britain where he had lived for twenty years to return to his native land, and had chosen Hanover as a suitable place to hang his hat. A great choice. Hanover is a delightful New England town, home of Dartmouth College. Anyway, late one afternoon, he was beavering away at his computer, furiously writing something or other which he should have sent off days before. He was feeling oppressed by a deadline. His son called to him to come outside a play catch.
I can’t, I’m busy.
Come on, Dad.
I can’t, I have to finish this piece.
Aw, gee, Dad, come on.
Those of you who have been a parent, or for that matter a child, will recognise the exchange immediately. For some reason, even though he really did have to meet that deadline, Bryson relented.
OK, he called back.
And he and his son went outside for an hour of playing catch. Which they did. No big deal. It was something he had done a hundred times before with his son. Except that this time it was a big deal. It was a gorgeous, crisp late afternoon, with the brilliant sunlight filtering at a sharp angle through the dazzling hues of the New England foliage. The kind of New England autumn day which takes your breath away. And there he was, playing
catch with his son, doing what American Dads have done for generations, the simple rhythmic bonding of throwing and catching a baseball to and fro.
And Bryson was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with the beauty of it, the wonder of it, the appreciation for the miracle of being alive and so blessed, that there he was amidst the glory of creation, doing something elemental with his child. It was an afternoon to savour in the memory for a lifetime, so perfect was it, so vivid to all his senses, and most especially to his sense of joy.
But, you know what, says Bryson? I nearly missed it. I nearly missed it by thinking that hunching over my word processor was more important. Words that I, and anybody who might read them, would soon forgot, compared with that magical moment with my son which I will never forget. I was almost too busy making a living to be aware that I was alive.
If you never look up, how are you going to see the sunsets? If you never stop, how are you going to smell the daisies? If you never give thanks, how are you going to know how much you have to give thanks for?
There is no such thing as being too busy to stop. Usually it is not that you are too busy to stop. It is, more likely, that you have forgotten how. Or are afraid of the stillness. Saying no to the rush, stepping off the carousel on which everyone else is mindlessly going around and around, takes a lot more courage and self-confidence than might be imagined.
There is the story of the priest who prayed faithfully for an hour every morning. That hour or prayer in the morning, he explained, put him into the right frame of mind for the rest of the day. Except, of course, when he had a particularly busy and frantic day ahead of him and he didn’t have time. Then he did not begin by praying for an hour. He began by praying for two hours.
You don’t need me to tell you how busy your life is, you don’t need me to recite all the things you have to do, the many things on your daily list, you don’t need me to tell you how frantic it all can be, how the joy of it can drain away in the weariness of work to be done. But remember, the life of the spirit is not subject to time and motion study experts. It is often not the more you do, but the less you do, which is important.
This is not an advocacy for laziness. But it is a reminder that we neglect our spirits at our peril, and we cannot tend our spirits if our shoulder is always to the harness. So don’t just do something, sit there. Waste time. It might be the best thing you can do with it. But here is a question. Suppose the next time I write down my list of things to do, I put on it, Do nothing. How much nothing will I have to do before I am allowed to cross it off?