A year ago SWF’s Sam McBratney reflected on being ‘laid aside‘ during lockdown. Here he reflects again in this recorded piece (transcript below) on the theme of ‘uselessness’ and the idol of productivity in relation to his presbyterial work.
At the beginning of lockdown I wrote a piece reflecting on the part of the Methodist covenant prayer that says ‘let me be employed for you or late aside for you’.
None of us at that point thought that we would still be in lockdown a year later nor did we think that we would be seeing the rollout of not one but more than half a dozen different vaccines. The last 12 months have seen a weird combination of high stress activity on the part of some and enforced furlough for others. A strange and paradoxical juxtaposition of employed and laid aside.
Many years ago I had the privilege of hearing Dr Mary Robinson give a public lecture. She was then the President of Ireland and spoke from that perspective on the value of work. She recounted stories of conversations she had had with people who having been long-term unemployed had recently found a job. She asked one man what having a job after being without one for so long meant to him: “it means having something to talk about at the dinner table” was his response.
For that man, not only did work provide a fund of fresh stories but it allowed him to connect with his family in new ways; it allowed him the possibility of a new narrative. For some this is what we mean by the idea of vocation where work provides more than a means of making money or paying bills. I listened to President Robinson as someone who grew up in a workless household so I knew only too well the atmosphere of shame, self-doubt and failure that seemed to pervade our home. The depressing narrative we were caught up in seemed to be playing in an endless loop, sucking all the energy out of the room. Hope became confined to getting through and getting by and limiting disappointments as much as possible. In a world like that, dreams shrink to what is possible.
It is hard not to read the words ‘laid aside’ through the lens of being laid off. For many who lived through the de-industrialization of Britain in the 70s and 80s, the profound loss of identity experienced by individuals and whole communities remains a scar yet to be healed.
I watched as my unemployed father seemed to shrink before my eyes and it had a profound effect on me also. I vowed then never to be unemployed and thank God I have always been able to find paying work since I was a teenager. Increasingly, however, I am aware that the fear of joblessness has led to overwork and all the consequences that brings. Being busy has sometimes become an end in itself, an attempt to prove to myself as much as to others my own validity and worth and to seek the sense of security that a job brings.
The experience of lockdown has been weird in all sorts of ways and turned the world on its head. This is particularly true of the world of work where we have discovered just how important some of the poorest paid workers are to our very well being. And many of us who are much better remunerated for our work have had to come to terms with not being as essential as we thought we were. It turns out that the world can get by pretty much without our input. I made this terrifying discovery early on in lockdown. I busied myself doing all those unfinished DIY tasks around the house and took up knitting and other crafts with gusto. I finally got my hands on some seeds and began to cultivate a vegetable patch.
Part of me thought it would only be a matter of time before the phone started ringing. I tried to pace myself ready for the inevitable onslaught. As days became weeks and then weeks, months it became clear that I wasn’t going to be inundated in the way that I thought. Meanwhile it seemed that all over the place clergy had got tired of waiting and were engaging in all sorts of activity, especially online. To me it felt a bit frenetic and surprisingly, given my background, I didn’t rush to join in.
Instead I thought back to a morning I had spent at theological college over 20 years ago imbibing the wisdom of the Revd Geoff Ainger. It had been the tradition of the college in the final weeks of the academic year to invite a retired minister to share some insights that might be especially relevant to those heading into circuit for the first time. Geoff was a tour de force, a raconteur who held our attention not just with incredibly amusing anecdotes but with the insights he drew from them into the work of God. Of all the treasures he offered that morning one stood out for me then and came back with some force during lockdown.
Geoff spoke of his experience of the sheer uselessness of God, that God had never been useful in his ministry and often quite the opposite. But that he had come to see that uselessness was what made God, in fact, God. All attempts to make God or belief in God useful has ended up in manipulation or exploitation, both of God and of the people.
So what does it mean to believe in a useless God, a God that can’t be co-opted into our schemes, can’t be manipulated or made to fit into boxes of our own design? Sadly too often religion has tried to be that box, imprisoning the divine in structures and dogmas and rituals; trying to limit access to God to those who happen to agree with us or look like us or hold the same ridiculous prejudices.
More than that, the useless God isn’t interested in our categories of utility or our attempts to prove useful or, worse still, indispensable. We live in a world that ascribes value to people on the basis of their usefulness, to the economy primarily and society more generally. And so lots of people are thrown on the scrapheap from the moment they’re born. The God who is useless calls the church challenged the world’s utilitarianism, the view that sees every relationship as a transaction and every part of the natural world as a resource to be exploited for maximum profit.
Being laid aside is not an ascription of value because we are not what we do or what we earn. We are not our titles nor our qualifications. Our ultimate value lies in being beloved. God reaches out to us not because we are useful. God is complete in Godself, lacking absolutely nothing. And so the truth is that God doesn’t need you but God wants you! I sense that that makes many Christians feel uncomfortable, the idea of a God who simply wants to be in a loving relationship with them. Much better if they see themselves as busy servants, being useful, proving their value to others and to God.
To embrace a vocation that is simply about learning to be loved feels wasteful, lazy, even self-indulgent. But think about it for a moment: what if each and every human being on the planet both knew and lived as if they were completely and utterly loved?
Imagine communities where no one felt undervalued or excluded, where there was no sense of inadequacy, where judgement was absent, where people were valued simply because they existed. Isn’t that a vision of the beloved community spoken about by Martin Luther King? In the coming weeks and months the world will emerge from lockdown and seek a return to normal patterns of life. For many millions of people around the world that will include seeking a new job and meaningful work again. But my hope and prayer is that we Christians have at least begun to recalibrate our understanding of value in order to begin to see the world through the useless God’s eyes; that as we emerge into a post-covid world we put aside our obsession with usefulness and instead open our hands to receive God’s good gifts: gifts of beauty and unconditional love, useless gifts that are capable of transforming the world.
Sam McBratney is Partnerships and Research Officer for the Susanna Wesley Foundation and the Southlands Methodist Trust.