Wood Cutting, and the Wisdom of Inefficiency

Before enlightenment…chop wood.  After enlightenment…chop wood.  Zen Proverb

I spent my free evening yesterday chopping wood, and it has me thinking a lot about the dangers of elevating efficiency as the highest good.  One neighbor saw me and said “rent a splitter; no sense killing yourself”.  Another said “this is why I heat with propane”.   Others drove by with the smile of sympathy, as if I’d been sentenced to hard labor.  But then, along comes my neighbor who has a reputation for gathering, cutting, and splitting wood…all the time.  He says, “let me loan you my wedge” and soon I’m over at his wood pile discussing the merits of various splitting strategies and equipment.  Then it’s back to the wood.   As I split, toss, haul, stack, get thick fir pitch on my clothes, in my hair, and wince as one log falls on my foot after the split, I wonder why I’m not swearing – why this exercise, in this sunshine and mountain air, is as life giving as skiing powder?  The answers are easy, and have to do in part at least, with the contrast to my world of words, desks, sitting, and ideas that fills most of my hours – wood cutting is:

Easily measured – To move wood from driveway to inside the garage, from rounds to split, from split to stacked, from stacked to dried, to from dried to burned is rewarding at every point because the fruit of labor is so tangible.

Skill Required – There aren’t many things that I can do well in the realm of physical labor.  I’ve spent hours trying to change the oil on my car.  Simple plumbing repairs have turned into nightmares because I tried to fix it myself.  But chopping wood is a skill I have.  I’ve both the strength for it, and the mind to be smarter than the wood, which sounds easy until you realize most logs have a hidden element in them that resists chopping.  You need to place your splitting wedge, not just anywhere, but strategically.  I like doing this, and am good at it.

Elemental- The wood I chop is hundreds of years in the making.  It came from soil, and sunlight, and dna.  It needed the hydration cycle, and seasons.  It sheltered birds and gave the world oxygen, even as it removed carbon.  When I chop wood, I’m not thinking about budgets, sermons, and all the upcoming events on my calendar.  I’m thinking about the wood, and where it fits in the life cycle as part of God’s good creation, and the gift it’s giving me now, and will give me next winter.  In a world where virtual relationships, information, and ideas have become the primary commodities, it is o so good to be reminded that heat, water, food, clean air, all come from the earth as God’s gifts, and that we need them as much as we ever did.

These are the reasons why I worry about a culture where efficiency becomes the highest good, as it inevitably does if ‘the most goods for the cheapest price’ is the goal.  Bill Gates says, “automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency…” which is increasingly lived out through the machination of everything.  Small farmers and receptionists who answer phones are nearly extinct, victims of efficiency.  We still need food and information, but both are now offered via automation.  Tellers and grocery checkers are next.  Wait staff in restaurants can’t be far behind. What’s lost in all this efficiency is the value of relationship, and the dignity of employment.  What’s lost when the small farms disappear and become “agribusiness” is o so much more.  Soil health, human health, and the relationship of affection between farmer and land are all wounded by glorious efficiency.

Split.  Split.  Toss wood.  Split.  Split.  Toss wood.  And then it hits me.  Churches are like farms – at risk of bowing to the god of efficiency.  I lead a church that, for 17 years has been growing and growing – from 300 in the first year, to 225 in the second, and then upward:  500,700, 900, 1000, 2100, etc. etc.  And here’s Jesus:  “What do you think?  If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine in the mountains and go search for the one who is straying?” Efficiency would say no.  Efficiency would say that all we do is offer truth and life to people, and that what they do with it is their own business.  Efficiency would say that bigger is better.  Efficiency would say, “more locations (and thus smaller congregations) means more of everything – worship leaders, greeters, pastors, children’s workers.”  More human hours for the same amount of people is inefficiency.

Yes.  Just like the farm where I buy my meat.  Just like the human touch at the checkout stand.  Just like chopping wood.

Of course working wisely is better than wasting time.  Of course, within limits, efficiency is wonderful.  But let’s be careful that we don’t deify efficiency, because to the extent we do, we’ll lose the human touch of scale, and when that happens everyone and everything, including our church life, becomes a commodity.

Our church has responded to this challenge with a new vision, as seen in this video.  We have a pastor on staff now, getting ready to lead 200 or more people with him to a new location.  Soon we’ll begin searching for another pastor to do the same thing.  Instead of creating the church equivalent of an agribusiness mega farm, we’re working on creating small healthy farms, where the human scale is once again elevated over pure, raw, efficiency.

It’s harder.  It’s slower.  It’s more rewarding.  Just like chopping wood.

 

 

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.


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