Friday, March 2, 2012

Re-think usefulness

Keep us, we pray you, thankful and hopeful
and useful until our lives shall end.

       This sentence concludes a night prayer of thanksgiving in the New Zealand Prayer Book (p. 183).  I've always been struck by it.  "Thankfulness" and "hopefulness" are not strange words (in my mind) to be found a in a prayer.  The former suggests a particular posture with regard to the divine, a posture that suggests that all we have is a gift-even if we think we've earned it.   The very strength or power to earn something is a gift; breathe itself is a gift..  Thankfulness is appropriate, and prayers of gratitude are found in all the world's religions.
       "Hopefulness", too, seems quite appropriate.  It suggest that there is something ahead of us, or outside of us, to which we aspire or that gives us reason to persevere.  It may be something as other-worldly as "pie in the sky, by and by", or it may be a fervent expectation that, given hard work, we may effect some positive change in the current situation, or something more concrete such as the end of a journey to the Promised Land.
        No, it's the concept of "usefulness" that strikes me.  Given the presence of the word in the context of a prayer, I have often pondered how we are to be "useful"?  Is there only one interpretation, or multiple?  Something the other day, however, sparked my memory of a story I heard long ago.
        There was a woman, June, who had long been very active in her congregation.  She had served on committees.  She had arranged flowers.  She had helped with potluck meals.  She visited shut-ins.  She was, in many senses "useful" to the congregation and, by extension, to God.  Years passed (as they do), and June, physically, had to slow down.  It eventually came to the point where SHE was the visited shut-in, the one to whom folks brought flowers.  Much that had given her life a sense of purpose had become beyond her ability.  And, like many folks, June began to get depressed.  Her usefulness seemed to be a thing of the past.
        One day, a leader of the congregation came to visit.  June poured out her frustration and depression to her visitor:  "I can no longer do all the things I've done for my community!   All I can do is sit here and either stare at the television, or stare out the window. I feel so useless!"  The wise guest nodded sympathetically, commenting that it must be very difficult to be confined in such a way.  And then she said, "You know there is still one thing we always need, and that I think you can do."  "What?" asked June.  "Pray for us.  Indeed, I can give you a list of the many individuals who need prayer.  Or simply call, on a regular basis, the others who are in the same position as you."  June blinked . . . and recognized a new possibility.
        Perhaps this is the message of the prayer.  Our culture is tied to production, to capital, to assets.  And so we begin to think that we have a limited sense of utility; that our "use", too, is tied to product.  Maybe it's time to re-think "use" and re-discover the many other tools --strengths, gifts, talents and abilities -- in our "swiss-army-knife" self.



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