Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Performance Principle Is Excrement, To Put It Nicely

Have you ever noticed that the harder you work
the behinder you get.
It’s true.
If we do more, people expect more.
Our boss sees we can produce, so he pushes harder.
Our customers demand more.
We can never catch up.

It is standard practice in most industries.
If a salesman exceeds his quota, management will increase his quota.
We never get ahead.
We never even catch up.

The German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse
said that most of us feel frustrated and futile
in our work because of something he called
“the performance principle.”

The Performance Principle means that our human worth
is measured by how well we carry out some task.
And that is a lousy way to live.
First of all, we can never do the task well enough.
Second, the task is often not worth the amount of energy and worry
we invest in it.
But third and most importantly, it turns us into tools.
We cease to be human beings valuable, even sacred,
in our own right.
Instead, we are means to the end of some project.

St. Paul knew all about the Performance Principle.
He was an ambitious young man, performing at being
a rising rabbi and stellar scholar of Jewish law.
Years later, he listed for the Philippinas,
all hard won accomplishments.
He was a Jew among Jews, a devout, learned, and pious
man of the faith.

But then he said none of that was worth anything.
Paul actually used a graphic Greek word
to say what all that amounted to.
The delicate people who translate the Bible for us
render that word as “refuse.”
But that doesn’t get it.
If I said the word in church you would be offended.
So I’ll just say excrement comes closer,
and although it only has 4 letters,
Texans pronounce it with 3 syllables for emphasis.

Now when Paul speaks so disparagingly of his accomplishments,
remember those were accomplishments in the realm
of religion and spirituality.
He calls being a top flight spiritual leader excrement.

Now what does that say about all the things we work so hard at?
What does that say about our goals and objectives, our quotas,
our strategic plans, and our profit margins?
What does it say about our standing in the community?
Paul might say we are valuing them a mite more highly
than they deserve.

But Paul isn’t saying that any of our work is bad.
He doesn’t mean it’s really worthless.
He doesn’t mean all our good deeds don’t count.

He has just found something so wonderful that,
by comparison, nothing else matters.
Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus,
and he had spent the rest of his life
getting to know Jesus better.
Jesus showed Paul what God’s love is like.
And by comparison, nothing else mattered.

1200 years later, St. Thomas Aquinas had a similar experience.
Thomas was the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages,
quite likely the greatest theologian who ever lived.
He wrote massive tomes of brilliant theology and philosophy.
He wrote the Summa Theologica, the Bible of systematic theology
even now 900 years later.

Then one day, while he was celebrating the Mass,
he glimpsed something of the glory of God.
After Mass, he said, “All I have written is as straw.”
He walked off to his room, and never wrote again.

What Paul discovered was the unconditional love of God.
He called it grace.
Paul is the one who introduced the word grace
into our faith.
Jesus showed it to him,
so Paul taught it to all the churches.

Once we dare to trust in God’s grace
to make us happy and secure,
it causes a fundamental shift
in how we experience life.
We still work at our jobs.
We still do our best.
But the pressure is off.
Our basic well-being doesn’t depend our being successful.

That leads to a whole different kind of life,
a life that can be savored and enjoyed,
a life that consists in gratitude and sharing
more than striving and achieving.

It makes for a life that is lovely in its security.
Paul went on to say, “I have learned the secret
of having much and of having little,
of being hungry and being well-fed. . . .”

Paul said, “I can do all things
through Christ who strengthens me.”
When things go wrong according to our preconceived notions
of how they are supposed to be,
we know “We can do that.”
We can do hunger. We can do loneliness.
We can do family conflict. We can do failure.
We can do whatever life throws at us,
because it is not happening the context
of the Performance Principle.
It is happening in the context of a life
that floats in God’s unconditional yes to who we are.

We don’t have to perform our lives just so.
We don’t have to succeed at life.
We just have to live it in the sea of grace.
That grace will hold us up.
It will sustain us.
It will get us through.

It got Paul through worse times than most of us
will ever come close to having to endure.
And it will set us free to really live our lives,
to live them boldly and joyfully,
not on a treadmill of production and success,
but in a dance of delight and joy.