“We need to put a better product on the field.” That was the line from the press conference that got me. The Denver Broncos just fired their new head coach two games from the end of his first season. The owner and CEO of the Broncos, Greg Penner of the Walton-Penner (Walton as in Walmart) ownership group was making a speech about how sorry he was for the abysmal season the team was having. And that’s when he said it.
I agreed in essence. The Broncos were pitiful, a woeful disappointment.
But the problem is, a football team— and more specifically, the success of a football team— is not a product.
A product is something that can be produced predictably. The output is controlled by the input, with very little variation because there are very few variables. Products are manufactured.
To call the performance of a team a product betrays not only on an economic way of thinking— you know, the irresistible modern urge to commodify everything!— but also on a mechanistic way of thinking. Machines create products. Centuries on from the Industrial Revolution, we have created machines— now highly sophisticated AI-driven techno-machines— that can control the inputs, eliminate the variables, and predict an output or outcome.
But there are things in life that resist that kind of control, things that go beyond our ability to predict and direct. Something as ordinary as a sports team is an illustration. The Broncos on paper were a good team: stellar talent, a proven quarterback, and a bright up-and-coming coach. But a player is more than his or her stat sheet, as sports psychologists can attest. The mind games and mindsets required are the great X-factor in sports. And then there are the injuries and weather conditions and game situations and fluky bounces of the ball and missed calls. Sports is a powerful metaphor for life because in sports, coaches, owners, and fans have the illusion of control and yet the ultimate prize seems to get pulled out of reach like Charlie Brown’s football.
Life is more wonderful and more complex than sports.
All the beautiful things are wild. Children are not products. Your spiritual growth is not a product. The church is not a product. You can choose the right ingredients but you cannot control the process or the outcome. Life cannot be manufactured.
All of this reminds me of something my friend, the author and theologian, Joy Clarkson said about human beings and the metaphors we use. She points out how we talk about our need to “process” or “unplug”, as if we’re some machine. And yet, humans are more like gardens than machines, she says.
I like that. Gardens grow and yield flowers and fruit. And yet they are wild and beyond our attempts to fully subdue it.
Here’s what I think: we should be intentional about cultivation and fruitfulness. (We wrote a book about that!) Don’t be lazy or passive. Join God in the original human call to be cultivators of the world— make something good of it. But in the end, remember that we are not God. We are not in control of the world. And we are not machines who manufacture products.
The best and most meaningful things in life cannot be economized or mechanized. They are not predictable or controllable. Life resists commodification and industrialization.
All the beautiful things are wild.
Sometimes, you just can’t put a better product on the field. Nor should you be expected to. So there's no need to apologize for not doing so. You can only garden the field itself and then pray that wild and beautiful things grow.
For more on cultivating fruitfulness instead of chasing productivity, sign up for a free webinar Holly and I are doing on Tuesday, January 3rd, at 5pm Pacific.