Monday, February 27, 2012

Idolatry of the urgent Part 2: What is important?

        I am sitting in my office working on a sermon. There are at least 20 emails in the inboxes of each of my 3 email accounts. I know that the month is closing out and that my ministry update report is due. My son needs help with his home school work. The laundry hamper is overflowing. My mother needs me to take care of some business for her which she is not able to do. A dear pastor friend wants me to meet him for lunch. There is a conference coming up in two weeks that I have been asked to attend. The phone is making noises every 5 minutes alerting me to something…and I just really would like to go outside in the sun and read a book.
     This is not a hypothetical situation but truly a “normal day” for me. I believe that this is a normal day for many pastors and ministers. We so desire to be greatly used by God. We so desire that our lives will not be wasted- that we will have an impact on the world for Christ. All that is a fine motivation for life but the reality is not easy. It is easy to identify the urgent because now everything presents itself as urgent. But we would do very well to recognize that not ever urgent alert is important. In fact, the vast majority of events that presents themselves as urgent are not at all important.          

          What then is important? Have you ever sat down and prioritized what is important? Of all the grand and great things you wish to accomplish, what is important? Here’s an exercise for you. Make a list of what is important to you. Now, if I were to ask the average Sunday School class in the average evangelical church what is important to them you would get “Sunday School” answers. This exercise will not benefit you at all if you are not honest with yourself. If you were to say that you “don’t have time” to make the list then you maybe so deeply enslaved to the idolatry of the urgent that there is no help for you. So, make a list of what is important to you. 
         Now make a list of all that you do. Include all the things you must do (for example, from 10am to 12pm every Sunday I have to teach and preach). At this point, do not include the time. Just make a list of all the things you do. Now make a list of all that you have accomplished in the past week. For example, if you spend 20 minutes a day walking or listening to preaching or reading include that. Again, don’t be concerned about how much time. Now look at your two lists. How much on your “done” list actually relates to what you claim to be important? Let me give you an example from my own life.
        I truly am convicted that prayer is important to me. I know that I need prayer to be strong against temptation, to be filled with the awe & wonder of God, to be empowered for ministry, and strengthen from discouragement. But even though I say with my mouth that prayer is important, there have been seasons in my life when it has been neglected. I also find that the neglect was often due to allowing “urgent” issues to take my time.

How then do we take the priorities that we have and make them a reality? 

Next time: Part 3: Finding Direction

Monday, February 13, 2012

Idolatry to the Urgent

                        I have used a PDA devise for years and a personal planner before that. I can remember back to my days in the business world the value of organizing and planning my weeks and days.  Certainly these tools can help us be not only more efficient but also more effective. I am glad that I no longer do I have to carry a paper planner or a PDA but can use my phone’s planner. Praise the Lord. I say this to qualify my following thoughts. I am no Ludite. I am not opposed to technology. I love technology but I recognize the idolatry of the urgent (that has always existed) is now ever before us. This is not a blab criticizing technology but rather an observation of how technology has increased our idolatry of the urgent.
                        I can cook a full meal in my microwave in about 6 minutes. It would have taken my great-grandmother hours to pick the vegetables, draw the water, catch-kill-clean-cook the chicken, etc. I can race through the drive trough and have a meal in a matter of minutes (4:00). The area of communication is even more incredible. No longer do I have to hand-write a letter in cursive, place it in the mail box and wait weeks. I can take the device from my hip-holster and fire off an email or message to anyone anywhere in the world and receive a reply almost instantaneously. These advances, in and of themselves, are a blessing.
            Ah, but here’s the rub- why is it I talk to so many pastors, evangelists and missionaries and they are always in a rush? Why do my friends call me on the phone, speak quickly and then hang-up without even giving me a chance to reply? Oh, and I feel the pressure also. I pastor a church, direct a mission society, am currently developing 90 hours of curriculum for a Bible Institute (alone), am a single-father with a challenged son that I home-school, etc. Why have these conveniences not paid off by giving me more time?
            The technology itself is neutral- which is to say that it is in the hands of the user and brings no values or virtues of its own. The problem then dear Brutus, is not in the circuit board but in our selves. I think part of the issue is that we (or at least most of us) cannot discern between what is urgent and what is important. For example, my smart phone beeps. I recognize that beep is to alert me to a new post on a social-networking page. My curiosity is stimulated. I can choose not to look, but then again what would be the point of being a part of a social-network if I did not follow my friends’ and families’ activities? The phone beeps again. I can choose to push the ignore button and silence the alert but in just a few more seconds I can look to see what just happened. I choose to look. Oh, it is an update from an old high school classmate telling me that they have just eaten a most delicious sandwich! Wow. Ten seconds gone that I will never get back. This sort of thing continues all day long.
            Let me play you another scenario. Two pastors are sitting at the table over lunch. The conversation changes from light-hearted banter to one brother sharing his heart breaking struggles. Suddenly there is an electronic noise. The other pastor raises his hand and says “Hold that thought while I take this call.” Without even looking to see who is calling, he puts his friend “on hold” and takes a call that could have waited and would have made no difference to his life. In essence, what he said to his friend was “You are not important. Even though I have no idea what to expect from this call, it is more important than you.” The reality is that the phone call was not important at all. It was urgent.
                I suppose if I were trained as an anthropologist I could comment on how technology is replacing real relationships and experiences for virtual (fake) ones. If I were a psychologist I could comment on the need for immediate gratification and the tiny but delightful shot of endorphins that is released every time I check off a to-do item or respond to a message. I am a mere theologian. What I see is lack of living in the moment, a constant state of rush, increased stress levels and the destruction of relationships in response to the immediate.
            We have become a generation of idolaters to the urgent and worshippers of the immediate. This is having an eternal, negative impact on our lives and our ministries. No longer are we guided by a compass that directs our focus and our direction. Instead we are a slave to the urgent. We are led around but whatever bleep or blip can catch our attention for that particular second. We have the world at our fingertips and it demands our attention. It feels good to give it our attention. But when we  respond to the urgent we are often neglecting the important. Second by second our lives are stolen away by the mundane and reality passes us by as we worship the urgent.
Next time: Where am I going?