Monday, January 29, 2018

Rebelling Against the Tyranny of the Urgent

Living in a culture of instant gratification, many of us march to the mindset, “Gotta have it – and gotta have it now!” There are advantages to this; Walking into a fast-food restaurant and not having to wait; being able to quickly find virtually anything on the Internet; being able to communicate to others without delay, whether by phone, text or instant message.

But as with many advantages in life, instant living has drawbacks. One of them is the increasing inability to distinguish the urgent from the truly important.

Days can fly by as urgent demands
crowd out important matters.
Years ago, Charles E. Hummel wrote an engaging little booklet, The Tyranny of the Urgent. He stated, “Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.” This seemed cryptic the first time I read it. Aren’t urgent things always important?

For instance, if you get a call from your boss instructing you to do something immediately, isn’t that important? If your smartphone rings while you’re with loved ones or close friends, shouldn’t you check to see who’s calling?

As I pondered Hummel’s statement, however, I began to realize that indeed, urgent things are not always important – and important things aren’t always urgent. The challenge is learning to distinguish between the two, and then responding appropriately.

Another Hummel observation provided clarification: “There is an insidious tendency to neglect important tasks that do not have to be done today – or even this week.” At first glance this seems a tad confusing. If things don’t have to be done today, or this week, doesn’t that indicate they’re not all that important?

Once again, after a bit of thought, we start to understand what he meant. Sometimes urgent things also are important – if someone’s having a heart attack, they need immediate treatment. If there’s a fire, we must try to put it out. Or call 911. But if a friend asks us for a favor, that doesn’t mean we must drop everything to comply right then.

Many children’s trust has been shattered by promises repeatedly broken by parents because something “urgent” always seems to arise at the last minute. Or intended meetings with friends never happen because the “urgent” keeps snatching time from our schedules.

Having spent much of my working career reacting to deadlines, I know how easily the urgent can crowd out the important. Even now, I wrestle with the conflict between longer-term writing projects and more immediate, short-term tasks that “need” to be completed first.

In the Scriptures, we see an example of “urgent vs. important” in the lives of sisters Mary and Martha. The gospel of Luke gives a quick synopsis:
“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’
Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her’” (Luke 10:38-41).

At first glance, it’s easy to side with Martha. There’s a meal to prepare. Things to be done. Martha was slaving away, while her sister was “chilling,” listening to what Jesus had to say. But as He often did, Jesus was using this for a teachable moment. The preparations preoccupying Martha’s attention could wait a few minutes. Time with Jesus, however, was a priceless moment that couldn’t be recaptured later.

Seems to me this “tyranny of the urgent” impedes our ability to establish and maintain a close, intimate walk with God. Hummel also wrote about this in his booklet: “But the root of all sin is self-sufficiency – independence from the rule of God. When we fail to wait prayerfully for God’s guidance and strength, we are saying with our actions, if not with our words, that we do not need him. How much of our service is actually a ‘going it alone’?” 

Psalm 37:7 admonishes, “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him.” This “resting” and “waiting” run counter to the instincts of our instant world, worshiping at the altar of the urgent. But if we’re to truly become all the Lord intends for us to be, we’ve got to discover how not to sacrifice the important on that altar. 

Like Mary and Martha, we need to discern what’s really needed – the better of two or more options. Is it really important, or is it just urgent?

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Where Champions Are Made

In a couple of weeks, we’ll again have the chance to marvel as gifted athletes from around the globe compete in the Winter Olympics in South Korea. Skiers will race down slopes at breakneck (hopefully not) speeds; figure skaters will glide across the rink with their collection of lutzes, axels, spins, and maybe a camel or two.

Ski jumpers will soar through frigid skies, straining for the bottom-most patches of icy snow lying many meters below. And speed skaters will chase around a frozen oval, even though a diagonal path would have been much faster.

Already, favorites for each event have been identified. But as happens every Olympics, some of those favored will falter. Unexpected champions will emerge, happily embracing their moment in the sun – or snow, or ice – new “household names” being awarded medals of gold, silver and bronze.

In a real sense, those champions have already been determined in the months and years leading up to this Olympics. I was reminded of this while visiting the YMCA recently for a workout. Someone wore a T-shirt that said, “Champions are made when no one is looking.”

We find everyday examples in the middle-aged guy who’s finally decided to shed excess, health-threatening pounds; the gal prepping for her first half-marathon, the person determined to become the fittest person at the office, or the elderly individual rehabbing from a physical setback.

The same applies whether it’s the area golf champion or the winner of the Masters; winners at the local tennis club or Wimbledon; spelling bee champs; skilled surgeons; inspiring high school teachers, and accomplished business leaders. We can witness and appreciate the end results and yet have no idea of the work, sweat and determination it took for them to achieve their objectives.

What about becoming a spiritual “champion”?

Similarly, men and women become champions for Jesus Christ when no one was looking. Rarely – even in our churches – does anyone focus attention on the person spending time daily communing with God in the Scriptures and in prayer. Strong, enduring faith isn’t gained by attending a stirring worship service or a spiritual conference, but in the bunkers of pain and struggle, where we have no alternative but to persevere, trusting God and His promises.

Virtually every effective Christian leader, whether speaking from the pulpit, facilitating a Sunday school class, or heading up a faith-based company, has been aided in his or her growth by disciplers, mentors and accountability partners, interactions usually unseen by those who benefit from their direction.

The apostle Paul admonished his protégé, Timothy, to be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). How could Timothy do this? Initially, he learned from Paul. Then he persisted in applying those lessons in quiet, personal hours. Knowing – and using – the Word of God correctly comes only with time, attention and prayer.

Abraham, from whom the people of Israel trace their lineage, went through the refining furnace of faith in many ways, so that when God gave him the curious command to sacrifice his promised son, Isaac, he did not waver: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son” (Hebrews 11:17). When no one was looking, Abraham’s faith was being established so he could trust the Lord would somehow resolve this dilemma in a redemptive way. As He did.

Looking back over my life, the times I’ve learned most and grown have not been easy, smooth-sailing moments, even though they’re preferable to times of intense challenge. It’s been circumstances when there was nothing else I could do but to look up, believing in God’s faithfulness even when the limits of credibility were being stretched, that have advanced my spiritual maturity.

As James 1:12 says, Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him.

This is what God calls each of us to do. So that one day we’ll agree with Paul, who wrote, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith(2 Timothy 4:7). In God’s eyes, we’ll be “champions” He has fashioned when no one was looking.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Can You See Clearly Now?

Where would some of us be without eyeglasses? I began wearing them regularly in my mid-20s. Since I’m near-sighted, my glasses are necessary for seeing more distant objects.

Unlike many people my age, I don’t need to extend my arms to read a newspaper or a book. But for things farther away, like a movie screen, road signs, or even recognizing people in a large room, my eyeglasses are indispensable.

Historians say vision aid devices date back to the Greeks and Romans. After all, didn’t Julius Caesar once tell Brutus, “I’m keeping an eye out for you”? (Didn’t work out too well.) But apparently the first real eyeglasses were invented in Northern Italy, near Pisa, around 1290. That might have been when the builder of the famous tower put on some glasses and realized, “Man, my tower’s leaning! Oh, well.”

Our pastor recently told a story about his father, who received his first pair of eyeglasses after immigrating to the United States. The dad didn't know how bad his uncorrected sight was until returning to Switzerland. For the first time, he could clearly see the spectacular vistas of the majestic Alps and the rolling hills that had been a part of his childhood.

Having poor sight physically isn’t the only visual limitation hampering some people. They also have a need for spiritual “eyeglasses,” for which there’s only one accurate prescription. As author, academician and one-time atheist C.S. Lewis wrote, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen — not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Faith in Jesus Christ provided him with 20:20 eyesight into the spiritual realm. With that vision Lewis wrote such thoughtful classics as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Problem of Pain, and the acclaimed Chronicles of Narnia fantasy series.

Just as we can’t simply choose to see more clearly with our physical eyes, but must use the “spectacles” prescribed for us, the Scriptures tell us the ability to perceive spiritual truth isn’t a matter of personal choice either. The apostle Paul wrote, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).

Speaking of our spiritual enemy, Jesus said, "He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn – and I would heal them" (John 12:40).

So how can we acquire spiritual “vision-correctors”? We find an example in the story of the blind man who received sight from Jesus. As people marveled as this once-sightless man suddenly staring at everything around him with opened eyes, he admitted that although he didn’t fully understand what had happened, “…One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!" (John 9:25).

It’s the same for each of us. At one time, we were blinded to spiritual understanding. But when God through His Spirit opens our eyes, we can’t help but see. As Steve Brown of Key Life Network likes to say, “Once you’ve seen the truth, you can’t un-see the truth.”

What are the benefits of receiving the spiritual vision only God can provide? For starters, we begin to see Him for who He truly is: I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2).

We find ourselves able to better comprehend what He has revealed in the Scriptures: Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law” (Psalm 199:18). Truth that once seemed so obscure becomes obvious.

And in the process, we discover we’ve also gained the ability to see things the way God sees them: As Jesus told His followers, “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes and see that the fields are white for harvest” (John 4:35). We begin to perceive things – and people – around us from the Lord’s point of view.

A question I must ask myself daily is, how well are my spiritual eyeglasses working? Am I even bothering to use them?