Urgent or Important?
Mark 1:29-39, Isaiah 40:27-31
It was President Dwight Eisenhower, who is said to have noted: “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” In 1989, Stephen Covey expanded on Eisenhower’s insight in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” He asked office workers and managers to evaluate how they spent their time, by dividing their daily work into four categories.
1) Tasks that require immediate action and that are important in the achieving of your goals,
2) Tasks that require immediate action, but are not crucial,
3) Tasks that do not need action right away and do not contribute to your goals.
4) Tasks that contribute to your goals, but do not need to be done right away.
Covey pointed out that many of us spend too much of our time doing less important, but seemingly more urgent tasks. These often come in the form of interruptions, or things someone else wants us to do for them. Meanwhile, we tend to neglect the important tasks, if they have no particular time line, because they do not seem as urgent.
I wondered, as I read our Gospel lesson this week, how a modern business guru would evaluate Jesus’ work habits. Would he be classed as a Highly Effective Person? How well did he do in distinguishing between what was urgent and what was important?
In today’s passage Jesus responds to the needs of those around him. He heals Simon’s mother-in-law, a task that seems both urgent and important. It is clear that healing people is one of the main ways in which Jesus reveals his compassion and his power. In this passage, he moves from teaching (and healing) in the synagogue to healing in the house of Simon. As word spreads and the Sabbath sun sets, the “whole city” gathers at the door, and Jesus meets their need with his touch. Healing is certainly central to his mission. Yet time and again in the gospels, Jesus resists begin defined as a miracle worker, a cult hero. The people’s needs are urgent, and Jesus cares, but he also takes the time to discern what is important, his larger calling.
So we see Jesus sneaking away in the middle of the night, to be alone, to pray, and to listen for God’s leading. And when the disciples find him, he is clear. It is time to move on. He will not stop healing, he will never ignore the urgent needs of those whom he encounters, but his mission is larger than that. He needs to travel, not stay in one place. He needs to proclaim a new relationship with God that goes beyond physical healing.
I suppose nearly every Christian struggles with this dichotomy. We want to be available to others, to help those in pain, to feed the hungry and befriend the lonely. But we also need to find a sustainable rhythm for our days. We can’t work 22 hours a day, nor fix the problems of everyone we meet. We all need times when we withdraw from
the world, recharge our own batteries, and let God take care of us. We also need times when we can work on longer-tem projects and dreams—tasks that are important to our well-being, and to others’ well-being.
If we look at the habits of highly effective Christians, we notice that they maintain an overall balance. They respond to what is urgent, to those interruptions that God often places in our path each day. But they also make time for what is important—the soul-building, world-changing, long-range plans and practices that keep them sane and centered.
Sunday morning worship, for me, is one hour of the week when we trade what is urgent for what is important. Here in the breaking open of God's Word, we remember who we are. Here at the communion table, we realize how hungry and thirsty we are, and what will satisfy that deep hunger and thirst. Here, we pray, and we find strength and wisdom to meet tomorrow’s urgent claims upon us. There is no formula for this: Christian life can never be distilled into 7 easy rules. But as we seek balance between giving and receiving, between serving and waiting, between making things happen and letting life unfold, God’s grace comes to us. Amen.
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many….
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “everyone is searching for you.” he answered, “let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Rhythms of Transformation
2 Kings 2:1-12, Mark 9:2-9
February 19th, 2012
Transformations are everywhere in today’s two passages. Elijah is carried into heaven on a chariot of fire. His long-time apprentice, Elisha, assumes the mantle of his teacher and becomes Israel’s lead prophet. Jesus is transformed on a mountaintop and revealed as an otherworldly, God-like figure. Three disciples struggle to understand their teacher, having seen him in this new way.
This is poetic storytelling rich with image and symbol. The elements of these stories cannot be reduced to teaching points or logical conclusions. But the details do suggest much to us about how faith’s transforming power.
First, notice how Elijah and Elisha visit all the key places in Israel’s history. It could be a nostalgia tour, recalling all the places where God intervened in human history with a miracle or a blessing or a rescue. But the best part of the story occurs at an unnamed place, while the two prophets are by themselves. Maryann McKibben Dana notes that it is often true for us as well, that “transformative events do not occur at A-list destinations or on predetermined timelines, but in the nondescript places and in the humdrum of Ordinary Time.”
As Elijah and Elisha walk out beyond the Jordan, they both know that Elijah is coming to the end of his life. Neither can predict exactly when and how it will happen. In fact, both will be transformed. Elijah will become a legend: the one man who was so loved by God that he never died. He will be carried to heaven in a supernatural fireworks display. But for his long-time assistant Elisha, he might as well have died. The teacher is no longer there to give advice, to be the source of wisdom and strength. Yet Elisha will also be transformed by this experience. He will pick up Elijah’s mantle and wear it, becoming a prophet in his own right.
It is not clear why Elisha deserves this gift, but the text suggests that his persistence and silent watchfulness are key factors. He refuses to let his mentor go on without him, insisting on staying with him to the very end. He echoes Jacob, wrestling with the angel in Genesis, in effect saying “I will not let you go until you bless me.” As the two travel on, they know that Elijah’s end is near, but they cannot see exactly what lies ahead for either of them. Yet they remain together, and Elisha boldly asks for a “double share” of Elijah’s spirit. He’s not asking to be twice the prophet his teacher was, but rather asking to be his heir. (The first-born son received a double portion of a father’s estate.) And Elisha is also signaling his vulnerability, his weakness. “How can I be half the prophet you have been? How can I lead the people without you? I need a double share of your spirit to even begin to try.”
When we deeply admire a spiritual teacher, it can be tempting to believe that that person carries special powers and wisdom, and to think that copying them is our best chance at spiritual strength. But the truth is that each of us must find our own pattern of holiness. We learn from mentors, we imitate those who have gone before us in faith. But in the end, we stand alone and empty-handed before God. We are strongest when we admit our need, when we say “I can’t do this alone. God help me.”
In ancient Israel, prophets did not have the job of seeing the future, as we often imagine. Rather their role was to be messengers, intermediaries between God and God’s people. They were the brave ones who told the emperor that he had no clothes; or told the king that the people had turned away from justice and mercy, and that God missed them.
David Lose says:
To be a prophet is not to be a solitary figure standing in the distance in order to predict the future or call upon the judgment of the Lord. Rather to be a prophet is to enter deeply into the realities and relationships of the people to whom you are sent. It is for this reason, perhaps, that the prophet’s message is so potent, for it is driven by the anguish of witnessing the disparity between the grand desire of God for God’s people and the paucity and poverty of the reality God's people have been willing to accept. To be a prophet, finally is to love God’s people enough to tell them the truth about their condition…Further to be a prophet is to be completely vulnerable, absolutely dependent on God's word and mercy.
We spend so much of our time being polite, keeping silent about inconvenient truths, trying not to see all that is wrong with our world. But spiritual transformation gives us courage to speak the truth— about love and loneliness, poverty and plenty, about what deadens our souls, and what makes them sing. Spiritual transformation happens, when we, like Elisha, name what we need, when we admit our vulnerability, and grieve openly the losses in our lives. Only then can we be authentic learners and leaders, and perhaps even prophets.
As we read this story, we focus most naturally on Elijah and Elisha. But it’s worth noting that there is a whole community standing the background. Twice the company of prophets speaks to Elisha: “Do you know that today the Lord will take your Master from you?” And twice he replies, “Yes I know, keep silent.”
This repeated dialogue reminds us that the life of faith moves back and forth, between the community and individuals, between speech and silence, between knowing something and encorporating it into your life.
Mckibben Dana asks: “What would it look like to make this rhythm [of question, answer, silence] more explicit in a service of worship? We gather faithfully as a community Sunday after Sunday… We talk to God and listen for God. We rehearse and rehear the stories of faith; we reiterate the promises of God that are trustworthy and true; we affirm our faith, and we let the Word sink into us in prayer and silence. Worship transfigures us, and prepares us for times of adversity, when we will need these stories, prayers and promises to become second nature.”
Jesus’ disciples would remember him transfigured, glowing with the holy light of
God, when he was nailed to the cross, and later, when he rose from the dead. Their
experience with him on the mountaintop was impossible to explain, but deeply
embedded in their souls. Elisha was filled with both awe and anguish, as his beloved teacher was carried away from him. He cried out and tore his clothing. Yet the journey they had traveled together and the promise of divine guidance gave him the strength to continue.
Here in our congregation, we are looking ahead to changes whose shape we cannot anticipate. Some of us are feeling vulnerable and anxious, wanting to be reassured that God will guide us into the next stage of our life together. Like Elijah and Elisha, we know that change is coming, but we cannot say exactly how it will unfold. Like the disciples on the mountaintop with Jesus, we are tempted at times, to want to stop the action, and just stay here in the light together. But time beckons us on, down the mountain. Time pulls us to the unknown land where change happens in a blaze of light or in quiet epiphanies. We discover that there is a community of prophets standing by to support us, whatever the future brings. We discover that our vulnerabilities and struggles are not merely obstacles to be overcome, but actually, opportunities to experience God's blessing.
Once again we hear from McKibben Dana:
Congregations, (and for that matter preachers!) like prophets, are not immune to the hardships of life. Rather we are called to embrace these realities as the arenas which prove God’s faithfulness.
Question, answer, silence. We ask God for what we need. We accompany one another on our journeys—all the way to the end. We wait, accepting that not everything will be neatly explained. We open our hands, to receive God’s blessings – and they come: in beams of heaven-scattered light, in chariots of fire that set our hearts ablaze, in quiet clarity for truth-telling, in the communal work of being the church—being Christ for one another. These are the rhythms of transformation. Amen.
Forty days in the Wilderness: Testing the Call
February 26th, 2012
The Gospels tell us that Jesus spent forty days alone in the wilderness, before he began his ministry. Matthew lists three specific temptations, while Mark merely says, “He was tempted by Satan.” What thoughts went through the Lord’s mind, during those forty days? What was the struggle really like? Today’s meditation takes the form of a diary written by Jesus in the wilderness.
Day 1: Not knowing how long I am to be here, I have decided to keep a journal to mark the days. “Here” is a cave in the mountains. There is no human habitation as far as the eye can see. Only scrubby trees and large rocks stick up to catch my gaze. A small spring seeps just enough water to slake my thirst. How peaceful it is here! I sit and watch the sunset and thank God for bringing me to this place.
Day 3: I am growing impatient with the sunsets and the silence. Why am I here? It is certainly beautiful, but I can’t see that I am accomplishing anything. All I know is that I had a powerful urge to come here to this lonely place, and to wait for another message from God.
It all began with a strange experience. I approached the prophet John, seeking baptism in the river Jordan. As John pushed me under the water, I began to tremble. And as I came up, suddenly there was a white dove, fluttering above me. She swooped down and instinctively I ducked, but she barely brushed my head with her wings. In the same moment, I heard a quiet whisper that cut through me, making the bones in my chest vibrate. “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well-pleased.”
I left the riverbank in a daze, trying to make sense of what had happened. I felt unprepared, yet at the same time I knew that God had named me and called me to begin the work I was born to do.
All my life, so far, I suppose, has been preparation for this. I grew up in a loving family, learned a trade, made a living, and studied Scripture on the Sabbath. Yet I always sensed that there was something ahead of me, something completely different. And now it has begun. Is that why I am here? To plan a strategy for my new life? Ok, I’ll just get to work on it.
Day 5: I am ready, Father. I really think I am prepared. I have done a lot of thinking about what needs to be done. First I’ll recruit some disciples: sturdy loyal folk who can work with me. A traveling ministry would reach the largest number of people. We can start by speaking in synagogues and relating your new word to the Hebrew Scriptures. But we won’t neglect other opportunities, like open air gatherings. So, when can I begin?
You are silent. So much silence…. I long for the sound of a human voice. Can it be that I am still not ready?
Day 6: You called me your “beloved son”. What does that mean? I feel proud that you have singled me out and blessed me. I can still feel the touch of your spirit upon me. But within me is also a feeling of heaviness, almost of dread. What if no one listens to me? You have given me responsibility along with privilege. There are times, even here in the wilderness, when it feels as if the whole world’s sins are pressing down on me.
Lord, strengthen me for this great task you have laid upon my shoulders.
Day 10: Hungry….
Day 11: Heard wild beasts howling at night. Couldn’t sleep.
Day 13: Lonely…. I would give anything for someone to talk to….
Ate some bitter tasting berries I found a mile from the cave.
Day 14: At last something has happened. No, it was not the signal to return to Nazareth.
I had a visitor! He treated me most respectfully, and seemed to know all about you, Father. He called me “Lord and Master,” (the first time anyone’s called me that!) It felt good, but the best thing was having a companion at last. He was witty and entertaining, and we talked for an hour or two before the conversation began making me feel uncomfortable.
He said to me, “Boy, you have powers you haven’t even tried yet. Stick with me, and I’ll show you how to use them. How would you like to feed the whole world?” He picked up a rock. “Did you know you have the power to change this rock into bread?”
I was confused, flattered and scared all at once. Suddenly I wondered whose side he was on. Was it true I had such power? Wouldn’t it be fun to try it and see?
But into my head came a line of scripture. “Man does not live by bread alone,” I said, and instantly, as soon as the words lefty my mouth, he vanished.
What does it mean, Father? Did I do the right thing?
Day 17: After two days of silence, during which I felt your presence all around me, I came back to the cave to find another visitor. He was dressed differently than the first, but something in his manner reminded me of my earlier companion. Naturally, I welcomed him, but I was on guard.
He began to talk in tones of utmost sweetness and reason. He said it was time for me to come back to the city. He said he could set up a mass meeting for me outside the Jerusalem Temple. He would introduce me, and than I was to climb up and throw myself off the pinnacle of the temple. The idea was that you would save me, and all the people would instantly believe in me.
I wavered. It wasn’t that I didn't trust you to save me. But I want people to follow me for the right reasons. I don’t want to become some kind of magician or circus performer. But I am so eager to go back and get started.
Again, I tried to think of a verse of scripture that might help me decide what to do. What came to me was, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” And my companion vanished, as quickly as before.
Day 18: He will no longer show his face, but all day long I hear whispers. They say you have abandoned me. They say I have messed up your plan already. I cover my ears and sing loud to drown them out.
Day 20: They are at war within me,. All night long I hear them, angels and devils:
(A) You are the Son of God (D) You could be king of the whole world.
(A) God has sent you to be a servant.
(D) Why would someone with your skills want to be a servant?
(A) Stay firm and God will guide you.
(D) Ha! God has left you here in the wilderness, and he’s not coming back. Just give up!
(A) Keep on searching and God will speak.
I am worn out from this constant battle. My soul is being tugged in two.
How Lord, O Lord, can this go on?
Day 22: I awoke this morning to blessed silence. The demons have gone. I know they will return, but now I know how to recognize them. And there are angels all around, to help me fight them. Your divine light fills me with peace.
Day 25: I am beginning to understand why I am here. This struggle for my soul will go on, won’t it, Lord? I must be very clear about who I am, and be able to distinguish your voice from all the others. I’ll stay here as long as it takes….
Day 30: Today I had a vision of the future. I saw beloved friends, a community drawn to your love, as to a magnet. I saw us traveling and teaching. And then I saw darkness and fear. I saw myself alone, in pain. All is dark, yet I know you are within me, like a strong and steady heartbeat. Then, anguish and utter desolation. …And then I emerge, as if out of a long dark tunnel, into light and joy. What does it mean, Father?
Is this my future? Give me the courage to trust your plans for me.
Day 32: The temptations within me have grown as familiar as the wild beasts that prowl around my cave. I am constantly on guard, but I know that we are stronger than they are. You will never leave me.
Day 35: Another vision. I see far into the future, this time, a building in a small city, a church where my friends gather. They speak of me and they act in my name. And I see that they are tempted, too.
They are tempted to see themselves as superior to other people, because they “go to church”. They judge others for petty sins, forgetting their own sins of pride. They worry about money, and the church is limited by their lack of vision. They want to be in control, and they’re afraid to let the fresh breeze of your Spirit disturb their plans.
Oh, be with them, Father, as you have been with me. Send them angels to contend with their demons.
Day 39: I am ready. I hear the cries of your people calling to me. I know who I am. I know how much I need you, if I am to stay on course. I understand I will not be safe. But I also know that your love is more powerful that all the devil’s subtle reasoning.
I return to your world, to work, to teach, and to love.
To suffer and die.
To live again.
God, go with me! Amen.