Friday, February 15, 2008

Taming the Ferocity of the Urgent

"If I changed the life of one person...just one person...well, okay, one is aiming pretty low. Let's say I change the lives of five thousand people...ten thousand...okay, five thousand, I'd be satisfied for starts...”
-Michael Scott

What a dunderhead.

Michael Scott is the fictitious boss of a paper company in Scranton, PA on the NBC hit television series, The Office. And I believe that in satire that quote raises awareness of the prevailing cultural value of accomplishment.

Our society values high efficiency & tangible results. We set goals for ourselves to lose 15-lbs. in a year, baptize 12 people in a year, or to read 24 books in a year. When we achieve our goals, we feel a great sense of accomplishment (or, in Sabanese, "personal self gratification"... Coach Nick Saban has this whole thing about not settling, or feeling content, or being satisfied. He strikes those words from his team's vocabulary, and doesn't let reporters get away with using them in press conferences. That man messes with my mind. Anyway...) But if we don't necessarily measure up with those values of accomplishment, in place of those values we mumble restlessly about how darn BUSY we are. So, if you haven't accomplished anything noteworthy or aren't busy trying to accomplish something noteworthy, we feel acutely insecure that other people may think that we are lazy or apathetic.

I am often reminded of reasons to be thankful for being single when I meet with a group of local ministers weekly for mutual encouragement & accountability. Each of the other men in our group are married. And inevitably, one of the other unaccomplished (relatively-speaking) young ministers will spatter off about how busy he is, how he's been neglecting his family, how he hasn't given enough time to study, prayer, or evangelism, or how little time he has in general. While some of this pressure is inherent, a lot of it is imposed by superiors.

For my readers who aren't ministers, this pressure is endlessly more frustrating on us ministers than you may realize. We ministers are often left with little sense of accomplishment because the nature of ministry isn't always necessarily results oriented. Rarely do we ministers get to figuratively lick the stamp, place it on the envelope, stick it in the mail, and be done with it. Ministry is ALWAYS on-going. There is ALWAYS more that can be done. There is ALWAYS one more phone call to make, one more step for a person you're working with to make, and one more hour to give to whatever necessary task. It is eternally endless.

And so we ministers feel immense pressure to measure up with the cultural value of accomplishment. And when we can't meet that imposed value on a day-to-day basis, we work ourselves to death & complain about it so that folks won't think us lazy. Moreover, we concern ourselves more with accomplishment-oriented tasks (e.g. sermon preparation) as opposed to other less accomplishment-oriented tasks (e.g. prayer... that is, unless it is part of a New Year's Resolution! Then we can justify it...) so that we will have something to show for our efforts.

And in the end, the urgent ebbs out the important.

I find this trend decidedly more culturally induced than Scripturally inspired. Even though Paul indeed accomplished a lot in his lifetime, we don't often hear of him setting tangible, measurable goals. This is a man who carried the Gospel from Judea perhaps as far as Spain in an age without planes, trains, or automobiles. He accomplished quite a bit. But he didn't set annual goals to plant x amount of churches in y amount of regions. Or to baptize z amount of disciples. In fact, his approach was maddeningly random. He would spend a couple weeks in one place, a few days in another place, 18 months in the next place -- the pattern wasn't driven by a spirit of accomplishment, but rather a Holy Spirit.

OK, here's where I'm going: the Scriptures witness to a faith that is emphasizes being over doing, but Christian leaders seem to get it so backwards. I often wonder how many of us professional ministers, who accomplish a lot, will try to plead with Jesus as he prophesied in the Gospel of Matthew: 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?'

In Philippians 3, Paul rejects the spirit of accomplishment. He rejects the tick marks of Jewish achievement for a faith where he says that he has not really achieved anything yet.

Do not mis-hear me. This is not a blog entry that wishes to excuse sloth. Nor am I trying to do away with 5-year plans, which are noble. I'm merely pointing to the unfaithfulness of venerating these values over & above the value of becoming. As my esteemed blogging buddy pointed out a month ago, our divine purpose has a lot to do with one of the more under-rated verses of the Bible: Romans 8:29...

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

If all our energies should be harnessed in any direction, we should focus those values of accomplishment & doing toward becoming. And I believe that includes activities that may not lead to immediate accomplishments or results: whether that is Bible study, prayer, or something else. If we ministers are going to be leaders of being counter-cultural, then it begins with us embracing becoming over accomplishment.

I'm not going to pretend to be paragon of virtue about this. I certainly don't pray or study my Bible as much as I'd be proud to admit. But I have begun in this new year to let go of undue anxiety to find peace in being & becoming that which God called me to be. Part of what that means is blogging more. In and of itself, blogging is in fact a hollow pursuit. But for me, it flexes my artistic muscles of writing -- a part of me that I find incredibly deficient. It serves to make me a better communicator as I try to become as good a preacher as God would have me be.

To tame the ferocity of the urgent, and to lead our congregation into counter-cultural modes of thinking, I think it means for us that we embrace the simple. Write. Pray. Read. Rest. Meditate. Memorize Scripture. Smell the roses. There are plenty of directions for us to go in, but one direction we need to turn away from is that spirit of accomplishment. To put Neale Pryor's favorite verse into different terms...

What good would it be for a man to accomplish everything but what God set out for him to become?


Lloyd said...

Well-written Phillip. As you point out, there is a very well-recognized (albeit superficial) dichotomy between laziness and holding the high score. I am woefully unwilling to be led by the Spirit so much of the time. I would do well to pursue my Master's goals rather than bury them to make room for my own.

Luke said...

If Michael Scott said it, there must be some truth behind it.

Carlos and Gina said...

You are right on the mark! There will always be a struggle between the urgent and the important and so many times Jesus has showed us which we should focus on. My prayer is that we may see Jesus clearly enough to flesh out Jesus style living and ministry.