It’s time for Country Parson to talk about religion, and this is a reflection on the discipline of daily prayer, but first let’s talk about things urgent and things important.
Things that appear urgent demand all our attention, but are often distractions from what is important. Genuine urgency requires immediate response, but not all things claiming urgency, are. Pretended urgency is especially demanding in our digital age when buzzing mobile devices announce texts, emails, and the occasional phone call that demand the right to interrupt everything else, and we fall for it. And it’s not just cell phones. I don’t watch much television, but my internet news feeds burst with breaking news every few minutes – almost all could wait for tomorrow’s newspaper. It isn’t important and it isn’t news driven, it’s market driven urgently urging us to look and see. Marketing or not, I’m not immune to the seductive call to drop everything and look anyway. It’s a character weakness I’m not proud of. Is it the pervasiveness of digital urgency that has encouraged a greater sense of unneeded urgency about real life decisions to speak and act? Could be.
Sometimes the urgent is important, but urgency and importance are not the same things, and I fear we too often forget that. Urgency entices us to make intemperate, precipitous decisions that are seldom the right ones. It puts us in the position of not taking time to do something right the first time, yet forced to take more time to do it over, correcting mistakes as we go, hoping for the best. When urgent matters are unimportant, mistakes can be unimportant too. When urgent matters are important, mistakes can cause real damage. Do overs are not always easy, and sometimes impossible. It’s especially true for interpersonal relations where once something is said or done, it cannot be taken back. When the something said or done breaks the bonds of trust, restoring them takes patient time and effort not easily given or received. The easier alternative is to burn bridges, build walls, and hide behind defensive perimeters. Taking the easy way is, well, easy.
Having spent many years working with first responders, I know that training, education, and building habits that are second nature are what enable them to enter incidents of great urgency and importance, yet take their time to make sound decisions and take right action. The discipline to slow down and do it right, in the face of urgent demands to hurry up and do something, does not come naturally. That's why it's a learned discipline.
Curiously, the same is true about prayer. It's a learned discipline that puts the urgent and important in their proper places. What could be more important than developing and maintaining a nourishing relationship with God? Don’t let the urgently unimportant get in the way. Take some time to be in deep conversation with God. Make it a daily discipline well insulated from demands to hurry up and do something. What should you pray for? Nothing. Does it require religiously approved special language? No. Can you speed through it because you’ve got a lot to do today? Sure, but it won’t do you any good.
What do I mean by conversation with God? I’ll compare it with my friend Tom who teaches philosophy, because philosophers tend to be treated as godlike when in the company of ordinary mortals. When I meet with him for coffee, I don’t start off with a list of requests for favors, demands to know what truth is, or burden him with fawning thanks for being a friend. We just talk about what’s going on in our lives. You do the same with your friends. OK, God is not a pal, a friend like that, but the principle holds. Just have a conversation about the things in your life that are important, or urgent, or both, or neither, and then be quiet. The phone can wait, the tablet can wait, the computer can wait, the television can wait. Coffee may be another matter, but the point is that starting the day in unhurried conversation with God will help set the tone for a healthier, less urgently driven life. And when real urgency arises, it will help give you the discipline to respond more wisely than you otherwise would.
My practice is to hold the conversation within the structure of the Morning Office as practiced in the Episcopal Church. For me, it’s an exercise in discipline that helps build second nature habits that make responding to daily events of urgency and importance more consistent with what I profess my faith to be. It helps me remember that the conversation I began early in the morning has not ended, but is still going on. It’s my practice. Yours may be different, but I hope you have one, and that it’s slow paced, ignoring urgent interruptions.