Truly Important or Merely Urgent

By Elton Lord [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In a speech before the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said these now famous words: “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”[1] Just a look at Eisenhower’s resumé reveals that he had many so-called “problems” – many important and urgent things that came his way. During WWII, Eisenhower served as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe. Later he became the president of Columbia University and then served as the first Supreme Commander of NATO. And, of course, he stood before the World Council of Churches in 1954 as President of the United States, a position he would hold for eight years. I think it’s safe to say that Dwight Eisenhower knew what it was like to have more things to do than time in which to do them.

The way that Eisenhower prioritized the things on his “to-do list” has become known as the Eisenhower Principle. According to the Eisenhower Principle, tasks are prioritized according to importance and urgency. First, do those things that are both important and urgent – those things that help us achieve the goals we have set for our life. Second, move on to the things that are important but not necessarily urgent – do those things now if time permits or schedule them so that they will not be left undone. Third, there are those things that are urgent but not important – we are encouraged to delegate or leave for last things in this category. Finally, those things which are both unimportant and non-urgent can be left undone – they are distractions, and it is OK to say “no” to them.

I am drawn to Eisenhower’s Matrix because I know from experience, and probably you do, too, that it is so incredibly easy to get caught up in urgent things and, in the meantime, to let important things slip through the cracks. I couldn’t help but think of this as I read the scriptures for today.

Mark is the master of urgency. More than any of the other gospels, the gospel of Mark has a momentum that propels the reader forward.  Action follows action with rapidity; the Greek word translated as “immediately” or “straight away” occurs at least forty times in the gospel of Mark.  We see it twice in today’s reading alone.  Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee and sees Simon and Andrew casting their net, and he calls out to them:  “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  And immediately they left their nets and followed him.  Jesus then sees James and John who are in the boat with their father Zebedee.  Immediately Jesus calls to them, and they leave not only their nets but their father, too.  No time to tell their mother good-bye, or to pack a bag, or to sleep on this big decision overnight, or to ask if there’s a training course for new disciples. They recognize both the importance and urgency of this invitation from Jesus.[2]

In today’s passage from the book of Jonah, Jonah reluctantly walks across the great city of Nineveh proclaiming the word of God: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Such an earth-shattering proclamation that the people don’t wait until day 39 to repent; instead, they respond immediately – they all put on sackcloth, begin to fast, and repent.

Both the disciples and the people of Nineveh experience the call of God and they respond. I’m sure they have plenty of other things that needed doing, things pulling them in a hundred different directions. Perhaps Simon, Andrew, James, and John have taxes due that week, or nets to be mended,  or a quota of fish not yet caught. Some of the people of Nineveh might be in the middle of a pressing errand, or leaving for a scheduled trip, or rushing home to check on food left cooking in the crockpot. Their minds may be filled with a million things they need to do. So, it not just the urgency of Jesus’ call that causes the disciples to follow Jesus, and it’s not just the urgency of Jonah’s proclamation that causes the Ninevites to repent – I’m sure that they have many things to do that are “urgent.” Somehow they recognize that this moment is not just urgent but also important; they recognize that what they do or don’t do will change their lives forever.

In a world where time is such a valuable commodity, it can be incredibly difficult to distinguish between that which is truly important and that which is merely urgent. We are all bombarded with urgent things – with deadlines and due dates and time-limited offers. From expiration dates on coupons, to continuing education deadlines at work, to desperately ill loved ones – so many things are time-sensitive. We have to discern what really matters, because otherwise It is all too easy to get distracted by the merely urgent things and to allow the truly important things to pass by almost unnoticed.

Truth be told, it can be all too easy not to respond when the gospel interrupts our lives unexpectedly. That’s the nature of all epiphanies, gospel moments included – they occur suddenly and unexpectedly. Sometimes they come at inconvenient times – like someone stopping by the church for help fifteen minutes before a service is scheduled to start. Sometimes they come when we feel least like our Christian selves – like when a person whips into the checkout line in front of us with a cart full of groceries and then ends up being a few dollars short. Sometimes they come with a cost – like it did for Emmanuel Mensah who died saving people from his burning apartment building in the Bronx. And sometimes they come with a flash of joy – like the inviting smile of a friend, or the pink hues of a sunset that stops you in your tracks. These epiphanies – these gospels moments – are the moments that remind us what it is that we are really here for; they call us to God’s dream for the world and God’s dream for our own lives.

So in this season of Epiphany, don’t let the truly important things pass by unrecognized. Amid all the merely urgent things, make space to hear the call of Jesus when it comes.

 

[1] According to the online article Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle, Eisenhower was actually quoting Dr. J. Roscoe Miller, president of Northwestern University, when he said this. MindTools website, https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_91.htm.

[2] When we think of Jesus calling the disciples, we tend to picture only men – because, after all, that’s what we read about in the gospels. The stories in scripture of people leaving everything they have and following Jesus almost always are about men. But we know that’s not the whole story. When Mark gets to the crucifixion scene, he writes about the women who were looking on from a distance – Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome – saying: “These used to follow [Jesus] and provided for him when he was in Galilee, and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem” (Mark 15:40-41, NRSV).