Some things that occupy us are both urgent and important—things like a medical emergency. Those are the things we will definitely spend time on.
Other things may be urgent, but not really important. My e-mail mostly falls into this category. Urgent but not particularly important things tend to eat up a lot of our time and energy.
Still other things are neither urgent nor important. This is what we do to kill time. I spend a lot of time on Sudoku puzzles. I enjoy them, but Sudoku is not important, and it is certainly not urgent.
But the trickiest category is things that are important, but are not urgent. They matter, but we do not necessarily need to take care of them right away.
When I was in my thirties, I exercised all the time. I exercised enough that it did not matter if I missed a day every once in a while. I could miss a day and still be fit. Exercise is important, but for me at that time it was not urgent.
In America today, most people spend a lot of time on things that feel urgent. Technology is part of the reason. There is virtually no minute of the day or night when I might not be doing work or responding to a message. As a result, I am constantly a little behind, which means lots of things feel urgent, whether or not they are particularly important.
And, for many of us, when we get a break from all that urgency, we relax with things that are neither important nor urgent—things like Sudoku.
What tends to get neglected is that fourth category—things that are important but that are not urgent. Many of us do not spend enough time on exercise, or with family and friends, or with God. We are too busy with other things, things that feel more urgent or else things that we do to kill time.
The result is a life out of balance, a life that does not reflect our priorities. A newspaper article I read recently called this a “misalignment.” The author of the article cited a study in which a group of women were asked about what gave them satisfaction and how they spent their free time. A lot of time is not free. We all have things we have to do. The study was not about that. The question was about how they spent their free time. And how these women spent their free time did not align with their priorities.
As a group, they claimed to get more satisfaction from prayer and worship than from television, but they spent on average five times more hours each week watching television.
They are typical. Many of us spend much of our time—our free time—on things that are not important to us, things that do not give us any real satisfaction. The problem is not that we waste time. Many of us are remarkably efficient. The problem is that we neglect the important but non-urgent things that give us the most genuine satisfaction.
The result of this misalignment between our priorities and how we spend our time is a life that feels meaningless. And then we get into a vicious circle. When we spend a disproportionate amount of our time doing things that do not provide us genuine satisfaction, and not enough time doing things that do, we get depressed. And being depressed makes us more inclined to kill time than to fill our time in meaningful ways. That makes us more depressed. And so on.
My article suggested a counter-intuitive remedy. It is in the title. “Be Happy: Think about Your Death.”
The title is supposed to be funny, but the point is serious. Pausing to reflect on our mortality reminds us that our time is limited. When we recall that our time is a precious and limited gift from God, we are less inclined to squander it. We are more inclined to focus on the things that matter.
That is the message of Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that we are dust, and to dust we will return. And that is a reminder to use our precious and limited time wisely.
For most of us, that will still include some television and various others ways to relax while killing a little time. But it should also include those things that are important but that may not seem particularly urgent on any single day.
The invitation to a holy Lent outlines how we might go about the process of re-aligning our lives over the next several weeks. In broad terms, there are three steps.
The first is self-examination and repentance. That is an invitation to reflect on the misalignment in our lives, to think about the things we do that may not be bad in themselves but that distract us from what matters most, to acknowledge to ourselves how we too often fill our time without filling our lives. That is the first step.
Next comes fasting and self-denial. The goal of fasting and self-denial is not to give up pleasure because pleasure is bad. The goal is to give up—at least temporarily—things that distract us from what really matters. The goal is to turn away from the meaningless and towards the meaningful.
So I am giving up Sudoku. It is a small act of self-denial. It is also dropping one of those time-consuming things that is neither urgent nor important so that I will have a little more time for the things that give me deeper satisfaction. I will miss Sudoku during Lent. I will take Sudoku up again come Easter. But in the meantime, my life will be richer, not poorer, for this bit of self-denial.
Finally, the invitation to a holy Lent suggests a couple of constructive ways we might use our freed-up time and energy. We are invited to pray and to read and meditate on God’s Holy Word.
Prayer and Bible study are meaningful. I will say more about the value of prayer next Sunday. But even prayer and Bible study are means to an end rather than ends in themselves. We pray and we read the Bible so that we can learn to know God a little better. In the final analysis, it is God who makes our lives meaningful, God who fills our lives with love and joy, God who makes it all worthwhile.
Whatever distracts us from God is, ultimately, self-destructive. Whatever brings us closer to God is, ultimately, the most important and fulfilling thing we can do. And so we remember that we are but dust. We turn away from the distractions. We turn to God. That is what it means to have a holy Lent. And that is good news indeed.
My prayer for us all is that we will have a truly holy Lent, that we will grow closer to God over the next several weeks, and that we will know the peace and the joy that truly surpasses understanding.
In Christ’s name. Amen.