First Things First…

One great thing about celebrating the new year (other than the fact that it’s no longer 2020) is that every new year provides the opportunity to reassess and reprioritize those things in life that matter most. A new year provides a new opportunity to get right that which may not have been so right in the past. Every new year I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5: 17– “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

Hoping not to squander the opportunity the new year affords to begin again, it is helpful for me to reflect on the priorities of my life. When I think about priorities I can help but consider what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? 28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6: 25 – 34, NIV)

I am reminded that life is not so much about priorities, but about a priority, and that priority is to know God in all His fulness. Every other element of life will reorder itself around that priority and enable us to determine what is important.

Person

Because THE priority in life is to know God in all His fulness, it reminds me that I am first a person. I am a person made in the image of God, and if I am to experience the best that life has to offer, I must first and foremost nurture my relationship with Christ. My relationship to Christ is the most important relationship in my life. My personhood, my sanity, my success at any other endeavor depends upon how faithfully that relationship is maintained and allowed to grow.

It was Blaise Pascal, who in his seminal work Pensees, wrote, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

One of the ways I seek to fill this “infinite abyss” with God Himself is through the practice of writing a blog. It used to be called journaling back in the pre-internet days. Oh, I still journal. There are some things that are much too intimate to share on the internet, and there are moments that it’s as if I hear the Lord say, “Let’s keep this between you and me.” Journaling/blogging is one of the ways I pray, and prayer is the essential discipline by which we may know Christ and are known by Him.

Journaling as an exercise in prayer doesn’t work for everyone, but everyone must pray. I encourage you to find the way that best fits your personality so that you might nurture your relationship with Jesus. In this tech world in which we live, rather than allowing our smartphone to be a distraction, why not use it to help us learn to pray? Try loading a prayer app (here are twelve suggestions) on your phone as the new year begins.

You and I will never be our best without first deepening our relationship with the Lord. Seeking the Kingdom begins there, or it begins not at all.

Partner

Following closely behind my own personhood is the priority I define in being a partner in life with Vanessa. 2021 will mark 40 years of marriage for she and I, and behind my relationship with Jesus, this is the most important relationship of my life. This is as it should be since it is the relationship of a husband and wife that the Lord has chosen to demonstrate the relationship He has with His Church (Ephesians 5: 21 – 33). If the world will know how much Christ loves the Church, it will be because husbands and wives exhibit sacrificial, serving love toward one another. Might I suggest the world hasn’t seen quite enough of that in a long, long time.

That’s certainly not meant as a pat on the back to Vanessa and me. The Lord knows she’s endured a lot being married to me, for you see, I’ve not been the perfect husband, but we have been intentional in having date nights and sharing afternoon coffee together and praying together daily. Each of those activities nurture intimacy that allows the relationship to grow.

For the married folks among us, I challenge you to define ways in which you might give yourself more fully to deepening your relationship with your spouse. Plan a monthly date night. Plan a romantic weekend getaway once a year. Here’s a suggestion that will test the mettle of your relationship–do a family budget together (if you don’t already). More divorces occur because of fights about money than any other issue, but by planning a family budget together, you’ll open lines of communication that may not have been opened in years.

For the single folks who may be reading, may I encourage you to offer yourself and your time in service to the Lord and His church? That might be the very gift you have to give that brings you the most joy in life, and until such time as you feel led to marry (if ever), you can consider that Christ is your spouse.

Parent

Behind the relationship I have with Vanessa as a partner is my relationship with my children as a parent (and now a grandparent). May I encourage you to take a lesson from an old man who didn’t do things quite correctly the first time? I was a second-career pastor, and as such, always felt like I was behind my peers in the pursuit of ministry (and education and position), so that feeling only stoked my competitive nature to “catch up” on all that I was behind on. I needed to “get ahead” and be “successful” in ministry. That mentality led me to a season of pastoral burnout, and it also led me to neglect my children in the process. Those are years I can’t get back. I can only be intentional now in deepening those all too important relationships.

Oh, and grandchildren! If I had known grandchildren were going to be so much fun, I would have skipped the children and went straight to grandchildren. Okay, not really! But, if I had known grandchildren were this much fun, I’d have been nicer to their parents!

Seriously, though, these relationships are so vitally important because they are the means whereby we pass on the faith once entrusted to us. Seeking first the Kingdom of God is to nurture our children (and grandchildren) in the fear and the admonition of the Lord. When we, as Wesleyans, bring our children forward for baptism, we vow that by our teaching and example we will guide our children to accept God’s grace for themselves and to profess their faith openly and to lead a Christian life. We cannot expect the Church to do for our children (and grandchildren) what we are not doing for them at home.

Pastor

Finally, I order my life around my relationship as pastor to many. I am blessed to pastor a wonderful small group of people in The House Church Movement. We are a small group of folks who are intentionally seeking to live as deeper disciples of Jesus Christ, exploring a model that is rooted deeply in the New Testament and the early church.

The truth I have discovered over 30 years of vocational ministry is that I cannot be an effective pastor if I have neglected the other primary relationships in my life. I can’t be with them until I’ve been with Him. I can’t effectively share with a congregation what I have not personally experienced myself, and if those in a congregation are to know the love and power of God, it will be because I have experienced it in my own life, and am sharing out of an overflowing cup.

Congregations, give your pastors time away to be with the Lord. You’ll be the better for it. Give your pastors time away to be with their families. You’ll be the better for it. Insist your pastor takes his/her day off. Insist your pastor takes his/her vacation. Budget spiritual growth opportunities in the pastoral compensation package of the pastor. You’ll be the better for it. Give the pastor a love offering to take his/her family on vacation. You’ll be the better for it, AND you’ll be seeking the Kingdom of God first.

Author Stephen Covey wrote a fantastic book entitled The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit #3 is “Put first things first.” In essence, this habit is about taking all the abstract beliefs and ideas we say we have and making them practical by ordering our lives around them. Saying that we seek the Kingdom of God first is an abstract. How we order our lives makes seeking the Kingdom concrete.

Covey would flesh out habit #3 in a follow up book entitled First Things First. In that book, Covey introduced the analogy of the rocks and jars (click here to watch the video) in which a person has a pile of sand and small rocks, a pile of big rocks, and a jar into which you must put both piles. The person filled the jar first with the sand/small rocks and discovered that they took up so much space that they ultimately didn’t have room for the big rocks. They discovered instead to first fill the jar with big rocks, and then put in the sand and small rocks; the sediment will settle in the cracks of the big rocks, allowing everything to fit in from both piles.

To seek the Kingdom of God first means we put that big, big rock in the jar first, and then everything else will fit in around it. As a person, as a partner, as a parent and as a pastor, my life must be ordered around the priority of the Kingdom.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t other important parts of life. In the first century agrarian economy in which Jesus spoke the words above in the Sermon on the Mount, his listeners were deeply concerned with having their daily needs met. It (literally) was a matter of life and death. They didn’t have the Wal-Mart to run down to everyday to get dinner. Yet, Jesus could tell them, just as he tells us that our first priority in a Kingdom economy is to seek Him, and He will insure all of life’s needs are met.

So, that leaves only one question: How will you order your lives? Let me encourage you to put first things first.

Until next time, keep looking up…

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