“Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well.” Matthew 6: 33
A “Children’s Chat” that I saw in a worship service made a profound point about priorities. A pastor took a huge jar filled with big rocks, sand, sea shells and pebbles, and poured it out into a large container. But when he tried to put all of the elements back into the jar…they didn’t fit! The problem was that when he tried to put the sand, sea shells and pebbles in first…there was not enough room for the big rocks. The only way he could get everything in the jar was to put the big rocks in FIRST…and then the sand, sea shells, and pebbles all filled in around the big rocks.
The word “prior” comes from a Latin root word meaning “before” or, “taking precedence in date or position,” or “superior.” The pastor taught the children that God must be “prior” or “before” every other commitment in life. He explained to the children that the BIG ROCKS of life are: loving God, loving our family, loving ourselves, and loving our neighbors in the same way we love yourselves. If we put the big rocks of these primary relationships in the “jar of our lives” FIRST…then the smaller commitments of life will fill in around these big rocks.
Making God the highest priority of our lives is essential. However, it is challenging to put it into practice in a society filled with demands and distractions. This is why I am so drawn to the practical wisdom of pastor/ theologian Eugene Peterson who emphasizes the importance of the calendar in really living out our priorities. I find Peterson’s words to be life giving: “The trick is getting to the calendar before anyone else does. I mark out times for prayer, reading, sermon preparation and silent reflection before anything else. I find that when these central needs are met, there is plenty of time for everything else. And, there is much else to do…for the pastor is not exempt from the hundred menial tasks or the administrative humdrum. These also are pastoral ministry. But the only way I have found to accomplish them without resentment and anxiety is to first take care of the priorities. If there is no time to nourish the essentials, I become a busy pastor, harassed and anxious, a wining, compulsive Martha instead of a contemplative Mary. Years ago, I had back trouble that required physical therapy three times a week. No one minded that I wasn’t available for those hours. On the analogy of that experience, I regularly schedule appointments for myself to take care of the needs of my soul. One week, in addition to daily half hour conferences with St. Paul, my calendar reserved a two-hour block of time with Fydor Dostoevsky. My spirit needed that as much as my body needed a physical therapist. If no one is going to prescribe it for me, I will prescribe it for myself.”
Do you see why I love Eugene Peterson? Peterson was successful in making God the first priority of his life because he was intentional in putting God into his calendar PRIOR to everything else! The calendar makes all the difference. It’s true in every realm of life. I asked a friend of mine who is in terrific physical shape, how he does it? He replied, “I have made a commitment that the first thing I do at 6:00 every morning is 30 minutes of exercise on the treadmill. It is a non -negotiable. It is a PRIOR to everything else on my daily calendar…and it has become a habit. I don’t feel right if I don’t exercise! But, he said, if I exercised on the basis of how I feel…I would rarely do it.” That man put exercise PRIOR to other commitments. In the same way, citizens in Florida this week have put their safety, and the safety of their children from Hurricane Irma PRIOR to other commitments. What is a priority in your life and mine?
As I struggle to answer this question, I must tell you that I have been challenged to begin a new spiritual discipline by one of our Macedonian Ministry pastors. This pastor, from Birmingham, Alabama, challenged Adam Borneman and me to join him in a spiritual discipline of fasting every Tuesday morning as we pray for the formation of a new Birmingham MM Cohort. He specifically challenged us to give up breakfast on Tuesday mornings and to “fast and pray” that God will reveal the right people to join this new cohort. This new discipline is…extremely inconvenient! There is a part of me that HATES it! It is especially inconvenient when I am traveling for our ministry, or when I am at a conference and I skip breakfast while everyone else is eating! I would much rather be eating my usual breakfast of granola, fruit and yogurt, or raisin bran and milk…or even scrambled eggs and bacon! But, I must say… that this new discipline is a reminder that God is the source of ALL food and is PRIOR to everything else… even eating! Frankly, this discipline has brought me up short. It has reminded me that I often TALK about putting God first…but I rarely put God PRIOR to other things. This “inconvenient discipline” is forcing me to rearrange my priorities and to REALLY put the BIG ROCKS in the “jar of my life” FIRST! What would it take for all of us…to put God first?