Taking Care of the Big Stuff

Stephen Covey tells a great story that demonstrates the importance of keeping priorities straight. He saw it at a seminar:

The leader showed the audience an empty wide-mouthed gallon jar, then put as many rocks in the jar as would fit.

He asked the crowd, “Is this container full?”

Of course, everyone said, “Yes.”

The leader smiled, then poured some gravel into the jar, filling the crevices between the rocks. He asked again, “Is it full?”

The crowd was beginning to catch on; most of them said, “Probably not.”

Next he poured some sand it into the jar. “Now is it full?” he asked.

They had learned the lesson. In unison they shouted, “No!” And they were right; he then filled the jar with water.

Afterwards the seminar leader asked, “What’s the point here?”

Someone said, “Well, there are gaps, and if you really work at it, you can always fit more in your life.”

The seminar leader said, “That’s not the point! The point is this: If you hadn’t put these big rocks in first, you never would have gotten them in!”

He’s saying: Make sure you do the big stuff first.

It’s a habit we all need to develop. We’re tempted to tend to the nagging little details first, hoping to get them out of the way so we can focus on job one. The problem, however, is that the nagging little details never completely go away. They keep coming back, and there’s always a couple more on the way.

It’s best to learn to ignore them (for now) and direct your attention to that which really matters.

So, what really matters? This is something we each must define individually. But here’s a clue. Jesus said that the list begins with your relationship to God and his purpose for your life.

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33)

We often spend our days seeking sand and gravel and water, but they’re just filler. The big stuff needs to be done first.

Think about it. What’s your top priority? How will you tend to it today?

Today’s memo first published at Preaching Library.

living with focus

One Fully Focused Day

George Orwell said this about living with focus: “To see what is front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

It’s so easy — much too easy — to find ourselves perpetually distracted, constantly diverting our gaze from what is necessary now, staring instead at that which barely matters at all.

By nature, we all have a short attention span, and our peripheral vision often works more like a telescope. Maintaining eyes-in-front is a never-ending battle.

King Solomon gave us this guideline to follow:

Let your eyes look straight ahead, and fix your gaze directly before you. (Proverbs 4:25)

How might we put this into practice?

Make this day about one thing, and one thing alone.

That goes for this day, and each new day to come.

Every morning, bright and early, we can declare out loud: “If nothing else gets done today, this one thing gets done. And if this one thing gets done, today counts as a win.”

This “one thing” could be almost anything:

– A conversation to make.
– A task to complete.
– It could be the first step of a project you’ve been putting off.
– Or the final step of a project that’s been dragging on.
– It could be to avoid a very old bad habit.
– Or to pursue a brand new good habit.
– It could be to put in a full day’s work.
– It could be to get a good night’s sleep.
– This “one thing” could even be to cross off all the items on a list.

The objective is that we live this day — and every day — with intention. With a sense of direction. With a steadfast focus on what matters most.

Not tending to everything all at once may seem, at first, almost lazy. There’s something about feeling frazzled that lets us think we’re at least moving in the right direction.

But frazzled rarely gets the job done.

No doubt, for all of us, we have much to keep us busy, and there’s still so much do.

Surely we’ll get there … one fully focused day at a time.

Ecclesiastes 11:4

Waiting for Perfect Conditions

Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap. (Ecclesiastes 11:4)

When a farmer anticipates a windy day, he may need to put off planting seeds; otherwise the gusts could scatter them away before they work their way into the earth.

And when a farmer anticipates rain during the harvest, he puts off cutting wheat or oats; if the grain gets wet it could be ruined.

In everything, farmers need to exercise a little caution.

Exercise too much caution, however, and your seeds will never get planted and your harvest will never come in.

The Living Bible says it this way: “If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done.” (Ecclesiastes 11:4 TLB)

If you need to begin a new project or start a new diet or launch a new ministry or make some big change in your life, don’t wait for the perfect conditions to come along. You’ll end up waiting forever.

Instead, seize the perfect moment — this moment — and take the first step in moving forward.

Bright Monday

This Changes Everything Monday

Another Easter is in the books.

Many of us observed the specially named days last week, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. And no doubt we all celebrated Easter yesterday, which is now often called Resurrection Sunday.

But what about today? The Monday after Easter? What do we call it?

Back-to-Business-as-Usual Monday?

I don’t think so. Not if we believe the message we heard yesterday.

Jesus’ closest followers spent Resurrection Sunday trying to fully absorb what they had just seen and heard. As in: Could it really be true? And if it is, what then?

By Monday, they were making plans and moving forward. Cautiously, perhaps, because some uncertainties had yet to be resolved. But they were moving forward nonetheless, making decisions based on the breaking news: Jesus is alive, and this changes everything.

Maybe that’s what we could call today: This Changes Everything Monday. The truth of the resurrection means that we factor the reality of the Risen Christ into every plan, every detail, every activity.

The Eastern tradition, by the way, calls this day Bright Monday. The entire week is called Bright Week, or Renewal Week. It’s a seven day celebration of the Resurrection of Christ.

What a great idea.

Instead of putting Easter behind us and turning our attention to the next activity, maybe we could spend these days focused on making each and every decision based on this powerful truth:

Jesus is alive… and the same Spirit that raised him from the dead is now living in us… and through his power we are made to be more than conquerors. (Romans 8)

How does this reality affect our plans?

It changes everything.

Easter 2023 may be in the books, but it’s not behind us, and it never will be. The impact of this powerful day has just begun.

Change Your Course

This story, which has certainly made the rounds, reminds of a truth taught in Deuteronomy 30.

As a ship approached the coast of New England, a heavy fog set in. The ship’s radar detected what appeared to be another vessel in its path, so the captain sent the following message: “Change your course 10 degrees port.” (Landlubbers, that’s to the left.)

Shortly they received a reply: “Change your course 10 degree starboard.” (To the right.)

The captain became annoyed and said: “I am a Lt. Commander of the U.S. Navy. Change your course.”

This was the response: “I am a seaman 3rd class. Change your course.”

By now the captain was furious. His next message read: “This is a battleship! Change your course.”

Moments later a message came across the wire that said: “This is a Lighthouse! Change Your Course!”

There are certain laws at work in the universe, and no amount of power, or money, or influence can change them. These laws are God’s laws. He designed them to work for us, not against us.

In order for this to happen, we sometimes have to change our course. His laws don’t change; we must change.

When we try to find happiness, fulfillment, and meaning in life through any method other than a personal relationship with God, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We can change our course at anytime. We can choose life over death; we can choose spiritual blessings over self-destruction.

God doesn’t change his course to accommodate us, but if we are willing to change our course, to chart the path of our lives in his direction, he will to open his arms wide to receive us, and will shower us with blessings from heaven.

These are his words…

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live, and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life…” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

First Things First

Taking Care of Business

The principle of first things first. The best leaders live by it.

Thomas Carlyle said, “Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.”

Vision is essential to leadership, as is seeing the big picture—no doubt about it. But great leaders also have the ability to see and do what is necessary today.

Solomon said it as simply as it can be said: Develop your business first before building your house. (Proverbs 24:27)

This is what great leaders do. Where many flounder week to week, effective leaders make sure that, before anything else, top business gets done each day.

And they do this every day.

What’s your business? I mean your real business? What matters most to you? Is there anything on your agenda today that reflects this priority?

Long term vision is great, but we also need to make a habit of taking care of today’s business today.

How would you complete these two sentences?

1. My real business is __________.

2. I will develop it today by doing this: _______________.

If your real business is following Jesus, then do something today that makes you more like him. Give. Love. Serve. Forgive. Show mercy.

This is where the first things first way of life begins. Develop your business (your real business) first, before doing anything else.

This memo is taken from Steve’s book, It’s All in the Dailies.

Martin Luther King

Life’s Most Persistent Question

Of the many Martin Luther King quotes that bear repeating, one of my favorites is:

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”

Service is built-in to our job description, not only as pastors and missionaries and ministry leaders, but also as believers. One’s ministry — and ultimately, one’s life — will be measured by how this question is answered.

“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)

As America pauses today to remember an influential leader, let’s consider this persistent and urgent question: What will I do today to serve others in the name of Jesus Christ?

This memo is taken from Steve’s book, It’s All in the Dailies.

Two can stand back to back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple braided cord is not easily broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:12)

It Takes Two

John Maxwell tells a story about a young boy selling pencils door-to-door in his neighborhood for a nickel apiece.

A prospective buyer asks what he plans to do with the money.

He says, “I’m planning to raise a million dollars to help build a new hospital.”

“That’s a big job for just one boy, isn’t it?” the buyer asks.

“It’s not so hard,” the boy says. “I’ve got a friend helping me.”

It’s amazing how much smaller even the biggest tasks become with someone beside you.

Too many times we try to tackle each task alone and try to solve every problem on our own, which ultimately makes us vulnerable to discouragement and defeat.

When you accepted the call to ministry, or even the call to discipleship, you took on an enormous job. You can’t do it alone. It takes two, at least, and often more. You need others to help you get the job done.

I challenge you this week to consider a few ideas.

• Take some time to identify your teammates. In each project, think about their role and your role, how you complement one another, and how you can build on one another’s strengths.

Focus on what’s right about the partnership, rather than what’s wrong.

• Take some time to identify your problem-solvers. In the areas where you struggle — personal, spiritual, career, ministry — ask yourself, “Who can I bring in to help make this better?” Whatever you’re trying to accomplish, working with someone will get you there faster.

• At the same time, look for a chance to lend a hand. Is there someone you know in the midst of a massive pencil selling campaign? Maybe you can pitch in long enough to help them bring their project to the finish line.

Solomon makes reference to this in Ecclesiastes. He talks about how futile it is to work alone. And then he says…

Two people can accomplish more than twice as much as one; they get a better return for their labor. (Ecclesiastes 4:9)

More importantly, Solomon reminds us that working with a team helps one bounce back more quickly from defeat.

If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But people who are alone when they fall are in real trouble. (Ecclesiastes 4:10)

Solomon finishes the thought by saying…

Two can stand back to back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple braided cord is not easily broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:12)

Do you want to get better, faster? Bring on a partner. Or two or three. See how much more quickly you move down the road of progress.

Too Soon to Quit

Too Soon To Quit

B.C. Forbes said, “History has demonstrated that the most notable winners usually encountered heartbreaking obstacles before they triumphed. They won because they refused to become discouraged by their defeats.”

Or, as Norman Vincent Peale used to say, “It’s always too soon to quit.”

This is why Paul encouraged us…

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9)

The “proper time” sometimes takes a little longer to arrive than we like … until it feels like it will never arrive. This is when it’s time to engage your faith. It’s time to decide to dig in and stick around a little longer.

It’s never a good time to give up.

The Christian life — and more specifically, the ministry — consists of overcoming one setback after another. That’s because we’re in a spiritual battle and everyday we confront the enemy.

We may lose a little ground from time to time, but we will not lose the war. We have been promised victory:  a harvest of righteousness, if we’ll only keep pressing on.

It’s always too soon to quit.

A Rut or a Routine

On a rugged wilderness highway, there’s a warning sign that says…

“Choose your rut carefully. You’ll be in it for the next 50 miles.”

Though I’m not fond of the word rut, this is actually good advice for life, but it would be better to say: “Choose your routine carefully. You’ll be tied to it a while. It determines your future, so make sure you’re ready for it.”

People often refer to the daily routine as a negative thing, as if it’s something you need to break in order to fully live.

But what if your daily routine was designed to make your life everything you’ve dreamed it could be? Wouldn’t this be a routine worth living for?

King David said, “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12 ESV)

Another way to say it: “Help us understand that life is short. What we do every day really matters.”

Our challenge is to organize our days in such a way, to create a routine that includes time for everything important.

Stephen Covey said it this way: “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

Take a look at today’s to-do list. It will lead you either somewhere good, or nowhere good. It depends on whether you’ve chosen a rut or a routine.

Giving Your All Two Bits at a Time

Today’s post is an adapted, paraphrased version of an illustration Fred Craddock often used to explain what it means to give your life fully to Christ.

We think giving our all to God is like dropping a one thousand-dollar bill in the offering plate, as if to say: “Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all.”

The reality is more like the Lord sending us to the bank and having us exchange the $1000 bill for 4000 quarters.

And then we go through life giving away 25 cents here and 50 cents there, in his service.

Like when we help a neighbor in need. Or minister to someone who is lonely. Or offer a word of encouragement. Or prepare a meal for a friend. Or serve on a committee at church.

Giving your all to God isn’t as flashy as one might think. It’s done in all these little acts of love, 25 cents at at time.

It would be comparatively easy to go out in a flash of glory. Much more difficult is to live the Christian life little-by-little over the long haul, two-bits at a time.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)

The One Digging the Well

An ancient Eastern proverb says, “Those who drink the water must remember who dug the well.”

In every area, our lives are made lighter through the efforts of others.

Take a look around. Everything you see is a call for gratitude: The house you live in, the clothes you wear, your table, your chair, your bed. Someone dug the well, so to speak, to make these available.

There were also those who taught you in school, and Sunday School. Who told you about Jesus, who volunteered for VBS and, later, youth camps and retreats. Who prayed for you, who encouraged you along the way … they were digging the well, and they deserve your gratitude.

Our job, then, is to remember to remember those who put the well in its place, to say thank you in person when we can, and to say thank you to God for bringing this person our way.

And our job goes just a little bit further.

We need to be digging wells of our own, in service to others. It’s a simple step to ask ourselves throughout the day: Who, besides me, will benefit from what I am doing right now?

During his second and third missionary journeys, the apostle Paul “dug a well” in Ephesus: planting a church, leading people to Christ, training leaders.

And yet, it is he who expressed gratitude to them…

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers… (Ephesians 1:16)

Our work involves digging wells that will last for eternity. Let’s tend to the task in a spirit of gratitude — thankful for those we serve, and thankful for those who have played a role in guiding us along the way.