It was looking to be one of my busiest weeks in at least three months—one of those perfect storm things where an already-tight schedule is complicated by the seemingly un-providential/coincidental convergence of multiple meetings, projects, and appointments (both personal and professional), leaving you to wonder how/if you can possibly deal with everything on your plate.
In the midst of this, a friend of mine from overseas, whom I haven’t seen in over a year and who is currently stateside for a very short time, called to see if we might get together this week. “I’d love to,” I told him, “but it’s not possible. If we can’t work it out for early next week, then I’ll have to catch you next time.” There was just no space in the schedule.
I was already falling a good deal behind by mid-morning on Tuesday when my son’s day care called. He had a fever and was acting lethargic and clingy and they wondered if I wanted to come get him. Erin was in Grand Rapids for work and so, suddenly, my schedule cleared itself. I sped over and picked him up, scored some chocolate milk and cookies on the way home (mostly for Calvin), and settled in on the couch with him, where he alternately played with toy trains and soaked up TLC for the balance of the day.
Just after lunch, in a doomed-from-the-word-go attempt to salvage the work day, I lugged my PC (I don’t have a laptop) and 2-ton monitor down to the basement and fired it up while Calvin indulged in a couple episodes of Bob the Builder (spoiler alert: yes, we can fix it). But before I had so much as answered an e-mail or parsed a Hebrew verb, my little son was climbing up onto my lap, where he summarily fell asleep against my shoulder, snoring and drooling as I gently rocked him.
It was the best Tuesday I’ve had in a long time.
As I sat there, afraid to make any large movements lest I wake my sick child, I pondered how tricky priorities are. I’d just preached a message on the topic two days earlier, but right here on my lap was a living reminder of how we truly do have control over our own priorities and the way they play out in our lives (even though we might tell ourselves otherwise).
For instance, I had told my friend that I don’t have a spare hour this week, but with a single call about my son, I suddenly found more than six. We might tell a church or charity that we don’t have another dollar to spare, but if the car breaks down, we’re suddenly able to scare up a few hundred, simply by a forced shift in priorities. We might tell a co-worker that we lack the emotional energy needed to care for a pet at this point in our life (so please stop trying to give me one of your kittens), but if a spouse, child, or parent falls ill, emotional energy will suddenly be in record supply, at least for a time. The issue with the kitten is that it’s just not a priority.
The variables here seem to be willingness and intentionality. When I’m protecting my life’s status quo from a new element that is vying for a chunk of my time, money, or energy, I tell myself how impossible it would be to displace something else (anything else!) from its current rank in my life in order to accommodate these new items. Nine times out of ten, I don’t go to the trouble of evaluating each and every time-, energy-, and money-zapper in my life to see how each compares to the new prospect. And yet, when something significant happens, it becomes very easy to overturn old priorities. Compared with a basement filling with water or the chance to finally meet Eric Estrada, my formerly top priorities find themselves downgraded. And the only thing that has changed in such situations is my willingness to make the comparison and act on it.
I think this (our lack of willingness and intentionality) is why Christians often fall drastically short of our own expectations in the areas of prayer, Bible study, evangelism, tithing, and the like. We wish that we “had the time” or “had the money” to follow through in these things, but alas, our resources are all tied up. We don’t analyze what’s got them tied up and then compare the importance of these things with different elements of discipleship. Rather than being governed by our values, we usually just follow the inertia of the status quo. It might be laziness that keeps us from making needed changes or it might be workoholism. Either way, being intentional about our priorities (not just knowing what they are, or should be) is essential to being an effective disciple of Jesus Christ.
There’s a rather corny old illustration about time management (which also applies to most areas of stewardship) that I’ve come across about twenty times, and yet it always strikes a chord of truth with me:
An old professor was once addressing a group of top executives on the subject of time management. Rather than just give a lecture, he provided an object lesson by way of an experiment. Pulling out a large empty jar, he proceeded to place tennis ball-sized rocks into it until no more would fit. Turning to his audience, he asked, “Is the jar full?”
“Yes,” they replied.
Without a word, he reached under the podium and pulled out a box of pebbles, which he slowly poured into the jar. The pebbles fell into the cracks between the large rocks and, before long, almost the entire box of pebbles was in the jar, such that not one more would fit. Again he asked, “Is the jar full?”
Having caught on, the executives answered, “No!”
The professor smiled and produced a box of sand, which he very slowly poured into the jar, allowing it to fill in all the space between the large and small stones. He then surveyed the crowd and asked, “Now, what is the point of all this?”
One man in the audience raised his hand and suggested, “You’re telling us that, no matter how full our schedules may seem, we can always fit in more client meetings, more phone calls, more staff training, etc. if we fill in the cracks.”
“Wrong,” said the old professor. “The point is that, if we don’t put the big stones in first, we will never be able to fit them in later.”
We all have our “big stones” in our lives—those things that we would identify as top priorities if asked to list them out. Family, health, maybe time with friends. For the Christian, these should include time in prayer, time in the Word, service in the Kingdom, financially supporting missions and ministry. And yet, because we are not intentional about putting them in the jar first, we find that the pebbles and sand of life too often crowd them out.
Television or mindless Internet screen-sucking can steal an evening and give you nothing back in return, and yet we might tell ourselves that we don’t “have time” for personal devotions or exercise or a Bible study group or whatever the big rock is. “I’m only giving 2% to the local church and missions, but I’m stretched as far as I can go,” one might say, even while the sand of satellite TV and web-enabled smart phone payments, along with the pebbles of payemnts on two brand new cars and countless meals out are poured in first, leaving no room for the rocks that we wish marked our lives.
Although God’s resources are infinite, he’s entrusted each of us with only so much time, so much energy, so much material wealth. Stewardship means looking at that finite jar and putting in the big rocks first. I find that I’m continually working on this, re-building my schedule and priorities from the ground up. This sometimes frustrates me, but I suppose it’s better than the alternative. I pray that I’m getting closer and closer to a life that seeks first the Kingdom of Heaven and trusts God to provide the rest—a life where the big stones are placed in the jar before the sands of life fill in every little crack.
And while nobody is perfect, I’d love to reach the level of Martin Luther who used to (unironically) say, “I have so very many things to do today that I can’t afford to spend less than three hours in prayer this morning.” May the priorities of the Kingdom be the biggest rocks in our lives, and may we place them firmly and firstly on the Rock of Jesus Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria,