Eugene Peterson, A Presbyterian minister who gave us The Message translation of the Bible, observed that overall our lives should have an integrity about them, integrated so that in spite of our distractions, we must never forget nor overlook the critical work of our soul and heart. Thomas Moore in his book Care for the Soul suggests,
“If you watch your life carefully, you will discover that we hardly ever live from within, instead we respond to the noise and excitement around us. We live by reaction. We are completely empty when we do not act from within ourselves but accept as our life a life, which is actually fed from the outside. We are used to things happening which compel us to do other things.”
Many of us live with the “But first” philosophy of life. I plan to do that, but first, there is an abundance of other things that I need/want to do first. How do we decide what is first in our minds, our calendars, in our prioritization of life? There is a scene from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in which the whaleboat is being rowed through rough seas. Wind and salt spray as they chase the great white. Sailors are laboring fiercely: rowing with everyone in the boat focused on the larger task of catching and harpooning the Great White, Moby Dick. The morally outraged and deranged Captain Ahab shouts encouragement to his men to row faster, then he threatens and berates them. Yet in the front of the boat is one who does nothing. He sits without an oar, no matter how much the captain yells and no matter how much the others may need help not even breaking a sweat. In fact, he is completely silent, with all the crashing around him. This man is the harpooner, quiet, poised, waiting. Melville writes, “To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, not out of toil.” The harpooner knows who he is, what is essential and what is not. He does not get entangled in what would get in the way of what is important. Remember what/who holds you and stay there, waiting, watching, listening. Avoid the belief that we can/must do something to reverse the destruction in our soul and spirits. Nothing in our bag of tricks will reverse driving off the cliff of our own creation. What will it take for us to call into question how we decide our priorities and whether we live with a “But, first…” mantra? When our lives are centered around externals and distractions, rather than toward the things that provide serenity and purpose, we can live lives without depth and without spiritual accomplishments. That was exactly the nature of the story as Jesus neared the end of his life and ministry and either approached or was approached by 3 persons that he invited to consider what constitutes life’s greatest priorities vs. life’s distractions.
Jesus, in today’s gospel found himself at a time for his ministry to end. He encountered a group of people who outwardly appeared to be on board with what he was trying to do, but their commitment level was truly suspect. They at least offered their support, “I’m with what you are doing here. Consider me in.” They seem enthusiastic and ready to sign on the dotted line. Volunteer #1 is the first in Jesus’ ministry to actually volunteer without being asked. But Jesus sees through his offer. Perhaps it is how he keeps looking over his shoulder at something invisible behind him. His commitment seems rather thin. Jesus’ challenges him for his insincerity and he is gone before the ink dries. Obviously, what the man indicated verbally as his priority was in fact not his priority after all. Two others followed the first with similar hesitancies. Gentleman #2 was the only one of the 3 who did not volunteer. When Jesus asked him to consider serving him, he hesitated, looked over his shoulder and stuttered. Errr, Uhhh. Sure, but I must first go bury my father. His father had not just died so he would not have needed to plan a funeral for him at that particular time. He referred to what was the most basic responsibility of a son. That was to care for a parent in his/her old age and assure an honourable burial. Since his father was not even deceased, his “yes, but” had a significant time delay button before he would ever be able to honour his commitment. Strike 2. Finally, the 3rd stepped across the line and pledged to go and serve, but hesitancy led him back to “but first, I must go and bid farewell.” A “But, first” manner of living life centers life around externals – around distractions that lead us around by the nose, pulling us in every direction at the whim of whatever it is that is shiny that calls to us. Jesus invited these 3 and each of us to a deeper core in which our lives are centered around and decided not by externals but by a depth of commitment to something/someone external. These 3 individuals present reasonable “but firsts” related to home and family responsibilities that any and all of us would claim, but in actuality their hesitancy reveals their priorities indicate lives that are ordered around externals rather than those that are lasting and eternal. Prioritizing life not around externals, even what could be considered as distractions, may seem that we might miss doing something important. Perhaps the ringing phone, the unanswered text or email, or the unopened correspondence might be critical, and our immediate attention required. When that kind of mindset becomes the manner in which we order our lives, then we miss the opportunity of developing priorities that are not reactionary and immediate but centered in a core of devotion and discipleship. Jesus proposes a reversal of our values in which the last shall be first and the first shall be last. He does not call us to what is cozy and comfortable but instead, what is critical. Consider the words of Nicholas Herman of Lorraine, a 17th century Carmelite, now remembered as Brother Lawrence, whose ancient words still ring true;
Practice the Presence of God, and keep your gaze upon Him, without allowing an entrance to anxious cares and disquietude. Make it your study, before taking up any task to look to God, be it only for a moment, It is not right that the heart which is the first in us to have life, should be the first and last to love and worship God. It is, therefore, in the heart, that we ought to strive to make a habit of this gaze on God, to bring the heart into obedience. Let me counsel a few secret words, “My God, I am wholly Thine. O God of Love, make my heart even as Thine.”
Brother Lawrence models for us what Jesus meant when he offered challenge to a “But first” manner of ordering life. Ultimately a life lived only by genuflecting to distractions is an empty and meaningless life.
Before we conclude it may be helpful to consider the exchange at the retirement party of the older prophet, Elijah and a young prophet by the name of Elisha that would take his place. One day Elijah invited his young understudy to accompany him on a walk. As they walked it becomes obvious that Elijah’s life, his career, was ticking down to 0? Do you ever feel that everywhere you look and everything you desire is running out of time? Elijah asks of his understudy, “What can I do for you before I leave?” Have you ever been asked that by a trusted and respected elder? “What can I do for you before I leave? What would you say? Could you even formulate a response? Elijah’s answer was right on. “Give me a double portion of your spirit.” In other words, “give me your gifts. Give me your ability to discern people and situations. Give me your wisdom. Give me your patience. Give me your ability to adapt to change and the challenges that it brings.” Could that be our wish and central focus in whatever time we have left? Could we commit our lives and our last remaining priorities to imparting that gift to others? Let’s make that our life’s priority granting to others and yes, to this church, our gifts, our wisdom, our patience rather than our impatience. Like Elijah we have much to give. We have a lifetime of experiences too rich to not share with the young Elisha’s that will follow. Locked within all of us are the wealth of a lifetime. May our days be centered around prayerful priorities that maintain God as our focus. May we give up living distracted lives that only serve to tear us down mentally and spiritually. May we instead, hear a new call to discipleship not based upon cozy comfort and easy answers, but one that instead loves first and asks questions later.
May it be so and may we all declare, “We will, with the help of God.” Amen