Years of smoking finally caught up to my friend Todd one morning when he keeled over at work, clutching his heart. He was rushed to the hospital peppered with questions. “Do you smoke?” asked the emergency room nurse. “No,” Todd whispered. “I quit.”“That’s good. When did you quit?” “About 9:30 this morning.” When we feel pretty good about what we’ve done but not so sure about the outcome, we like to tell ourselves, “Hey, you did your best.” But this is also a fairly easy way to let ourselves (or someone else) off the hook. When we define “our best” as the thing we did when we merely put a lot of effort into a task, we may be giving ourselves an easy way out. The truth is to do our best, to pursue the right things, might not require a lot of effort, but rather a huge amount of effort; not simply a reasonable quantity of preparation but rather an unreasonable amount of preparation; not a sustained amount of focus but a surprising amount of focus. As Philippians 1:9-10 says, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment….” Being someone who abounds more and more takes more than simply not failing. Look to see where you’re supposed to be stepping up. Find the place where your number is being called. Stop backing down and step forward. Pursuing the right things means giving it your all. In his autobiography Why Not the Best? President Jimmy Carter tells about his interview with famous Admiral Rickover. The admiral asked how he had stood in his class at the Naval Academy. “I swelled my chest with pride and answered, ‘Sir, I stood 59th in a class of 820!’ I sat back to wait for the congratulations. Instead came the question: ‘Did you do your best?’ I started to say, ‘Yes, sir,’ but I remembered who this was. I gulped and admitted, ‘No, sir, I didn’t always do my best.’ He looked at me for a long time, and then asked one final question, which I have never been able to forget—or to answer. He said, ‘Why not?’” Former President Carter isn’t the only one who wonders why not. While participation awards are nice, excellence demands something greater, and better. Ecclesiastes 9:10 says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.”
A business researcher searched for the one trait all successful people share. It turned out it wasn’t hard work, good luck, or astute human relations, though these were important. The one factor that seemed to transcend all the rest was the habit of putting first things first. He observed, “The successful person has the habit of doing the things (others) don’t like to do. They don’t like doing them either, necessarily. But their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose.” Successful (people) are influenced by the desire for pleasing results. (Others) are influenced by the desire for pleasing methods and are inclined to be satisfied with such results as can be obtained by doing things they like to do. Don’t be satisfied with what always brings you comfort. Put in the hours of tedium or confusion or hard work or doubt in order to reap larger bounty. When we don’t need immediate gratification we let the Lord bring us greater gratification. Success best defined becomes excellence. What I mean is that when we pursue right things we aren’t seeking success. We’re pursuing excellence. There’s a difference between them. Brian Harbour picks up on this. “Success means being the best. Excellence means being your best. Success, to many, means being better than everyone else. Excellence means being better tomorrow than you were yesterday. Success means exceeding the achievements of other people. Excellence means matching your practice with your potential.” It’s also not letting our value be determined by comparing our score or performance to someone else’s. Two Dallas Cowboys All-Pro players, Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris, were sitting in front of their lockers after playing a tough game against the Washington Redskins. They were still in their uniforms, and their heads were bowed in exhaustion. Waters said to Harris, “By the way Cliff, what was the final score?” Now if you don’t think excellence matters to God then perhaps you haven’t read enough scripture. 2 Corinthians 8:7 comes right out and says, “But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, and in all eagerness and in the love from us that is in you—make sure that you excel in this act of kindness too.” Paul was talking about giving to the offering he would take to the poor Jerusalem church.
In our Acts reading we hear about the very first church. It tells us, “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” These are the big four: teaching, fellowship, breaking bread (both meals and the Lord’s supper) and prayer. They were doing these, excelling in these. The church in Acts is not perfect nor is it fantastic. Even though we may think it was a place of miracles, this is not what’s described in this first description. The obvious impression given is that nothing was spectacular, nothing was happening there that catapulted these first Christians to another spiritual level. If the early Church excelled in anything it excelled in pursuing the right things. While the church then appears to gather daily, this practice will not continue indefinitely. Later on, we see that the church gathered weekly. This church seems almost totally dependent upon the apostles. Later on, we will see elders and deacons and a diversity of spiritually gifted people functioning as a body. Here we read of the saints selling their possessions and laying the proceeds at the feet of the apostles. Later on, people will set money aside on the first day of the week, as they are able. But what Luke wants to make sure everyone who reads Acts will hear is how the church pursued the right things of God by doing the four things of Christ. They put these things first, and everything else came next. There is a time to talk and a time to act, a time to consider and a time to do. Those who put first things first are up and doing the right things. An instructor at a time-management seminar told the participants to prepare for a quiz. He reached under the table and took out a wide-mouthed gallon jar and set it on the table. Next to the jar were a number of fist-sized rocks. He asked the group, “How many of these rocks do you think we can get inside this jar?” The participants made their guesses. The instructor said, “Let’s find out.” One by one he began to put as many fist-sized rocks as he could into the jar until the rocks inside were level with the top of the jar. The instructor then asked, “Is the jar full?” All the participants looked at the jar filled with rocks and said it was. But then he reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar. The gravel filled the spaces between the big rocks. He grinned and asked again, “Is the jar full?” The participants were not about to be fooled a second time. They said that the jar was probably not full. The instructor nodded and said, “Good.
You’re catching on.” He next took out a bucket of sand and poured it into the jar. Slowly the sand filled the gaps between the rocks and gravel. After the sand settled, the instructor once again asked, “Now, is the jar full?” The audience roared, “No!” He said, “Good.” He was pleased that they understood an important principle. The instructor poured a pitcher of water into the jar. At this point he stopped and asked the group, “What’s the point of this?” Somebody said, “Well, there are always gaps, and if you work at it, you can always fit more into your life.” But the instructor said, “No, the point is this: If I hadn’t put in those big rocks first, I would never have gotten them in at all.” “The last thing one knows is what to put first,” said one wise person. Perhaps we’re too quick to make excuses for ourselves. We would do the first thing first but other things keep popping up. “I need to sleep in the morning. I can’t get up any earlier.” “I’m too busy at work to think of anything else.” “I was never taught how to plan better.” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “I never knew a (person) who was good at making excuses who was good at anything else.” Doing first things first sometimes means turning things on their head, going into something backward from how we normally do things. I often tell my family that when we need to get somewhere at a certain time we should get completely ready first and then sit down to watch TV or read a book or text someone or play soccer. After we’re all ready, then we will see how much time is left to do other things. I’m still working on getting that concept through to them. In her book, A Practical Guide to Prayer, Dorothy Haskins tells about a noted concert violinist who was asked the secret of her mastery of the instrument. The woman answered the question with two words: “Planned neglect.” Then she explained. “There were many things that used to demand my time. When I went to my room after breakfast, I made my bed, straightened the room, dusted, and did whatever seemed necessary. When I finished my work, I turned to my violin practice. That system prevented me from accomplishing what I should on the violin. So I reversed things. I deliberately planned to neglect everything else until my practice period was complete. And that program of planned neglect is the secret of my success.”
Our faith definitely has this idea of planned neglect, though it’s rarely spoken of in such terms. But it’s there. In fact, it’s there written in stone in the cathedral of Milan. Over the triple doorways of the cathedral of Milan there are three inscriptions spanning the splendid arches. Over one is carved a beautiful wreath of roses, and underneath it is the legend, “All that which pleases is but for a moment.” Over the other is sculptured a cross, and there are the words, “All that which troubles us is but for a moment.” But underneath the great central entrance to the main aisle is the inscription, “That only is important which is eternal.” Shape your life to fit through that door that leads to what’s eternal. Don’t get sidetracked by seeking what’s comfortable, or get discouraged by facing what’s difficult. The Lord charts a path through both of these and leads us to what’s best. Pursue the right things. Look after first things first. Accept what’s more important as God’s will for you. Don’t live for who you are today, but believe there’s more. Can the church say Amen?
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