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First Things First

“First things first.” I’ve heard it said that God speaks in short sentences, and this is the one that kept coming to me all week.

I’ve been writing lately of making a switch in my evenings and holding off on the to-do list in favor of reading or writing. I started toying this week with the order – maybe, I thought, I ought to get the school work out of the way and then sit down to read, but I knew that it wouldn’t work. “First things first,” I kept repeating to myself. Often, the outside world demands attention, but “first things first” is the order of the day. Like a soldier carrying out orders, it is the new normal.

The phrase was made famous by Stephen Covey, the author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a book that our community studied years ago. “First things first” is the third life habit out of 7 that he says will guide our lives to “true north”, the direction we most desire our lives to face. It is a book filled with wisdom which has guided many of us at Watershed over the years, including our kids who studied the teen version of the book together a few years ago. According to Wikipedia, U.S. President Bill Clinton read the book and invited Covey to Camp David to counsel him on how to integrate the book into his presidency.

Covey has a great analogy showing the importance of this habit. He talks about the “big rocks” of our lives – those things that reflect our deepest values. Time with loved ones, reading books that inspire, exercise, service to the community/church, recreation,  learning and study, a cause, a project dear to the heart, teaching or mentoring others, time for reflection, meditation and prayer. Writing for me is a big rock, as is studying scripture, singing and being with my faith community.

Covey says that if we first fill our lives with the countless small stones that fritter away our time, we’ll never fit the big rocks in later because the jar is already full. Small stones are the non-important things that feel pressing but can swallow up our time. They can be urgent (interruptions, distractions, some phone calls, most e-mails) or non-urgent (spending too much time on the Internet, mindless TV, escape activities). Someone called this the “tyranny of the urgent”. Big on this list are the dramatic inner crisis that feel so important but are not – insecurities, worries, moods, physical discomforts. The list is endless.

“First things first” says Covey. If you put the big rocks in first, the small stuff can fit in around it. He calls this a shift in perspective, or paradigm shift. Scripture has a great verse that I would like put on my gravestone, “Seek first God’s kingdom, and all these things will be added unto you.”  (Matthew 6:33)

My old perspective believed that the goal of each day was to get a lot done. It sounds logical and effective, but when it came time for fitting the to-do’s of my deeper values in, time was up and I often felt frustrated.

What I have noticed in this re-prioritizing is this: I feel more myself. When I get back to the to-do’s later, they don’t feel as urgent and pressing as before. It’s not that I necessarily “feel” better, but there’s something about trusting in True North that reminds me of the Why and more important, the Who of my life.

Jesus calms the storm- drawn by Barbara James Lyon

This week in our Mark study, we looked at some stories of Jesus getting interrupted. His to-do’s pressed in all around him: preach and heal the sick who all clamored for his attention. In one of the stories, Jesus was in a boat on the lake with his disciples. He was exhausted from a day of work and fell asleep when a huge storm hit. The disciples paniced, but Jesus was so deeply anchored in his faith that he was able to sleep. After he calmed the storm, he asked his disciples where their faith was.

I wish I could say I was more like Jesus, calm amid each day’s storms, but usually I begin to panic over many things, like the disciples. Jesus reminds me of the change in perspective that happens when my sights are set on True North. I take a breath and put down the many small stones I’ve been anxiously grasping and pick up one of the big rocks instead.

P.S. – If you’d like to see an older, somewhat cheesy video of Covey explaining the big rocks, here’s the link.

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