Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
-Jesus, telling a parable as recorded in Matthew 13
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.-Jesus, preaching the Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in Matthew 6
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.-Paul, writing to the Philippians as recorded in chapter 3
After one of those tragic incidents in which a small child was left too long in a hot locked car, a commentator, fumbling for words in a moment of unspeakable sadness, said something like this: “To avoid this happening, leave something important next to the car seat where the child is.” Okay, I am increasingly forgetful and often distracted, but I was not the only one to wonder: What could be more important than that child in the car seat? A smart phone? A lap top? Lunch? Gym clothes? A Starbucks card?
What is important?
I’ve been going to yoga classes pretty often, hoping to build spiritual and physical strength and balance, an uphill climb. I’m glad to hide in the back row and I’m reluctant to practice if parishioners are present. Last Wednesday morning, I went to a class. I was the only student to show up. I told the teacher she must have something more important to do than just teach one student. She insisted on having the class. Though I didn’t know her, apparently I was important enough to her.
Later that same day, I was celebrant at our weekly noonday eucharist. Only one person showed up. He told me I didn’t have to do the service. He was sure that I must have something more important to do, partly because I can project an image of someone who is really, really busy. His response made me more committed to leading the service, trusting that Jesus meant it when he said he was present when two or three were gathered. In that moment, I could think of nothing more important to do.
Again, what do we consider important? What is worth doing? What matters? Do we even ask those questions, or do we just tackle the to-do list on auto-pilot, without thought for priority or purpose? These are questions each one of us can ask in our own spiritual journeys, where the tyranny of the urgent often suppresses the meaning of the important. They may be questions that get ignored, especially early on Monday morning.
They are questions for the church to consider, especially with the publication of new statistics that show our congregations dramatically shrinking. It would be easy for church folk, for church leaders, to anxiously panic our ways into all kinds of programs. If we just offered better coffee. If the music were just more snappy. If we started talking about politics or stopped talking about politics. We often think that what is most important in the church is more people in the pews, more names on our mailing lists, more pledging units gathered in our annual campaigns. But maybe a more faithful route is to think about growing hearts, one person at a time.
One of the learnings from the research behind RenewalWorks is that leaders of vital congregations focus first on growing hearts, and not on growing attendance or number of pledging units. That’s a counter-cultural way to live. But I have a feeling it’s the way set forth by Jesus.
He told stories to that effect, like a parable about a crazy shepherd who left 99 sheep to go find one stupid lost sheep who chose to wander. That little stupid lost sheep was important. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus noted all the things we worry about: what we should eat or wear or what college we get into or how fast we are promoted compared to our collegemates or co-workers. He said: Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these other things will be added unto you. Seeking first the kingdom of God was important.
We all have lots to do. We’re all busy. Some of what we do is important. Some of it, not so much. May we be given grace to focus on what is most important, which might well be growing in love of God and neighbor.
Leading for Discipleship: A conference especially for those who have worked with RenewalWorks Sept. 30-Oct. 2 Wilmington, NC