Weekly Edgework #96 - May 29, 2006

First Things First

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

We settle for niceness and usefulness and busyness instead of for holiness; we settle for plausibility and eloquence instead of truth. (Frederich Buechner)

Putting “first things first” is an idea that sounds good. It’s the kind of notion that fits well into a homily given at a youth meeting or an address at graduation. It seems to be such a practical piece of advice. Logical even. First you listen to a question, then you answer it. First you read the instructions, then you assemble your new gismo. First you open the door, then you walk through it. It all seems so sensible that one would think nothing more needs to be said on the subject.

Yet taking shortcuts seems to be bred into our species. We tend to skip over “first” things and begin with the second or third things – hoping that we can fill in the blanks later. Or thinking perhaps that in the end “first” things are not all that important and we can well do without them. Call it jump-starting a process, by-passing recommendations, saving time, or finding an alternative route with fewer hassles, my breed seems intent on avoiding things that should come first.

Focusing on first things can be hard work. I have spent more than a week now preparing my garden for planting. Two successive wet years convinced me the garden needed raising. As well I needed to do a lot of edgework since the grass had in these years made a successful foray toward the center of the garden. This work is not a lot of fun. The only reason I keep at it is the knowledge that without it I will not likely have a successful garden this year. Just rushing out to plant my garden on the first warm day of spring would simply not have been a good idea.

Sometimes it is hard, in any given context, to determine what is the first thing one should do. Often one realizes too late that what one considered to be of first importance was in fact something ancillary to what really mattered. And this is our story. All of us have been there. Life comes rushing at us so quickly that we don’t have time, it seems, to sort things out properly before acting or speaking. All of us have woken up at some time or other to the sinking feeling that we have missed the “first” point. And we find it to be a sad and even discouraging day. But if we are not too proud or stubborn to admit the truth, such an experience in life can also be the dawn of a new day – a day in which we discover in a more profound way the necessity of putting first things first.

For many of us the idea of “seeking first the kingdom of God”, or as Buechner says it “seeking holiness and truth” is more a cliché than an actual, personal quest. While it may still take a lot of effort, it is a whole lot easier simply to be polite, helpful and industrious than to be holy – that is to line up our lives with the magnetic pull of God’s desire for this world. And it is less work to set our sites on what is practical and make eloquent speeches about our own projects than to pursue truth – whatever the cost. Unfortunately too many people take the easy way out only to realize in one fateful moment, as they pound their way from third base to home, that they in fact missed first base. That all their well-intentioned effort will count for very little in the end.

I am no longer surprised, although still pained, to encounter people of faith who have never experienced the wild exhilaration that comes with a reckless abandon of all secondary concerns in search of holiness and truth as a matter of first priority. To live, at least for a time, with such a singularity of focus that all other normal activities and pursuits create only a shadowy backdrop for such an all-consuming, personal quest. In his book, “Experiment in Autobiography,” H. G. Wells describes accurately what persons experience when they truly seek “first things first.”

The everyday things of life become subordinate to these wider interests which have taken hold of them, and they continue to value everyday things, personal affections and material profit and loss, only in so far as they are ancillary to the newer ruling system of effort, and to evade or disregard them in so far as they are antagonistic or obstructive to that…We are like amphibians, so to speak, struggling out of the waters that have hitherto covered our kind, into the air, seeking to breathe in a new fashion and emancipate ourselves from long accepted and long unquestioned necessities. At last it becomes for us a case of air or nothing.

Air or nothing! Holiness or nothing! Truth or nothing! This all sounds too desperate and passionate in a culture that idolizes self-fulfillment and staying safe. But that is the kind of ardor that is needed in our time of monumental cultural and societal shifts. It will not do for our preachers and teachers to keep repeating the mantras they have learned in the 20th century. Words of life and hope for this generation will not be found in the incantations formulated and promulgated in the age of modernity. At least some of us need to abandon all secondary matters in search of holiness and truth that generates life in our postmodern world.

Perhaps, more than anything, I have in the preceding words given expression to what my life consists of these days. While I realize that I must continue to carry out my domestic and civil responsibilities, I have come to the place where all of these are subordinate to my on-going quest to find holiness and truth that will connect with the real world – not only in my heart and on my street, but also around the globe.