God First

It’s 11:11am as I sit down to write this. Those numbers on a digital clock always remind me of a chapel service I attended in high school. Our guest speaker set an alarm clock to go off mid-sermon, exactly at 11:11am. Maybe he thought the alarm would get our teenage attention. When it did, he told us to remember to put God first in our lives. And I’ve never forgotten it. Ever since then, when I glance at a clock and see 11:11 (it happens more often than you’d think), the first words to pop into my head are: “God first!” I guess his little object lesson was effective.

So, what in the world am I doing sitting here writing this blog post at 11:11 on a Sunday morning? Shouldn’t I be in church? Yes. And no. I’m about a week into one of the worst head colds I’ve ever had and am currently rasping and gasping my way through its protracted coughing stage. I decided to rest at home today. But I must admit, after so many years as a pastor’s wife and worship director, it’s an unfamiliar option. I’m trying to recall how many Sunday services I would have missed over the years. Even in birthing each of my four babies, I’m not sure I was absent the following Sunday. There was that time I was on bed rest for a few months and not allowed to even take the stairs to the basement of our house. The church had to hire a pianist to fill in for a time. And then there was that Sunday morning I woke up to the nightmare of a parasitic infection and passed out on the bathroom floor. My ten year old daughter played a few hymns in my stead that day, while I began my lengthy battle with cryptosporidium. But for the most part, come rain or shine, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, I was there — singing and playing the piano. Death was probably the only acceptable reason, to my mind, for why I wouldn’t be. But even in marriage “till death do us part” doesn’t mean that death is the only thing that might keep us apart for a time. Believe me. I’m learning this well, now that my husband is a military man.

I’m not exactly glorying in my newfound freedom to play hooky, although I do feel a sense of wonder, but not because it’s “wonderful.” To be able to do what sick people do when they are sick, without a sense of guilt or the fear of disappointing people, is a new experience for me. Not that those people ever would have been disappointed or would have made me feel like a disappointment. That’s a burden I’m all too good at placing on my shoulders, all by myself.

Today I feel a mingled sense of relief and regret. Relief to be able to rest as needed. But also regret for all those times I didn’t. Pastors and ministry leaders, listen up! Your people love you. But you might be surprised to know they don’t “need” you in the way you think they do (or the way some of them might think they do). Even if you’re the backbone of the worship team. Even if you are the worship team. Even if you’re the only one who can run the sound system, preach the sermon, play the piano, your people (rather, God’s people) can worship without you. Stop carrying that burden of perfection, because at the root of it is an ugly lie that you might not even realize you’ve bought into — that your church’s worship somehow revolves around you. Gasp! Have you thought of it like that before?

The “show” can and will go on without you, because this “show” isn’t about you. And if it is, then you’ve got a bigger problem than a nasty head cold. It’s about Jesus. And, incidentally, He’s the only One who can follow through faultlessly on His promise to show up every time two or three or two hundred or three thousand of His followers are gathered in His name.

A friend of mine shared the following C.S. Lewis quote on Facebook today that seems particularly fitting here:

There can be intemperance in work just as in drink. What feels like zeal may be only fidgets or even the flattering of one’s self-importance. As MacDonald says “In holy things may be unholy greed.” And by doing what “one’s station and its duties” does not demand, one can make oneself less fit for the duties it does demand, and so commit some injustice. Just you give Mary a little chance as well as Martha!

C.S. Lewis (Letter to Mary Willis Shelburne, March 19, 1956)

“God first” doesn’t mean doing simply for the sake of doing. Doing all the things because we think no one else will do them or because we like them done our way could be seen, at best, as putting the “doing” first. At worst, it’s putting ourselves first. Sometimes “God first” might look like resting when you need to.

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