Only a Handful of Things Really Matter

In my role as pastor, I have the privilege of walking with people during their last days. I say “privilege” because most of the time it is a profound privilege to share the journey with someone as they prepare to die. Sure, there is the usual grief, sadness, anger, and deep sense of loss. There is the frustration of having wasted so much time on things that don’t matter.

And then, if time allows, there’s a turning point. A moment when the person says, “OK, the cards have been dealt. I only have so much time. I’m not going to waste a minute of it.” This part of the journey is always surprising to me. Within a matter of minutes, the person will have whittled the focus of their lives down to a handful of things. “Here are the things that matter,” they will say, “and I’m not wasting my life doing anything else.”

And they don’t. They’ll stop watching TV to engage in conversations with friends. They’ll seek forgiveness and offer forgiveness. They don’t want anything blocking their joy in their last few days. They’ll talk more about joy and less about money. They’ll stop surfing the web and not be bothered if their emails pile up. They know what matters and that’s all they’re going to do.

The funny thing is, what matters then is the only thing that matters now. Yet, few of us have the courage to live focused only on those things that matter. We get distracted by the noise of the world. We get turned around in a culture that demands we keep up with everything everywhere. But in the end, none of that matters.

And there’s no pain like the pain of realizing you’ve wasted your life on things that don’t matter.

So, what would you change today if the doctor said you only had a year to live? Go ahead and change them now. Sooner or later, the doctor will tell you that, and you’ll save time by already having your list done.

A Lot of Little Steps

Most problems are difficult and complex. You can’t solve one problem without having to solve three others first. So it goes. We try to do one thing, and we end up trapped in a web of other problems that we didn’t even see at the outset of our efforts. Most of the time, we become overwhelmed by the complexities of the situation.

Think about it. Want to do something about education in our country? Where do you start? College? High school or middle school? Elementary school or kindergarten? Or do you start earlier with pre-K?

Or think about healthcare. There have been a lot of smart people trying to figure out that one for a long time. What makes us think we can do anything that’s really going to matter?

And I’ve just mentioned a couple obvious ones. I haven’t gotten to world hunger, world peace, the need for fresh water, epidemics and pandemics, economic inequality, immigration, racism, or violent crime. What’s wrong with our world is so overwhelming that most of us look at the challenges, give up, and do nothing.

The crime isn’t that we try and fail. The crime is most of us never try at all. Because we never try, nothing ever gets solved.

So, what are you supposed to do in those moments when you’re overwhelmed by the circumstances in front of you?

First, take a step back. Sometimes problems look bigger than they are because we’re standing too close to them. Give yourself a little space.

Second, say a prayer for courage, wisdom, and persistence. Sure, it’s going to be hard. If was easy, someone else would have already done it.

Third, pick a place and start. Big problems are nothing more than a lot of little problems all in the same place. Don’t try to solve everything all at once. Just do the next thing you know to do. Piece by piece, step by step, stay steady, and stay at it. You’ll be surprised at how much you actually get done by simply staying with the process. The longest journey is nothing more than a lot of little steps put one after the other.

Fourth, don’t give up. It took Edison several hundred tries to finally end up with the light bulb. One of the interesting things I’ve found out since moving to Nashville is how long it takes to become an overnight success.

Yep, life’s hard, and no, there are no guarantees you won’t fail.

But you’ll never know until you take the first step.

Practice Makes Perfect

Most of us get up in the morning, look at our calendar and say, “I got this. I can handle this kind of day. This day doesn’t have any pressure.” And so you don’t spend as much time in prayer. You don’t spend as much time in the study of the Word.

And the storm comes unexpectedly. You never expect the phone call to come on Tuesday, do you? And all of a sudden your day changes. All of a sudden what you thought was routine isn’t routine. The winds pick up. Your little boat starts taking on water, and the first thing you want to know is, “Where’s Jesus? I can’t find Him when I need Him.” It’s because you’re out of practice.

You do those things in practice so they become so habitual, so habit, that you will do them without thinking. Remember, Jesus prepared in prayer. You and I have that same opportunity to spend the time we need to in prayer to be ready for when those moments come. You’re in one of three places in your life. You’re either in the storm, just out of the storm, or about to go into one.

That’s the three places where all of us live. And the moments when it is quiet, the moments when it is easy or routine—those are the moments we have to prepare. Those are the moments we have to practice—to practice the presence, to practice our listening, to practice our obedience—so that when the storm comes, we’re ready.

How to Get Started with Prayer

Developing habits of prayer are essential to the disciple’s life. It looks like this:

1. Find a place and a time, then start showing up there every day. The experts tell us it takes 21 days to fix a habit in place. Show up at the same time and place for 21 days and you’ll develop the holy habit of prayer.

2. What do you do when you get to your place and time of prayer? Focus your mind by reading Scripture. The Psalms are the prayer book of the Bible. It’s a great place to start. If you’re new to reading the Bible, begin with the Gospel of Mark. It’s a quick, easy read and you’ll find out a lot about the ministry of Jesus in a very short time.

3. Pray using the acronym ACTS:

A = adoration
C = confession
T = thanksgiving
S = supplications (praying for what you need)

Remember—every day at the same place and same time. We want to get to the place where we can stop thinking about speaking to Jesus and actually start speaking with Him.

If you miss a day, don’t worry about it. Get back into it as soon as you can. Soon the day will come when you never think about missing it.

Now you have the plan.