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What Matters Most In An Era of Urgency

You know how in Indy we have race cars that average more than 150 mph in the Indy 500 race. Their top speed is something Hoosiers a couple of hundred years ago couldn’t possibly fathom.

Well, I found a racing story from back then, when steamboats were the fastest thing in America. Cargo was their gold, as the fees charged to transport goods were what made it worth the cost and effort to fuel and staff such a large boat. The story is told of two steamboats leaving Memphis at the same time, navigating the Mississippi River to get to New Orleans.

The two captains were competitive, and that rubbed off on their crews, with sailors from the faster boat yelling insults to their peers on the boat that was running at a slower pace.

Angry words were exchanged. Tempers flared. Challenges were thrown down. And before long a race was on to see who could reach New Orleans first and get bragging rights.

The slower boat had plenty of coal for their intended trip, but not enough to race. So as they fell further behind, their captain ordered sailors to crowbar open a couple of creates of cargo, and form a line to quickly pitch the contents into the ship’s boiler. They did so, and quickly picked up speed, passing the other boat.

When they saw that the cargo burned just as well as coal, they broke open and burned more and more of it in the name of winning.

In the end, they succeeded in reaching their destination first…but without the cargo entrusted to them for the journey. They won the race but lost their purpose along the way.

The “cargo” God has entrusted to you is the people in your life, and the aim is not to use people in the pursuit of winning, but to bring the people in your life with you as you navigate life as an authentic Christian. The start of a new year is a good time to consider how you will navigate the months ahead. In an era marked by urgency and marked by crises, how can you navigate the year ahead well, with a distinctly Christian sense of purpose? What is in your power so that the people in your life don’t end up sacrificed as you race along?

Charles Hummel’s little booklet published back in 1967 that has stayed in print all this time says it clearly. Here’s Hummel’s core thesis:

“Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.”

Charles E. Hummel, The Tyranny of the Urgent

It’s worthless to win the race if you burn the cargo to get there.

So…

  1. How can we decide between what’s urgent and what matters most?

How do you discern between what feels urgent and what’s actually most important? The New Testament actually gives us the example of a group who were trying to win, but they were burning the cargo to get there. They were convinced they were highly spiritual. They were extremely confident in their spiritual knowledge. But they were arrogant about it. And so as they raced along, they were completely unaware of the smell in their midst of burning cargo.

The Holy Spirit prompts the apostle Paul to send a corrective to that. Open your Bible or Bible app with me to 1 Corinthians chapter 13, just the first few verses for today.

1 Corinthians addresses a whole range of situations where some race ahead but burn the cargo, while we’re called to discern what matters most along the way. The hinge of the letter is found in the concluding verse of 1 Corinthians chapter 12 where Paul writes…

“But now I will show you the best way of all.”

1 Corinthians 12:31

With that, Paul swings the door wide open on what that group of Christians had somehow missed, namely, the absolute first-place importance of love—that without love, you’re just burning your cargo. Without love, the journey is meaningless. Without love, any winning is actually losing.

The poet T.S. Eliot, who came to faith in Christ along the way himself, put it this way:

“The journey, not the destination, matters.”

T.S. Eliot

That’s not too far off from what the Holy Spirit leads Paul to write about ‘the best way of all.’ Before we read from 1 Corinthians about the best way, let me give you a true story from not long ago at all about this very question of how to decide between what’s urgent and what matters most.

It was December 2, 2012 when a Spanish long-distance runner named Ivan Fernandez Anaya was competing in a cross-country race in the Spanish countryside. Anaya was running in second place, well behind the race leader, Kenyan runner and Olympic medalist Abel Mutai. As they entered the final stretch, Mutai, the certain winner of the race, suddenly stopped running. Apparently, he mistakenly thought he had already crossed the finish line.

His competitor Anaya quickly caught up with him, but instead of exploiting Mutai’s mistake to speed past and claim victory, Anaya stayed behind and urged Mutai onward. But Mutai doesn’t speak Spanish. So Fernandez physically pushed Mutai ahead to victory, letting him cross the finish line first.

Anaya’s coach voiced disappointment with him, insisting, “He has wasted an occasion. Winning always makes you more of an athlete. You have to go out to win.”

Or do you?

Here’s what Ivan Anaya told reporters after the race: “Even if they had told me that winning would have earned me a place in the Spanish team for the European championships, I wouldn’t have done it… because today, with the way things are in all circles, in soccer, in society, in politics, where it seems anything goes, a gesture of honesty goes down well.”

There it is. Fernández Anaya found the best way. He discerned the difference between what felt urgent and what mattered most. If you’re taking notes, the second great movement in this passage is:

  1. Whatever you do this year, transform it with love.

Listen to how the Holy Spirit leads Paul to say it in 1 Corinthians 13:1:

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

1 Corinthians 13:1

This is hyperbole, which is exaggeration for effect. Paul envisions someone who can speak every language on earth. They can visit Camp Atterbury and engage Afghan refugees in fluent Dari and Pashto. They have friends in China and at a moment’s notice can hop on Whatsapp and engage in fluent Mandarin. They work at the United Nations and don’t need a translation headset because whatever language is being presented, they understand it completely. Everyone would be impressed.

And yet, verse one insists, if you have all of that but lack love, you’re like fingernails on a blackboard. You’re the creaking of a rusty gate on an abandoned property. You’re like a gong or cymbal banging away meaninglessly.

What gongs and cymbals have in common is that they don’t play a discernable tune. Without a melody for them to complement, there’s no music in them. It’s just empty noise. So it is for us to have it all but lack love.

All our great words and insights apart from are like that. Annoying. Worthless. If I speak all the languages of earth and even the language of angels, but don’t love others, I’m nothing but noise without a melody.

Jean Vanier, who founded communities around the world for people who have severe developmental disabilities, tells the story of a 76-year-old woman known as “mamie.” Mamie had serious mental and physical disabilities. She was blind, bedridden, and incontinent. She couldn’t feed or dress herself. She was unable to speak.

One of the staff assistants, Louis, was assigned to take care of mamie. He did his job, but his heart wasn’t in it. There was no feedback, no obvious reward other than a paycheck.

Then one day, mamie placed her hand on Louis’ hand and smiled. That’s all. But even that small thing was, for Louis, a moment that transformed how he saw his job. From then on, he loved being with and serving mamie. What he had found tiresome and difficult became a blessing.

Hear it well, friends: without love, all of our gifts accomplish nothing.

Without love, everything we do will be just noise without a melody.

Whatever you do this year—your work, your interactions with family and neighbors, whatever—transform it by bringing love into it, loving well the people God has in your life. Love is the only way to get to your intended destination with that precious “cargo” entrusted to you intact. Don’t burn the cargo.

Verse 2 continues…

“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

1 Corinthians 13:2

Verse 2 is the terrible shorthand for why there are people who want nothing to do with Christ…because of a Christian they know who lacks love, who is burning the cargo as race along. And so some jump ship to get away from them.

And then verse 3:

“If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

1 Corinthians 13:3

If you make great sacrifices but do them without love, they’re worthless. I think of a missions hero best known for deeply provocative slogans that motivated people to give to missions and make great sacrifices. They are great slogans, and he had a broad impact.

But the truth is, he was an extremely difficult person. He was distant to his own children, something they felt deeply. He left his wife in England in order to head to India and Africa as a missionary, against her wishes. They spent the better part of twenty years in separate countries, as he viewed being with his wife as something to be sacrificed for the sake of serving God. For all that man’s deep sacrifices, there’s someone who failed to love his family well, burning the precious cargo entrusted to him. He’s far from the only example.

If you make great sacrifices, but lack love for the people in your life, it’s all bankrupt in God’s sight. Whatever you put your hands to this year, transform it by doing it with love.

The third movement in this passage builds on that:

  1. In choices big and small, show your faith by how well you love.

1 Corinthians 13:13, pulls it all together:

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

1 Corinthians 13:13

It’s clear, isn’t it? The three most important things to have are faith, hope and love. And the greatest of the three is love. Only three things will last forever—your faith, your hope, and your love—and the greatest of these is love.

Trust God steadily (that’s faith). Keep your confidence in Christ unswervingly (that’s hope). And in everything you do, show love extravagantly. That’s what matters most. Among the few things that really matter, love, the Holy Spirit prompts Paul to write, love is what matters most. So this year, be sure to show your faith by how well you love.

Because our religion without compassion is bankrupt. Empty. If you win the race but destroy the cargo entrusted to you along the way, you’ve missed the boat entirely.

Haddon Robinson offers a different image. Imagine you have a $50 bill, so you take it to Aldi to buy some groceries. The clerk takes your $50 bill and puts it in the cash register.

A little later Aldi’s manager needs some money to pay an electrician and takes your $50 bill, leaves an IOU, and pays the electrician.

The electrician as he’s pulling out of the parking lot realizes he needs some gas for his van, so he heads over to the Shell station, fills it up, and pays for the gas with your $50 bill.

The gas station owner has your $50 bill and wants to mail a letter to his grandkids who live in Washington state, so before he goes to the post office to send the letter, he takes your $50 bill and tucks it inside a card as a token of his love.

A few days later his grandchild gets that gift and, grateful to her grandparents, she takes that $50 bill, goes to the nearest toy store, and buys a toy they’ve had their heart set on for a while. The next day the manager of the toy store takes your $50 bill and the rest of that previous day’s receipts to the bank, and as the teller is counting out the money, she comes to your $50 bill and discovers that it’s counterfeit.

That piece of paper has gone all over Fishers and across the country doing good things—bought the groceries, paid the electrician, purchased gas, became a gift for a grandchild, bought a favorite toy. But when it comes to the bank where only real values count, that $50 bill is discovered to be…worthless.

In a similar way, it’s possible to enter this new year with great faith, with rock-steady hope in the Lord, even to have plans to make great sacrifices in the name of Jesus. But when you stand before God—whenever that day comes for each of us—if we haven’t done it all with love, we will have missed the boat.

I don’t want to end on a negative note. So let me end with a positive borrowed from Haddon Robinson on the point of today’s Scripture.

You can take a sheet of paper and a pen, and draw a row of zeroes. They all add up to…nothing.

You can fill in another row and another row and then another row and another row and another row. You can fill the whole page with zeroes; the whole thing adds up to nothing.

But when you take one of those zeroes and put a one in front of it, it becomes a ten.

Take two of those zeroes and put a one in front of them, they becomes a hundred.

Take three of those zeroes and put a one in front of them, they become a thousand.

And keep going. Keep adding ones in front of each line on your page.

That’s what love does to your days, that become weeks, that become months, that will become this new year, that will eventually add up to your life legacy.

If you race on through today and the days ahead without thinking of how to bring love into it, it will all add up to nothing. You’ll be a boat that races to the finish line at the expense of the cargo entrusted to you.

But—if you take the smallest act:

  • a single conversation during breakdown today;
  • your interaction with the checkout worker at Kroger this afternoon;
  • your patience with a coworker tomorrow;
  • the time to point out a good character trait in a family member this week;

If you will bring love into what you do, it will count. It will count with people, and it counts with Christ.

Of all the things that seem to matter deeply, love matters most. Take joy in that. Make the most of that as the new year begins. Give first place to loving others well. Give yourself to loving the people in your life the way God loves you. Show your faith by how well you love, following the amazing example of Jesus.

We end with a line from another T.S. Eliot poem, who wrote:

“What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.”

Don’t start this year thinking about winning.

Don’t start this year thinking about how fast you can get ahead.

Start this year thinking of its end, and reaching the end with the cargo intact, having loved others well.

Let’s pray.

Father God, thank you for this new year.

Thank you that your mercies are new every morning.

Thank you for your promise through the prophet Isaiah that, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”

Thank you for the amazing truth from Romans 5 that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

As we enter this new year, Lord, we ask your help in keeping love at the forefront.

When we grow cold, impatient, or angry, warm us up. Bring us back from the brink.

Renew in us that well that overflows with gratitude for the love you have shown us, and from that well give us the strength to love others well.

Through it all, we ask, continue to make us more like your Son, until the day our race is done and we stand before him.

Hear our prayer, eternal God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen!