Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing


Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People came on the market again last May with a 30th anniversary edition.

The New York Times best seller—over 40 million copies sold—may be known best for one quote in particular. “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

If we will practice “Habit 3: Put First Things First,” then we must determine our ultimate priorities and stick to them.

This matters for us as individuals, but it is true as well for our churches. The apostle Paul addresses a first order of business in a letter to young Pastor Timothy:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior (1 Timothy 2:1-3).

Every pastor’s solemn responsibility is overseeing the proper conduct of corporate worship. Paul’s exhortation about how to do that involves keeping the main thing the main thing.

What is that?

All Kinds of Prayer

He piles up four different words for prayer, each with a different nuance, to emphasize that churches must prioritize prayer in their public services.

For whom should we pray?

All Kinds of People

We must pray for all kinds of classes and types of people. But Paul singles out one group in particular—governing officials at every level. Intercede for men and women with the greatest obligations and the widest powers for evil and for good.

Why pray especially for leaders?

All Kinds of Peace

We should place such a high value on societal calm that we make it a regular focus of corporate prayer.

In these days of COVID-19 disruption and racial injustice protest/rioting, we need our churches asking God more than ever for the wisdom, courage, and integrity of civil authorities to govern well for our peace.

This is good and God will be pleased.


Marks of a God-Centered Lifestyle Essential for Peacemaking Excellence

I posted recently on one of my favorite Bible peacemaking passagesGen. 13. I failed to mention a critical component in the text–Abram’s pattern of altar building.

Praying in the dark

There is  a similarity between how the chapter begins and ends. In this is an insight—perhaps a secret—which explains why Abram could respond the way he did in the conflict with his nephew.

Genesis 12:10-20 recounts how Abram barely escaped a near disastrous entanglement with Pharaoh in Egypt. That background sets the stage for Abram coming out of Egypt back into Negeb.

It’s not an accident that these accounts come back-to-back. In chapter 12, Abram derails miserably with the Pharaoh debacle; here he gets back on track again with his own extended household.

The crucial difference between the two situations and their respective outcomes is revealed in v. 2-4.

Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. And he journeyed on from the Negeb as far as Bethel to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place where he had made an altar at the first. And there Abram called upon the name of the Lord.

It appears Abram learned a lesson from his failures in Egypt. He’s back seeking the Lord again at all times. He has resumed the all-important practice of altar building.

What does that look like? It means making God the center of your existence through a variety of means. You make a priority of worshiping Him. You regularly listen for His voice in His word. You keep up ongoing conversation with Him in prayer. You wait on Him to fulfill His promises to you.

These things make all the difference in the world! This is a huge turning point in how chapter twelve ends and how thirteen unfolds. But there’s more.

Verse 18 says this:  So Abram moved his tent and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron, and there he built an altar to the Lord. This chapter begins with altar building and it ends with altar building. Both references spell bookend emphasis for what comes in between.

It is this kind of God-centered orientation in chapter 13 which enables Abram with great grace to head off a relational train wreck with Lot.

Puritan Matthew Henry offered these practical insights about the disciplines of altar building:

Abram attended on God in his instituted ordinances. He built an altar unto the Lord who appeared to him, and called on the name of the Lord. Now consider this, (1.) As done upon a special occasion. When God appeared to him, then and there he built an altar, with an eye to the God who appeared to him. . . . Thus he acknowledged, with thankfulness, God’s kindness to him in making him that gracious visit and promise; and thus he testified his confidence in and dependence upon the word which God had spoken. . . . (2.) As his constant practice, whithersoever he removed. As soon as Abram had got to Canaan, though he was but a stranger and sojourner there, yet he set up, and kept up, the worship of God in his family; and wherever he had a tent God had an altar, and that an altar sanctified by prayer. . . .  Note, those that would approve themselves the children of faithful Abram, and would inherit the blessing of Abram, must make conscience of keeping up the solemn worship of God, particularly in their families, according to the example of Abram. The way of family worship is a good old way, is no novel invention, but the ancient usage of all the saints. Abram was very rich and had a numerous family, was now unsettled and in the midst of enemies, and yet, wherever he pitched his tent, he built an altar. Wherever we go, let us not fail to take our religion along with us.

How much altar building characterizes your life these days?

Your relational magnanimity quotient in peacemaking depends upon it.


Who Should Read “Crazy Busy?”

Deyoung Busyness

Now that I’ve read Kevin DeYoung’s new book Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book about a (Really) Big Problem (Crossway, 2013, 124 pages), I’ve formed an opinion on this question. Probably most of us.

By the way. It delivers on the promise of brevity. I got through it in one sitting reclining on the couch while watching UCF lose to South Carolina. I thought I was perfecting my well-honed art of multitasking. Turns out I wasn’t even “switch-tasking.” See page 60 for more on that myth.

You have to love a guy – husband, father, pastor, author, conference speaker, among other things – who starts his latest book this way: “I am the worst possible person to write this book. And maybe the best (p. 11).” This kind of authorial polarization stems from the man’s aim in writing. He explains:

Some books are written because the author knows something people need to know. Others because the author has seen something people should see. I’m writing this book to figure out things I don’t know and to work on change I have not yet seen. More than any other book I’ve worked on, this one is for me.

That kind of humility draws me. I can take my cue from a guy like this. Crazy Busy is insanely good. I commend it to anyone who “feels frazzled and overwhelmed most of the time” (p. 16).

The book follows a simple and straightforward 3, 7, and 1 outline – three dangers to avoid, seven diagnoses to consider, and one thing you must do. It consists of ten chapters, 118 pages, not counting indexes.

  1. Hello, My Name is Busy
  2. Here, There, and Gone: Three Dangers to Avoid
  3. Crazy BusyThe Killer P’s—Diagnosis #1: You Are Beset with Many Manifestations of Pride
  4. The Terror of Total Obligation—Diagnosis #2: You Are Trying to Do What God Does Not Expect You to Do
  5. Mission Creep—Diagnosis #3: You Can’t Serve Others without Setting Priorities
  6. A Cruel Kindergarchy—Diagnosis #4: You Need to Stop Freaking Out about Your Kids
  7. Deep Calls to Deep—Diagnosis #5: You Are Letting the Screen Strangle Your Soul
  8. Rhythm and Blues—Diagnosis #6: You’d Better Rest Yourself before You Wreck Yourself
  9. Embracing the Burdens of Busyness—Diagnosis #7: You Suffer More because You Don’t Expect to Suffer at All
  10. The One Thing You Must Do

Buyer beware. If you desire a self-help resource with a checklist for increased efficiency and quantum productivity, leave this paperback off your Christmas list. DeYoung goes hard after the heart. Chapter three on pride threw me under the bus, where I belong, I might add. Were I still raising kids, chapter six would have leveled me. Though it’s not my issue (I have plenty of others, Lord knows), the chapter on social media and its dangers is worth the price of reading admission in its unpacking of the 21st century malaise of acedia. I confess. I never heard of that word until now. Read the book for yourself to learn about it, especially if you spend endless hours on the Internet. This self-confessed busyaholic (my term) takes no prisoners on the road to recovery. Prepare to have your categories challenged, your behaviors examined, and your motives unveiled – as well as your prescription for health detailed.

The book is biblical and practical. You would expect nothing less from a Gospel Coalition spokesman. Some chapters may suffer from the minimalist treatment, but he did promise to keep things brief. For those who desire more, DeYoung offers annotation with multiple resources and even cites them at the bottom of the page for the convenience of the reader. I love this guy! If I ever write a book, I promise, I won’t make readers (assuming anybody wants to read what I write, of course) turn to the back of the thing to check the references. I hate that. I am too busy for that inconvenience.

I found chapter nine particularly encouraging. It represents the best of the best in this little jewel in terms of its balance. DeYoung doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. He takes the path of the fellow traveler on the road of finding a middle ground between being crazy busy and redemptively busy. He doesn’t take us off the hook about busyness. Laziness isn’t the answer anymore than frantic over scheduling is. Even the Apostle Paul experienced the challenge of daily concern (anxiety) for all the churches (2 Cor. 11:28). I shepherd only one church. Its concerns I find more than overwhelming. I should not expect to be exempt from the good suffering that is being rightly busy. I just want to learn better how to steward these pressures along the way. Thank you, Kevin DeYoung, for contributing to my shalom as one who desires to be less crazy busy and more redemptively busy.

FYI, I am incredibly pleased to report that copies of this book arrived at OGC this week. They will be available tomorrow morning in the resource center for the crazy low price of $5 for those not too busy to secure a copy.

Dealing with Your Earthly Dearest

Another OGC couple made the marital plunge this past weekend. I actually got the family name right this time around. With their “I do’s” Danny and Beth became even more than they already are each other’s earthly dearest.

How are they/we to keep from allowing our earthly dearest to outstrip our affections for our heavenly dearest? The words of C. S. Lewis give helpful counsel:

When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. Insofar as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.

Pray to God for grace to put first things first that second things be not suppressed but increased.

Every Pastor’s Priority Pursuit

My entrepreneurial son, Joel, calls me “old school,” but nevertheless I still conduct my ministry by means of a “to do” list. Any given week my legal pad version accumulates a lot of items. With a myriad of responsibilities on the pastor’s plate, how does a man triage them to keep the main thing the main thing, first things first? In 1 Timothy 4:11-16, Paul leaves no question in our minds as to what should be every pastor’s priority pursuit, regardless of what else may constrain his efforts.

Before we get to that remember that 1 Tim. 3:14-15 provides the controlling purpose to this first of the Pastoral Epistles. Paul wants Timothy to know how one ought to behave in the church. At the outset of chapter four, in the first five verses, he addresses the principal threat in Ephesus to that concern, namely the presence of false teaching. In v. 6ff Paul turns his attention as to how to counter that threat. In v. 11-16 he continues with that trajectory.

The main thought, I think, is this: To ensure right conduct in the church, pastors must give themselves to a fanatical concentration on the didactic dimension of their ministry with all its functions. As one writer has put it: The best antidote for error is a positive presentation of the truth.

Paul buries Timothy under an avalanche of imperatives in this paragraph – eleven in all. Command, teach, let none despise, set an example, devote, don’t neglect, practice, devote (again), keep a close watch, persist. Every single one of them without exception is framed in the present tense. This conveys continuous action. These things must represent Timothy’s perpetual focused concentration. And all have everything to do with his principal function – pastor-teacher. Three times, we find same root word – didaske – v. 11 – teach these things, v. 13 – devote yourself to . . . teaching, v. 16 – keep a close watch on  . . . the teaching.

Whatever pastors do they must be Acts 6:4 men above all else – we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word. We must fight, claw, struggle, strain, hemorrhage to give adequate time to study, meditation, and the formulation of our sermons. While other components make up our worship services, to be sure, we must get this straight from this text: public reading of the Scripture, exhortation, and teaching — the sermon and its accouterments matter above all else and should command the lion’s share of time and attention in our corporate gatherings.

By way of overview, notice Paul’s concern that in this focused fanatical attention on his teaching ministry, he would have Timothy give attention to three emphases: authoritative confidence, exemplary conduct, and accurate content.

First, his authoritative confidence. Command and teach. Let no one despise you (kataphroneo – to think down). It seems due to his youth and perhaps timidity of character and temperament, Timothy suffered from an inferiority complex of sorts in his pastoral work. Paul charged him to take responsibility for that and teach with authority, even to the point of commanding. Recalling the conditions upon which he was set apart for ministry by the council of elders in the laying on of hands (v. 14) would contribute to that confidence as well and guard him from neglecting his unique calling and pastoral gifts.

Second, his exemplary character. The way to confident authority in ministry is not by throwing one’s ecclesiastical weight around, abusing authority by lording it over the sheep (1 Pet. 5:3), but by setting an example to the flock. Tupos means a pattern to follow. Notice that this must occur on a comprehensive scale — from the words chosen and tones employed in public speech to one’s scrupulous purity, treating all the women of the church as sisters (1 Tim. 5:2). This matters so much that Paul concludes in v. 16 – Keep a close watch on yourself. He echoes his teaching in Acts 20:28 – Pay attention to yourselves and all the flock. Matthew Henry said it well: Those who teach by their doctrine must teach by their lives, else they pull down with one hand what they build up with the other.

Third, his accurate content. Teach these things. The these is emphatic in the text. Some eight times this Greek word tauta shows up. By which I presume he means what immediately came before but indeed the entire emphases of the epistle. Again, v. 16 – keep a close watch on yourself and the teaching. Second Timothy 2:15 must be the pastor’s rally-cry, his MO, his preoccupation, his fanatical obsession – do your best to present yourself approved to God as worker who has not need to be ashamed rightly handling the word of truth.

Why? Because the stakes are inordinately high. Consider the end of v. 16 – for in so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. The pastor’s is a rescue mission as a preacher and teacher of the gospel. It starts with himself and extends to his hearers. Everything depends upon his faithful communication of the biblical gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone.

Who indeed is competent for these things?

Thanks be to God that He makes His shepherds competent as ministers of the new covenant (2 Cor. 3:6).

What We Need Most in 2012 & Always (Part 3)

Sunday’s message is now on the web. You can listen to the audio here.

We have now completed the New Year’s emphasis on Godward priorities in prayer and the Word.

Part three focused on the word of His grace and the importance of regularly putting ourselves under the reading and hearing of the gospel.

Oh that the cry of John Wesley might be our cry as well:

I am a creature of a day. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God. I want to know one thing: the way to heaven. God himself has condescended to teach me the way. He has written it down in a book. Oh, give me that book! At any price give me the book of God. Let me be a man of one book.

May the Lord make of us a people committed to ultimate priorities now and always!

What We Need Most in 2012 & Always (Part 2)

Yesterday’s message from Acts 20:17-38 is now on the web. You can listen to the audio here.

Here’s how I summed up this second installment of what has become a three-part New Year’s mini-series:

Given grave threats to the church’s wellbeing, what it needs most is leaders and followers alike who focus on ultimate priorities – seeking the Lord in prayer and hearing His word of grace. What manner of people will we be at OGC in 2012 as we open our building and move into a new phase of our ministry? Let us be a Godward people. Two ideas for application this week:

  1. Determine some place and time where you will regularly meet with God for prayer and time in the word.
  2. Create some prayer cards for the most important people in your life per Paul Miller’s suggestion in his book, A Praying Life, and be sure to include a Scripture verse you will pray through regularly for each person/card.

Remember the admonition of Oswald Chambers in My Utmost for His Highest:

Jesus taught that a disciple has to make his relationship to God the dominating concentration of his life, and to be carefully careless about everything else in comparison to that.

More on Making the Most of Advent

Here are some final thoughts on navigating the Christmas holiday to the glory of God:

First, determine to bring Advent worship into the fabric of your home. Heads of households – let us function as believer priests on behalf of our families and lead in Advent devotions that serve to focus our spouses and our children upon things that truly matter this Christmas. Let us watch less in the way of endless Christmas specials devoted to the inane and trivial and read more of the Word that extols the Christ of God and listen more to the music that declares His praises and fellowship more with the people that embrace His Lordship and witness more to the lost who languish without His hope.

Second, say No more and Yes less so that the obligations of the season do not run away with you. Stay in control of your calendar. Prioritize ruthlessly as best you understand given God’s priorities for you. If you struggle to do that on your own, ask someone else to hold you accountable and give you counsel about what you should and should not commit to during this last month of the year.

Third, arm yourself with Paul’s promise in Phil. 4:13 that in Christ you can do all things – including making the most of Advent. This may prove especially true for you if you have experienced some significant loss this year or if you are battling some form of depression for whatever reason. Navigating the demands of the holiday season cannot be accomplished in one’s own strength. It takes the power and all-sufficient grace of Christ (2 Cor. 12:9). 

May He grant us ever-increasing amounts of grace to sing these words of the hymn writer and mean it: 

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.