Scripture: Haggai: 1:1-15; Matthew 6:33
Admiral William H. McRaven became well known when he delivered a commencement address that suggested that one of the most important things we do in life is to make our beds. He believes that little things can change our lives and maybe the world. He is best known for suggesting that if we want to change the world, we should start off by making our beds.
Admiral McRaven describes the barracks at basic SEAL training as a nondescript three-story building located on the beach of Coronado, California, just a hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean. The rooms were spartan containing four beds, a closet for uniforms, and nothing else. Admiral McRaven would roll out of his Navy rack and immediately begin the process of making his bed. It was the first act of his day, a day he knew would be filled with uniform inspections, long swims, longer runs, obstacle courses, and constant harassment from SEAL instructors.
Admiral McRaven goes on to say that his bed was as simple as the rest of the room, nothing but a steel frame and a single mattress. There were strict standards for bed making, and any deviations resulted in punitive consequences. Each morning the instructor would bend over the bed, checking the hospital corners and other requirements, and finally would reach into his pocket, and pull out a quarter to see if it would bounce off the bed. Admiral McRaven summarizes this daily routine by saying, “Making my bed correctly was not going to be an opportunity for praise. It was expected of me. It was my first task of the day, and doing it right was important. It demonstrated my discipline. It showed my attention to detail and at the end of the day it would be a reminder that I had done something to be proud of, no matter how small the task.” (Make Your Bed by William H. McRaven, pg. 6)
The prophet Haggai speaks to the Jewish people of Jerusalem in 520 B.C., eighteen years after their return from exile in Babylon. Babylon has destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple some seventy years ago. Haggai was old enough to recall the splendor of Jerusalem before the destruction of the temple, and he now feels that people are defaulting to misplaced priorities. He had a passionate desire to see his people rise up from the ashes of exile and reclaim some of the stability of their former lives. Jerusalem was coming to life again. Stores are opened, commerce has been re-established, fields have been planted, and crops harvested. Things appeared to be returning to normal, but Israel had become used to life without the Temple. The foundations were overgrown with weeds. Those who returned to Jerusalem had planted plenty of seeds, but there was a drought and the crop yield was disappointing. People were working hard with no profit. They had active lifestyles, but were not experiencing satisfaction. They were spinning their wheels.
Haggai seems to correlate his people’s lack of food, clothing and shelter to their procrastination in rebuilding the temple. They had not made their bed. Perhaps they had developed a sophisticated list of excuses: times are hard, not now maybe later, we have to take care of our own needs first.
Haggai’s message to rebuild the temple was passionate, simple, and straightforward. He advised that they drop the excuses and get to work. Through the physical act of rebuilding the temple, Haggai’s people began to indicate a shift in their spiritual lives from devotion to self toward devotion to God. The temple was symbolic of first things first, putting God first and foremost in thought and action. The people listened to the message of Haggai, and gathered together to rebuild the physical temple, believing that if they made God the center of their lives, they would realize the future blessings that God had in store for them. The temple was rebuilt one brick at a time.
There are things in life that prevent us from putting God first. One of the greatest threats to putting first things first is our paralyzing quest for perfection. We long for perfection. We want the perfect house, job, spouse, boss and spiritual leader. And when we find them, we want them to stay that way forever, never to lose the glow, never to grow old or stale, never to lose their edge. We’re also taught to seek perfection in ourselves. Unfortunately, we pass this search for perfection on to our children. We start to believe that if we seek enough therapy, work out at the gym, eat an especially leafy diet, watch documentaries about self-improvement, manage our cholesterol, and meditate, we come closer to the golden calf of perfection.
It's natural to admire and celebrate excellence and the dedication that goes with it. Choosing to give ourselves fully to an art, a work, a creation, a discipline is part of our human freedom, and is joyful and admirable. Dedication and commitment help us to give our best, hone our skills commit to our art, our work, our love. But this kind of effort is different from perfection. Artists, parents, athletes, chefs and preachers may celebrate their best performances, but if they are obsessed with holding on to perfection, they will flirt with idolatry, suffer, and ultimately lose their edge. It is the dedication and total giving that are our sources of joy.
Dedication and commitment are beautiful qualities that are best tempered by love and wisdom. We can set our goals, direct our energy, work with vigor, and try for the best, but the results are always uncertain. Freedom requires dedication and commitment without clinging to the end result. With the freedom of imperfection, we can experience forgiveness and compassion for ourselves and others.
God gives us many gifts, and it is up to each of us to know and value them. We might ask what lights us up; what do we care about; what draws us to be our best creative and contributing selves? What is our calling? ….not what others think it should be, but what God wants us to be. We can start with the smallest gesture. As the well known writer William James suggests, we don’t have to start big. He asserts, “I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible, loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, oozing water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride.”
Putting first things first is not about corporate time management, rather it is about preparing the way to best expend our energies, our thoughts and our actions on the things that are most important to us, the things that are the grit of our souls, the things that reflect our deepest faith.
And our reading from Matthew also speaks of putting first things first. We are challenged to seek first God’s kindom and God’s righteousness with the assurance that if we act in this way, all of the basic needs of life will be provided. We seek God’s kindom as sincere, authentic, compassionate and giving people.
When we act with authenticity, even if it appears to serve others, it is also for our own sake. When Gandhi was asked what motivated him to sacrifice and do so much for India, he smiled in response and explained. “I don’t do it for India. I do it for myself.”
In her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware, a palliative caregiver, observes that the number one regret of dying persons is: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself not the life others expected of me.” We only find what is true to ourselves by doing first things first. Perhaps the spiritual equivalent to making our beds is to begin each day with gratitude, consciously thanking God for our many gifts.
In our quest to discover our true selves, we might ask:
What brings us most alive?
What do we love to share?
What makes us feel most creative?
What makes us want to dance?
What makes us feel most connected to other people?
What makes us laugh?
What have been our greatest blessings?
How do we put first things first?
What are the things that define us as a congregation, and how do we put first things first? I would suggest that first we must gather, we must come together for worship. We must sing together, bow together, laugh together, praise and pray together before we will discover who we are as a congregation. Out of our community will emerge our deepest values and our deepest callings. Out of our coming together will come our first things first.
Admiral McRaven shares his philosophical support of putting first things first when he observes the perspective of his military comrades: “They all understood that life is hard and that sometimes there is little you can do to affect the outcome of your day. In battle soldiers die, families grieve, your days are long and filled with anxious moments. You search for something that can give you solace, that can motivate you to begin your day, that can be a sense of pride of an oftentimes ugly world. But it is not just combat. It is daily life that needs this same sense of structure. Nothing can replace the strength and comfort of one’s faith, but sometimes the simple act of making your bed can give you the lift you need to start your day and provide you the satisfaction to end it right.
If you want to change your life and maybe the world---start by making your bed!” (Make Your Bed by Admiral William H. McRaven, pg. 9)