I have been mulling over a memorable object lesson that Stephen Covey tells in his book First Things First. I’ve seen various forms of the story over the years; perhaps you have too. Below is a collation of some versions I collected. Even if you recognize the story, it’s one that is good to hear again! As Peter said, “I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them” (2 Peter 1:12). At least I know that I have needed to reflect on it again as this New Year begins.
During a lecture on time management, the instructor set a wide-mouth gallon jar on the table next to a platter covered with fist-sized rocks. “How many of these rocks do you think we can get in the jar?” he asked.
Class members offered several guesses. He put rocks in the jar until no more would fit. Then he asked, “Is the jar full?”
Everybody agreed. The jar was full. The instructor reached under the table, brought out a bucket of gravel, and started dumping the gravel in the jar. It filled the little spaces around the rocks. The instructor grinned and asked, “Is the jar full?”
“Probably not,” the class said. The instructor reached under the table, brought out a bucket of sand and started dumping the sand in the jar. It filled in the little spaces left by the rocks and gravel. Once more he asked, “Is the jar full?”
“No!” the class shouted back. With this he started pouring about a quart of water into the jar.
When he asked the class for the point of his picture parable, someone replied, “The point is, no matter how full your schedule is, if you try really hard, you can always fit some more things in it!”
“No,” the instructor said. “My point is, put the big rocks in first. Think of the rocks as the important things in life. The bits of gravel are things that matter but on a smaller scale. The sand and water are everything else, the truly small stuff. It’s true that you can often fit in some smaller stuff. But if you put those things in first, you won’t have room for as many rocks.”
What are the things that really matter in our life? Time with loved ones? A relationship with God? Our education? Our health? A worthy cause? Teaching or mentoring others? Nudging persons around us toward Jesus? If we don’t deliberately plan to make room in our week for the big priorities, all kinds of smaller things will quickly fill our days and we may never get to some of the truly important things.
Each morning, or perhaps each night, it’s good to examine one’s life: What are the ‘big rocks’? Am I putting those in my jar first?
Many versions of the following story have been told:
There were two boys who were brothers. One was a confirmed pessimist and the other a blooming optimist through and through. The parents of the boys were trying every way they could to temper the natures of the boys, but with little success.
One year when Christmas time came around, the parents were very careful to purchase for the pessimistic one something that he had expressed a wish for—a gold watch. But in the stocking of the optimistic youngster, who sorely wanted a pony, they only put some horsehair.
Christmas morning came. The pessimist, who was the first downstairs, took the watch out of his stocking and said, “Looks like a gold watch—it’s probably brass—it probably won’t keep time very well.” Shortly afterwards the boy-optimist came bounding down; he took one look into his stocking, grabbed his coat, and headed for the back door. His parents called out, “Where are you going?” He shouted back, “With all this horsehair, there’s got to be a pony around somewhere!”
The beginning of a new year is a natural time to take a look at our attitudes toward life. Particularly attitudes that our faith can help us adjust.
For me, nothing shapes my level of optimism or inner buoyancy as much as my level of trust and obedience in God:
- When something tells me that life is going to get more difficult or be less rewarding, my faith relationship with God affects how I receive that message. If my goal is to love and please God and to hear “well done, good and faithful servant” at the end of my life, then even in the face of any life disappointment, I still have occasion for hope and optimism. Why? Because obeying God is something I can always do! Further, walking with God is an adventure! And thanks to God’s grace, I’m not fraught with the anxiety that I must obey perfectly.
- When someone whose opinion matters to me makes a comment or an action that implies that they don’t value me, again my relationship with God affects my reaction. I’m listening for God’s “well done,” not for what that person may or may not think.
My life marked the passing of time in several ways last week.
On Wednesday nine of us (part of one of Trissels’ small groups) watched the ball drop to signal the arrival of a new year. As the last seconds of 2014 were ticking away, a woman was threading her way across the room toward me — my favorite person to talk with and touch. Her timing was perfect: as we began enjoying a kiss of discreet (I hope!) passion, cries of “Happy New Year!” and then “Happy Anniversary!” went up. Yes, that midnight marks for us not only the start of a New Year but also of a wedding anniversary. Karen & I began our 32nd year of “marital bliss,” as she calls it, a description true enough to be amazing!
Then on Saturday Karen & I and our kids and spouses, nine of us (plus!), gathered to celebrate my 60th birthday. Can it be?! It seems I’m just in my 30’s or — if I think about it — maybe 40’s. Then on Sunday the church family surprised me with further celebration!
The passing of time pressed itself in on me another way last week, this one much less fun. I had no sermon to prepare, so I was going to attack some piles of reading material and projects at home and in my office. But the piles are only a bit smaller.
How to use time — what to do, what not to do — is perhaps the hardest battle I face.
Stephen Cherry talked to some of us VMC pastors last summer about being “not busy” (see notbusy.co.uk). He says that our initial response when we sense that there “isn’t enough time” is time management — trying to get more out of each block of time. But Cherry says that the answer to busy-ness is not to try to live faster. (When engaging in a song, we don’t speed it up so we can get through it faster!) The answer lies in “timing,” in spiritually discerning what this particular present moment is for.
That’s my goal this new year and this new decade in my life: be constantly monitoring (and responding to!) the Spirit’s nudging as to what is to be done. I’m finite, limited; there will be tasks I leave undone, persons I disappoint. But there will be peace and well-being each moment I sense that I’m doing what the Lord of my days is calling me to do!
“Now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light!” (Ephesians 5:8).
This world is full of darkness – evil, suffering, confusion. Yet we ended our year with festivities, nonetheless. The Light of the world has come (Matthew 4:16, John 1:9, 8:12, 12:46)! Light will always overcome darkness — all the darkness in the whole world cannot put out the light of one small candle. Especially this Light (John 1:5).
As a new year begins, we can continue our celebration. The One who came as the Light of the world is kindling light in us! Jesus says that we, his followers, are also the Light of the world (Matthew 5:14-16). As we love and obey Jesus, the beautiful qualities of his life are transmitted to our own — his goodness, integrity, love, compassion, justice. The great darkness around us merely allows Jesus’ light to shine more strongly! To get a good view of the stars, one must find a place that is truly dark.
So let’s enter the new year, doing what we can to fully connect with Jesus and let his light shine through us. This means brokenness and humility (choosing to confess, repent, be taught); commitment to Jesus as Lord. It means sacrifice (give up natural desires for the sake of loving God and neighbor) and worship (love for God is expressed and grows and takes focus off self). It means commitment to a local congregation (work through differences and difficult times, forgive each other) and fellowship (affirmation and affection, mutual encouragement and accountability) and bible study (learn who God is and what he calls us to do) and prayer (an interactive friendship as God guides and strengthens us).
The culmination of this connection happens as we go into this dark world as Jesus’ hands and voice, doing acts of service and justice (actively work for the good of others, especially the poor and powerless) and evangelism (build a relationship around a common interest, talk about spiritual life as it comes up) and missions (build the Kingdom of God around the world). What a great year this can be!