Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Priorities. Those may be important.

Over the past 10-15 years, I've developed a list of Cowden's rules for daily living.  I've written about them before in some detail (though it was back in the days before the blog, so I can't link to them.  If you'd like to read about them, drop me a note in the comments or send me an email and I'll see if I can scare them up for you).  These are just little guides for my life...they help keep me intentionally mindful.  I've found that being intentionally mindful helps me follow Christ more closely.  But that's another article for another time.

I didn't come up with all the rules at once.  The list evolved.  It all began with Rule #1: It's not as bad as you think.  That one started with a Chancel Choir rehearsal in which I was trying to keep the choir optimistic about their upcoming program (and I would add quickly the statement was absolutely true: it wasn't as bad as they thought!).  Over time I began to apply that rule more broadly: our situation in life is rarely as bad as we think--rarely as bad as our mind makes it out to be.  We humans are gifted at imagining the worst and often hesitant to accept anything else.

And then one day in casual conversation I said, "It's not that simple."  That became Rule #2 when I realized it too applied broadly.  That's when I began keeping my list:

1. It's not as bad as you think.
2. It's not that simple.
3. It takes time.
4. Be thankful.
5. Keep growing.

I never add a rule if it can be covered by the others.  It has been years since I added one.

I've been considering a 6th rule lately.  I've been living with it now for a couple of months.  It has proven useful to my daily living on multiple occasions, and I don't think it's covered by the others.  Submitted for your approval (actually, not submitted for your approval--they're MY rules!)...

6. Know and understand your priorities.

One thing I heard over and over when Lisa and I got married was that finances were the most likely thing to derail our marriage.  Makes sense, I guess, because frequently financial distress does lead to marital strife and divorce.  But if that were true, how would couples with very limited financial resources succeed?  I'm convinced it's not about how many dollars you have.  Rather, it's all a question of priorities.  It's not the presence or absence of money.  It's a question of what to spend it on.

Priorities.  Our priorities go a long way toward defining who we are.  Our list of priorities--the relative value we place on everything in this world--is as unique as our fingerprint.  How do we choose to allocate limited resources?  Money.  Time.  Energy.  Influence.  I don't mean morals or values here.  Both are included on your list of priorities, priority, at least in my mind, is a much broader concept.

So let's go back to that marriage.  Limited financial resources have a funny way of teasing out a difference of priorities.  But limited time has the same effect.  That's why another common cause of marital friction is how one spouse or the other choose to use available free time.  And what about energy?  Ever heard one spouse wish the other had more energy to be present for the family rather than giving it all to work?  I've heard that before...

Conflict of priority applies broadly to our interpersonal relationships, not just marriage.  And it applies even more broadly than that.  It applies institutionally.  How many churches have encountered trouble when various groups within it struggle with the most important uses for church funds or buildings.  Churches have split over this.  Years ago Scott Boulevard Baptist Church had some funding and needed to choose whether to build a gymnasium or a great hall.  Groups lined up on both sides, and a bunch of folks left when the choice was made.  They left because the decision of the church did not agree with their personal priorities.

It applies to our country too, and our world.  There are limited resources on this planet.  The biggest contributor to our chronic struggle is our disagreement on what is most important.

It's worth saying again: limited resources have a funny way of teasing out a difference of priorities.  That difference of priority leads to disagreement over how to allocate resources.  Disagreement escalates to conflict.  Conflict escalates to anger.  Anger to hate.  Hate to suffering.  (Thanks for taking that one on home, Yoda!).

Knowing and understanding your priorities can help you identify why you are feeling the way you are feeling.  This understanding can also help you achieve what is most important to you.  But this is tricky business, because our minds play tricks on us!  The truth is we actually have several lists of priorities written on our hearts.

First, there is the list of things we know should be important.  Some external system has told us these things are important.  Family.  Trustworthiness.  Loyalty.  Altruism.  Love.

Next, there's the list of things we think are important to us.  This list may resemble the first one because we have identified the first as the ideal, and we'd like to think we are striving toward that ideal.

Finally, there's the list of things that are actually important to us.  The funny thing about this list is that we are usually blind to it.  It's obscured by the second list.  Unfortunately for us this is also the list most people see!  Frequently the discovery of what is actually important to us is painful because we've convinced ourselves we have priorities that we don't.  So you think family is important to you?  Ask your spouse.  Or your children.  And don't just ask them if they feel important to you.  Ask for evidence.  I guarantee their answer will include discussion of how you use your resources (not just money) for their benefit...or (sadly) for some other benefit.  The more resources you allocate to them, the higher their actual priority...and most often the more they will feel they are a priority to you.

Asking others about their perception of your priorities is a good place to start, but it's only the beginning.  After all, their perception is influenced by their own priorities.  Plumbing the depths of your priorities means becoming mindful of what your resources are and how you choose to invest them.

You may like what you see.  You may not.  The good news is that if you don't you can change them.  The bad news is that it isn't easy!  The only way to change your actual priorities is to consistently and mindfully allocate your resources in a new direction.  Old habits and patterns die hard, so this is a daily battle.  But over time, new habits will reveal new priorities.

A little more bad news.  Once you have consistently demonstrated an actual priority, you have to demonstrate a different priority for a long time before it will be perceived and accepted by others as a change.

So there it is.  Rule #6: Know and understand your priorities.  This one, like the others, goes as deep as you'll let it.  Heck, each of the last about 10 paragraphs could be worked into an entire article, and there are some aspects I didn't get into!  Maybe I'll write some of those articles one day.  In the meantime, I really do welcome your feedback on this one.  It's a work in progress.  Comment below or send me an email (jcowden@decaturfirst.org).  I'd love to hear from you.

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