Put First Things First

You can’t get second things by putting them first.You get second things only by putting first things first.” - C.S. Lewis, God In The Dock

James Russell Lowell was an American poet and diplomat. He was a Harvard grad who spent twenty years as Smith Professor of Modern Languages at his alma mater.  Later in life, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him as Minister to Spain (1877-1880). He would then serve as Ambassador to Great Britain (1880-1885).1

Lowell was a poet and a leader. Today, I want to turn to his poetry to help improve our leadership. Lowell wrote For An Autograph at the age of 49. Here are the words of a man with some years under his belt, with a reminder every leader needs: Begin well. Life is short!

Though old the thought and oft exprest, Tis his at last who says it best, - I'll try my fortune with the rest.
Life is a leaf of paper white Whereon each one of us may write His word or two, and then comes night.
"Lo, time and space enough," we cry, "To write an epic!" so we try Our nibs upon the edge, and die.
Muse not which way the pen to hold, Luck hates the slow and loves the bold, Soon come the darkness and the cold.
Greatly begin! though thou have time But for a line, be that sublime, - Not failure, but low aim, is crime.
Ah, with what lofty hope we came! But we forget it, dream of fame, And scrawl, as I do here, a name.
James Russell Lowell, For An Autograph

Reduced to its essence, your life is a piece of paper and you are holding the pen. Be bold. Write well!

Christian leaders understand what Lowell says because we’ve heard the words before:

Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Psalm 39:5
What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. James 4:14

What is the secret for “writing well”? How do we make sure our leadership is all poetry and prose and not discombobulated chicken scratch?  

We need to return to the words of C.S. Lewis in God In The Dock:

You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.”

We can write a great life . . . we can lead well when we put first things first. Of course that is easier said than done. Reflecting on the words of Lewis, one might ask:

  • How do I assess "first things"?
  • How do I actually prioritize matters of first importance?
  • How much time should I allocate to them?
  • What do I do when life gets in the way?

We need wisdom! The Psalmist prayed:

Lord, teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.2

May God give you a wise heart today, one that is able to discern first things and then put first things first.

Tomorrow, I will be sharing a principle that God has used to help me assess and practice “first things.” I have not mastered this principle, but I look forward to sharing what I am learning. It has been one of my key learnings over the course of the last two years.

1 James Russell Lowell, entry from Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com. Accessed February 28, 2012.2 Psalm 90:12 ESV