I am the LORD your God ... you shall have no other Gods before me. (Exodus 20:2-3 NRS)
A Buddhist woman in the province of Chiang Mai, Thailand, recently discovered that even monks are not immune to the pull of competing priorities.
The woman went to her town's temple for her mandatory morning offering, only to be told by a senior monk that she would have to come back later. The monk apologetically explained to her that most of his colleagues were still asleep, having stayed up until well past midnight the night before. If it had been prayer that had kept them up, or service to the needy, the woman might have been more understanding. But it was neither.
The monks had been watching a World Cup match.
In fact, the chief monk in Chiang Mei, Phra Thep Wisuthikhun, has received complaints about "inappropriate behavior" in at least seven temples in the province, all related to World Cup games. The most common complaint has been against monks who have made too much noise cheering for their team. While monks aren't banned from watching the games, Wisuthikun says, "It is the duty of the abbot of each temple to supervise the behavior of young monks, making sure that their religious activities will not be affected by the games."
In response, what if the soccer fan monks had said, "Go, Thailand!"
I have to confess that at times I find I have the same difficulty as those monks with keeping my religious activities from being crowded out by other things. While I don't think that cheering for a favorite team necessarily conflicts with my faith, I can certainly think, without trying too hard, of times I allowed other priorities to take precedence in my thoughts and in my actions. It's not that I meant to, of course. It's not that I made a conscious decision somewhere to let other things crowd the will of God out of my life. That's the problem, of course — it doesn't generally happen in a momentous, once-for-all decision. It happens in a thousand day-to-day choices that seem, at the time, to be fairly trivial. While hindsight in such cases is 20/20, foresight can be essentially blind.
I'm thinking of the Sunday night when I was in college that I skipped evening worship to watch the Super Bowl. (In my defense, it was before the advent of Tivo ...) But, that's fairly minor compared to the times I've not been vocal about my faith because I didn't want people to think I was some sort of fanatic — funny how we worry about that with religion and not sports. Or the times when I might have chosen to shade the truth in order to say what someone else wanted to hear. Then there are the times when I've not treated people fairly for one selfish reason or another, or when I've spent money on another unneeded trinket without a thought for the ways in which that money could have blessed others. And so it goes, if I'm honest with myself: wrong priorities that have affected my "religious activities."
The same thing that gives us, perhaps, more freedom than one of those monks paradoxically makes more demands upon us. We're free to cheer at sports events, marry and enjoy love with our spouses, wear what we choose, eat and drink what we like, read and watch and listen to whatever we're inclined to, work in whatever career we can. We're not as obviously held to a special standard of separation from the world. That makes us free in some ways, yes, but it also places upon us the responsibility of doing whatever we do for the glory of God. We're free to do what we like, but bound to do it in such a way that it doesn't get in the way of our first priority: to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength.
That, I suppose, is why the first of the Ten Commandments is all about getting straight who God is. As it turns out, that commandment isn't just about making a decision at baptism and calling on Jesus to be our Lord so that nothing else in our lives will take God's place as first in our hearts. It's also about making that decision to place God first all the time, every day, in a hundred different ways. That commandment has to be first because if our faith is properly integrated into our lives, it's that decision that everything else is always coming back to: Who or what will be my God?
Go ahead and own up to it. Monks in Thailand, preachers in Chicago, ball-bearing salesmen in Des Moines, caterers in Canton — we all need to give some thought to our priorities from time to time. We all need moments of clarity where we can see our own hearts clearly enough to do some re-arranging. God gives us that room. Our problems with our priorities are no mystery to him. He sees them, even more clearly that we see them ourselves. And while misplaced priorities don't make him happy, they don't surprise him, either. He knows. He knows, because in Christ he has participated in that same struggle.
Satan invited him, just like he does us, to change his priorities just a hair, and just for a moment. "Do a parlor trick and turn some stones into bread to fill your stomach. Test God's faithfulness, just to be sure he won't let you down. Bow down and worship me — you don't even have to mean it — and I'll give you wealth and power" (Matthew 4:1-11).
And each time Jesus answered, "It is written." Each time the words of God were on his lips and the will of God was in his heart. And if we'll seek him, our priorities will be equally clear. But it isn't easy. It's often inconvenient and sometimes hurts. Right priorities often do. They got Jesus killed.
I hope they won't get you killed. But even if they do, nothing changes. God is plenty faithful enough to lay your life on the line for. Again, look at Jesus: right priorities got him killed — but they also gave him life. Nothing else which we might be tempted to put first in our lives, none of the other so-called "gods" for which human beings live and sweat and bleed and die, can deliver on that promise. God can. More than that, he will. Guaranteed. Try him and see.
Where else can you find a sure thing?