The Chaos of Too Many Canaries
THE CHAOS OF TOO MANY CANARIES
Today I want to begin with a story that's been around for a while — maybe I've told it here before — but it's a great story and it feels like it was custom-made for today's message.
The story goes that a man was driving down the road behind a large truck, and began to notice something strange. At every stoplight the truck driver jumped out of the cab and pounded the side of the truck with a baseball bat, then jumped back in the truck and took off.
After seeing this happen at 5 or 6 lights, the man's curiosity got the best of him. At the next light, he jumped out of his car and ran up to the driver who was furiously pounding his truck.
He said, "Hey fella, can I ask you what you're doing?"
The driver said, "It's like this. I have a one ton truck and two tons of canaries in the cargo container. That means I have to keep a ton of birds in the air at all times or this truck won't move."
Have you ever felt that way — like you had more canaries than you could carry? I certainly have, and every pastor I know, every business person I know, every mother and father that I know, every student that I have ever known has felt this way: I've got so much content in the cargo container of my life that sometimes I'm just too weighed down to move forward.
If you've ever felt this way, I want you to know that you're not alone. Today I want to talk to you a little bit about the too-many-canaries syndrome, and how to deal with it.
We're in our third week of a series called Immovable. It's about learning to stand your ground in a culture of chaos.
In week one we talked about dealing with the chaos that we tend to create for ourselves, both through sinful willfulness and through misguided and unwise decisions. We talked about the need to confront the chaos head on: asking the right questions and listening to the right people and taking the right steps in follow-up.
Last week we talked about dealing with the chaos we encounter in the world around us: that even when things happen outside our realm of influence and control, we need to acknowledge that God is ultimately in control of even the most out of control situations — and we need to confront the chaos by taking charge of those areas in which we can take charge, and doing our part in making things right — even when we feel like the problem is bigger than we are.
Today we'll look at the chaos of too much cargo. I'm talking about the chaos of a full plate — the chaos you experience when day-in and day-out you have more to do than can possibly get done, and the list keeps growing ... exponentially.
Have you ever been there? Every day you have time to do six big things, and every day 10 big things get added to the list. It's not only stressful, it's extremely frustrating — because it means that important matters aren't being tended to.
Today we'll look at a story that takes place in the early days of the church. Literally, in the first year or so of the church's existence.
It was a brand new organization, filled with the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit, and God was moving among the people every day ... every day numbers were being added to the community of faith ... every day people were coming to Christ ... every day urgent needs and matters of importance were being presented to the leaders that required their attention now ... and it was up to the apostles to find a way to get things in order.
God was behind all this growth, but as I mentioned last week, it is wrong for us to expect for God to gift-wrap all the details and deliver them on our doorstop with a pretty bow tied around the box.
When we're faced with a challenge, we're expected to do our part. We can't just say, "Let God handle it," because his response will be, in effect: No, you handle it. I'm filling your life with all these blessings and opportunities, and it's up to you to manage them well.
Here's the story.
Since the Day of Pentecost, the church had exploded with growth, and as part of their outreach to the community, they had set up a system of the daily distribution of food to those who were in need. This is our heritage: from the very beginning the church has been involved in the ministry of compassion. From the very beginning we have been looking out for the needs of others.
It's a habit we inherited from our Jewish forefathers in faith. As William Barclay says, "No nation has ever had a greater sense of responsibility for the less fortunate brethren than the Jews."
Even in ancient times, each Jewish synagogue had the custom of collecting money and food from those in the market place and from private individuals, and these resources were distributed to those in need and to those who were unable to care for themselves.
The early church continued this custom.
However, because of the rapid growth and the cross-cultural makeup of the Christian church, some problems soon surfaced.
At this time, most of the believers in the early church were Jews. They fell into one of two categories. There were the local Palestinian Jews who still spoke Aramaic, and there were also Greek speaking Jews — those who had converted to Judaism or those who had come from foreign countries and no longer spoke the ancestral language. This second group was often considered a lesser-class of Jew, and so in today's story it comes up that some of them complained about being overlooked in the daily distribution.
There's the context. Now, let's read the story from Acts.
1 But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food.
2 So the Twelve called a meeting of all the believers. They said, "We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program.
3 And so, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will give them this responsibility.
4 Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word."
5 Everyone liked this idea, and they chose the following: Stephen (a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit), Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas of Antioch (an earlier convert to the Jewish faith).
6 These seven were presented to the apostles, who prayed for them as they laid their hands on them.
7 So God's message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too.
In this story we see how the apostles took control of a situation that was on the verge of getting out of hand, and they took some very simple, practical steps that would enable them to deal with the demands of a growing ministry.
When they heard that there were issues with the daily distribution of food, they said, in effect, "This is a matter that needs to be resolved, but this represents more canaries than we have the capacity to carry. So let's re-assess our priorities, let's rethink our strategy for getting things done, and let's recruit qualified people to help us do it."
And that's what they did.
Now, if you're dealing today with the tyranny of a full plate, and you currently have more cargo than you carry, I want you to know that this is a good thing — at least, most of the time. Being busy is good, when you're busy with the right things. Being busy is good, because it means that doors are opening and opportunities are available.
I have a friend who started his own consulting business a while back — and he spent weeks waiting for the first customer and months waiting for the next customer, and at one point he said, "What I wouldn't give to have too much work to do. I'm tired of doing nothing."
Fortunately, most of us have the opposite problem: more opportunities than we have time to pursue, more canaries than we have the capacity to carry.
Some see the solution to this problem as: I need less canaries. I need less on my plate.
However, those who learn to stand strong in a culture of chaos will say instead: I don't want less cargo; I want a bigger cargo container. I don't want less on my plate, I want a bigger plate.
If this is you, then today I want to suggest three things that you can do that will help you increase your capacity to get things done. If you're in the middle of the chaos that comes with having too many canaries, there are three things you need to keep an eye out for. First of all, you need to...
1. Keep an eye out for uncovered bases.
This situation between the Hebraic Jews and the Grecian Jews — it was an uncovered base. It was something slipping through the cracks. It was a serious matter that had been overlooked and could be overlooked no more.
The apostles could have dismissed the complaint, saying something along the lines of, "No matter what you do, somebody's going to find something to gripe about." They could have said that because it's kind of true. People are going to complain, even when their complaint has no validity.
However, strong leaders — wise leaders — can discern the difference between frivolous whining and a genuine problem that needs to be resolved.
There are many leaders out there who would not respond the way the apostles responded. Their response would be, instead, to turn a deaf ear to what the people are saying. Their response would be to tell the Hellenistic Jews to stop making such a big deal out of nothing, to stop being so negative and divisive. And in doing so they would have lost a great opportunity for ministry.
Just because you're busy — just because you've got a lot on your plate — doesn't give you permission to ignore the needs of others, or to ignore problematic situations.
That's what ineffective leaders do.
You show me a business that's no longer in business, and I'll show you a group of leaders who paid no attention to uncovered bases. You show me a church that's on the verge of closing its doors, and I'll show you a church that has turned a deaf ear to the needs of its community.
There are many people who think: If I ignore this problem long enough, it will go away. If I just leave this door open, some of these canaries will fly away and I won't have to deal with them any more.
That's not the way to develop strength in the midst of chaos. That's the easy way out, not the immovableway out.
It may sound like I'm heaping more stress on you when you're already stretched to the limit ... but I'm not. So stay with me.
But I want you to understand, first, that no matter how hectic things may be, you still need to keep an eye out for uncovered bases, you still need to keep an eye out for unmet needs, you still need to keep an eye out for opportunities that God is bringing your way.
This situation between the Greek-speaking Jews and the Aramaic-speaking Jews was really an opportunity in disguise — an opportunity to increase the church's effectiveness in serving others, and an opportunity to create a whole new ministry option for dedicated believers.
The apostles chose seven men and appointed them as deacons: servants of the church. They came up with this plan because of the second thing I want you to see today. In order to deal with chaos of having too much to do, you need to...
2. Keep an eye out for solutions that won't compete with your priorities.
The apostles said, in effect, "Yes, this is a problem that needs to be addressed, but we have another problem as well. Our top priority is preaching and teaching the Word of God. And if we devote all of our time to the daily distribution of food — as important as this ministry might be — we won't have time to tend to what God has called us to do above everything else: Preaching the Word."
It's not that preaching is more important than serving, or that preaching is more important than seeing to the needs of others. Both need to be done, but the apostles themselves couldn't do it all. So they got creative and came up with a plan that didn't compete with their top priority of preaching the Word.
Here's what I'm saying.
One mistake we make when our schedules become too full is that we start chopping things from our schedule. This can be a good thing if we're eliminating non-essential time-wasting activity, but it's a bad thing when our schedule chopping causes us to overlook essential matters. Eliminating TV? Good. Eliminating ministry to others in need? Not good.
Let's not make that mistake. Neither do we want to make the next mistake.
The second mistake we make when our schedules become too full is that we allow ourselves to become distracted from priority one.
Priority one for the apostles was preaching the Word. A very close second was the daily distribution of food to those in need. The apostles couldn't do both themselves, so they came up with a plan that allowed for both to be done.
A friend told me recently that he had become tired of the tension between knowing he was called to be the spiritual leader of his family, and knowing that he needed to be the primary breadwinner as well — because his breadwinning had him gone all the time. So he and his wife came up with a solution that involved him working less, and earning less, and the family spending less — but having more time together to do what really matters.
Obviously a man has to work, and a family needs money to live, but they were able to come up with a solution that didn't compete with what matters most in their lives.
When we come at this with the attitude that says, "I'm not going to eliminate anything important from my life, but I am going to keep my top priority as my top priority," — when this is our attitude, the right solution will present itself.
If your plate is too full, there is a solution that doesn't involve dismissing the needs of others, and that doesn't involve setting outside your top priorities. If you seek out this solution, you'll find it. It usually comes in the form of the third thing I want you to see today.
In order to deal with chaos of having too much to do, you need to...
3. Keep an eye out for what others have to offer.
The apostles said, "Here's a job that desperately needs to be done ... and look: we have seven men who are well respected and filled with the Holy Spirit and overflowing with wisdom. Let's get them plugged in to ministry."
These seven men were ideal for the job because the apostles had been doing their job. Their job was to teach and preach the Word so that Christ would be formed in them and they might become fully devoted disciples. The Bible says that they were filled with the Spirit — they got filled with the Spirit sitting under the apostle's teaching. The Bible says that were full of wisdom — they developed wisdom while sitting under the apostle's teaching.
If the disciples had spent all their time waiting tables rather than preaching the Word, these men would not have become mature believers, and they wouldn't have been ready to step into their own area of ministry.
While the apostles were preaching and teaching the Word of God, they were also paying attention to the believers around them, seeing how other leaders in the church were coming along, how they were growing in their faith, how they committed to lives of holiness. And when the time was right, they plugged them into an area of ministry.
If your plate is too full, it's not that God wants you to toss out some of the good stuff on your plate. It's that he wants you to find a way to share what's on your plate with others.
The dad I just told you about who restructured his professional life in order to have more time with his family — he wasn't only one making changes. In addition to some family-wide cost-cutting measures, the wife began teaching piano and the oldest son took a part-time job. The dad didn't have to do everything on his own; the whole family chipped in.
I want you to think of the some of the things that are creating the overflow in your daily schedule, and ask yourself: Who can I recruit to join me in this endeavor?
If you're serving in an area of ministry that has become too unwieldy to deal with — before you let go of it, consider taking on a partner. Consider building a team around you.
For this reason we should always be looking for leadership qualities in others, because as God gives increase to the opportunities in your life, he will also bring gifted people your way to work with you side-by-side.
Now, I know what it's like to have two tons of canaries in a one-ton truck. And I know how tempting it is to just open the back door and let some of those canaries fly away.
More than that, I know how tempting it is to forget about driving the truck all together, and spend ALL your time instead pounding on the cargo container with a baseball bat.
That's not God's way of doing it.
This is God's way: When you've got too many canaries in the truck, he wants to help you get a bigger truck. When you've got too much on your plate, he wants to help you get a bigger plate.
As long as you are serious about being dedicated follower of Jesus Christ, you'll never get to the place where you have next-to-nothing to do. You'll never get to the place where your schedule isn't full.
That's because we're not on vacation here. This isn't an extended Spring Break. In this life we've got a job to do — a world to change.
The plate before us becomes bigger and the cargo container becomes larger when we stand strong in our commitment to serve the needs of others, and we stand strong in our commitment to keep our priorities straight, and we stand strong in our commitment to work hand-in-hand with one another.