Is Life a DIY Project?

“Seek first the kingdom of God.” Matthew 6:33

City Slickers came out in 1991 and provided all of us young preachers at the time a wonderful illustration about what is most important in life. Mitch (Billy Crystal), an aging yuppie, is beginning to come to grips with the fact that his increasingly busy life is increasingly meaningless. With two equally confused friends he goes on a two-week cattle drive in the hope of figuring out life.

The trail boss for the cattle drive, Curly (Jack Palance, a man so craggy you’d think he was the offspring of a butte and a mesa), is accustomed to these aging, empty baby-boomers coming out west to “find themselves” in two weeks. They spend 50 weeks a year getting their lives all tied up in knots and think that a cattle drive will help them untie everything.

As Mitch and Curly ride together chasing down some strays, they have the talk that gave rise to “the illustration.” Curly stops and asks the confused Mitch, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” Mitch, intrigued and hopeful, responds “No. What is it?” Curly holds up one finger and says “This…One thing. Just one thing…Stick to that and everything else don’t mean ____.” You can fill in your own word for dung there.

Mitch wants the answer to a question he can’t even form yet. Curly has an answer that Mitch probably can’t hear yet. So, when pressed about what the one thing is, Curly replies “You’ve got to figure that out for yourself.”

What would Jesus say to Mitch?

He might respond with some words from the Sermon on the Mount about priorities. “If your eye is single, then your body will be full of light. If it is not, then your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matt. 6:22-23). Jesus was talking about focus. You have to be focused on “the one thing” or else other things will overwhelm and frustrate you.

He might have gone on to talk about serving one master. The choice is between God (the one thing) and mammon (everything else that doesn’t mean _____) (Matt. 6:24).

He may have concluded with “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and everything else will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). In other words, once you figure out the priority of “the one thing” everything else begins to make sense.

So, Curly got a lot right. Everyone needs “the one thing.” It’s unquestionably the case, that if we find the north star, we will be able to navigate through life better. Find a foundation on which to build, an axis around which to revolve and life will improve. Focus helps you jettison a great many unhealthy attachments.

But that general principle is NOT the ultimate answer from a Christian perspective. Jesus made Himself “the one thing.” He repeatedly said we need to follow Him, put Him first, forsake everything else, lose your life, take up your cross, learn of Me, etc. He IS the one thing. He is the Creator of all things and in Him all things hold together. We don’t get to decide that. We can only accept that.

Of course, a comedy about confused baby-boomers is not the place to make a highly Christocentric point, but let’s give Curly his due and recognize how right he gets it within the limits afforded him. You’ve got to find the one thing. But let’s firmly establish the next step Christianity offers: find the best thing and everything else makes sense for eternity.

Also, Curly is not quite right when he said “everything else don’t mean ____.” Everything else matters enormously. All the parts of our lives are important. Our families, work, relationships, sexuality, speech, finances, etc. are vitally important. It’s just that when we allow any of those things in the center, we eventually end up confused and empty but unsure why. For example, it seems I’ve been hearing since the 60’s some form of “if you had more and better sex then you’d really be happy.” I don’t want to attempt to imagine what more sex would look like in this sex-saturated culture, but I’m certain we’ve overdone it and missed the point.

In my office I have a picture of the north Rose Window of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Thirty-three feet in diameter, it’s one of the most beautiful windows in any cathedral anywhere. I can’t imagine what it would be like to stand before it, bathed in the graces of those wonderful colors. The window captures a little bit of heaven and gently bestows it upon us.

It depicts scores of scenes and saints that would be overwhelming in its complexity if not for the wonderful coherence of its design. In the middle of the Rose Window is Jesus being held by Mary. The message is clear: the beauty of the window, its harmony, all depend on Christ at the center. The stories make sense as long as Christ is the one thing. The same is true for us.

Soren Kierkegaard, 150 years or so before Curly, said a saint is someone whose life is about one thing. He went on to say that a saint’s life is “gathered.”

Our distorted insistence on creating our own meaning, our own happiness, our own lives has only created confused lives full of noisy fractures and loose threads. Life is simply not a DIY project, and it never was meant to be.

I think Jesus’ message to us today is captured in the Rose Window. When we search for meaning, happiness, and coherence in life, Jesus would not say “You’ve got to figure that out for yourself.” He’d want us to put Him in the center and strive to keep Him there.

Creating your own meaning and happiness sounds so attractive and empowering, but we’re unequal to that task. God will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And all those other things? They do matter, but we trust Jesus to add them to our lives in ways that bring order out of the chaos.


Dr. Terry Ellis

July 7, 2020